The cover of Somewhere Only We Know, Maurene Goo’s latest young adult novel, isn’t inordinately different from other contemporary romantic comedies: a young Asian woman is seated while a young Asian man leans into her back, only part of his face and an arm are visible. Yet the story is unusually set almost completely in Hong Kong while the protagonist, Lucky, is an equally unlikely American-born internationally renowned teenage K-Pop star who isn’t a household name in the United States—yet.
Unlikely and unusual once, perhaps, but apparently not so much anymore.
When the story begins, Lucky has just finished a fifteen-city Asian tour. After her last show, she evades her bodyguards and escapes her luxury hotel in search of a hamburger. Lucky’s manager has put her on a strict diet, so leaving the hotel and eating a burger are two big acts of rebellion for the teen. In the elevator, she meets Jack Lim, a Korean-American in Hong Kong on his gap year. He (in case one wonders how one manages to score a gap year in Hong Kong) interns at his father’s multinational bank by day; he moonlights as a paparazzo by night. He’s on a gig for the latter when he runs into Lucky, but has no clue she’s an international star.
Goo’s target American readers may be as unaware of the prevailing K-Pop zeitgeist as Jack—but again, perhaps not—but Lucky’s character and this story are nonetheless charming; the reader is likely to want to know more. She just wants to lead a normal life and get around a city like Hong Kong—one that is almost more alive at night than during the day—without the attention to which she’s been so accustomed. As long as she thinks Jack doesn’t know her real identity, she feels safe with him. Somewhere Only We Know has been billed as a contemporary re-make of the Audrey Hepburn film, Roman Holiday, which is likely to be even less familiar to the target market (and maybe even their parents) than K-Pop. But Goo’s short chapters in the alternating voices of Lucky and Jack make for a quick read: readers don’t have to know anything about K-Pop (or Audrey Hepburn) to enjoy the story.
Hong Kong as a setting works as few other Asian cities could because both Lucky and Jack speak English, which is more widespread in Hong Kong than in most other Asian cities. Yet they both feel like outsiders because they aren’t Chinese. Goo takes her characters all over the territory, from the glitzy streets of Central to the romantic night views on the Peak and the gritty Mongkok markets. Lucky and Jack view Hong Kong as locals when they ride public double-decker buses and the Star Ferry. Goo’s descriptions of Hong Kong are accurate; the only curiosity is at the beginning when Jack’s parents worry because he lives in an old walk-up in Sheung Wan and doesn’t have heat. It’s unusual for people to have heat in Hong Kong, since even in winter the temperature rarely dips to the mid-teens centigrade. Old buildings rarely had heating and in these global-warming, heat island days, most people do without.
The 2015 film Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong explores the same plot and the same areas in Hong Kong, including Lan Kwai Fong, the last remaining gaslights (which unfortunately came down in the last major typhoon), Central, the Star Ferry, the Temple Street night market, and the dai pai dong (outdoor food stalls) at the night market. Although it never made the big screen in US theaters, this film was shown at film festivals around the world before landing on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Goo’s book, however, seems solidly mainstream and has been covered by much of the pop culture press.
What’s fascinating about Somewhere Only We Know and the increasing numbers of YA novels with East Asian characters is that these books can’t just be published for readers who resonate ethnically with the characters in the book. That’s a great advancement in itself.