A book review by Robert McCrum, literary editor of the Observer in Britain in 1997
Someone once said that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. This formula, plus trade and the Bible, explains the global spread of the English language, at least until the Fifties. The force that now distinguishes English from previous world languages is what might be called its supranational momentum. Take away the soldiers and sailors, the flag and the imperial counting houses, and you find that English survives, and even flourishes, in ex-colonial possessions.
It is this, the English of what the former Oxford lexicographer Dr Burchfield calls ‘the rim’, that has recharged the batteries of the language with the voltage of innovation. From the Krio of West Africa, the ‘nation language’ of Jamaica and the Caribbean, the dazzling Indian-Englishes of the subcontinent, and even the ‘Singlish’ of a tiny island-state like Singapore, to say nothing of the spark and crackle of American Eng’ish, the language today is perhaps closer in spirit and self expression to the Shakespearean extravaganza than at any time since the seventeenth century.
In hindsight, perhaps the most important cultural development of the Eighties was the re-adoption of formerly dispossessed varieties of English into the canon of its literature, from Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children to Okri’s The Famished Road. Indeed, it is possible to write a plausible narrative of ‘contemporary English literature’ around the names of Rushdie, Okri, Ishiguro, Mo, Seth, Chatterjee, Mistry, Kureishi, and Ondaatje (to name some of the most obvious).
As it happens, only one of these writers went to the University of East Anglia’s well-known creative writing course, but I have no doubt that their work is avidly read there today. These are the names that inspire and guide those who are struggling to find a distinctive literary voice within the booming echo chamber of Eng. Lit. So, where better than the UEA campus to welcome some more post-colonial English fiction? Although Britain has been shamefully (and shortsightedly) inhospitable to the Hong Kong Chinese, that hasn’t stopped a friendly retired Hong Kong businessman and former civil servant, David Wong, from sponsoring a literary prize in his name, appropriately in 1997, the David T.K. Wong Fellowship (c/o The School of English and American Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ), a £25,000 prize for a work of fiction in English that ‘deals seriously with some aspect of life in the Far East’ (that is to say, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Japan. Korea, Mongolia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei).
It turns out that the generous Mr Wong is no ordinary Hong Kong businessman, but rather one who writes fiction. He is, however, no hobbyist. Indeed, his Hong Kong Stories is a collection of work that has already appeared in a number of American magazines (notably Short Story International), an oeuvre that owes nothing to the writers most admired on the UEA campus students, but everything to Somerset Maugham, Roald Dahl and perhaps 0. Henry.
Wong has been hailed as ‘a Hong Kong “voice” in English’, but what’s remarkable about these tales of lust, jealousy and greed is their resolute indifference to the linguistic innovations of Hong Kong society. Any one of these stories could have been written by Jeffrey Archer, though the scribbling peer does not, I think, exhibit David Wong’s effortless grasp of English or his impressive span of literary sympathy. Wong’s characters range from courtesans to night watchmen, and his plots turn on betrayal, conspiracy and surprise; the best of them, notably ‘The Cocktail Party’ and ‘Anniversary’, would play well on Radio 4. Perhaps most impressive of all is Wong’s studied refusal to sensationalise a culture chiefly known to fiction for its flamboyant characters and settings. There’s an elegance and an economy to his English that seems scrubbed clean of local influence or colour.
Amid the imponderables of 1997, one thing is certain: when Hong Kong’s Union Jack is finally lowered in June, the English language will not be expelled from the colony with Chris Patten; indeed, if other models are any guide, it may flourish anew. If Mr Wong’s timely fellowship were to sponsor the discovery of a great Hong Kong novel, in English, I have no doubt that he’d savour the irony.