The discovery of a new writer is always a thrill. It is like a walk into a meadow in the midst of a thick forest. The experience brings light in unanticipated ways. You know there are more trees on the other side, and it leaves you anxious with thoughts about what comes next. That is it is like to explore Tim I. Gurung’s eighth novel, Old Men Don’t Cry!
The subtitle is A Hong Kong Tale of Sorrow, yet don’t be fooled. The words are accurate. There is a great deal of sadness and disappointment in the story of Chan Hong, a Chinese kid with absentee parents who seeks to become a police officer and find fulfillment. At the same time, so many more things come from the novel, that saga is also a tale of triumph. The journey to his goals holds a number of sad twists and turns, yet what Hong traverses teaches readers a lot about what it means to be a man, to love and be hungry for achievement. That spirit is captured best in the title phrase near the novel’s end:
I had promised myself I would not cry anymore. I was too old to cry, and we all know that old men don’t cry. It was not that old men don’t feel pain, yet it is not easy for an old man to cry openly and express his feelings in public....One thing was clear: if there were a next life and I was given a choice, I wanted to repeat the same life again without any changes.
The reader might see such a sentiment and realize that what most adds fulfillment to a man’s life is to be in the sweep of change. That is the other great dimension of the novel.
Gurung like the late U.S. Novelist James A. Michener. As Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, Hawaii and Alaska , Gurung's Old Men Don't Cry! sketches out characters against the sweep of a history and evolution of a great society. His prose has the meticulousness of a Robert Ludlum, whose Bourne Trilogy has been the basis for a number of popular films.
“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people,” Michener once said, “you might better stay home.” Like the American author, Gurung pulls readers into the heart of everyday life so that they experience each moment in Hong's life as a period of their own. He grounds the chapters with background on the political and social changes of the nation, and then they play out in the character's life. The emergence of China from 1980 to present is revealed in such detail at some points Hong appears to mirror his motherland's struggles.
Gurung, who was born in Nepal, but raised in Hong Kong, walks readers through the culture and sociology of the land. The author returned to the land of his birth for a few months after he retired from the Gurkhas in 1993, yet returned to the island nation to set up a business. After age 50, he began to write as he had in his youth. He uses those funds to support an educational foundation for youth in Nepal.
At the same time, his main character, Chan Hong, is thoroughly steeped in a discovery of Chinese culture on and off the mainland.Readers learn about the important holidays such as the celebration of the Lunar New Year, the Ghost Festival and Ching Ming from an angle not open to most Westerners. At the same time, the author shares the political and social changes that redirects the lives of everyday people in the country.
The author unveils a sensory tour of the land in minute detail, because in some ways he was one of those everyday people. Gurung, as his real-life fathers and uncles, became a Gurkha soldier at age 17. As the novel shows, life in the British military unit was tough. The Nepalese were set into a country within a country in many respects, yet the author shows that for children such as Hong, circumstances were almost no different. His service gave the author a special opportunity to see Hong Kong ways many of the people who lived there never could. The novel benefits from that exposure as the narrative builds a character who seeks righteousness, yet discovers that the world in which he lives offers many people little hope. He places many of those insights into the mind of the protagonist.
On his move from the small village of Kam Tin, Chan Hong goes to Tokwawan, a larger place, in pursuit of his dream to be a police officer. He meets his goal, yet is not a great success. The main character remains a street cop, because his attitude is not compatible with those who move into the higher ranks. In fact, his constant bids to try to discover, understand and help those he encounters at points diminishes his life.
His lifelong friends, Eddie Ko and Tsang Adele have broader lives because they get to study in the United States, yet they all end up back in the circumstances they fled. Each of the players in the drama is guided by a trait, and Hong’s is self-sacrifice, which makes him vulnerable in every aspect of his life.
Advertisements on the novel say what Hong sacrifices, “will pain your soul,’ and his sorrows will, “just make you cry.” That is true. At the same time, many of those who read this book will want to cheer for the main character at the end. The novel is a classic tearjerker, but more than that it is a story of emergence for a man and his country. Readers can come away with three thoughts. First - a selfish life is a sad waste. Second, choice more than fate controls what you can do. Lastly, not every sadness yields defeat.