Books · Hong Kong

The Expatriates- book review

The title alone should provide a strong clue that The Expatriates may be set in Hong Kong but isn’t exactly about Hong Kong. But in keeping with Hong Kong, the expats in question aren’t your regular entrepreneur, copy editor or English teacher as in many other Asian countries but the ones on fancy expat packages, living a charmed life in mansions with Filipino maids/nannies/cooks, and high-end dining and yacht/junk jaunts. On the one hand, it is about privileged Western (mostly white), American expats living it up in Hong Kong, but on the other, it is a story with more substance than you’d expect.

When it begins, we are introduced to the three protagonists, two of whom mask a tragic secret which surprisingly is soon revealed. Consequently, the plot drags a little in the middle, but it does pick up towards the end and builds towards what could have been a predictable ending, but instead turns into a surprising finale.

The three main characters are American women at different stages of their lives whose fate is tied together by very unfortunate circumstances. One is a young, Korean-American, Columbia grad, another is a mom of young kids, and the third is a childless wife whose marriage seems to lack more than just children. At times, the details of the pampered lives of these well-to-do expats seem obscene, being something that is miles away from our lives, not to mention the poor and working class in Hong Kong. But rather than glorify the lives of those expats, it actually almost makes us feel a little sorry, but just a little. There is a very self-aware tone throughout the narrative about feeling as if one is putting your real life on hold and not being in reality, which is true when one has a 24-hour maid who caters for your every whim. But of course, this also reflects a major disparity between the lives of the characters in this book and  the more common expat life, which is that of putting up with greater challenges and hardships than you would face at home.

The funny thing about Hong Kong is that, as tiny as it is, it can sometimes seem like it comprises two very distinct worlds. This book is only about one of them, and even then, only a small segment of this world, specifically the highest-paid expats, the ones who could live in houses and actually not even have to pay for them. Add in the fact that pretty much most of the main characters are American expats, with nary an Englishman or Australian in sight, and one could wonder how much of this actually bears any relevance to most people living in Hong Kong. But yet, somehow the story is interesting enough, the details dramatic and the plot intriguing for the most part. It is a credit to the author, a Korean-American who was born and grew up in Hong Kong.

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Books · Hong Kong

Hong Kong Future Perfect- book review

Every year, the Hong Kong Writers Circle puts out an anthology of stories set in or about Hong Kong written by its members. Hong Kong Future Perfect- One City, Twenty Visions of What Is to Come is their most recent, released at the end of 2016. From the name, the theme is about the future and 20 writers have given their take on what Hong Kong will be like.

While this ensures 20 sets of different characters, settings and themes, most of them, or almost all actually, share a similar mood of a bleak, dystopian future Hong Kong, which to be fair reflects the current pessimism prevalent in Hong Kong. Whether due to an economic crash, environmental disaster  or Chinese invasion, the stories feature a future Hong Kong that is repressed, unstable, unsafe, and sterile.

The collection was quite decent in general, but a few stories really stood out. “Twenty-three” echoes the worst fears about the present by following a guy whose girlfriend goes missing after attending a rally and searches for her. In “Pearlania,” a travel reporter comes to Hong Kong on a trip arranged by a local authority, but finds that things are just too perfect, but he can’t figure out exactly how. “Island Oasis” takes the opposite view of most of the other stories as an American expat comes to Hong Kong for a better life in a future where the US is a shell of what it used to be and China is the new superpower.

Sci-fi dominates the collection, and there are some really creative ones with compelling scenarios for Hong Kong. But as you can tell from the ones I highlighted above, political stories really stood out for me. Meanwhile there were one or two that were just plain scary without any dystopian themes like the one about the girl on a first date in a restaurant where either something strange seems to be happening around her or she has gone crazy. Jason Ng pitches in with a pair of stories that center on a family during Hong Kong’s handover in 1997 and over 30 years in the future. Repression and despair dominate the stories but resistance is also a key element in a few stories. Obviously this book isn’t something you read to cheer yourself up, but what it does is to make you think a little more deeply and hope that the future doesn’t turn out anywhere as it does in these stories.