Review titled CRAFTING AUTHENTIC FICTION by Terence Netto
in the Malay Mail of March 25, 2017
A good short story should keep the reader off balance, in the dark and grappling like the protagonist with the solution to its dark mysteries.
The trick is not to confuse the reader too much and lose him completely in an overdose of intricacy.
David T. K. Wong’s Collected Hong Kong Stories walks the line with admirable flair.
Hong Kong-born Wong, who for the past seven years has lived in Kuala Lumpur where he finds healthcare costs affordable and Cantonese widely spoken, has the good reporter’s eye for detail and the novelist’s ear for the cadences of conversation.
Both strengths, displayed in the 18 stories featured in this collection, must have been honed in his days as a journalist in the territory where he was born and in Canton, Singapore, Perth and London, among the several places where he lived, studied and worked in his now 88-year-old life.
His short stories teem with artfully observed details that make his characters sit up and breathe. The accretion of details, their hurrying actuality gives this collection its page-turning verve.
Though he spent only a few years in journalism — it was not a well-paying profession in Hong Kong in the 1950s — one can see how the eye he brought to his reportage has helped him craft his stories.
For a feel of Wong’s ability to delineate passing scene and random characters he encountered in his journalistic career, readers may want to advert to the second volume of his memoirs, Hong Kong Fiascos: A Struggle for Survival, a compelling account of his days as a newspaperman and then civil servant in the British colony.
The ephemeral nature of journalism has haunted its best practitioners, giving them a sense of what Omar Khayyam was alluding to when he wrote that the “moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.”
The craft behind writing to make things timely has been regarded as inimical to the art of writing to make things permanent, which is the aim of fiction and nonfiction writers. Obviously, for Wong his practice of the former has fed — not stymied — his craft at the latter.
This can be seen in the way he deftly renders the social and psychological detail that fleshes out his characters and in how he situates them in the matrix of relationships against which he deploys the action.
The characters and their nuances must have come from a mind stored with the lore of vivid figures and compelling anecdotes he chanced to encounter in the world of journalism.
Also, Wong’s experience of general news reporting that allows a practitioner to mingle with society’s luminaries on a day and its dregs on another is evidenced in his stories where he depicts characters from society’s lower depths where dwell bartenders and police detectives.
He balances sympathetic identification with them with clinical detachment as he charts the fate they meet.
In several instances, that fate is believable and authentic because of Wong’s ability to enter into the world of his protagonists and to portray them in their valour and in their frailty.
By having them engaged in action that tests and defines them — the staple of good fiction — Wong humanises them. One may be surprised by one’s capacity for nonjudgemental understanding after reading Wong’s stories.
It’s no surprise that Wong’s stories have been broadcast on BBC radio and have appeared in magazines and anthologies.
One can see how in some future where stories written in English are valued for themselves and for the prose style in which it is rendered, Wong’s collection could become a recommended text for students learning the language.
His is a prose style that is laconic and wise, and reminds one of what Ezra Pound said about literature: “Literature is news that stays news.”