Part travelogue, part study of comparative religion, this debut novel by Felicia Nay is a love story and a love letter to the city where it is set—contemporary Hong Kong.
The narrator, Reini “Kim” Kranich, is a young and idealistic aid worker from Germany who loves the poetry of Emily Dickinson. She works for MediMission, a Christian charity which helps migrants and refugees. Forced to leave her former posting in Sudan having bucked the rules to help a client, Reini has come to Hong Kong to help domestic workers with employment issues.
One such worker is Ronda, a Filipina who has been unfairly dismissed by her employer. Reini must manage Ronda’s legal proceedings and find her accommodation until the case comes to court. It’s a tall order because Ronda no longer has a valid visa and the women’s shelter is full. Reini persuades her close friend, Virginia, a local history teacher turned tour guide, to employ Ronda illegally. As Virginia’s mother is terminally ill and needs care, it seems a practical short-term solution.
At the same time, Reini starts a love affair with a Cantonese environmentalist, Ben. This becomes problematic because Virginia is searching, with some desperation, for a relationship herself. Due to their belief that single, childless women end up as unhappy ghosts in the afterlife, the pressure from Virginia’s parents to marry and have children is intense. Reini feels that admitting her own success in affairs of the heart to Virginia would amount to a kind of betrayal.
With a viable Prince Charming still absent, Virginia’s predicament becomes untenable. If Virgina could be persuaded to adopt a more pragmatic, western mindset, she could overcome her hurdles, Reini realizes. But this could mean Virgina eschews the ancestor worship which her dying mother is relying on her to carry out. So Reini chooses not to interfere and keeps her thoughts to herself and Ben a secret. Their friendship cools, just as Virginia’s mother succumbs to cancer and Virginia needs Reini’s support the most.
Thus the scene is set for author Nay to portray the conflict between western and Chinese ideologies. For example, religious differences surface between Reini and Ben when the pair find a cockroach in Ben’s flat. As a Catholic, Reini is happy to kill the insect but, as a Buddhist, Ben won’t allow it. Similarly, even though MediMission is supposed to be “ecumenical”, Reini is taken to task for adopting Chinese practices too enthusiastically. And when serious religious questions arise, the Irish Catholic priest, Jim, the pastor for Ronda’s church, is on hand to lend his understanding of western and Eastern philosophies to the debate.
As an outsider who likes to question the status quo, Reini is the perfect pair of eyes to examine the baffling petri dish of Hong Kong. Her panorama takes in Chinese and western religions, the expat communities, food, music and even the roots of the Cantonese language. The reader’s education is furthered by Virginia’s Heritage Hikes business: some of the action unfolds on walks to various tourist sites, such as Bride’s Pool and Lover’s Rock, which are vividly described.
Eventually Ronda’s court case is resolved as a compromise, Ben and Reini stay together and Virginia finds a partner. Arguably the plot is a little thin but this is necessary to leave enough room to detail the incredible breadth of Hong Kong’s cultural mish-mash. Even natives will learn something from the comprehensive research. Indeed, this is the novel’s purpose. Nay understands that Hong Kong’s greatest strength is its ability to embrace all creeds and colors in an infinite kaleidoscope. At one point, for example, Reini takes a bus ride which passes an English church, a Sikh temple and a Chinese temple within minutes. Nay writes:
What a city this is, allowing God to appear in so many shapes, from ferocious door gods to sweet faced maidens. To take on so many different lives and meanings. Lizard and monkey, Kwun Yam and Mary. Being all things to all people …
This insight leads to Reini’s ultimate realization that faith (or whatever divinity is chosen) is more important than the religious wrapper that surrounds it.
God’s love is all-encompassing and eternal. All-pervasive, and because of that, God will reach out to different people, will reach different people, in different ways.
Tolerance, then, appears to be the way forward. Quite how the current political situation in Hong Kong fits into this philosophy is not explained; the novel is eerily silent on the matter. But Nay closes the story with an image of a rainbow, a sign of hope and inclusion. Let’s hope that the new masters of the Fragrant Harbour are listening.