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City of the Queen, an Epic Tale of Colonial Hong Kong.

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City of the Queen, an Epic Tale of Colonial Hong Kong

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Someone flying the Hong Kong colonial flag

 

City of the Queen, an Epic Tale of Colonial Hong Kong

Jini Wang, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

 

ABSTRACT

This article reviews the historical novel, City of the Queen: A Novel of Colonial Hong Kong, by Taiwanese writer Shih Shu-ching, and holds a positive view towards the book. Two main justifications for this view include: 1) The book appears as a combination of story and history, with description of real historical events, as well as facts and data presented at points when the storyline is encountered; and 2) Characters of various nationalities, backgrounds, personalities and histories have been created and shaped by the author to represent typical classes and groups in Hong Kong society at that time. Language used in this book is powerful, accurate and vivid. Several shortcomings have also been pointed out in the book review, such as the lack of the novel’s originality where excessive narration of historical facts is presented. Finally, the book is an epic tale of Hong Kong, looking over at the past and towards the Handover of 1997.

 

Keywords: 1997, British colonisation, Hong Kong history, narration

 

City of the Queen: A Novel of Colonial Hong Kong. By Shih Shu-ching. Translated by Sylvia L. C. Lin and Howard Goldblatt. NY: Columbia University Press. 2008. ISBN: 9780231134576. 312 pp.

 

Introduction

City of the Queen: A Novel of Colonial Hong Kong (City of the Queen hereafter) is the English version of the wildly praised and reputed ‘Hong Kong Trilogy’, a series of three linked novels written originally in Chinese. Those three novels, which were launched in 1993, 1995 and 1997, were pared down to one and then launched in 2005. Together, the new single volume narrates the story of one beautiful and determined Chinese woman living in the colonial Hong Kong. It is an epic tale of the woman’s family amid the history of Hong Kong.

The writer of the book is the acclaimed Taiwanese writer Shih Shu-ching, who is one of the most influential cultural figures in both Taiwan and Hong Kong. As a longtime resident of Hong Kong, she sets the story about this city with researched historical facts and impacts, as well as her distinctive understanding of the happiness and sufferings it has gone through in the past centuries.

The book is translated into English by Sylvia Li-chun Lin and Howard Goldblatt, both of whom are teachers in the Department of East Asian Languages at the University of Notre Dame. They have claimed that they have retained the style, the narrative progression and the approximate proportions of generational narrative in the original book, but have altered the point of view in the final part while condensing the 700-page work, which is now 300 pages in length (Shih, 2008). According to Jeffrey C. Kinkley, “Shih’s internationally acclaimed English translators have put together a version that is literary and maintains all necessary plot continuity” (Kinkley, 2006).

To get both an emotional impression and an objective overview of the colonial Hong Kong, City of the Queen is a rather ideal reading material. In the following parts of the book review, reasons will be given out to explain why the book is regarded as an epic tale of colonial Hong Kong and thus explains why it is worth reading for a reader and Hong Kong history learner. Two main reasons will be discussed, namely, the book as a combination of story and history, and the historical significance of different characters in the book.

 

Why is the book an epic tale of colonial Hong Kong?

A combination of story and history

The book consists of three parts, which chronologically sets the story among four generations in the heroine, Huang Deyun’s family. The story of Huang’s family actually reflects the story of colonial Hong Kong. Through telling this story, the author manages to show readers the social history of Hong Kong from different aspects and angles. Sung-sheng Yvonne Chang, author of the book Literary Culture in Taiwan: Martial Law to Market Law, has once mentioned a similar opinion in her book remark. She stated that the author complicates the life of the novel’s protagonist as well as that of every other Hong Kong resident (Chang, 2004).

One unique feature of this book is that it refers many times to the real historical events, data and facts, in spite of being regarded as a novel. The historical materials included enable the writer to create a broad historical background, against which the characters live and behave, leaving their fate in the hands of history. For instance, in Chapter 2, Part 1, the writer describes the brothel Huang Deyun lived in and how it operated, taking it as an example of brothels in Hong Kong in the colonial era. In the following pages, she systematically introduces the transformation of the colonial government’s policy on prostitution:

The colonial government’s policy on prostitution had an interesting history. In the beginning, prostitutes were expelled from Hong Kong. But during Governor Davis’s tenure, a “prostitution tax” was collected each month, since the prostitutes were the ones who infected lonely seamen and British soldiers. The prostitutes were also required to set up a hospital for patients with venereal diseases. (Shih, 2008, p. 11)

The above paragraph seems to be not a part of the story but an introduction of historical facts. It seems that the author prefers to introduce historical facts about an issue before telling the story. Many other examples can be found in the book. When writing about Huang Deyun’s first arrival in Hong Kong, the author mentions the history of the Opium War and Britain’s acquisition of Hong Kong. When a new character Adam Smith, an official in the colonial government, was to be introduced to the readers, the author describes the 1894 plague in Hong Kong and how the colonial government dealt with it before she writes about the character. Apart from the Opium War and the plague in 1894 mentioned above, the author fills the story with other historical issues, such as the Britain’s acquisition of the New Territories in 1898, two major strikes in Hong Kong during the 1920s, the occupation of the Japanese during the Second World War, the rise of the middle-class and the taking-off of Hong Kong’s economy in the 1970s. As it has been stated by Margaret Flanagan (2007) in her Booklist, Hong Kong’s swift evolution from fledgling, opium-infested colony to a sparkling financial power is the essence of the story.

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