Borrowed time: Hong Kong author uses crime to paint big picture
Former software engineer Chan Ho-kei translated his Chinese-language police procedural into English, opening a door on a journey through city's key historic moments
When Chan Ho-kei decided to write about Hong Kong’s political and judicial issues, the author turned to fiction and a police procedural featuring a “genius” detective whose ability to make connections where others could not has led to a long and storied career.
“Writing a police procedural provided me a platform to discuss police and judicial issues, which is a major part of our society,” Chan says. “The police force of Hong Kong has had a very special role in Hong Kong history – it has had some highs and lows, and each of them has influenced our views and our values.”
The Borrowed was published earlier this year and is the English translation of Chan’s 13.67 (with translation by Jeremy Tiang).
The original Chinese-language book was published three months before the start of the so-called Umbrella Movement – the pro-democracy protests that closed down the center of Hong Kong in 2014 – and the film rights have been bought by legendary director Wong Kar-wai (In The Mood For Love).
Spanning Kwan Chun-dok’s 50-year career with the Hong Kong Police Force, Chan has written The Borrowed as six distinct novellas, with each story set in a key moment in Hong Kong.
Told in reverse chronological order, the book begins with the 2013 murder of a Hong Kong billionaire before stepping back in time to the city’s handover to Chinese control in 1997, the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, the 1977 conflict between the Hong Kong Police and the Independent Commission Against Corruption, and, finally, the 1967 leftist riots in the city.
In the book’s afterword, Chan, who finished writing the original Chinese book in 2013, wrote that he had “no idea whether Hong Kong after 2013 will be able to recover as it did after 1967.”
Four years later, Chan is still uncertain about his city’s future.
“The future of Hong Kong is still in a mist,” Chan says. “In my opinion, [that] Hong Kong could recover in the ’70s and ’80s was due to two forces, Hong Kong citizens and the British government.
“Surely the British government stood firm during the leftist riots, but in the ’70s, Governor [Murray] MacLehose undertook various reforms, which were welcomed by citizens.
I had no intention to become a writer back then, as I thought it would be too late for a person to start
a new career. Well, never say never, I guess
– Chan Ho-kei
“Compared to the British government in the 70s, we are not sure now whether the Chinese government would act in a similar way [in allowing reforms], and we certainly don’t know what [Chief Executive-elect] Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s plan for the upcoming administration would be.
“Hong Kong is also a facing financial crisis now, as the housing bubble grows bigger and bigger. The social inequality and economic inequality we are dealing with now is [more] severe than the ones in the 70s. Hong Kong would recover only if we can eliminate these inequalities. However, even taking the most optimistic view, I don’t think it can be done in the near future.”
Chan didn’t originally set out to write about Hong Kong’s political, social and economic issues.
The Borrowed started as a short story featuring an “armchair detective” for a mystery writers’ competition in Taiwan.
But when this story exceeded the competition’s length limit, Chan began to think about how he could expand the story of Kwan and his loyal assistant Sonny Lok.
His solution was to write two additional novellas. However, as he continued to write, Chan realized that he wanted more than a pure detective story and that he wanted to tell “the story of a personality, a city and an era.”
While each novella is self-contained, read as a whole, the book aims to “form a complete portrait of society.”
Born in Hong Kong, Chan grew up in the city in the 1980s. It was in primary school that he began reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in Chinese.
It wasn’t until 2008 that Chan, a software engineer, turned to writing short stories. One of his stories ended up winning the Mystery Writers Taiwan Award. Chan picked up a few more awards along the way, published his debut novel The Man Who Sold the World in 2011 (which won the Soji Shimada Mystery Award) and transitioned into a full-time writer.
“While I was still working in the software industry in my 20s, I always joked about debuting as a writer in my 30s,” Chan says. “I had no intention to become a writer back then, as I thought it would be too late for a person to start a new career. Well, never say never, I guess.”
With The Borrowed now available to English-language readers, Chan is working on his next mystery novel. While his next book will also be set in Hong Kong, Chan sees the new work as a departure from his cerebral detective novel.
“It’s a story about netizens, hackers, cyber-bullying, inequalities and vengeance,” Chan says. “It’s not related to the police and quite different from The Borrowed. I think readers would be happier if I write another police procedural filled with gun-fighting, triads and murders, but I wanted to try something new.”