In the first story here, a young American teaching in Hong Kong describes his letters home as “factual and sparse.” And it’s a good description of the writing in Jess Row’s The Train to Lo Wu, a collection inspired by his own experience teaching in Hong Kong. But if the prose is pragmatic, the stories themselves operate as intuitive, emotional, and in some cases, romantic responses to one of the most unusual places on earth.
Anyone who’s been there will agree. In Hong Kong, as Row accurately characterizes it, where skyscrapers grow from mountainsides, the Chinese are separated from themselves, and the political and economic philosophies of the world converge (or whatever it is they’re doing), it feels like a thousand borders can be crossed in a single day.
Row is at his best in stories like “The Secrets of Bats”—a work chosen for The Best American Short Stories 2001 anthology and for a Pushcart Prize—in which the strange feeling of the place is conjured and allowed to linger. What happens is that a rather lost American teacher finds himself supervising the extra-curricular studies of his young Chinese student. She learns to sense the world around her like a bat— without “sight,” wearing a blindfold— in order, it turns out, to connect with the ghost of her suicidal mother. This quiet story somehow becomes dangerous. And when it’s over, it’s wonderfully hard to pinpoint what exhilarating thing has just transpired.
To his credit, Row puts his characters ahead of stylistic or formal innovation. You imagine him going over the page, extracting traces of himself. But in his less successful moments, he is nevertheless quite noticeably there, championing an immersion in new cultures, ideas, and perspectives—and the transformation that such experiences can bring.
In “For You,” for example, an anxiety-ridden man is on the verge of divorce from his over-worked, stock-analyst wife. He goes on retreat to a Zen monastery where he learns that if you can “put down your fear you can cut a path through the darkness.” In “The Ferry,” an African- American lawyer finds that in Hong Kong, of all places, for once in his life, his skin color doesn’t matter. And in “Revolutions,” a New York painter hasn’t picked up his sketch pad since a motorcycle accident left him convalescing in Hong Kong months ago; his connection with his physical therapist, a Buddhist nun, helps him start working again.
The thing is: a feeling of transformation, of internal challenge and change, of sensing yourself differently, all the stuff that stories are about, comes just a little easier abroad than at home. And it’s possible that somewhat exotic subject matter like this, writing about other people and places, makes us a little more forgiving, more available, as readers. (Conversely, it’s harder to forgive Row’s final story, the only story set outside Hong Kong and its environs, in which New York is represented as stereotype: a place where you get mugged by a double-crossing numbers-runner who refers to the City as “the Apple.”)
So yes, these stories tend to run on the earnest side, they can rely a little too much on place, and some even seem to promulgate Buddhist teachings. (That’s not to say the world doesn’t need as much Buddhist teaching as it can get.) But when all is said and done, The Train to Lo Wu still does something great: it opens our eyes to things, inside and out.