A Change of Flag is the last and best installment in Christopher New's excellent China Coast trilogy. The opener -- Shanghai -- is a Clavell-esque epic, covering a half century of war, revolution and intrigue in one of the world's most fascinating cities. The second installment -- The Chinese Box -- is a dark, uncompromising tale of a failing marriage set amid the chaos of the mid-60s Cultural Revolution demonstrations in Hong Kong. The finale brings together strands from the earlier books. Descendants of John Denton -- the business tycoon protagonist of Shanghai -- interact with the world-weary literature professor Dimitri Johnston and other characters from The Chinese Box.
A Change of Flag is set in 1983-1984 as British and Chinese negotiators decided the fate of Hong Kong (with little input from the colony's residents). It tells several interconnected stories -- of a disillusioned Chinese communist seeking to flee the mainland; of a business tycoon struggling to protect his family from political uncertainty; of a has-been triad member seeking to make one last score; and more.
Christopher New is better at charting the East-West divide than any writer I've encountered. His Chinese characters are usually remorselessly practical, refusing to sacrifice themselves or their families for abstract ideals. But it's the well-intentioned, do-gooding Westerners who often cause more misery. New's hard-headed vision sometimes makes for depressing reading (especially in The Chinese Box). But A Change of Flag seems a bit more optimistic about the human condition, describing the willingness of people rally around those they love (or are related to).
White women don't come off very well in New's stories. In contrast to his graceful, serene Chinese beauties, New's Western women tend to be unattractive, vain, rude, asexual or lesbian. They fare better in A Change of Flag than they did in the earlier books: The American character Rachel is rendered somewhat sympathetically -- though she is naive, self-righteous and essentially asexual. And New hints touchingly at the enormous capacity for love possessed by Dimitri's promiscuous daughter, Elena.
This book shares one weakness with Shanghai: Christopher New does not seem terribly interested in what drives successful businessmen. The sensitive John Denton in Shanghai and his equally thoughtful son Robert in A Change of Flag are not really credible tycoons. They don't seem ruthless enough to accumulate fortunes in tumultuous circumstances.
But that's a quibble. The trilogy is great reading -- page-turning plots, sympathetic characters (you even find yourself pitying the aging triad), intelligent observation of the often-strained interaction between East and West and insightful asides on everything from academic jargon to the innerworkings of the triads.