A book review on The Evergreen Teahouse by Dr. Frances Wood, Curator of the Chinese Collections in the British Library, in the Journal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs in March 2004
Though most of the novel is set in Hong Kong, it is a novel about ideas provoked by Hong Kong. Issues such as the opportunities bravely seized by young entrepreneurs during the devastating period of Japanese occupation, the relationship of businessmen and crooks, religion and morality in business, the place of tradition, whether it is connoisseurship of calligraphy and traditional Chinese painting or the tea house as a meeting place and the handover in 1997 are all addressed through the actions and thoughts of the characters.
The novel is built up through a series of chapters where different stories are gradually interwoven. The cast of chaacters is large, comprising British officials and journalists, members of the Taiwanese underworld, a Chinese veteran of the Korean War who rises to become part of the handover negotiations, an American-born Chinese and, fleetingly, Chairman Mao himself, although the central group is the immediate family of Chu Wing-Seng.
Chu Wing-Seng’s father, Chu Tung-Po, Chairman of the Gold Star Industrial and Financial Corporation, made his first fortune by running boats into China, “through a gauntlet of Japanese patrols, pirates, bandits, treacherous seas and Allied air raids” to bring food into Hong Kong during th Japanese occupation. He collected “Swiss watches, German cameras, French perfumes, silver cigarette cases . . . jewellery and heirlooms, exquisite embroideries and antique vases, jades and stamp collections” and exchanged them for rice and other foodstuffs desperately needed by the people of Hong Kong who were close to starvation. The group of friends who joined together to run the smuggling operation and who grew rich from it, continued to meet regularly after the war in the Evergreen Tea House.
The moral dilemmas raised by the illicit trade provoked different reactions in Chu Tung-Po and his wife. She disapproved of her husband’s profiteering, feeling that food-smuggling should have been carried out for purely humantarian reasons and became a vegetarian, turning increasingly to Buddhist meditation whilst he, in what little spare time he had, immersed himself in Chinese culture, collecting calligraphy and studying the Confucian Classics with Teacher Tam.
As the novel develops, Chu Wing-Seng gradually learns more of his father’s past. His position — torn between a loving, over-protective mother devoted to her son and her religion, and a distant father whose past contains murky secrets and whose passion for Chinese culture Chu Wing-Seng cannot share — reflects the dilemma of many in the late 20th century. The Gold Star Corporation moves into supermarkets, forcing small traders into bankruptcy, yet the older Chu sentimentally protects the Evergreen Tea House. Chu Wing-Seng is sent to America to learn modern business management, yet his American-born wife tries hard to learn Chinese. To some extent, the pattern of not very happy family life repeats itself.
A parallel story, developed more briefly, is that of Cheng Sing, born in a very poor village in Anhui Province to a crippled veteran of the Long March. Through this heritage and his own bravery in the Korean War, he rises fast in the Communist hierarchy and is sent to Hong Kong in the 1980s to report back to Peking as the question of the handover of Hong Kong gains urgency. He, too, faces a dilemma. For him it is the question of moral standards — both vaguely remembered Confucian ideals and the Communist morality he learnt as a child — in the face of modernisation, the attraction of “quicker economic results, but at the price of corruption, cynicism and a return of wide disparities in wealth.”
David Wong is a brilliant observer of the tradition versus modernity problem, which had dogged China since the end of the 19th century and which the speed of development and Western influence in Hong Kong threw into sharper focus. He also brings his own experience as a (very senior) Hong Kong civil servant into the story with illuminating anecdotes. There is a great deal to be learnt in this novel as one races through the many-layered stories. And one is left with a strong sense of the author as a deep thinker and a man of high principles.— FRANCES WOOD