cover image Kowloon Tong

Kowloon Tong

Paul Theroux. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $23 (243pp) ISBN 978-0-395-86029-8

Hong Kong's last British Governor described himself as ""mere flotsam on the tide of history."" Theroux's latest exotic novel (after My Other Life) deals with colonials coping with the imminent return of Hong Kong to China. Middle-aged Neville ""Bunt"" Mullard and his domineering mother, Betty, are cozy packages of Englishness despite having lived in Hong Kong most of their lives. The pair treat the city as if it were a London suburb, preferring roast beef at Fatty's Chophouse to Chinese cuisine, fretting about the scandals of the royal family and enjoying high tea the way it's served at home. Having just inherited the family business, Imperial Stitching, from the dead senior Mullard's recently deceased Cantonese business partner, the pair hope to survive the ""Chinese take-away"" when the colony reverts to China in July 1997. Soon, however, one Mr. Hung, an entrepreneurial member of the People's Liberation Army, makes an offer for their factory--one that he insinuates can't be refused. This menacing scenario widens to include the innocent Mei-ping, Bunt's employee and current mistress, when her roommate vanishes in Hung's company. Theroux dramatizes the double-dealing of the British-Chinese ""one country, two systems"" agreement, splashing on plenty of local color, including the Happy Valley race courses, the Macao casinos and Bunt's lunchtime brothels. The laughably closed-minded and casually racist Bunt and Betty won't fully satisfy readers' curiosity about the whys and ways of Britain's less than heroic role in the agreement, however. The accomplished Theroux is always a delight to read, but the plot of his new novel, like life in today's Hong Kong, feels improvised and rushed to make a deadline. (June)