There are some cities that lend themselves to darkness and intrigue. Macau is one of these places. First settled by refugees fleeing the Mongol invasion in northern China, it became a fishing village and later a haven for pirates. The Portuguese arrived in the 1500s and built a slice of the baroque Mediterranean in South China. It was returned to China in 1999 and today it’s the gambling capital of the world.
Given its colorful history, it’s no wonder Macau attracted authors and filmmakers during the heyday of noir. Macao (1952), starring Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum, centered around stolen jewelry and a sultry nightclub singer. A lesser known B-movie, The Scavengers (1959), stars Vince Edwards and Carol Ohmart and also involves a mysterious disappearance and a nightclub dancer. Novelist Martin Booth wrote about the underworld and nightclubs in his 1988 novel, The Jade Pavilion, which is set during World War II. In the last decade or so, Eric Stone set his noir novel, The Living Room of the Dead, in Macau and Lawrence Osborne chronicled the underworld of Macau in The Ballad of a Small Player. Both novels feature men down and out on their luck who fall for sultry femme fatales.
Now British-Malaysian novelist Ivy Ngeow adds to the genre in her new book, Heart of Glass. But this time the protagonist is a woman. Li-an Donohue is a Chicago piano bar entertainer at the stately Drake Hotel in 1980. On hearing her sing, a somewhat shady Italian businessman makes her an offer she can’t refuse: a job in his new pizza place in Macau. With her best friend incarcerated for theft and little in the way of family to keep her in Chicago, Li-an accepts Paolo’s offer and moves to the Portuguese colony of Macau around the time of Reagan’s first presidential victory.
Paolo puts Li-an up in a quaint villa with a driver and maid. He opens a pizza place called Johnny’s and Li-an sings and plays the piano there. Not too long after she starts this new job, Ivy meets Ben Mizrai, a New York DJ. Ben promises her a record deal back in Manhattan, but there’s one condition: she must come up with US$15,000 for the expenses of recording in a studio.
Ben makes frequent trips out of Macau on boats disguised as fishing vessels, but in fact outfitted for making gold and drug runs from Southeast Asia to Hong Kong. As Ngeow writes, “Expeditions like these by speedboat only took place at night. It used to be guns and opium, but today it was mainly cocaine and gold.” Ben also has a gambling problem. But Li-an knows nothing about Ben’s other side and is devoted to him, as a romantic partner and because of his ties to the New York music industry. Li-an believes the $15,000 for the recording studio is their only obstacle separating her from her dreams, so the two devise a plan to steal the money from Paolo. The heist goes according to plan until Paolo is bitten by a poisonous snake Ben plants near Paolo’s safe, a snake Li-an knows nothing about. After Paolo is bitten and left for dead, Li-an is mortified and vows to take care of Paolo until he recovers—if he recovers—before she can even think about flying back to New York.
Paolo’s hospital bills pile up, especially because the anti-venom is so costly. To pay his bills, Li-an and Ben turn to a loan shark in a local triad. Now the couple is faced with paying off that money, raising the $15,000 for Li-an’s music deal, and—unbeknownst to Li-an—paying off Ben’s gambling debts. Here as in the noir titles mentioned above, women i have the raw end of the deal and men can’t help but try to get ahead even if it means dealing with the underworld.
Ngeow perfectly captures the aura of the early 1980s, between Li-an’s disco clothes, the new wave music she listens to, and the complete lack of the technology we’ve so become accustomed to today. The author’s Macau has the touchstones of the done, some of which remain familiar: Fernando’s restaurant, Lisboa Casino, and the former Bela Vista Hotel. But it’s long before Vegas casinos arrived and changed Macau forever.
Noir is all about atmosphere rather than exactitude, so to quibble about details might be construed as pedantry. Nevertheless, certain readers might notice a couple of factual inaccuracies. In the early chapters set in Chicago, Ngeow writes of Li-an, “I stuck ads on lampposts and Walmart bulletin boards, on her advice.” I grew up in Chicago and live there now and don’t remember a Walmart in Chicago back then or even twenty years ago. Likewise, later in the story when Li-an travels from Macau to Hong Kong, Ngeow writes, “I got the 11.15 jetfoil from Macao Ferry Terminal to Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon.” But the gaudy gold windowed ferry pier in Tsim Sha Tsui didn’t open until much later in the 1980s. Before that, the ferries to Macau only left from Hong Kong Island, across the harbor.
Regardless, Ngeow’s novel has all ingredients of a captivating noir story from a bygone era. The underworld and shady business dealings are just as convincing as the noir films of the 1950s. The strong yet naïve female entertainer is sympathetic and left to save the day at the end. And most of all, the plot twists at the end to keep the reader on her toes throughout the story.