Hong Kong Stories

February 10, 2012 | Tita

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In preparation for my recent trip to Hong Kong, I called upon my favorite librarians and scoured the library catalogue to find books about Hong Kong, as I always do before an adventure. Here are my favs in case you’re lucky enough have a Hong Kong trip in the offing, or even if you just want to be an armchair traveler.

Naturally, I had to throw in some non-fiction to make sure I understood what exactly Hong Kong’s status as a Special Administrative Region of China meant. Jan Morris’s The World; Travels 1950-2000 gave me this context in only one chapter – and a whole lot more world history to boot. Not that I expected anything less from this world-known travel essayist. And of course along with all the delicious travel guides the Library has, from Lonely Planet to Rough Guide to Eyewitness imprints – all trip porn for me – I was well prepared on the non-fiction side.

Then I started on the classics set in early colonial Hong Kong, starting with James Clavell’s 1966 story of greed and power, Tai-Pan, Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil  and Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester. Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester (2002) was amongst those recommended to me but sadly it didn’t pass the first 50 pages test (there are so many fabulous books out there that if I don’t love a book within the first 50 pages, I don’t generally finish it). More of a boy book I think, it is the story of four intertwined lives in tumultuous colonial Hong Kong and an “epic novel of one of the world’s great cities.”

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham (1925) was one of my favourites of the bunch. Young and somewhat foolish Kitty Fane marries for all the wrong reasons and then has an affair in 1920s Hong Kong. When her doctor husband finds out, he compels her to accompany him on a dangerous mission where she loses touch with her former society life and must reassess everything. The writing and characterization is quite beautiful and so evocative of early colonial Hong Kong life.

Adultery also appears as a theme in Janice K. Lee’s The Piano Teacher (2008) (available in multiple formats). The Piano Teacher started off slowly but ended up drawing me in – ex-pat Brit Will falls in love with Trudy Liang, a beautiful Eurasian social butterfly. But it’s the Second World War and the Japanese are invading – and each character deals with the horrors of war differently and separately. Ten years later, another young woman, Claire is hired to teach piano in a wealthy Chinese family – her enigmatic lover is tied to the family but she’s not sure how – the threads converge, pulling the story together oh so nicely.

Sisters coming of age was a popular theme in many of books I read including Shanghai Girls by Lisa See (21009). Shanghai Girls is the tale of two young sisters who learn that their father has gambled away all their wealth and they have been pretty much sold off as wives to American suitors. White Ghost Girls  by Alice Greenway (2006) recounts the story of two young American girls growing up in Mao’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution in a Hong Kong plagued by bombs and the Vietnamese war next door. And finally, Night of Many Dreams by Gail Tsukiyama (1998) is another sisters coming of age story, also set in Hong Kong just before the Second World War.


One writer I had admired but who I had not realized had Hong Kong roots showed up on the list of Hong Kong must-reads. Martin Booth’s Gweilo: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood (2004) is an autobiographical account of his childhood in Hong Kong. Booth offers a rather unique perspective – that of a bright, inquisitive seven-year-old with blond hair – the apparent source of good luck to the Chinese.


So with all this preparation, I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Hong Kong – the incredible temples, gardens and ancient buildings, the food, the tram ride to Victoria Peak, the food, Hong Kong Wetland Park, the food – we even managed a long hike in Tai Tam Country Park (followed by more food). The Library is fantastic for preparing for any journey, real, virtual or only in one’s mind… or reliving those memories years later.