An early (1978) novel by the Hong Kong novelist Timothy Mo. It does not, as far as I can tell, have anything to do with the fabled "Monkey King" trickster-hero, who appears prominently on the cover, except by stretching it a very great deal: the hero of a novel undergoes adventures and has companions... Even taken allegorically I can't see it.

It's the tale of Wallace Nolasco, a young man from Macau, who contracts a marriage with a minor daughter in the household of the miserly Mr Poon. The novel is described as comic on the back cover, and even Dickensian, and there is indeed something horribly Dickensian in this squabbling, dysfunctional, grasping bunch, but I couldn't call it funny. All through, the point of the novel rather eluded me. It's mildly amusing much of the time.

Mr Poon wants contacts in a government department so gets Wallace a job there, eventually, after letting him hang around deprived of dowry for some time. Here he meets the Major, who later turns out to be a supporter of Red China. The novel is set at the time of the Korean War. He also puts his name to a contract of great advantage to Mr Poon, who then tries to get rid of him on the basis of this incriminating evidence.

Wallace and his wife May Ling go into internal exile in a village in the New Territories, which is still almost medieval in the way it is fortified, and feuds with a neighbouring village of the Hakka people. Wallace, trained as an engineer of sorts, uses gunpowder to break a lake that has formed from flooding and is threatening to ruin their agriculture. He then goes on to turn the remnant of the lake into a commercial venture, with pleasure boats.

In the final part he is recalled to succeed the dying Mr Poon as head of his business empire, and is treated with more respect by the rest of the family. This ending seems too artifical and uninteresting for what has gone before.

Timothy Mo captures the feel of the place and people very well: his observations of the English dialect that the Cantonese people of Hong Kong speak is sustained and feels accurate.

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