[REVIEW] “A Stirring Tribute to Hong Kong: A Review of Leslie Shimotakahara’s Red Oblivion” by Susan Blumberg-Kason

{Written by Susan Blumberg-Kason, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Leslie Shimotakahara, Red Oblivion, Dundurn Press, 2019. 304 pgs.

Jill Lau and her sister Celeste rush to visit their elderly father after he has been hospitalised with a ruptured colon. Getting to their father (Ba) is not easy, though, as they live in Toronto while their father is still residing in their childhood flat on Conduit Road in Hong Kong. Their mother died of cancer a dozen years earlier and while Jill tries to return every Chinese New Year, Celeste has only been back once, six years previously. On arrival, the sisters notice the differences in Hong Kong. Celeste feels it has changed, while Jill still recognises the city of her youth.

Hong Kong always seems like this: the new trying to overtake the old, the old never quite disappearing. The luxurious facades of some of these hotels—pink marble and gold curlicue lettering and massive chandeliers right out front—have a blatantly outdated appearance.

—Leslie Shimotakahara, Red Oblivion.

Ba seems frail when they reach him, but, cognitively, he’s still as sharp—and grumpy—as ever. On top of Ba’s health scare, the sisters learn that he received two mysterious letters, each containing a photo, before he went into the hospital. One photo was an image of the building he owns in Sheung Wan while the other was an image of a Red Guard’s armband from the Cultural Revolution. After fleeing China in the mid-1960s, Ba built a wholesale business to supply restaurants, hotels and airlines with tea and juice. His was a Hong Kong success story and one not atypical for the time.

Jill grows more concerned when a parcel arrives for her father containing a dead mouse, paper funeral offerings, and a pile of dirt. Clearly there’s a meaning behind this and it’s becoming more and more ominous.

As it turns out, Ba has a secret from his past and it appears to be connected to the Cultural Revolution. The story he has told his daughters all these years is that he was a model worker back in Guangdong province during the Cultural Revolution and was rewarded with a travel permit to Hong Kong in return for his diligence. Jill now finds this story implausible as she is in her late thirties and knows it was not easy to leave China back then. Yet Ba is insistent. Celeste grows so frustrated with him that she returns to her husband in Toronto. Jill is single and requests a leave of absence from her architectural firm while she tries to uncover her father’s past and why he’s receiving threatening mail.

The Cultural Revolution has been central to many Chinese stories over the decades and it affected many Hong Kong residents who arrived in the territory in the 1960s and 70s. These stories are heartbreaking and reveal many difficult choices people faced when they tried to escape to Hong Kong in those years. Leslie Shimotakahara’s novel is influenced by her Cantonese father-in-law’s stories and the Cultural Revolution as it played out in Guangdong province. Red Oblivion becomes more thrilling as Ba’s story slowly unravels, especially when Jill travels to Guangzhou in search of more answers, all while juggling a budding romance with an old friend named Terence.

But the book stands out for its homage to Hong Kong. Shimotakahara writes of winding streets on Hong Kong Island and the tangled roots of banyan trees. Her walks through familiar neighbourhoods on the island bring back memories she hadn’t thought about in a long time.

Power-walking farther west, I hit Bonham Strand, where the buildings become older and dingier, festooned with the neon lettering of a different era, the narrowness of the streets casting deep shadows over the gutters. I glimpse the herbal medicine shop where Ba took me when I was a kid, its windows hung with red, black, and ochre posters advertising the old remedies.

—Leslie Shimotakahara, Red Oblivion.

Other scenes take place during torrential rainstorms, sometimes coming in handy when Jill needs time to think about what to do next as she tries to uncover her father’s past and decide if and when to return to her job back in Toronto or stay in Hong Kong with Terence.

Red Oblivion is a stirring tribute to Hong Kong and the role it served as a haven for refugees or anyone wishing to make a new start. Shimotakahara’s descriptions of the territory are vivid and dreamy in the way that make us all long for a simpler time.

How to cite: Blumberg-Kason, Susan. “A Stirring Tribute to Hong Kong: A Review of Leslie Shimotakahara’s Red Oblivion.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 15 Feb. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/02/15/red-oblivion/.

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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)

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