Kwan Chun-dok is “the genius detective… the man who never forgets a place, and can identify a suspect just from the way he walks.” And even in a coma, in what might be his last day of life, Kwan, known as the “Eye of Heaven”, is going solve one final murder.
It’s not often that English readers have the opportunity to take a look at Hong Kong from a truly local point of view.
Chan Ho-kei’s The Borrowed spans Kwan’s 50-year career with the Hong Kong Police Force. Told in six distinct novellas in reverse chronological order, Chan begins in 2013 with the murder of a Hong Kong billionaire, before moving back in time to significant years in the city’s history: the Handover in 1997, the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, the 1977 conflict between the Hong Kong Police and the Independent Commission Against Corruption, and, finally—or is this really the start?—the 1967 Leftist riots.
Hong Kong’s Chan won the Mystery Writers of Taiwan Award for his short stories, while his 2011 debut The Man Who Sold the World won the Soji Shimada Mystery Award. The Borrowed was published as 13.67 in Chinese in 2015; the English edition arrives via a translation by Jeremy Tiang.
Kwan is a legend in the Hong Kong Police Force and his ability to interpret clues and delve into the psychology behind criminal masterminds lead him to achieve a “100 per cent success rate”. Together with his team, including his subordinate Sonny Lok, Kwan makes for the classic cerebral detective—able to spot even the slightest non-clue and yet sensitive to the human emotions that drive the crime in the first place.
It’s not often that English readers have the opportunity to take a look at Hong Kong from a truly local point of view. Gone are the expats in Wan Chai found in, say, typical Hong Kong English-language noir and its place are some wonderful details that perhaps would be missed by less local observers. One of the suspects in Kwan and Lok’s final case, for example, compares the billionaire’s family dramas to “some crappy eight o’clock soap”; characters are not in expat enclaves and “not having driven, would have to take a minibus home”; an apartment described as being about 400 square feet is said to be “plenty of space for a bachelor.” The plainness of language also works when describing Hong Kong’s underground. “It was as Ah Gut said: Yam Tak-ngok was very patient, for a Triad leader.”
There’s a richness to Chan’s descriptions of Hong Kong and it’s clear he is also looking at the social situation as as much as he is trying to write a crime novel.
Mong Kok was dazzling as always. The multicoloured neon lights, glittering shop windows, throngs of pedestrians — as if the city knew no night. This bustling scene was a microcosm of Hong Kong, a city that relied on finance and consumption for survival, though these pillars were not as sturdy as people supposed.
While each novella reads like a self-contained classic detective story, Chan is also trying to paint a bigger picture, with the story behind the story slowly revealed as the reader is taken back in time. He succeeds; with each subsequent novella, the reader understands how the past has influenced present decisions—for better or worse.
Occasionally, however, Chan has a tendency to explain his characters’ biographical details as though he was writing an executive summary:
Sonny Lok had graduated from the Police Academy aged seventeen, and was now twice that age. He was fairly bright and enthusiastic, but his luck wasn’t good — and his misfortunes, coupled with his introverted personality, meant his personal [sic]This seems an error of translation file was filled with criticism. In the Hong Kong Police Force, promotion is earned not just by passing a test but, more importantly, by having a clean record. Hence Lok was overjoyed to receive his probationary inspectorship in 1999…
These types of passages have the unfortunate tendency to break the flow, especially when Chan works hard to establish pace and the suspense and unraveling of six separate crimes.
In an afterword, Chan explains what he set out to achieve, writing that “Hong Kong today is in just as strange a state as in 1967.” At least this reader sensed that feeling; on more than one occasion, I found myself muttering, plus ça change…
Chan’s afterword also explains how the interwoven novellas helped him solve the problem of writing a detective story that fell into both the classic and social detective genres. “The idea,” Chan explains, “was to create a book in which every part felt like a classic detective story but looking at the big picture, you’d see it was actually a social realist novel.”
“Hong Kong today is in just as strange a state as in 1967.”
Perhaps, then, there is even more reason to be distressed at the disregard with which Chan sometimes writes about women. In the 2013 billionaire murder case, there is an offhand remark about rape and in another case a suspect in an interrogation remarks that “women are like horses, you have to break them in before use.” The officers’ sole reaction is to “thank their lucky stars” that their female colleague was not present, or “she’d have started yelling at the Triad boss for being a chauvinist pig.”
Chan might argue that this is simply characterization, but while he has eschewed many of the cliches and sorry tropes that so many expat novelists use when writing Hong Kong noir, in opting to continue this convention, he detracts a little from his social realist message.
Hong Kong literature is usually meant as literature in English, only because so little of local Chinese fiction is translated into English. The Borrowed is therefore a rare chance for English-language readers to see Hong Kong from the perspective of the 92%.
Melanie Ho is the author of Journey to the West: He Hui, a Chinese Soprano in the World of Italian Opera.
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