Susan Blumberg-Kason and Sonali Dev will discuss writing as mothers, setting their stories overseas, and why we need diverse books.
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.
This weekend I attended my first big book convention. I didn’t get a ticket because I’m an author, but rather because I’m a trustee of my local public library. The American Library Association’s annual conference is a big one and authors and publishers and library software companies and anyone else associated with libraries occupy the hundreds of booths at the convention.
I thought I’d attend some of the many great lectures scheduled throughout the conference, but I ended up hanging out with a good friend and meeting her YA author friends. We went from booth to booth, collecting review copies or new books and getting most of them signed and personalized.
We walked away with a ton of books!
As a mom and a reader, I’m always looking for diverse voices for my kids and myself. So I was really excited to meet the author who started #WeNeedDiverseBooks, Ellen Oh! Rich Lo is one of my favorite picture book authors and illustrators and I’ve had this fantasy of him coming to my kids’ school to talk about his immigration experience and his family’s early years in the US and how that wasn’t always easy. His books are so beautiful, both in the illustrations and in the words he writes. I was so excited to meet him today and chatted with him a bit because I was first in line with my friend Gloria.
I also met writer Claribel Ortega, who reminded me that we’re Instagram friends. Duh. It took me a couple of meetings to put two and two together! We talked about Hong Kong and she recommended books I should get signed at ALA.
Maurene Goo’s book, I Believe in a Thing Called Love, looks soooooo good and she was super friendly, despite her huge signing line. I’m also here with author Lizzie Cooke, a fellow Chicagoan. I think this photo shows the magic of the conference and how fabulous it was to meet other authors and collect oh so many books!
Some authors I knew already, like the fabulous Sonali Dev! Sonali stopped me on the street three years ago after one of my book signings. She recognized me from Facebook. At that time, her first book hadn’t come out yet. And now she’s getting ready for her FOURTH book release! Sonali is huge and it’s been so great following her success! Even so, she is completely down to earth and treats every reader as if s/he is the only person in the room.
I didn’t know Samira Ahmed before this weekend, but now I feel like we’re old friends. Her debut YA novel, Love, Hate & Other Filters looks beyond amazing and I love the branding her publisher, Soho Teen, has created around her book! We both discovered our shared love for Badoit!
Suzanne Kamata and I are both represented by super-agent Carrie Pestritto. Although Suzanne wasn’t at ALA (she lives in Japan), one of her books was! I went to visit that booth and had a fantastic chat with her publisher. I asked for a copy of Suzanne’s book and was super excited when the publisher said yes!
I’d read Stacey Lee‘s debut novel, Under a Painted Sky, and was an instant fangirl for life. So meeting Stacey in real life was like meeting a movie star for most people. The first thing I asked when I met her was if I could take a photo with her. She has another book out now and a third coming out soon.
And here’s a bedraggled one of me (I’d just finished dragon boat racing) with Gloria Chao, the friend who took me around ALA and whose debut novel, American Panda, comes out in February, along with superstar author Cindy Pon!
I am so thankful I had an opportunity to attend ALA. And I feel so lucky it was in Chicago. Now to dig into the books I just picked up!
Janice MacLeod’s memoir, Paris Letters, is one of my favorites. It’s visually stunning, as she includes gorgeous paintings and sketches of Paris along with her fairytale story of how she met her husband in the City of Light. I thought there’d be no way she could outdo herself, but I was so wrong!
A Paris Year: My Day-to-Day Adventures in the Most Romantic City in the World comes out today (June 20th) and it’s the type of book you beg and plead and hope will never end. Part travelogue, part journal, and part coffee table book, A Paris Year will appeal to people who know the city well and those who have never been. Or those, like me, who went once and were about to go for the second time.
I was in Paris the week after I read this book and recognized some of the places she wrote about, but certainly learned a ton about others I’d never visited or didn’t know about. She organizes it by month and date, according to the Saints’ Days in France, which fall almost every day of the month. Sometimes an entry will include fun historical facts about figures like Napoleon (both of them) or Edith Piaf, while others will just have photo that says more than any words could describe.
I love her observations of tourists and of locals, and how the cultures of the two differ. Something I never really knew about, but appreciated very much, is that Parisians are content with and take pride in whatever they do to earn a living. That’s not the case in the US by a stretch. But waiters and butchers and cheesemongers are experts in their fields in Paris and are as respected as anyone else in the city. That was very refreshing.
This book is so beautiful, with its photos and drawings, that it’s set a new bar for travel books. I’ve only known of one other book like this (How to Hong Kong, which I reviewed some months back), but Janice MacLeod’s is structured differently and covers all seasons and months of the year. Even though I’ve only been to Paris in June, I can now picture it in August, when the city clears out, or in November, when the days are gray and the trees become bare. Spring seems the most dreamy. No wonder there are several songs written about this time of year there.
A Paris Year is not the kind of book you should lend to others, nor is it the type you should borrow. I’d invest the US$25 and keep it all to yourself. Although you won’t want it to end, you can always read it again and again. I know I will when I return home!
Back in the late 1990s, I lived in the most dangerous neighborhood in San Francisco. The only familiar retail outlet was a Walgreen’s pharmacy a few blocks away. The neighborhood had been an old Maltese enclave, but only one Italian grocery remained from those years. The main shopping street was littered with Cantonese BBQs (our favorite was run by a former cop from Macau), Chinese groceries, herbal medicine stores, and a dim sum parlor with a pink exterior.
So when I heard about The 100-Pound Gangster, which was set in 1990s San Francisco, I was naturally curious and eager to go back in time to a place I knew well. I’m not saying I could relate to Henry Lin’s life as a gangster in San Francisco Chinatown or in prison, but I knew was it was like to live in a rough area of San Francisco (home to most of the 60+ gun deaths in the city, which was a pittance compared to the rest of the US!).
I got into this book right away and didn’t put it down until I finished it later that evening. It’s a quick read and very engaging from start to finish. Lin is born and raised in San Francisco’s Sunset District, an area in San Francisco known for the best Chinese restaurants. His parents were not poor, but his family life was very dysfunctional. His father left the family when Lin was young and his mother favored his older brother in a way that made Lin feel all alone. No child should ever be made to feel worthless and unloved, especially a young teenager.
Lin found acceptance and family in a Chinatown gang. Soon he was in charge of twenty gangsters and had a reputation for being loyal and trustworthy (as he would find out, those two traits are nowhere near the same thing). He was arrested for assault with a metal pipe and was going to get a light sentence since he was still only in his early teens. But the prosecutor had just embarked on a campaign to crack down on gang activity and made an example of Lin, serving him an eight-year sentence.
In prison, Lin grew up. He not only became friends with prisoners from all different backgrounds, but also began to write. He wrote for a prison publication and gained the attention of a facility in Pennsylvania for troubled youth. He continued writing there and ended up leaving a year before his sentence was finished.
Throughout the book, Lin travels back to Hong Kong to visit his grandfather, some kind of official high up in the Chinese government. Although Lin never learns exactly what his grandfather did for the Chinese government, he understands that his Gong Gong was high up in intelligence and may have even worked with the CIA. As his relationship with his mother and brother deteriorate, his relationship with his Gong Gong strengthens. Lin dedicates his book to his late grandfather.
Lin feels many temptations to return to the old life after he returns from Glen Mills, Pennsylvania. He tries his hardest to stay out of his former Chinatown gang and the reader can tell how difficult it was for him abstain from that lifestyle. His last act in the underworld takes place in a casino in Macau. I found myself rooting for Lin, for him to succeed in this movie-like finale.
Although Henry Lin is a pen name and he doesn’t reveal his true identity, his voice is powerful and shines through his pages. He never discussed the neighborhood where I lived, but I knew the Chinatown Playground, as well as Sam Wo, a restaurant I went to when I visited San Francisco in 1997 for a week and ended up buying a house in said bad neighborhood on that trip.
The only thing I wished for in this book was more about his time in Hong Kong. But that wasn’t the main focus of his book, so I’m hoping for another one from him set there. Henry Lin is a fresh new voice and one I hope to read again and again.