The turmoil in Hong Kong grows messier by the day, as protests escalate and positions harden. No resolution seems to be in sight; indeed, prospects of an outcome in which all sides will be content look increasingly dim. Perhaps in future, the multicultural, polyglot nature of the city will only remain in memories, books and films.
There have been local conflicts in the territory before, both during the British era and after the handover. What’s unusual about the current pro-democracy demonstrations is that the people of Hong Kong seem to be moving away from the reason it was established in the first place: the unfettered pursuit of profit.
It was on January 26, 1841 that a British naval party landed on the north-west shore of the island and raised the Union Jack. After the Treaty of Nanking that ended the First Opium War in 1843, Hong Kong formally became a British possession, and the so-called Chinese “century of humiliation” began.
A centre for merchants
In his Ibis Trilogy, especially Flood of Fire, Amitav Ghosh shows how many Indian merchants also made huge profits from the opium trade, especially Parsis from Bombay who were quick to establish a presence in Canton and Hong Kong. (Another Parsi, Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala, who arrived in Hong Kong as a stowaway on a China-bound vessel, went on to found the iconic cross-harbour Star Ferry.)
The ability to trade unhindered, be it in opium or anything else, made Hong Kong a centre for merchants from all over, including clans from China. As Jan Morris puts it in her 1988 book on the city: “What the West has provided, originally through the medium of the British Empire, later by the agency of international finance, is a city-state in its own image, overlaying that resilient and homely Chinese style with an aesthetic far more aggressive.” This gave the archipelago a distinctive, dynamic character, recognised in the “one country two systems” principle announced by Deng Xiaoping at the time of the handover in 1997.
A lot has been written about Hong Kong’s unique nature over the years, much of it by novelists. Some of the fiction is steeped in nostalgia; others cast an eye on the “exotic” Far East; yet others are enchanted by its meretricious charms.
Many novels feature love in an unfamiliar clime: there’s Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, about adultery and redemption in 1920s Hong Kong; Richard Mason’s The World of Suzy Wong, a histrionic post-World War II romance; Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City, also about love triumphant in wartime Hong Kong; and Han Suyin’s A Many Splendored Thing, a cross-cultural romance set in the Fifties after the establishment of China’s Communist regime.
Then, there’s business and politics, with James Clavell’s dramatic Asian Saga series delving into trading fortunes made and unmade; Timothy Mo’s The Monkey King, dealing with ambition, family ties and commercial deals; and John Le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy, which memorably featured Hong Kong as one of the nodes in the Cold War.
Hong Kong as a central character
More recent than all of these is John Lanchester’s Fragrant Harbour, published in 2002. Lanchester, whose The Wall was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, deals with not just one era or aspect of Hong Kong, but makes it a central character. It is the reason for the book’s existence and the necessary, essential background for his characters.
The novel starts in the 1930s and ends in the early 2000s, encompassing the smugness of colonial life, the brutalities of the Japanese occupation, the post-war boom, and the handover to China. In it, a character notices that the harbour has a distinct, dirty odour. “It’s Hong Kong,” he’s told. “Heung gong. Fragrant harbour…Chinese joke.”
Fragrant Harbour is told in different voices. There’s the ambitious, take-no-prisoners journalist from Britain who joins a Hong Kong newspaper in the early 1990s; a steadfast Englishman who comes to Hong Kong in the 1930s and becomes a prominent hotelier; and an aspiring young entrepreneur tackling a changed business situation following the return of the territory to China. Towards the end, the ties between the three come to light.
For the journalist, who looks out at the scene just before landing at Kai Tak Airport, “it was as if we were flying right down into the city and the pilot was planning to attempt a landing in one of the canyons between the manically crowded buildings.” In a more unhurried age, the hotelier books a passage on the SS Darjeeling, a P&O ship that departs from London’s Tilbury docks for Hong Kong via Marseilles, the Suez Canal and Calcutta, a journey of six weeks.
East and West merge kaleidoscopically
In a telling contrast, the journalist is blunt about her reasons for working in Hong Kong: “Money doesn’t lie. It can’t. People lie about money, but that’s different.” For the hotelier, it’s “the exotic elements” that were a draw. These he experiences from the start: women in sombreros, rickshaw pullers, opium smokers, the vistas of bustling Kowloon from the Peak, the assortments of sampans, junks and other vessels in the harbour, mah-jongg players, and businessmen of mixed nationalities on the streets.
For both, there is “a near-continuous mixture of exhilaration, panic, culture shock, and alienation, mixed in with another, perhaps deeper feeling of being finally at home.” Ultimately, the pursuit of money “was the one thing about which absolutely everybody in the territory was agreed.” It’s this that brought together local and overseas opportunists, Triads and dealmakers from the Chinese mainland. To quote Jan Morris again, “The urge for profit, the taste for good living, the flair for the dazzling, the energy, the mayhem, the gossip -- all were there. East and West merged kaleidoscopically in the city streets.”
At one point in Lanchester’s novel, he gently spoofs the mannerisms of a character named Austen, an English poet visiting Hong Kong. This is based on an actual trip made by WH Auden, along with Christopher Isherwood, in the 1930s. The voluble Austen, finishing a sandwich, pronounces: “Well, we’re due an Asian century. I hope they do better by us than we did by them. And that it doesn’t blow up too badly round here, when it does.” One can only hope.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
Read his columns here.
First Published: IST