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Mr. Grump Goes to Hong Kong

Authors: Downbeat travel writer Paul Theroux visits the crown colony. Even with fiction, he gets tempers flaring.

May 30, 1997|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Paul Theroux isn't an easy man to shock, considering the fact that he's more than a man about town--he's a man about the globe, the premiere travel writer for tours of Armageddon.

This is what it takes to shock Theroux: a room full of people who look and sound suspiciously like Americans except for one little detail--their passports say they're nationals of Belize. Or Tonga. Or Guinea Bissau. The expatriate circuit in Hong Kong was rife with them.

"Quite a few Americans have renounced their [citizenship]," he is saying. "I'm appalled by the Ku Klux Klan, but Americans who go into the American Embassy and say, 'I give up my American passport, I'm now a Belizean.' Or 'I'm Irish.' It's amazing."

And this from an American who has spent so much time abroad that his voice is tinged with the timbre of South London, where he spent 17 years, not the Boston suburbs where he was raised. Theroux is talking between bites of sandwich at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, the sort of luxe but remote hotel that doesn't really provide a clear view of a place, in his eyes. Theroux, 56, often opts for cheap hotels, hostelries with windows onto the mean streets.

But today someone else is footing the bill because the prolific Theroux is starting a book tour to promote his 35th tome, "Kowloon Tong" (Houghton Mifflin). His latest novel--appearing on the 30th anniversary of his first, "Waldo" (Houghton Mifflin)--is set in a Hong Kong teetering on the precipice of its June 30th return to the motherland.

"Kowloon Tong" tells about archaic English colonial "Bunt" Mullard, who wears the apron strings of his overbearing mother, Betty. In their insular world, the Chinese are "chinky-chonks" and the hand-over is merely "Chinese take-away," but the tide of change in Hong Kong drowns their placid life running a 50-year-old textile factory in Kowloon Tong.

"The situation in Hong Kong is very ambiguous politically, but with a human tragedy," Theroux says. "The human scale is a little Monty Python-ish English woman knitting in her room, and her son's running off with Filipino prostitutes."

The novel is seen through the eyes of gwei-los, the ghost people, the foreign devils who will be strangers in a strange land when the British colony is handed back to the Chinese government.

But in the view of some, it's the famously grumpy Theroux who is the foreign devil. For example, his novel, set to be excerpted

in the June issue of Playboy magazine, was pulled at the eleventh hour. In an interoffice memo, Playboy marketing officials had complained about "several points which are derogatory . . . toward the Chinese people," such as a description of the Cantonese language as "not remotely resembl[ing] human speech."

Theroux hoots at the magazine's rationale for ditching the excerpt. The quote about Cantonese, for example, is not presented as a statement of fact; it comes from the mind of a character who's a "middle-aged English twit."

"Anyone who has done any reading at all understands that a story is told through the characters," says Theroux, who lives in Cape Cod and Hawaii with his second wife, Sheila, a public relations consultant. "This is Albert Camus meets Monty Python.

"[Playboy's action] shows that the most powerful open-minded country in the world is cringing, cringing at the thought that the Chinese might disapprove of something that they write and won't buy their condoms, T-shirts and cigars with the bunny logo on them. It's a very bad sign. This is the very thing that people are saying people in Hong Kong will be doing."

Playboy Managing Editor Jonathan Black will publish the Theroux excerpt at a later date, says spokesman Bill Farley. He deferred the piece because Playboy ran a two-part James Bond excerpt this spring also set in Hong Kong, which happened to focus on such unflattering aspects of Chinese life as organized crime, Farley says.

"Kowloon Tong" also raised the hackles of Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, which bristled at Theroux's stereotypes. "Are the streets crawling with Chinese and Filipino call girls?" wrote reviewer Kevin Kwong. "Why bother writing a book that has nothing new or interesting to say, while there are hundreds more of these cheap thrillers about Hong Kong in airport book shops?"

Despite the equally unattractive portraits of its English protagonists, "Kowloon Tong" fared better among English critics. The Sunday Times of London lauded Theroux's description of the "down-at-heel snobberies and dated Englishness of the expatriate niche" and "evocative concision he has honed to perfection as a travel writer."

Theroux would hardly call himself the sort of travel writer who prettifies the great unknown--just the species of travel writer he detests. For that matter, one of the country's most prominent travel writers hates most travel writing and most travel magazines.

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