Hong Kong

Photo of the New Territories by countries in colors used under a Creative Commons license.

Austin Coates, Myself A Mandarin (Oxford University Press China, 1988).
As a young man, soon after World War II, Coates went to Hong Kong to work in the civil service. Three years later, he became a magistrate in the New Territories, deciding civil disputes in rural villages which had been bypassed by the twentieth century. Another person in his circumstances might have insisted on applying British common law, but Coates was fortunate enough not to know any of it, and instead had to use his wits to find the just resolution which would be accepted by all sides to a dispute. Many chapters are devoted to memorable cases; none disappoint. (This book can be found in bookstores in Hong Kong, but good luck tracking down a copy elsewhere.)

Here is Wikipedia’s entry about Coates, who spent much of the rest of his life in Hong Kong. Here’s an excerpt. Kay Danielson appreciated the author’s bafflement at deciphering indirect communication and managing the cultural minefields of face, ceremony and duty. James Garriss calls it delightful. Rory Boland considers it a classic book about the city. Coates’ cows went feral, apparently. Nell Freudenberger picked it as her favorite obscure book.

Hong Kong
Photo by A. http://www.viajar24h.com used under a Creative Commons license.

Martin Booth, Gweilo (Bantam Books, 2005).
Martin Booth was seven-years old when his family moved from England to Hong Kong, where his father had a civil service job; the year was 1952. This is a memoir of his three years there, and I can only hope my recollections are as vivid as his when I am his age. His father and mother were locked in an unhappy marriage, and sometimes it seems that Martin turned toward Hong Kong to get away from their troubles. Hong Kong is a different place now, seemingly separated at by far more than five decades, so read this for a hint of what was. Published in the United States under the title, Golden Child (Picador, 2006) (but I bought my copy in Hong Kong).

Google Book Search has a preview. Booth wrote the book after a diagnosis of untreatable brain cancer; here is his obituary in The Guardian. Donald Morrison reviewed it for Time. Sophie Harrison reviewed it for The New York Times. Matthew says Gweilo reaches to his heart and calls it a great travel companion. I think this is another Matthew. Chris was expecting something different. Julie calls it sad and enchanting. Barbara Piscitelli says it’s one of the best books she read in Hong Kong. Eva calls it a compelling memoir.  Simon says Booth’s nostalgia translates well. Here is katybutler.  Jessica calls it an excellent story.  Here is Bookmarks Magazine.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Monument to those who defended Hong Kong in December, 1941.
Photo by unforth used under a Creative Commons license.

Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003).
A novel of the aftermath of World War II. In 1947, Aldred Leith, a decorated British veteran and former POW, is stationed at the naval base in Kure, near the ruins of Hiroshima, finishing a book on his recent travels in China. His friend, Peter Exley, an Australian, is prosecuting war crimes in Hong Kong. Both are wrapped up with the war’s aftermath, needing new promise. Leith finds this in the precocious children of the brigadier: Benedict, a 20-year-old boy with an incurable disease, and his 17-year-old sister, Helen, with whom Leith falls in love. The obstacles to this romance seem insuperable, especially when Helen’s family departs for New Zealand and Leith for England. The story moves around the world, but it particularly evokes the sites and moods of post-war Hong Kong (where Hazzard lived then) and Wellington. The Great Fire won the National Book Award in 2003.

Links to various reviews are here. The National Book Foundation has an excerpt. Hazzard did this on-line chat after The Great Fire won the National Book Award. You can listen to an interview with the BBC, and this piece on the The Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC. MSNBC profiled Hazzard. She was interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation after winning the Miles Franklin Award. Here are reviews from Judith Shulevitz (Slate), Thomas Mallon (The Atlantic), Alan Wall (The Guardian), Peter Craven (The Sydney Morning Herald), Jim Barloon (The Houston Chronicle), Charles Taylor (Salon), Adam Mars-Jones (The Observer), Tom Nissley (The Stranger), Neil Jillett (The Age), Nicholas Addison Thomas, Alden Mudge (WaterBridge Review), and Liz Fraser. And you can listen to Alan Cheuse review the book on NPR. Blogtastic reaction from
, Susannah, Wendy, Howard Choo, Nate, beche-la-mer, Lisa.

Buy it at Amazon.com. (N.B. — Here’s a bargain price that may not last.)

Photo of Kowloon by beembag used under a Creative Commons license.

Paul Theroux, Kowloon Tong (Houghton Mifflin, 1997).
A novel of Britain’s 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China, but written before the event rather than after it, perhaps in an effort to capitalize on it. If Hong Kong sheds its colonial past like Macau has, this novel will be a historical document of sorts showing what the British there were like by the late 1990s, and those who’ve read Theroux’s other work will not be surprised that the picture is not flattering. Few of Theroux’s characters are particularly sympathetic, which does not prevent the novel from carrying out its own vision but may detract from a reader’s enjoyment. The whiff of allegory is sometimes hard to ignore as well.

Theroux’s site describes the book. The Atlantic‘s Anthony Grant interviewed Theroux upon the novel’s publication. Michael McCaughan reviewed the novel for Slate. Thomas Keneally reviewed the novel for The New York Times. So did Richard Bernstein. Dwight Garner reviewed the book for Salon. Paul Gray reviewed the book for Time. Maria Noëlle Ng wrote about the book in Canadian Literature. Hong Kong blogger Richard H didn’t care for it. Migs Bassig doesn’t like what the novel says about Manila. James P. Rice of The Chinese University of Hong Kong writes about Kowloon Tong as one of “four allegories of the colonial experience in Hong Kong,” downloadable in what seems to be an excerpt from Thomas Y.T. Luk and James P. Rice, eds., Before and After Suzie: Hong Kong in Western Film and Literature (The Chinese University Press, 2002).

Buy this book at Amazon.com.