Rich poor gap in Hong Kong the theme of new short stories collection

Rich poor gap in Hong Kong the theme of new short stories collection

South China Morning Post - Culture·2018-11-17 13:30

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Hong Kong Highs and Lows, various authors, edited by Chris Maden, with Lilla Csorgo and Dominic Sargent, pub. Hong Kong Writers Circle

4/5 stars

There may be no better title than Highs and Lows for a book about Hong Kong, a city of Peak mansions and tiny cage homes, jet-setting billionaires and homeless vagrants.

The 21 short stories in this anthology published by the Hong Kong Writers Circle explore the gap between the very rich and the very poor. The overriding theme – or perhaps the lesson to be learned – is how easy it is to fall from one to the other. Bad luck, poor choices, crime, violence and suicide can happen to anyone, even the affluent. And if you fall from grace in Hong Kong, there is no safety net to catch you.

The theme of hubris is as old as the ancient Greeks, who warned of Icarus falling from the heavens after flying too close to the sun. Replace Icarus with our modern-day gods – the tycoons, the bankers, the gold-diggers with glamorous Instagram accounts – and you have the characters of Hong Kong Highs and Lows.

The collection begins with a short story by Michele Koh Morollo: For Better Thinking. The title could be a slogan for vitamins to improve mental health, but actually refers to the false clarity of heroin’s illegal high. Gregg, a modern-day Mad Men character, is a successful advertising executive who uses drugs to cope with the insane demands of his banking client. In the end, he loses his family and career due to addiction.

In Procurement by Genevieve Hilton, a naive young woman describes a condescending ABC businessman like this: “He kept using my name, deliberately, as if he’d learnt to do so during a Dale Carnegie training on how to make enemies and intimidate people.” Ten years later, the young woman is on the rise, while the businessman’s fortunes have fallen. “I don’t know anywhere else in the world you can fly so high, so fast, and come down so hard,” he laments.

The Mansion is about a Dutch criminal hiding in an abandoned luxury complex on The Peak with US$11 million in cash. In a great twist of irony, he has no legal way of spending it, so he is stuck with no running water, human contact or medical care – until he finally succumbs to his own madness and greed.

Author Jason Ng takes a break from his usual political writing with Points of Inflection, a story with a wonderful sense of humanity. A hardworking boy from a poor background makes it into the world of banking. However, a money-laundering scandal sends him back into poverty – and he finds himself living in a subdivided flat and teaching online maths classes with a surgical mask to hide his identity. He loses all hope until one of his online students inspires him into an act of great and unexpected generosity.

Another story that tugs at the heartstrings is Somebody to Love by Nancy K.W. Leung. An earnest young man named Thomas regularly helps the homeless men who live in a Kowloon squatter area. But there is an underlying motive behind Thomas’ generosity, which is only revealed when he brings an old man back to his flat.

Hong Kong Highs and Lows is an emotional roller coaster of a read. There is genuine sentiment and love for the city, but also a good dose of Hong Kong-style cynicism and dark humour. Many of the tales reflect the ridiculousness of life – like the story about the gigolo who turns up for a rich lady client, only to discover it’s his Auntie Patricia.

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While the stories here are consistently good, there are some stand-outs.

The bone-chilling The Devil Above, The Angel Below by Ian Greenfield begins with the ritual murder of a young child in the wilderness of a Hong Kong hillside, the home of a deranged man named Burn. The twist at the end is a genuine shocker.

S.C.C. Overton is one of the few writers here using non-traditional prose. The Noise, about the “McSleepers” who use McDonald’s outlets as free shelters, is a sucker punch of a story at just three pages long.

The most topical story, amid the rising US-China trade war, is The Trade Deficit by Prasant Vase. A nervous Chinese scientist reaches out to the United States to do the right thing for both his family and his morals, but risks paying a terrible price for his actions.

Since 1991, the not-for-profit Hong Kong Writers Circle has supported English-language writers with readings, events and publications. While there are some professional writers among the authors in this book, there are also maths and music teachers, an economist, a computer consultant, plus former lawyers and finance types.

Editor Chris Maden deserves special credit for taking works by 21 very different authors – including some talented amateurs – and crafting a well-written and tightly curated volume. Hong Kong Highs and Lows is as colourful and quick- paced as the city itself.

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The stories benefit from their brevity and their cliffhanger endings: Will the killer be caught? Will the tycoon recover after being stabbed by his son’s lover? Will the disgraced banker find his heart and soul – or, at the very least, a better flat with an actual kitchen?

As readers, we are left to our own imagination about what might happen next in this crazy city we call home.


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