My friend Janet recently sent me a book from the fabulous Swindon bookstore in Hong Kong. It’s Richard Hughes’ Borrowed Place, Borrowed Time: Hong Kong and Its Many Faces (Andre Deutsch, 1976). And boy is it a gem!
I love history, especially when it pertains to Hong Kong. And this book is especially fascinating because Hughes includes all sorts of predictions about Hong Kong in the years leading up to the Handover. But when the book was published:
Mao was still alive
There wasn’t much knowledge about the Great Leap Forward
The Gang of Four hadn’t been arrested
The verdict on Mao wasn’t out yet
The US and China didn’t have diplomatic relations
Tiananmen hadn’t happened
Deng Xiaoping hadn’t taken his famous southern tour
Margaret Thatcher hadn’t visited Beijing
Murray MacLehose was still Governor of Hong Kong
It gave me goosebumps to read Hughes’ predictions for Hong Kong knowing all the changes that would take place in the two decades that followed publication of Borrowed Place.
Hughes was an Old China Hand by way of Australia who claimed that Hong Kong was able to thrive thanks to China, not the UK. If China at any time had wanted to take Hong Kong back or wreak havoc on the colony, it could easily have done so. (During my first year in Hong Kong when we had no water, the other students would say that China had turned off the water again.)
This book contains a lot of statistics, so it sometimes reads like an academic study. But Hughes also includes many interesting anecdotes about Hong Kong like the great 1962 exodus or goes into his thoughts on Shanghai and how it had changed over the years from when he first went there in the 40s.
Some of the content is a little dated, like the way he compares Chinese wives to Western ones or writes dialogue in derogatory pidgin.
As an interesting side note, John LeCarre modeled his character Old Craw in The Honourable Schoolboy (one of my favorite books!) after Hughes.
Hughes passed away in 1984.