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.

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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.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. An impressive feat, even more so for debut novel.

“We don’t succeed or fail because of fortune or luck. We succeed because we understand the way the world works and what we have to do. We fail because others understand this better than we do.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 384 pages
Read from November 27, 2017 to December 4, 2017.

It is hard to define a novel of this calibre though it can be simply described as a spy-novel laden with humour, tragedy, and poignant cultural reflections of literary quality. The story is an identity crisis within an identity crisis as the protagonist feels torn between two worlds just has his home country of Vietnam is also being torn apart by its own people in an effort to define the country for their own.

In the spring of 1975 Vietnam is in chaos. Our unnamed protagonist has been given an overwhelming task from the General of the South Vietnamese army to decide who from their ranks will be allowed to have passage on the few remaining planes to America. Retreat seems the only way escape from the turbulence that has overtaken Vietnam from the communist Viet Cong. Unknown to the General or any in his ranks, our protagonist is a communist double spy. A bastard by birth by an absent French father and peasant Vietnamese mother, our protagonist, never feels like he belongs. His ability to see the side of every situation leaves him in a constant state of sympathetic limbo. He loves his country yet he was educated in America and he can finds conflict within both counties. He is communist but has also made friends with those against the movement. He can also see the brutality befalling his own country with the spread of communism despite country finally becoming unified and under no control but their own.

This perfect dichotomy is an act that the protagonist has perfected and has played all his life, an act that many other foreign-born people who come to live in America struggle with.

“…the basis of the most powerful theme in Nguyen’s fiction: a person with two faces who has to choose which to show, depending on the surroundings. “It’s universal. Most of us have that sense of duality,” says Nguyen, adding that the feeling of having “two faces” is aggravated for immigrants and refugees. “That sense of pretending to be somebody, or to be an imposter.””- Viet Thanh Nguyen, Independent, Nov 2016.

Despite the brooding tones, the story also depicts deep friendships and love and has playful undertones. One of my favourite sections of the book is when the protagonist is describing a scene from his boyhood, in which he grew up in poverty with his mother and the guilt that he felt over masturbating with the husk of a dead squid that was meant to be dinner. Despite the humour of the scene the author still manages to make the section almost poetic as he wraps up his thoughts with the following:

“Torture is obscene. Three million dead is obscene. Masturbation, even with an admittedly nonconsensual squid? Not so much. I, for one, am a person who believes that the world would be a better place if the word “murder” made us mumble as much as the word “masturbation.””

Another further example of the author’s humour, one that I personally really appreciated due to my hatred of country music, is the subtle way he commented on the genre:

“Country music was the most segregated kind of music in America, where even whites played jazz and even blacks sang in the opera. Something like country music was what lynch mobs must have enjoyed while stringing up their black victims. Country music was not necessarily lynching music, but no other music could be imagined as lynching’s accompaniment.”

The book reads like a confession and that’s because it is but the resulting torture and resolution are not what the reader expects. It is tragic but also relieving to have the protagonist finally unburden himself with his story.

The author is a rare and gifted storyteller. You don’t often see this type of depth and literary quality in a debut novel. The execution of the themes and content of this book alone are award winning but the real kicker is the author’s pervasive style that is unique to his own dichotomous persona.

While the book is not long, I do not recommend ploughing through this novel as there is much to be savoured. The story is a must-read for any historical-fiction lovers and a worthy and unique read to add to just about anyone’s TBR list.