The Hungry Ghost Festival

‘My dislike of the city was almost violent, something I had never encountered elsewhere,’ writes Felicia Nay about Hong Kong. ‘If somebody had predicted that one day I would write a novel born out of nostalgia for it, I would have doubted the person’s sanity.’

Nay’s experiences seem remote from what would eventually become Red Affairs, White Affairs‘My room had no windows, the door was secured by an immense gate, the TV ads consisted of warnings against violent crime and HIV infections, and I had no bottled water.’ This is a way off her narrator Reini’s journey in the novel. Reini’s Hong Kong is about staggering views, sensual meals, long conversations, splendid ritual, tours of gorgeous landscapes – truly ‘Fragrant Harbour, Incense Port, Pearl of the South China Sea.’

Still, the happiness of the city is tempered by Reini’s knowledge of its delineations. Her role as an aid worker is very well defined by the faith based charity that employs her. When Reini gives a talk at an upscale women’s function her listeners only want to know ‘So, do you have a maid?… Why don’t you want one?… My helper feeds seven persons in the Philippines with her salary. She puts her children through school with my money.’

Reini loses patience with this, and says:

You think you’re good employers? Maybe you are. Maybe you are, maybe you’re not. According to our surveys, seventy-five percent of domestic workers work fourteen hours day. And all of them have to play by the rules of the system…. A system where losing your job means losing your visa and losing your home. And these are the good moments. The post-colonial, no, the proto-colonial moments…. The moments when the air conditioning is turned on for the master’s dog but never the maid… In the bad moments—and I get to work with the bad moments, remember—it’s modern slavery…. It starts with withheld wages and confiscated passports, wrongful promises by employment agencies and employers.

Reini can’t help break the rules. The novel takes its title from a traditional delineation. ‘White is the colour of death. Red, on the other hand, is auspicious, the glaze of happiness, the hue of protection. Red affairs are weddings, that lucky joining of two individuals, two families.’ Reini (or ‘Kim’) blurs the divisions without meaning to. She has lost her previous post in Khartoum for an act of altruism that her employers found inappropriate. Her best friend in the city is Virginia, a lonely woman who teaches her Cantonese. She has inherited her family’s disappointment by remaining unmarried, and her passages are some of the saddest in the book. Reini sees how a rule bound life has let Virginia down. Assigned back to casework after her angry speech at the woman’s function, Reini befriends Ronda, one of Hong Kong’s unseen army of domestic workers, and tries to fix the two women up. The transgressions feel vague but they are there.

As Isabel Costello says, Reini is ‘intense company, occasionally at the expense of narrative drive’. Her feelings, drives, sensations dominate the novel, whenever she’s eating, exercising, or blushing, you feel it. Reini also has a habit of reading strange portents into everyday occurrences: she’s forever quoting Emily Dickinson (so much like Chinese dynastic poetry, now that I think of it, with its blunt sensuality) and while this is clunky sometimes, maybe it’s the sort of thing you’d have to know Hong Kong at that period to understand. (The time frame is another vague thing, there’s no mention of the civil unrest of 2019.)

The book also gives terrific insight into Cantonese views of life and death: dying unmarried and childless is a sin for women because there will be no one to look after them in the afterlife, when people die they can become ancestors, but that’s the best case scenario – those who die of accidents or suicide haunt the earth as ghosts. Virginia has a neighbour who keeps a live chicken in her flat. She theorises that the rooster is her ‘ghost husband… Maybe they were engaged and then he died.’

Red Affairs, White Affairs is a strange, sometimes maddening novel, but in its way it’s a masterwork of sense and sensuality. There’s not a story there in the linear way I understand it, but a vivid, seamless rush of impressions and images like the view from some fast-flowing river, in high current.

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