It’s not easy to find novels that are set in Hong Kong. Among the handful of English language novels that feature the city, most use it as a mere exotic detour and read like another The World of Susie Wong. What’s surprising, however, is that there is an equal dearth of Chinese language novels that use Hong Kong as their backdrop. Only «傾城之戀» (Love in a Fallen City) and «色,戒» (Lust, Caution) by Shanghai-born writer Eileen Chang (張愛玲) come to mind. But both of them were written over three decades ago and set in the 1940s when the former British colony was under Japanese occupation. With so few fiction titles getting published in Hong Kong these days, the city’s quirky culture remains largely untapped by the local literati.
That’s why «回憶幽靈» (translates loosely as Ghosts of Memory) by Vincent Mak (麥華嵩) is a welcome addition to the genre. Ghosts is Vincent’s fourth publication and his first full-length novel. The book comprises eight chapters of crisscrossing story lines set in eight familiar locales, including a public housing project, a reservoir park and our famous waterfront, places where the city’s the most authentic stories are often found.
Ghosts opens with a teenage couple frantically copying homework from each other at a park bench in the middle of the night. The youths are being watched from afar by the narrator and a friend. We don’t know who the two men are or why they follow people around. What we do know is that the narrator has an almost paternal interest in his subjects, and his companion’s knowledge of them is encyclopedic. As the duo travel through time and space on their voyeuristic tour de ville, disconnected plots develop, thicken, resolve and connect, just like the way they do in our most elaborate dreams.
The dreamlike quality of Ghosts, together with such supernatural elements as teleporting characters and anthropomorphic animals, makes a comparison with Haruki Murakami’s works irresistible. Both writers share a near-fetish for the limbo state between reality and the fantastic universe – Mak himself would admit that he is influenced by surrealist masters like Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. Many of Murakami’s works explore the alienation, isolation and spiritual emptiness of his generation, the same demons that haunt the unhappy characters in Ghosts. Like Murakami, Mak tells his stories using elements of idiosyncratic humor, nostalgia, sexuality and physical violence. In Ghosts, the imagery is at times gruesome and graphic, such as the dismembering of a triad henchman in a gang fight and the fellatio scene between a prostitute and her callous lover.
Isolation is a central motif in Ghosts. It is a Camusian plague in modern day Hong Kong that Mak regards with equal sympathy and condemnation. And the author’s cynicism is unmistakable. Every character is decidedly pragmatic, self-serving and egocentric. Through their streams of consciousness, we learn that even a prima facie altruistic act is either driven by the lack of a better alternative or the product of careful calculation. In this regard, Ghosts represents the author’s indictment of the seven million lonely and spiritually bankrupt souls that make up our tattered social fabric. Mak borrows the desolate brush that Mark Rothko used to paint his Underground Fantasy, a poignant reflection on the collective alienation in a big metropolis.
Ghosts is also a socially conscious novel. It deals with a host of social issues in the 70s and 80s: uneven distribution of wealth, organized crimes and racial discrimination. Many of these issues remain unaddressed today. Nevertheless, as the plot gets tangled by these larger subject matters, the novel as a whole begins to lose steam. The reader’s patience is most seriously tested by the drawn out subplot in the final chapters about a high-stake corporate hostile takeover that smacks of a Cantonese soap opera.
In the finale of Mak’s Drama in Eight Acts, all of the characters converge on the Victoria Harbor waterfront for a curtain call. The story ends with the narrator’s final existential realization that every character he has encountered is in fact a figment of his own imagination – they exist only in his head. The narrator’s epiphany sets his characters free and in doing so, he feels at long last comforted and liberated.
Ghosts is at once entertaining, jarring, sentimental and detached. It is a successful first novel by a budding writer who must cope with a social system he loathes and adores in equal measure. Incidentally, Ghosts of Memory is also the title of a song by Tiger Army, an obscure psychobilly band in the United States. The song makes a fitting soundtrack to this delightful and uniquely Hong Kong novel.
A place of rest I've tried to findAching in my heart, chaos in my mindThis place is poison to my soulCan't take much more, I'm losing control...And I'm haunted by ghosts of memoryTaunted by promisesWhat could have been?Haunted, by ghosts of memoryTaunted by promisesPlease set me free