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Kowloon Tong: A Novel [Paperback]

Paul Theroux
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)

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Book Description

26 Mar 1998
For Neville "Bunt" Mullard and his mother, Betty, Hong Kong is part of Britain - one of the pleasanter parts; it is also cozy, monotonous, profitable, and homely. Now ninety-nine years of colonial rule are about to end, and the British government is about to hand over Hong Kong to China. Betty and Bunt can see China from their parlor, but they have never been there. They detest Chinese food. "The Chinese take-away, " as they call the Hand-over, does not particularly concern them. When Bunt first meets Mr. Hung, a well-spoken gentleman from the Chinese mainland, he pays him little heed. And when Mr. Hung offers the Mullards a handsome sum for their family business - a fifty-year-old textile factory, Imperial Stitching, that was cofounded by Bunt's late father - Bunt refuses him out of hand. Yet it soon grows clear that Mr. Hung is different from the Chinese the Mullards have lived alongside for years. For Mr. Hung will accept no refusals. Then a young woman from the Mullards' factory vanishes, one of many disappearances. But this one is different. Ah Fu has last been seen in the company of Mr. Hung. And so Bunt is forced for the first time in his forty-three years to make decisions that matter. He even begins, maybe, to discover love. Yet against all of Bunt's good, if half-formed, intentions are pitted the will of Mr. Hung and the looming threat of the ultimate betrayal.

Product details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; New edition edition (26 Mar 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140266453
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140266450
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 13.8 x 1.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 365,402 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Paul Theroux was born and educated in the United States. After graduating from university in 1963, he travelled first to Italy and then to Africa, where he worked as a Peace Corps teacher at a bush school in Malawi, and as a lecturer at Makerere University in Uganda. In 1968 he joined the University of Singapore and taught in the Department of English for three years. Throughout this time he was publishing short stories and journalism, and wrote a number of novels. Among these were Fong and the Indians, Girls at Play and Jungle Lovers, all of which appear in one volume, On the Edge of the Great Rift (Penguin, 1996).

In the early 1970s Paul Theroux moved with his wife and two children to Dorset, where he wrote Saint Jack, and then on to London. He was a resident in Britain for a total of seventeen years. In this time he wrote a dozen volumes of highly praised fiction and a number of successful travel books, from which a selection of writings were taken to compile his book Travelling the World (Penguin, 1992). Paul Theroux has now returned to the United States, but he continues to travel widely.

Paul Theroux's many books include Picture Palace, which won the 1978 Whitbread Literary Award; The Mosquito Coast, which was the 1981 Yorkshire Post Novel of the Year and joint winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was also made into a feature film; Riding the Iron Rooster, which won the 1988 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; The Pillars of Hercules, shortlisted for the 1996 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; My Other Life: A Novel, Kowloon Tong, Sir Vidia's Shadow, Fresh-air Fiend and Hotel Honolulu. Blindness is his latest novel. Most of his books are published by Penguin.

Product Description


"A moody thriller . . . cleverly, tightly constructed, fast-paced."

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SOME DAYS Hong Kong seemed no different from the London suburb she had lived in before the war. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
I first read this while living in Stanley, Hong Kong in the late nineties, and have re-read it several times. As another reviewer says, a great Graham Greene-ish plot (with a touch or satire ala Evelyn Waugh or Gore Vidal).
Aside from the great story, the numerous little observations of British, Chinese and American characters so accurately reflect the Hong Kong I experienced on a day-to-day basis. Theroux is very good on the "underbelly" of Hong Kong, the sleazy side which one had to deal with but which Hong Kong doesn't really like to talk about (nor does China - the book was banned there!). Local Chinese are sympathetically described, and Theroux does a great job of getting across the sad story of all the millions of refugees who fled China in recent decades to become Hong Kong's population of today. The American who renounces his citizenship to avoid paying USA taxes is also a (sadly) recognizable type, if not the norm, and the type of Briton who settles permanently in a place like Hong Kong is, like the above, very accurately described (however much some may object to such face-losing bluntness on the part of Theroux).
An excellent depiction of Hong Kong, warts and all, that was a painful read for some (chiefly western and eastern permanent residents) but will prove a thrilling and informative read for the detached reader.
As an ex-Hong Kong resident, I found this book as useful and enjoyable as Timothy Mo's The Monkey King, Austin Coates' Myself a Mandarin, Bo Yang's The Ugly Chinaman, and Jan Morris's Hong Kong - read those if you like this one, or are planning to visit/live in Hong Kong, or just plan to visit from the armchair!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but insubstantial 7 May 2010
By Huck Flynn VINE VOICE
Marketed as a thriller but really the moment of suspense lasts only a few pages and then the book is over. Bunt, the main character, is interesting and i certainly was just starting to feel empathy when the curtains came down. The chinese and native hong kong people are described in a curious way, racial stereotypes and xenophobic attitudes that seem to be the narrator's, not Bunt's - in fact more in line with the views of his ghastly mother. I enjoyed the book but it seemed more like a longish short story and also reminded me of another theroux book (Saint Jack) that i'd forgotten i'd read a long time ago. Left a faintly unsatisfying, unfinished feeling - perhaps this was deliberate. wel writen but it isn't what you'd call "gripping".
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Haunting 19 Feb 2007
For me, the way Theroux writes smacks of Hemingway. It has that seemingly naive, innocence, yet an undertone which speaks of the types of people that abound in Hong Kong. Like Hemingway, the narrative is simple, while dwelling on seemingly irrelevant circumstances. Like the great Ernest, do not expect a happy ending.

It tells of Bunt and his mother Betty. It is 1996 and the handover of Hong Kong to China (the Chinese takeaway) is looming. When Mr Chuck, Bunts business partner dies, it triggers a chain of events. Mr Hung comes over the border, with a sinister past, and unscrupulous motives, to take over his company (Imperial Stitching). As the plot unfolds we are treated to some gloomy insights of Hong Kong, the very real fears of a future under Communist China, and a bunch of mercenary colonials who cast away their nationalism for profit. It is packed full of social observations, about colonials and the Chinese, and creates a sense of helplessness which is so typified by the miserable ending.

For me, the entire story of Hung was a microcosm for the way China did its business, and the takeover of Hong Kong. He threatens, bribes, and will use any underhand technique in his arsenal to achieve his ends. This leads up to a chilling ending, that is suitably ambiguous. It never explains what happened to Mr Woo and Mei Ping, only making assumptions, which, for me, was slightly unsatisfactory.

It seemed very xenophobic with respect to the Chinese, but it is so hard to discover whether these were just the views of Bunt and co., or whether it was more deep rooted in the author. At times it paints a vivid and terrifying image of Hong Kong under Chinese rule, especially the dream Mei Ping has about Ah Fu.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Kowloon Tong reads like a tribute to Graham Greene. Certainly we are in Greeneland, a territory where people who are not bad do almost nothing that is good and where guttering hope is sustained only by the denial of self-knowledge. Bunt has always got by on comforting routines and secret pleasures but we are in the last days of British rule in Hong Kong and soon nothing will be the same again. The crisis comes like a tiny echo of the fall of Saigon. In the abandonment, Bunt loses his chance of redemptive love and the flight promises not a new life but an endless recreation of the old one. Theroux's themes of longing, compassion and entrapment together with his merciless observation of expatriates and chancers, produce the pace and tension of a thriller in a novel of the human soul. Theroux has produced one of his finest works and a book that will last.
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