As the Hong Kong handover boom fizzles into the Asian economic bust, a young American couple’s marriage and careers tumble into a maze of television news, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie.

TV news veteran Muhammad Cohen’s engaging, often hilarious novel captures the mood ahead of the July 1997 handover when Hong Kong reigned as the centre of the universe, a multicultural melting pot bubbling with pure gold. As the Asian crisis abruptly ends the party, mainland China emerges, eclipsing Hong Kong. For everyone whose job or business falls under China’s lengthening economic shadow, Hong Kong On Air presents a fresh angle on how it all began. For media watchers, Hong Kong On Air broadcasts the backstage secrets of television news the way The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay illustrated the dark side of comic books.

For newspaper reporter turned TV producer Laura Wellesley, the morning show at Franklin Global Networks Asia means going to bed before dark and swallowing the first rule of broadcast news: the anchor is always right, especially when it’s American-born Chinese egomaniac Deng Jiang Mao. The station’s fortunes and Laura’s outlook improve with the arrival of Peter Franklin, the 28-year-old son of FGN’s billionaire founder. But Franklin’s eye falls on mainland-born graphics drone Pussy, Laura’s control room nemesis, and a butterfly emerges from the web he spins.

For Laura’s husband Jeff Golden, the production line for his Golden Beauties lingerie runs through a cagey mother minding their stores on Long Island, cookie tins stuffed with cash smuggled over the border, and hot tubs in Hong Kong’s Jewish Community Club and mainland brothels. Cut out of his own multi-million dollar deal, Jeff’s consolation prize is Yogi, a Japanese banker with a yen for “Jew food” and men raised on it.

During Hong Kong’s pre-handover boom, FGN Asia becomes a hit, a star is born, and mistakes are easy to overlook. But the economic crisis ripens relationships for treachery, creates opportunities for revenge, and moves China centre stage, triggering a great leap forward for some, a long march to failure for others.