I’m always on the lookout for a good book about Hong Kong. If it’s set during the time I lived there, even better. So I was thrilled to learn about Paul Blaney’s new novella, Handover (Signal 8, 2012).
The three overlapping stories take place months, weeks, and days before Britain handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997. If Wong Kar-wai were to make an expat version of Chungking Express, he would adapt Handover.
The book starts with the story of Tess, a recent graduate from the UK. She leaves her family and a boyfriend back in England to find herself in Hong Kong. She’s not impressed with the groups of detached expats she meets and is determined not to be like them. At her newspaper job she strikes up a friendship with Sam, a graphic designer and cartoonist. On her days off, she thinks of him. She even asks to meet his mother, a chicken farmer. One evening their relationship changes forever. Is it a cultural misunderstanding, or was their relationship doomed from the beginning?
The next story revolves around Rob, a recent UK transplant. He comes to Hong Kong because his last girlfriend had lived there for a couple of years before they met back in the UK. Although Rob had a comfortable and satisfying job in England, he gives that up to experience the Hong Kong that Jane knew. Rob finds a job as a bartender in a posh hotel bar, twenty-plus stories above ground level in Tsim Sha Tsui. The bar patrons are mostly an expat crowd who go there to enjoy the stunning harbor views and congregate with other expats. A supporting character in this and the Tess story is Elaine, a willowy South African lawyer who befriends Rob and gets him to talk about his relationship with Jane. On the night of the Handover, Rob makes a decision that will change his life.
In the first two stories, a minor character named Sally makes an appearance. She’s British, a women’s magazine editor, and in her thirties. There’s mention in the first two stories about a gruesome incident in the hotel where Rob works. In this final story we learn about Sally and the sexual harassment she suffers at the hands of Gordon, a former boss. Unrelenting and violent, Gordon won’t leave Sally alone. An older Cantonese woman at work gives Sally the phone number of someone who can help her get rid of Gordon once and for all.
I thought Paul Blaney did an excellent job of portraying the Handover and the mood in Hong Kong during that historic era. This is not a stereotypical expat-in-Asia novel, as each character has a unique set of problems and ways to deal with them