Chinese Spring

Christopher New

Contraband, £8.99

Review by Shirley Whiteside

As the former Head of Philosophy at Hong Kong University, Christopher New has intimate knowledge of the island and its people. He puts it to good use in his latest novel, which traces the rise of what would become known as the Umbrella Revolution, the 2014 protests that spread when the Beijing government tried to go back on agreements made at the time of Hong Kong's handover from the UK to China in 1997.

Protesters used their umbrellas to protect themselves from the tear gas being thrown by riot police attempting to disperse the crowds. Following the sacrifices made by the Tiananmen Square protestors 30 years before, New poses the question: has anything really changed?

New is best-known for his Chinese Coast trilogy of novels, a highly-praised account of the British presence in the Far East. Published to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, Chinese Spring is set in Hong Kong in 2012 and follows the fortunes of Anglo-Russian Dimitri Johnson and his circle.

The novel opens with a dramatic development: Johnson has cancer and is dying. As he ruminates on this news, he makes his way to the annual candlelight vigil in remembrance of those killed in Tiananmen Square. He meets Mila, his wife, and tries to avoid discussing his prognosis, relieved when San-san, his daughter-in-law, joins them at the vigil.

New beautifully describes the awkward interactions between Johnson and his family as news of his illness spreads. Johnson does not want to undergo treatment and is reluctant to talk about his cancer, though his family want him to undergo chemotherapy in the hope that it will grant him two more years.

Meanwhile, over on mainland China, Johnson’s friend, Yu Guodong, is detained after protesting about an illegal land grab in his ancestral village. Lai-king, Guodong’s wife, tries to reach Johnson in Hong Kong but her phone is blocked, and secret police keep watch outside her home. At first Lai-king wants Johnson to publicise Guodong’s plight to the wider world, but later realises it might make matters worse. Johnson is concerned for his old friend’s safety but finds it hard to think about anything other than his shocking diagnosis and how little time he may have left.

New’s writing is cool and precise but it does not lack emotional power. He leaves gaps for the reader to fill in, and when a new character is introduced their connection to the others arises from interactions rather than signposts from the author. It makes for a satisfying read as the family dynamics are slowly revealed, like jigsaw pieces falling into place. Johnson has a complicated family; his first wife, Helen, committed suicide, and they had two children, Elena and Alex. Johnson married Mila, a ballet dancer, who escaped mainland China many years before and had been Elena’s ballet teacher. There are unspoken undercurrents rippling around Mila and Johnson’s relationship that his illness brings into sharp focus, and the cancer treatment seems to dislodge memories that he examines from a new perspective as he makes plans for his limited future.

Jianping, a young woman from mainland China, has a disconcerting habit of popping up and inserting herself into Johnson’s life. She was at the Tiananmen vigil handing out candles; she was backstage at a concert given by San-san, who is a member of a string quartet; she turns up in Shanghai and contacts Guodong and Lai-king. New treads a careful line in keeping the reader guessing as to her motives. Is she just a student who wants Chinese society to change, or is she a member of the secret police?

This novel will appeal to those who have read the Chinese Coast trilogy, where Johnson first appeared, or anyone interested in the current political situation in Hong Kong and China. It is also an affecting family drama with a cast of interesting and well-drawn characters. New creates a touching, melancholic atmosphere and the pages slip by with ease. There is a haunting quality to the novel, and it lingers in the memory long after Johnson’s tale has ended.