Hong Kong Requiem

Red Oblivion Blog

Hong Kong Requiem

Posted on November 21 by Leslie Shimotakahara in Fiction, Recent Releases
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Four years ago, my husband, Chris Wong, and I were awoken by a phone call in the wee hours of the morning. It was his father’s housekeeper calling from Hong Kong, in a panic, to say Chris’s father had keeled over and been rushed to hospital and into surgery. Chris, his sister, and I caught the first flight from Toronto to Hong Kong. So began a very stressful period, as we watched this formidable, self-made man — still intimidating at age ninety-four — fight to hang on while in a state of protracted decline.


During the turbulent months after his release from hospital, when Chris and I were compelled to put our lives on hold and stay in Hong Kong, I began to get to know this man for the first time. Vivid stories about his past abounded in the family lore, spanning from his Dickensian childhood on the streets of Hong Kong during the Second World War to the harrowing years he spent trapped in Guangzhou, China, during the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution was a period of political chaos in China beginning in the late 1960s; Mao regained his dominant position of power within the Communist Party by mobilizing the fanatical student group known as the Red Guards. Later, the violence spread to other rebel groups, who rose up in similar fashion by attacking so-called elites, capitalists, and those belonging to the landlord class. By calling for a state of all-round civil war, Mao was able to consolidate his position and eliminate his political rivals. This period in Chinese history, which my father-in-law had lived through, caught hold in my imagination, and I wanted to write a novel that explored the things he might have done in his struggle to survive. I began to keep a journal to gather raw materials that I thought down the road might be useful to my writing process, but surprisingly quickly, I found myself immersed in writing Red Oblivion.


In particular, the question of how this man managed to escape from Guangzhou and return to Hong Kong, where he rebuilt his life and made his fortune, teased at my imagination; this was a gap in his self-mythologizing tales. As I became increasingly interested in Chinese history and read many books for inspiration, the central mystery of Red Oblivion came into focus: he would be blackmailed by someone from the old days, someone who knew the secret of how he escaped.


Early last year, just as I was finishing my novel, my father-in-law suddenly died. As if life and art are inextricably intertwined, his death provided me with an apt ending. During the time since his passing, I’ve often found myself thinking, with wonder and sadness, about his life and the fraught historical period he lived through. Following the political turbulence of recent months, when Hong Kong has found itself rocked by protests about its complex relationship to mainland China, it feels timely to reflect on some of the intricate history that may have led to this critical juncture. Red Oblivion, I hope, offers a vivid glimpse of this history.