Mo Zhi Hong's The Year of the Shanghai Shark

shanghai sharkPenguin New Zealand 2008
9780143008934

The Year of the Shanghai Sharkcharts a series of encounters, tales and incidents in one year of a boy’s life in Dalian, China. His immediate existence is determined by his Uncle, who possesses many big books and conducts dubious business, his best friends Po Fan and Xiao Wang, plus basketball, fast food and his many individual encounters. On the periphery of this story are the Iraq war, the SARS epidemic, and general themes of Americanisation, technologisation, history and a shifting culture.

This book is a light yet thoughtful, modern, coming-of-age story told in a warm, immediate voice. Some of the characters our protagonist Hai Long encounters during the ‘year of the Shanghai shark’ include Worker Chen, who steers Hai Long on the path to ‘a good mind’; Gambler Deng; the peasant/beggar Fish; a kid nicknamed Basketball (because he’s so good at the sport) whose Dad wants him instead to be a doctor; the Old Stone, who Hai Long reads to; Writer Liu, a thin man who likes to write about ‘the inner struggle’; Karl, the Canadian English teacher; troubled Sister Ling; arguing Uncle Zhang and Uncle Jiang; the ambitious Li Tong who wants to study economics in America; and Old Gao the poet. There are other faces along with the peripheral stories – such as Yao Ming – a Chinese basketballer who has made it big in America.

This is Mo Zhi Hong’s debut novel, unpretentiously showcasing modern China and all its mixed-interests, through the eyes of one boy. Zhi Hong is located in New Zealand but was born in Singapore, lived in Taiwan, Canada, China and the US – where he worked as a software developer. The author’s globalised experience is reflected in the novel as a generational nonchalance toward American influence, but Zhi Hong also embeds his older Chinese characters with rich personalities and histories – and writes some as characters vehemently opposed to American cultural influence – so our young character, and the reader, receive a wholesome mix of messages, easily and entertainingly absorbed.

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