Today marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s Handover from Great Britain to China. While few have anything to celebrate and it’s no more than a morose milestone, I thought I’d put together a list of books that people were reading in Hong Kong 20 years ago as the Handover approached, and books that pertain to it either pre-1997 or post-. None of these are listed in any particular order.
POPULAR BOOKS BEFORE AND DURING THE HANDOVER
In Hong Kong just before the Handover, some new books and some old favorites were all the rage in the expat community. I’ve listed them here along with some others that were published years or even decades before the Handover.
Jan Morris’ Hong Kong is something I read back in 1990 or 1991, but she came out with a new edition just before the Handover and it was all the rage in Hong Kong in 1997.
Richard Mason’s The World of Suzie Wong is dated, but a classic and nonetheless shows the old Hong Kong, one that people were reminiscing about in ’97, as attested by the many old Hong Kong-themed parties that summer.
Paul Theroux’s Kowloon Tong was a popular book that year, although few expats and old Hong Kong hands thought it resembled anything to do with 1997 Hong Kong. And even though I wasn’t privy to the expat community there until my final year in Hong Kong, I think they’re right.
Ackbar Abbas’ Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance came out a few months before the Handover and discusses film, architecture, and culture as it relates to Hong Kong’s sovereignty (the old [UK] vis a vis the new [China]).
John LeCarre’s The Honourable Schoolboy came out in 1977, but what a visionary he was when he wrote this Hong Kong-based spy thriller. LeCarre predicted the British would abandon Hong Kong 20 years before the Handover and a solid five years before the PRC and UK started talks that led to the Joint Declaration that led to the Handover. I’m reading this book now for the third time and it’s just as chilling as ever. One of my favorite books of all time.
Larry Feign’s many graphic novels, including Let’s All Shut Up and Make Money: Hong Kong’s Last 100 Days As A British Colony.
Simon Elegant’s A Chinese Wedding is a page-turning novel I can relate to very well. It takes place in Hong Kong several years before the Handover. I found this at the book store at the Star Ferry in 1994, just after I moved back to Hong Kong and took it with me in half a dozen moves since then.
Richard Hughes’ Borrowed Place, Borrowed Time: Hong Kong and Its Many Faces was published 21 years before the Handover and a good 8 years before the Joint Declaration. The cover is fabulous, isn’t it?
Kevin Rafferty’s City On The Rocks: Hong Kong’s Uncertain Future is excellent and came out in 1990. This was the year I first moved to Hong Kong and I’m almost certain one of my classes there discussed this book.
John Burdett is known for his Bangkok series, but my favorite from him is The Last Six Million Seconds, a gruesome Hong Kong thriller. This came out several months before the Handover.
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita et al’s Forecasting Political Events: The Future of Hong Kong. This came out 9 years before the Handover and the authors’ predictions rang true.
Michael Davis’ Constitutional Confrontation in Hong Kong: Issues and Implications of the Basic Law is a book I read back in 1990 when I took a constitutional law class with the author in Hong Kong.
And of course, The Basic Law.
BOOKS I LIKE THAT CAME OUT AFTER THE HANDOVER
Elsie Sze’s Hui Gui, which is the Mandarin for Handover, is a riveting saga of a Chinese family that parallels modern Chinese history.
Alison Singh Gee’s memoir, Where the Peacocks Sing, takes place in Hong Kong and India in the mid-90s and shows the mood of Hong Kong just before the Handover.
Steve Tsang’s narrative non-fiction Hong Kong: An Appointment With China was published a month an a half after the Handover and is an excellent assessment of why there even was a handover. He writes about Hong Kong history as if it’s a thrilling novel. It’s especially telling to read it two decades after the Handover. Tsang pretty much predicted what would happen after China took over.
Jason Y. Ng’s Umbrellas in Bloom is a great history of why there’s a Handover and how the Occupy Movement came into being in 2014. I especially enjoyed his personal narrative. His other books in his trilogy also bring the reader into post-Handover Hong Kong issues. Hong Kong State of Mind and No City For Slow Men are both excellent. Stay tuned for a newly released box set of the three!
Xu Xi’s books are all fabulous, but her novel The Unwalled City specifically deals with Hong Kong a couple years before the Handover. She captures Hong Kong at the crossroads between the old and new.
I was a contributor of Xu Xi’s Fifty-Fifty: New Hong Kong Writing in 2008 and wrote an essay about language in Hong Kong after the Handover.
Chan Ho-Kei’s The Borrowed is one of my favorite novels and I got goosebumps reading it and never wanted it to end. It’s that good. Spanning decades before and after the Handover, this book shows how Hong Kong has changed over the decades. It reads like the best police drama one could imagine.
Karen Fang’s Arresting Cinema: Surveillance in Kong Kong Film details Hong Kong history from the mid-1950s until today and how the territory has become one of the world’s most surveilled places and how it happened without many people realizing it. Bone-chilling and informational, this book is must-read for anyone interested in Hong Kong politics.
This Is Hong Kong was written in the 1960s, but was rereleased about 10 years ago and is one of my favorites. It’s a picture book and shows Old Hong Kong as no one but M. Sasek could.
And for some shameless self-promotion of my memoir, Good Chinese Wife, I wrote about the few years leading up to the Handover in Hong Kong and right after.
BOOKS RECOMMENDED BY OTHERS
Sebastian Gerard’s For Goodness Sake: A Novel of the Afterlife of Suzie Wong
Robert Elegant’s Last Year in Hong Kong: A Love Story
Ben Zabulis’ Chartered Territory: An Engineer Abroad
Chris Patten’s many books, including East and West
William McGurn’s Basic Law, Basic Questions
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita et al’s Red Flag Over Hong Kong
Todd Crowell’s Farewell My Colony
Paul Blaney’s Handover
Muhammad Cohen’s Hong Kong On Air
PENGUIN’S 20TH ANNIVERSARY HONG KONG SERIES
Penguin is putting a series of books to commemorate the Handover. I can’t wait to check them all out later this year and early 2018!
Christopher DeWolf’s Borrowed Spaces: Life Between the Cracks of Modern Hong Kong
Dung Kai-Cheung’s Cantonese Love Stories: Twenty-five Vignettes of a City
Magnus Renfrew’s Uncharted Territory: Culture and Commerce in Hong Kong’s Art World
Antony Dapiran’s City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong
This list is by far definitive, so if you have any to add, please let me know in the comments! I don’t know many people for whom the Handover is a reason for celebration, but perhaps these books will shed some light on this ongoing political experiment and bring us back to a time we knew and loved.