subscribe: Posts | Comments

City of the Queen, an Epic Tale of Colonial Hong Kong

2 comments
City of the Queen, an Epic Tale of Colonial Hong Kong

Someone flying the Hong Kong colonial flag

 

City of the Queen, an Epic Tale of Colonial Hong Kong

Jini Wang, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University


 

ABSTRACT

This article reviews the historical novel, City of the Queen: A Novel of Colonial Hong Kong, by Taiwanese writer Shih Shu-ching, and holds a positive view towards the book. Two main justifications for this view include: 1) The book appears as a combination of story and history, with description of real historical events, as well as facts and data presented at points when the storyline is encountered; and 2) Characters of various nationalities, backgrounds, personalities and histories have been created and shaped by the author to represent typical classes and groups in Hong Kong society at that time. Language used in this book is powerful, accurate and vivid. Several shortcomings have also been pointed out in the book review, such as the lack of the novel’s originality where excessive narration of historical facts is presented. Finally, the book is an epic tale of Hong Kong, looking over at the past and towards the Handover of 1997.

 

Keywords: 1997, British colonisation, Hong Kong history, narration


 

City of the Queen: A Novel of Colonial Hong Kong. By Shih Shu-ching. Translated by Sylvia L. C. Lin and Howard Goldblatt. NY: Columbia University Press. 2008. ISBN: 9780231134576. 312 pp.

 

Introduction

City of the Queen: A Novel of Colonial Hong Kong (City of the Queen hereafter) is the English version of the wildly praised and reputed ‘Hong Kong Trilogy’, a series of three linked novels written originally in Chinese. Those three novels, which were launched in 1993, 1995 and 1997, were pared down to one and then launched in 2005. Together, the new single volume narrates the story of one beautiful and determined Chinese woman living in the colonial Hong Kong. It is an epic tale of the woman’s family amid the history of Hong Kong.

The writer of the book is the acclaimed Taiwanese writer Shih Shu-ching, who is one of the most influential cultural figures in both Taiwan and Hong Kong. As a longtime resident of Hong Kong, she sets the story about this city with researched historical facts and impacts, as well as her distinctive understanding of the happiness and sufferings it has gone through in the past centuries.

The book is translated into English by Sylvia Li-chun Lin and Howard Goldblatt, both of whom are teachers in the Department of East Asian Languages at the University of Notre Dame. They have claimed that they have retained the style, the narrative progression and the approximate proportions of generational narrative in the original book, but have altered the point of view in the final part while condensing the 700-page work, which is now 300 pages in length (Shih, 2008). According to Jeffrey C. Kinkley, “Shih’s internationally acclaimed English translators have put together a version that is literary and maintains all necessary plot continuity” (Kinkley, 2006).

To get both an emotional impression and an objective overview of the colonial Hong Kong, City of the Queen is a rather ideal reading material. In the following parts of the book review, reasons will be given out to explain why the book is regarded as an epic tale of colonial Hong Kong and thus explains why it is worth reading for a reader and Hong Kong history learner. Two main reasons will be discussed, namely, the book as a combination of story and history, and the historical significance of different characters in the book.

 

Why is the book an epic tale of colonial Hong Kong?

A combination of story and history

The book consists of three parts, which chronologically sets the story among four generations in the heroine, Huang Deyun’s family. The story of Huang’s family actually reflects the story of colonial Hong Kong. Through telling this story, the author manages to show readers the social history of Hong Kong from different aspects and angles. Sung-sheng Yvonne Chang, author of the book Literary Culture in Taiwan: Martial Law to Market Law, has once mentioned a similar opinion in her book remark. She stated that the author complicates the life of the novel’s protagonist as well as that of every other Hong Kong resident (Chang, 2004).

One unique feature of this book is that it refers many times to the real historical events, data and facts, in spite of being regarded as a novel. The historical materials included enable the writer to create a broad historical background, against which the characters live and behave, leaving their fate in the hands of history. For instance, in Chapter 2, Part 1, the writer describes the brothel Huang Deyun lived in and how it operated, taking it as an example of brothels in Hong Kong in the colonial era. In the following pages, she systematically introduces the transformation of the colonial government’s policy on prostitution:

The colonial government’s policy on prostitution had an interesting history. In the beginning, prostitutes were expelled from Hong Kong. But during Governor Davis’s tenure, a “prostitution tax” was collected each month, since the prostitutes were the ones who infected lonely seamen and British soldiers. The prostitutes were also required to set up a hospital for patients with venereal diseases. (Shih, 2008, p. 11)

The above paragraph seems to be not a part of the story but an introduction of historical facts. It seems that the author prefers to introduce historical facts about an issue before telling the story. Many other examples can be found in the book. When writing about Huang Deyun’s first arrival in Hong Kong, the author mentions the history of the Opium War and Britain’s acquisition of Hong Kong. When a new character Adam Smith, an official in the colonial government, was to be introduced to the readers, the author describes the 1894 plague in Hong Kong and how the colonial government dealt with it before she writes about the character. Apart from the Opium War and the plague in 1894 mentioned above, the author fills the story with other historical issues, such as the Britain’s acquisition of the New Territories in 1898, two major strikes in Hong Kong during the 1920s, the occupation of the Japanese during the Second World War, the rise of the middle-class and the taking-off of Hong Kong’s economy in the 1970s. As it has been stated by Margaret Flanagan (2007) in her Booklist, Hong Kong’s swift evolution from fledgling, opium-infested colony to a sparkling financial power is the essence of the story.

By writing the novel in such a way, the author has effectively presented the readers with both facts and descriptions of historical events. Her great respect for the authentic history is to be appreciated. However, this way of writing has, to some extent, destroyed the originality of the novel, which is supposed to be veracious and dramatic. Fortunately, the author does not always separate the story from history, but tries to combine them together. The talented and experienced author, Shih Shu-ching is in control of her powerful and beautiful words, which she uses to describe historical issues and express emotions and opinions effectively. Take the plague as an example again, she writes about the street Adam Smith walked on, “The normally bustling, chaotic street was deadly quiet under the blazing noonday sun; abandoned rickshaws and sedan chairs were strewn everywhere… It was a time when rats ruled over human (Shih, 2008, pp. 19-28).

With a couple of simple sentences, the author manages to show how bleak and desolate the city was after the terrible disease and thus conveys to the readers how tremendous the negative impact of the plague was and how miserable people were at that time; and ‘a time when rats ruled over human’ is an exquisite conclusion of the natural disaster, which graphically expresses the author’s deep-thinking and her emotions towards this historical event.

Another typical example can be found when the author writes about the 1895 migration of Chinese people in Hong Kong, she writes:

Huang Deyun was witnessing the 1895 migration of twenty thousand Chinese leaving Hong Kong for their Canton homeland in protest against the colonial government’s new housing policy. People swarmed down from Mount Taiping Street, carrying their belongings on their shoulders and herding flocks of chickens, ducks, and pigs ahead of them. They were taking their families and live stock to the coast to board ships that would take them back to their ancestral homes. Deyun had a hometown too—Dongguan …… She could go home, she could return to her homeland in Dongguan! (Shih, 2008, pp. 81-82)

The above paragraph is a rather sophisticated and appropriate description of the 1895 migration of Chinese people who left Hong Kong and went back to the mainland. The author vividly describes Chinese people’s attitude and emotion towards the migration and related historical issues, while she also manages to show the large number of the floating population and the spectacular scene. The author views all of those mentioned above through the view of the heroine Huang Deyun, instead of the author herself. She expresses how the character experienced the historical event and how the event had an impact on her life—the witnessing of the event made her think of going back home. A more obvious example is Deyun’s unsuccessful escape at night. The author writes:

As she held up the blanket, unable to make up her mind, a loud boom sounded in the distance. Her hands shook. It was the curfew signal. It was too late to get out; she could not get away now. The colonial government’s curfew kept Huang Deyun in Hong Kong. (Shih, 2008, p. 55)

By indicating that ‘The colonial government’s curfew kept Huang Deyun in Hong Kong’, the author manages to express how the history of Hong Kong has an influence on the character’s life and fate.

 

Historical significance of different characters

The novel introduces a range of Chinese and British characters, examining the complicated relationships between colonizer and colonized in a searing and perceptive portrayal of colonialism (Shih, 2008). With vivid narrations and descriptions, the author is successful in creating and shaping different characters who are typical representatives of different classes and groups in Hong Kong society. The historical significance given by the author to different characters has made the book more historically meaningful.

 

The heroine—Huang Deyun: the embodiment of Hong Kong

The heroine of the story, Huang Deyun, who had been a prostitute in her early life and a rich and reputable woman later, is considered as the embodiment of colonial Hong Kong. According to the Western Post-Colonialism Theory, sex is a kind of symbol at which point, Western/ male/ colonizer and the Eastern/ female/ colonized is a set of corresponding structure (Liu, 1999). It seems not uncommon in literary works to use a prostitute as a metaphor of a colony.

As the author has emphasized in the story, Deyun is fated to become a prostitute. One of the characters in the story, Yihong, once said to Deyun, “It’s strange, my darling girl, but you’re so much prettier when you’re lying down, which must mean that you were born to live this life. Becoming the mistress of a household requires a certain look” (Shih, 2008, p. 164). She also has commented on Deyun that, “It’s fate. That beauty mark on her cheek has ruined her life” (Shih, 2008, p. 111). By indicating this characteristic of the heroine, the author hints that it was decided by fate that Hong Kong was to be a colony for its richly endowed advantages as a natural harbor. Hong Kong had no choice about its fate and future when the British came and occupied it, nor did Deyun have a choice. As it is stated in the book, Her life was like the lights, dimming with each passing moment. She was not concerned about her own future. She had no choice” (Shih, 2008, p. 118).

Apart from those mentioned above, Huang Deyun also carries the spirit of Hong Kong and most ordinary Hong Kong people. Despite the sufferings she has undertaken, she is determined and steadfast in her faith that she will live a stable life one day. As one of Deyun’s friends in the story said to her, “With your strong will, you will climb to the top. It is your fate” (Shih, 2008, p. 203). Being both shrewd and diligent just like a typical Hong Kong merchant at that time, Deyun gathered fame and wealth at the same time when Hong Kong was developing rapidly. It was a time when everybody sought chance to succeed. At that time, Hong Kong alone could make a man or woman, with the guts and determination, rich overnight (Fletcher, 2007).

By developing the story between Huang Deyun and her British lover, the author also explores the relationship between colonizers and the colonized, which will be discussed in the following part.

 

Other characters: representatives of Hong Kong residents from different castes, classes and races

It will be interesting to examine the four lovers Huang Deyun had in her life. Her first lover, Adam Smith, is a British officer of the upper class who worked for the colonial government. Creating and describing this character, the author intends to reflect the mental state and emotions of British people living in Hong Kong, while most other writers only develop ideas from the perspective of Hong Kong people and fail to consider much from the British side. Regarding the mental state and emotions described in this novel, on one hand, British people were superior. Having long been obsessively concerned with social status, British people in Hong Kong always saw themselves as upper class elites (Lethbridge, 1978). Their prejudiced attitude towards Chinese people had kept Smith struggling with the competing seductions of Huang’s beauty and the British respectability. After hearing the remark made by his British upper-class colleague, which stated that “What kind of child would be born of him, with his green eyes, if he married an Oriental woman with dark brown eyes? His intelligence would be like the yellow race, with its slow movements and lack of vitality. Crossing a superior species with an inferior one can only impair the superior one” (Shih, 2008, pp. 47-48). Smith rudely broke up with Huang Deyun. However, on the other hand, Smith himself felt upset and frustrated, and he still missed Huang, which also represents some struggling and other negative emotions some British people in Hong Kong were suffering from. Leaving their hometown for a remote island with only a small number of fellow people, most British people had a sense of loneliness and loss, and their separation from local Chinese people had worsened the problem. Just as the author describes about Adam Smith in the book, “He would be abandoned on this remote island, a stranger in a strange land, facing the plague all alone. His hometown was now beyond his reach; maybe he would never again lie on its velvety grass” (Shih, 2008, pp. 31-32).

Huang Deyun’s second lover, Qu Yabing, was a mixblood Chinese who worked in the colonial government but had very low status at the beginning. He had suffered much from discrimination. However, after he was promoted and subsequently elevated to the elite status, he developed discrimination against Chinese people and abandoned Huang Deyun eventually, which indicates the snobbery of some groups of Chinese people at that time. His overnight elevation, which was mainly due to his knowledge of English, was also an example of the selected social mobility in Hong Kong. As most Europeans in Hong Kong were fond of those Chinese who spoke English and showed evidence of some degree of Anglicisation (Lethbridge, 1978), opportunities to acquire wealth, prestige and access to the upper-class status were provided to lower-class people, as long as they master the language of English.

Huang Deyun’s third lover was Jiang Xiahun, who disappeared forever after appearing only once in the story. Several versions of his later life were circulated among local people, most of which stated that he had joined Sun Yat-sen’s anti Manchu revolution and was arrested and killed at last. This seems to indicate that the revolution and transformation of modern Hong Kong and China was tough and the future was uncertain at that time.

The fourth lover of Huang Deyun’s was a well-educated and rich British gentleman from the upper-class, Sean Shelley. Instead of being passive and submissive as what she was like when she was with Smith, Huang Deyun reached the position of dominance within her relationship with Sean. This change conveys the message that the governance of Hong Kong by the British coloniser has changed over time: from relying on force and grab to moderate governance, and eventually, with the prosperity and high level of autonomy of Hong Kong, the impact of the colonial government gradually declined and died away. The relationship between the coloniser and the colonised also changed in unison.

 

Conclusion

By combing history together with the story and using typical figures in the novel as representatives of various groups of residents in the colonial Hong Kong, the author has managed to finish an epic tale of the city of Hong Kong before 1997. When viewing the significance of the book from a historical perspective, the time when the original version was launched should be taken into consideration. The author created the story in the early 1990s, just before the 1997 Handover. The imminent event of the 1997 Handover, looming large in the book in the form of an anxiety that cannot be dispelled, inevitably imbues it with a strong sense of history. Witnessing an epoch coming to an end, the author contemplates issues of race, gender, and human fate (Chang 2004) of the characters as well as every other Hong Kong inhabitant. In the way of writing an epic tale, the author has successfully presented the readers with the past story of the forever-gone but memorable colonial Hong Kong, which enables the readers to profoundly consider the past history of Hong Kong as well as its future.

 

REFERENCES

Chang, Y. S. S. (2004). Literary culture in Taiwan: Martial law to market law. NY: Columbia University Press.

Flanagan, M. Booklist. (American Library Association, 2007).

Fletcher, M. S. (2007, July 2). The spirit of Hong Kong [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.dimsum.co.uk/china/the-spirit-of-hong-kong.html

Kinkley, J. C. (2006). World literature today. OK: University of Oklahoma.

Lethbridge, H. J. (1978). Caste, class and race in Hong Kong before the Japanese Occupation. In H.J. Lethbridge (Ed.), Stability and change (pp. 163-237). HK: Oxford University Press.

Liu, D. H. (1999). A thousand words about Hong Kong.

Shih, S. C. (2008). City of the queen: A novel of colonial Hong Kong (S. L. C. Lin & H. Goldblatt Trans.). NY: Columbia University Press.

 

ASSIGNMENT SUMMARY

This article is part of an assignment for a General Education (GE) course, requiring students to read a book related to Hong Kong history and then write a 2500-word academic book review.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jini Wang is a Year Two student in the School of Hotel and Tourism Management of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. She is studying a 3-year full time programme for a Bachelor of Science, majoring in hotel management.

 

  1. Catherine Cheung says:

    Thank you for the sharing the book review. I certainly wanted to get hold of this book after reading your review, in particular, I am interested to read more about as you recommended the historical significance of the different characters.

  2. I also found this particular article intriguing as it considered an issue which I research into: the hybridity of literature, or perhaps closer to the idea of “interstices.” H. I. Fenkl in his article “TOWARDS A THEORY OF THE INTERSTITIAL [VERSION 1.0]: THE INTERSTITIAL DMZ” discusses the idea of an “interstitial literature,” noting the challenges publishers encounter when categorising works of literature (or texts) which do not easily fall into one recognisable genre or another. Of course, the reverse is that the literature itself becomes a bit of a paradox, but I believe consequently enjoys the position of being unique and special in its identity-conundrum. Wang’s insight into Shih’s novel as being both Narrative and History is possibly an idea worth looking into further.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *