It’s really heartening to see the Spring Spotlight guest author series get a good reception, especially at a time when those with new books coming out need all the support we can give. Thanks to all of you for reading, to Eleni Kyriacou for her post on 1950s Soho and Hannah Persaud for last week’s fascinating piece on writing about an unconventional marriage.
Today it’s time for the only Writers on Location post to emerge from my spring selection and I’m delighted to welcome German author Felicia Nay to share her experience of Hong Kong, setting of her debut Red Affairs, White Affairs. The novel won the Cinnamon Press Novel Prize in 2018 – doubly impressive for someone not writing in their native language. It will be released on 6 April and the print edition is available directly from Cinnamon Press.
No, it wasn’t love at first sight. ‘You don’t like our Hong Kong,’ the travel agent blurted out when, barely twelve hours after my arrival in the city, I begged her to get me a ticket on the next plane out. I didn’t dare contradict her. My dislike of the city was almost violent, something I had never encountered elsewhere. If somebody had predicted that one day I would write a novel born out of nostalgia for it, I would have doubted the person’s sanity.
The night hadn’t been good. I was staying at Mirador Mansions, a cheap place for twenty-year-old girls too cowardly to stay at the infamous Chungking Mansions on their own. Arriving at the tail end of Chinese New Year, I had not been able to change money at the border. My room had no windows, the door was secured by an immense gate, the TV ads consisted of warnings against violent crime and HIV infections, and I had no bottled water. This still holds true today: Hong Kong is one of the cities that soon get uncomfortable when you are not well off.
That was in the early 1990s, and I had just spent five months in Mainland China, hand-washing my clothes and mixing with students who only had hot water twice a week but showered me with food and friendliness. It also was extremely safe. Hong Kong, in comparison, seemed megalomaniac, impersonal, hectic. Traces of that early shock can be found in my narrator, Reini, who comes to Hong Kong with her experience as an aid worker in the Sudan. Professionally programmed against inequality and poverty, she feels deeply uncomfortable with what she labels Hong Kong’s ‘cut-throat capitalism’.
Almost ten years after that first, dismal visit, I found myself back in Hong Kong. For some reason, I had taken a job in the former ‘territory’, now recently returned to China. Even then, it was soon clear that despite the Noonday Gun and the Morris dancing, Hong Kong isn’t British, not with its feng shui masters in the Yellow Pages and its afternoon tea specials of spring rolls. Above all, Hong Kong is not ‘Mainland China light’, a cleaner and more democratic version of the People’s Republic. Hong Kong is its own cultural and linguistic universe. Unlike Reini, I knew rather too much before moving to Hong Kong, or knew the wrong things. I spoke Mandarin, had studied Mainland Chinese history, had Mainland Chinese friends. After moving to Hong Kong, I had to unlearn my assumptions. Lesson Number Two: love requires taking things and people on their own terms.
I started to learn Cantonese, waded through the puddles in wet markets, had tea in diners populated by elderly locals. I also had Cantonese friends, people who were comfortable mixing with expats. Under a veneer of foreign education and global middle-class habits, they were surprisingly Chinese, preferring Traditional Chinese Medicine to Western medicine, consulting almanacs, eating congee as comfort food. And the more I learned, the more I fell in love. Lesson Number Three: knowledge and understanding breed love and ownership.
But not all my discoveries remained on that level of quaintness. Patterns of patriarchy emerged, traces of racism, a whiff of misogyny. Often I felt like an intruder, stumbling over habits and histories that were kept, deliberately or not, from foreign eyes. ‘Now we cannot keep any secrets from you anymore,’ more than one friend joked when my Cantonese started to improve.
I started to write the novel after my return to Germany, an act tinged with desire. Reini, my expat narrator, was born, and I gave her a head start. From the beginning of the novel, Reini is knowledgeable about Hong Kong, and speaks enviously fluent Cantonese. Still, she struggles with the culture around her; Chinese family life and the position of women, folk religion, Buddhism, the ‘superstitions’ and convictions that shape everyday life.
Researching the novel deepened my relationship with the city once more. Often, there were small discoveries, such as the origin of the cockatoos in Central Hong Kong, descendants of a pair set free during the Japanese occupation. These moments of awareness created part of the writing magic, presenting me with themes and images that blended seamlessly into the narrative, but which I could never have consciously come up with.
Today, I have an erotic relationship with Hong Kong, if we accept that the erotic gaze feeds as much, if not more, on the unseen than the seen, and that imagination is its strongest fuel. Seeing myself slip into MTR station entrances and turn corners, I see the history of each place, its immigrant struggles, its tycoons and tai tais; and with it my own history, my small triumphs and disasters.
Oh, and if you’re wondering about Lesson Number One: always travel prepared. And believe in love at second sight, of course.
Thank you to Felicia for this lovely and very personal Hong Kong story. Like the novel, it has a transporting effect which has increased in value lately.
This is a debut of many dimensions; predominantly character-driven, it’s the story of Reini/Kim, an independent, open-minded single woman in her thirties. Whilst she can be intense company, occasionally at the expense of narrative drive, I found Reini realistically complex, flawed but well-intentioned, and engaging. It’s possible to imagine long interesting conversations with her in real life, and surely one of the signs of a great fictional creation is that they don’t feel like one at all. With her experience of radically different places and ways of life, Reini has an unusual take on just about everything, from a vantage point as someone who is more integrated than a complete outsider to Hong Kong but knows she will never entirely belong.
That leads neatly to the second strength of this book: its vibrant and immersive sense not only of geographical place, but of tradition, customs and beliefs; I’ve never been to China but it reminded me of travels in SE Asia when lucky enough to get a tour guide who really brings their knowledge and understanding to life. The book takes its intriguing title from a Cantonese phrase: ‘red affairs’ are lucky celebrations such as weddings and birth announcements, ‘white affairs’ are funerals and other matters related to death. It’s an apt choice for a novel which spans the breadth of human experience, with both mortality and the search for love as central themes. It captivated me and I’d recommend it as a great place to lose yourself and the way you’re used to looking at life.
There’s a break next week before the second half of the Spring Spotlight guest season, which promises more brilliant posts from Nicola White on Writing the 1980s in her crime debut A Famished Heart, Stephanie Scott on her debut What’s Left of me is Yours and finally Anna Vaught on the historical research for her novel Saving Lucia.