A family’s testament of endurance in occupied Amsterdam
Five great books set in HONG KONG
14th January 2020
Hong Kong is the latest place for us to visit in our ‘Great books set in…’ series. Five great books set in Hong Kong.
‘Life in Hong Kong transcends cultural and culinary borders, such that nothing is truly foreign and nothing doesn’t belong’ – Peter Jon Lindberg.
Harbour Views by Philip Chatting
Norwegian expatriate Jakob Odergaard rules his successful furniture corporation with a ruthlessness and egotism that draws comment even in the merciless cut and thrust of the Hong Kong business world. His baleful influence warps the lives of all around him: his imperiously bitter wife Dagmar, his estranged hippyish daughter Sigrid, and his sexually frustrated administrator, Mrs Tung, among them. Not even the blithely laddish Anil Patel, a company courier, is immune.
In this jet-black comedy, lives are as tangled, messy, and precarious as the back streets of Kowloon. In a world where ambition collides with passion, tradition with modernity, East with West, no one comes away unscathed.
Only the city itself – from the hyper-commercial Central District to semi-rural Sai Kung, and from ramshackle apartment blocks to sea-washed temples – endures.
White Ghost Girls by Alice Greenway
The narrator, the reticent Kate, who is 12, and her teenage sister, the boisterous Frankie, are American girls living in Hong Kong in the summer of 1967.
Their father, Michael, a photographer for Time magazine, spends most of each month in Vietnam. When he’s home, he develops his pictures and the girls sneak into his darkroom, which becomes a depository for all things related to the war: a Vietnamese-English dictionary, slivers of shrapnel from his leg, a stolen AK-47. Kate describes how he “tacks his photographs up on the walls of his darkroom, a former laundry room. A soldier shoots through the open door of a Huey. ‘Squirrel hunting,’ my father’s scribbled underneath. A tall, sad-faced marine lifts an old Vietnamese woman from the rubble of a burned-out house. The woman’s arms stick out stiffly, as if she’s scared of being touched. ‘Saving Tuyet Diem,’ my father’s written.”
Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester
In Fragrant Harbour much of the story is told in the words of Tom Stewart, a young Englishman who sails to Hong Kong in the 1930s and ends up spending the rest of his long life there. The voice of Stewart – reserved, humane and understated – is as finely achieved as those in the earlier novels.
Through his eyes we see Hong Kong’s 20th-century history. The class-ridden and racially divided society of the 1930s is given the brutal awakening of the Japanese occupation. After the war, the old Hong Kong disappears and the city is transformed by economic boom and entrepreneurial energy. The approaching return of the city to mainland China brings its own problems, anxieties and upheavals.
Gweilo by Martin Booth
An inquisitive seven-year-old, Martin Booth found himself with the whole of Hong Kong at his feet when his father was posted there in the early 1950s. Unrestricted by parental control and blessed with bright blond hair that signified good luck to the Chinese, he had free access to hidden corners of the colony normally closed to a Gweilo, a ‘pale fellow’ like him.
Befriending rickshaw coolies and local stallholders, he learnt Cantonese, sampled delicacies such as boiled water beetles and one-hundred-year-old eggs, and participated in colourful festivals. He even entered the forbidden Kowloon Walled City, wandered into the secret lair of the Triads and visited an opium den. Along the way he encountered a colourful array of people, from the plink plonk man with his dancing monkey to Nagasaki Jim, a drunken child molester, and the Queen of Kowloon, the crazed tramp who may have been a member of the Romanov family.
Shadowed by the unhappiness of his warring parents, a broad-minded mother who, like her son, was keen to embrace all things Chinese, and a bigoted father who was enraged by his family’s interest in ‘going native’, Martin Booth’s compelling memoir is a journey into Chinese culture and an extinct colonial way of life that glows with infectious curiosity and humour.
Hong Kong by Jan Morris
In its last days under British rule, the Crown Colony of Hong Kong is the world’s most exciting city, at once fascinating and exasperating, a tangle of contradictions. It is a dazzling amalgam of conspicuous consumption and primitive poverty, the most architecturally incongruous yet undeniably beautiful urban panorama of all.
World-renowned travel writer Jan Morris offers the most insightful and comprehensive study of the enigma of Hong Kong thus far.
Andrew for the TripFiction Team
Do you have a favourite read set in Hong Kong? Have we missed an obvious choice? Please let us know in the comments below!
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