Chan Ho-kei has worked as a software engineer and video game designer, and his knowledge of the latest technology shines through in his new high-tech thriller, Second Sister, his second novel to be translated into English.
When the story begins, twenty-five year-old librarian Au Nga-Yee finds her fifteen year-old sister, Au Siu-Man, splayed out on the sidewalk in front of their Kwun Tong public housing estate in an apparent suicide. Shocked and confused, Nga-yee has no idea why. It’s true that Siu-Man had been assaulted on the MTR the preceding year and later targeted by a cyberbully who claimed to be the assailant’s nephew. The two sisters lived alone after their parents passed away some years back and Siu-Man had never talked about it; Nga-Yee had assumed she was OK.
Determined to find the person responsible for her sister’s suicide, Nga-Yee hires a PI that might know of someone who could help her. Enter into the story N, a recluse who lives in what appears to be an abandoned building in Sai Ying Pun, a gentrifying area near the business district of Central.
Number 151 looked as if no one had lived here for years, the sort of place that might be taken over by vagrants, delinquents, junkies—even ghosts. The only sign that it wasn’t abandoned was the intact windows—and the front door hadn’t been boarded up.
Despite the squalor of his building and his apartment unit, N is reluctant to take Nga-Yee’s case, claiming he only works on assignments that interest him. Desperate, Nga-Yee stakes out N’s apartment after work for a week. N (it’s early on in the story) acquiesces and (being a cyber expert) charges Nga-yee the exact amount in her bank account, down to the very cent.
N also taps into the networks of Siu-Man’s school and her classmates’ phones after deducing (not from tech but from the harassment note left by the so-called nephew of the MTR attacker) that the cyberbully was a classmate. But as much as cybersecurity and high technology are crucial to this book, N also uses old-fashioned tactics: whether it’s changing his style of clothing, wearing hats and wigs, or simply speaking in different manners, N can blend into Siu-Man’s school as a concerned family member or age himself by two decades to evade detection.
This story could have taken place in any major city in the world, but the urban Hong Kong setting adds flavor and brings the reader into a world that expats and outsiders are rarely if ever privy to. As in Chan’s previous novel The Borrowed, Second Sister, unlike the many “expat fiction” crime novels and thrillers set in the city, was written by a local for a local Hong Kong readership. It’s not often that English readers have the chance to read thrillers that focus on things central to Hong Kong culture. For instance, when Nga-Yee goes to a noodle stall to pick up dinner for N and herself, she has a conversation that would probably only be held between locals:
“What would you like, Miss?” the man stirring the wok called out in a resonant voice as soon as she stepped inside.
“A large wonton noodles, reduced noodles, extra scallions, soup on the side, fried greens, no oyster sauce.” She glanced at the handwritten menu on the wall. “And, um, a small wonton noodles.” She’d be living on borrowed money for the rest of the month and so resigned herself to ordering the cheapest item.
“Soup on the side for the small wonton noodles too?”
“It’s better if you keep them separate, that way the noodles won’t soak up all the liquid,” said the boss, scribbling on his order pad with one hand and taking money from Nga-Yee with the other.
Chan’s choice of sexual assault is timely, but his occasional use of derogatory language to describe women (also notable, though less pronounced in his previous novel The Borrowed) seems contradictory to the message he wants to convey: characterizing women as to whether or not they look like “supermodels” ends up distracting from what one images his point to be. He is however clearer about the disparity between wealthy and working class in Hong Kong:
But capitalist society lulls us into believing our wages are a goal in themselves, turning us into slaves of money. We forget that as crucial as money may be, there are even more important things that we can’t afford to lose.
N concludes that people are way too self-absorbed these days, especially with the advent of the smartphone.