In keeping with the spirit of Handover Week, I’m not going to review a book I recently finished, but rather one I read just before the Handover 14 years ago.
Back then in Hong Kong’s expat and English-speaking communities, there were a few popular books that either came out in 1997 or were resurrected in light of the Handover.
And Paul Theroux’s Kowloon Tong (Houghton Mifflin, 1997) was one of them. My mom had bought and read it in the US, so when my brother arrived in Hong Kong to visit me shortly before the Handover, he brought it along. I read it during the last week of British rule.
But I wasn’t too impressed.
The story centers around a British matron and her overgrown adolescent son, Bunt, who’s 43 years old. Bunt and his mother Betty use racial slurs when they refer to 98% percent of Hong Kong’s population and have never bothered to learn even taxi Cantonese or make Chinese friends.
Betty and Bunt own a textile factory in the area called Kowloon Tong (which, in 1997, was one of the poshest areas north of Hong Kong Island). With the Handover looming, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army pressures Betty and Bunt into selling them their factory.
(At that time, the PLA already owned many businesses in China and had a majority stake in the prostitution industry there, which is huge. Why they’d bother with a small factory in Kowloon Tong, which in reality would have been located up north in some god awful place like Dong Guan, is beyond me.)
Paul Theroux has traveled extensively through China–at a time when most of the non-Chinese world couldn’t locate the country on a map–so I was shocked he got Hong Kong so wrong. Or maybe he just spent too much time watching Love is a Many-Splendored Thing and The World of Suzie Wong (I love both films) without bothering to examine Hong Kong in the 1990s, not the 1950s.
Speaking of The World of Suzie Wong, this 1957 novel by Richard Mason hit the shelves in Hong Kong again in 1997. It seemed like just about all my friends were reading it just before the Handover. So I did, too.
I really enjoyed Mason’s novel and could still see part of that world in 1997. Before I got married, I hung out at some bars in Wanchai and sometimes it seemed like Suzie had never left. Or maybe her long lost Filipina cousin had taken her place. Nonetheless, if you want a feel for colonial Hong Kong, check out The World of Suzie Wong (World Pub, 1957). The film starring Nancy Kwan is amazing, too.
Finally, there’s Jan Morris’s Hong Kong (Vintage, 1997), which I’d read back in 1990 when it was in an earlier edition (it first came out in 1985). Morris takes the reader through early Hong Kong history, the many facets of Hong Kong culture, the colony’s rapid economic growth, and the future after the Handover. Hong Kong doesn’t quite read like a novel, but if you love the city as much as I do, I guess it doesn’t really matter.
I’ve read other books about the Handover, like John Burdett’s thrilling The Last Six Million Seconds (1997), but I didn’t learn about this book until a decade after the Handover, so it wasn’t part of my repertoire back then.
If you’ve read other books around the Handover that pertain to Hong Kong, I’d love to hear about them.