Ghost Cities by Siang Lu

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Apparently, there are a number of ‘ghost cities’ in China all of which have the infrastructure but lack any population.  These uninhabited cities are the inspiration for this imaginative and labyrinthine novel by Brisbane writer Siang Lu.

There are a number of narratives running through the novel but the consistent one involves Xiang Lu who is sacked from his position as a translator with the Chinese embassy when it is discovered that he cannot speak Mandarin.  Instead, he has relied on Google Translate.  He becomes known as #BadChinese as Xiang finds out when he receives an unsolicited invitation to a premiere of the film Death of a Pagoda directed by Baby Bao.  Attending the premiere launches Xiang on a journey to the ghost city of Port Man Tou in China which is to be used as a giant film set by Baby Bao and peopled only by actors.  He is accompanied on this journey by Yuan – Baby Bao’s interpreter.

But alternating with Xiang’s narrative is another – this one set in the distant past where ‘the infamous Indomitable Emperor of the Jin Dynasty Lu Huang Du’ [32] rules over China.  The history of the Emperor is to be the subject of a biopic directed by Baby Bao and set in the ghost city of Port Man Tou – Xiang’s and Yuan’s destination.  Despite the time difference between the two narratives, already the connection between the two is established.

The Emperor’s narrative is essentially a series of vignettes which demonstrates his absolute authority over his empire and his callous disregard for its people.  Lu Huang Du was a ‘jealous and paranoid ruler … and saw only usurpers and assassins’ [14] around him – many of whom he then had killed.  One vignette involves Mountain [a real mountain] who through the sexual frolics of Ugly Lao Zhong and Liu Wei’s wife in its valleys and waterways learned about passion and illicit love – and over time this leads to Mountain having his own thoughts and composing poetry – a sentient Mountain no less.

One of the significant themes of the novel is the labyrinth.  The Emperor orders its construction and demands two requirements of its designer – that no map of the labyrinth could exist and only he would be taught a foolproof method to access its heart.  The labyrinth is created by the Artisan who in building each room and pathway is inspired by his personal memories, heartbreaks and secrets.

The labyrinth is a fine metaphor for the narrative as it weaves through and around the vignettes featuring the Emperor and the developing relationship between Xiang and Huan as they negotiate their way to and around the ghost city.  But it is also an exciting and challenging journey for the reader as s/he progresses through the trajectories of the two narratives.  There may be unreliable narrators and fact and fiction sometimes collide with only a little clarity as to which is which but this uncertainty underscores the brilliance of the prose and the imaginative storylines.

Ghost Cities engages the mind and heart of the reader from its beginning and doesn’t let go.  A book to be savoured.

Siang Lu is the author of The Whitewash and co-creator of The Biege Index.  The Whitewash  won the 2021 Glendower Award for an emerging writer at the Queensland Literary Awards and was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award.  The Whitewash has been described as a ‘scathing satire of the big-budget film industry’s ethnic and racial myopia’ [The Conversation, 14 September 2022].  There is a satirical element about the film industry in Ghost Cities as well.

In 2023, Siang Lu was named one of the Top 40 Under 40 Asian-Australians at the Asian-Australian Leadership Awards.  Siang Lu is based in Brisbane and Kuala Lumpur.

Ghost Cities


by Siang Lu

University of Queensland Press

ISBN 978 0 7022 6849 6

$32.99; 293pp

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