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Becky Chan

by Jared Mitchell

In its own mindful, dignified manner, Becky Chan goes all the way. Jared Mitchell’s fictional account of Hong Kong in the 1960s – a desperate few acres, gnawed at like a colonial bone – is so comprehensively conjured that, yes, all of human life is here: love, sex, death, money, and ambition. Part love story (in the cool, complex manner of Graham Greene) and part biography of a city, Becky Chan is big screen entertainment, and the movies are where Mitchell begins and ends his story.
Hong Kong’s claim to fame – “for workmen with salty faces and factory girls with hard metal hairclips” – is its cinema industry, then as now arbiter of fabulous profit and floating goddesses. As the book progresses, the enigmatic Becky Chan becomes the reigning diva of the Great World film cartel, and her husband, Feng Hsia-foon, the fastidious, gangsterish boss of HK film production. How Becky arrives at her fate, and how the innumerable caprices of history and family take her there, is chronicled by the narrator, self-described solitary hack Paul Hauer.
Over the years, Hauer – gay, middle-aged, slightly fogeyish – befriends Becky, a friendship that grows into an unexpected life together. But the most important role in Becky Chan goes to the lonely crowd: as the book opens, about one-third of Hong Kong’s three million souls have recently fled from Maoist mainland China. The refugees’ abject sorrow and confusion form the backdrop to the slow extinction of classic Hong Kong romantic cinema.
Mitchell gives Hauer a scrupulous, limpid descriptive style, and the book never stoops to formula writing or blockbusterish plot twists. Even better, Mitchell rejects the still-trendy Westerner’s regard for the alleged riddles of the East: if anything, the characters know Hong Kong’s secrets all too well, and would probably be grateful for the occasional inexplicable turn of events.