[Review] “Hong Kong Noir” by Akin Jeje

{Written by Akin Jeje, this review is part of Issue 43 (April 2019) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Jason Y. Ng and Susan Blumberg-Kason (editors), Hong Kong Noir, Akashic and Blacksmith Books, 2018. 256 pgs.

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Elegiac rather than horrific, more melancholic than murderous, Hong Kong Noir‘s fourteen tales collectively evoke past and contemporary visions of a city steeped in tradition and street-lore even at the heights of its ambitious, restless modernity. In this anthology of short stories, fourteen writers with varied relationships to Hong Kong write of widely contrasting facets of their home or adopted city. Each tale covers a different geographical section of the thriving metropolis from the deceptively tranquil islands of Lamma and Cheung Chau through the fading bacchanal of Lan Kwai Fong, the avaricious glitter of Tsim Sha Shui and the mean streets of Mong Kok to the remote serenity of Ma On Shan. Hong Kong Noir is a panorama of the city in its multiplicity of forms, from lush mountains in country parks, to the concrete jungles of shops and tenements, to the upscale luxury apartments in secluded coves. This panoramic view also covers the ills of the city from divorce and alienation, prostitution and suicide, loss and struggle, to the rapid encroachment of Mainland influence and power in the ex-colonial metropolis.

The darkness evoked in Hong Kong Noir is often more supernatural than criminal: Jason Ng’s faintly eerie ghost tale “Ghost of Yulan Past” provides commentary on 2014’s Umbrella Movement; Xu Xi’s nameless narrator in “TST” becomes a clarion for justice for her sisters under the red light; Brittani Sonnenburg’s “The Kamikaze Caves” recalls spectres of long-vanquished Japanese invaders secluded in Lamma’s moss-drenched Kamikaze Caves and Shannon Young’s “Blood on the Steps” is a gripping, grisly fable about the price of fame and ambition in the heart of Central. But perhaps the most powerful of these paranormal tales is Carmen Suen’s “Fourteen,” a poignant and vivid (almost) coming-of-age tale of a lonely twelve-year-old girl in a public housing estate in the 70s. Finally, Ysabelle Cheung’s “Big Hotel” portrays a funeral home worker whose nightly visions of the deceased connect her with a rapidly expanding afterworld. In everyday Hong Kong, the past is enduringly present where spirits struggle alongside the bustling crowds of the living.

The collection overall is a fascinating series of observations of Hong Kong’s sociocultural landscapes, but as noir fiction, it is decidedly uneven. The anthology can almost be neatly divided between crime dramas, political thrillers and supernatural stories. For classic hardboiled noir, James Tam’s “Phoenix Moon” and Charles Philipp Martin’s “Ticket Home” top the list, with honourable mention to Feng Chi-Shun’s “Expensive Tissue Paper,” in which prostitutes, gangsters and hustlers battle against fate for better tomorrows.

For political intrigue, Tiffany Hawk’s “You Deserve More” makes an abrupt turn from romantic melodrama to spy thriller, but ends just as the plot sharpens brilliantly. Albeit more sedate in pace, Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang’s “One Marriage, Two People” ably uses dual perspective to reveal the cultural chasms between a British wife and her Mainland husband, thereby providing a simplified but effective allegory for the Handover. Shen Jian’s “Kam Tin Red” was anomalous among these stories, for while it reads as an absorbing anecdote of murder against the backdrop of the 1967 leftist riots, it does not neatly fit the noir category. Yet it still serves as a powerful rumination on the effect that political unrest has had on the territory in both colonial and present times.

Timelines vary considerably as Hong Kong Noir swings from the legacy of World War II, political tensions and the struggles of the 60s and 70s, then transits towards the Handover and contemporary times.

Sometimes, a writer captures an era radiantly, as in “Phoenix Moon” or “Fourteen”; at other times, connecting present to past can be confusing, as in “The Kamikaze Caves.” Ultimately, it is the memories of Hong Kong’s human and otherworldly terrain, as portrayed by these varied narratives, that proves so beautifully haunting.

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Akin Jeje is an active poet, a spoken-word performer and a member of PEN Hong Kong. His works have been published and featured in both Canada and Hong Kong. His first full-length poetry collection, Smoked Pearl: Poems of Hong Kong and Beyond was a semi-finalist for the 2009 International Proverse Prize, and published by Proverse Hong Kong in 2010. Akin served as the MC for Hong Kong’s Peel Street Poetry collective from 2007 to 2014, and he is currently one of the three directors of the group. He was also an advisor to the Hong Kong International Young Readers’ Festival, and had been a volunteer moderator for the Hong Kong International Festival from 2012 to 2016. He has performed his poetry for public events and in schools, and has been presenting educational seminars on poetry for primary and secondary school students since 2014.

One thought on “[Review] “Hong Kong Noir” by Akin Jeje

  1. Pingback: “Is Hong Kong Losing One of Its Finest Anglophone Fiction Writers?: Xu Xi’s Insignificance” by Michael Tsang | Cha

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