British novelist Stephen Leather has written an amazing body of fiction books centering on Southeast Asia. In The Vets (1993, ISBN 978-0-340-59770-5), he includes Hong Kong in the mix, in a fast-paced thriller that displays his knowledge of HK prior to its takeover by the Chinese as well as his understanding of the powerful mainland forces that would one day hold force. Two fascinating story lines come together here, US veterans with nothing to lose coming together to create a heist, and a Chinese playboy fronting an even more spectacular crime. Leather’s insight into the machinations of the Chinese political/business/military amalgamation is reminiscent of Paul Theroux’s Kowloon Tong, which in fact was written several years later. As this review is being written, the New York Times has blown the lid off a major hacking operation run by China’s military. Leather’s novel explains quite well how China’s political, military, and business interests work together to create success, wealth, and mayhem. The book is twenty years old, yet the underpinnings that make the tale work so well really haven’t changed all that much. The book is timeless, and well worth a read.
Like Leather’s other books, this is a long one, at 564 pages, but reads quickly. The author’s descriptive powers are formidable. Here at WoWasis, our favorite passage reveals details of the kind of bar many of us have stumbled into in at least one point in our Asian sojourns:
The entrance to the bar was a hole in the wall guarded by a frumpy Chinese woman of indeterminate age wearing a jet black wig which seemed to have slipped on her head. She had on thick black mascara and too-red lipstick which overlapped the edge of her lips and gave her a clown-like smile. “Welcome to Red Lips,” she said in accented English.
“You have got to be joking,” grinned Lewis. “You have really got to be joking.” He stood with his hands on his hips and looked around the bar, with its scratched and stained tables, dimly lit cubicles and smoke-stained ceiling, and at the women in ill-fitting evening dresses, none of whom could have been under fifty years old. The Rolling Stones were on the jukebox. “Paint it Black.” It was the same record that had been playing in the bar Tyler had taken them to in Bangkok, and Lehman took it as a good omen. The record was scratched and the sound was down low enough so that they could hear the conversation from the only booth that was occupied in the bar, where two Australians with bottles of Fosters lager were arguing over who got the best deal on their cameras. They looked up almost guiltily as they became aware of the new arrivals, as if they were ashamed of being caught in such a dive. They were accompanied at the table by two women who must have been in their sixties, one with grey frizzy hair and a face that was criss-crossed with wrinkles and the other with hair so black that it could only have been dyed. They were listening attentively to the Australians and sipping from small glasses. From where he was standing Lehman could see that one of the women, the one with grey hair, had her hand on her tourist’s thigh where a gnarled nail slowly scratched the material of his jeans. Lehman felt he could hear the coarse scratching sound all the way across the bar.
“Sit here, sit here,” said an emaciated woman in a purple dress speckled with silver threads which draped around her thin frame as if it were still on a hanger. She fastened her bony fingers around Lehman’s forearm and it felt like the touch of a skeleton. Her eyes were deep-set and there were thick lines around either side of her mouth as if it were set amid two fleshy parentheses- When her lips drew back in a parody of a smile, they revealed that the two front teeth at the top of her mouth were gold. “Sit, sit,” she repeated and Lehman felt the talons tighten on his arm. A chubby woman with shoulder-length hair wearing a scarlet dress with a high neck and puffed-up sleeves attached herself to Carmody’s arm and began edging him towards a booth like a collie founding up a stray sheep.
“What the hell is this place?” asked Lewis. “Like the lady said, it’s the Red Lips Bar,” replied Lehman. “It was one of the R&R hangouts during the war, but this one never changed. They never decorated and they claim that it’s the original bargirls still working here. The skeleton on his arm nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, yes. Same bar. Red Lips never change. You American, yes? I think I remember you, GI. What your name?”
No, we’re not going to reveal what occurred in that bar, nor the ultimate outcome of the book. It’s well worth the read, and kept us fascinated from beginning to end. The book has wide-ranging appeal, from vets, to armchair adventurers, to observers of the Asian scene. Highly recommended. Buy The Vets here at the WoWasis eStore.