A book review on The Evergreen Teahouse by Jeremy Trafford in PEN International Magazine in Vol. 54 of 2004
The author describes this as a Hong Kong novel, but the scene extends to include mainland China, Taiwan, North Korea and South Vietnam in a narrative that spans the thirty three years between 1952 and 1985, and, through the reminiscences of the older characters, the earlier period of the Japanese occupation. The focus is wide, and the viewpoints are varied – the thrusting individualism of a young Hong Kong entrepreneur, Xavier, who is impatient with the religious and cultural traditions of the past that his parents venerate, is tellingly contrasted with the political aspirations of the Communist party activist, Cheng Ching, the portrait of whom is one of the distinctive achievements of the novel. The detailed picture of Hong Kong capitalism with its big business ethos and occasional corruption, is countered by a balanced criticism of the British administration with all its canny opportunism and racial condescension as well as by the squabbles and frustrations of the Communist High Command which are so convincingly depicted.
David Wong has all the powers of empathy that a novelist requires above all other virtues. He is able to project himself into the old Buddhist and Confucian values of the older generation, with their emphasis on compassion and benevolence, as well as into the ambitions and disappointments of Communist party officials from mainland China. Cheng Ching starts off as a naive sixteen year old villager recruited into the People’s Liberation Army to fight in Korea, where even at that age he is critical of the wastage of human life the fighting involved. Haunted by the loss of his comrades he falls in Jove with a young nurse, but later, when taken from his unit to attend the May Day celebrations in the capital, she is stolen from him by the womanising Chairman Mao, whose charisma at first had so overwhelmed him. Twenty years later, with Mao dead, Cheng Ching, feeling disabused, experiences the intrigues and shifting alliances that attended the Cultural Revolution and the downfall of the Gang of Four, though he nevertheless agrees to go to Hong Kong as an Communist agent intent on infiltrating the capitalist system and securing information about Western weapons and technology. There he comes across the Hong Kong capitalism ruthlessly typified by Xavier, whose emotional coldness has by now lost him the love of his Chinese American wife Lucille.
Another contrasting well-drawn figure is the British journalist, Simon Baxendale, who falls in love with Lucille. Baxendale who is familiar with Chinese thought and feeling – the orderliness of Confucianism, the quietism of the Taoists, and the Buddhist surrender of all worldly attachments – attracts the sympathies of Lucille, whose son has turned against the relentless business methods of his father, as has Xavier’s own mother, whose attachment to the old ways is movingly depicted. These emotional involvements give a needed alternative dimension to this otherwise mainly political novel: Xavier’s retreat into his youthful past in Taiwan in search of a lost lover, the daughter of fisherman, with the tragic consequence that result, is woven in with the developments leading up to the signing of the Sino-British joint declaration on the future of Hong Kong (in which Margaret Thatcher herself makes a fleeing appearance.) There are one or two rather stereotypical figures in the novel, especially among the British officials, and the long time span makes for a rather disjointed narrative. It is the breadth and detail the political picture and the imaginative involvement in such contrasting and opposing points of view that give this novel its fascination – especially for those with knowledge of the history of the Chinese world in the second half of the last century.