My friend Jacqueline recently told me about a new Hong Kong memoir, so of course I rushed to ask author Deborah Rogers for a review copy. A Trick of Light takes place in 1987-88 Hong Kong, but also includes a short part in 1978 when her family moves there from New Zealand.
When Deborah was six, her lawyer father found a job in Hong Kong and announced to the family that they were going to move there. Deborah had a younger brother and two older sisters, so her family of six packed up and flew in Kai Tak in 1978. When they arrived, her father pointed across Victoria Harbour from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island and pointed to Connaught Centre, or Jardine House as most of us now call it, and told Deborah that’s where he was going to work.
Not too long after the family settled into their flat on Hong Kong Island, it’s discovered that one of Deborah’s sisters has been writing love letters to a Chinese boy at school. Their mother took the older sisters back to New Zealand, leaving Deborah and her younger brother with their father in Hong Kong. But we later learn that Terry (Deborah’s father) has been having lots of affairs with women in Hong Kong. So I wondered if that was really the reason her mother left Hong Kong.
Terry is also a big drinker and that becomes a huge obstacle in relating to his children and wives. He and Deborah’s mother eventually divorce and he married a Cantonese woman named Celia. Terry and Celia have a daughter named Samantha or Chung Si. Every year, Deborah and her younger brother fly to Hong Kong to visit their father or he flies back to New Zealand to visit his kids. He and his ex-wife seem to get along well after both of them have remarried. So when Deborah starts rebelling (drinking, smoking, hanging around the wrong boys, and running away), her parents are on the same page when they decide she should move to Hong Kong to live with her father, Celia, and Chung Si.
This is the crux of the story and it’s now 1987. The Handover is still 10 years away, but Hong Kong is in its golden era where living standards are improving and the economy is on a continual upswing. Rogers writes about shopping at Chinese Products, which I think is Yue Hwa Chinese Products Emporium (I also love this store) and eating at The Spice Market at the Prince Hotel. Still, Deborah is not happy to be in Hong Kong because she never got to say goodbye to her friends in New Zealand and never wanted to leave in the first place.
I really felt for Deborah that year she was in Hong Kong. It was difficult to live with an alcoholic father who sometimes didn’t come home at night and often disappeared for days on end. Celia, her step-mother, had a difficult time, always worrying about Terry and were he was after work. Deborah asked her more than once why she didn’t leave Terry, but Celia said it wasn’t so easy. Once she even replied, “Where would I go?” It wasn’t easy for women thirty years ago to divorce and survive on their own. And it wasn’t like Terry had a lot of money. They lived in comfortable areas on Hong Kong Island, but Terry’s drinking bankrupted the family.
Deborah started to like Hong Kong when she made a friend at school. She also wrote about a trip she took with her father to Israel, Greece, and Italy before they met Celia and Chung Si in London and continued on to Los Angeles, Hawaii, and New York. Before the family left for Japan, Celia told Deborah that her father wasn’t going to join the family in Tokyo because he had another woman and was going to see her. Celia said a wife knows such things and it’s really heartbreaking to read this because both Celia and Deborah and even Chung Si are being abandoned by a man who isn’t participating in their family even though he’s the one that has brought them all together.
This book is short and Rogers wants to show the reader that teenage angst is normal and things do get better. Rogers is a beautiful writer and I really enjoyed her memoir. I thought her relationship with her step-mother was touching and they came to an understanding, as was her rapport with her father, despite his alcoholism. She writes about a special time in Hong Kong before the Handover. A Trick of Light is a quick read that will resonate with many.