Hong Kong Noir

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

I’ve just landed in Hong Kong to do several different things, most of which fit into one of the three standard academic categories of activities. I’ll participate in an experimental class session connecting Hong Kong and American students via Skype (teaching); visit a local site associated with the topic of protest that I write about a lot (research); and speak about censorship at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club, drawing on my experiences as Editor of the Journal of Asian Studies during what some are calling the “China Quarterly Affair” (service). As I prepared for the trip, I pondered questions relating to these teaching, research, and service events, as well as the session of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival I’ll moderate, at which Ian Johnson will present material from his new book on the religious revival in China after Mao. Even more, though, I thought about two queries linked to a Literary Festival event that I’ll attend not as a teacher, researcher, or editor but as something else: a fan. More specifically, as a fan of detective fiction, the main genre I read for diversion and relaxation.

Can a panel cohere that brings together tales of crime and detection set in Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Edinburgh? And if I get to meet the participants on the panel afterwards, what shall I say to break the ice in talking with Chan Ho-Kei, author of The Borrowed, the most ambitious Hong Kong noir novel ever written? The panel in question, “Mysterious Cities: The Perfect Crime Novel,” will be chaired by Kate Whitehead, a journalist who has written two books about Hong Kong murders. The novelists joining her on stage will be Chan, winner of an Asian mystery award; acclaimed Tokyo-based author Hideo Yokoyama; and Ian Rankin, a Scotsman whose novels featuring the music-loving, pub-frequenting John Rebus and mobster “Big Ger” Cafferty I nearly always read within weeks of their publication.

The fan in me is most interested in the prospect of meeting Rankin, but I’ve been fixating on what I’ll say to Chan if we get a chance to talk one-to-one because his work is the most directly relevant to what I do for a living. This is especially true because one distinctive aspect of The Borrowed is the intriguing way it foregrounds historical and chronological issues. The book contains six interrelated novellas, each pegged to a specific year in Hong Kong’s past, often one associated with a major turning point or event. Intriguingly, the novellas are arranged in reverse chronological order, with the first section taking place in 2013 and the last in 1967.

Assuming we do meet, there is something obvious I could say to Chan: “I enjoyed reading your book.” This is a thoroughly predictable conversational gambit, but one that usually goes over well with authors of all genres. And I would be speaking truthfully: I really did like The Borrowed, which became available in English last year in a sure-handed translation by Jeremy Tiang. The rub is that, if I were to be totally honest, I’d actually have to say “I enjoyed reading your book … when I finally picked it up again last week after reading the first novella months ago and then putting it aside.” I doubt there is an author alive who likes to hear a reader admit to giving up, even for a time, on one of his or her books. Why would I even think of mentioning to Chan that I almost gave up on The Borrowed? And why did I stop reading it after finishing the story set in 2013? 

The stumbling block for me was Kwan Chun-dok, the book’s protagonist. Kwan is portrayed as someone with nearly superhuman powers of perception, and he has a protégé, Sonny Lok, who views him with unadulterated admiration. These two things put me off. I like detectives who are flawed (something definitely true of Rankin’s John Rebus, an out-of-shape, often moody divorced father), even if they often prove able to solve difficult crimes in the end (as Rebus does). I also like them to have relationships with their colleagues that are complex (the one Rebus has with Siobhan Clarke, a key character in many of Rankin’s novels, is definitely that).

Let me make it clear that, when I gave up on The Borrowed a few months ago, it wasn’t because I disliked the opening story. It was very clever, with a twist right up there with those you find in a classic locked-room mystery from the golden age of whodunits. But I just wasn’t connecting with the book—and there was a lot more of it to go (the section set in 1967 doesn’t even begin until more than 400 pages in!). If the first novella had contained a wealth of details about the local social and political situations, I might have continued reading, in hopes of gleaning information that would benefit me as a researcher, and overlooked the fact that The Borrowed didn’t seem my type of noir. This, however, wasn’t the case, as it only referred in passing to things other than the imagined crime that had occurred in 2013.    

So, initially, I chalked up The Borrowed as a good book to know about, but one I didn’t really need to finish. If I wanted to read about Hong Kong for work, there were several non-fiction books on my to-read list. If I was going to read purely for enjoyment, there was a new novel out featuring the wonderfully far-from-perfect detectives of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad, and I had somehow missed The Beat Goes On, a collection of Rankin’s short stories.

Funnily enough, it was reading The Beat Goes On that inspired me to go back to The Borrowed—despite, or in a sense because of, how different Kwan is from Rebus. Even if there wasn’t a compelling reason to read the rest of The Borrowed for either “research” or for “pleasure,” finishing it could serve a third purpose: wearing my hat as a freelance writer, I might be able to frame an essay around the contrast between Rankin’s all-too-human Rebus and the anything but deferential Clarke and Chan’s two main detectives.

Something curious happened, though, when I resumed reading The Borrowed. While none of the novellas that followed that first one was just like a Rebus story, some of them definitely reminded me of one or another Rankin tale, for various reasons. In the novella set in 2003, for example, a central source of tension is a feud between gangs (there are Rebus books where that’s true as well), the action takes place in some seedy locales, including a pub (check, again), and, most importantly, one of its key characters shares some traits with “Big Ger” Cafferty: an aging mobster who seems well past his prime but turns out to be someone it’s dangerous to underestimate. In later novellas, which take place further in the past, corruption within the police force is sometimes a theme, as it is in several of Rankin’s novels.

Don’t get me wrong: I still see Chan and Rankin as very different kinds of writers. Kwan and Lok become more fleshed out as The Borrowed goes forward and time goes backward, but the former remains a straighter arrow than Rebus and the latter a more deferential figure than Clarke. Still, by the time I neared the end of The Borrowed, I had given up on my idea of writing a piece that emphasized only the contrasts between the two writers. There are even some parallels between the pair when it comes to their shared interest in local history and local hierarchies. In Rankin’s novels, Rebus often finds that the only way to figure out a crime in the present is to dig deeply into Edinburgh’s past, and each author often takes his readers to working-class districts very different from the settings that figure in standard tourist itineraries of the two urban centers.

I also found that I had been too hasty in assuming The Borrowed had nothing to offer me as an academic. While the most famous events of the years in which stories are set often get only glancing attention—for example, there is just a passing nod to local support for the Tiananmen protests in the 1989 section—I started to find things about Hong Kong’s past scattered throughout Chan’s book that were potentially useful to me as a researcher. By the time I finished the book, I was also thinking about assigning one of the novellas in a class. Assuming I get a chance to talk to Chan, I might quiz him on how he would respond if a Beijing publisher suggested bringing out a mainland edition of The Borrowed stripped of its 1989 section, since questions of censorship and academic publishing are on my mind at the moment and likely to be discussed at the AAS conference in March. As so many academics know, it often turns out to be hard, even when reading for escape, to keep from thinking about things related to teaching, research, or service—or, in this case, all three of those realms.