I am admittedly an outsider to Hong Kong, but as Liu Yichang’s 1962 novel The Drunkard proves, the outsider is a classic Hong Kong type. After years of wandering through a China ravaged by war, Liu’s unnamed narrator has finally run aground in the city. He is an intellectual with strong opinions about Vittorio De Sica, and a conviction that Beckett represents the future of literature. He is thus a person for whom the furiously acquisitive colonial port of the 1960s — which he bitterly describes as ‘the citadel of crass materialism’ — has no use. He is utterly dismissive of the Hong Kong cultural scene; he caustically imagines a delegation of Hong Kong writers, who qualify for the delegation by dint of owning a Parker 61 pen, heading to the Philippines to babble about Tang poetry, profess ignorance of ‘newer’ writers like James Joyce and pick up women. Since he doesn’t fit in with that set, he is forced to earn his living by writing martial arts fiction and pornography for the Hong Kong tabloids.
With no family, no office to report to, and no society to which he belongs, the narrator drifts in a cloud of drink through the city. Sometimes old acquaintances appear before him like shades in Dante’s hell: a former classmate working as a handyman; a producer who shamelessly steals a film script from him; an ex-journalist who lets bygones be bygones with the Japanese and goes into business with them, making plastic dolls. He moves house three times. He wakes up next to an ageing woman of ill-repute he picked up at a bar, blotches of lipstick on her mouth ‘like tinned cherries that have lost their color’, writes the next instalment of pulp fiction, hands it in, and heads back to the bar. He gets attacked by two-bit thugs and put in the hospital, and as soon as he’s able, he heads back to the bar. Nothing pins him down, nothing moves him forward. The neon collisions of Hong Kong — Cantonese and cosmopolitan, traditional and modern, all priced to move — form a great blur before his eyes:
This is Hong Kong 1962, and everything’s so dreary. William Faulkner knocks out Sinclair Lewis in the first round. Pride beneath the scalpel. Beef in oyster sauce. Fauvism. The Chinese Goddess of the Moon makes a mockery of nuclear weapons. Ideology and imagery. Stars. Golden starts. Blue stars. Purple stars. Yellow stars.
Because of passages like these, The Drunkard is sometimes described as the first stream-of-consciousness novel written in Chinese, but it is only occasionally composed of the glossolalia typically associated with that term. It is certainly, however, a document of a person imprisoned in their own mind. The novel is characterised less by events and more by flashbacks, long rants and dreamlike visions: of encountering aliens after the apocalypse; of taking a spaceship ride to visit the goddess Nüwa. The narrator begins as an outsider, sunk in melancholy and fantasy, and becomes only more and more detached from his surroundings.
The narrator is a mirror image of Liu, who, after decades of peripatetic living, managed to carve out a home in Hong Kong. Born in 1918 to an educated Shanghai family, Liu graduated in 1941 from St. John’s University, the elite alma mater of illustrious Chinese cosmopolitans, such as the statesman Wellington Koo and the writer Lin Yutang. Immediately after his graduation, fearing he would be drafted into the Japanese war effort, Liu embarked on a year-long odyssey across the country. In the fictionalised version presented in The Drunkard, he recalls taking a rickshaw out of Ningbo, getting carried south to Linhai in a bamboo sedan chair, and then taking a motorboat along the coast to Wenzhou, before finally finding his way, thousands of miles away and across the western mountains, to the wartime Nationalist capital of Chongqing. After the war, he spent a decade bouncing between the Sinophone nodes of Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong before settling in Hong Kong for good in 1957. Liu has claimed that early in his career, he wrote instalment fiction for 10 different newspapers, and that he wrote around 10,000 characters a day every day for 20 years. His work has contributed heavily to an image of Hong Kong as a city of romantic transience. His novel Tête-Bêche (1972), about a man and a woman’s parallel ghostly wanderings through Hong Kong, inspired Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000). The journal he founded in 1985, Hong Kong Literature, published writers like Xi Xi and Yesi, whose dreamy portraits of the struggles of everyday life in Hong Kong resonated with Liu’s own vision of the city. Liu retired as the journal’s editor-in-chief in 2000, and he would live almost two decades more, passing away in 2018, only a few months before his hundredth birthday.
When I read The Drunkard in Chinese in the autumn of 2020, I found myself alienated by Liu’s tale of alienation. I arrived in Hong Kong in September. By that point, the combination of COVID-19 and the National Security Law promulgated by Beijing had muzzled the massive movement for autonomy and universal suffrage that had roiled the city the year before, leaving behind just a few old fliers for marches, slowly flaking off the sides of the buildings to which they had been pasted. I was living among a Cantonese-speaking society to which I had limited access and an Anglophone community that so often seemed to refuse any relationship to the rest of the city. I confess I looked to The Drunkard to orient me to Hong Kong. That’s too much to ask from a novel: a good novel, like a real human being, is so idiosyncratic that it frustrates any demand to represent anything but itself. As a fellow outsider, I found the narrator’s antisocial self-importance, self-destructiveness and self-pity insufferable. Mak Ho-moon, who shares the narrator’s passion for literature, sets up an avant-garde literature publication for his friend to helm, but the narrator drinks the opportunity away. He describes himself as ‘a drifting blob of matter, a colorless, odourless, shapeless blob, dragged around in the dark, indistinguishable from the dark’. I found myself repelled by this void of a character, and his determination to sink lower and lower; perhaps I feared he would drag me down with him.
The novel is also very much a product of its historical moment, a global post-war era defined by the jarring contrast between the traumas of World War II and the bourgeois repression that immediately succeeded it. Liu’s narrator drinks not only to forget the present, but also the past; in a flashback he recalls watching, at the age of six, a Japanese soldier decapitate a man in the streets of Shanghai. The novel’s central conflict is the common postwar complaint — central also to works such as The Graduate (1967) or Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970) — about doing steady work for the Man at the expense of your lofty principles. The narrator self-reflexively bemoans his fate: ‘A devotee of literature forsaking his Muse to write porn? It’s like a respectable society matron suddenly abandoning her sense of morality to take up a disreputable profession.’ Sexist metaphor aside, as a member of a generation scarred by precarity for whom making a living by writing seems an outrageous fantasy, I found the complaint just a bit too much. If his ideals of intellectual virtue might still be compelling to those privileged enough to indulge them, his ideals of feminine virtue are far past their sell-by date. The female characters of The Drunkard fit tidily into a banal virgin-whore dichotomy: Lily Cheung, who attempts to rope the narrator into an unseemly hustle of a would-be suitor; the saintly Yeung Lu, forced into prostitution to save her family; and Szema Lee, who is explicitly compared to Nabokov’s Lolita. All the women are inexplicably attracted to the narrator, and all of their private desires are either reprehensible or incomprehensible. These retrograde obsessions of Liu’s narrator with the phonies and the dames are frankly a challenge for the contemporary reader.
I couldn’t relate to The Drunkard on that first read, but then, the common contemporary conviction that every cultural expression should be ‘relatable’ is limiting. It’s not wrong to ask that literature serve as a mirror for the life you live. It’s just that what some people seek in a mirror is the image they want to see of themselves, and the image of the world literature offers can be much more surprising, much more revealing and much more difficult.
What I appreciated about The Drunkard when I re-read it in translation in 2020 was that it showed me something about myself that I didn’t want to see. Some credit must go to the translator, Charlotte Chun-lam Yiu. There are some rookie mistakes (酸梅湯 is sour plum juice, not sour plum soup, and the sentence I quote above about the ‘respectable society matron’ is not great), but she has a special knack for getting right the pompous prattle around literature that fills this book. Yiu’s skill helped clarify for me the appeal of the novel, and so did the moment in which I re-read it. Things were bad in September, and by December, they were worse. The situation in Hong Kong has become immensely frustrating. In March 2021, Beijing responded to the opposition winning over 80 per cent of the seats on the city’s district councils in 2019 by unilaterally ‘improving’ the electoral system to bar the pro-democrats from wielding influence. The authorities assure the citizens of Hong Kong that opposition is still tolerated, so long as it’s ‘patriotic’ (which seems to be defined as ‘not opposing the city’s pro-Beijing puppet government’). The management of the pandemic in Hong Kong has been haphazard, but typical of a city in which the richest make 44 times what the poorest make. The poor are punished with draconian ‘ambush-style’ quarantines seen nowhere else in the world, even as the city’s worst outbreaks have occurred among the rich: a ballroom dancing club, a CrossFit gym frequented by expats.
Sinking in hypocrisy, Hong Kong in 2021 is outwardly quiet but seething everywhere. Go anywhere just out of sight of the police and you’ll find a cornucopia of discontent: cakes decorated with protest slogans, the words ‘stinking communists’ graffitied on park trails. It is a city where everyone knows that what’s being said officially is nonsense — including those saying it — and it is increasingly difficult and dangerous to say the truth. This is a place that’s full of shit, in a way that inevitably degrades everyone. Even if you’re not the one talking bullshit, you’re forced to shovel it.
In this environment of fundamental insincerity — where people baldly lie to you daily on television, and there’s little you can do but grimace and continue to go about your business, according to their rules — I found it easier to understand Liu’s narrator, whose alcoholism is merely the most visible manifestation of a metaphysical crisis of being completely full of shit. Liu’s narrator’s despair comes paired with a violent grandiosity. He is constantly rhapsodising to anyone in earshot about the glories of literature and his own tremendous ignored talent. What he escapes in drink is not just the hackwork he finds degrading, but also the terrifying prospect that someone might, as his friend Mak does, try to cash the checks his big mouth writes. Mak’s opportunity precipitates his final descent, pressing him to unconvincingly tell Mak, as he reaches once again for the bottle, that it’s pointless to work on a journal that the vulgar masses will never understand. Like many stories of addiction, The Drunkard depicts the aggressive efforts of a man to go absolutely nowhere, but there is nevertheless a journey here. It is a journey to the fatal knowledge that he is very much a part of the empty and tawdry world that he feels betrays him.
Liu’s novel effectively charts the way that feelings of doom, helplessness and narcissism fuel each other into the kind of destructive storms we now see sweep the globe multiple times a year, and the way we deceive ourselves about our own complicity. As society failed in Hong Kong and around the world, it became too easy to believe that it was every man for himself. In the darkest moments of this dark season, I found myself asking why I should care about COVID rules when the people in charge certainly didn’t; why I should bother sticking my neck out when so many people didn’t seem to care about anything but making a buck. Especially because I didn’t completely relate to the novel, The Drunkard gave me a space in which I could articulate my ugly feelings of cynical selfishness. But it also revealed the ego that powers those antisocial feelings — the voice that tells you that you’re too special to belong anywhere, to need anyone else, to owe anyone anything. Some are forced into exile. Others choose it.