BOOK REVIEW 'Television is my lie' Hong Kong on Air by Muhammad Cohen
Reviewed by Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - The first thing a reader notices about the novel Hong Kong on Air
is not the title or the striking cover art by Harry Harrison, the political
cartoonist for the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. Rather, it is the
author's unlikely combination of a name. As it turns out, the first-time
novelist is a Jewish native of New York City who moved to Hong Kong in 1995
and took the name Muhammad prior to his marriage to a Muslim on Christmas Day,
"I took the name Muhammad Cohen when I got married in part because I want
people to understand that Muhammads and Cohens can get along," said Cohen, a
regular contributor to Asia Times Online, after the Hong Kong launch of his
book this month. "The traditions of the two religions are deeply intertwined. I
work with New Foundations for Peace, a US organization that tries to build
bridges between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds."
That said, the distraction of the author's name is completely irrelevant to his
novel, an often comic romp through the frenetic world of television news at the
time of Hong Kong's handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997. Besides the
fact that Cohen's protagonist
is a Jewish lingerie salesman named Jeff Golden, there is nothing in this story
of sex, betrayal and the ultimate seductress - television - that will heal
relations between Jews and Muslims.
Jeff, who quit university to run his family's lingerie business in Long Island
on the death of his father, is married not to a Muslim but to Laura Wellesley,
a ball-breaking shiksa (non-Jewish woman). When Laura lands a job as a
producer at a startup television news station in Hong Kong in the heady days
leading up to the handover, she drags her compliant putz of a newlywed husband
along with her.
Once they arrive in the city, Laura throws herself into her work with Franklin
Global Networks Asia (a business-oriented station pronounced "Fuggin Asia" by
staff) while Jeff thinks about lingerie and other women. He winds up finding
both, sometimes in the same package.
Meanwhile, however, there is a lot of television to be satirized as we follow
Laura's travails in the studio with an egomaniacal US-born Chinese anchor and a
charismatic boss - Peter Franklin, the 28-year-old son of FGN's owner, in whom
she seems far more interested than her husband. Laura's long, manic,
stress-filled hours at work are captured in amusing - and sometimes disturbing
- detail by Cohen, a former television news producer himself who played a role
in the startup of CNBC Asia.
Early in the novel, Laura runs into trouble with FGN Asia's mostly Chinese
staff when a graphics operator - an attractive young woman named Pussy, who
speaks little English and dresses "like a hooker" - refuses to turn off her
mobile phone during a show. Laura silences the beeping menace by plunking it in
a mug of tea, thereby earning Pussy's enduring resentment.
This becomes a bigger problem for the producer when Pussy the lowly graphics
operator is transformed by Peter, whose attention Laura has also been vying
for, into Candy the sexy, glamorous anchor. Never mind her broken English;
anyone can be taught to read a script.
On the other hand, Pussy/Candy's co-anchor - US-born Deng Jiang Mao - speaks
perfect English, but he is also a prima donna and a closet Chinese nationalist
whose unreasonable demands bring him into repeated conflict with his producer.
These altercations teach Laura the first cardinal rule of television news - the
anchor is always right, even when he is terribly wrong.
When Deng hijacks the coverage of the handover ceremony with his pro-Beijing
bias, we see this dictum played out in the extreme. As cameras feed live video
of the ceremony into the studio, Deng comments:
"On stage, you can hear the colonial invaders' commandant give his final orders
in Hong Kong, the last gasps of British imperialism in East Asia, as he
instructs his troops - and isn't it appropriate that these British soldiers
wear skirts, these agents of a faraway Queen who dares not show herself at
these proceedings - to fold away the hated Union Jack, watched by the son of a
Queen, Charles, and the accursed final colonial governor of Hong Kong, Chris
Patten, who tried his best to prevent this moment from ever taking place. To
paraphrase the American patriotic hero Paul Revere, 'The British are going. The
British are going.' Their flag of repression and misery is now consigned to the
dustbin of history, never again to foul the skies over liberated, reunited Hong
Laura rebukes Deng for his outrageous slant on the ceremony, but her boss
praises the anchor for "speaking from the heart". Clearly, it is a new day in
Hong Kong journalism.
While Laura deals with the challenges of working the lobster shift at FGN Asia,
Jeff initially plays the role of uxorious husband, greeting his wife cheerfully
with wine, sex and a sympathetic ear each day that she returns to their cramped
flat with a need to unload all the frustrations of her job. After vigorous sex,
punctuated by the same producer cues that Laura uses in the station's control
room, Jeff makes her dinner, tucks her into bed before dark and then heads off
to the Jewish Community Center for a workout.
It is there that he meets two Israeli businessmen who set him up across the
border with a mainland manufacturer whose supply of cheap, sexy underwear
breathes new life (and profit) into the family business. But after Jeff's
mother cuts him out of the deal, he experiences a gradual epiphany at the end
of which he realizes that it is time to live for himself and not for others.
His self-liberation leads him into the bed of a beautiful Japanese investment
banker with a penchant for Jewish food and the men who eat it and, under her
tutelage, into high-risk currency speculation at the onset of the Asian
Jeff gives the novel its human side. His character clearly develops and is
ultimately transformed by his Hong Kong experience. Laura, on the other hand,
represents the frenzied, workaholic ethos of the city. The lengthy depictions
of her at work remind us of the feverish media coverage of the handover 10
years ago and provide ample opportunity for the author to satirize an industry
he knows very well.
"Television is my lie" becomes Laura's credo - and there are journalistic lies
aplenty at "Fuggin Asia". For anyone who loses focus at the station, the
rallying cry is, "It's the handover, stupid!"
The problem for some readers may be that this 454-page insider's view of the
handover story - followed almost immediately by the crushing blow of the Asian
financial crisis - spends far too much time recounting news that is, after all,
10 years old. For the initiated, much of the throwback reportorial detail is
unnecessary. For those coming fresh to the story, it is overwhelming.
The same can be said for the attention lavished on Laura's efforts in the FGN
Asia control room: all the TV jargon and technical detail are fascinating to a
point, but tedious thereafter. In the end, the excessive length of the novel
diminishes its satirical and emotional power.
For aficionados of the handover story, however, this is a worthy read. And, of
course, peace between the Muhammads and the Cohens would also be a good thing.
Hong Kong On Air by Muhammad Cohen. Blacksmith Books, August 2007.
ISBN-13: 9789889979973. Price US$11.95, 456 pages.
Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer at Hong Kong International School. He
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.