Paul Theroux talks about his novel, Kowloon Tong, and the implications of the Hong Kong handover
July 3, 1997
"Style is not very important, style's nothing really," V. S. Naipaul once told Paul Theroux. "But a book needs a reason for being written." Theroux took his West Indian mentor's advice to heart a long time ago, but nowhere is his reason for writing a book more evident than in his most recent novel, Kowloon Tong. Set in the waning days of British imperial rule, with China preparing to take back Hong Kong, Kowloon Tong attempts to capture the soul of the city that has been in the news so much of late.
Theroux's connection with The Atlantic goes back to the 1960s. Beginning in 1968 and continuing through 1979, Theroux wrote ten pieces (short stories and reports) for the magazine. Drawn from his extensive experiences in East Africa and Asia, Theroux reported, often with characteristically dry and acidic wit, on the characters -- hard-drinking soldiers of fortune, aging expatriates, bored diplomats and their discontented wives, jaded foreign correspondents, anglicized Orientals, idealistic young Americans -- that he had come across in his travels.
Theroux is a prolific writer: he has written more than forty books and has published articles and short stories in a variety of major newspapers and magazines. And he seems to show no signs of slowing down; in 1995 he published Pillars of Hercules, a Mediterranean travelogue; in 1996 he published My Other Life, a novel; and this year, along with Kowloon Tong, he has released his Collected Stories, which, according to The Boston Globe, "run in genre from Gothic to detective, and in tone from moralistic to rhapsodic."
Theroux spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Anthony Grant.
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See other travel essays and short stories by Paul Theroux published in The Atlantic:
Why did you write a novel set in Hong Kong rather than a travelogue?
Because a novel captures the soul of the people. A travel or analytical piece on Hong Kong -- which I've written for The New Yorker and The New York Times, respectively -- inevitably lacks emotion. A novel captures essence that is not possible in any other form. I did this once before with the novel called Saint Jack, which was set in Singapore and eventually made into a film. In time this type of novel becomes a sort of historical document, because you're describing the names of streets and people's emotions. When I went to Hong Kong, I knew at once I wanted to write a story set there.
I think of you as a travel writer, but I know you're a novelist. Would you describe yourself as a travel novelist? Have you heard that before?
No, I haven't. But I think that there is a tradition of novelists traveling. Mark Twain was a great traveler and he wrote three or four great travel books. I wouldn't say that I'm a travel novelist but rather a novelist who travels -- and who uses travel as a background for finding stories of places. Sometimes I will take a deliberate trip, like the trip for my recent travel book The Pillars of Hercules, which was about the Mediterranean. I could never write about that trip fictionally because I put the whole trip into the book. There is nothing left over to write about.
As a writer are you more attracted to the places you visit rather than the people who live there?
I'm attracted to both. You can't separate the people from the places -- although I sometimes like traveling in places where there are no people. The true wilderness or the desert island attracts me since I wonder why I'm in a place where there are no people. Of course there is also that wonderful Robinson Crusoe-like feeling of being monarch of all you survey.
I remember reading about the experience you're describing.
That's right, in The Happy Hours of Oceania. The idea of being on an island where there are no people is exciting because the whole island is yours. But there usually are reasons that people aren't there: no potable water, inclement weather, lack of a harbor for boats to dock. Some places are inaccessible for very good reasons, but getting to them isn't why I travel. The travel impulse is mental and physical curiosity. It's a passion. And I can't understand people who don't want to travel. I can understand people who love being at home and also love to travel, but I don't understand people who obsessively travel or obsessively stay at home.
Getting back to the novel, how does Kowloon Tong mesh with your feelings as a traveler and a writer about life in Hong Kong?
It certainly reflects a lot of what I've seen, heard, smelled, and felt about Hong Kong. It's a novel that I felt needed to be written; Hong Kong needed a story and I thought this was the ideal story. It's rather dark, but it is the story of Hong Kong.
I was struck by the opening of the novel, which takes place on fog-shrouded Victoria Peak. This image set the tone of the novel for me. Did you intend for there to be a parallel between Hong Kong's transition into Chinese rule and the encroaching fog?
Definitely. I wanted to open the book in a mood that's very much like a foggy, rainy English day, a setting in which the people could just as easily be in London as they could be in Hong Kong.
Some people say that Hong Kong exists only for the making of money. Do you agree?
Hong Kong obviously exists for the making of money. But making money is the only occupation that was open to the people who went there. They couldn't go into politics since there were no elections and thus no way to change the system. The people of Hong Kong are criticized for only being interested in business, but it's the only thing they've been allowed to do. They lead ambiguous lives in terms of what their expectations are, since, in addition to doing business, the people of Hong Kong have always thought that they might have to leave. They continuously ponder the escape route.
The interactions of Mei-ping and Bunt Mullard, two of the main characters in Kowloon Tong, make up a great deal of the novel. Toward the end their relationship seems to recede into the background as they are swept up in the course of events. Are you predicting how things might unfold after the handover through the relationship of these two characters?
I'm not making a prediction as much as suggesting that the Chinese takeover will be very inflexible. They will use intimidation as a form of persuasion and will be very unsentimental about what the British left behind. The classic example is the Government House, which has been occupied by British governors since 1842. The Chinese have no interest in making it a monument or even using it. It's not like India or an African country, where, once they become independent, the nationals of that country take up residence in the Government House or the Parliament. The Chinese, whether out of superstition or a desire to set a new trend, are resisting historical sentimentality of any kind. They feel too humiliated.
But you write that to the Chinese, the visible world is a "spitoon." Is that humiliation?
That's more of a joke. It's a perception by Bunt, who sees the Chinese spitting and throwing trash everywhere. He sees the Chinese as not caring about the visible world. The British see themselves as the preservers of the status quo, a people who care about the look of things. These characters say things at times I don't necessarily agree with (such as Bunt's somewhat bigoted observation). I was criticized in reviews for having racist characters in the book, but that is the whole point. They are, in a sense, caricatures, but in a way that embodies characteristics of a society. There isn't a particular model for this book, but there are many books that exhibit or fictionalize characteristics of a society. I think of Albert Camus's The Stranger, for example. You know something bad is in that small, enigmatic book: each character has a role and embodies something specific -- from Meursault to the Arabs to the man with the dog to the mother. The Chinese have a lot of unique characteristics, according to Bunt, and the Chinese think the British have a lot of unique characteristics. In setting this up I try to be as impartial as possible.
You've written that the Western population of Hong Kong is about two percent of the total of six million people living there. Do you think the colonial lifestyle you've depicted in Kowloon Tong will ultimately become untenable?
Yes, except to the degree to which it has already been adapted by the Hong Kong Chinese -- in the form of horse racing, clubs, cricket, and bowling. Many of the things that people do there are taken up with the British way of life. The colonial lifestyle put a permanent stamp on the habits and culture of Hong Kong. Hong Kong exists in a middle ground of culture that is neither traditional Chinese nor British. It's a hybrid. A friend of mine once joked that the Balhenia -- the flower of Hong Kong that adorns the Hong Kong flag -- is a vivid, sterile hybrid just like Hong Kong.
Early on in your novel one of the workers in the Mullard's factory takes a train from Hong Kong to China and back on the same day. It's obvious that Hong Kong is literally part of China. Yet Bunt Mullard (and one might say the West in general) is oblivious to that geographical fact. Why?
Because there's a psychological disposition to not understanding fully how easy it is to get from one place to another if you've never done it. Bunt has never been to China and many people in Hong Kong have never been to China. When I was writing my book, Riding the Iron Rooster, I met people in Hong Kong who said, "Hong Kong is going to be handed over to the Chinese, what do you think will happen to us?" And I would respond, "Have you been to China?" Most would reply no. I would say, "If you go to China, you will see the police, the soldiers, the way law is administered." China is such an exotic, strange, menacing place to the people living in Hong Kong that they just can't imagine it.
Based on what you've seen in Hong Kong, what will be the major changes after the handover?
Things have changed already, so it's a hard question to answer. One of the changes is the way the press in Hong Kong is very careful about how they treat certain Chinese subjects like Tiananmen, the Chinese leadership, and Taiwan. Any newspaper that advocates independence for Taiwan would be in deep shit. Another example: let's say there was a very vocal free-Tibet movement that opened a little office in Hong Kong. After the handover they might find the People's Liberation Army or the Hong Kong police knocking on their door. That kind of protest would be considered subversive under the new constitution. In general, though, I don't think it will look or feel very different.
You don't think the sense of place will change much?
Not right away. People have a vested interest, especially the richest people of Hong Kong, in keeping the place as it was before the handover, in order to maintain confidence. I think that Hong Kong will continue to look and feel the same -- but that if you look a little deeper and talk to people about how they're treated, you may find that they are worried about a residence permit or that they are trying to do business and must pay a bribe to a Chinese official. In all places, the interior life isn't obvious. It's also another reason why fiction is a wonderful way to write about a place, because what's going on is not always apparent.
Is your character Hung in Kowloon Tong meant to symbolize Deng Xiaoping?
Somewhat. Hung is the complete villain not only because he is bad but also because he maintains tremendous power over the other characters in the book. I wanted to write a book about a violent man whose violence we don't actually observe. This is how the West sees China. Westerners talk about human-rights abuses in China but they don't actually look into those factories where people work their heads off to make shirts or shoes. We just hear about that. There are thousands of executions every year in China. People are secretly shot in the back of the head in stadiums all the time. This is the normal Chinese method for dealing with criminals. The trial is short, and the execution is carried out efficiently and quickly. China is like that. Hung exemplifies the enigma of the Chinese saying, "We're going to do things our own way." When you think about what he's getting away with you are horrified. You can't observe his wickedness nor can you do anything about it. That's the conundrum with China. It's a hidden society. Hung's hidden life is the most interesting thing about him.
How do you feel about the handover?
I'm fascinated, to tell you the truth. There are better ways for countries to make the transition from one phase of existence to another. I think the ideal thing would have been for Hong Kong to become an independent place, a sovereign republic like Singapore. But the Chinese are megalomaniacal and have imperial ambitions. They snap up Tibet, Xinjiang, Turkistan, Hong Kong -- and Taiwan will be next. When a place goes from being a free colony (not completely free, but with a great many freedoms) to going under the rule of the Chinese, the implications are monumental. All change is fascinating to a writer.
Are you at liberty to say what projects you have in the pipeline?
I recently traveled down the Zambezi river and am writing about that for National Geographic. I worked very hard last summer -- finishing Kowloon Tong, then going to the Zambezi, then to Hong Kong after that. I was very busy until May of this year, which is only last month. Now I would just like to spend a little time on the Cape, get some fresh air.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.