"Fine Fiction on Asia"
Book Description & Author Interview
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HANGMAN'S POINT is set in Hong Kong in 1857, one of the most exciting periods in the former British colony's often dramatic history. Its main character, Andrew Adams, is a ne'er-do-well American ex-seaman who manages a tavern called the Bee Hive in the raucous Chinese section of the colony. He lives above a Chinese medicine shop with his American barmaid girlfriend. On the side, he is involved with various Chinese underground secret societies (Triads) and activities such as clandestine gambling and the smuggling of weapons into China.
Adam's New Year prank in the harbor inadvertently results in the burning of an imperial Chinese warjunk which had only recently been captured by a British Admiral. To avoid a long prison term, Adams agrees to aid the Hong Kong police by entering southern China in search of Chinese pirates who attacked a mail steamer and beheaded eleven foreigners. Adams offers the police two advantages: his fluency in various Chinese dialects and his friendship with local rebel groups inside China to whom he supplies arms and ammunition. Unknown to Adams, nothing is as it seems and he is being set up by an old enemy to be killed.
Adams becomes involved with the beautiful and cunning wife of a leading British tea trader. When her husband disappears and a trail of blood is found on the floor of his office-boat, Adams is framed by her for the murder and finds himself at the center of one of the most sensational murder trials the rough-and-tumble colony has yet seen. When an anti-American British jury finds him guilty, in order to escape a hanging, Adams engineers a prison escape. As Hong Kong police comb the colony to find him, he disguises himself in the one occupation they will never suspect - as a Chinese collector of "nightsoil," i.e., human waste.
As this main event progresses to its dramatic conclusion at HANGMAN'S POINT, in the background, several interrelated subplots unfold: the Chinese coolie slave trade, a bread poisoning attempt on Hong Kong's entire foreign community and a pirate attack on Hong Kong. The novel depicts the brutality of prison life of the period including the use of the detested tread wheel as well as the horrible treatment of Chinese coolies aboard slave ships sailing from Southern China to South America.
Many of the events in the novel are based on historical incidents. For example, the arsenic poisoning of the foreign community by Chinese bakers is the only recorded mass poisoning of a community in world history. The period's language, dress, customs and objects have been thoroughly researched and fused into the writing-- from crinolines and top hats to punkahs and pidgin English to opium dens and clipper ships.
HANGMAN'S POINT will transport the reader into an exciting and turbulent Hong Kong caught between the dragon and the lion: Imperial China and Victorian England.
Hardcover Mystery/Thriller/Historical 538 pages
Q. Why did you set your novel in Hong Kong in 1857?
A. Why not?
Q. Come on, seriously, what was so special about that place and that year?
A. Well, In 1857, many foreigners in Hong Kong waters were beheaded by Chinese; there were scandals among officials in Hong Kong to such an extent that the governor was not on speaking terms with his own attorney general and they had to write notes to each other; the "Protector of Chinese" was found to be in league with pirates; the police commissioner owned brothels; the British fleet was shelling Canton. Just at the time when people had decided Hong Kong didn't have much future, some Chinese bakers placed ten pounds of arsenic in the bread eaten by foreigners living there. History's only mass poisoning. And that's just for openers.
Q. Sounds like you picked quite a year.
A. In fact, up until WWII, historians referred to 1857 as probably the most disastrous year in Hong Kong history. Which is wonderful for a writer because 'disastrous' usually means dramatic.
Q. What was going on in the heads of the bakers?
A. They probably figured it was their last chance to get rid of the foreign devils. The foreigners had the guns and cannon and ships-of-war so the Chinese patriots used what weapon they had -- arsenic. Whether they were patriots with a plan or poisoners with a plot is in the eye of the beholder, but the 1850's cultural and military clash between Chinese and foreigners was one of the most colorful periods of human history. The misunderstandings were incredible; sometimes tragic, sometimes hilarious.
Q. An example?
A. Chinese had never seen green eyes before. So they assumed everyone was born with dark eyes and the eyes of green-eyed people had faded as they got older. Questions they asked revealed how little they understood the West: "Do you have a moon in your sky?" "Do you have a sky?" "Is it true your emperor is a woman (Queen Victoria)?" You have to understand that through Chinese eyes, foreigners weren't simply from other countries; it was almost as if they were aliens from another solar system; as in the film "Independence Day". And, of course, the British and Americans and others had many misunderstandings about the Chinese as well.
Q. You lived in Asia for 17 years?
A. Seventeen years in Hong Kong; three more in Bangkok and Taiwan. That's 20 years in Asia. Not counting the year in Hawaii for the master's degree, of course. Then I spent 14 years in Manhattan working on novels, plays and a musical. And late in the year 2000 I moved back to Bangkok. So I've been in Asia for over 28 years.
Q. When were you living in Hawaii?
A. About the time Lincoln freed the slaves.
Q. What were you doing in Asia?
A. I first went out to Bangkok during the Vietnam War. As a Chinese linguist in a SOU with the Army Security Agency.
A. Sorry. 'Special Operations Unit.' Then I returned to the States and did graduate work in Chinese at San Francisco State College and went on to Hawaii. Then back to Asia.
Q. Why'd you leave Asia to come back to the States?
A. Wish I knew.
A. Well, I needed a composer for a musical I was writing set in Hong Kong in 1857. I also realized I had a lot to learn as far as crafting the book and lyrics of a musical. And I wanted to spend a lot of time in the research library on 42nd Street. I love researching in libraries. So I've written a play about the 19th century Chinese slave trade called "Bones of the Chinamen;" a musical about the poisoning case in 1857 Hong Kong called ""Fragrant Harbour;" a novel set in Hong Kong and southern China in 1857, "Hangman's Point;" and a filmscript and novella, "Dragon Slayer" set in Vietnam in 1968 and southern China in - you guessed it - 1857. And, of course, I'm working on the sequel to Hangman's Point called Thieves Hamlet.
Q. Also set in the year...
A. You got it.
Q. But if you wanted to write a musical couldn't you find an Asian composer in Asia?
A. Asian composers are often brilliant. But they all train in classical music, not musical theater. Broadway-style musical theater is a very different kettle of fish.
Q. OK, but now you're back in Asia. You're originally from Connecticut?
A. Groton, Connecticut. 'Home of the Nautilus; submarine capital of the world.' As the sign says. And we have Pfizer Chemical which makes - you guessed it - Viagra.
Q. What took you to Asia?
A. When I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I already knew I belonged in Asia. It's just one of those things. As a teenager I was going to estate auctions and, if I could afford it, buying up anything that looked Asian. Of course, at the time I didn't know an Indonesian batik from a Ming vase but I already knew I loved anything Asian. And I began reading Robert Van Gulik's Judge Dee series set in T'ang China.
Q. Which brings up the question: Would you say Hangman's Point is a historical mystery novel?
A. That's a very good question. The novel is historical with elements of mystery and thriller. I think the writer Harold Stephens summed it up best: "A tale of adventure, steeped in mystery and suspense."
Q. Didn't he in fact say, "magnificent tale of adventure?"
A. I'm modest.
Q. So you love Asia but yet after 20 years in Asia you spent 14 years in Manhattan.
A. True. But almost every project I write is connected to or set in Asia. So in my head I never left. And I really loved researching in the Manhattan 42nd Street Library.
Q. When you were living in Manhattan did you have any thoughts about going back to Asia to live?
A. All the time.
Q. Any other projects?
A. I've been into China to complete a travel book entitled, Don Quixote in China: The Search for Peach Blossom Spring. It was published lin 2004. Also, I finished working on my mystery novel set in Bangkok entitled, Skytrain to Murder and am now working on the sequel. My latest books out are entitled Murder at the Horny Toad Bar & other Outrageous Tales of Thailand, The Go Go Dancer who Stole my Viagra & other Poetic Tragedies of Thailand, Dragon Slayer and Identity Theft: Alzheimer's in America, Sex in Thailand, Tangles of the Mind. And I finally finished the sequel to Hangman's Point: Thieves Hamlet.
Oh, yes, I also completed an introduction to the journals of an American soldier captured and enslaved by Taiping women warriors in the 1860's. One of Frederick Townsend Ward's 'Ever Victorious Army' officers left a journal of his three-month captivity by Chinese female combatants.
Q. What's the title?
A. Well, my title was A Love Story: The China Memoirs of Thomas Rowley, Esq. It's actually very sexy and very erotic so the publisher, Blue Moon Books, changed the title to: Mistress of the East.
Q. You wrote an introduction to erotic non-fiction written by someone who lived in the 19th century or you actually wrote a novel and claim to be writing only the introduction?
A. Would I lie to you?
Hangman's Point - A Novel of Hong Kong
by Dean Barrett
Published by Village East Books
Available on all web booksites at a discount
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