The biggest Chinese takeaway

KOWLOON TONG by Paul Theroux Hamish Hamilton pounds 16.99

Paul Theroux has marked Hong Kong's imminent handover with a curious novel that scourges the English dregs of Britain's last major colony while warning darkly of worse things to come.

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence