Book review: 1980s crime story taps today's qualms about dealing with China

Some stories — and issues — don't go out of date, nor do their warnings, despite decades passing.

Foresight by Ian Hamilton (House of Anansi, $19.95)

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Some stories — and issues — don’t go out of date, nor do their warnings, despite decades passing.

And so it is that Canadian Ian Hamilton, who’s been writing award-winning crime novels for years, can set his latest in 1980s Hong Kong and China, and tap, deliberately or not, a whole set of ominous currents when it comes to, for instance, arbitrary justice, grandiose economic plans, and fierce resistance to any resistance.

Foresight is the second entry in a planned Hamilton trilogy featuring Chow Tung, commonly called Uncle, an escapee to Hong Kong from mainland China during Mao’s great famine of the 1950s, which caused the deaths of his whole family. His beloved fiancee then also died, drowning during their four-kilometre swim through fetid waters to Hong Kong.

Foresight by Ian Hamilton (House of Anansi, $19.95)

Uncle is a main character in Hamilton’s famous Ava Lee series starring the lesbian forensic accountant from Toronto through adventures mostly centred in Asia. The triad leader became Ava’s mentor and frequent protector as they tracked down and recovered millions of ill-gotten dollars from various kinds of criminal enterprises, returning them — for a substantial cut — to their more or less rightful owners.

At the current stage of the ongoing Ava Lee series, Uncle has died and she has formed new alliances. But their creator, wisely deciding that Uncle deserved his own singular accounting, launched this second, Uncle-based series, starting last year with Fate.

Years after Fate recounted his escape from China and his shrewd, modern-minded rise to the top of one of the Hong Kong region’s smaller but tight triads, Foresight presents him with an economic dilemma. Gambling profits, his gang’s lifeblood, are dropping steadily, while at least one other triad is threatening to move into Uncle’s territory with activities, like drug-dealing, that he forbids.

It’s entirely possible that with diminishing financial reserves, he’ll lose members to other triads that don’t have to freeze incomes, as he’s done.

But it’s the early 1980s, and temptingly nearby is the country he fled, with a government he despises and fears. There, a new premier, Deng Xiaoping, has begun the work of shifting the Chinese economy to encourage manufacturing and foreign investments, most immediately by designating special economic zones.

And here is where the novel usefully begins to ratify 21st-century qualms about some of the perils of dealing with China, not least competing power groups within the country that can turn dangerous at any time to outsiders.

Uncle, of course, might be in particular danger, since despite his long-held Hong Kong citizenship and passport, his mainland birth makes him, in certain eyes, a citizen of China and thus especially vulnerable to its vicissitudes.

But he doesn’t see there’s a choice between either making the gamble to open up business there, or seeing his Hong Kong triad fall to ravenous competitors, financial failure, or both.

With a useful contact or two, he reaches out to a small business in the relatively nearby Shenzhen economic development zone on the mainland, a factory that produces less-than-professional knockoffs of designer clothes. With his Hong Kong triad resources and an amenable factory owner — and, most usefully, with the support of a bribable bureaucrat — he sets out on a wonderfully profitable expansion project producing better and bigger knockoffs, and building warehouses welcomed by manufacturers.

But invisible power struggles and corruption crackdowns not only lead to torture and death for some, but also a very unpleasant, existential peril for Uncle himself.

As a picture of the subtleties and relationships, as well as some cautious successes, of doing business in China, Foresight is detailed, sometimes to excess. In its portrayal of the dangers of falling almost randomly afoul of certain authorities, though — at any time — it’s beyond vivid and disquieting.

Still, all is never lost for Uncle. Not only do his years mentoring Ava Lee lie ahead, so, to alleviate any suspense, does another novel in this Chow Tung series.

Joan Barfoot is a novelist living in London

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