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[788] Island and Peninsula 島與半島 – Liu Yichang 劉以鬯

1carered

First serialized in newspaper in 1975, Island and Peninsula, yet to be translated into English, portrays the reality of Hong Kong during the turbulent years between 1973 and 1975. It’s fiction with a realistic backdrop reflecting on the adverse social and economic condition of the time and on how common people cope with their difficult life. Lau insists that the book is not historical fiction, as he has no desire to chronicle the crucial events, but it rather annotates these historical events by placing fictional characters in them. They are in constant interplay with the tough demand of life in a trying milieu following the stock market crash in 1973. Many have lost their assets in entirety and even mortgaged their properties in order to pay debts. The city is hit by depression; housing is meager; commodities are scarce and their prices skyrocketing; robberies and burglaries rife; power outage mandatory; and unemployment a constant threat.

At the center of this social struggle, and thus putting it all into perspective is the Sha family, a middle class family with two teenagers. In the face of tough financial outlook, husband and wife are often engaged in heated argument over petty household matters, especially money in times of inflation and depression. Even a small expense warrants careful deliberation. They argue over stocking up toilet papers, plastic buckets (for saving water during rationing), canned food. Their bickering is often followed by a timely reconciliation, which shows how social turmoil takes a toll on individual mind and relationship. Through people’s interaction with one another, their clipped but sharp-tongued conversation, Lau really nails the nuances of people’s psyche, one that is dictated by the desire to stay afloat.

The book is not plot-driven, but the constant interplay between society and people, in particular how they respond to hostile conditions and challenges imposed on them, keeps reader engrossed. What loosely constitutes a plot is a continuous flow of contingent events imposed on these helpless people caught in a times of depression. Lau portrays a city full of ironies, which even the most rational minds have lapsed in the face of a windfall.

222 pp. Holdery Publishing. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Hong Kong Literary Connection

I can always relate to Lewis Buzbee’s (The Yellow Lighted Bookshop) desire to buy books even when he runs out of room for his TBR pile at home. I always experience a sudden and general urge to buy new books. I’ve stopped off at a few bookstores around the city, and while I’ve looked at hundreds and hundreds of books in that time, I have not found the one book that will satisfy my urge. It’s like suddenly one morning I’m craving for a chocolate croissant over coffee. For the upcoming short (3 days) Hong Kong trip I wish to read something that relates to the city, and Wendy from The Literary Feline couldn’t have mentioned the perfect book at the right time.

Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse is a memoir that spans over a century and recounts the lives of three generations of remarkable Chinese women. Tse and her two sisters all abandoned promising professional careers to follow a family tradition and opened a family restaurant in 2004. The restaurant symbolizes taking a step back to family history and heritage—a continuation of what their grandmother had started almost 100 years ago. A love of food and a talent for cooking pulled each generation through the most devastating of upheavals. Helen Tse’s grandmother, Lily Kwok, was forced to work as an amah after the violent murder of her father. Crossing the ocean from Hong Kong in the 1950s, Lily honed her famous chicken curry recipe. Eventually she opened one of Manchester’s earliest Chinese restaurants where her daughter, Mabel, worked from the tender age of nine. I expect vivid descriptions of the impoverished life in Chinese village, the prosperous Hong Kong in 1930s and the immigrant experience in the UK.

Standing out and staring at me from the heavy, weighed-down shelves of the neighborhood used bookstore is a copy of The Train to Lo Wu, a collection of short stories by Jesse Row. Lo Wu is the farthest north you can go without crossing the border into Mainland. Hong Kong under Row’s writing is a city suffused by a pervasive sense of alienation. He makes new the archetypal theme of a stranger in a strange land in his seven tales of outsiders—American expats and locals alike—struggling to decode the mysteries of Hong Kong.