Hong Kong Noir: A Literary Journey into Hong Kong’s Heart of Darkness

Since the inception of film noir in the 1940s, Hong Kong has been no stranger to darkness: thrilling cop chases in old industrial areas, silhouettes of femme fatales mystified by a thin cold mist, pallid faces of the downtrodden glowing under neon signs, to name but a few. Yet as the international fame of Hong Kong’s cinematic darkness was pushed to its apex by filmmakers such as Yuen Woo-ping, Wong Kar-wai and Kuei Chih-hung, it may come as a surprise that the city’s first volume of noir literature is only — and finally — being published.

Hong Kong Noir, co-edited by PEN Hong Kong President Jason Y. Ng and Good Chinese Wife author Susan Blumberg-Kason, is a collection of 14 noir stories set in various neighbourhoods across the city. Its release this month makes it the 95th instalment in Akashic Books’ award-winning series of noir anthologies since it was launched in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir. Similar to its overseas counterparts, Hong Kong Noir reifies the meaning of the French term — literally translated as “black” — with its historical thrillers, domestic drama, murder mysteries, ghost stories and cops-and-robbers tales embodied by intense dark, morbid, bleak and depressing atmospheres, tones and themes.

Yet while American and European noirs are noted for their signature theme of war and organised crime, Hong Kong — as Shannon Young, the author of “Blood on the Steps,” analyses — stands out as “a science-fiction place that brings in a little twist [to the genre] by contrasting the flashy modern elements of the city with its darker back-end, back-alley parts.” Ng adds, “As an Asian city, it has so much more emphasis on family, religion, folk beliefs and superstition.”

For one thing, while other Akashic anthologies range from 10 to 20-odd stories, the publisher insisted that the number of entries in the Hong Kong volume had to be 14. In Chinese culture, 14 (十四 sap6 sei3) is the most notorious, ominous and therefore avoided number for its phonetic resemblance to “doomed” or “must die” (實死 sat6 sei2). One isn’t particular surprised by the co-editors’ unanimous exclamation: “We just love the number!”

Sitting with Blumberg-Kason at Bleak House Books, a literary hideaway in a San Po Kong office tower, Ng describes Hong Kong as “a hotbed of dark stories” rooted in its complicated and not necessarily glamourous history. After the Second World War, the British colony became a refuge for mainland Chinese who brought with them “a diversity of ideas and incidents that lent themselves quite well to crime and ghost stories,” says Ng. For example, the Imperial Japanese occupation in 1941 inspired Brittani Sonnenberg’s gripping tale “The Kamikaze Caves”; Hong Kong’s post-war economic development forms the backbone of Feng Chi-shun’s “Expensive Tissue Paper,” set in the 1950s; Hong Kong’s rapid urbanisation, beginning with the city’s first public housing estate, sets the stage for Carmen Suen’s “Fourteen.” In this way, as Blumberg-Kason summarises, Hong Kong naturally provides what it takes to weave together “the whole historical spectrum of Hong Kong noir stories from the [Japanese] occupation to the Umbrella Revolution and every major point in between.”  

Surprisingly, notwithstanding the historical and geographical richness of the Hong Kong stories, both editors say the editorial process was relatively painless. “When we contacted people for contributions, we didn’t consciously try to manipulate the X number of crime stories and X number of thriller stories,” Ng said. “There was such a diversity of voices.” Last year, over dim sum, the two went through the 14 stories and settled on organising them into four categories: “Hungry Ghosts and Troubled Spirits,” “Obedience and Respect,” “Family Matters” and “Death and Thereafter.”

The book closes with Ysabelle Cheung’s “Big Hotel,” which imprints vivid scenes of deathly white flowers on readers’ minds. The opening story is equally visual, but in a contrasting fashion, is Ng’s “Ghost of Yulan Past,” which details a supernatural encounter in a shadowy temple. It is an encompassing piece that sets the political and social tone for the Hong Kong volume. “That was how we came up with the first and the last, and then we just filled in the rest,” says Blumberg-Kason. “When people finish the book they’ll be like, ‘Wow,’ and the book also starts with a wow.”

Ng’s tale is certainly unforgettable. Set in the Tin Hau Temple during the Yu Lan Festival, it takes places over ,one of Hong Kong’s most sinister days when the gates of hell break loose on the 15 day of the seventh lunar month, allowing the ghosts of the deceased to return to the living world. “My family and relatives lived in Tin Hau and so I grew up listening to my grandparents’ and parents’ terrifying yet fascinating stories about this temple or that back street,” says Ng. “It’s natural for me to write about a place where I don’t need to be present to reconstruct the scenes. I can easily visualise myself walking up Tin Hau Temple Road and know by heart how long it takes so that the story becomes persuasive and believable.”

He also interviewed the temple’s caretaker, which helped underline the issue of conserving traditional forms of culture in a city that so readily turns its back on the past. “I tried to sneak in social and political issues so that my stories wouldn’t just be ghost stories or dark tales,” he says. “My readers would also get a sense of what it’s like to live in Hong Kong and some of the existential issues that people had to deal with.” Blumberg-Kason says she tries to do something similar in her work, pointing to the disappearance of neon signs throughout the city – just one of many noiresque parts of Hong Kong’s identity that risk vanishing in the near future.

And yet not everyone embraces that identity. When Blumberg-Kason tried to organise an event for Hong Kong Noir with a Hong Kong government office in New York, she was rejected. The reason? The bleak and poignant nature of the anthology, with its stories about superstition, domestic drama and crime, was not in line with the government office’s mission in promoting Hong Kong as a gleamingly efficient hub for business. Blumberg-Kason was frustrated, but she consoled herself with a possible explanation for the government office’s behaviour: maybe they were superstitious. She laughs. “I mean, this is fiction! Nothing bad is gonna happen to them!’

Jokes aside, Ng shakes his head at the government’s unwillingness to promote the book, noting that the Akashic noir series has almost a hundred volumes around the world and Hong Kong is not being singled out a particularly dark place. “Superstition and folk beliefs are a part of Hong Kong’s culture,” he says. “We should celebrate and embrace them instead of dismissing them as what make us look bad. As writers, we’re not in the business of window-dressing the city. We’re here to tell the truth and portray things the way we see it.”


Photos: courtesy of Jason Ng, Xu Xi

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