“Please mind the platform gap” is a phrase travelers on the Hong Kong MTR hear every time the train stops. It is a curious phrase, not just the now somewhat quaint “mind” but also that of course the platform has no gap: what is meant is the gap between the train and the platform. First-time travelers must perhaps parse the sentence for meaning; I had to. And it forever stuck in my mind.
Not only in mine, evidently. The phrase (which has its own Wikipedia page) is central to one of the stories in Ho Lin’s recent collection China Girl.
Ho Lin is a San Francisco-based filmmaker and musician as well as writer. Filmmaking directly informs a couple of the stories which riff on scripts and film pitches and indirectly in stories which are constructed out of short vignettes—in a story like “Charge” (which features the Hong Kong MTR scenes), one can almost see the camera cuts. All the stories, indeed, show attention to both dialogue and imagery, as if they were meant to be seen and heard as well as read.
Two of the more structurally traditional stories are set entirely in China. The first, the title story, tells of a modern member of Beijing’s demi-monde. The unnamed protagonist aimlessly drifts from rich expat to local musician, drug-fueled parties to her parents’ cramped apartment, always wishing for something else. These desires drive her to fruitlessly apply for an American visa, phone US motels to make bogus reservations, and spent solitary nights drinking beer in the ruins of the Summer Palace which had
devolved into desolate ponds, wrecked Roman columns, a few trees lumped together.
“National Holiday” is by some margin the longest story in the collection, and perhaps the best. It tells of a minor Communist functionary who is entrusted with keeping a troublesome journalist out of the capital in a crumbling seaside resort over the National Holiday. The protagonist is known as “Little Prince” since his father is high up in the hierarchy—or was; he’s evidently on the outs, and Little Prince has been set this task as a test.
The story is well-constructed and well-told. The journalist is odiferous, ironic and well-educated. The entire exercise is pointless; both he and Little Prince are merely playing parts in some gogolesque piece of bureaucratic theatre. Little Prince is resigned to it and tries to be philosophical. The resort has been chosen because his father hailed from there; people at the hotel still think he has influence. In one of the beachside bars, the only one still open, they fall in with a young peripatetic woman who is temporarily manning the bar. They result is a tense yet platonic pas de trois.
The journalist is the troublemaker, but it is secrets in Little Prince’s past that have brought them to this place. Ho Lin leaves hints like post-it notes throughout the story, but keeps reader in the dark about their significance until it all tumbles out at the end.
Asian readers might conclude that although Ho Lin is a Chinese-American writer, he can seem rather more American than Chinese. These stories are set in China with Chinese characters, but the language is colloquial American: “back in the day”, “bigwig”, “um”, “nope”, “uh-huh”. Chinese has colloquialisms as well, of course, but not those. A few other notes—such as references to Twitter and the GRE (a standardized exam for US graduate school)—don’t entirely ring true within the ostensible context of the story. The journalist, Chinese, continually makes reference to American cultural touchstones, from popular music and classic movies to mixed drinks. This is explained by having had a foreign education, but he at times comes across more like a down on his luck expat American freelancer than a Chinese dissident.
Verisimilitude can be over-rated. If one is expecting a “Chinese story”, then these things might be disconcerting. But Ho Lin’s China—evidently based on observation if the “platform gap” reference is any indication—of cadres, minders, girls chasing foreign passports, musicians aping foreign music, free-thinking journalists, is one refracted through a non-Chinese glass. The stories themselves, the human dilemmas of social alienation and facing up to one’s past, are more universal than particularly Chinese; their Chinese setting may be integral to the telling, but not perhaps to the point.
China Girl is published by Regent Press, a small publisher in Berkeley, California, welcome evidence of the continued vibrancy of independent publishing.