Saturday, 19 June 2010

Monkey kings and other picaresque heroes: the novels of Timothy Mo*

Timothy Mo was born in Hong Kong in 1950, to a British mother and a Cantonese father. He was educated from the age of ten in England, and took a degree in History from the University of Oxford. After graduating, he worked briefly as a journalist before re-locating to his native Hong Kong, which served as a springboard for his growing interest in the hectically hybrid world of Southeast Asia, in particular the Philippines, which form the backdrop to his most recent novels, Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard (1995), and Renegade or Halo2 (1999). He is a writer of considerable wit and colour, who possesses a strongly satirical eye. His characters often border on the picaresque, and through them he examines the effects of migration, psychological loss, cultural hybridization and social and economic exploitation, which are the stock-in-trade of what we have come to know as postcolonial literature.

Three of his novels relate in some way to the Portuguese presence in this hemisphere. His first novel, The Monkey King, published in 1978, is set in Hong Kong, and in the figure of Wallace Nolasco, we have a type of blueprint for the hapless, outsider/insider hero that will be a feature of his later novels. Wallace is a Macanese, or Hong Kong Portuguese, with links back to an impoverished but blue-blooded Macau family. He has married May Ling, the daughter of the rich Chinese businessman, Mr Poon. But his expectations of a life of luxury are disappointed when he discovers that the mansion he thought he was going to live in is no more than a flat in a tenement building, and that Poon is as miserly as he is wealthy. As for Poon, he has other plans for Wallace as his ambitions turn increasingly towards the construction boom during the Korean War, and he finds his son-in-law a clerical position in the Public Works Department where he hopes the family interests will be defended by Wallace’s signature being strategically appended to contracts approved by the government. When things go suddenly awry, Wallace and May Ling are bundled off to an isolated village in the New Territories to lie low until the scandal blows over, and it is here that Wallace redeems himself, showing leadership and flair in a series of projects that will improve the lives of the village inhabitants, while paving the way for his eventual return and taking command of the family business from the increasingly frail Mr Poon. Wallace’s journey from slothful, impotent and resentful son-in-law at the very base of the family hierarchy, to minor civil servant (a traditional occupation of the Macanese and Hong Kong Portuguese), to self-confident entrepreneur and diplomatic healer of village rivalries, is narrated with satirical irreverence and comedy, which places the novel well within the picaresque tradition. Wallace is a survivor, like the monkey king of Chinese tradition.

Mo’s second novel, Sour Sweet, was published in 1982, and was the first literary work to focus on the Chinese diaspora in England. It was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize in the same year, and turned into a film in 1988, directed by Mike Newell and starring Sylvia Chang and Soon-Tek Oh. But it was in his third work of fiction that Mo again highlighted the inter-relationship between his native city and Macau: An Insular Possession (1986) was described by Tariq Ali in the Guardian as a ‘powerful, beautifully written narrative… a potent amalgam of history and fiction’. The novel, which again featured on the Booker shortlist, is set in the Pearl River estuary during the Opium War in the years leading up to the British occupation of Hong Kong. Like James Clavell’s blockbuster, Tai-Pan, coincidentally published exactly twenty years before, the novel is partially set in Macau and contains Portuguese characters. But here, any comparison with Clavell must end, for while Tai-Pan contains all the features of an empire-building novel, with strong plot line, omniscient narrator, and relationships driven by romance, lust and entrepreneurial rivalry, Mo’s work moves forward at a leisurely, occasionally light-hearted pace, blending different literary forms, including newspaper accounts, letters, and straight narrative. It is a period piece, in which Mo demonstrates sensitivities and skills obtained from his academic training as a historian, as well as considerable linguistic versatility. Moreover, our view of events leading up to the seizure of Hong Kong, is filtered through the eyes of two young American expatriates who, to some extent, incarnate Mo’s attachment to the figure of the outsider, the observer who is not centrally involved in the business of militaristic, colonial conquest.

His fourth novel, The Redundancy of Courage, published in 1991, is set in the fictional island of Danu during the invasion and occupation by the neighbouring expansionist ‘malais’, and is a scarcely disguised account of the Indonesian military invasion and occupation of East Timor after the Portuguese effectively abandoned the colony in 1975. Adolph Ng is a Chinese Timorese, who has returned to his native land to run a hotel after being educated in Canada. Adolph, rather like Mo’s other fundamentally placid heroes is swept up in the resistance to the invaders, rubbing shoulders with ex-seminarians turned Marxist guerrillas and experiencing the dangers, cruelties, betrayals, and moral adjustments of an insurgency hidden from the international limelight. Captured by the ‘malais’, he becomes the servant of an army colonel, eventually negotiating his release into exile away from Danu. The end of the novel sees Adolph fail to adapt to life in the former imperial capital, as he comments, ‘I wandered up the maze of cobbled alleyways to the city’s most venerable quarter. This was the old world, and you could keep it’. Eventually, he chooses to settle in Brazil under the name of Kawasaki, thus suggesting an intention to blend into the country’s large Japanese community. The novel, which involved a considerable amount of research on the part of the author, was praised by none other than the future president of East Timor, José Ramos Horta, who makes a cameo appearance as Joaquim Lobato, the penniless representative of the Danu nationalist movement in New York. The Redundancy of Courage was a unique novel for its time, the only work of literature to engage with a brutal military campaign on the extreme periphery of a former European empire, which is why it also has a special place in the development of East Timorese literature.

Mo’s most recent anti-hero is Rey Archimedes Blondel Castro, son of a black American GI and a Filipino bar-girl who herself was ‘half-lowland Malay, half-highland aboriginal, with a trace of philandering Chinese trader somewhere in the family tree’. Castro, the protagonist of Renegade or Halo2, is educated by an eccentric Jesuit, and forced to leave the Philippines in a hurry after being scapegoated for a crime. His travels as a sailor take him to Hong Kong, the Middle East, England and Cuba. He experiences violence and semi-slavery, but as a kind of postcolonial everyman and observer of the world around him, his life is one of continual cultural adaptation and re-invention, even though he never loses the central core of his personality. It is a rich, mesmerising literary tour-de-force that coincidentally ties together two extremes of an old Iberian empire: the Philippines and Cuba, which Rey finds strangely familiar, and where he rapidly learns to make himself understood. Mo’s interest in the Hong Kong Portuguese, Macau, East Timor and the Philippines, suggests some sort of an affinity with the hybrid cultures of these ancient corners of empire on the part of an author who identifies them as mirroring his own experience as a person through whom flow the cultures of Asia and Europe. Wallace, Adolph and Rey, ever more flamboyant intermediaries between mutually misunderstanding cultures, are both survivors and victims, but also the recipients and agents of modernity on their journey through life.


Published in the Macau Daily Times (Weekend Magazine), 28 November, 2009.

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