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“There were no street signs.  [Diamond Hill], a shanty town, was a maze, all its lanes and paths twisted and crisscrossed randomly.  Most houses were wooden or metal shacks, one leaning precariously on another, each fitted with wafer-thin walls…Red demolition notices were glued on all the doors.  There were wires everywhere, some loose, some tangled up around lampposts.  Open gutters [funneled] a foul smell of sewage and lemon bleach.”

cover kit fan diamond hillWhen a young man known as “Buddha,” who has been living in Bangkok, is sent back to Hong Kong to continue his recovery from drug abuse in the late 1980s, he finds many changes underway.  Once “the Hollywood of the Orient,” the familiar Diamond Hill area of Hong Kong looks vastly different now in the lead up to the British turnover of Hong Kong to China, less than ten years away.  Bruce Lee, who once made films there is now long gone, though many residents of Diamond Hill still celebrate his work and long for his return.  The returning young man, known here as Buddha, feels abandoned in Hong Kong – and friendless after his time spent in Bangkok – and he misses Daishi, the elderly Buddhist monk who helped him “get clean” there. He is not sure why Daishi has now ordered him to Hong Kong to live on property operated by a Buddhist nunnery.  He is especially confused when he discovers that it is located in the midst of a shantytown and is run by the Iron Nun, a strict woman (and former travel agent) who is well aware of the corruption surrounding her.  “This religion is older than capitalism or communism,” she asserts, though whether it will survive those influences and the rapid physical changes of the area and its people remain to be seen.

"Audrey Hepburn: claims that she was in a film with Bruce Lee what was produced in HongKong .

“Audrey Hepburn” claims that she was in a film with Bruce Lee that was produced in HongKong .

Poet and novelist Kit Fan, who was born and educated in Hong Kong until he was twenty-one, tells Buddha’s story with the kind of sensitivity which comes from knowing his setting well, its people, and its problems – and caring about all of them  Focusing on the people whom Buddha comes to know on Diamond Hill after he returns there from Bangkok, he writes an intimate story involving four major characters.  Buddha himself, though he leads the action, is unsure of himself, and his role here is primarily one of observation as he sifts through what is happening to him and to those around him for clues as to how to find himself in this new/old Hong Kong.  The first people he meets are an abusive mother and a boy who is tied to a chair while she tries to cut his hair with scissors and a bowl for a pattern.  These people turn out to be “Audrey Hepburn,” a woman using a false name who once acted with Bruce Lee, and a childlike character who might have been  her son but turns out to be a little girl.  When Buddha offers to cut the little girl’s hair and claims to have been a hairdresser, in order to save her from further abuse, the child runs away. “Audrey Hepburn”responds by offering herself to him, free of charge.

A poor shanty town like Diamond Hill in the Kowloon section of Hong Kong.

A poor shanty town like Diamond Hill in the Kowloon section of Hong Kong.

These characters later achieve greater importance when the “little girl” turns out to be a significant player in Diamond Hill’s gangs and the heroin business, where she is known as “Boss.”  When Boss meets Buddha for the second time, she “takes out a tiny plastic jacket filled with the white powder and waves it in [his] face. It’s Grade A stuff.  People call it ‘the diamond cut.”  Then she adds “You don’t need to look anywhere else.  I run a monopoly in Diamond Hill.” She is not exaggerating.  “Audrey Hepburn,” who may or may not be her mother, appears and sometimes reappears, and when Buddha next sees “Audrey,” she is working as a dishwasher for a noodle shop.  Both Audrey and Boss hope eventually to escape Hong Kong for the United Kingdom.  In the meantime, they, especially the aggressive Boss, do what is necessary to stay in charge of their lives.  When Boss soon gets in trouble with the criminal Triad and has to hide in the nunnery, she is clever enough to avoid the Triad and others looking to end her criminal career.

Buddha and Quartz visit Lion's Hea Rock on a trip up the mountain. Photo by Nick Eagles

Buddha and Quartz visit Lion’s Head Rock on a trip up the mountain. Photo by Nick Eagles.

One final character, Quartz, the Iron Nun’s assistant, is a complex and disturbed woman who is in charge of the nunnery’s chickens and often does the cleaning for the nunnery.  Thought to be suffering from memory loss,  she is described as extremely “fragile,”  the complete opposite of someone like Boss, for whom nothing, even human life, is truly sacred.  In one symbolic section, Quartz, who has been starving herself, persuades Buddha to go on a hike up the mountain to a cave, where they feed the bats and later observe the stone ruins and Lion Rock, where Quartz hauls herself over the top of the cliff and disappears, temporarily, testing herself against fear. Later the two, Buddha and Quartz, share aspects of their pasts, and she persuades him to try to help rescue Boss from all her dangerous activities.

Author Kit Fan

Author Kit Fan

Throughout the novel, poet/author Kit Fan keeps the attention fixed on his characters, not on the more general social issues which threaten them in the face of the imminent Chinese takeover in just a few years’ time.  He includes sections in which nearly all the characters discuss their personal pasts which led them to who they are now.  Their secret interrelationships add to the interest and the mysteries here and explain, in many ways, why each character has acted as s/he has.  With Boss as the biggest criminal and Quartz as the most saintly, he offers two extremes for the reader to contemplate, and Buddha, who relates to both of them, must decide how he fits into life with each of them.  Kit Fan, despite the dramatic scenes and the exotic setting, writes often beautiful prose and provides many sensitive insights into the lives of these people living on the edge.  By showing the effects of the political turmoil on well-developed characters, he makes the complex foreign issues more understandable.  One of the best debut novels I have read in a long time, I look forward to Kit Fan’s next novel for its insights, its precise descriptions, and its unusual characters.

Photos.  The author photo appears on  https://www.pinterest.com

The Bruce Lee photo is from https://www.pinterest.com

The Diamond Hill photo from 1994, may be found on https://www.alamy.com

Lion’s Head Rock, which Quartz visits with Buddha,  is by Nick Eagles.  https://fineartamerica.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Hong Kong, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Kit Fan
Published by: World Editions
Date Published: 05/04/2021
ISBN: 978-1642860887
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover


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