Foresight by Ian Hamilton
Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Who is Ian Hamilton? Well, he is currently one of the most prolific writers in Canada, and BBC Culture recently listed him as one of the top ten crime/mystery/thriller writers in the last 30 years. Since starting to write in 2010 as a rehabilitative measure to recover from surgery for an aortic aneurysm, he has turned out 13 novels and been published in seven languages and more than 20 countries. He's also a late bloomer, publishing his first novel shortly before his 65th birthday. Ironically, his publisher is Toronto's House of Anansi, a press known primarily for literary fiction and poetry and a very minor player in the genre fiction market.
Hamilton's subjects are always Chinese and the settings are in Hong Kong, China and other parts of Asia. Wait, one might ask: Isn't an older white fellow writing exclusively about Chinese characters, cultural appropriation? Perhaps, but if it is, much like James Clavell, Hamilton's storytelling is infused with a great deal of knowledge and artistry. His shadowy worlds of triads, high-speed economic expansion and government corruption are inspired by decades of travelling and doing business in Asia and supported by some excellent research. One of the most compelling features of his writing is how seamlessly he brings the reader inside the Hong Kong business culture and its triad elements. His characters are both orthodox and unorthodox, flawless and flawed. Ava Lee, the protagonist for his first novels, is a stunning Canadian-Chinese forensic accountant, lesbian and martial arts expert. When the balance sheets reveal crime and corruption, Ava pursues the criminals by drawing on her wiles, beauty and unflinching focus, and then wraps things up with some spectacular martial arts moves. Sounds like a Jackie Charlie Chan movie? For a less talented writer, that could be the case, but Hamilton is not an average writer. With the most refined and subtlest techniques, he brings his readers along on a journey into the rich culture of Hong Kong and mainland China, complete with its culinary delights.
In the background of the Ava Lee novels is the mysterious "Uncle," her friend and mentor. In his seventies, everyone of importance in Hong Kong and China seems to know him, and many owe him a favour or two. With Foresight: The Lost Decades of Uncle Chow Tung, Hamilton gives centre-stage to a much younger Uncle.
The Mountain Master of the Fanling triad in 1980, Uncle is a gangster with integrity, who acts only after careful calculations and always in the interest of his triad brothers. For him, the triad is all about loyalty, trust and mutual assistance. Its business ventures are "victimless" crimes: gambling, massage parlours and designer clothing knock-offs. Under his leadership, the sale of drugs is strictly prohibited in Fanling, a district of Hong Kong adjacent to the border with China. And when other triads try to bring drugs into Fanling, they are dealt with harshly. But the triad's business in Fanling is not doing well. Legal horse-racing betting shops are cutting into the gang's profits, and some of the rank-and-file gangsters are taking on side gigs with other triads to make ends meet. Uncle must find a way to boost revenue, and looks to investment opportunities in China's new Shenzen Special Economic Zone (SEZ). For the first time since his escape to Hong Hong twenty years earlier, Uncle returns to China to explore a manufacturing partnership with one of the triad's clothing suppliers. He soon discovers that the Chinese communist officials, Peng and Liu Leji, in charge of the SEZ are eager to facilitate the venture in exchange for pecuniary consideration.
Most of the novel centres around Uncle's success in developing the gang's manufacturing and warehousing businesses in the SEZ and his deepening business ties to Chinese officials. Hamilton is a master of building tension around the theme of who to trust and who not. For readers with absolutely no knowledge or interest in contemporary China, Foresight might not speak to them. For others like myself, Hamilton offers just the right dose of suspense and historical facts to hold our attention from page one.
Perhaps, Hamilton's greatest strength is building an esoteric but believable world around a character, whose intelligence and modesty are intrinsically appealing. Loyalty and honour play a big role in the novel, and Uncle is put to the test when Peng is executed and General Ye, the local commander of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), goes after Liu Leji as a means to undermine Liu Leji's father's position in the Communist Party's Politburo. Behind this is a struggle between the Lius, strong supporters of reformist Premier Deng Xiaoping, and military hardliners who want to halt the opening-up of the Chinese economy. Unable to attack the Lius directly, Ye has Uncle arrested during a business trip to Shenzen. Hamilton treats us to the tactics used to extract confessions from tprisoners in facilities run by the PLA. With the threat of a death sentence hanging over him, Uncle must calculate every step he takes, every word he utters against the likelihood of regaining his freedom. But there is one bridge he won't cross, and that is selling out the Lius to save his own skin. Behind this honour among thieves is a sense of patriotism embedded in the belief of Uncle and the Lius that the salvation of China lies in the opening-up of its economy.
Foresight is publishing by House of Anansi Press.