It’s been just about a year since international travel all but came to a standstill, so it could either feel timely or insidious to be presented with a new book of short stories set across East Asia, the Pacific, and Europe, several of which feature travelers. Simon Rowe’s latest collection, Pearl City: Stories from Japan and Elsewhere, fortunately falls into the former category. Rowe is known as a noir writer and these stories all fall under that genre; and here Rowe gets to the heart of everyday people in each of the places he covers.
The title story doesn’t involve travelers, but features Ms Suzuki, a hard-drinking private investigator hired to uncover a thief at a Kobe pearl factory. The management thinks it’s an inside job. Suzuki can work late hours because although she’s a divorced, single mother of a four-year-old daughter, she also lives with her mother, a built-in sitter. To discuss her work, she often turns to a fisherman named Teizo. The two enjoy a drink or three in the evening while discussing Suzuki’s case.
Was theirs a professional relationship or was it just two lonely hearts sharing a drink in Chinatown on Tuesday nights? She’d paid their bar bill and asked for a receipt; information was a commodity and she valued his learned opinion. But the jury remained out on the true motive for their night-time meetings.
Teizo’s advice helps Suzuki to figure out what really happened at the pearl factory, but in the end the characters matter more than the pearls.
“Oysters to Die For” is in Hong Kong, the destination of a Singaporean Chinese hitman named Poh. This trip will be a short in-and-out affair to take out the president of the Soon Fat Seafood Company. Poh travels with fake papers and checks into the Marriott before he gets the go-ahead text.
On paper he was ‘Lee Chee Seng’, one of the thousands of shipping agents who came and went across Southeast Asia’s big cities every day. He stood out like a grain of sand on a beach.
This trip would be his last assignment, but he looks forward to returning to Hong Kong with his wife for a leisure trip. While he waits for the text, he hits the hotel’s buffet, where he piles his plate high with oysters. Just as he digs in, he receives the text. It’s time to get to work. Poh freezes, not knowing what to do next: leave the oysters and rush out to the waiting car, or eat them and risk being late for the job. He just can’t let the oysters go to waste, so scarfs them down. Poh will soon regret making that choice.
“The Tooth Collector” tells of an unfortunate traveler in East Malaysia near Kota Kinabalu. One night in a café, a local named Ashok reminisces about a British dental student named Andy who had visited the area a couple decades earlier in search of adventure. Min Tan, the café owner, used to lead travelers up river to see the “real Borneo”. Min Tan knew travelers came to the area for adventures, so started to lead medical missions to the interior. It would be a win-win: travelers would get their adventures and villagers would receive much desired medical care. The dental student Andy hesitates and doesn’t think he had enough expertise to treat patients. He doesn’t have a choice.
In quiet tones, Min Tan persuaded Andy to start with the worst cases. The first was an elderly woman with an abscess. They gave her a small glass of rum, then while Min Tan held her down, Andy pulled the bad tooth. And so it began. The village people left the schoolroom holding their mouths and jaws and looking miserable. But not one of them complained.
The toll of this work drives Andy to desperation and provides a cautionary tale to travelers for decades to come.
Rowe was born in New Zealand and grew up there and in Australia, and he set some of his stories in these countries. But he has lived in Japan for many years and most of the stories are set there. Others take place in Austria, France, Cambodia, and the Philippines. The macabre tone of stories like “Oysters to Die For” and “The Tooth Collector”, as well as more innocent, yet melancholy tales as shown in “Pearl City” celebrate the many sides of noir. But even these dark stories won’t keep travelers away when it’s safe to cross borders again.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.