Review by Joel McCormick in WINDOW magazine in Hong Kong in November of 1996
This enjoyable collection of short stories is peopled with colonial blusterers, scamsters, occasional heroes, fabulous and not so fabulous women and all sorts of other characters, including the reassuring Szeto, a pillar of strength and proprietor of Szeto’s Bar.
Its sweep, not including ancestral serendipities, runs from the stirrings of civil war in China to more or less the present. The stories run to a baker’s dozen in all, featuring people struggling in relationships and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. In some cases, luckier losers discover late-breaking paths to redemption.
David T. K. Wong’s prose, spare and clean, occasionally rises to eloquence. Sometimes I found myself pausing to replay a paragraph, marvelling at how nicely he lays words down on the page. That he achieves this from a Chinese start marks him as an especially gifted writer.
The collection comes out just in the nick of time. In only a few months’ time, Hong Kong colonial hierarchy — with its big-people-little-people Establishment assumptions — will be history. In a year’s time, people will gasp at the thought that Britons were in charge here only months earlier.
Single volume : All stories were previouly published separately, mostly in the US, in Short Story International . Only this week do they appear in a collection. Given how they use a panorama of Hong Kong institutions for story-telling, it seems inconceivable they should appear in anything but a single all-embracing book.
We go from a Jockey Club corruption tale to a police corruption tale; from a story rooted in Hong Kong’s culturally empty, money-crazed education system to stories revealing some of the saddest liaisons to spring out of deepest, darkest Wanchai.
Collections can sometimes serve as a last defence against a bank foreclosure, desperation driving editors to fatten a handful of so-so stories with oddments transcribed from works in progress scribbled on the backs of laundry stubs. In Wong’s case, all 13 stories count — there is never the temptation to drop out of one to see what more interesting tale awaits you down the line.
Where English fiction goes, whether novels or short stories, Hong Kong generates enough drivel to consume half the forests of Sweden. David Wong’s book is a reminder that alternatives exist. He’s rare, of course, because he is a Hong Kong Chinese who moves fluently in English — and he is up against armies of resident English writers who for the most part aren’t fluent in much of anything except sophomoric observations about Chinese manners and speech. Many writers from overseas — Paul Theroux comes to mind — are more skilled but fall into the same trap, observing people only to collect putdowns for transatlantic dinner parties.
So where the average writer out of his cultural and linguistic depth only sees that forlorn, dozy caretaker as a one dimentional Hong Kong institution, Wong gives that character depth, taking us back to an earlier time when he had a life — a good deal more exciting and uplifting, it sounds like, than most lives lived.
For English readers starved for swomething more penetrating than tourist- snap fiction, this writer comes across as a convincing story teller. He covers a lot of ground, and fills out complete characters, with remarkable economy and pacing. Whether we’re eavesdropping on a cop being hoodwinked into a scam by his best buddy gone crooked, or listening in on a corrupt jockey moaning about the women he never had, we hear authentic voices and moans. (We can even hear some Japanese moans, come to think of it, but don’t let me spoil it for you.)
Certainly, there’s enough emotional roller-coastering in this collection to touch most grown-up readers in Hong Kong, whatever their racial flavour.
But if it’s all too nervewracking, readers can always take refuge in Szeto’s Bar (“No unescorted ladies”) down in Wanchai. Szeto has a mysterious past that invites wild theories he neither confirms nor denies. For the most part though, he leaves patrons to cry into their drinks — unless his advice is invited.
Closed door policy : And he never closes up till the last patron has staggered out. But if the last man makes the mistake of falling asleep, he is parked in an unlit storeroom for the night. The room has a trick door that can only be figured out when morning light reveals it is controlled by two door-knobs, one near the top and one near the bottom — kind of a “Rubic’s Door” you might say, devised to make sure patrons have enough mental equipment to make it home.
And so there are many interesting sides to old Szeto. But I have to suspect that he waters down his bourbon: one patron downs it like there’s no tomorrow, but sounds no less articulate at the end of a bottle than he does at the beginning.
Perhaps more amazing is the fact that this delightful book was written by someone who spent years in the Hong Kong government — before moving off to an international trading firm which he later left for full time writing.
Before joining the Administrative Service, Wong worked as a journalist. And although born in Hong Kong, he never went to school here, his studies taking him instead to China, Singapore, Australia and the US and Europe.
David Wong obviously hopes others take good regional fiction as seriously as he does, having established a whopping annual £25,000 fellowship at the University of East Anglia for writers of fiction set in the Far East.