Ghost City

22 June 2019 | Karen Kao

Hong Kong Noir is a collection of short stories edited by Jason Y. Ng and Susan Blumberg-Kason. The collection was published in 2018 and already it’s taken on a sepia tone.

At the time of publication, Jason Ng was president of Hong Kong PEN, an organization devoted to protecting free speech in Hong Kong and elsewhere in China. This is no small feat and carries with it considerable risks.

Hong Kong Noir is not a political collection. One story mentions the Umbrella Movement. Another uses the handover as a device to tell a tale of marital discord. Yet politics may very well be the driving force behind each of these stories.

Hong Kong’s future may not be within our control, but some things are. We can continue to write about our beloved city and work our hardest to preserve it in words.

Jason Y. Ng & Susan Blumberg-Kason, “Introduction: Behind the Neon Lights” in Hong Kong Noir (Akashic Books 2018)

Here, then, an elegy to the city of Hong Kong.

Noir

Like all good love songs, the stories in Hong Kong Noir are dark. The cops and detectives who appear in these tales are mostly corrupt or end up dead. In keeping with the noir tradition, there are plenty of femmes fatale, too, but they usually end up dead as well. In fact, by my count, there are more ghosts in Hong Kong Noir than living, breathing humans. And what a bunch they are.

We meet prostitutes wielding knives and semen-stained tissues. There are funeral parlors and ersatz body removal services. And, of course, murderers galore.

My favorite story in Hong Kong Noir is “TST” by Xu Xi. The abbreviation stands for Tsim Sha Tsui, a place known in the 70s for its bar girls. The narrator of “TST” is one of those girls. She once worked at the Seven Sisters Club. Then a pair of dogs killed her and their owner dismembered her body to hide the crime. Without feet, this ghost can’t walk. Without hands, she can hold no flowers. All she can do is tell her story over and over.

girls like us are better off dead, at least while we still answer to girl instead of woman, the way I did. The way I still do. I’m not old enough to be forgotten. None of us are. Which is why they all come when I call, these girls who were not privileged to ever become women, no matter how old they are when they die.

Xu Xi, “TST”

Superstition

In Hong Kong, Cantonese is the language of choice. It’s a rich and foul patois that lends itself brilliantly to all sorts of word play.

Fourteen, sup sei, is not the most auspicious number in Cantonese culture, especially in Hong Kong. It sounds like sut sei — must die. Some developers would skip the fourteenth floor on their buildings […] Not the case for government housing like Wah Fu Estate. The government most certainly didn’t give a damn whether residents in housing projects lived or died based on superstitious beliefs.

Carmen Suen, “Fourteen”

Whether they believe in these superstitions or not, the Cantonese adhere to their rituals. Light a joss stick and bow three times to the ancestors in the hope they’ll get you into university. The young don’t believe but it couldn’t hurt, could it?

“So that thing really works, huh?” Choi’s parents have a small Tudigong shrine outside their front door, as do most traditional households in Hong Kong. The Taoist God of the Ground is supposed to protect the home and keep evil spirits away. Choi promises himself that from now on he will stop practicing soccer with the shrine and kicking garbage into it.

Jason Y. Ng, “Ghost of Yulan Past”

In Hong Kong, it seems that the curtain between the dead and the living is awfully thin. The living blithely interact with the dead, seeking favors or information, heedless of the price they will eventually have to pay.

Hong Kongers

Each of the stories in Hong Kong Noir takes place in a different part of the city. Say, a 1950s shantytown called Diamond Hill, an expat enclave at Repulse Bay, or a tourist destination like the Pottinger Steps. In each of these locations, we meet some of the archetypes that make Hong Kong such a diverse, multicultural environment.

The whores and their johns, the bankers and their wives are drawn with compassion. Mainlanders don’t come off so well. Take the wannabe bank robber Jun in “Ticket Home”. He tries to flee Hong Kong once the heist goes bad. It should be easy to melt into the crowds at Central but Hong Kongers see him for what he is.

Ah Tsan. Everyone’s favorite bumpkin from China. Hong Kongers loved to make fun of that ignorant TV character, with his unquenchable lust for money.

Charles Phillip Martin, “Ticket Home”

Everyone in Hong Kong Noir is on the move. Some come looking for money or romance or home. They may be mainlanders or Hong Kong born, refugees or tourists, high-flying bankers or American soldiers out for a little R&R. Hong Kongers every one of them.

A version of this review was earlier published on Bookish Asia.