I recently launched my new novel The Daughters of Henry Wong in Melbourne this is what I said –
When Morgan Stanley informed its Hong Kong employees that a person named “Harrison Young” was coming back to the firm to work in China, many of them assumed I was Chinese and wanted to know where I’d been educated. Hong Kong in 1994 was still a “crown colony,” an Englishman was its Governor, and local billionaires with astonishing British names were sending their sons and daughters to English public schools. Twenty-three years on, I doubt any more Wellington Koos or Canning Foks are being christened, and the elite now send their children to American colleges, but “Harrison Yung” would still be a plausible name for a Chinese member of the Hong Kong Club.
It turns out that many people with both Chinese and Caucasian ancestors have the same body type, skin coloration, round face and droopy eyelids as I do. So when I explained to my Morgan Stanley colleagues that I was an American of English and Scottish extraction, many of them responded with a wry smile. “They like the idea that you are part Chinese,” a wise English friend told me. “When you go to Beijing, they will like the idea that you are a government agent.”
“I am not a spy,” I said firmly.
“No,” said the wise Englishman. “But you come to us directly from a spell in Washington, doing a job that sounds made-up. ‘Director of the division of resolutions’ – really! And when you were at Morgan Stanley before that you travelled a lot on short notice…”
“Merger business,” I interjected.
“…and you were a special forces officer…”
“Twenty-five years ago,” I protested.
“…and you are alleged to speak Chinese, though I suspect it’s a bit rusty.”
“I don’t pretend it isn’t,” I said. “And I’m not going to pretend I’m part Chinese.”
“Of course not,” he said. I waited for him to go on. He waited for me to understand his point – and took another swallow of his luke-warm gin and tonic. My new friend never put ice in his drink, just as he always had his steak well done, to indicate that he had served in places where such precautions were mandatory. I don’t remember how we met, to be honest. I’d only been in Hong Kong for a couple of weeks. We were sitting in the Captain’s Bar in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, a place where much reality has been fabricated over the years. It felt like the opening scene of a movie.
“I give up,” I said finally. “But what am I supposed to tell people who ask if I’m part Chinese?”
“’Grandmother never said.’”
And that’s what my protagonist tells the pretty television journalist at the end of the first chapter.
People always want to know where a writer gets his ideas, so I should deal with that right away. The Daughters of Henry Wong is told in the first person by an American named Wendy. He got his nickname at boarding school – the same school I went to, as it happens. We also went to the same university. But Wendy is not Harrison. I make my stories up.
I made up that Englishman, for example, though he is representative of a type of person you used to meet in Hong Kong, who possibly had been a spy or pursued a disreputable trade and could give a newcomer useful advice. Some of them are probably still there, reminiscing about the ‘90s, same as I do.
Things I didn’t make up include Hong Kong’s weather, its discordant mixture of lush vegetation and harsh concrete, the breathtaking views from the Peak, and the tension Hong Kong people feel as citizens of a charmed enclave but also of the Middle Kingdom.
I also didn’t make up Wong Castle, the house that Wendy and his wife, their sons, her banker father and a rather spooky housekeeper all share. I came upon the building when I was out walking and it may have been what triggered the story. Part Chinese, part Western, half hidden in the woods, it was the perfect setting for the sort of “international situation,” Henry James was fond of. Henry James would have appreciated Hong Kong. The pace of life in Hong Kong today would overwhelm him, of course. There is nothing Jamesian about a stream of Hong Kong pedestrians. But the Special Economic Zone remains a place where cultures collide and in doing so illuminate each other.
What was I was trying to accomplish in Daughters? First of all, I wanted to entertain. To that end, the book is a thriller. There’s espionage, a takeover battle, a bit of violence, and just enough sex to make the story realistic. But there are also scenes that should make you laugh.
At another level I was trying to do what serious novelists always try to do: say something about the cultures they come from and the cultures they encounter, and say it well.
This next bit is going to sound like a digression but it isn’t. When the Commonwealth Bank board visited China a few years ago, we were all very impressed with the high-speed trains and the vast, modern terminals, and commented on them to the government official who was our guest at dinner in Beijing. I have known this individual for many years. He speaks perfect English, has a PhD in finance from Stanford, and worked in the U.S. before being summoned back to China. “We do those things well,” was his response. What he meant, of course, is that if the Chinese government wants to achieve something, it gets done. Protests and planning permissions are not an issue.
I have always felt that Chinese culture also does reality well. Everyone sees the elephant in the room but no one mentions it. They may even put a sign on the door that says, “No Elephants.” I assume you all know the formula Deng Xiao Ping devised for taking over Hong Kong and letting people who needed to pretend he hadn’t: “one country, two systems.” The elephant is the one-country part.
Wendy starts his Hong Kong adventure believing that China is exotic and therefore sexy. What he encounters is unflinching realpolitik at every level. Non-Chinese readers may be startled by the calm way most of the characters in the book simultaneously take advantage, and take care, of those who are closest to them. Part of Wendy’s growing up comes down to realizing it is not just the Chinese who do that sort of thing. Family is both refuge and prison, is how he expresses the thought. China’s history and America’s history are very different, but they are getting intertwined. There are eerie family resemblances between our two cultures. Australia will discover that.
16 February 2017