Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Lowly, Majestic, King Hui and the Real Hong Kong

King Hui: The Man Who Owned All the Opium in Hong Kong
Jonathan Chamberlain with a foreword by Sir David Tang
Blacksmith Books, 348 pages, HK$140 / US$17.95

A Review by Xujun Eberlein

It is said that oral history did not become an academic discipline until 1948, when Alan Nevins established the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University. Yet for thousands of years it has been the standard venue for common Chinese people to learn about the past, especially in the olden days when literacy was an unattainable luxury for most, or in the abnormal modern times when books were burned and libraries sealed.

When oral history is recorded in books, it is considered part of the nonfiction genre of literature, yet it is almost as all-encompassing as fiction in presentation and effects. In recent years, we have heard several big quarrels over the truthfulness of memoirs, but books of oral history are seldom the center of such disputes, even though they cover similar ground. One reason for this, I guess, is that the readers realize and embrace both the indispensable benefits and certain unreliability inherent in word of mouth. It probably doesn't hurt that the author of the book is usually not the oral storyteller, which serves as a natural reality check.

From time to time, I have the pleasure of meeting a person who can recount an episode of his or her life that is so captivating, I cease to care whether or not I believe the storyteller. I even know a few people who are full of such stories. I have never, however, had the delight of meeting someone with the breadth of stories told in King Hui: The Man who Owned all the Opium in Hong Kong by Jonathan Chamberlain.

These are the stories, presented as a first person narrative, of Peter (Shen-Kei) Hui, an uncommon, though largely unknown, man with an astounding range of experience. Told shortly before his death at the age 79 in 1993, the stories reflect not only the man, but also the times he lived through. The earliest are from his childhood during the First World War, the latest from the years leading up to Hong Kong’s handover to China. For all his breadth of experience, Peter Hui traveled little and his stories are concentrated in Hong Kong, Macau and Canton (Guangdong). They show the evolution of Hong Kong and the impact of China, Britian and WW II Japan on the city.

The stories told are full of colorful details that, for a historian or anthropologist, they provide a wealth of hooks for cross-referencing against other materials. For the less academically oriented reader, those of us reading for pleasure, these details serve to bring history to life.

As I read how a downing man always gets three chances, a dead grandmother's month closes only after a silver coin is dropped in, a legendary herbalist uses bamboo saps to cure a stroke patient, and how, during the Sino-Japanese war, the children trained by the Chinese army go into Japanese camps in the middle of the night and, by touch, kill anyone with pants on, for the children themselves are not wearing them, I can't help but be fascinated.

In fact, fascination is a good word to describe the book's narrative. The details become more intriguing as they portray a complex personality. The first-person narrator, Peter Hui, presents a conflict between his honest, moral uprightness and his willingness to do many things that suggest otherwise. Well educated, he appears to have strong, if confused, feelings of obligation and responsibility. Though trained when young and possessing outstanding kung fu skills, he doesn't fight often. But every time he fights, he is taking up the cudgels for a just cause. Yet this is the man who decides to work for the Japanese during the war, heads a gang of robbers in peace time, and works for money as a CIA spy during China's Cultural Revolution.

With his wife and children living in Canton and himself in Hong Kong, his change from a Mao lover to Mao heater is especially curious. Reading this part brought me back to the familiar craziness of the time in the mainland, and I'm just glad that Hong Kong was fortunate to be spared from being ruined from the monopoly on ideology.

An intriguing character is hardly the only thing the book offers. It is full of events and activities that shaped Hong Kong and would make a wonderful companion to a more standard history. For readers who are interested in China and its relationship with the outside world during and after the World War II, many of the stories touch this, though from the local perspective of southern Guangdong. If you are an anthropologist, or simply a student of human nature, this book provides insights into the working of the Asian mind.

One also gets a good glimpse of the triads. Before reading the book I wasn't aware that those crime organizations had migrated from the mainland before the Communist victory, less still how they had evolved and how British policing might have influenced it. Another thing the book made me recognize was the intricacies of British rules in a Chinese population. I had heard about corruption and moral lapses of course, but was still charmed by the dispassionate description Peter Hui provided of working with the Hong Kong police.

To me, the book effectively puts a personality, a live face, on Hong Kong. Admittedly, growing up in mainland China at a most isolated time, I knew little about Hong Kong's cultural history. The first time I set foot there was in summer of 1988, on the way out as I was immigrating to the US. I stayed for a few days, and visited tourist attractions in the company of a college classmate who had moved to Hong Kong earlier. My impression of Hong Kong then was nothing beyond a commercial world of red lanterns and green wine. Years later, after my graduation from MIT, I had exchanges with academics in the area and was very impressed by the depth of their professional achievement, so much so I even tried to apply for an academic job in the newly established HK University of Science and Technology.

During the recent two decades, Hong Kong's movies, music and literature have gained a huge fan population in the mainland. My younger sister, who lives in Haikou, once asked me to help her collect a complete set of books by female writer Yi Shu. That turned out to be not quite a trivial task as Yi Shu was very prolific. It took my college classmate several full days running around between many local bookstores in Hong Kong to collect the 30-odd books. When the news of singer Zhang Guorong's suicide broke, fans in the mainland (including my sister) cried uncontrollably. The Phoenix TV, though regarded as a leftist channel in Hong Kong, became very popular in the mainland, because its news reporting and commentary style were much freer than the mainland choices. Once, in the late 1990s, when I was visiting my alma mater in Chongqing, my old high school teacher complained about the government's temporary blockage of Phoenix TV, saying being unable to watch it was a big inconvenience in his family's routine.

Still, despite the cultural permeation, we knew very little about the real Hong Kong. My generation of Chinese were never taught much about the famed "fragrant harbor," especially its 155 years of history between 1842 and 1997 as a British territory. When Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, there was a big celebration in Beijing and people gathered in Tiananmen Square as if for a happy holiday. That enthusiasm, I suspect, was more due to the Chinese nationalism than their intimate feelings for the island. For all the years before that, Hong Kong was like a veiled beauty standing in the distance, we could only glance at her lithe profile but were unable to look into her eyes or feel her pulse. This book serves to shorten the distance and unveil her true face, to let me see that she is neither Chinese nor foreign yet both, possessing not only beauty but also scars, experiences, and depth. It makes me more appreciative of Hong Kong's unique characteristics, and I hope the uniqueness will be preserved rather than assimilated by any mainstream culture. Such an effect is no small achievement for a book of oral history.


nobooksnolife said...

This is not only a very cogent and enticing review, but your viewpoint of Hong Kong as you grew up in China adds an extraordinary dimension to your assessment of this new work. I can hardly wait to read this book!
Great review~~many thanks.

Xujun said...

Thank you, NBNL.

Melissa said...

Return to Middle Kingdom, by Yuan-tsung Cheng is as engrossing as any historical novel I’ve ever read, this book is a must for anyone who wants to understand the origin of modern China.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Xunjun, do you remember me, the Chengdu girl who once posted comments before? I was unable to connect to Internet for some time since the scary I've been in Hongkong for 3 months for a training program. I'm so glad to be able to read your blog again. It's good to see the article about Hongkong, because I've been thinking about the culture and history of HK since I arrived here. Because I found it much different from what I've expected before. Some of my views on HK have changed fundamentally. I think it's much less Chinese and more international than what I've seen and imagine according to mainland proprogandas. However, I agree with you. I would like it to remain its uniqueness. Just forget about the politics, won't it be better if there's more diversity? "参差多态乃幸福本源"!

Xujun said...

Hi Huimin! Yes I remember you. Nice to "see" you again! What a coincidence that you are in Hong Kong now. Would you like to write about your experience in Hong Kong for this blog? In any case please email me at (or use the Contact page).