A novel set in capitalist Hong Kong in the 1960s and steeped in alcohol, prostitution and stream-of-consciousness narration might not suggest a controlled work of fiction. Yet Liu Yichang’s classic The Drunkard, in Charlotte Chun-lam Yiu’s new translation, is measured, uninhibited and very good.
The unnamed middle-aged narrator shares qualities with literature’s more memorable failures. He’s in some respects one of society’s superfluous men, a writer whose artistic vision is at odds with that of his materialistic world, in this case a city caught up in a period of blindingly rapid economic growth. A well-educated man, he often gets black-out drunk in the company of bar girls, losing his eloquence and respect. He’s bad with money (when he has any). And the people who might be able to help him are cast aside.
At the beginning, his only income is from writing bad Kungfu stories for newspapers, the more fight scenes the better. The only room he can afford is in a family’s flat, including the flirty, precocious seventeen-year-old daughter, Szema Lee. She dances the “mashed potato”, smokes Camels, drinks brandy and reads the Kinsey Report. The woman he really longs for, Lily Cheung, only wants him for a blackmail scheme: “I arrange to meet him in a hotel,” she says of a rich textile factory owner. “When his pants are down you burst into the room and take a photo.”
Her business-is-business deadpan—comic and sad—is the tenor of this city, and much of the novel. The narrator says he’s not the problem; it’s society. And he might be right. The somewhat familiar set up is engrossing in the bright-lights Hong Kong atmosphere recreated here. It makes easy sense that the novel and Liu’s short story “Intersection” inspired Wong Kar-wai’s beautifully shot films “2046” and “In the Mood for Love”.
The novel was first published in the 1960s as a serial in the Hong Kong evening papers. The narrator’s present-tense observations of that specific time are immediate, evocative and cinematic. Here he is, worse for wear, going through Wan Chai:
“The night closes in, engulfing everything. Neon lights, like prostitutes, attract the attention of people on the street.
“Old buildings are demolished, new ones go up. Hong Kong, 1963. The young people are all going to Southorn Playground to watch the night’s soccer match.
“A noisy racket on Spring Garden Lane. A pedlar selling old-fashioned medicinal plasters shouting himself hoarse. People, people, people. People everywhere, jostling, squashed together like sardines in a tin. Suddenly a maid in plaits starts screaming that someone pinched her on the bottom. She’s been groped! A wave of laughter bursts over the crowd.”
Shanghai-born Liu, a prolific writer who died in 2018 at the age of 99, cut the scenes of the narrator’s present life with short essays, stories, letters and conversation. These passages touch on world literature, the legacy of May Fourth movement, what it means to be modern and what it’s like to be a vulnerable and insatiably curious child in wartime Shanghai.
These more captivating conversations are often spurred on by Mak Ho-moon. He is a young, idealistic editor of the local news page at the paper where the narrator submits his martial arts nonsense. Mak and his idea to start an avant-garde literary journal provide the book with one of the few major turning points not directly caused by alcohol. (Liu himself launched and edited a literary journal in Hong Kong in 1985.)
In the face of the narrator’s stated desire to just drink and talk of women, Mak is prone to asking big questions such as: “Why do you think that, in an epoch when China has undergone such great upheavals, no one’s written a Chinese epic like War and Peace?” That’s a tough one. Yet the narrator eventually obliges.
The discussions and monologues often compare the Western modernism of James Joyce and Marcel Proust, for instance, and the contemporary work by Chinese authors since the May Fourth movement. The novel, though a relatively swift read at 286 pages, brims with carefully chosen references of all sorts. Readers not very familiar with major Chinese writers and history or Western icons of the Fifties and Sixties will find the notes and commentary at the back of the book, as well as Nick Hordern’s comprehensive introduction, extremely helpful.
Among many other things, the glossary aids in explaining the paramount importance of Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone for Chinese literature and this book, as well as why, for instance, Liu might have chosen to have a Patsy Cline song playing in the background when the broken-hearted narrator walks through Wan Chai.
Liu, who’s been called the father of Hong Kong literature, carefully mixed the high and low, modern and traditional, and East and West. Elvis Presley and James Dean share this narrative with Chinese literary giants Lu Xun and Li Bai, and it’s not arbitrary.
The tightly organized structure—43 short chapters—is in contrast to the chaos it portrays. The narrator’s alcohol-money-women problems keep things moving. When he’s kicked out of his first apartment, because he’s falsely accused of coming on to Lee, he finds himself in a new place with a potentially fresh start. The new landlady doesn’t like booze, but she’s got a full drinks cabinet. When he inquires why this is, she says, “A drinks cabinet needs to have something in it.”
His decision to drain it dry follows a similarly glib rationale. That won’t be his last bender, his last landlord or the last benefactor he wrongs.
The novel is filled with intense descriptions of dilemmas created by being a thirsty artist in 1960s Hong Kong and many beautiful passages on the horrors of the war in China. The commentary on art and history are instructive and illuminating. Still, the strongest writing may be when Liu shows an inner voice expertly twisting logic to break another promise and take another sip. This has consequences, as the narrator finds out.