Feel like you’ve been on every hiking trail, visited every forgotten island and uncovered every hidden nook of Mong Kok? Now explore Hong Kong’s rich history and colourful characters through these 10 books that everyone should read about Hong Kong, set in Hong Kong.
Learn more about the Fragrant Harbour’s history and culture through different voices and stories, both real and imagined, by reading our literary picks, which include a wide range from classics to contemporary graphic novels.
1. “Gweilo: Memories of A Hong Kong Childhood” by Martin Booth (2004)
Published posthumously in 2004, Booth’s memoir recounts growing up in 1950s Hong Kong. Torn between a mother who embraces all things Chinese and a father who is appalled by his family “going native”, the young Booth explores the British colony alone, befriending rickshaw coolies, picking up Cantonese from stallholders and even wandering into the forbidden Kowloon Walled City.
Best quote: “The sun was low and hidden behind a summit surmounted by a copse of radio aerials: the riot of neon in the streets to the east and on Kowloon-side started to come alive in readiness for the approaching twilight. The last rays of sun tinged the top of the Nine Dragons. In fifteen minutes, it was night, the lights of the colony shimmering in the heat.”
Where to buy: on Amazon or wander the streets of Yau Ma Tei like the young protagonist, until you come across Kubrick (Shop H2, Prosperous Garden, 3 Public Square St., Yau Ma Tei – Google Maps), a quirky bookstore/cafe with a cult following.
2. “The World of Suzie Wong” by Richard Mason (1960)
Before there was Pretty Woman, there was Suzie Wong. This love story between a British artist and a Chinese prostitute is set in the notorious Nam Kok Hotel, based on the real-life Luk Kwok Hotel in Wan Chai. Essentially Hong Kong’s version of “Moulin Rouge!”, this book was later turned into a film, a ballet and was even the subject of a reggae song…
Best quote: “‘But everyone makes up stories for themselves, Suzie,’ I said. ‘We’re all pretending to ourselves all the time about something or other – only we’re not usually honest enough to admit it like you.’”
3. “Hong Kong: Epilogue to an Empire” by Jan Morris (1997)
Befitting the year of its publication, Morris reflects on Hong Kong as it leaves its British colonial status behind to be reunified with China. Alternating between the city’s history and Morris’ own analysis, the past and the present, this commentary both discusses and celebrates Hong Kong’s chorus of different voices, all while pondering on what the future may hold for the newly-titled SAR.
Best quote: “Humped or supine, silent in the haze, to the south and west the islands seem to lie bewitched along the dim blue coast of China, and to the north a line of mainland hills stands like a rampart – the hills of Kowloon, or Nine Dragons.”
Where to buy: on Amazon or ruminate on Hong Kong’s colonial history with a meander through Central’s statue square, ending at Bookazine in Prince’s Building (Bookazine Shop 309, Prince’s Building, 10 Chater Road, Central – Google Maps).
4. “The Piano Teacher” by Janice Y. K. Lee (2009)
Yet another tug at the heartstrings set in one of Hong Kong’s most turbulent periods in its history, this dual love story flits between the affair of a Eurasian socialite and a British expat as World War II looms, and later between the same man and a naïve newlywed, post-war. They battle between love and survival, and against the horrors of Japanese-occupied Hong Kong, though pangs of regret still linger years later.
Best quote: “And in the end, I think, we’re all just trying to survive, aren’t we?”
Where to buy: on Amazon or make your way down to Stanley to remember the prisoners of war that were kept there during the Second World War. Pay your respects at the war memorial before picking up your copy at the Beachside Bookstore (Shop A1, G/F, 80 Stanley Main Street, Stanley – Google Maps).
5. “A Many-Splendoured Thing” by Han Suyin (1952)
Oh, like you’re not humming the enchanting refrain from “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” by the Four Aces right now? Well before the song that accompanied the film of the same title, came the novel, “A Many-Splendoured Thing”. This pseudo-autobiographical fiction by Han Suyin follows the relationship between a married British foreign correspondent and a Eurasian doctor as they face adversity from Hong Kong society.
Best quote: “Harbour of many ships, haven of people from China, squatter’s colony, fun fair, bazaar and boom town. Hong Kong, where people come and go and know themselves more impermanent than anywhere else on earth. Beautiful island of many worlds in the arms of the sea. Hong Kong. And China just beyond the hills.”
Where to buy: on Amazon or bury your nose in a copy from the comfortingly-named The Book Attic (Cockloft, 2 Elgin St., Central – Google Maps). This secondhand bookstore also offers complimentary Chinese teas and boasts a poetry club.
6. “The Monkey King” by Timothy Mo (1978)
Set in 1950s Hong Kong and Macau, The Monkey King is a graphic novel that follows the misadventures of Wallace Nolasco as he marries into the less-wealthy-than-promised Poon family. With a nod to the “Monkey King” of the Chinese literary classic, “Journey to the West”, expect jokes on colonialism, cultural clashes and family politics in this Hong Kong comedy of manners.
Best quote: “‘This was the Chinese way. It was our custom, it go on thousand and thousand of year. You help your friend, you help your family. What was so bad about that, hah?’”
Where to buy: on Amazon or why not ferry over to Macau to and flick through the pages while nibbling on a Portuguese egg tart? The words “book” and “lose” are homonymous in Chinese, therefore it is not surprising that there are fewer bookstores, especially independent ones, to be found in our neighbouring SAR, but there are still bookish corners to be found such as Livraria Sao Paulo next to Leal Senado Square (Google Maps).
7. “Fragrant Harbour” by John Lanchester (2002)
In 1935, a young Englishman longing for adventure sets sail for Hong Kong. On the long voyage, he meets a beautiful nun who teaches him Cantonese and they start a friendship which will prove to have surprising longevity. Meanwhile, a modern-day journalist arrives for a new life in Hong Kong, though how their lives will cross paths will keep you guessing up until the final section of the story.
Best quote: “At various moments over the next year or so some well-wisher or other would ask whether I had ‘settled in yet’, or how long it had taken me to ‘settle in’. Even by local small-talk standards it was a stupid question. What would it mean, for an expat on the make (any expat) to have ‘settled in’ in Hong Kong? It’s not a ‘settle in’ kind of place. I felt a near-continuous mixture of exhilaration, panic, culture shock, and alienation, mixed in with another, perhaps deeper feeling of being finally at home.”
Where to buy: on Amazon or head on over to Cheung Chau, where much of Fragrant Harbour is set. Not that you’re very likely to find a copy of the novel on the island, or even a book store, but pop into the misleadingly-named stationary store, Cheung Chau Book Shop, to pick up a bookmark and soak up some island life instead.
8. “The Honourable Schoolboy” by John le Carré (1977)
Set in the cold war of the 1970s, this sequel to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the second in the “Karla” fictional trilogy. While George Smiley tries to piece espionage agency Circus back together, Jerry Westerby is their man on the ground in Southeast Asia. Westerby witnesses fighting and Communist victories in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and laments the approaching handover of colonial Hong Kong.
Best quote: “Home’s where you go when you run out of homes.”
9. “White Ghost Girls” by Alice Greenway (2006)
While their war-photographer father is away in Vietnam, two young American sisters explore Hong Kong with their Chinese nanny and distant mother in the humid summer of 1967. At a time when the Cultural Revolution is spilling over from China into Hong Kong, the girls are only just starting to come of age when they witness a tragic event at a village market that will prove to have a huge impact on their previously carefree lives.
Best quote: “Out in the harbour, at the end of summer, fishermen feed the hungry ghosts. They float paper boats shaped like junks and steamships. One is double-prowed like the cross-harbour Star Ferry which plies its way back and forth between Hong Kong and Kowloon, never having to turn around.”
10. “Tai-Pan” by James Clavell (1966)
Set in the early 19th century, Tai-Pan is the story of how Hong Kong was founded as a British colony, as reimagined by Clavell and told through the eyes of fictional Dirk Struan. Ruthless Struan is the Tai-Pan of the title, who has big ambitions to turn Hong Kong into a fortress of British power, and to shape himself into the supreme ruler of the colony.
Best quote: “Empires are built by young men, Culum. They’re lost by old men.”
Where to buy: on Amazon or contemplate what Hong Kong’s skyline looked like before the skyscrapers moved in, and wade through the large collection of tombs at Swindon Books (13-15 Lock Road, Tsim Sha Tsui – Google Maps).
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