Kowloon Walled City, 1984 is a 2016 cultural thriller by Nova Scotia native Nicholas Morine and published by the Newfoundland indie company Problematic Press. It stars Fang, a heroin dealer for the 14K gang, as he rises to the top of the Kowloon fighting circuit and becomes embroiled in danger and violence as he deals with corrupt police, gang politics, and an annual martial arts tournament calling the very best warriors from across the globe called the Siu Nin a Fu. Will he make it out of this world alive? You’ll have to read it to see. 😉
For those who may not know, and I was among them, Kowloon Walled City was a densely populated, largely ungoverned settlement in Kowloon City, Hong Kong. Originally a Chinese military fort, the Walled City became an enclave after the New Territories were leased to Britain in 1898. In this novel, Morine takes great pains to infuse the text with enough cultural and symbolic references to immerse the reader in this foreign culture. The places he borrows from feel immediately real, and once the setting feels real he builds the characters to the same magnitude, and the stakes in kind, until the argument of the novel itself is upon you before you even know it. This novel sneaks up and takes you, much like the sort of fighter Fang must be to survive.
As a recent graduate with an English major and Anthropology minor, this book checks all the boxes for me. It has a complex narrative with interesting and well-designed, well thought-out characters, but also teaches me about another segment of human culture that I hadn’t known about before. This is done through osmosis, not through heavy-handed exposition. We learn about Kowloon through the action, not via long diatribes or explanations. Morine takes care to balance introducing the setting to those who aren’t familiar with it while not patronizing those that are, no meager feat.
As a novel, this book owes a lot to Rocky. By which I do not mean that this story reminds me of Rocky. What I mean is that this is that story of the danger and politics that surround a young lower-class man as he enters into the Kowloon fighting scene, ultimately culminating in a large fighting tournament. Until a certain point in our cultural tapestry, these types of stories always ended with the protagonist winning. But ever since the original Rocky and its popularity, we now cannot take that for granted. As such, every punch and kick thrown in the epic, bloody battles of the Siu Nin a Fu tournament are wrought with tension and dramatic suspense, which Morine delivers with expert prose and seamless pacing.
I love taking the Freudian method of dream analysis and applying it to literature. Quick/Dirty rundown: you take the part of the book that bothered you the most, then spin the analysis so that that is what the book is about. At least, what it’s about for you.
Kowloon Walled City, 1984 had possibly the most immediately- apparent thing that bothered me, and for once, I think it was actually intentional by the author (not that that matters in Freudian analysis).
What bothered me about this story is that Kowloon Walled City no longer exists, the walls having come down in 1993. This bothers me, in no small part, because I myself am from a community which will likely, very soon, no longer exist in the form it always has: one of the last outport communities in Newfoundland. And while I understand the march of time and progress, something about that does stick with me.
I can find loads of evidence to support an analysis of the text wherein Morine has crafted a story about places and cultures that no longer exist. Firstly is the title itself: it is literally the setting. The story isn’t called The Nine Battles of Fang or The Siu Nin a Fu, it’s called Kowloon Walled City, 1984, marking this story as not only being about this place, but about this time. Morine also could have chosen any point in Kowloon’s long history, but chose a time period less than a decade before the walls came down.
Throughout the novel, Fang loses the support of his girlfriend and his father, two things that represent “home” for him, continuing this theme of ‘loss of home’ and ‘a loss of where one comes from.’ On page 230, Morine states (in reference to the police entering the Walled City) that “The foundations of Fang’s world were shaken.” On page 262, Fang goes as far to say: “Nothing changes. Nothing will change,” a dramatic irony when we, the readers, know that change is less than a decade off. The last lines of the novel, which I will not spoil, echo a similar sentiment.
But what makes me think that this message was intentional on the part of the author and not merely my own personal feelings reading into the text comes from the first lines of the book, in the dedication, which reads: “To all those who dwell in communities that once were and are no longer.” Not only does this dedication point towards my analysis, but look at it. Really, look at the genius, masterful phrasing Morine has employed here: there is an important, subtle tense shift: dwell can have the double-meaning of being a place where one lives or someone dwelling on something. The fact that he uses it in the present-tense when speaking of settings that are in the past means that although it seems to be dedicated to those who lived in places that are no longer, it’s actually dedicated to those for whom thoughts of places that are no longer preoccupy. This sort of masterful, complex turn-of-phrase is just the tip of the Iceberg of what one can expect from this novel, and why Morine is poised to become one of the greatest novelists in Canada within the decade.
Kowloon Walled City, 1984 needs to be read by everyone. It’s a novel that is very covertly about the changing and dissolving of culture, which is of great importance to many Newfoundlanders, many of whom see the same happening to their way of life.
Kowloon Walled City, 1984 is available in print and eBook formats. Check it out, a must-read for people interested in supporting good independent fiction and anyone open minded enough to experience other cultures.
‘Other Indie’ is a recurring series of articles on Engen Books in which authors highlight the best in independent publishing, in the hopes of helping readers break through the cluster of books they may not be sure about in an age when anyone can publish via digital formats. Engen Books is an independent small-press publishing company based in St. John’s Newfoundland and is proud to highlight the talent of independent authors not our own. Kowloon Walled City, 1984 is © 2016 Nicholas Morine. This review is © 2016 Matthew LeDrew. ‘Other Indie’ banner photo credit: Steve Lake.