Gweilo: A memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood – Martin Booth

GweiloMartin Booth moved to Hong Kong with his parents in 1952, at the age of seven. This is an autobiographical account of the first three years he spent in the then British colony. Mr. Booth was obviously a curious and unafraid boy, roaming widely about the streets and hills of Kowloon and Hong Kong while connecting firmly with the local culture and people.

Having lived in Hong Kong for several years now, this book held particular interest for me. Mr. Booth lets us see Hong Kong through his eyes, without adult judgment or bias. I got the impression that he retells his experiences as Booth the boy saw them, not as Booth the man interpreted them later. This infuses the chronicle with a refreshing naivete. Mr. Booth’s stick-in-the-mud bully of a father contrasted with the adventurous and ever curious mother, make for an colorful domestic backdrop to his adventures. While it is easy to think that a young boy did not actually experience all the things described, and that age has romanticized in the author’s mind events which happened long ago, the authenticity of people’s reactions and places described makes me want to believe that Mr. Booth really did all these things. No doubt he was a more adventurous boy than most.

The love that Mr. Booth felt for Hong Kong shines through the pages. His eagerness to seek out new and foreign experiences should be encouraged in all people, not just expats. It was how he became really aware of his surroundings in a way that many expats are not.

NOTE: This book is entitled “Golden Boy: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood” in the USA edition.

4½Rosbochs

Beyond Lion Rock – The Story of Cathay Pacific Airways – Gavin Young

BeyondLionRockTheStoryofCathayPacificAirwaysThis history tackles both strands that begat Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s de facto “national carrier”. One side is the pioneering work of founders Roy Farrell and Syd de Kantzow, both ex-military transport pilots and veterans of the treacherous “Hump” route over the Himalayas during World War II. Farrell bought a military surplus DC-3, the now famous Betsy, and started an airline from nothing before he was soon joined by de Kantzow. The other side is more establishment, with trading and shipping conglomerate Swire, led by Jock Swire, seeking to “get into Air” to further interests in the Far Eastern trade. Swire acquired Cathay Pacific a few years after the founding of the airline and still owns it today.

The book is very well researched, and the author has interviewed dozens of the major and minor players of the airline’s interesting history. It is interesting not only from the point of view of the aviation enthusiast, but very much also for its fascinating glimpses into Hong Kong immediately post war, through recovery and finally into the uncertain future of Chinese rule (the book was published in 1989, eight years before the handover). The author freely admits that he hasn’t bothered much with incidents of drunken pilots, pilots sleeping with stewardesses (or wifes with pilots out flying) or any such since these incidents are hardly peculiar to Cathay Pacific. Mr. Young focuses instead on defining events such as new aircraft types, new routes, scandals and accidents, viewed through the lens of regional history. The brief snippets from interviews with former and (then) current staff, as well as affiliated officials and businessmen, bring vividness and immediacy to the story.

My criticism, or shall we say niggle, with this book is that perhaps Mr. Young seems a touch too enamored with Cathay Pacific and the romance of the Far Eastern trade. But then again who can blame him? Even in the eighties, times were different. Certainly when the airline was started, Hong Kong was a remote and romantic place in the eyes of Westerners. A frontier where fortunes could be made and lost by those bold enough to take the often harrowing risks required.

4Rosbochs

Tiger by the Tail (Paladin of Shadows VI) – John Ringo & Ryan Sear

PaladinofShadows6TigerbytheTailMike Harmon and his band of Georgian (the country not the state) mountain soldiers are back. This time they are on a training mission in Southeast Asia. One thing leads to another, with the action moving from Indonesia, to Hong Kong, to Phuket and finally to Myanmar.

In this sixth book, Ringo is cooperating with Ryan Sear. While the action is pretty good, compared to the previous books, especially I-IV, it feels a bit color by numbers, a bit like a Bond movie. The sex scenes, while still explicit and edgy, seem more written for shock effect than with reference to actual S&M practices. And apart from one quite brief action scene, there is far too little doubt about the outcome. The Keldara have become supermen, and this is a bit dull.

The perhaps unfortunate thing about a novel with a large chunk set in Hong Kong is that I could pick it apart for accuracy. I understand artistic license and I understand that there will be inaccuracies but in this book it was a bit much. For example a Hong Kong scene is set in Shekou docks, but this is over the border in Mainland China. A simple check on Google Maps would have established that. It detracts from the enjoyment of the novel when the research is so sloppy.

2½Rosbochs

Never Enough – Joe McGinnis

This is the true story of the famous “milkshake murder” in Hong Kong in 2003. A rich, bitchy and spoiled expat wife kills her rich and boorish expat husband. The book tells the story all the way back to their parents, but mainly focuses on their life in Hong Kong. The whole thing is quite disturbing, and truly shows that money can’t buy happiness. Most of the characters seem mostly interested in money and power, and will do anything to have them.

As an expat in Hong Kong myself, I found it very interesting. Unfortunately, some things are written for dramatic effect. For example, Hong Kong International School, while a good school, is not “the most prestigious private school in Hong Kong”. And Parkview is certainly not “the most exclusive Hong Kong housing estate”. Still, a riveting read about some rather disturbed people, and the shocking events surrounding this notorious murder.

Noble House – James Clavell

The sequel to Tai Pan is set in the early 1960s, a time when Hong Kong had come into its own as an economic powerhouse with liberal laws allowing huge fortunes to be made and lost. The story focuses around Struan’s, the company founded by Dirk Struan from Tai Pan. The company is in trouble from several fronts, and both inter-company and political intrigue play a part.

Struan’s is rather obviously based on real life company Jardine Matheson, still one of the most important corporations in Hong Kong. while Tai pan was exciting and had a great setting, Noble House reminded me too much of one of the 1980s soaps Dallas and Falcon Crest. Ruthless, scheming rich people bickering and fighting. I read about a quarter of it but became terribly bored and gave up. Despite the really interesting snapshot of Hong Kong life in the 1960s, on the cusp of modernity, I couldn’t make myself care about the plot or the characters.

Tai-Pan – James Clavell

This massive novel dramatizes the events surrounding the founding of Hong Kong. Our hero, Dirk Struan, is a merchant prince, head of his trading house. He is known by the Chinese expression “Tai-Pan”, meaning “supreme leader”. The book chronicles his efforts to found and develop Hong Kong as a way to both open up trade with China and ensure that the West be exposed to Chinese influence.

The book is skillfully written and a page turner. The characters are larger than life. Great fun all around. Clavell shows a keen eye for the way different people are motivated based on ethnicity and culture, sex and social position. The many action-filled twists do not seem confusing, but drive the story forward without seeming like just pointless noise.