Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Tale of Three Cities

Joanne Hichens is a writer, editor and journalist.  Her new thriller, DIVINE JUSTICE, was recently released in South Africa and is available on Kindle.   Chosen as one of the Sunday Times' top thrillers of 2011, William Saunderson-Meyer said of the novel: "DIVINE JUSTICE is not for the fainthearted or squeamish.  This is a wonderfully edgy thriller that sears a path through Cape Town's criminal underbelly like caustic soda."

DIVINE JUSTICE is Joanne's third novel, following OUT TO SCORE (2006), co-authored with Mike Nicol and published in the USA as CAPE GREED, and STAINED (2009), published in the UK and France. She edited the first anthology of South African crime-fiction short stories, BAD COMPANY (2008) (Kubu makes an appearance), and THE BED BOOK OF SHORT STORIES (2010), both of which include her own work. She lives in Cape Town, but has recently been far to the north-east from home.  Here she shares her feelings about the difference and similarity of cities.

Michael - Thursday

Table Mountain in the twilight
Featuring the inimitable sleuth Rae Valentine, the setting of my new novel DIVINE JUSTICE is Cape Town at the toe of the African Continent. Voted Top Destination for Tourists by tripadvisor, Rae describes the harbour city, with Table Mountain as spectacular backdrop, as "a mix of sophistication and in-your-face Africa, a cross between London and Lagos, New York and Nairobi". Indeed it’s a mix of first and third-world, of varying creeds and cultures, where wealth and glamour sit in stark contrast to poverty and struggle. It’s the perfect environment to ferment craziness.

Vrygrond Township
Here, the dream mansion that any Hollywood star would drool over, sits a five minute drive from shantytowns where shacks are constructed of cardboard and plastic. Remember that great sci-fi flick, District Nine? Well, no movie set was created. The impoverished squalor was a pukka South African the township.

As for Hong Kong, a city I recently visited for research, I reckon it’s an equally appealing setting for sci-fi as high density living sees apartment buildings touch the heavens. Not even my photos can capture the sense of the unreal. Demands for living space on this small section of land has meant building up, up, up. Fat fingers of concrete stretch up and disappear into a misty sky.

Building Hong Kong
Arriving from Hong Kong International Airport past Discovery Bay to Kowloon, the scale of development since my last visit twenty years ago, before Hong Kong was handed back to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, is astounding. My jaw dropped at the visual impact of these monolithic slabs housing vast numbers of people. I understand now the sense behind the one-child per couple policy.

Washing from every window
At Nathan Road, the commercial shopping drag of Kowloon, all was a-buzz. Here avant-garde architecture is juxtaposed by street stalls. Swank boutiques sell pricy authentic Rolex, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Cartier and Chanel while street vendors flog cheap rip-offs manufactured in sweat shops. Above the ground-floor stores, tattered washing hangs from frames attached to tiny windows of cramped flats. Life indeed is a paradox.

No doubt about it, high-rise Hong Kong, this financial hub, is an exciting Metropolis. But as man keeps wheeling and dealing, locked in the illusion that money makes the world go round, he pays no heed to the consequences of his self-indulgence. Passing a shark fin soup restaurant, I spared a thought for our Great White shark, for all exploited natural resources.

Khoasan Road
Bangkok, the second stop, is a fascinating mix of skyscrapers, malls, temples, slums. Rivers are polluted by boat-traffic and spills from dishwater to sewerage. A constant stream of cars, scooters and tuk tuk taxis pass a succession of bars and restaurants serving Thai beer and sweet ‘n sour delights, and shops serving man’s needs. In the famed night markets, tourists bargain for similar brand-name fake watches and designer clothes on sale in the Hong Kong alleys, and again I was struck by a sense of paradox. Which includes moral duality around sex.

In Thailand kissing is banned on-screen, yet the sex industry is in-your-face.  Although prostitution is illegal, it’s tolerated and partly regulated. According to NGOs up to 300 000 prostitutes work in registered entertainment establishments. The tourist’s mad quest for self-satisfaction is fuelled as Thais cater to desire.

The ‘Farang’ flock to Patpong, Patong and Pattaya for strip shows, lap dances, ‘ping-pong’ sex extravaganzas, and an eyeful of katoey lady-men prancing in drag. No wonder Thais works at fleecing the crass foreigner of his cash. And no wonder the islands are once again developed to the hilt post-tsunami.

In part it is the sense of space which appeals on my return to Cape Town. I can breathe here. And I am struck by the beauty of Cape Town’s spectacular natural assets: parks, forests, gardens and trees, vynbos, beaches. Tourists pay top dollar to visit South Africa not only for cheap plastic surgery rates and to see the big five at game farms, but to visit a city - a mere innocent in comparison to the monsters Hong Kong and Bangkok  - of rare natural splendour. But no one denies there’s a shadow on the city, a flaw in Cape Town’s sparkle. This is the city which Rae Valentine negotiates as she tracks missing diamonds and gets mixed up with a group of ruthless white supremacists.

Wherever we look, whichever cities we visit, there are double-standards. The rich are pampered. They fly business class, are ushered into air conditioned limos and taxis and stores and fancy hotels and residences. They are carefree, while the poor struggle to put food on the table.

So watch out. It is exactly these conditions that ferment uneasiness.
Murder, indeed, is everywhere.

Joanne Hichens 


  1. Thank you for a very nice post. Whatever the city, you made them come alive. I love cities, but lately the skies and openness of the area have been more restful. I will seek out your book. It's nice that Africa is being written about more-makes it less mysterious.

  2. Thanks, Joanne, I enjoyed the trip. Only one question: Is that our very own Tim Hallinan on that bike on Khoasan Road?

  3. Not biased are we?