What a charmed reading life I lead. Two days after I finished writing a two-part travel piece on Hong Kong, Macao and Canton, my local branch brandishes a hefty tome called "An Insular Possession" by one Timothy Mo.
That Mo was news to me derives from his youth: Born in Hong Kong in 1950 of an English mother and a Cantonese father, he’s just now creating a reputation based on The Monkey King (1979) and Sweet and Sour (1982), both of which won important U.K. literary awards.
But An Insular Possession—which the author signs off with “Canton, February 1980-London, July 1985” as the dates of composition—is that rare literary phenomenon, a historical novel which is as readable as it is complex, wise as well as witty.
It’s the story of how and why the Brits set themselves up in Hong Kong as an unanticipated outcome of the Opium War in 1841. There are four principal characters: an idealistic young Bostonian who lives to his 90s as a distinguished Sinologist; his not-very-much-older mentor, a Richmond, Virginia, boy with no expectations except those he can wrest from factoring tea and silks; a County Mayo oddball artist who has left Calcutta under a fiscal cloud; and a Portuguese Jesuit based in Macao who arranges for the Bostonian to learn Chinese.
Mo’s description of the factories in Canton (not manu-factories, but warehouses cum offices where goods are factored for import and export) and the encircling hostility of the Cantonese natives is most vividly reported. So is his explanation of how the British found themselves more and more mired in the opium trade (from their colony India) because they weren’t breaking even on tea and silk exports.
Our two American idealists decide to put their money where their mouths have been drifting by setting up a biweekly newspaper to wage a press war against the establishment’s kept weekly. The spirited discussion over what name they’ll give their fledgling medium is a hilarious (but nonetheless profound) gloss on the purposes and problems of 19th-Century journalism.
This stylistic device permits Mo to comment on anything and everything going on—or not going on—in the Canton-Macao-Hong Kong triangle.
Another device Mo uses with great liveliness and charm is the old epistolary tactic. The Virginian falls in love with the niece and ward of his English boss at the factory. The slow efflorescence of their love and the brutal suppression of it by the snooty Brit—outraged that an American with no prospects and no received status should be messing around with his charge—is a marvelous side story on the differences between American and British class attitudes.
Indeed, it’s the Virginian’s comeuppance that prods him into venturing into journalism with his Boston buddy. And the personal correspondence between the innocent Bostonian and the more worldly Virginian is a delectable sub-plot of male bonding.
The war itself is depicted with a harrowing force. The portrait of the sepoys getting out of hand, pillaging and raping, gives you a real sense of how complicated it was for the British Empire to maintain its ideals when commanding colonial troops who lived in far different worlds.
And the problem worked both ways, because the emperor in far-off Peking was hobbled in his efforts to stamp out the opium trade that was crippling his people because Cantonese officials were too easily on the take. The war was a standoff at first because the deep-draught British men-of-war couldn’t sail far enough up the Pearl River Delta to protect the factories.
What turns the tide for them is the low-draught, iron-clad, aptly named Nemesis. And the higher-tech rockets and guns wreak havoc on the lower-tech Chinese combatants, although there’s an episode when the local citizens, outraged at sepoy rapine, give the musket / bayonet cadres a taste of what guerilla warfare is like in the inscrutable East.
The fortunes of war also drive the harried British fleet eastwards until they stumble on the superb natural harbors of the Hong Kong region. The inadvertence of that crown colony’s discovery is not a little ironic in the light of 1997.
There are marvelous set pieces as well: a duck hunting party in the tricky, untracked (to them) wastes of the Delta, a Fourth of July party in Macao, and pathetic efforts to reproduce the home environment with scull racing and cricket.
But by far the most interesting sidebar derives from the fact that our Virginian editor becomes a fanatic partisan of the new Daguerreotype process. Mo pits the Virginian’s enthusiasm and evolving aesthetic chatter against his friend the painter. Not only do they jaw delectably about the varied assets of the two media of expression, but they also compete in recording the vagaries of war and the landscapes of the three-part colony. I can’t remember when art-theory speculations and arguments have been so congenially interwoven with a fascinating narrative.
Savor, finally, the elegant recollection of the Bostonian nonagenarian, thinking back at the end of the book on his experiences in the Insular Possession some 60-odd years before.
“It is not the spectre of absolute evil which is so shocking as the intimate commingling of good and bad in human beings, the occurrence of the wicked in a familiar and quotidian aspect. The purveyors of opium…could not be described as malevolent in their everyday social intercourse. To the contrary, they were many of them large-minded, hospitable and kindly men who might have risked their lives to save mine.”
The book is full of such unique voices.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, February 17, 1993