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.
filmFilm producers sue Warner Bros for $75m over Hobbit films
voicesJust when you thought you could find a man, get married, and have a baby by the age of 35... it turns out you’re too late, says Grace Dent
Swedish stars ask fans for £195 pledges on crowd-funding website
musicAs Mariah Carey and Noddy Holder rake in the royalties from their classics, why there hasn't been a decent festive hit for 20 years?
theatreAuthor Daniel Rosenthal recalls the mishaps that almost brought the curtain down on the likes of John Gielgud and Diana Rigg
lifeAs the Royal Mail plans to phase out deliveries on two wheels, it's no wonder posties are in a spin
musicThe 21-year-old beat Ella Eyre and Chlöe Howl to win the honour
lifeFull of the joys and want to help your fellow man? December isn't the time to do it
Arts & Ents blogs
The desolation of the Weinstein brothers: Film producers sue Warner Bros for $75m over Hobbit films
Christmas songs: the best and the worst
X Factor winners: Where are they now?
Your Money, Money, Money please - Abba ask fans for £195 pledges on direct-to-fan website
Lost Peter Sellers films Dearth of a Salesman and Insomnia Is Good for You hailed as the movie equivalent of 'finding Dead Sea Scrolls'
- 1 Nelson Mandela memorial: ‘Bogus’ interpreter made mockery of Barack Obama’s tribute in Soweto
- 2 French café starts charging extra to rude customers
- 3 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 4 Is Facebook making us forget? Study shows that taking pictures ruin memories
- 5 Australia incest case: Severely deformed children found in remote farming community after generations of inbreeding
- < Previous
- Next >