Since the cinema that served as modern Hong Kong’s introduction to the world was such a hodgepodge of triad gangsters, crooked cops, ghosts, prostitutes and clueless romantics—sometimes all in the same film—one should hardly be surprised when a literary anthology shows the same genre-busting proclivities. Hong Kong Noir, the latest in a lengthy list of urban “Noir” collections published by Akashic Books, will surely raise the hackles of genre purists much as Hong Kong movies of the 1980s and ’90s initially did with filmgoers abroad. “Such a classic crime scene,” you can almost hear them say. “Why drag in the ghosts?”
Though noir, like most genre fiction, requires a skeleton of specific traits, the flesh is up to the writer. The bones of this collection range from sturdy to creaking, but the best of its stories have the qualities of Hong Kong’s best films: first, exotic settings that shape and sometimes define the narrative, and second, an ongoing search for territorial identity compounded by its looming loss. On nearly every page is an angst-ridden concern for the future of Hong Kong not told with such focus since the city’s pre-handover cinema.
Crime fiction has to work hard to compete in a city where dismembered bodies make conspicuous appearances in news headlines, crime fiction has to work hard to compete. While the 2013 true-crime stories by Hong Kong writer/pathologist Feng Chi-shun (also called Hong Kong Noir) essentially viewed a variety of events through a single lens, this volume encompasses a range of viewpoints and personal experiences befitting its co-editors and various contributors (including Feng himself). The result is natives and expats mingle with returning Cantonese and displaced mainlanders, each (often correctly) suspicious of the others’ motives.
The collection represents Hong Kong to its very core.
The clearest throwback to Hong Kong crime films is Charles Philipp Martin’s “Ticket Home”, reviving an old theme of mainland thieves targeting Kowloon jewelry stores. By the eve of the handover, as recounted in Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang’s “One Marriage, Two People”, marauding mercenaries have been replaced by “soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army spilling over the border”. Robberies in this collection are less likely to be conducted on the streets than in the offices of the city’s financial institutions, but murder still cuts across class boundaries.
Perhaps most true to the genre is Marshall Moore’s “The Quintessence of Dust,” where a Eurasian party boy returns to his family home on the outlying island of Cheung Chau and, amidst a spate of suicides, discovers the secrets of his uncles’ business. The biggest departure is co-editor Jason Y Ng’s “Ghost of Yulan Past”, where a charming if predictable encounter in a Tin Hau temple during the Hungry Ghosts festival has several allusions to the Umbrella Revolution but nary a crime to be found.
Arguably the biggest spirit looming over the collection is that of Suzie Wong, whose professional sorority here ranges from the hooker-in-training of Feng Chi-shun’s “Expensive Tissue Paper” to the (literally) emasculating whore of James Tam’s “Phoenix Moon”. The twin spirits of luxury and commerce come close, though, with Tiffany Hawk’s “You Deserve More” and Christina Liang’s “A View to Die For” oozing elements of envy and greed even in their titles.
Hong Kong’s sparks come whenever two or more of its elements rub together. The stories here follow suit, whether in terms of culture, as in the Western wife and Chinese husband in Tsang’s “One Marriage, Two People”, or genre, as in Xu Xi’s “TST”, where the spirit of a bar girl continues to haunt the site of her now-defunct Tsim Sha Tsui nightclub, wrapping a eerie premise and a seedy backstory in a wash of wistful nostalgia.
Co-editors Ng and Blumberg-Kason defend their ghost quotient right in their introduction, claiming that Akashic had suggested 14 stories in its original commission (“fourteen” in Cantonese rhymes with ”must die”). “What would the city’s noir volume be without the most forbidding of all numbers,” they write.
Whether or not this is truly a noir volume, as far as the city itself is concerned, this collection represents Hong Kong to its very core.