by Jonathan Chamberlain with a foreword by Sir David Tang
ASIAN STUDIES / ORAL HISTORY
Blacksmith Books, 348 pages, HK$140 / US$17.95A 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
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
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
With his wife and children living in
An intriguing character is hardly the only thing the book offers. It is full of events and activities that shaped
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
To me, the book effectively puts a personality, a live face, on
During the recent two decades,
Still, despite the cultural permeation, we knew very little about the real