Hong Kong is a city with a sordid past of its own. After all, it has seen pirates, the Opium Wars, Japanese occupation in World War II and many other dark chapters, which also make for great stories.
So naturally, this side of the city deserves a literary nod – which is why it’s fitting that Akashic Books recently released the anthology Hong Kong Noir, edited by Jason Y. Ng and Susan Blumberg-Kason.
Of course, it has 14 stories – a requirement of the publisher, but also rather apropos since the number 14 sounds like “certain death” in Cantonese. And these tales — everything from ghost stories to family issues to death and beyond – are gripping and occasionally grim, but overall make for a great read. The stories in the collection even feature a few cross-cultural relationships between foreigners and Chinese (including foreign women and Chinese men).
Even better, because the anthology covers so much territory of Hong Kong, it becomes a kind of nontraditional “travel guide” to the city, introducing you to many of the city’s most prominent neighborhoods. You could even take it a step further and try visiting that temple known for ghosts, or those steps drenched in blood, to add a noir twist to your travels.
I recommend this anthology for anyone interested in Hong Kong who also enjoys dark stories.
It’s my great pleasure to introduce you to Hong Kong Noir through this interview with one of its editors, Susan Blumberg-Kason (who many of you already know through her compelling memoir Good Chinese Wife).
Here’s Susan’s bio from her website:
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong (Sourcebooks, 2014) and co-editor of Hong Kong Noir (Akashic Books, 2018). She is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Asian Review of Books. Her work has also appeared in The Frisky, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and the South China Morning Post. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where she researched emerging women’s rights over 100 years ago. Born, raised, and now based in the Chicago suburbs, Susan is an elected trustee of her public library.
Could you share with us how you came to be involved in this anthology?
I’d been wanting to read this book ever since I learned about the Akashic Noir series back in 2008 or 2009. Every six months to a year, I’d check Amazon and Akashic’s website to see if it had come out yet or if one was in the works. And for all those years nothing seemed to materialize. In late 2016, I was talking to my agent, Carrie Pestritto, about the year to come and had thought about trying to edit this book, but wasn’t sure if I would bring it up just then or wait another year or so. But at the end of that conversation I brought it up anyway without making a conscious decision to do it. It just came out. And she loved the idea. So I put the proposal together in a month or two and voila. We had a contract by the middle of 2017.
How did you select the contributors?
I contacted the biggest names in Hong Kong I knew. Akashic wants their Noir contributors to fit a certain formula: a number of best sellers in the city where the book takes place; some crime writers; a couple of up-and-coming or new voices; and writers who haven’t written noir or crime stories before. The contributors all needed to have a strong connection to Hong Kong. Akashic also wants a mix of backgrounds and gender. My co-editor, Jason Y. Ng, brought on a few contributors as did a couple of the other big names I had first contacted. Akashic’s other requirement is that we limit our number of contributors to fourteen. We had more than that, so to be fair I cut myself out first.
You have a deep relationship with Hong Kong, which you’ve detailed in your compelling memoir Good Chinese Wife. How did that impact your experience as you worked on this noir anthology?
I feel like I know Hong Kong better than any other city, including my hometown of Chicago. Maybe it’s because I came of age in Hong Kong and have never driven there, thereby learning the neighborhoods on foot and through public transportation. I think that allows one to pay more attention one’s surroundings than if traveling everywhere by car and just focusing on other cars and the street signs and traffic lights. My story in Good Chinese Wife is pretty dark and isn’t unlike some of the stories in the book, but without the bleak ending! I’ve also had some other noir experiences apart from that marriage, so could relate to the feelings the contributors conveyed in their stories. Fiction writers obviously can’t always write about their own experiences, as shown in most of the noir stories, but many of the feelings they convey are genuine. I connected with these feelings, even though I certainly don’t have any experience castrating a boyfriend who’s done me wrong!
This anthology brings together a collection of stories — from ghostly to grim — that transports the reader to some of the darkest corners of Hong Kong, including many places you know. Could you share with us any places or settings in Hong Kong that you’ve visited that you happen to consider shadowy or noirish?
I have a bittersweet anecdote about Diamond Hill, the setting of Feng Chi-shun’s jaw-dropping story, Expensive Tissue Paper. Diamond Hill is located on the Kowloon peninsula, the latter of which is also known as the Dark Side. In November, Bleak House Books, a lovely bookstore up near Diamond Hill, so generously hosted a preview event for Hong Kong Noir. The bookstore was actually in an industrial area called San Po Kong, not far from the Diamond Hill subway station. So I took the subway alone while my family was out sight-seeing and shopping with my college roommates. I’d gone all over Hong Kong alone in my twenties, so how hard could it be in my forties? But after I got to Diamond Hill and followed the signs for San Po Kong, I couldn’t for the life of me find the right street to reach the industrial block that houses Bleak House Books. My phone’s GPS wasn’t working and I couldn’t tell east from west. Just as I started to give up and look for a cab (which I would never do in my twenties), my co-editor Jason found me completely disoriented! Of course he was heading to the bookstore, too, so I gave up trying to figure out where we were and enjoyed catching up with him, all the while feeling a huge sigh of relief. And just like everything else that has seemed daunting and a little scary, things always turn out fine in the end. After the event, I left with Jason, our Hong Kong publisher, Pete Spurrier, contributor Ysabelle Cheung, and writer and translator Martin Merz. We found the subway station just fine (well, I just followed the group!) and took the train together. I was the first to exit the subway to meet my family and friends, and as I ran across Nathan Road, it took me a second to remember I didn’t live there anymore.
A number of the stories touch on relationships and marriages — including interracial and international, LGBTQ and even those between Western women and Asian men — but all with a bleak twist. Without giving too much away, could you share with us a few of these couples or relationships that you found fascinating?
Tiffany Hawk’s and Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang’s stories appear in the second section, Obedience and Respect, and resonated with me for two reasons. One, they are both Handover stories, although Tiffany’s flashes back to the Handover, and mainly takes place this decade. And they both involve relationships between caucasian women and mainland Chinese men, which of course is my background, too. In the 1990s, before the latest wave of mainland immigrants, there wasn’t a large newly-arrived mainland community in Hong Kong. It was a special time because no one really knew what would happen after the Handover, which gave the era a sense of romanticism. I think many people in Hong Kong now reminisce about the 90s and these two stories epitomize the hope and endless possibilities back then.
What do you hope readers come away with from this anthology?
The desire to book a trip to Hong Kong! Seriously, I hope they’ll learn more about Hong Kong and be able to visualize the many different places that make up this amazing city. I’ve joked with Jason that I hope people use it as a guidebook. And that’s kind of rung true. My uncle came away from the book wishing he’d read it before he first visited Hong Kong so as to better understand the different areas there. His first trip to Hong Kong was in 1965. I can’t think of a nicer compliment
A huge thanks to Susan Blumberg-Kason for this interview! You can learn more about Hong Kong Noir at the publisher’s website. Hong Kong Noir is available at Amazon.com, where your purchases help support this blog.