XU XI has always chosen the titles of her books with care, and that of her latest novel, HABIT OF A FOREIGN SKY, is no exception. At the heart of this tale is a theme familiar to a good number of us Hong Kong dwellers, whether Chinese or expatriate, which is the difficulty of living a life torn geographically, racially and culturally between different places, under different skies. More, though, is implied in the title, for “habit” here refers not just to the adapted customs needed to fit into each new place, but also to the disguises that ineluctably cloak the very shape of the exile’s soul.
Gail Szeto, the story’s protagonist (who could well be described as its heroine, which she is in many ways, though that would perhaps give an over romantic colour to a novel of such harsh realism as this), is Eurasian, illegitimate child of a love match between her dance hostess Shanghainese mother and her only fleetingly present American father. Brought up by her mother in Hong Kong, she disdains the American half-family she feels has abandoned her. Child of her times, she has broken free (so she thinks) of the cultural shackles of the old world that governed her mother’s life and has made a success of a financial career in the city. In pursuit of this, before the novel opens, flying from Hong Kong to Shanghai and New York, she has lost her doctor husband to another woman and her young son to an accidental tragedy that occurred during one of her many trips abroad. Now, as the novel opens, once again away from Hong Kong, she finds that she has lost her mother. She is alone.
How Gail copes with the realisations that blood (even half blood) is thicker than financial contracts, that cutting off one’s roots doesn’t make them evaporate and that in her attempt to turn her back on her past she has lost herself, forms the meat of this novel. It’s a gritty read: no easily-earned redemption satisfies Xu Xi, so don’t expect to have your heart warmed. Never do the characters surrounding Gail bump into her and rub up against her with any degree of real comfort. They do so with lust, and do so often, but even here strands of selfishness mingle inextricably with the resulting sex. The flashes of human empathy, as in real life, don’t last very long and Xu Xi takes evident pleasure in leading the reader into what he or she hopes might be, just for once, a balmier meadow only to dash such hopes with a douche of cold prose. Like Gail’s patient but not ever-sufferring Filipina maid, Conchita, the reader has to take a lot of rough with not a great deal of smooth. Unlike Conchita, though, the reader is not tempted to walk out before the end.
Some classic Xu Xi themes weave through this story. There’s the key element of loneliness, of course, the loneliness that comes from an intellectual’s fight to establish an identity free of past and surroundings. The key figure of the mother looms importantly throughout; as often with Xu Xi there’s a deep sub-text of the relationship of mother and daughter. Place figures strongly; this is a book straddling the Pacific but one with a powerful scent of the Hong Kong in which most of it is based. This is very much the Hong Kong many of us know and the Hong Kong many of us have watched developing out of its past, the place she portrayed two years back in the autobiographical notes that form part of her Evanescent Isles. The family in this novel is not her own, of course, and Gail Szeto is not Xu Xi, but Gail’s Hong Kong is Xu Xi’s Hong Kong and the feel of the past here is the same. The racial and cultural issues of the Chinese diaspora are familiar, too, to Xu Xi’s readers; they filled her 2004 volume, Overleaf Hong Kong and clearly exercise her still. This should not surprise, given her own trans-Pacific life style and a career spanning several places here and in the US, a career which has come, one feels perhaps temporarily, to rest now at the City University of Hong Kong where she is resident writer. She wrote of similar themes, though set some three decades ago, in her novel Hong Kong Rose.
Xu Xi’s followers, and I own to being one, will spot more that is familiar. There is the love-hate relationship with the male sex, for one. Men in Xu Xi’s eyes are necessary, liked, indulged even, but always let down the women they chase then dump. Their roguishness, and there are two major and several minor rogues in Habit of a Foreign Sky, is part of their charm, but all of them, ultimately, aren’t to be trusted. It’s just their nature, and Xu Xi seems not to hold much of a grudge about the way her men behave; her women get less forgiveness. Her men have been behaving badly since at least 1996, when she published her short collection of stories Daughters of Hui. One thing that has changed, if not in significance, rather in quantity and clarity, is her habit of plain speaking. Xu Xi can shock with the explicit, and Habit of a Foreign Sky has a good deal of sex and a good deal more of thinking about it. She puts the cool breeze of her prose to good effect to clear the minds, of all but the most befogged, of the notion that Chinese women don’t talk about these things, let alone do them. Gail Szeto does a lot of both.
Xu Xi has always been interested in the breaking of taboos. Incest and sexual diversity have figured before in her works. This time she is on the surface more conventional, and divorce is about as sexually deviant as things get. Instead, she focuses here on grief and loss, things that most of us would rather try to forget. Death, of course, is as great a taboo in Hong Kong society as is sex, and in examining how Gail Szeto’s so finely constructed life falls apart due to the deaths of all those close to her, Xu Xi is in reality turning once again to a forbidden subject. It’s a painful one, whatever one’s culture. The cover of the paperback edition, with a woman’s head covered with a slowly unravelling ball of wool, sums it up neatly. Death unravels the reality we think we know.
Gail Szeto’s already tough carapace is forged anew as her world falls to pieces. In effect death completes the journey she set out on as a child. Like her, no, but admire her who could not.
Xu Xi’s depiction of what Hong Kong has meant over the last sixty years will become one of the key pathways by which future generations may delve back and understand what our day here was like. I have a feeling that Gail Szeto is a character who will become, as Becky Sharp became for Regency England, a symbol of a whole Hong Kong generation.