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A British Family Divides as Hong Kong Returns to China

Kowloon Tong

By Paul Theroux

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Houghton Mifflin Co.

243 pp., $23

What does the return of Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997 mean to someone who has spent a lifetime living there? What's at stake, and why should anyone care?

The latest novel by Paul Theroux, entitled, "Kowloon Tong" - a story about Hong Kong, answers these questions while bringing to life the collision of two worlds - British colonial and Chinese communist - being played out today.

Through the twists and turns of the plot, the interplay of the mundane and the profound, and the confrontation between inertia and change, "Kowloon Tong" provides an insightful look into the moral and cultural issues surrounding the loss of Britain's most valuable colony.

The bulk of the novel presents the life and thoughts of Neville "Bunt" Mullard, a British man in his 40s who has lived in Hong Kong his entire life. In all that time, he has never visited mainland China, a short ferryboat ride away. Neither has his mother, Betty, with whom Bunt lives.

Both mother and son are ardent Brits. They buy British goods. Bunt boasts about their radio, a Roberts, not being Japanese: "Like the sturdy John Bull thermos flask on the sideboard it was English-made." He drives a creaky 1958 Rover that ceases to run halfway through the book.

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And both of them refuse to eat Chinese food. "You see, it doesn't agree with us," is Bunt's terse explanation to the aggressive and scheming Hung, an Army officer from China who pursues Bunt and Betty with gifts, favors, and then threats, in order to buy their textile company, situated in a part of the colony called Kowloon Tong.

It becomes increasingly clear that very little that is Chinese agrees with either mother or son. They are blatantly racist. But the return - or "take away" as they call it - of Hong Kong to communist China means the certainties of their safe and insulated British colonial lives are being eroded - sometimes abruptly.

In addition, Hung's offer of 1 million ($1.6 million) for the textile factory drives a wedge between mother and son that grows throughout the novel and produces a final, tragic deception.

"Kowloon Tong" is in many ways an extended examination of the handover. And Bunt and his mother come to represent two very different perspectives on the event.

One view is glad to leave the colony, made rich by the ready cash of the Chinese who are moving in to do business as so many British expatriates leave.

The other view discovers that moving away from Hong Kong means the possibility of leaving behind something precious. Hung embodies the focused and inexorable drive of the Chinese to possess the territory that they deem rightfully theirs.

Hung also epitomizes an unspoken but forceful desire to see the British occupiers of that land leave, never to return.

And throughout the novel, Theroux illustrates the darker, seamier side of life in Hong Kong. From the sleazy bars and casual sex that fill the empty spaces of Bunt's afternoons and evenings, to the menacing presence of Hung, it is not a Hong Kong that many would envy or want to visit.

The mixed feelings with which one finishes the novel mirror the mixed feelings many have about Hong Kong's impending change of status. It is sad that the character with the most dignity and sensitivity - a Chinese worker in Bunt's factory named Mei-ping, with whom he is emotionally involved - appears to be the most devastated by the course of events.

* Sharon Johnson-Cramer is on the Monitor staff.

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