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Between the Lines

The bookworm’s guide to Hong Kong

About the author

Jane Ciabattari is a journalist and book critic based in New York and California who has written for The Boston Globe, The Daily Beast, NPR.org, The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, and the Paris Review. She is a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle, having served as its president from 2008-11, and is the author of the short story collection Stealing the Fire.

A junk in Hong Kong Harbour

(Alamy)

The art world’s eyes are on the city-state for Art Basel Hong Kong – but how is the former colony portrayed in literature? Jane Ciabattari takes a look.

Before my first visit to Hong Kong, a friend suggested I read John Le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy for some historical background.  The novel is set in 1974, a year before the fall of Saigon brought the Vietnam War to its conclusion.

Le Carré’s portrait of Hong Kong as a Cold War listening post for the West and a stopping-off point for correspondents covering Southeast Asia was still fresh in my mind when I landed and met fellow journalists at the Foreign Correspondents Club, where the book’s opening scene is set. Le Carré describes the afternoon of a typhoon at the FCC, when “a score of journalists, mainly from former British colonies ̶ Australian, Canadian American  ̶  fooled and drank in a mood of violent idleness.” That afternoon the journalists get wind of a big story: “The Island’s most hush-hush establishment, High Haven, base for Britain’s cloak-and-dagger ploys against Red China, has been summarily shut down.”

With this initial image of a clubby set of expatriates hunkering down in anticipation of a tropical storm on an island south of the immense and impenetrable mainland, Le Carré gives a nuanced portrait of how Hong Kong was perceived in the West during the Maoist era.

Hong Kong in Western literature used to be a portrait of colonialism. Now it’s a portrait of a multicultural society, a gateway to China and an unparalleled trading hub.  If there’s a persistent theme in 20th Century novels set in Hong Kong, it’s the Westerner’s anxiety about China’s influence and power. In more recent fiction, the economic surges of globalism have brought a new, glossier depiction of Gatsby-style wealth in a world-class luxury zone.

Le Carré’s “honourable schoolboy” is Jerry Westerby, a British intelligence agent posing as a journalist handled by the legendary George Smiley. His target is Drake Ko, a suspected Russian mole.  Ko is a gang boss who rises to the heights of Hong Kong society. Ko is a quintessential Hong Kong character – a mainland orphan who survives by his wits, a fierce man shaped by shifting historic currents who draws upon both Western and Chinese traditions.

It’s not surprising the Hong Kong setting appealed to the former intelligence agent Le Carré.  The city-state, with its mix of complicated identities, culturally fluid styles and intrigue, makes a perfect setting for a spy novel. Its 1997 reunification with China under a policy of ‘one country, two systems’ has created an ever-shifting power base that works well as a dynamic setting and fertile ground for fiction.  

Hong Kong is a symbol of the fall of Empire, and the nostalgia for a crumbling colonial life infuses novels like Jane Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy, which covers the last half-century of British dominance, beginning in the 1930s. Central to Gardam’s story is Sir Edward Feathers, whose nickname Old Filth  ̶  an acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong  ̶  gives a clear message about Western attitudes of the period. 

Gardam gives us a Hong Kong bedraggled after World War II, flooded with immigrants from the mainland who have survived the Japanese and the civil war between forces led by Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek . She shows Hong Kong as a land of opportunity for Chinese who have emigrated from the mainland and for expatriates. Sir Edward is, like many Hong Kong residents in the postwar period, a cultural hybrid – a Scot born in Malaysia and educated in England. His wife Betty was born in Tianjin to Scottish missionaries who die in a Japanese prison camp in Shanghai. Shortly before Sir Edward and Betty become engaged in the early 1950s in Hong Kong, she has a fling with a man named Veneering, whose father was a Russian circus performer.  

Sir Edward and Veneering rise far above their roots, amassing wealth and power, ending up high in the colonial hierarchy as judges. Long after the principals in Gardam’s love triangle retire to Dorset, Hong Kong is remembered as “a place they once had felt was home.”  By that time, 99 years of British rule were about to end.

Paul Theroux sets his Kowloon Tong in 1996, at the height of pre-handover jitters.. In his taut novel, Theroux reveals the devastating impact Hong Kong’s return to Chinese administration had on the city-state’s British citizens.  Theroux’s character Bunt Mullard has inherited a Kowloon business from his father along with Mr. Chuck, a business partner with pro-democratic leanings.  Just months before what Bunt’s mother Betty calls “the Chinese takeaway,” a Mr Hung arrives from China with an offer to buy the building. He makes it clear Bunt and Betty can’t refuse. “You have no future here,” he says.

Mr Hung is an officer in the mainland’s People’s Liberation Army. “This was the future of Hong Kong, a Chinese system of threats and bribes and crookery, whispers, and dire consequences in disreputable places,” Bunt muses. He would no longer be a UK citizen in a British colony; he would be a UK citizen in a Chinese Special Administrative Region. Theroux captures Blunt’s sourness and dread at his impending change in status. In the years after the handover, economic reforms in China and the growth of the global economy have amplified the role of Hong Kong as a financial dynamo.

Bright lights, big city

Hong Kong has been portrayed in Western literature as a trading hub and a point of entry into the Chinese market since 1841, when the ‘fragrant harbour’ at the mouth of the Pearl River first became the headquarters of Britain’s opium trade to China. In the 21st Century, the city-state, which now has the most expensive luxury real estate on the planet, is portrayed as a destination for Asia’s billionaires and China’s new entrepreneurial class.

In Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel Crazy Rich Asians, Hong Kong is the land of Gucci, Hermès, and Louis Vuitton, where women wear $800,000 earrings and youngsters have wardrobes from Ralph Lauren Kids. Kwan explores the generational clash between tradition and Western-style consumerism in a group of interconnected old-money families as they prepare for a society wedding in Singapore. Hong Kong-born Eddie Cheng is the son of Asia’s most esteemed heart surgeon. His mother has gradually amassed one of Hong Kong’s largest privately held real estate portfolios. She worries about Eddie spending too much time with the nouveau riche she thinks of as “dubious Mainland Chinese billionaires.” Indeed, Eddie, raised during abundance and economic reform, plans to travel to the wedding on a friend’s private plane ̶ a Bombardier Global Express with a Matisse in the cabin. His mother, who detests ostentation, is horrified. And it is she and other Hong Kong Chinese, not the Westerners, who are arbiters of social class.

The colonial set has faded away, but their stories remain. The onetime fishing village has become a glittering international metropolis.  And as the panorama of its unique history unfolds, the image of Hong Kong, with its rare mix of Chinese conventions and British legacies afternoon tea and dim sum, spirit temples and croquet, 1200-plus skyscrapers and junks in the harbor, and that shared love of horseracing, will continue to inspire future fiction.

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