Hong Kong Rose

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Title: Hong Kong Rose

Author: Xu Xi

Published: 1999

Genre: chicklit that's wearing its one really good outfit as it aspires to literary respectabilty

Period: The groovy '70s!

One-sentence synopsis: Rose is a (sorry!) blooming young woman who's seeking the meaning of life, love, and liberty as she balances her relationships (or lack thereof) with her family, her husband, and her lover.

Cultural focus (i.e. is the book about westerners or Chinese): Chinese, mostly. There are numerous western characters, but the focus here is on an overseas Chinese woman trying to deal with essentially Chinese issues, including the ways in which non-Cantonese Chinese get on in Hong Kong.

Evocation of Hong Kong setting: It depends on how you look at it. In terms of physical description, Xu Xi's Hong Kong is anycity. It's the antithesis of Martin Booth's Hong Kong.

On the other hand, this is in essence a family novel, and in this sphere lies the book's primary virtues. Rose is a middle class girl, a product of an SE Asian/overseas Chinese family. Her boyfriend/eventual husband's family's background is even more unusual: he's from a rich South African Chinese clan, with some mixed genes tossed in for good measure. Most of the book's action takes place in Kowloon Tong, where there's lots of money-grubbing and status-gaming, but not in the dreary life-on-the-Peak patterns that start to seem so familiar when you're reading a series of Hong Kong novels!

To give an example of the social setting here, Rose and her then-boyfriend get their photo on the society page of the SCMP. This is a big deal to Rose, but she doesn't want to admit it. This jockeying for social position while trying to navigate the shoals of status consciousness and longstanding snobbery is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel.

Inscrutability index, on a scale of 1-10 (i.e., since the book is written by a Chinese, to what degree does she see Western culture as 'inscrutable'): It's a three.

On the one hand, there's plenty of, shall we say, mingling between western and Chinese characters here. And the western characters are written up in a generally natural idiom.

But there are occasional reminders of Rose's lack of total comfort around westerners and western culture, since one of her 'issues' is the degree she's becoming westernized in the face of her mother's opposition.

For example, Rose goes on a junk trip with gweilos, and gets a little melodramatic:

There was something surreal about this alien world of foreigners, far apart from the core of my city which could be so hellishly crowded, so unpleasantly claustrophobic. Was I privileged or damned to witness this occidental paradise? (p. 72)

Rose's ruminations on race and culture frequently reach this high pitch of near-theological significance. The problem is, they seem insightful at first, but then leave you scratching your head:

That ABC moves like a gwai, despite his Chinese face.

A long time ago, some slick Englishman translated gwai as 'foreign devil'. But it isn't that simple, is it? In the world I came from there were Chinese, the yan, meaning people or humans, and then there were all the rest, the gwais.

Yet sometimes I think it was we the yan who were inhuman.

Was the truth of my life simply what Gordie says life's about -- where devils are angels and angels are devils and all are just yan? (p. 228)

Let's move that inscrutability index up to five.

Typhoon count: One! It catches Rose off guard:

A typhoon in October? [Oh, as if that's unheard of! --ed.] The sky was an indeterminate grey, and the wind gusty.  (p. 126)

And that's all we get. The typhoon does help Rose kickstart her affair, though, so there's that.

Review: The fixed point about which the typhoon of Rose's life rotates is her long-running relationship with Paul, the rich boy who's first her gentlemanly suitor, then her enigmatic husband.

But there's something a bit strange going on here . . . .

When they're dating, Paul makes a move on Rose, which she rebuffs because it seems so odd, even to her. She describes her feelings:

'All the way home in the taxi my body wouldn't stop trembling. My desire was knotted in my stomach. Could this really be the man I was going to marry? I didn't understand him at all. Something separated us, something I couldn't articulate. I wanted him, felt passion for him, passion I usually had to keep buried . . . . I was at the mouth of a gaping abyss into which I couldn't stop from plunging. Did I love Paul? Of course I did, with a fierce clinging desire I wasn't permitted to exhibit.' (pp, 78-79)

Hmmm. What could be the problem? Why does the suave and dashing Paul always seem to be out for nights on the town with 'the boys', and doesn't come back till morning? Why does he seem unwilling -- unable, even -- to return Rose's trembling knotted passionate buried fierce clinging desire for him? It's a total mystery, for over half the book -- at least to our dear Hong Kong Rose!

Before she's married, Rose makes a trip to the USA to visit her fraternal twin sister Regina, who's living an artist's bohemian life in New York City. There Rose meets Miguel, a creepy but compelling South American who's also her sister's pimp (don't make me explain this). Frustrated by Paul's indifference to her, Rose is captivated. She enthuses:

His voice was rich and soothing, like Chinese peanut soup that warmed your tongue before sliding down your throat.  (p. 80)

Oh, dear. Let's just move on.

Eventually, Rose ties the knot with Paul, for better or (more likely) worse, and finally figures out the truth about him that everyone from Repulse Bay to outer Mongolia has known for years. Rose then promptly begins a long-running affair with Elliot, an American who speaks fluent Chinese, hangs out with the beautiful people, seems to have money and connections to burn, but who never the less pines for Rose as she wavers back and forth between her life-as-a-lie with Paul, whom she still loves and adores and admires, except that he sleeps with men instead of her, and the possibility of a new life with Elliot, who does actually, you know, manage to get the deed done with her on occasion. This bizarre balance is tipped to an extreme at a wild New Year's Eve party at which Rose, Paul, Elliot and one of Paul's lovers all end up dancing together and getting entangled in a terribly confusing and quite unsatisfactory mess.

And messiness -- of relationships, of emotions, of social standing and of the general meaning of life -- is what Hong Kong Rose is all about. Rose tries to express her own lack of certainty late in the book:

I thought about all these people who had what I couldn't have, because no matter how I looked at my life, when I pushed aside the clouds that blurred my vision, the only thing I knew with absolute clarity was that I still didn't understand very much about myself at all. (p. 255)

So if you like lots of feelings, thinking about feelings, talking about feelings, and feeling feelings, all wrapped up in a Hong Kong package, this may be the book for you. Initially, I enjoyed Hong Kong Rose's prurient detail and catty tone, and the insights into Hong Kong families and status striving. But the longer I read, the farther away the book's last page seemed to be. The harder I tried to stagger through the emotional quicksand, the more bogged down I got.

Bonus information: Xu Xi is Indonesian Chinese, and also writes under the name Sussy Komala.

There's another interesting sidelight here for American readers: Regina and Rose both get their undergrad degrees in the USA, at the seriously obscure State University of New York-Plattsburgh (this must be where Xu Xi attended herself; there's no other possible explanation for its inclusion). But then Regina goes on to pursue a Master of Fine Arts at the slightly less-obscure University of Iowa, the flagship university of Mr Tall's home state. This turns out to be highly problematic. To wit, in one paragraph, Regina moves to Iowa. In the next, she slashes her wrists.

Rose tries to console her:

Calm down, Regina! What did you expect, in the middle of Iowa!
(p. 99)

Okay, okay -- it's not Plattsburgh, of course, but Iowa City's not quite that bad!

Getting your hands on a copy: The Amazon link is here, and the HKPL system has the book also; you can search for the title here.

Next up: Stephen Coonts's Hong Kong.