Diamond Hill by Kit Fan

Kit Fan’s writing style has beautiful similarities to Murakami in terms of tone and unique character work but he brings them together in his own unique and poetic style.

I know…it’s been weeks since my last post. I’m coming up on the final two months of my post-graduate program so I am hoping that regular posts will resume soon.

4/5 stars
ARC ebook, 221 pages.
Read from March 9, 2021 to March 12, 2021.

I discovered this book from the social media page of a local English bookstore I follow in Hong Kong called Bleak House Books. It’s the best English bookstore in Hong Kong, in my opinion, as they promote and support local authors and have a wide range of carefully curated literature, comics, and more, both in-store and online. If you’re in Hong Kong, I highly recommend that you check them out. A big thanks to Netgalley for having an ARC copy of this book that I was able to get my eager hands on..

This novel is set to be published on May 13, 2021.

Diamond Hill is a debut novel by Kit Fan, a born and raised Hong Konger, who moved to the UK at the age of 21.

Having called Hong Kong my home for over five years now, I love reading about this fascinating city and its immense and intricate history and people.

Related posts:
Ghetto at the Center of the World by
Gordon Matthews
August 1, 2019
Unfree Speech by Joshua Wong
May 21, 2020

Diamond Hill is an area on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong and contrary to its name, Diamond Hill has never contained any diamonds. In Cantonese, the word “diamond” (鑽石) has the same pronunciation as “to drill rocks” as Diamond Hill used to be a stone quarry. Diamond Hill has a long history and is an area in Hong Kong that was settled long before the British arrived, as early as the 18th century. Diamond Hill was once considered the “Hollywood of the Orient” but it turned into an ungoverned slum of squatters and shanty homes. Hong Kong’s lack of public housing created slums all over Hong Kong from the 1950s to the late 1980s. During this time the Kai Tak airport was located nearby. Planes landing at Kai Tak had to brush past both the Diamond Hill slums and the infamous Walled City slums nearby making it one of the most dangerous places to land a plane back in the day. Today, most slums have been demolished, with both Diamond Hill and the Walled City having been refurbished into a stunning park and garden. The Nan Lian Garden has replaced the shacks and the Chi Lin Nunnery, which is likely the one referenced in the book as it was built in the 1930s as a Buddhist nun retreat, was rebuilt in 1998 in Tang Dynasty style. The infamous Walled City slum relics and the park is only a quick MTR stop away from Diamond Hill. These areas are some of my all-time favourite places in Hong Kong for theri beauty and their history.

Top left: Nan Lian Garden. Photo by me
Top Right: Chi Lin Nunnery. Photo by me
Bottom right: An airplane approaching Kai Tak airport overtop of the Walled City. Photo from Unforbidding City
Bottom: Diamond Hill in 1983. Phot
o by Ko Tim-keung on Zolima City Magazine

Diamond Hill takes place in the late 80s, just as demolition is starting to take place in squatter slums all over Hong Kong, all the while the current British government is working on handing Hong Kong back over to China. Diamond Hill is run by triad gangsters and drug dealers and is enveloped with poverty, yet there is a feeling of community within its shanty homes. The narrator, nicknamed Buddha, is a former heroin addict that has found himself back at his former home after recovering from his addiction under the guidance of a monk he befriended while in Thailand. While not a full monk himself, Buddha appears as one. As he arrives in Diamond Hill, he runs into an eccentric woman, Aubrey Hepburn, who insists she dated Bruce Lee and is aggressively cutting a teenage girl’s hair. Having prior experience as a hairdresser, Buddha assists in cutting the girl’s hair. Buddha then makes his way to the temple where the head nun, the Iron Nun, is in a fight to keep the temple in place with the looming threat of demolition while a new nun, Quartz, aims to rid herself of her past. Buddha learns that the teenage girl he assisted, Boss, runs a drug scheme under the Triad gang and that Aubrey Hepburn is her adoptive mother who has ideations of a former time of ritz and glamour. Each character is attempting to escape their past while mourning for the change that is occurring and the fear that is brewing with the city’s handover.

The book simultaneously explores colonialism, displacement, loss, and how the past always tangles with the future. It’s a testament of love to a changing city while exploring a compelling narrative of identity and the inability to escape our past. The story is a mirror of misfit characters in a misfit city that’s not been able to claim its own identity with others that are constantly meddling in its future. While its ending is ambivalent, each character has finally made choices for themselves and are moving towards a future that they will control, leaving the reader wondering about the outcome of each of the characters and the city that gets left behind. Kit Fan’s writing style has beautiful similarities to Murakami in terms of tone and unique character work but he brings them together in his own unique and poetic style. Kit Fan’s writing is visceral and raw, with its writing appropriately paired and complemented with Cantonese characters and translations, emphasising just how robust and expressive Cantonese is, deepening the story’s meaning and effect on the reader while giving off an undeniable Hong Kong feel.

This novel has been one of my favourite reads of 2021 thus far. I was enthralled with the plot, its characters, and the narrative style. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has spent any time in Hong Kong or is interested in its robust history. I also think that those who are bilingual in both written Cantonese and English will especially enjoy this novel. Even for those who have never had the pleasure of visiting Hong Kong, this book holds a riveting tale with a historical premise that will be appealing to most.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 496 pages.
Read from October 27, 2020 to November 6, 2020.

Another great recommendation that I can’t recall where I got it from. I think I stumbled upon it as historical fiction involving multigenerational stories are concepts I get excited about. It also helps that this book racked up a variety of literary awards in 2017/2018.

Pachinko, as I learned, is a popular type of gambling in Japan that started in the 1920s. The concept of the game is a mash up of a VLT and a pinball machine.

From left to right: a pre war pachinko game, 1970s pachinko machine, bottom photos are of the current modern machines.

Pachinko, in this novel, is a metaphor for the struggles of life, especially that of the Korean family in the story, and many others during is time under Japanese occupation.

“Life’s going to keep pushing you around, but you have to keep playing…”

The story begins in the 1900s with a teen named Sunja around the beginnings of the Japanese occupation detailing her poor but humble life at a fishing village in Korea. She is taken with an older stranger to the village named Hansu who fills her head with love and promises, however, when she falls pregnant he confesses to already having a family in Japan. Hansu is wealthy and does care about Sunja but Sunja is stunned by the betrayal and refuses any help from Hansu despite knowing the social rejection she will face being an unmarried mother. She instead decides to marry a kind, but sickly, minster named Baek Isak who knows her situation and takes her in regardless. Sunja leaves her home and follows her new husband to Japan. She gives birth to her first son Noa and to another son by Baek Isak named Mozasu. She lives with Baek Isak’s brother and sister-in-law in the Korean slums in Japan. While she finds a deep companionship with her sister-in-law, Japan is immensely unkind to Koreans and the conditions in which she lives are worse than they were in Korea. Sunja is stubborn and persistent and shakes conventional norms for the sake of keeping her family fed. Sunja’s sons struggle with acceptance as they are born and raised in Japan but their heritage makes them less than in the eyes of the Japanese. This struggle is particularly awful for Noa, who, is very academically astute, tended to hide is heritage. Mozasu is a much more practical child who grows up to take on a pachinko business, often viewed as dishonourable work. Despite Sunja’s rejection of Hansu, the decision comes to affect her whole life as well as her sons’, as Hansu isn’t so easily deterred.

Pachinko is a deeply moving story that encompasses so many themes and emotions. While the story embodies struggle, it’s very much about love, resilience, standing by your beliefs, and ambition. You become deeply invested in these sturdy and resilient characters as they endure hardship over nearly four generations.

“People are awful. Drink some beer.”

The book emphasises and focuses on strong and stubborn female characters with empathic and equally as strong male characters that compliment them in a compromising and highly patriarchal society. The story itself is very much focused on the characters and doesn’t discuss the nuances of the political situation in too much depth other than the depictions of suffering and persecution that this family endured. I think this approach has made this book accessible to readers who may not enjoy historical fiction. For me, it made me want to learn more about this tumultuous time for Korea as after the Japanese occupation is when the North and South of Korea parted ways, making for a very long and difficult era for Korea and its people.

Overall it was a wonderful and enrapturing read, despite it being a bit long, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction, multigenerational sagas, immersive characters, or an interest in Korean and Japanese culture and relations.

All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

“Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony—Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?”

4/5 star.
ebook, 240 pages.
Read from October 14, 2019 to October 21, 2019.

I’ve always been fascinated with literature or poetry that’s set during WWI. While all wars have their own atrocities, there is something so raw and personal about WWI since it occurred before many of the modern technological war advances that we saw in WWII and beyond. Why it took me so long to read this novel, which could be considered the canon of WWI novels, I don’t know.

42480726_303
Erich Maria Remarque

Erich Maria Remarque was conscripted into the German army November 1916 at 18 years of age where he served in a variety of areas including the Western Front, where the main outbreak of the war took place. For the publication of this novel, he changed his middle name to honour his mother and had previously published works under the name of Erich Remark (his family name had been changed to this by his grandfather in the 19th century). This novel was published in 1929 and alludes to Erich’s experiences of turmoil, distress, trauma, and detachment that he may have experienced, either first or second hand, while serving in WWI. Erich was injured by some shrapnel in late July 1917 where he spent the remainder of the war recovering from his wounds before being demobilised. While he may not have served long, he was able to take his own experiences as well as listen to the stories of many of the injured around him to create this novel.

This novel follows a young man named Paul, who like the author, is serving on the Western Front of WWI. The group of young men voluntarily sign up to join the war efforts without knowing what they were getting into. The camaraderie between the young men is strong and intense and the writing illuminates and does justice to these unique friendships. Paul loses many of his friends and company and the author spares no details in the grittiness of the war and the conditions that Paul and his company had to endure. This also includes the few breaks in which he was able to go back home for a short time and realising that he cannot connect to those around him anymore. Paul also reflects that the war, if he survives it, has robbed him and all the other men of his age of a future they can no longer envision.

Of all the scenes, there is one that stuck out and that I will never forget, and that is when Paul has to kill a man in very close combat. The scene is so visceral that I’m sure I was holding my breath when I read it. The scene was so well executed that it makes me wonder if the author himself experienced something similar during his time or if a fellow soldier left the same impression on him after a recounting.

Regardless of how involved the author was in the war himself, he took the time to gather experiences and wrote the novel that summed up a generation of soldiers and an unforgettably gruesome and personal war. This is a novel that should be a required read for generations to come so that the atrocities of WWI and the sacrifices that were made will never be forgotten.