Hong Kong on the Brain10 min read

Christopher Rea reviews Hon Lai-chu’s The Kite Family


‘Spoiled Brains,’ the first story in Hong Lai-chu’s collection The Kite Family, expertly translated by Andrea Lingenfelter, reminds me of Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 film, Chungking Express. When I taught a course on the history of Chinese cinema in Vancouver last spring, students voted Chungking Express their favorite film. In one of its iconic sequences, a cop commemorates his lost love by buying and consuming tins of pineapple stamped with a date that has already passed. He hopes that she’ll return before his 25th birthday, but she doesn’t, and he gorges on rancid fruit, only to throw it up again. “When,” he muses in a voiceover, “did everything start having an expiration date?”

“Hong Kongers experience the present itself with nostalgia. For Hong Kong, it’s always already too late.”

For Hong Kong at least, the obvious answer would be 1984. That was the year that the Sino-British Joint Declaration started the clock ticking down until July 1, 1997, the date when Hong Kong would cease to be a British colony and become a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. The Declaration included a second expiration date: the year 2046, when Hong Kong’s Basic Law would become open to revision and China would no longer be bound to maintaining “One Country, Two Systems.” Since the 1980s, one popular theory has been that Hong Kong culture is defined by a sense of expiring time. Living with an acute sensation that the future is constantly displacing an expiring present, Hong Kongers experience the present itself with nostalgia. For Hong Kong, it’s always already too late.

Over the past two decades, Hong Kong filmmakers have been obsessed with the idea of expiring time, from director Fruit Chan’s so-called Handover Trilogy, inaugurated with Made in Hong Kong (1997), to Samson Chiu’s Golden Chicken 2 (2003), which looks back on Hong Kong’s “worst year”—the 2003 SARS epidemic—from 2046, when (in a happy fantasy) actor and Cantopop superstar Andy Lau is the SAR’s Chief Executive. In 2004, Wong Kar-wai made his own contribution to this trend with the surrealistic 2046, set fifty years after the 1997 Handover.

Then, in 2014, time for Hong Kong suddenly became very short indeed. The Beijing government announced that it was imposing tighter controls over the election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, and over one hundred thousand Hong Kongers took to the streets to call for unfettered direct democracy. In the wake of the protests, the sleeper film hit of 2015 was Ten Years, which showed life for Hong Kongers in 2025 having become desperate. The tagline: “It’s not too late.”

In ‘Spoiled Brains,’ one hundred and thirty-two people die on a journey to a new city. Blanc, the sole survivor, is dragged out of a freight truck filled with vomit and suffocated corpses and reawakens in a hospital having forgotten his name. What he does remember is his mother’s advice on how to endure the stench and the stares of neighbors in the public toilet back home: “Forget yourself.” Blanc, an amnesiac (the pun in his name is adeptly carried over from the Chinese) “illegal migrant” to a city “famous for its freedoms” becomes a blank slate onto which its citizens project their fears and desires. From the hospital he is transferred to a new home: a glass-encased furniture showroom in a sprawling mall. There he lives on display in a luxurious bedroom suite, obsessively sketching cross-sections of brains. His presence draws shoppers: one berates him for stealing local jobs, another tells him to go home, yet another tries to buy him. Moved from one cramped space to another, human refuse becomes a commodity as alluring as a (wait for it) Mont Blanc.

As illustrator and human display object, Blanc is a space-filler twice over. While his drawings of bisected brains fail to fill in absent memories, Blanc himself represents the conundrum of what to do with all the bodies of “illegal migrants”—an epithet that seems as superficial as his brain drawings. The manager takes Blanc on a tour of the mall, which is identical to many others, telling him that one need only memorize the order of the shops in order to orient oneself to “the coordinates and cardinal directions of your life.” The mall now appears as an externalization of Blanc’s redundant drawings of brain architecture.

Ultimately, Blanc is evicted from the display case like so much seasonal stock and arrested by the police for allegedly trafficking in spoiled brains. It’s a sly touch: Hon Lai-chu’s Hong Kong mall-brain is not only vacuous and short-sighted, but—like the pineapple in Chungking Express—gone bad.


In the title story of the collection, ‘The Kite Family,’ the narrator and her family members suffer from hereditary bloat. Morbid obesity strikes as a terminal symptom of a mysterious disease, accompanied by insatiable hunger. The first victim is Grandmother, who grew up with food shortages and dies at a time when her grandchildren are throwing uneaten food into landfills. A postmortem of her swollen body divulges the family jewelry; she turns out to have died from choking on a string of pearls—a symbolic scapegoat of society’s pathological gluttony. To divide up the estate, the deceased is cut open and family members take what they like from her stomach contents. When the narrator herself succumbs to the condition, she experiences a ravenous desire to fill in her own vast, inexplicable emptiness. Gorging on random junk, she is disappointed to find that everything tastes bitter. While most of the fat bodies in the story end up as objects displayed in a “jewel-like array” in a museum, the narrator imagines her own body carried away on a breeze, big enough to fill the world.

The funniest story in the collection for me is ‘Front Teeth,’ in which Pearl finds herself in a dentist’s chair with too many pearly whites. Pearl is another of Hon’s freaks—she grows teeth faster than a shark, in multiple rows—but we move quickly from her physical deformity to the psychological deformity of the dentist, a professional representative of the extraction economy with his own backstory. The dentist, we are told, took an interest in his mother, a retired TV actor, only when she started to lose teeth in her sleep. He keeps her teeth in a drawer and colors them black in memory of the time his mother played a geisha. Aside from the morbid theme, Hon’s stories are connected by certain specific details. The clinical malice that Pearl’s brother displays in wiring open the mouth of their pet rat resembles that of the leg-sawing Zero in ‘The Kite Family.’ In that story, people fatten in hot weather; in ‘Front Teeth,’ Pearl’s teeth sprout when it’s chilly.

Claustrophobia, social surveillance, devaluation of human life and other recurring topics in Hon’s stories resonate with unpleasant aspects of life in contemporary Hong Kong. ‘Notes on an Epidemic’ dramatizes the impossibility of solitude: survivors of a virus (the airborne pathogens call to mind the 2003 SARS crisis) are forced to live together as artificial families and perform conjugal roles for spectators. Illegal migrant as mall display, teeth as barter, man as furniture and other images suggest Hon’s fixation on the commodification of human life. In ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ disaster victims are given away like unsold merchandise. One laid-off worker auctions off another whose selling point is that he’s lost his memory. The critique is sometimes bald, as when a hotel clerk advises that “Empty-eyed people need to buy things to fill their emptiness.”

Hon often pushes her stories beyond a Hong Kong context by making characters and settings deliberately abstract. Migrants in ‘Spoiled Brains’ are on their way to Y City. The woman in ‘Notes on an Epidemic’ hails from S. Characters tend to be roles: Mother, Father, Little Brother, Doctor. Even characters with names, like Blanc or Rich Woods, are more symbols than individuals. In the most self-consciously Kafka-esque story in the collection, a man turns into a chair and rents himself out by the hour to clients named L, M, F, H, K and Z. Abstraction, artificiality, alienation from self and society, being out of place and time—these are all familiar post-modern atmospherics, so I especially enjoyed Hon’s twists, as when young people dispel boredom by playing “an ordinary game of Clock.”

At times, Hon Lai-chu’s writing reminds me of Yu Hua, a contemporary writer best known for the novels To Live and Brothers and the essay collection China in Ten Words. Grandmother’s postmortem in “The Kite Family” recalls the protracted surgery scene in Yu Hua’s ‘One Kind of Reality,’ in which surgeons methodically remove every organ from the corpse of a murdered brother. Hon also shares with Yu Hua (and many other contemporary Chinese authors) a penchant for surrealism and matter-of-fact descriptions of violence, tinged by black humor. Yu Hua stories like ‘1986’ and ‘The Past and the Punishments’ leap to mind while reading Hon’s descriptions of a youth sawing off a friend’s leg, a worker drilling a hole in sister’s head, and mother having sister put in the refrigerator. Even the dentist in ‘Front Teeth’ is reminiscent of Yu Hua, who famously gave up tooth-pulling for fiction-writing. (Not coincidentally, the dentist in Brothers is referred to as Yanker Yu.)

Why do surrealists so enjoy depicting bodies in distress? (Think of the sliced eye in Un Chien Andalou.) In Hon’s work at least, the impetus seems to be not just to indict the cruelty of society or of human beings but also to keep the narrative hovering between reality and fantasy. Her characters are always vomiting, and nausea is as visceral a sensation as one could hope to experience. One of my favorite images is in the title story, in which the narrator struggles in a typhoon to manage the rope attached to her sister, who has turned into a kite. A kite might soar into the heavens, be reeled back in, or, as in this case, get blown into a tree. Hon’s flights of fancy are tethered by images of human bodies slipping out of control.

Twenty years have passed since the Handover, and the anniversary offers a tempting opportunity to read works by any Hong Kong writer as political allegory. The year 1997, after all, marked a transferring of political control between great powers, over the heads of locals, and recent government attempts to dilute Hong Kong’s limited democratic institutions have provoked popular protests against further slippage.

Yet strictly allegorical interpretations of Hon Lai-chu’s stories, studded though they are with topical allusions to Hong Kong, diminish their sense of possibility. At the end of ‘Forrest Woods, Chair,’ L has sold the titular man-chair overseas and reassures his mother, Mrs. Woods, that her son is “the most outstanding chair I have ever seen.” Mrs. Woods starts going over in her mind how she will tell others that her son is now “a professional engaged in chair work.” The comment reminded me that the fondest wish of many in my profession is to become a research chair or a chair professor.

Kafka, eat your brain out. ∎

The Kite Family, by Hon Lai-chu, trans. Andrea Lingenfelter (East Slope Publishing Ltd, March 2016)