Hong Kong on Air

TitleHong Kong on Air

Author: Muhammad Cohen 

Published: 2007

Genre: satire/comic 

Period: 1997

One-sentence synopsis: An American expat couple -- Jeff the lingerie maven and Laura the print journalist-turned-TV news producer -- move to Hong Kong to seek their fortunes in the runup to the handover.

Cultural focus (i.e. is the book about westerners or Chinese): Expats, almost exclusively. Although there is a prominent -- and quite unforgettable -- ABC in the cast here, the local Chinese characters are mostly used as stage setting.

Evocation of Hong Kong setting: Very good. There are some vivid descriptions of Hong Kong's views, signature features, and street-level chaos. It's also the best among the HK novels I've read so far at capturing the energy and amphetamine-like highs and lows of life here.

Since the novel's so expat-centered, it's appropriate that Jeff and Laura live on Robinson Road. There's a good sequence in which the high-powered executive taxi-and-MTR-taking Laura discovers (to her shock) that taking a bus down from mid-levels to Pacific Place is efficient and even fun:

Laura is no longer listening, caught up in the thrill ride aspect of the bus barreling along the dips and rises of Robinson Road, towering apartment buildings and fenced in sidewalks with barely enough space for cars, trucks, and buses, including other double-deckers coming in the opposite direction. Buses pass so close to each other, Laura can read newpaper headlines through the windows. Their bus skids to a stop at the curb in a wide spot at the end of Robinson Road, then slithers back out into traffic and around the bend along the side of the hill above the zoo. Rounding the curve unveils an unobstructed view of the Central skyline with night newly fallen, all the way to the rocket-ship building in Wanchai and its smaller cousin in Causeway Bay. To the left, there's the harbor, with dozens of ships anchored off the container port in Kowloon, like little light bulbs, rather than candles, bobbing on the surface of a swimming pool at a big party like the one they're heading for tonight, like the one they're all speeding toward on June 30th. 'That's the view from my bedroom window,' Jeff notes, 'if that building next door and ten others weren't there.'

Inscrutability index, on a scale of 1-10 (i.e., since the book is written by a westerner, to what degree does he see Chinese culture as 'inscrutable'): It's a seven, maybe even an eight. Neither Jeff nor Laura seems to make much headway grasping even the rudiments of Chinese culture. And although Jeff's succumbs to a yellow-fever induced fling, it's with a Japanese expat, not a Chinese girl.

There are numerous little signs that Cohen doesn't quite get Hong Kong Chinese culture. For example, one of his expat characters (a colleague who mentors Laura on expat life in Hong Kong) mentions that a Hong Kong Chinese coworker whose mobile phone has been ruined (in a funny scene) will likely find it hard to acquire another:

Where's she going to find two thousand Hongkies for a mobile phone when she only makes fourteen a month?

I hope this is meant to be funny, but I've got a sneaking suspicion it's not.

Cohen also takes advantage of the Hong Kong penchant for odd English names by reprising a little trick pioneered by John Bunyan in his 17th-century New York Times best-seller The Pilgrim's Progress. That is, he gives Laura's Chinese subordinates names that directly reflect their essential natures, at least as she perceives them. So we've got 'Quickie', 'Honest' -- and 'Pussy', who at least gets upgraded (I suppose) to 'Candy'. Hmmmm.

I should note, in Cohen's defense, that he's frequently satirizing expat cluelessness. Laura is in fact the image of the self-absorbed expat, griping constantly about 'tasteless, greasy Chinese food', and her apartment building looking like a 'Chinese brothel'.

Typhoon count: None, again! But we do get frequent mentions of that apocalyptic string of rainy days over the actual handover. Strangely, though, Cohen never mentions the Black Rainstorm signals that were issued; weather geeks everywhere disapprove strongly of this omission.

Review: This is a good first novel, and it shows. By that, I mean that it's got lots of energy and color, but it's also shot through with obvious flaws that become distracting at times.

Let's get the negatives out of the way first.

They say that the good novelist should show, not tell. That means dialog and action, not narrative description, right? Cohen follows this rule to the nth degree, especially in his depictions of Laura's adventures as a TV news producer. Long stretches of the book comprise almost minute-by-minute behind-the-scenes accounts of new broadcasts, including Laura's directions (and often her thoughts), the chatter of the other crew members, plus lengthy voiceovers as spoken by the news anchors and reporters on screen.

This technique works well at times, especially in novel's heart, i.e. a recounting of the newscast on handover night itself. But Cohen turns to this trick so often it becomes exhausting; it should have been saved as a one-off for the handover sequence.

Next, Cohen's characterization needs work. Neither Laura nor Jeff is particularly likable (which is fine in a satirical work) or memorable (which is not fine). They've each got a couple of quirks (Laura, for example, unknowingly shouts out stage directions in the throes of passion), but they don't come alive. Jeff is particularly bland, drifting about in reaction to shoves from the women in his life.

Most of the secondary characters are also thin. For example, Yogi, Jeff's sexually rapacious and seemingly single-minded mistress, is also supposed to be an investment banking savant, but there's no way to reconcile these two aspects of her character.

On the plus side, especially for Hong Kong expats, and indeed for anyone interested in Hong Kong at all, this novel wallows magnificently in the daily absurdities of life in this singular city. Here's a fine description, for example, of life in a typical Hong Kong flat:

Jeff tosses his clothes on to his bed and turns into the bathroom between their bedrooms to wash up at the sink sized for a bus restroom. He steps out, turns, and he's in his bedroom, precisely the length of his bed plus headboard cum night table, with a built-in closet along the opposite wall, and just enough room to walk sideways between them. He positions himself between the closet doors and swings them open to pull out jeans and a tee-shirt. As he crabwalks to the door, he thinks he sees someone in the window the next building. Why not? It's about three feet away. You could have dinner with the neighbors without anyone leaving their apartment.

One step to the left, two steps the right across the living room, and he's in the kitchen, big enough for two if one them stands in the sink, which Kennedy [their estate agent] nearly made them do to confirm the 'partial sea view' their ad promised: 'I want you to trust me,' he said, pointing out the sliver of Victoria Harbor between the highrises through the window over the two-burner gas cooker.

Cohen also identifies and digs out many of the inevitable burrs under the saddle of expat life: Jeff must try to deal with manufacturers in the mainland; Laura is crushed to discover that 'who-you-know' is often the key to power and promotion in her workplace; the wildly inflated costs of western grocery items are surveyed, with Jeff turning to the alternative of fighting through the old ladies at the wet market; and so on.

Another strength is Cohen's ability to evoke the ethos of the handover era. Cohen has nailed the enervating confusion of that strange time, with hope and ambiguity and greed and insecurity all competing for the top spot in one's daily emotional workout program. [/nostalgic grandpa voice] 

In fact, this novel does one of the better jobs I've seen (outside of the blessed pixels of batgung.com, of course) of giving a potential Hong Kong expat the feel of what life here might turn out to be like. It's also enjoyable reading for those of us who live here already, especially for us old-timers who were here through the handover.

Bonus information: Okay, I know you're wondering about the author's name. Mr Cohen, formerly 'Eliot', changed his given name to Muhammad upon marrying an Indonesian woman, as a sign of intercultural and inter-faith solidarity.

Unsurprisingly, Cohen worked as a producer for CNN and CNBC in Hong Kong in the 1990s.

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.

You should also note that Hong Kong On Air is published by a local operation, Blacksmith Books, so I recommend getting your copy directly here.

Next up: Hmmm. I think I just might tackle the famously irascible Paul Theroux's Kowloon Tong.


HK Novels

I am enjoying your reviews of HK novels, though I think you should have a “sultry Asian temptress” count as well as a typhoon count!

May I suggest a few more works for future review?  First of all the novels by local author Stewart Sloan – you can obtain them via http://sloanbooks.blogspot.com (click back to the earliest articles).  I don’t think you’ve covered any horror stories before, so this will be a nice change of genre.

Then there was Conspiracy of Amateurs (1985)  by Bill Lowe, who used to write a satire column for the Standard back then.

Re: Ghost stories

Hi there,

I think there is some sort of a ghost store called 'The Hungry Ghosts' by Anne Berry out there and it is available in local book stores.  Probably available in public library too.

Best Regards,