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Kowloon Tong: A Novel of Hong Kong
     

Kowloon Tong: A Novel of Hong Kong

by Paul Theroux
 

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Ninety-nine years of colonial rule are ending as the British prepare to hand over Hong Kong to China. For Betty Mullard and her son, Bunt, it doesn't concern them - until the mysterious Mr. Hung from the mainland offers them a large sum for their family business. They refuse, yet fail to realize Mr. Hung is unlike the Chinese they've known: he will accept no refusals.

Overview

Ninety-nine years of colonial rule are ending as the British prepare to hand over Hong Kong to China. For Betty Mullard and her son, Bunt, it doesn't concern them - until the mysterious Mr. Hung from the mainland offers them a large sum for their family business. They refuse, yet fail to realize Mr. Hung is unlike the Chinese they've known: he will accept no refusals. When a young female employee whom Bunt has been dating vanishes, he is forced to make important decisions for the first time in his life - but his good intentions are pitted against the will of Mr. Hung and the threat of the ultimate betrayal.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Hong Kong's last British Governor described himself as "mere flotsam on the tide of history." Theroux's latest exotic novel (after "My Other Life") deals with colonials coping with the imminent return of Hong Kong to China. Middle-aged Neville "Bunt" Mullard and his domineering mother, Betty, are cozy packages of Englishness despite having lived in Hong Kong most of their lives. The pair treat the city as if it were a London suburb, preferring roast beef at Fatty's Chophouse to Chinese cuisine, fretting about the scandals of the royal family and enjoying high tea the way it's served at home. Having just inherited the family business, Imperial Stitching, from the dead senior Mullard's recently deceased Cantonese business partner, the pair hope to survive the "Chinese take-away" when the colony reverts to China in July 1997. Soon, however, one Mr. Hung, an entrepreneurial member of the People's Liberation Army, makes an offer for their factoryone that he insinuates can't be refused. This menacing scenario widens to include the innocent Mei-ping, Bunt's employee and current mistress, when her roommate vanishes in Hung's company. Theroux dramatizes the double-dealing of the British-Chinese "one country, two systems" agreement, splashing on plenty of local color, including the Happy Valley race courses, the Macao casinos and Bunt's lunchtime brothels. The laughably closed-minded and casually racist Bunt and Betty won't fully satisfy readers' curiosity about the whys and ways of Britain's less than heroic role in the agreement, however. The accomplished Theroux is always a delight to read, but the plot of his new novel, like life in today's Hong Kong, feels improvised and rushed to make a deadline.
Library Journal
Neville "Bunt" Mullard is a quintessential Englishman: he likes eating at Fatty's Chophouse, going to the races, and having tea and oaties with Mum. Only Bunt was born and bred in Hong Kong, where he now runs a factory that his father established with Mr. Chuck, who has just died and left his shares to the Mullard family. Bunt is trying to ignore the imminent Chinese takeover of Hong Kong, but then Mr. Hung arrives from the mainland, demanding to buy the well-situated factory-and backing up his demands with some ugly tactics. Theroux's trademark contempt is in place here. The insipid Bunt and his coarse, avaricious mother are almost unbelievably awful, but in his ruthlessness Mr. Hung is even worse. The result can be pretty dispiriting, but this chilling little novel must be read to the end to catch the full effect of Bunt's breathtaking weakness. Whether it is read as a political fable challenging Britain's colonization and abandonment of Hong Kong or a morality tale about the worst in human nature, this is grim, note-perfect in its descriptions, and, one fears, absolutely honest. -Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal"
Book World Washington Post
"A bravura performance."
Kirkus Reviews
The prolific author of, most recently, "My Other Life" (1996), and many other works set in faraway places, returns to one of his favorite locales—the Far East—in this tense novel about disenchanted Caucasians living in Hong Kong on the eve of that former colony's separation from Britain and its reunification with China.

Neville "Bunt" Mullard and his mother Betty reside in the eponymous city of Kowloon Tong and continue to run the textile factory (Imperial Stitching) cofounded by Bunt's late father. Betty subsists on bittersweet memories of her husband's business acumen and compulsive philandering, and Bunt fills his lonely nights with furtive visits to the city's semi-notorious "chicken houses." Both feel in their element in this rigorously stratified society: "They had been liberated by Hong Kong, they had money and a sense of the exotic, they were superior here." As the "Hand-over" draws near, the influence of Chinese military and business interests becomes oppressive—specifically, for the beleaguered Bunt, in the person of the enigmatic Mr. Hung, who at first politely offers, and soon thereafter demands, to buy Imperial Stitching. Eventually capitulating, the embittered Bunt undergoes the erosion of his self-confidence, the loss of the local girl he had hoped to marry (she's one of several people who mysteriously "disappear" ), and a final humiliation at the scene of his factory's demolition—a scene that Theroux caps with a stunning final image. This hybrid story is infused with a powerful sense of menace (and an unfortunate whiff of racism) and manages a doggedly convincing characterization of its complex protagonist. But there are several long stretches during which nothing much happens, and Theroux overindulges a penchant for lengthy summaries in place of developed scenes. As a result, the book feels uneven, and sometimes hurried.

A strongly imagined melodrama with a lot on its mind, but not the novel it might have been.

From the Publisher

"A compact, provocative gem of a novel." Boston Globe

"A moody thriller . . . cleverly, tightly constructed, fast-paced." The New York Times

"A taut, illuminating story that transcends it's timely subject . . . A bravura performance." The Washington Post

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780547525884
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
07/06/1998
Sold by:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
256
Sales rank:
798,043
File size:
189 KB

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Meet the Author

PAUL THEROUX is the author of many highly acclaimed books. His novels include The Lower River and The Mosquito Coast, and his renowned travel books include Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and Dark Star Safari. He lives in Hawaii and Cape Cod.

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