Ray Hecht’s debut novel is a detailed and sincere depiction of what life is like in the Pearl River area. Divided into three main sections (one for each major city: Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Hong Kong), the book follows the life of several characters, both foreigners and locals, as they try (or struggle) to find their way without losing touch with reality. Rather than being a simple collection of short stories (very loosely entwined), Hecht chooses to shape his book into a canvas where the expat lifestyle is the effective trait d’union.
Hecht obviously knows what he’s talking about as, being himself a long-term expat in the area, he has drawn from his own personal experience (as it can be inferred from his own personal blog) ideas and stories that lay the foundations of his book, and it shows well: characters look real and relatable, grounded in reality, vivid and rich in their motivations and background. Characters are teachers, journalists, young artists, businessmen, all people that populate bars and clubs in the downtown of each city. Ray Hecht has collected and transformed some of the stories he heard (who knows how much autobiography might be in the book?) into a constellation of small existences that, although bordering on the stereotypical sometimes, often emerge as true in their own need of self affirmation.
Whoever experienced life in the Pearl River Delta can understand or relate to the urgency to be heard or to stand out that everyone in the book seems to display: life is too fast-paced and often people focus on their careers, while everything else slips into the background. If the 12 main characters all have something in common, it is a sense of isolation that compels them to question their own choices and fast-forward life to the next, hopefully safer, stage.
The three sections the book consist of several mini-chapters, each following a different character (some of them recurring from section to section, thus closing the circle and giving the idea of a mini universe where people can’t stop running into the same faces again and again). All stories are narrated in the first person and they read as confessions that break the fourth wall and ask the reader to participate in something private and meaningful that otherwise would be lost.
Each section of the book has its own different nuance that reflects the three different cities in which everything takes place: Shenzhen is a new and fast city, Guangzhou is the old capital, Hong Kong is a hybrid city looking for a balance in its own internal differences. “Shenzhen” opens the book and throws us in the middle of the action: two foreigners, newcomers to Shenzhen, try and mostly fail to integrate in a city with no identity and history. Looking forward with no regrets is the key, even if something gets lost along the way. Marco, the businessman, and Danny, the English teacher, whether they are looking for instant gratification or for some meaningful experience, are constantly semi-detached from reality as they can’t help to feel their presence in the city is temporary, a sensation shared by all the characters in this first section. Life is so fast and opportunities so rich, there is no need or time to look back or to make detailed plans about the future.
“Guangzhou” offers a new take on the expat life in China. Guangzhou, the city, is the old Guangdong capital, an established city with its very own rhythm and style. Whereas Shenzhen’s no identity is reflected in its individualism and fast pace, Guangzhou’s somewhat quieter pace is mirrored by a sense of isolation that is sometimes difficult, or almost impossible, to break. Amber, the Canadian English teacher, Ting Ting, the aspiring artist, and Terry, the Asian American journalist, represent the struggle to find themselves in a vast and disperse city: whether you are looking for a professional achievement or to find people to hang out with, Guangzhou is a giant maze that needs to be crossed.
“Hong Kong” is the last section, the shorter and the most crowded: most of action occurs at a rave party on Lamma island, where we re-encounter many of the characters from “Guangzhou”. The party is where individual stories come to an apex and some of the loose ends are tied up (but not completely, we just manage to say goodbye to the characters we have been following so far). Chapters are shorter and there is more interaction than before between characters, so rather than focusing on individual stories, Hecht chooses to let all the tension explode at a party that can be read as a turning point in everybody’s life.
Hecht writes his characters in need of sexual gratification and infuses them with a need for drugs of any type. I admit this sounds like a stretch sometimes, since the high recurrence of such behaviors flattens out diversities rather than creates an invisible bond between characters. This detail represents one of the flaws of the book, flaws that don’t hinder its effectiveness, but reveal Hecht’s somewhat beginner’s naivete: characters seem to all convey the same emotional range, as well as same ambitions and doubts. That is a forgivable since their backgrounds and environments help in giving each character his or her own flavor, but Hecht doesn’t seem totally in control of his own voice (but 12 different characters, one for each sign of the Chinese Zodiac, os a huge challenge for a novice).
As one of the first attempts to describe the expat life of common people, both foreigners and locals, SCMB succeeds in capturing a particular moment in time and space in which we are allowed to peek in. Hecht’s prose flows smoothly (style is simple, but not bland) and although the reading experience is always rich in details and facts, less characters and more plot would have given the book a more solid texture. Looking forward Hecht’s sophomore effort is from now on something worth doing.
South China Morning Blues was published by Blacksmith Books. It can be purchased from Amazon or at select bookstores.