ABC Books, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, China, Hong Kong, memoir, Mimi Kwa, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘House of Kwa’ by Mimi Kwa

Non-fiction – paperback; ABC Books; 362 pages; 2021.

Mimi Kwa’s House of Kwa is a memoir like no other. Written with honesty, vivacity and humour, it marries aspects of the historical novel with reportage to tell an epic story spanning four generations.

An epic family drama

When it opens, we learn that Mimi, a successful broadcast journalist and newsreader, is being sued by her own father, an eccentric Chinese man now living in Perth, but we don’t know what brought them to this crisis.

That’s when Mimi does something very clever: she winds back the clock to tell the grand story of her Chinese family, tracing its roots back to her great grandfather who claimed to be a direct descendant of the Emperor of China. And from here, she charts how the family moved from imperial Beijing to southern China and then, finally, Hong Kong.

She explains how her father — one of 32 children! — had his own life shaped by his childhood experiences living in Hong Kong under Japanese occupation during the Second World War.

We follow him to Australia, where he came to study engineering, and then, aged in his late 30s, married Mimi’s mother, a 19-year-old Australian with undiagnosed schizophrenia. The pair set up home in Perth, Western Australia, and Mimi was born not long after.

Because of her mother’s mental illness, Mimi was essentially raised by her maternal grandparents, but when she wasn’t in their care, her father’s parenting skills left a lot to be desired. He was running a hugely successful backpacker hostel — the Mandarin Gardens in Scarborough —  which he owned and where he put young Mimi to work. As a young teen, she was basically managing the place, meeting strange and dubious guests, and having her eyes opened to different cultures and personalities.

It was during this time that Mimi’s father developed a flair for suing anyone he could to demonstrate his cleverness and so-called grasp of the law. And so the memoir comes full circle, for now we understand how a father might come to sue his daughter. The reasons for doing so, however, don’t become clear until later on.

A book of two halves

The first half of The House of Kwa reads very much like a novel than an autobiography, but when Mimi begins writing about her own lived experience the story becomes much more personal — and heartfelt.

The product of two eccentric characters, Mimi endured a lot as a child, thrust into situations beyond her years but she got by and, regardless of such trauma, managed to carve out an impressive career as a journalist and TV anchor. But if anyone is to take credit for Mimi’s success it is her beloved Aunty Theresa, who has a starring role in this memoir, as a brilliant colourful character in her own right.

Theresa, who is the older sister of Mimi’s father, was the first Chinese air hostess for the British state-owned airline BOAC. She led a super-glamorous life during the golden age of air travel, and while she never married, she had plenty of suitors, including the man who founded the Mandarin Oriental Hotel for whom she designed some of the suites and had her own in-house fashion boutique.

During her childhood, Mimi visits Theresa often. Her aunty spoils her with treats and presents, but she also instils values and shares family history, giving Mimi a good grounding for the challenges ahead. It is this bipolar childhood — troubled and semi-neglected in Australia, privileged and spoilt in Hong Kong — that shapes Mimi’s life and outlook.

House of Kwa is an intriguing memoir, one that explores family history, loyalty, patriarchy and tradition.

I’d love to see the author turn her hand to a novel next. Perhaps she could fictionalise her aunty’s high-flying life!

This is my 24th book for #AWW2021. I also read it as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books,; #NonFicNov, hosted by a million different bloggers of which you can find out more here; and my own ongoing #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters because the author grew up in Perth (although she now lives in Melbourne). You can find out more about this reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

 

Author, Book review, Fiction, Hong Kong, literary fiction, Naoise Dolan, Orion, Publisher, Setting

‘Exciting Times’ by Naoise Dolan

Fiction – paperback; Orion; 240 pages; 2020.

Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times has been compared with Salley Rooney’s Normal People. And I guess if you are looking for something of a similar ilk — a story about an Irish Millenial finding her feet in the adult world, getting enmeshed in a messy love life and negotiating complicated friendships  — then the comparison holds.

But Exciting Times is more droll, more sassy and far less angst-ridden than Normal People. It’s whip-smart, funny and self-aware. I really enjoyed it.

Life in Hong Kong

Set in Hong Kong, it charts a year in the life of 22-year-old Ava who flees Ireland to take up a poorly paid job as a TEFL teacher. She’s not expecting big things; she just wants to spread her wings, get over the unexplained sadness she felt in Dublin and perhaps make some money that doesn’t involve being a waitress.

In Hong Kong, she begins having regular lunch catch-ups with Julian, a posh English guy, who’s a lot older than her and works in banking. They have nothing in common, but Ava is desperate for easy company — she’s exchanging “little more than hellos and goodnights” with her two flatmates in the Airbnb she’s sharing and makes little effort to socialise with others at work — but Julian listens to her and they have great conversations.

Before long, she is spending several nights a week at Julian’s upmarket flat.

‘I’m glad we’re friends,’ he’d say, and far be it for me to correct a Balliol man. I felt spending time with him would make me smarter, or would at least prepare me to talk about currencies and indices with the serious people I would encounter in the course of adult life. We got on well. I enjoyed his money and he enjoyed how easily impressed I was by it.

Their relationship eventually morphs into a sexual, no-strings-attached one, but it’s hard to know who is using who. Julian will spend lavish amounts of money on Ava. He buys her gifts and meals out and lets her move into his guest room rent-free. But he doesn’t want to make a commitment, he just likes the sex and having her there to look after his flat when he’s away on business.

And Ava, who likes to think of herself as independent, sees no issue in being supported by a man she barely knows, using his credit card behind his back and inveigling her way into his friendship circle even though she doesn’t particularly like any of his friends and is hugely critical of their accents, their attitudes, the clothes they wear and even their hairstyles.

But Ava, who describes herself as “lacking warmth”, does develop feelings for Julian, and becomes frustrated when they are not returned in kind. It’s only when she meets Edith, a Hong Kong local educated in England, that Ava feels the ground shifting beneath her feet, for Edith, who works in an upmarket law firm, is cultured and sophisticated and successful. She has all the attributes that Ava admires and is desperate to acquire. The pair begin dating and, for the first time, Ava finds her feelings being reciprocated…

Manipulative relationships

There’s not much of a plot other than the unfolding of Ava’s relationships and the ways in which she manipulates, or is being manipulated by, others. She’s constantly “stalking” her lovers, checking up on their activities on social media, trying to gauge whether they are committed to her or not, and often over-analysing their texts and emails.

At times her behaviour shows her nativity and inexperience in both intimate and work relationships. She’s forever trying to fit in, but at the same time she’s cultivating a persona of detachment and this leads to her feeling alienated, of never been able to mix comfortably with the people she works or socialises with. (Apparently, Dolan is autistic, which makes me wonder whether Ava is, too.)

I was quieter and more openly begrudging now, and it was becoming clearer than ever that the other teachers found me odd. I’d encountered this opinion so many times, in so many places, that I’d come to find it comforting. It doesn’t matter if a fact is good or bad, I thought. You don’t mind once everyone agrees. Their consensus makes it true, and truth feels safe.

And yet Ava, for all her self-involvement, has a whip-smart intelligence. She has strong feelings about social and political issues, understands the class system and the ways in which it works against her, is “woke” about racism and sexism and homophobia — and is not afraid to speak her mind. And yet there’s a hypocrisy at play here because while she will rail against capitalism and the disparity between rich and poor, she sees nothing wrong in living off Julian’s money and of lusting after nice things she can buy to impress Edith.

Deadpan prose

Exciting Times is written in a deadpan prose style and moves along at a clip, but the characters are well rounded, feel flesh and blood real, and the dialogue is witty and snappy and believable.

It has the illusion of navel-gazing, but there’s a lot going on here that is conveyed by the things people don’t say, the misunderstandings that occur, the mood that is evoked. Dolan does an especially nice line in banter.

While I admit I am probably not the target audience for this kind of novel, I enjoyed it. It’s quick and simple to read, but the characters have remained with me and it reminded me of what it’s like to be in your early 20s, not quite knowing who you are, let alone how you fit into the grand scheme of things.

Author, Book review, China, Fiction, Hong Kong, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Digital, W. Somerset Maugham

‘The Painted Veil’ by W. Somerset Maugham

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 186 pages; 2009.

I do love a good W. Somerset Maugham novel and The Painted Veil, first published in 1925, is regarded as one of his best.

The story is largely set in Hong Kong, before shifting to mainland China, and centres on a troubled marriage between two young Brits who are vastly different in personality, temperament and upbringing.

Walter Fane is a bacteriologist who is tightly buttoned up, the type of man who can’t really talk to others much less express his emotions, but he’s in love with his new wife, Kitty, even though he never quite tells her of his feelings.

Kitty Garstin, meanwhile, is extroverted but shallow and self-centred. She rushes into marriage with Walter, not because she’s in love, but because she’s desperate to escape her domineering mother and fears being “left on the shelf”, aged 25. She’s already turned down dozens of marriage proposals and is worried her younger sister will upstage her by marrying first.

The marriage between Walter and Kitty, of course, is a mistake. In Hong Kong, where Walter has been stationed, cracks begin to appear in their relationship, and Kitty begins an affair with Charles Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary, who is married with two young children.

It is when Walter discovers his wife’s adultery that the novel comes into its own.

Unexpected reaction

Walter does not react the way one would expect. While outwardly dull and seeming to lack emotion, it appears that he is an astute observer of human behaviour and knows how to manipulate people to his own ends.

He issues an ultimatum: if Kitty can get Charles to divorce his wife, then she is free to remarry; or she can come with Walter to mainland China where he has agreed to take charge of a cholera outbreak, putting both their lives at risk.

Of course, Charles turns out to be a coward and won’t divorce his wife, leaving Kitty with only one option: to accompany the husband she has wronged into a potential deathtrap.

Portrait of a cruel marriage

The Painted Veil is a rather good example of Maugham’s penchant for writing about cruel marriages and people tortured by love (or an absence of love). His technique is rather old-fashioned. The narrative, for instance, is completely linear, which is refreshing when you read a diet of contemporary fiction that seems preoccupied with flashbacks and multiple storylines. And his prose, as always, is simple, elegant and clear.

I got completely absorbed by this portrait of a mismatched marriage and loved the soap opera-ish element to it and the ways in which the characters behaved so abominably, often against expectation. For instance, who would think dull, strait-laced Walter would have it in him to plot his wife’s murder by forcing her to live in a town consumed by a cholera epidemic?

The ending is a bit of a let down (the 2006 movie adaptation starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts is much better), but on the whole The Painted Veil is a compelling tale of love, betrayal, revenge and redemption and confirms Maugham as one of my favourite writers.

Abacus, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Hong Kong, Jane Gardam, literary fiction

‘The Man in the Wooden Hat’ and ‘Last Friends’ by Jane Gardam

Man-in-the-wooden-hat Last-friends

Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 288 pages / 256 pages; 2009 / 2014.

Jane Gardam’s The Man in the Wooden Hat (first published in 2009) and Last Friends (2013) form parts two and three respectively of the Old Filth Trilogy. The three books have recently been reprinted in rather smart-looking livery, with covers designed by David Wardle, just in time for Last Friends making the inaugural Folio Prize shortlist, the winner of which will be announced on 10 March.

Old Filth (2004), which I read and loved several years ago, follows the life and times of a hugely successful barrister, Sir Edward Feathers QC, who is also known as Old Filth (an acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong);  The Man in the Wooden Hat spans roughly the same time period but tells the story of Old Filth’s wife, Betty; while Last Friends is largely about Old Filth’s professional rival (and Betty’s secret lover), Sir Terence Veneering.

It is not strictly necessary to read them in the order in which they were published — each can be taken as a stand-alone novel. Yet I’m sure that having read Old Filth first helped enrich my enjoyment of the second novel. That’s because I was already acquainted with the characters and largely familiar with their back stories. It was, in many ways, like meeting up with old friends again — familiar, warm and cosy.

Having now read the trilogy in its entirety, I can say that I absolutely loved all three novels — each of which is warm, witty and humane — and that because of this Jane Gardam has promptly become one of my favourite authors. In fact, I haven’t been this excited by a writer since I discovered Kent Haruf in late 2012.

Betty’s story

In The Man in the Wooden Hat we meet Elisabeth “Betty” Macintosh when she is 28 and living in Hong Kong.  She has an unconventional background — she was born in Shanghai to British parents, raised in the internment camps of Japan and later became a code-breaker at Bletchley Park — and is now ready to settle down and marry Edward Feathers even though they barely know one another.

When she agrees to marry him he makes it very clear: she must never leave him because people have been deserting him all his life.

“Elisabeth, you must never leave me. That’s the condition. I’ve been left all my life. From being a baby, I’ve been taken away from people. Raj orphan and so on. Not that I’m unusual there. And it’s supposed to have given us all backbone.”
“Well, I know all that. I am an orphan, too. My parents suffered.”
“All our parents suffered for an ideology. They believed it was good for us to be sent Home, while they went on the Empire. We were all damaged even though we became endurers. […] It did not destroy me but it made me bloody unsure.”
“I will never leave you, Edward.”

Betty makes this promise knowing full well that their marriage will never be romantic or passionate, but that she will “grow to love him very much” and they will have a whole tribe of children. And then, not an hour later at a lawyer’s party, she is introduced to flaxen-haired blue-eyed Terry Veneering, Edward’s most hated professional rival, and immediately regrets her decision.

From this set up, Gardam fleshes out Betty’s life, married to the “wrong” man but always with Edward’s best interests at heart. It’s an extraordinary portrait of a marriage — the joys, the friendship, the compromises and the sacrifices each must make for love to grow and flourish — as well as being a very honest account of what it is like to grow old and adjust to changed circumstances.

It is very witty in places, but like the best comedies, it’s also very sad and quite moving in others. I loved following Betty’s story, sharing her loves and losses, fears and desires; I loved her eccentric nature and independent streak, and the way in which she just trod her own path, never succumbing to peer pressure or popular convention.

But the strength of the novel is not so much Betty’s individual story but the ways in which her narrative gives the reader a different perspective on Edward’s life — you get to see him from another angle. Sometimes what you discover is surprising; at other times it merely reinforces what you thought of him already.

Terry’s story

In the final part of the trilogy, Last Friends, we find out much more about the mysterious Terry Veneering — in particular his childhood growing up in Yorkshire with a crippled acrobat father from Russia and a hard-working teenage mother, who sold coal for a living — along with other subsidiary characters, including Dulcie Williams, whose husband “Pastry Willy” had been a judge, and Fiscal-Smith, who was “accidental” best man at Edward and Betty’s wedding.

Of the three novels, this one feels less formal and more reliant on funny set pieces to keep the momentum going. And even though it is about Terry, it is mainly told through Dulcie’s eyes — an ageing woman looking back on the people closest to her. Indeed, this is a book as much about old friends coming to the ends of their lives than anything else and is a very good exploration of the ties that bind people together, even those that are not related but merely thrown together by circumstance or career.

As a consequence the narrative swings backwards and forwards in time, and spans everything from surviving World War Two bombings in Yorkshire to enjoying retirement in sleepy Dorset. Again, it is characterised by Gardam’s wonderful sense of humour tempered by moments of great sadness, but this novel does feel more playful than its predecessors.

When I came to the end I admit to feeling slightly bereft. I have so enjoyed spending time in the company of these wonderfully drawn, oh-so human characters and of learning about the ways in which they endured war, loneliness, heartache and prejudice to achieve success and find happiness — often against the odds. Although they all ended up leading lives of what we would call great privilege, you get the sense they worked hard for it and didn’t quite believe their luck when things turned out well in the end.

Both The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends are a real joy to read — elegant, intelligent, filled with love, pathos and wonderful humour. These are the kinds of books you want to press into the hands of friends and loved ones with the words, you must read this.

Abacus, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Hong Kong, Jane Gardam, literary fiction, Malaya, Publisher, Setting

‘Old Filth’ by Jane Gardam

Old-filth

Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 260 pages; 2009.

First published in 2004 and shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2005, Jane Gardam’s Old Filth is one of those novels that is a delight to read from start to finish.

The central subject — a rich old man reflecting on his life in the judiciary — might seem rather staid and dull, but in Gardam’s hands it is a moving and often witty portrait of a complex and hugely interesting character.

The old man is Sir Edward Feathers, who is also known as Eddie, the Judge, Fevvers, Teddy and Old Filth. The latter is an acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong.

Edward was born in India during the glory days of the British Empire — his father, Captain Feathers, was the District Officer of Kotakinakulu Province in Malaya. Sadly, Edward’s mother dies a few days after giving birth, so he is left in the care of his father, an indifferent, emotionally cold man mired in grief (and later alcohol), who pays him little attention. By the time he is four-and-a-half, Edward is a wild child, speaks fluent Mandalay and has the run of the jungle neighbourhood. But tradition dictates that he must go Home — to England — to be educated and to spare him the risk of childhood diseases.

This sets in motion a pattern that repeats itself throughout the rest of his life: wrenched from the people and places he has come to love, and thrust into new, frightening situations in which he is forever the outsider looking in. Or, as he states later on, “always to be left and forgotten”.

But despite the legacy of what can only be described as a rather cruel childhood — on arrival in England he is placed in a foster home, where the care is dubious, and at school his stammer and close friendship with another boy makes him a target for bullies and gossips — he becomes a successful advocate and judge in Hong Kong.

When the book opens, Edward is nearing eighty and living alone in Dorset, to where he and his recently deceased wife, Betty, had retired. The story interleaves his present existence — ageing rapidly, becoming forgetful and doddery — with stories of his past, including his troubled teenage years, near death on a boat headed to the Far East, and his time protecting Queen Mary during the Second World War.

What becomes apparent as Edward’s story unfolds is that his outward appearance — the distinguished career and privileged lifestyle — hides an emotionally scarred man who believes his life is bereft of meaning. And much of that is to do with the fact that Edward has no children upon which to pass his legacy.

Indeed, there’s a telling scene in which the elderly Edward tells a young woman that he and Betty never wanted children. “It was deliberate,” he says. And then, in a startling confession, he adds:

“Think carefully before you bring children into the world. Betty and I were what is called ‘Empire orphans’. We were handed over to foster parents at four or five and didn’t see our parents for at least four years. We had bad luck. Betty’s forster parents didn’t like her and mine — my father hadn’t taken advice — were chosen because they were cheap. If you’ve not been loved as a child, you don’t know how to love a child. You need prior knowledge. You can inflict pain through ignorance. I was not loved from the age of four and a half. Think of being a parent like that.”

While the novel is pervaded by a gentle melancholy, Gardam also throws in highly comic moments to lighten the mood. The humour largely works by having Edward do crazy things — such as driving rather dangerously and capturing the attention of the police — or behaving badly —  being rude to his servants — without him quite realising that he is in the wrong.

On the whole Old Filth is a richly textured novel, one that is vivid, funny and strangely moving.

Author, Book review, China, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Hong Kong, John Lanchester, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Fragrant Harbour’ by John Lanchester

Fragrant-Harbour

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 299 pages; 2003.

John Lanchester’s Fragrant Harbour is billed as a novel about Hong Kong. I recently spotted it in my local Oxfam shop and bought it in preparation for an upcoming trip to the former British colony.

The story is really three stories, although the lives of the main characters are intertwined so that it reads as one giant narrative spanning 70 years and three generations.

The central character is Tom Stewart, an Englishman in his 80s looking back on his life as an expat in the “fragrant harbour” (Cantonese for Hong Kong). He moved there in 1935, partly to escape the family business of running a pub in Faversham, Kent, but ironically ends up making his fortune in a similar trade: the hotel business.

But before we get to hear Tom’s tale, the book opens in bombastic style with the story of an ambitious female journalist wanting to make her mark on the world. Dawn Stone (real name Doris) charts her climb up the career ladder, from a local newspaper in Blackpool to the nationals in London, before accepting a job offer in glamorous Hong Kong in 1995.

Dawn’s plotted history is told in a breathless, almost arrogant style, in just 50 short pages. By the end of her story we know that she’s shallow enough to ditch her journalistic principles for the offer of big bucks and power. The message? That Hong Kong might be glamorous and the most crowded city on earth, but it’s also fuelled by greed and it doesn’t take much to be seduced by her charms.

Thank goodness, then, for fine upstanding citizen Tom, whose story takes up the greater chunk of this novel. Tom has the benefit of being a survivor, first as a hotelier in a cut-throat business and second as a prisoner of war captured by the Japanese during the Second World War. His friendship with Sister Maria, the Chinese-born Catholic nun whom he meets on the boat trip from England (she teaches him Cantonese during the six-week sea voyage) is the one constant that grounds him. But is there more to their relationship than meets the eye?

The third story follows Matthew Ho, a Chinese-born businessman in his 30s, who divides his time between Hong Kong and Australia, where his young family, including his in-laws, have emigrated. Like Dawn Stone, Matthew, too, is ambitious, and through some plot implausibility, meets Dawn on the very first flight Dawn makes from Heathrow to Hong Kong. Their “friendship”, albeit as journalist and source, works both ways: Dawn gets to use him for stories, he later gets to use her to pitch a business idea to her powerful boss.

Of course the main “character” in this book is Hong Kong itself. Lanchester does a good job of bringing the city to life, with rich descriptions of the junk-filled harbour, the steep streets and the skyscrapers that line them. He provides a strong sense of history too, covering the city’s physical development from the mid-1930s to the Chinese handover in 1997. Key political events — the Japanese capture of Hong Kong in 1941, the Chinese civil war and Mao’s cultural revolution, the 1967 riots in which pro-communists demonstrated against British rule, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing — are dotted throughout, giving the story a truly epic feel.

But at times it does feel slightly forced, particularly in part one, when Dawn arrives on foreign shores and is given a running commentary on the city by her boss:

See that stone wall around the airport perimeter? That used to be the Walled City of Kowloon. During the war the Japanese tore down the walls and made POWs build the perimeter of the airport. The city stayed where it was, a total no-go area to the cops thanks to some ancient row over jurisdiction between the Chinese and the Brits. Literally swarming with Triads, junkies, sweatshops, whorehouses, you name it. More edifyingly, if you look out the back window you can catch a glimpse of the mountains around Kowloon. They’re in the New Territories, which is the last bit of mainland between China proper. The Chinese said the hills were dragons. There were eight of them. Then the last of the Sung emperors came here in the thirteenth century, fleeing the Mongols, Kubla Khan among them, he of the stately pleasure-dome where Alph the sacred river ran.

This, I hasten to point out, goes on for pages. To be fair, this kind of author knowledge, masquerading as scene-setting, is only present in the first part of the novel. By the time we get to Tom’s story we pretty much know that Hong Kong is beset by political corruption, dirty money, crime gangs, drugs and prostitution. But we also know that the city attracts the rich and powerful, and offers a lifestyle many can only dream about.

While Fragrant Harbour is a highly entertaining read, one that taught me much about Hong Kong’s recent history in an enjoyable manner, its narrative structure lets it down slightly. It would have worked equally well told entirely through Tom’s eyes without cluttering it up with Dawn’s and Matthew’s voices as well.

That said, I still ate up the book in a matter of days, and found myself caught completely off-guard by some unexpected plot surprises.

Fragrant Harbour was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2002.