Ivy Ngeow, Heart of Glass, Unbound Digital, 2018. 256 pgs.
I was in New York in January for a Hong Kong book event, and the discussion was centered around noir. There’s certainly plenty material in Hong Kong for noir stories, but during the questions at the end, one of the audience members asked about noir in Macau. Are there writers who tackle this genre in Macau? I immediately mentioned Lawrence Osborne’s spellbinding novel, The Ballad of a Small Player. It’s a sultry novel with all the trappings of a good noir: a banker who runs off to Asia to flee the scene of his embezzlement; a mysterious femme fatale and an underworld that threatens to expose and destroy him. The book came out several years ago, yet many of the scenes are still etched in my memory, as is the main character’s first name: Lord Doyle. He’s not really a lord, of course.
Doyle was a lawyer back in the UK and slowly siphoned money from an elderly client under his charge. When his client died, he left the scene of the crime and ended up in Hong Kong, and later Macau. Doyle spent most of his days and evenings in the casinos of Macau playing punta banco baccarat. The Ballad of a Small Player is reminiscent of noir films from the 1950s and 60s like The Scavengers and Macao, as well as later novels like Martin Booth’s The Jade Pavilion. These films and books pretty much include the same recipe: a male protagonist on the move, gambling and female nightclub singers or dancers who become love interests. In Osborne’s case, Lord Doyle meets and falls in love with Dao-Ming, a Macau nightclub singer. Their relationship takes an unpredictable turn later on in the story. And the descriptions of Macau are every bit as noir as those in the old black and white films:
I walked down the Patio do Gil with banknotes crushed in my pockets. Down Felicidade, or Happiness, where the whorehouses used to be but which is now filled with tea shops and windows of sticky buns. Misted banyans with dripping trailers, faces like disappointed dough, the dim sum plates salty with clams as small as keyholes.
As much as I enjoyed The Ballad of a Small Player, I was thrilled to hear of a new noir story set in Macau written by a woman. Ivy Ngeow’s Heart of Glass consists of the same noir formula, but with a feminist bent. Li-an, a young woman from Chicago, flies off to Macau for a singing gig at a new restaurant. The novel is set in the early 1980s and brings back my own memories of early 1990s Macau, back before it became the gambling capital of the world. There’s something about old Macau that’s both glamourous and gritty, and Ngeow—like Osborne—expertly creates that atmosphere in her book:
On the streets, neon lights glittered and blinked from the bars and restaurants and likely brothels. I felt the pounding bass from bars. It felt strange yet familiar to hear electronic music. I wanted to dance so badly yet I didn’t want to dance in a sleazy bar.
The traditional male noir protagonist wouldn’t worry about dancing in a sleazy bar, but as a woman, Li-an has more to worry about in Macau. Yet she’s independent and level-headed, even as she falls for a New York DJ named Ben who digs himself into debt and the underworld of Macau’s gangster loan sharks. Ben doesn’t prove to be very responsible or competent in many parts of the story, which leaves Li-an to meet next-to-impossible deadlines to pay off his debt.
I have to say it’s really refreshing to read a Macau noir story with a strong feminist main character. As much as I enjoy the old noir films set in Macau and novels like Lawrence Osborne’s, Ngeow brings to light that women are the ones who usually fix messes and keep things running smoothly. I hope more women will write noir novels set in Macau, a setting rife with dark and sultry material.
Going back to the event in New York, I wished I had more time to talk up the great noir novels and films set in Macau. These are just some, and I hope we’ll see more written by women. Ngeow’s book, I hope, is only the beginning of a new look at an old and beloved genre.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong. Her writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)