[REVIEW] “The Centre of the Universe: A Review of Stephen Griffiths’s The Kowloon English Club” 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.}

Stephen Griffiths, The Kowloon English Club, Blacksmith Books, 2021. 292 pgs.

Hong Kong in 1996 was a special time. The Handover was a year away and everyone seemed to take a collective breath—whether sad, happy, scared, hopeful, or just unsure—to see what would happen after 30 June the following year. Stephen Griffiths uses this time not just as the backdrop to his novel, The Kowloon English Club, but also as the story’s raison d’être.

When protagonist Joe Walsh flies into Hong Kong in 1996, he doesn’t think he will land in one piece. Griffiths is not the first author to begin a book with a Kai Tak landing (Susan Jane Gilman did so in Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven), but the experience was so spectacular and seemingly death-defying that it’s a great way to entice the reader back to pre-1998 Hong Kong. Joe lands without incident and finds his way to Tsim Sha Tsui, where he books a room at Mirror Mansion, modelled on Mirador Mansion. He lucks out with his own room at first and finds a sandwich delivery gig, mainly staffed by foreigners. Soon he upgrades when he finds employment teaching at the Kowloon English Club.

Joe’s experience in Hong Kong, which takes him to right before the Handover, vividly shows this special time in the territory. The book works so well because backpacker English teachers, unlike the corporate expat community, were able to meet a cross-section of Hong Kong society that didn’t have the privilege of leaving or closing themselves off to the ramifications of the Handover. Joe meets South Asians who run Mirror Mansion and Chungking Mansions, as well as his Hong Kong Chinese students, most of whom were also in their twenties, or a bit older.

In his classes, he asks his local students about their thoughts on the Handover:

Hong Kong was so sophisticated and Western-oriented in comparison to the mainland, and the disparity in living standards and human rights between China and Hong Kong so great, that few were looking forward to the transfer of power with anything less than alarm. It wasn’t a contentious subject to them: Hong Kong was Chinese but it wasn’t China.

—Stephen Griffiths, The Kowloon English Club.

There were plenty of chauvinistic characters in the English teaching community, dating local women and Filipina domestic helpers, never intending to settle down. Another teacher, Duncan, is married to a mainland woman, yet still philanders around in the Wan Chai bars. Joe has his share of failed romances in his first six months in Hong Kong, yet finds himself one evening in his guest house room overhearing distressing sounds next door. The next thing he knows, he’s stopping an attempted rape. Later in the book, Joe gets back at the rapist in a non-violent way when they run into each other on The Peak.

But it’s not all depressing. Joe develops stronger friendships when he moves from his single room to the guest house’s dormitory. He also enjoys exploring Hong Kong, including its many parks. Not that far from his home in Tsim Sha Tsui, Joe explores Monkey Hill near the Lion Rock Tunnel.

Overlooking the Kowloon peninsula is a forested highland area that supports a surprising array of wildlife, including a colony of rhesus macaques. These were introduced early in the twentieth century on completion of the Kowloon Reservoirs to consume harmful weeds that might otherwise have contaminated the water. Now, through inter-breeding and increased competition, they have virtually wiped out the native species of monkey. Nearing overpopulation, hundreds of the invasive species roam freely without fear of humans or any natural predators, their behaviour encouraged by irresponsible day-trippers feeding them.

—Stephen Griffiths, The Kowloon English Club.

Read into that what you will. If one looks more at symbolism, the character of Joe can represent the end of British rule and his students, including a group he nicknames “The Innocents”, stand in for Hong Kong Chinese. These students are generally in their early twenties and enjoy practicing English in a relaxed setting after a long day at work. The Innocents may seem unserious, but they know they have got this far by working hard and that’s what makes Hong Kong special. It’s a place full of opportunity, where an education—and usually English skills—can provide more room for advancement. Griffiths doesn’t mention this next part because his story only takes place around the Handover, but the children of “The Innocents” would be coming of age just about now and would certainly have a different outlook on their future than their parents did back when they were young. It’s hard not to compare then and now and the uncertainties of both eras.

In any case, the story only reaches the weeks or days leading up to the Handover and Griffiths does a marvellous job of recreating that special time. As Joe states at the very end: “Hong Kong really was at the centre of the universe.”

Also see this review in Cha:

How to cite: Blumberg-Kason, Susan. “The Centre of the University A Review of Stephen Griffiths’s The Kowloon English Club.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 14 May 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/05/14/english-club/.  

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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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