Whether you live in Hong Kong, are planning a visit or just want to imagine you are there, there’s a book below for you. From 1840s Hong Kong in Tai-Pan, to the 1940s-60s Hong Kong of Gweilo, Noble House and The Piano Teacher to modern day Hong Kong in The Expatriates and Misfortune Cookie. For books of essays see Jason Y. Ngs books and for guidebooks with a side of history, culture, society and heritage see Jason Wordie’s books, or better still go on one of his Wordie Walks.
Tai-Pan by James Clavell (book 2 in the Asian Saga)
Set in the turbulent days of the founding of Hong Kong in the 1840s, Tai-Pan is the story of Dirk Struan, the ruler – the Tai-Pan – of the most powerful trading company in the Far East. He is also a pirate, an opium smuggler, and a master manipulator of men. This is the story of his fight to establish himself and his dynasty as the undisputed masters of the Orient.
Noble House by James Clavell (book 4 in the Asian Saga)
The setting is Hong Kong, 1963. The action spans scarcely more than a week, but these are days of high adventure: from kidnapping and murder to financial double-dealing and natural catastrophes–fire, flood, landslide. Yet they are days filled as well with all the mystery and romance of Hong Kong–the heart of Asia–rich in every trade…money, flesh, opium, power.
Gweilo: Memories Of A Hong Kong Childhood by Martin Booth
Martin Booth died in February 2004, shortly after finishing the book that would be his epitaph – this wonderfully remembered, beautifully told memoir of a childhood lived to the full in a far-flung outpost of the British Empire…
An inquisitive seven-year-old, Martin Booth found himself with the whole of Hong Kong at his feet when his father was posted there in the early 1950s. Unrestricted by parental control and blessed with bright blond hair that signified good luck to the Chinese, he had free access to hidden corners of the colony normally closed to a Gweilo, a ‘pale fellow’ like him. Befriending rickshaw coolies and local stallholders, he learnt Cantonese, sampled delicacies such as boiled water beetles and one-hundred-year-old eggs, and participated in colourful festivals. He even entered the forbidden Kowloon Walled City, wandered into the secret lair of the Triads and visited an opium den. Along the way he encountered a colourful array of people, from the plink plonk man with his dancing monkey to Nagasaki Jim, a drunken child molester, and the Queen of Kowloon, the crazed tramp who may have been a member of the Romanov family.
Shadowed by the unhappiness of his warring parents, a broad-minded mother who, like her son, was keen to embrace all things Chinese, and a bigoted father who was enraged by his family’s interest in ‘going native’, Martin Booth’s compelling memoir is a journey into Chinese culture and an extinct colonial way of life that glows with infectious curiosity and humour.
The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee
Exotic Hong Kong takes center stage in this sumptuous novel, set in the 1940s and ’50s. It’s a city teeming with people, sights, sounds, and smells, and it’s home to a group of foreign nationals who enjoy the good life among the local moneyed set, in a tight-knit social enclave distanced from the culture at large. Comfortable, clever, and even a bit dazzling, they revel in their fancy dinners and fun parties. But their sheltered lives take an abrupt turn after the Japanese occupation, and though their reactions are varied — denial, resistance, submission — the toll it takes on all is soon laid bare.
Enter Claire Pendleton from London. Months after her husband is transferred to Hong Kong in 1951, she accepts a position as a piano teacher to the daughter of a wealthy couple, the Chens. Claire begins to see the appeal of the sweltering city and is soon taken in by the Chen’s driver, the curiously underutilized Will Truesdale. A handsome charmer with a mysterious limp, Will appears to be the perfect companion for Claire, who’s often left to her own devices. But a further examination leaves her with more questions than answers.
An intricately woven tale of lives changed by historical events, Lee’s debut brings this hothouse flower of a city alive with passion, and imagines characters both unforgettable and tragic.
The Expatriates by Janice Y K Lee
Mercy, a young Korean American and recent Columbia graduate, is adrift, undone by a terrible incident in her recent past. Hilary, a wealthy housewife, is haunted by her struggle to have a child, something she believes could save her foundering marriage. Meanwhile, Margaret, once a happily married mother of three, questions her maternal identity in the wake of a shattering loss. As each woman struggles with her own demons, their lives collide in ways that have irreversible consequences for them all. Set in modern day Hong Kong.
The Expat Diaries: Misfortune Cookie (Single in the City #2) by Michele Gorman
One of these books is not like the others… As indicated by the pink cover, this is chick-lit, a light holiday read.
Would you move 6,000 miles to be with the love of your life? Hannah did. Unfortunately her plan isn’t going terribly well. What was supposed to be a move to Hong Kong to start a wonderful new life with Sam is turning into a move to Hong Kong to spend occasional weekends with Sam, when he can get away from an unanticipated work assignment on the opposite side of the South China Sea. Still, she’s optimistic, if woefully unprepared for the intricacies of Hong Kong. Stumbling through the alien city, which she loves, she starts to build a life for herself. Things definitely look up when she finds a great boss to work for, and her best friend Stacy moves to the city too. But alarm bells ring as Sam seems to be getting a bit too cozy with his boss. And when things start going wrong at work, Hannah can’t help but wonder if she’s made the biggest mistake of her life.
HONG KONG State of Mind: 37 Views of a City That Doesn’t Blink by Jason Y. Ng
Hong Kong is a mixed bag of a city. It is where Mercedes outnumber taxi cabs, party-goers count down to Christmas every December 24, and larger-than-life billboards of fortune tellers and cram school tutors compete with breathtaking skylines.
HONG KONG State of Mind is a collection of essays by a popular blogger who zeroes in on the city’s idiosyncrasies with deadpan precision. At once an outsider looking in and an insider looking out, Jason Y. Ng has created something for everyone: a travel journal for the passing visitor, a user’s manual for the wide-eyed expat, and an open diary for the native Hong Konger looking for moments of reflection.
Together with No City For Slow Men (2013) and Umbrellas in Bloom (2016), HONG KONG State of Mind forms Ng’s “Hong Kong Trilogy” that traces the city’s sociopolitical developments since its return to Chinese rule.
No City for Slow Men: Hong Kong’s quirks and quandaries laid bare by Jason Y. Ng
Author and popular blogger Jason Y. Ng has a knack for making the familiar both fascinating and achingly funny. Three years after his bestselling début HONG KONG State of Mind, the razor-sharp observer returns with a sequel that is bigger and every bit as poignant.
No City for Slow Men is a collection of 36 essays that examine some of the pressing social, cultural and existential issues facing Hong Kong. It takes us on a tour de force from the gravity-defying property market to the plunging depths of old age poverty, from the storied streets of Sheung Wan to the beckoning island of Cheung Chau, from the culture-shocked Western expat to the misunderstood Mainland Chinese and the disenfranchised foreign domestic worker. The result is a treatise on Hong Kong life that is thought-provoking, touching and immensely entertaining.
Together with HONG KONG State of Mind (2010) and Umbrellas in Bloom (2016), (2010), No City For Slow Men forms Ng’s “Hong Kong Trilogy” that traces the city’s sociopolitical developments since its return to Chinese rule.
Umbrellas in Bloom: Hong Kong’s Occupy Movement Uncovered by Jason Y. Ng
I haven’t yet read this book, but enjoyed Jason’s previous two and friends have recommended it. It should be very interesting.
The Umbrella Movement put Hong Kong on the world map and elevated this docile, money-minded Asian island to a model for pro-democracy campaigns across the globe. Umbrellas in Bloom is the first book available in English to chronicle this history-making event, written by a bestselling author and columnist based on his firsthand experience at the main protest sites.
Jason Y. Ng takes a no-holds-barred, fly-on-the-wall approach to covering politics. His latest offering steps through the 79-day struggle, from the firing of the first shot of tear gas by riot police to the evacuation of the last protester from the downtown encampments. It is all you need to know about the occupy movement: who took part in it, why it happened, how it transpired, and what it did and did not achieve.
Together with HONG KONG State of Mind (2010) and No City for Slow Men (2013), Umbrellas in Bloom forms Ng’s “Hong Kong Trilogy” that traces the city’s sociopolitical developments since its return to Chinese rule.
Streets: Exploring Hong Kong Island by Jason Wordie
The reader is taken on fifty tours through the urban and historic places of Hong Kong Island ranging from Central through Wanchai, to Shau Kei Wan then to Shek O, along the sotuh coast from Stanley to Aberdeen, completing a citcuit of the Island through Pok Fu Lam, Kennedy Twon to Sheung Wan.
Each place is introduced with a essay that describes the area and the way it has changed, then the reader is taken on a walk around the area’s streets with the important, interesting, curious and historically illuminating sites described and illustrated.
This is a book to read for the pleasure that the author’s insights give to the lover of Hong Kong, and to use as a guide book when following the suggested routes. The many photographs help make this not just a guide book, but a book to revisit many times as a handsome contemporary record of this ever-changing city.
Streets: Exploring Kowloon by Jason Wordie
This is a guidebook with a difference: it aims to illustrate aspects of Hong Kong’s history, culture, society and heritage in ways not covered in standard works, and to guide the reader to areas where few visitors go. With maps and travel information, it takes the reader on walks along specific streets pointing out historically and culturaly important sites, but also the curious and the intriguing. The book starts with a district familiar to all visitors – Tsim Sha Tsui – but then moves into the hinterland of Kowloon, taking the reader and walker far beyond the well-known streets of tourist-oriented shops and hotels.
Like its companion, Streets: Exploring Hong Kong Island, Streets: Exploring Kowloon guides the reader with maps and travel information to take walks, each along a specific street pointing out historically and culturally important sites, but also the curious and the intriguing. While accessible to readers new to Hong Kong and offering to them a very different side of the place to the shopping-focused tourist traps or the glass and steel glitz of Central, it also offer much that is new and unknown to frequent visitors and to residents.
If you’d prefer the guide to the guidebook, take one of Jason Wordie’s walks. I’ve enjoyed his lectures on legs of Central, Happy Valley Cemeteries and Kowloon Walled City and will be back for more once weather permits.
Watch this space for more books set in Hong Kong when I get a Hong Kong minute to read them!