Reviews / May 2010 (Issue 11)

Checking Out: The Hong Kong Writers Circle's Hotel China

by O Thiam Chin


S.C.C. Overton and Edmund Price (Editors), Hotel China, Hong Kong Writers Circle, 2009. 306 pgs.

Reading a story anthology is akin to checking into a new hotel after you have done all the prep work online of checking the cost and location of the hotel, its facilities and its proximity to the shopping malls and other attractions. Upon entering the hotel, you note the lobby, the deco and its service staff. Going into the room, you inspect what it has to offer, and compare it with what you have imagined it to be, tallying up the balance sheet in your head of the good and bad. The bed is okay, though the carpet smells of dampness and cigarettes, and the bathroom is cramped like a seashell. The furniture is old and tacky, but the view outside the window is fantastic. Looking around, taking in everything in sight, you are still unsure whether you have gotten yourself a good deal.

Alas, this is my lingering impression when I checked into the new story collection, Hotel China, by The Hong Kong Writers Circle, which comprises twenty-six new stories set in a fictional four-star hotel in Wan Chai. Edited by S.C.C. Overton and Edmund Price, there are stories that run the gamut from illicit affairs to murders, from espionage adventures to broken marriages. The collection is divided into several broad categories for easy classification: "Bars & Restaurants," "Hotel Services," "Local Information," "Meetings," "Special Occasions," "Sport & Recreation," "With the Family" and "Other Services."

While there is promise in the premise of the collection—a hotel as the setting and backdrop for examining pertinent contemporary issues like social mobility, transnational identity, xenophobia and ethnic relationships—the execution, on the whole, is uneven and sloppy, with loose and frilling ends.

Most stories are burdened under a heavy weight of purple prose and meandering, meaningless plots. In some of the stories under "Local Information," almost every mention of a prostitute comes with an accompanying "bitch"—as if there was nothing more to them than a misogynistic label—and in one instance, "brown bitch." Halfway through Hotel China, you can't feel how a character differs from one story to another, with their stock, stereotypical and predictable characterization.

While a few stories start off well, they gradually descend into forced endings without adequate motivation or explanation, like when a drug carrier turns religious, or when a foreign journalist, suffering a terrible bout of white-man's guilt after having cruel, hardcore sex with a prostitute (an encounter which runs into three pages of description), decides to redeem himself: "'My God Stephen,' he said to himself. 'Your own daughter is the same age. What if it were her?' Perhaps if his editor publishes this article on prostitution some of his guilt might fade."

However, one well-crafted story that fully embodies the heart of Hotel China is S.C.C. Overton's "The Bell-boy." In it, the hotel becomes, not just a place of dwelling, of transactional accommodation, but a breathing, haunting creature as seen through the eyes of a ghostly bell-boy, with its in-your-face declaration, at the start of the story, "I am the bell-boy. I am the Hotel China. I scour my skin on the concrete."

With acute observations, the hotel is transformed into a fully fleshed out body: "…the hotel is once again confined to its natural boundaries, its pale concrete skin and the unbearable weight of its own body." Even its physiological functions are detailed vividly, "In the summer, the hotel sweats," "the atmosphere was full and tight, like a deep breath held in the lungs of the building, suspended in the arching cavity of its chest" and "thick squeaky paint like engorged flesh."

Through the act of unreliable narration, the story builds up to a suspenseful end, as the bell-boy and the hotel becomes one, in body and spirit: "My body had become emaciated and my bones and sinews were like a tangle of pipes and wires beneath my thin skin. My face and hands were featureless, anonymous: masked by the cloying colorless compound of sweat and dust."

While there are plenty of mediocre stories to wade through, there are fortunately some good ones that deserve mention: Melanie Ho's "Don't Move", Jane Wallace's "Strangers are the friends we have yet to meet," Mike Bishop's "Swan Song," Elisabeth Attwood's "Reader, He Married Me" and Edmund Price's "Hassan's Tale."

Poring through the anthology, one can't help but feel that the story collection could have been strengthened by weeding out the weaker stories, that a slim but compelling collection could have done more justice to the grand idea of a hotel that "continues to sit astride the changing streams of commerce and world affairs and contributes to the dynamism that makes Hong Kong Asia's world city."

Like a poor hotel stay, reading Hotel China is a cold, detached and unfulfilling experience. You want to feel comfortable, to settle in but the sense of comfort doesn't come at all. You just want to put down your luggage, and get out as soon as possible, only coming back after a long day to shower and sleep.

In Edmund Price's "Hassan's Tale," the narrator utters these words, which aptly captures the gist of Hotel China: "Hassan had never been to such a monochrome hotel anywhere in Asia, let alone in Hong Kong. He wondered if he should tell someone how badly they had mistaken their choice of resting place. This was not the Wan Chai of legend."

You may want to check in to Hotel China for a quick stay, but you won't want to tarry for long.

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