Paul Theroux's latest novel is set in 1996 Hong Kong just before the "Chinese take-away", as the local Brits call it. Our forty-two-year-old hero, Neville Mullard, goes by the nickname "Bunt" (from the nursery song "Bye Baby Bunting") and still lives with his mum in the charming "Albion Cottage".
But that doesn't stop him from enjoying the Filipina prostitutes at the local fleshpots and sexually harassing (with considerable success) the young Chinese women who work at his company, Imperial Stitching, a cloth label factory.
Bunt and his elderly mother, Betty, are in a state of complete denial about the local political climate. They don't read the papers and have never visited China, though it's just a few miles away. They hate Chinese food and insist that their houseboy, Wang, make such English breakfast delights as boiled eggs with "soldiers". He even packs a bag lunch for Bunt to eat when he visits the local bar-brothels on his mid-day break.
The fifty-year-old factory in the colony's Kowloon district was founded by Bunt's father and his partner Henry Chuck, a refugee from China who hated the mainland. As the novel opens, the much-respected Chuck has suddenly died and willed his half share of the business to Bunt.
Enter "Mr. Hung", a mysterious mainland businessman who speaks English fluently and acts like an army officer, but displays all the crass mannerisms of a peasant. He offers Bunt millions of Hong Kong dollars for Imperial Stitching, but his offer gets rejected out-of-hand.
Through cheap gifts and sly innuendo, Mr. Hung insinuates himself into Bunt's life. He makes an ally of Betty (she owns a quarter of the business) and convinces her the deal is a good one-she wants nothing more than to return to England with "a million quid" in her purse.
In order to blackmail Bunt into selling, the malicious Mr. Hung has taken pains to find out all about Bunt's adventurous sex life, including his desktop dalliances with Mei-ping, a beautiful young Chinese refugee and a sewing machine operator at Imperial Stitching.
When Mr. Hung's attempts to get Bunt to sell the business more or less voluntarily fail, he finally makes an offer that can't be refused-either agree to sell now for Hong Kong dollars, or next year the new government will expropriate and pay a fraction of the price, in non-convertible Chinese currency. Bunt has no choice but to agree.
But Mr. Hung demands more than just a signature on a deed of sale-he insists on a mean-spirited dinner with Bunt at the Golden Dragon, ostensibly to celebrate the successful conclusion of the deal. Without telling Bunt beforehand, he invites the beautiful Mei-ping and her roommate Ah Fu (she also works at Imperial Stitching) along to a double date at the restaurant.
Bunt eventually walks out of the dinner in disgust (both the food and his host's drunken behaviour hasten the departure), but Ah Fu goes off in a taxi with Mr. Hung and disappears. Mei-ping pleads with Bunt to talk to Mr. Hung and find out what's happened to her.
Bunt dawdles for several days before confronting Mr. Hung about his missing worker; the deal isn't finalized and if Mr. Hung gets arrested, Betty Mullard won't get her cottage by the sea in England.
When he does speak to Mr. Hung, all the evidence points darkly to the sadistic murder of Ah Fu, but Bunt still doesn't tell the police. He ultimately decides he loves Mei-ping and resolves to flee with her to England when everyone gets paid off, but he falls victim to a stunning betrayal.
There's no dispute about Theroux's brilliance as a novelist. Not only has he turned the Madame Butterfly love story on its head, but he's also infused his hero Bunt with a convincing and ironic indecision which, strangely enough, pushes the plot right along.
And remarkably, there are really two villains here, the obvious Mr. Hung and Bunt's grasping and manipulative mother, whom Theroux manages to catch perfectly with splendidly written little portraits. Behold this:
"[Betty] was never so withering as when she was earthy, repeating the vulgar folk wisdom of her parents. She could say, `He's from the gutter,' with the authority of someone who knew the gutter."
"Although as a final flourish she lifted her meddling head like an empress, she had an old woman's turtle face, all stringy neck and beaky in profile, which gave her the strangely vulnerable and pathetic look of an endangered species."
In fact, Kowloon Tong is full of such little gems, where Theroux, with a few broad strokes, manages to capture character perfectly. Take his description of the Mullards' houseboy, for example:
"Wang was tall-taller than Bunt, with a broad north China face, a flattish head, and wide-apart eyes that gave him a snake's features. He looked even more snake-like when he smiled, but that was seldom. His laughter was more frequent but even more sinister, since it never indicated pleasure, only anxiety and fear."
Kowloon Tong is a very good novel, one that works both as a satire and a political thriller.
Michael Fitz-James is editor of Canadian Lawyer magazine.