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Hot colonial passion

"THAT'S us, the British colonials, battling against our circumstances, always," the formidable Edwina Storch says to Claire Pendleton over tea one sweltering afternoon. Most of the colony's British residents are cultivating a lifestyle of potted palms and potted duck.

But not 28-year-old Claire. While her compatriots wilt and sweat, she glows. Hong Kong suits her. "Something about the tropical clime had ripened her appearance, brought everything into harmony."

Janice Y.K. Lee's first novel, "The Piano Teacher," opens with the newlywed Claire traveling to Hong Kong in 1951 with her husband, Martin, an engineer. Of their marriage, Lee writes, "She was not so attracted to him, but who was she to be picky, she thought, hearing the voice of her mother." Soon Claire is hired as a piano teacher for the daughter of a wealthy Chinese couple, Victor and Melody Chen. Also in their employ, as a chauffeur, is an enigmatic Englishman, Will Truesdale.

In sleek, spare prose, Lee plays with the growing erotic tension between Claire and Will. He approaches her, cutting "the space between them in half, and half again, coming at her with those hooded, sardonic eyes." Claire cautions him "Be good to me." Will's response is noncommittal. Claire is sexually charged and curious, the affair with Will her rite of passage. She's also insightful enough to realize that the headier intoxication is with herself, the newly emerging Claire - a woman who indulges in petty thievery and has a lover; a woman more comfortable among the throngs of Chinese at the city's wet markets than at the teas and cocktail parties on the wealthy entrepot of the Peak.

Lee has made the bold (and successful) decision to write a novel in which none of her characters are particularly endearing. Will can be cruel and self-absorbed; Claire is often prejudiced. And the upper echelons of Hong Kong society, through which they both pass, are rife with pettiness and jealousy.

Many of these people have been deeply scarred by the Japanese occupation - just how deeply Claire will eventually discover.

Will's entree into Hong Kong took place in the summer of 1941 through his relationship with a quixotic Eurasian named Trudy Liang. Driven by deep insecurities, Trudy was part Holly Golightly, part Mata Hari - charming, insulting, scheming and above all captivating. In December 1941, the Japanese troops invaded Hong Kong and in small but riveting vignettes, Lee evokes the turmoil and fear that seized residents during the occupation.

"The Piano Teacher" is laced with intrigue concerning a hoard of Chinese artifacts called the Crown Collection that went missing during the war. But while the inevitable "who did what and when and why" that dominates the last third of the novel is satisfying, readers will be more enthralled by Lee's depiction of Will's relationships with his two lovers and the unsparing way Lee unravels them.


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