In 2013, both my novel and Susan Blumberg-Kason’s memoir had just debuted, and our books were repeatedly placed on book lists featuring white female protagonists and Asian male love interests. We met through Twitter and Internet-bonded over our love of travel and our formative time in Asia, especially Hong Kong.
We had only shared one lunch in real life before deciding to book an Airbnb together in 2017 for a research trip to Hong Kong. I think we were both nervous, but while staying in a tiny SoHo apartment over a club that thumped all night long, these forty-something moms felt young again. Quickly, it felt as though we’d been lifelong friends.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of the memoir Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong and the co-editor, with Jason Y. Ng, of Hong Kong Noir, released earlier this month from Akashic Books. She holds a Masters in Philosophy in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where she researched emerging women’s rights.
Hong Kong Noir, to which I contributed, is a collection of noir short stories centered around the city of Hong Kong. Other contributors include distinguished Hong Kong writers like Xu Xi, Marhsall Moore, and Feng Chi-shun.
Over email, Susan and I discussed what it’s like to reveal the dark side of a city you love, the link between noir and misogyny, and, as two white American women, the challenges of writing about a foreign culture with sensitivity.
The Rumpus: When I first heard you were proposing a noir anthology set in Hong Kong, I was surprised and delighted to see you make such a big jump in genre. You’ve gone from memoir to short stories, coming-of-age to noir. Where did the idea for this crime anthology come from?
Susan Blumberg-Kason: The idea came from the simple fact that I wanted to read this book. I first learned about Akashic’s Noir series about ten years ago, when I started writing Good Chinese Wife. Ever since then, I’d been on the lookout for a Hong Kong installment. I lived in Hong Kong in the 90s and know it like no other place. It’s always been very noir for me. Over the years I’d built connections in the literary community there, including a long-term membership in the Hong Kong Women in Publishing Society, where I met contributors Shannon Young and Christina Liang. I figured I knew enough people to put a Hong Kong volume together myself, so I talked to my agent, Carrie Pestritto, about proposing it to Akashic.
Rumpus: Once you had the writers on board, how did you propose Hong Kong Noir to Akashic?
Blumberg-Kason: My agent contacted Ibrahim Ahmad, the editorial director at Akashic Books. I have never worked with an editor like Ibrahim. He’s set the bar super high and is such a delight to work with. She sent Ibrahim the proposal and we heard back four days later. He asked me to make some revisions to the proposal before it went to an acquisitions meeting. Akashic is really great about making sure their books are authentic, so they also asked for a list of potential co-editors on the ground in Hong Kong. Two months after they received my proposal, Jason and I signed a contract for the book!
Rumpus: Since you’re now living in Chicago, it makes sense that Akashic would suggest adding a Hong Kong-based co-editor. How did you bring Jason into the picture? And how did the two of you work together, especially at such great distance?
Blumberg-Kason: I suggested a few potential co-editors, including Jason, who has such a great pulse on what’s going on in Hong Kong and is also a best-selling author in his own right. When Akashic offered their deal, they said they’d like Jason to co-edit. Jason and I only met in person once during the project, over dim sum at Dragon-i when you and I were in Hong Kong. At that point, we’d already received a few of the stories, so he brought his markups and showed me his changes.
From there, we developed a rhythm of how we’d edit the stories, using Google docs and sharing different responsibilities. Our distance didn’t pose a problem at all, as most publishing projects are done electronically now. Sourcebooks, the publisher of Good Chinese Wife, is located twenty-five minutes from my home, but I’ve never had a meeting there. All our communication has been conducted online.
Rumpus: When it came to writing the stories, the only guideline you and Jason gave us was to “end on a dark note.” Were you ever concerned about what kind of stories you’d get back?
Blumberg-Kason: I wasn’t really; I had faith in all the contributors and figured if a story wasn’t engaging enough, I would ask the contributor to make changes or go in a different direction. As it turned out, I was blown away by all of them. The stories are so deliciously dark. What surprised me, and made writing the introduction a piece of cake, was that most of the stories fell along the modern historical timeline of Hong Kong, from the Japanese occupation in the 1940s to Occupy Hong Kong in 2014. That wasn’t planned, but how fortunate for the narrative of the collection.
Rumpus: Do you have any advice for someone who’d like to propose an anthology?
Blumberg-Kason: Have a solid proposal that shows you know what you’re doing. Make sure you have all your contributors lined up first. For the Noir series, there’s no need to provide comp titles, but for other anthology proposals, it’s a good idea to have at least five similar titles to show the editors that there’s a market for your anthology, yet at the same time persuade them that yours is different and necessary! I’d say it’s a good idea to have as many big name authors as you can, although Akashic is great in that they also want a couple of new or emerging authors. I love that. Anthologies are really hard to sell now, as I’ve experienced firsthand since submitting my Noir proposal. But you’ll never find out if there’s a market unless you try!
Rumpus: Some Western reviewers have criticized the book for including ghost stories, which the reviewers didn’t see as traditional noir. What would you say about that?
Blumberg-Kason: I think that’s a cultural difference. Hong Kong is all about ghosts and the afterworld. Walk down any street that hasn’t been gentrified and you’re bound to find shops selling paper effigies to burn at the graves of relatives. Yulan—the Hungry Ghost Festival that Jason writes about—is about providing for deceased loved ones so their ghosts won’t be neglected in the afterlife.
I’m not personally into the supernatural, but I appreciate and love Hong Kong culture. I think ghost stories work in this book and they help to define Hong Kong. I also think it’s a little pompous of Western reviewers to say what makes a good Hong Kong story. The whole point of the Akashic Noir series is to bring readers into another place. If ghosts are part of that, then so be it.
Rumpus: Would you say there’s a connection between your two books?
Blumberg-Kason: Definitely! But the link really didn’t materialize for me until after I received the submissions from the contributors. Good Chinese Wife is dark with a bit of a thrill at the end. That story and others I experienced were harrowing, so I thought I had a good grasp on darkness in Hong Kong, at least when it came to misogynistic manipulation. After the contributors started sending me their stories, I saw that most of them—including yours—were also tales of women in dark places.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the anthology that “sadness and desperation… are in ready supply” and “sexual exploitation is a frequent motif.” That’s exactly what I was going for, so it was interesting to see so many of the contributors interpret noir in the same way. I think it says something about the climate now, which isn’t just specific to the US, but is happening in Hong Kong and China, too.
Rumpus: One thing that’s been on my mind since I first asked you to do this interview is that, even though you lived in Hong Kong and China for many years, it’s worth noting that we’re both white American women talking about another culture as outsiders. I’ve recently started looking more critically at my own novel and how it may have inadvertently treated the main love interest, a Vietnamese-American, as “the other.” How do you avoid portraying Hong Kong from a colonialist’s perspective?
Blumberg-Kason: That’s a great question. Being aware of stereotypes is the first step. In the case of Hong Kong Noir, the contributors made this easy for me because they submitted stories that didn’t portray locals as “the other.” If anything, men from mainland China were written as “the other.” But I think in these cases, they were portrayed in a sympathetic manner. I’m really pleased with the content of all the stories and it’s completely to the contributors’ credit.
As for Good Chinese Wife, I was worried about that. I have a lot of friends in Chicago from Hong Kong and China, mostly couples. When the memoir came out, they were very supportive and wanted to read it. I was terrified! What if the men thought I was portraying all Chinese men as narcissistic chauvinists? Would the women think I was criticizing their husbands? It was a big worry. I tried to show other men in my book in a sympathetic light, but of course they weren’t central characters.
Anyway, after these friends read it, they talked to me about it, and it was really fascinating to hear their perspectives. The men from China thought the problems in my first marriage came from personality clashes. The men from Hong Kong all thought my issues were cultural and not due to personality differences. The women from China said they knew my first marriage would never work out because they never would have married someone from the interior of China. (These women were from Shanghai.) And my Hong Kong women friends told me that they’d never marry a first-born son. It was such a fascinating comparison of perspectives.
But getting back to my role in this—which of course is central because I wrote the book and bear full responsibility—I made conscious efforts to try to emphasize that my first marriage was just one case and that I wasn’t generalizing. In one way, I think this book breaks Hollywood stereotypes of the emasculated Asian man who never get to be the central love interest in a movie or anything but a kung fu master. It shows that Asian men can also be alpha males, just like men everywhere.
Rumpus: I was really impressed with how the stories in Hong Kong Noir complimented each other and came together to form a moving portrait of Hong Kong with all its opportunities and challenges. One obvious theme in the collection is how Hong Kong has struggled to remain its own while under British and Chinese rule. What other themes do you see weaving throughout the stories?
Blumberg-Kason: Women’s hardships are definitely a theme throughout the book. The contributors include eight women and six men, and most of the male contributors touched on this: Jason Ng’s student imprisoned for protesting, James Tam’s jilted heroine, and Feng Chi-shun’s exploited protagonist. Hong Kong isn’t different from most of the places the patriarchy has sunk its claws into, and I think it’s important to show that, especially today. Time’s up!
Rumpus: Yes! Xu Xi’s story is especially harrowing and visceral and all the more heartbreaking because the situation these women are stuck in—needing to sell sex to survive—is so realistic. I think it makes it that much more satisfying when the protagonist of a different story, Feng Chi-shun’s, exacts her clever, twisted revenge.
Blumberg-Kason: Definitely! Feng is our oldest contributor and grew up in Hong Kong in the 1950s, during an era when women didn’t have the rights they do now. So it’s extra satisfying that his story has one of the most ardent feminist characters in the book.
Rumpus: I know how significant Hong Kong is to your life, your work, and your heart. Do you ever feel uncomfortable portraying a beloved place in such a dark light?
Blumberg-Kason: Not at all! To love a place means to accept the good and want to change the bad. I kind of see it like the United States. I’m the first to criticize things that aren’t working here and it’s not because I hate my country—quite the opposite. I want the US to be safer for women and people of color. I want my kids to avoid the pressures young people have now. Nothing is going to change unless we talk about it and try to change it.
With Hong Kong, it’s interesting because when I studied politics there twenty-five years ago, people thought I was crazy. Hong Kong was not thought of as a politically active place back then and many thought my master’s degree was a waste of time. But now Hong Kong is so political; there are grand scale protests. For instance, in the Occupy movement, as many as one hundred thousand people took to the streets, closing roads for more than two months. It’s great that young people are standing up for their future and that older generations are joining them to preserve the rights they were promised when Britain handed Hong Kong back to China.
On the other hand, as Jason writes in his story, “The Ghost of Yulan,” aesthetically Hong Kong is changing, too, and that’s a huge shame. The neon signs are pretty much gone. One look down Nathan Road now and you’d think you were on 5th Avenue in New York. Old buildings are being demolished instead of restored, and the government’s answer to the housing shortage is to build an artificial island where residents can live even further away from their places of work and the markets they grew up near. I think I echo the contributors when I say this book is potentially cathartic when it comes to the changes in Hong Kong. All of the contributors put so much love and attention into their stories. Maybe it was a license to vent in a creative way that is both personal and public, if that makes sense.
Rumpus: What other books do you recommend people read to get a more well-rounded picture of Hong Kong?
Blumberg-Kason: The book we were all reading at the time of the Handover—when Hong Kong’s sovereignty was handed over from the United Kingdom to The People’s Republic of China—was Jan Morris’s Hong Kong. It’s been updated over the years and is the go-to for Hong Kong history, going back to before the Opium Wars. I love Eileen Chang, who wrote about the Japanese occupation during WWII in many of her books, including Love in a Fallen City, Little Reunions, and The Book of Change. Her books also bring the reader into 1930s Shanghai like no author who’s been translated into English. Some people might look down on this, but I love Richard Mason’s The World of Suzie Wong. Talk about colonial! But it also shows the hardships of Chinese refugees and how difficult it was for a single mother to survive back then. And I have to recommend anything published by Blacksmith Books, which specializes in nonfiction set in Hong Kong. I love their illustrated travel journals; How to Hong Kong by Lena Sin and Nicholas Tay is gorgeous. Feng Chi-shun’s Diamond Hill is a lovely memoir about growing up in Kowloon in the 1950s. For background on the Occupy protests of 2014, also known as the Umbrella Revolution, Jason Y. Ng’s Umbrellas in Bloom is great. Blacksmith has also purchased the Hong Kong rights of Hong Kong Noir, so we’re in the best possible hands there.
For anyone looking to understand the current political situation in Hong Kong, I highly recommend the documentary film Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, which shows how fourteen-year-old Joshua Wong inspired his generation to stand up to Beijing’s ever-tightening grip.
Rumpus: What’s next for you?
Blumberg-Kason: My first two books have in common that they’re set in Hong Kong and also that they feature women who overcome dire situations. Next, I’m looking to expand on the latter theme with more projects on women’s empowerment. I’ve been working on a couple of nonfiction projects and hope that one will materialize fully. In the meantime, I continue to write for the Los Angeles Review of Books’ China Channel, the Asian Review of Books, and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. I love these assignments.