The Chinese Box, the second novel in the
Coast Trilogy, is set in Hong Kong during the time of the Cultural
Revolution of the late 1960s. Dimitri Johnston, half Russian, half English,
fears he may be forced to leave, but that will please his wife Helen who
hates the place. He meets Mila, a Chinese ballet dancer. As their
relationship deepens, so too do the waves of Maoist violence that threaten
to overwhelm the colony. Soon Dimitri and Mila are caught by history
and compelled to make agonizing choices.
The Chinese Box is the second book in Christopher
New's China Coast Trilogy, preceding
A Change of Flag and following The
New York Times Best-Seller Shanghai.
Asia 2000 Has also published Christopher New's
The Road to Maridur.
"To many people, Hong Kong is almost entirely a commercial
city. The last thing it could spawn, they would have thought, was a literary
"But it now appears that the improbable has happened, and
that Christopher New's China Coast Trilogy, though unrecognised as
such on first publication, is just that - the definitive account of the
British presence here in furthest Asia, and a literary feat of the highest
quality. This needs some explanation. To begin with, New's three novels were
not originally conceived as a trilogy. The Chinese Box, now being
presented as the middle book in the sequence and republished here by Asia
2000, was actually published first. It was New's fictional debut in 1975.
"Then came Shanghai, now offered as the trilogy's
opening volume. This eventual best-seller appeared in 1985 and did not
feature Hong Kong at all. However, it had a story that ended in 1949, when
its main British characters departed south for safety and continued profits.
New's third novel, A Change Of Flag, returned to Hong Kong, this time
in 1983, and featured families from both the earlier books. The concept of a
trilogy had been born, albeit belatedly.
"Despite having one volume set elsewhere, and only being
elevated to trilogy status retrospectively, this book is beyond doubt the
finest fictional portrait of Hong Kong and the British presence here on the
South China coast.
"It is more memorable, for instance, than Anthony Burgess's
acclaimed Malayan Trilogy, and deserves comparison with the Raj
Quartet of Paul Scott.
"Dark though the picture is, this is colonial Hong Kong
preserved in aspic if anything is.
"The Chinese Box, which has nothing to do with the
1997 movie of the same name starring Jeremy Irons, is set in Hong Kong
during China's Cultural Revolution.
"The main character is, as the author himself was for many
years, a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, and the social range
spanned by the book includes all the kinds of people such a man would be
likely to know.
"The perspective, nonetheless, is essentially a British
one, albeit expressed by a voice that is sophisticated, phlegmatic,
sceptical, astute, and very frequently sardonic.
"Even though this novel now has the feel of a lightweight
filler sandwiched in the middle to make up the set, it is compulsive reading
nonetheless. Whereas the other two volumes contain complex plots, here we
only watch the final stages of a single marital breakdown - the narrator's.
"The political background, including rioting and deaths in
the streets of Central, is absorbingly interesting, but the story itself is
"Dimitri Johnston lectures on Russian and Chinese
literature, and lives with his wife and two children in Pokfulam.
"As curfews are imposed, anti-British slogans appear, the
police are forced into quasi-battle mode and refugees swim across from China
to Deep Bay, Dimitri laconically turns his gaze on his daughter's nubile
dancing teacher, Mila Chan.
"Domestic and political are already linked as Dimitri was,
as a child, interned at Stanley during the Japanese occupation.
"They become linked again when he and Mila witness an act
of police brutality that results in the victim's death shortly afterwards.
Dimitri reports this, and Mila has to decide whether to corroborate his
"There is much local detail in the book, meticulously
observed and then caustically put into perspective, and this will give a
great deal of pleasure even to readers only familiar with the very different
city Hong Kong is today.
"Hong Kong is generally perceived by New as an incongruous
place where people worship the Golden Calf and rot at one and the same time.
"Chinese millionaires represent the apotheosis of a decayed
Confucianism, and Western men here only to improve their sex-lives are on
"It has to be said that The Chinese Box does not
offer the in-depth view provided by its two companion volumes. Nevertheless,
there is a virtue in the brevity.
"Though Shanghai was a fine novel, A Change Of
Flag could at times have the oppressiveness of a long Hong Kong summer.
"New's distaste for Hong Kong is already present here in
this earlier book, but at least it is in palatable proportions.
"In addition, there is a distinct flavour of Graham Greene
in the budding novelist, and this illustrates well the emotional roots from
which his more complex structures grew.
"All in all, Hong Kong should be eternally in New's debt.
The city was lucky to have come its way someone with a philosopher's
training such as his, to stare long and hard at the territory, and then
spend many thousands of hours putting his unblinkered perceptions into
"As a result, it has a genuine masterpiece to its credit.
"When the time comes to recommend people a work that
conveys both the feel and much of the history of the former colony, there
need now be no doubt which books to put into their hands.
"New's is a dark vision, but colonial Hong Kong produced
nothing finer. This is that place's sombre epitaph."
Bradley Winterton, South China Morning Post
May 12, 2001
Copyright © Christopher New