By Travis Lee
Swimming in Hong Kong, Stephanie Han’s new collection of short stories, might better be called The Exiles. All ten stories feature people who in some fashion or another feel like outsiders, whether it’s their own home (‘Invisible’, ‘Hong Kong Rebound’, ‘The Ladies of Sheung Wan’) or by being Asian in America (‘Canyon’, ‘Nantucket’s Laundry’) or in your ancestral country, as we see in ‘My Friend Faith’. Some stories touch on family expectations; ‘Languages’ excels in this regard about a Korean English teacher who feels pressure to marry and after rejecting forced-upon suitors, she decides to act on her feelings for Matthew, a young American student.
It’s hard to review a short story collection, and even harder when you do not find much of it interesting. I struggled for over six months to write this review, so let me be clear: I find Swimming in Hong Kong bland. Some of the stories are too obvious, such as ‘Hong Kong Rebound’. That story features a little girl with her father outside not just an expat bar, and the symbolism could not be clearer: the little girl, her father and her uncle stand outside the bar trying to watch the TVs inside. The rich expat patrons, apparently incensed by their mere presence outside, begin making faces, blocking the windows with their bodies and finally end up forcing an Asian waitress to place tape over the windows:
A few minutes later, the woman tapes a piece of black paper to the window with masking tape. TV light cuts through a small tear. My father moves to another spot, but the woman seems to follow us steadily from window to window, without ever meeting our eyes, covering each section of glass. The men inside barely glance at us; expressionless, they slowly disappear behind a black curtain of paper.
Subtlety is scarce in a book whose prose neither excites the reader nor stimulates the imagination. While the writing is not bad, per se, it seems to exist only to make an obvious point (sometimes featuring rather clichéd characters) before we lurch on to the next story and the day’s special lesson.
But don’t get me wrong. There are things to enjoy about Swimming in Hong Kong. As it stands, I liked three of the stories in this collection: ‘My Friend Faith’, ‘The Ladies of Sheung Wan’ and the titular story, ‘Swimming in Hong Kong’.
‘My Friend Faith’ features a touching childhood friendship between Faith, the daughter of Baptist missionaries and Debbie, who is visiting family in Korea for the summer. Faith speaks fluent Korean while Debbie gets by with basic phrases. During dinner Faith’s sister reveals that their housekeeper, Miss Hong, lied to get a discounted ticket to the swimming pool. Faith’s father, Reverend Cooke, is disgusted by her actions, dismissing Koreans as liars. A couple days later he apologizes:
On my way out the door Reverend Cooke exchanged a glance with Faith and she said, “We didn’t know you were Korean.”
“Yesterday your aunt told me at the store that your dad’s Korean.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“We thought you said your dad was in the U.S. Army,” said Faith sheepishly. “I mean, you know, American.”
The good reverend doesn’t stop there. He goes on to ask her the classic question: where are you from? The adverb “really” is absent, but it was there in spirit. What ‘My Friend Faith’ presents is someone who is not truly accepted in America and at the same time not in her supposed “homeland” either.
‘The Ladies of Sheung Wan’ portrays social exiles: a pair of old ladies who recycle cardboard for money. As one of them dies on the steps of a cafe, the manager yells at a policeman to force them to move.
The full brunt of being an exile comes to life in ‘Swimming in Hong Kong’, the book’s last story. Easily the best in this collection, it is told from the alternating viewpoints of Ruth, a middle-aged black woman of Jamaican ancestry, and Froggy, an elderly Hong Kong man. Ruth practices at a public pool, unsure of what she should do. She feels no more welcome in Hong Kong than she did in America, and she feels constrained by her job. Froggy watches her swim and contrasts her with his son. His appraisal of his son as an excellent swimmer is a metaphor for how his son fits in: he is at home in Hong Kong. Ruth neither swims nor runs well but doesn’t give up at either, and at the end of the story she has bought a one-way plane ticket to India while Froggy’s son visits him at the pool, continuing to swim well.
With the exception of these stories, I found the overall effort uninteresting. There is little in Stephanie Han’s Swimming in Hong Kong that I would recommend. Perhaps if she wrote a novel in the vein of ‘My Friend Faith’ I would have a different opinion. As it stands, there is just enough good in here to keep me from calling it a bad book, but not enough for me to read it again.
Author of six books, Travis Lee‘s fiction has appeared in The Colored
Lens and Independent Ink Magazine. His latest book, Expat Jimmy, is
available on Amazon. He lived in China for two and a half years. He
currently resides in the States. http://www.travis-lee.org