"1997" by Jeremy Tiang
Vicki Leigh, 22/8/17
Young people eh? With their fancy phones and Insta-everything and their fast food and designer clothes and their entitlement. Not like Mui Foong’s aunt, whose voice Singaporean writer Jeremy Tiang adopts for the short story ‘1997’.
Set during the impending hand-over from the hundred-year lease from the British, Mui Foong is 14 years old, and ‘doesn’t want to leave’ Hong Kong, which is surely going to the dogs with its looming ‘Party devils [and] corpses in the gutter’. Bit like Brexit really. Thus her nameless maternal aunt gives her a scathing dressing-down as to how she should be so lucky to even sniff at the wonderful life she leads, with opportunities to go and live abroad, eat so as to not be on the brink of starvation, and own her own computer. Real talk.
The monologue aspect of this story is an aspect that lends so much power to the account of merciless pain and suffering endured by its candid female protagonist at the hands of the Red Guards on the mainland, with the aunt relaying an unwitting resort to cannibalism at six years old during the Great Leap Forward. No wonder she has a habit of over-ordering dim sum now. Doesn’t Mui Foong appreciate the fact her city is crammed with sustenance? What would molly-coddled Mui Foong do, just to survive? What would YOU, the reader, do? The ultimate guilt trip over dinner.
Connections permeate this story: the mainland to Hong Kong by Chou En-lai delivering foodstuffs based on lies to the border from behind the Bamboo Curtain, Hong Kong to Britain’s handover, the handover to the narrative’s present, and I find a certain beauty in that. But the prospect jumping off into the deep end of going to live in Britain for a better life as family links obtain their visas appears to shake up both generations here as they take a headlong leap into the Chinese diaspora. Nobody likes the winds of change, do they?
And so Hong Kong will return back to China in the year 1997, just as Mui Foong and her aunt make swift arrangements to escape the unholy ghosts of the mainland once more. The question remains: can the ‘Party devils’ still reach them there?