The biggest Chinese takeaway
KOWLOON TONG by Paul Theroux Hamish Hamilton pounds 16.99
Sunday 25 May 1997
In Albion Cottage on the island's Peak, Betty Mullard and her Hong Kong- born son Neville, or "Bunt", are determined to ignore the reversion to Beijing's rule - the "Chinese takeaway". Yet as the sinister Mr Hung from the mainland contrives to buy out their garment business, Imperial Stitching, and Betty is seduced by the prospect of genteel retirement in England on "a million quid", Bunt senses "the certainty that next year and in the future there would be more men like this - smiling, pestering, threatening, insinuating; and enforcing the law".
Theroux is astutely acerbic, if condescending, about the expatriate insularity of "jumped up" colonials such as Betty from Balham. Betty, with her loose dentures and witless sarcasm, who says "leave off" and "pack it in", and calls a punch a nuckoo samwidge, despises "Chinky-Chonks", whose food she never touches. Her son has never made the hour-long train ride to China, despite having lived in Hong Kong for all his 43 years.
Bunt blames Hong Kong for drawing hustlers and tax-dodgers of no fixed allegiance, for "the way it cut off people's roots and made them selfish and sneering and greedy and spineless". But, unlike Betty, he has no "home" to flee to. Seeking a weak revenge against her smothering possessiveness, he fosters a misogynistic secret life in "blue hotels" and "chicken houses".
Yet if the colonials are skewered in the novel, they at least possess inner lives, a flawed humanity. Not so the Chinese. Only the Mullards' dead business partner Mr Chuck is sketched sympathetically, and he was an Anglican who hated China. Perhaps most unsettling is the portrayal of Mei-ping, an "eye-eye" (illegal immigrant) and Bunt's employee and lover, as a cringing supplicant ("it was her begging postures that drove him wild"). Theroux's peremptory attempt to endow her with dignity and seal Bunt's sentimental conversion is unconvincing.
The third-person narrative is pervaded by the views of characters who see the Chinese as "civilised cannibals". No doubt that vision is distinct from that of the novel. But where do the two diverge? One hopes that it is Bunt's eyes which see the "houseboy" Wang as having "snake's features", or the drunken Hung, "his face pinkish and raw, his eyes boiled".
The difficulty is partly that the caricatures carry symbolic burdens. Imperial Stitching is "the best of British. It is Hong Kong", and the buy-out "not a sale at all, but a hand-over". The PLA officer Hung's manner of eating chicken feet portends a regime's criminal malevolence. Envisaging executions on the Happy Valley race course, the novel scoffs at Deng Xiaoping's pledge that "the horses will go on running".
There is arguably an even-handedness in Theroux's disdain. Betty emerges as a Thatcher-like iron witch willing to "do business" with Hung and sell the local workforce down the river. Yet this is a strangely uninvolving novel. Its contempt for its characters creates little inducement to care for their fate - whatever the flag fluttering overhead.
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