Hong Kong in 1996 and the old ‘colony’ is preparing for the hand-over to China. A motley community of colonial Brits and random anglophiles are living in dread of what they disparagingly call the ‘Chinese Take-away’.
‘Hong Kong was just an ant-hill with a Union Jack flying over it,’ writes Theroux. ‘The flag was changing but Hong Kong would remain an ant-hill.’
Few of his characters seem to share this feeling, however, and Betty Mullard and her son Bunt begin to anticipate the hand-over with particular dread.
This is the sort of situation that master novelist Paul Theroux thrives on and Kowloon Tong is filled with black humour, hinged on bumbling British eccentricity and close-minded xenophobia (verging on scathing racism) of much of the dregs of the Empire. Theroux’s literary strength lies more in novels than in straight travelogue and some of his greatest books are unfairly overshadowed by the likes of The Great Railway Bazaar and Old Patagonia Express.
Once picked up Kowloon Tong is hard to put down. Coming from a travel writer of Theroux’s stature there is actually very little ‘sense of place’ in this book though. (Saint Jack, for example, captures much more of the grungy character of downtown Singapore and Jungle Lovers evokes Malawi far more clearly). What Kowloon Tong lacks in Hong Kong imagery is more than compensated for by the author’s talent for bringing his characters to life. By the end of the book you feel that you know them and (since Theroux rarely deals in clean-cut heroes) have grown also to despise them: Betty Mullard’s narrow-minded hatred of all things Chinese even after decades in the colony; Bunt’s slovenly whore-mongering.
Theroux does such a great job of acquainting you with the inner-workings of their insecurities however that you still find yourself hoping things will turn out well for them. Do you think it does…?
I bought this book from Karkloof Farmers Market in KwaZulu Natal. Sorry about the sticky nougat stain on page 171 (I bought that from Karkloof Market too). The book was so good that I read it in less than a week and returned it again to Karkloof Market. I left it at Acorn B&B in Durban. Did you find it?
Kitbaggers book project – travel literature on speed.
Have you ever handled a classic paperback and wondered where it’s been and whose hands it passed through? Do you love the well-handled look of a book that’s obviously seen decades of serious mileage through places you might only have imagined?
This project was conceived long ago through a conversation (in San Jose, Costa Rica) between a group of friends who’d wondered about these same things and thought it would be interesting to try to trace the history of just a few random books that we read on the road.
More than just a review – this is also the story of a single adventurous copy that’s probably still out there touring the world somewhere. Let us know if you find it.
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