” It’s a Hong Kong characteristic. If you live here there’s never enough time, whatever you work. Always too much to do. People are always arriving, leaving, friends, business people. There’s always a crisis—flood fire, mud slide, boom, scandal, business opportunity, funeral, banquet or cocktail party for visiting VIPs—or some disaster. ” [65: 1104]
As the title suggests, Noble House is set in Hong Kong, in 1960s, with a complex and engaging tale tying together a multitude of disparate elements: business and political intrigues, kidnapping, murder, espionage, financial double-dealing, and natural disaster. One a night of torrential rain in 1960, Alastair Struan, the current taipan (big boss, ultimate ruler) of the Noble House, a trading and finance company that is the main artery of the colony’s economy, confers the title of taipan on Ian Dunross Struan; he must take an oath to uphold the traditions and oaths established by the first taipan and founder of Noble House, Dirk Struan, the mightiest trader in China from the 19th century. Dirk Struan’s illegitimate marriage to a woman in the Chen clan had perpetually interlinked the English family with the Chinese by ownership and blood. It is later discovered that the true reason of their century-long relationship is a triad that had asked the Noble House of a huge (and dangerous) favor to provide sanction and financial succor to a Boxer Rebellion insurgent against the Qing Dynasty.
One reason’s because we’re such a closely knit society, very interrelated, and everyone knows everyone else—and almost all their secrets. Another’s because hatreds here go back generations and have been nurtured for generations. When you hate you hate with all your heart. Another’s because this is a piratical society with very few curbs so you can get away with all sorts of vengeances. Oh yes. [13: 262]
Most of the actions take place over the course of one week in August 1963, as a typhoon is closing in on Hong Kong. Inside Ian’s office penthouse in Central the taipan is weathering another storm, a financial predicament that would throw the Noble House in total disarray, and that its being the “dragon back” of colony’s economic well-being, the fall of the Noble House means Hong Kong will also be down the sewer. Under the insidious eyes of the KGB, the CIA, and the People’s Republic of China, British and American businessmen maneuver for control of Hong Kong’s oldest trading house.
I don’t want his head, or death or anything like that—just an early demise of the Noble House. Once Struan’s is obliterated we become the Noble House. [11:231]
Just when the betrayer (who passes information on to American tycoon) of Noble House is inexplicably kidnapped by triad thugs who also prey on a priced heirloom of the trading house, Ian’s arch enemy, Quillan Gornt of Rothwell-Gornt joins force with Linc Bartlett, an American billionaire who craves a share of the pie, to attack the cash-light Noble House. Quillan has his former mistress, an Eurasian named Orlanda Ramos, manipulate Bartlett to close the deal. Special intelligence that Ian Dunross receives also triggers an international espionage war that traces back to the Soviet Union’s scheme to weaken China and its tie to the West. As time is running out, the taipan has to secure financial backing and identify the spy that has infiltrated the Noble House from the Soviet Communists.
Clavell weaves many intricate story lines into a coherent pattern. Complexity, how these plots bear no resemblance of any connection, compels me to read on. Unlike many half-baked popular fiction, the characters in Noble House are etched and developed, duly reflecting the biracial and colonial psyche of the last British overseas sovereignty. Clavell is considerate to apologize to the Hong Kong yun (Hong Kongers) in the book’s disclaimer for rearranging events and places, and for taking incidents out of context, but the book is very rich and authentic in local flavor and culture, steeped in lore and history. It’s utter delight to revisit Hong Kong in the 1960s through his writing: the boat houses, the make-shift tenements that accommodated huge influx of immigrants from China, the panoramic view of the Peak, and the tragic mudslide that demolished an entire building on Kotewall Road in the mid-level. The tragedy, coincidentally, occurred today, June 18, 47 years ago.
1370 pp. Dell mass paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]