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City of the Queen by Shih Shuqing

A Clavell-esque saga covering a century of Hong Kong history from a Chinese perspective should at least be interesting. City of the Queen is a translated and heavily abridged version of Taiwanese writer Shih Shuqing’s original Chinese-language trilogy.

City of the Queen by Shih Shuqing
City of the Queen, Shih Shuqing (Columbia University Press, February 2008)

The novel’s heroine is Huang, kidnapped from her home in rural China and sold into prostitution in late nineteenth century Hong Kong. During the plague, she comforts and ultimately captures an English civil servant named, perhaps ironically, Adam Smith. He, being a callow and feckless white man, gives her up—but Huang is shrewd and determined and carves out a prosperous life for herself—and her son—in Hong Kong pawnbroking industry.

City of the Queen follows Huang’s life and fortunes, the other men in her life, and continues, in the latter part, through the Japanese occupation, and the lives of her family, a devoutly Christian daughter-in-law, a grandson who becomes a justice on Hong Kong’s Supreme Court, up through a great-granddaughter partaking of the Hong Kong of the 1970s.

This is not, it must be pointed out, an attempt to give a complete and accurate translation: City of the Queen is some 300 pages long while the original Hong Kong trilogy is 700 or more. Shih Shuqing refers to the trilogy as a “roman-fleuve”, a French term for a long novel of often several volumes. There is a French translation (called Elle s’appelle Papillon, or She is Called Butterfly, indicating perhaps a more orientalist interpretation) that runs to 600 pages. One cannot therefore be quite sure whether City of the Queen is reading the original novel or perhaps a scholarly intepretation.

Concentrating on the Chinese majority rather than the colonial minority, City of the Queen is indeed interesting, although perhaps not much more. The story is readable, and the protagonist Huang an interesting and fully-fleshed out character. In that, however, she is unique: Adam Smith in particular is somewhat two-dimensional. In addition, the plot seems lacking in dramatic development, and the latter part of the book, covering Huang’s later life and that of her family, seems somewhat cursory in comparison with the rest.

City of the Queen is however a serious work about Hong Kong and deserves to read by anyone interested in Hong Kong literature in English, a genre which is, after all, rather thin. Chinese voices and stories with Chinese protagonists are even fewer.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.