Reviews and essays / March 2014 (Issue 23)

Holding your Breath: Felix Cheong's Vanishing Point and Christopher New's Gage Street Courtesan

by Cecilia Chan

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Felix Cheong, Vanishing Point, Ethos Books, 2012. 156 pgs.
Christopher New, Gage Street Courtesan, Earnshaw Books, 2012. 180 pgs.


What propels you to read a story, even if there are things in it you may not like? What if the story takes place in the most unsightly corner of town and is told from the perspective of a person you would rather ignore under normal circumstances?

What if, when you are already hooked by the unlikely combination of elements that makes up the story, you bear with it only to find that you are hardly getting anywhere more informed or inspired? What if, everything leaves you smitten, dismal and dispirited?

Such was how I felt the moment I turned to the last page of both Gage Street Courtesan by Christopher New and Vanishing Point by Felix Cheong. But to think of it, I was the one actively engaging in trying to find something more in the stories—in that sense, these authors have done more than a good job in delivering carefully considered plots, painstakingly crafted characters and multiple-layered structures—and so my pursuit of fickle, fictional truth was fulfilled. What is it, then, that left me "smitten, dismal and dispirited?"

Was I hoping for a happier ending? Was I expecting a more glamorous cast of characters? Was I asking for some lessons to enlighten the rest of my life?

Different readers will have their own answers for what they expect of a story. Regardless of mine, I found both books to be fascinating examples of how stories can propel readers forward in spite of the many repellant elements within them. Both works drive readers with the allure of treachery, secrecy, half-told truth and instances where so many truths are told you no longer know what to believe and whom to trust. It was also the charm of their unlikely characters—the downtrodden, the dismissed, the overlooked—that imbues these stories with a force that pushes readers up till the last page.

Gage Street Courtesan uses as its backdrop the historical royal visit of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh to Hong Kong in 1869, in his capacity as the commander of the Royal Navy frigate Galatea; and, while in the city, his path crosses with that of the central character in the novel, the Austrian courtesan Franziska Goldmann. Thick descriptive facts and intricate fiction eventually merge as her story unfolds. The magic of this book lies in the many accounts given by many characters; what they are doing and thinking are revealed in parallel in a fashion similar to that of a split-frame in a film. In this way, they reveal their shady pasts, their present schemes and desires and their wishful hopes, a little at a time. But who are you to believe, if all the characters have conflicting interests? And should you put a prince, a courtesan, an anti-anarchist sailor, a pimp, just to name a few, in the same book? The narrative does progress at a reasonable pace through present events, as well as flashbacks, that shed light on the characters' backgrounds and answer many of the questions raised. And the story's fading history when juxtaposed with the familiarity of the street names (especially to Hong Kong locals) adds to the appeal of the novel. You can almost feel connected to what could be deemed grotesque and ridiculous … Here is a big round of applause for the beautiful balance of sound historical research and the frightfully vivid imagination which make up this fictional Hong Kong, once upon a time.

While New hooks readers with his wealth of context and personal accounts, Felix Cheong's work achieves a page-turner quality through the art of concealment and subtraction.

The power of Cheong's short stories in Vanishing Point can be boiled down to one succinct quote from the story "You Will Be Out Like A Light":

Magic is not in the devices, not the Jack of hearts in a lemon, the coin plucked from behind the ear or the mechanical contraptions piercing a woman through her heart. It is in being part of something larger, to hold your breath during such moments and disappear into yourself. The art of magic—and the magic of art—is disappearance.

You can take this quote both literally and figuratively in relation to Vanishing Point—literally, in the sense that each of its ten stories deals with the disappearance of someone; figuratively, in the sense that things are taken out of the stories unnoticed.

Sum, a wife, is reduced to a few mysterious strands of white a hair in the story "In The Dark"; Ben the intellectually challenged son in "Because I Tell" gets covered by leaves under the night sky and Ah Pin, a retired prison guard, leaves his house, for good, after relieving himself of the burden of attending to convicts with life sentences in "Life Sentence." Then there is the actual disappearance of the assistant in a sleight-of-hand magic show in "You Will Be Out Like A Light."

Cheong leaves so few traces in his poetic prose, and each of these traces is so fragmented, that you are enticed into reading on to collect and piece them together as much as possible. And, of course, the open endings are intended for your own interpretations.

As for the unpleasantly empty feeling that surges up in you afterwards? Well, let's just say, there are millions of storylines going on around us: juicy ones, mundane ones, glorious ones, toilsome ones, grotesque ones … They needn't be confined to one's you can relate to, nor is there always a need for context to give you a clearer sense of place and event. As many personas speak incognito to convince and confound, you, the reader, can only take a passive role and be led around this cloud of confusion. These stories don't necessary take place for the sake of the audience, and there needn't be messages between the lines, nor morals of any kind.

But still, you bear through the mist, and you read on, in the hope of getting something out of a story. Only that, my friend, you must know it is the process of reading that counts. And when you are done, you will have met the characters and listened to accounts of their reality. You made the choice of braving into the thick mist of the story at your own expense.

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