Chungking Mansions is a unique place which could only exist in Hong Kong: a labyrinthine maze of a building packed with backpacker hotels, curry restaurants and shops selling a range of counterfeit goods. It is also populated by immigrants from all over the world, who flock to Chungking Mansions for a multitude of reasons, not all of them legitimate. It has been called the most globalised spot in the world because of its incredible range of nationalities and businesses, and is the focus of Gordon Mathews fascinating Ghetto at the Centre of the World, where this dilapidated old shopping centre becomes a microcosm for our shrinking planet, and a reflection of the thriving cultural and economic mixture of Hong Kong.
Paul Theroux’s Kowloon Tong is a depiction of the city on the cusp of the most dramatic event in its history, the 1997 handover to China, and remains a powerful exploration of the ambivalence felt by most citizens towards this epoch defining event. It portrays a family of English expats who have settled in Hong Kong and become embroiled in a mysterious web of crime, deceit and betrayal due to their involvement with the shady Chinese businessman Mr Hung. The central character Neville ‘Bunt’ Mullard is symbolic of the confusion of identities Hong Kong citizens inherit, and leads a double life as he winds his way through the crowded city. Theroux’s novel captures the sense of anxiety and menace which was prevalent in Hong Kong at the time, and the complex spectrum of economic, social and historical issues which the city grappled with as it prepared to return to Chinese control.
An epic reading of the tumultuous trail of Hong Kong history, John Lanchester’s Fragrant Harbour spans much of the 20th century with its story of escape, exoticism and greed. It begins with a young Englishman escaping his home on the SS Darjeeling in 1935, and entering a world of corruption and glamour in Hong Kong. He settles in the city and is witness to the immense events which shaped the city over the course of the century, including the brutal occupation by Japanese forces during World War II, the rapid economic expansion of the 1970s and 80s and the handover to the Chinese. Hong Kong emerges as a city in which anything is possible, and the limitless potential for indulging one’s desires leads to corruption and depravity, but also to success and unimaginable wealth.
The fast paced, no nonsense character of Hong Kong is captured perfectly in Hong Kong State of Mind, which was written by popular blogger Jason Ng and illustrated by Lee Po Ng. They offer a user’s manual for navigating the paradoxes and contradictions of a city where ‘Mercedes outnumber taxi cabs, partygoers countdown to Christmas every December 24, and larger-than-life billboards of fortune tellers and cram school tutors compete with breath taking skylines.’ Ng’s deadpan style is the perfect introduction to the city, which he satirises for its ridiculous excesses and criticises for its lack of love and affection, but which he nevertheless cherishes as a unique global metropolis.
Gweilo, which translates as ‘white devil’ in Cantonese, is a racial epithet for Caucasians in Hong Kong, and Martin Booth’s appropriation of it for the title of his memoir reveals the complex cultural dynamics which Booth embodies. Booth’s Gweilo is a poignant exploration of growing up as an expat in a Chinese city ruled by the British, and the sense of cultural confusion which necessarily arises from such a paradoxical position. It records his struggle between the British identity of his forebears, and the Chinese identity which he saw all around him, and which he wholeheartedly embraced. Booth’s endless curiosity and easy companionship allowed him into parts of Hong Kong where Westerners rarely ventured and offered him an insight into the changing nature of Hong Kong’s social and economic makeup.
Considered one of the finest Chinese writers of the 20th century, and lauded for her insightful interrogations of Chinese history and society, Eileen Chang is best remembered for Love in a Fallen City, which brings together some of her best short fiction. Chang was born in Shanghai but studied at the University of Hong Kong and spent much of her life moving between the two Chinese cities and the United States, where she eventually settled. She became a chronicler of the changing status of Chinese patriarchy, as the certainty and traditions of the old order rapidly gave way to the chaos and confusion of the 20th century. Nowhere was this more evident than in Hong Kong, which preceded the rest of China in its precocious modernisation, and acted as a distorted lens for the conflicts and crises of the ‘Mainland’. This is evident in Chang’s Love in a Fallen City, which dissect the effect of Westernisation on the lives and loves of Hong Kong citizens.
Miroslav Sasek was a Czech émigré who made his name as an illustrator of children’s travel books, crafting a series of city guides which came to be loved throughout the world. This is Hong Kong is one of the most lovingly crafted of Sasek’s ‘This is…’ series, with bold colourful depictions of the city in the early 1960s. Sasek captures Hong Kong’s peculiar mixture of old and new, in which sprouting skyscrapers are surrounded by rickshaws and street stalls sell goods from all over the world. Sasek’s images are almost fantastical in their transformation of the thriving city into a children’s adventure park, in which the fiery red of the junks dissect the deep blue of Hong Kong’s famous harbour. The city is almost unrecognisable from the one Sasek visited in its current hyper urban incarnation, which makes this quaint portrayal all the more poignant, as forgotten elements of Hong Kong are brought to life by Sasek’s skilled hand.
James Clavell’s Nobel House is a story of financial intrigue and the greed and corruption which are at the heart of the economic world. It fictionalises the true story of the Jardine Matheson Holdings and its murky political dealings, which brought the world of finance perilously close to the world of professional espionage and political conflict. Clavell depicts Hong Kong as the playground for the rich and powerful, where financial moguls mix with political leaders of all stripes, from Chinese communists to Taiwanese nationalists and American and British spies. The city’s ‘anything goes’ reputation is laid bare as the world of finance, which is so revered in Hong Kong, is revealed to be rotten to the core.
Hong Kong’s last British Governor, Chris Patten, was a controversial figure who was loved and hated in equal measure in the territory, but is mostly still remembered fondly today. Patten introduced widespread institutional reform to the city which was strongly denounced by the Chinese government but which laid the foundations for the freedoms which Hong Kong people cherish, and which sets them apart from the mainlanders. He was mocked by the media for his love of egg tarts and was described as the ‘whore of the East’ by Chinese officials, but Hong Kong people still hold him in affection. East and West is his memoir of the tumultuous last years of the British in Hong Kong, and his love for the territory and its people is profoundly apparent throughout the book. The book also explains his fears and hopes for the territory as it enters a period of economic and political uncertainty, and is an insightful glimpse of the last days of Empire from one of Britain’s last Imperial Governors.
Hong Kong is one of the densest cities in the world and high rises dominate the cityscape throughout the territory. Every element of life is performed above ground, in shopping malls and apartment buildings which soar into the atmosphere, making life on the ground almost an irrelevance. This at least is the conceit of Cities Without Ground: A Hong Kong Guidebook which seeks to map Hong Kong’s pedestrianised walkways which link skyscrapers throughout the city, and allow shoppers, residents and business people to stay in air conditioned comfort far from the streets below. Although the city is not as entirely traversable by these walkways as the book suggests, this is still a fascinating insight into Hong Kong’s increasingly vertical life style, and its ‘fetishisation’ of the skyscraper.