Milestone – age 7

Once your child hits primary school, you stop counting milestones. Yes, the annual birthday, but not much in between. Now it’s more about personality unfolding than firsts.

Then you realise that not only is your boy definitively no longer a baby, tall enough to show serious signs of overtaking you in a couple of years, but that it is now time for him to spend a night away from you on a school camp.

Now, I’m not a fan of this concept. I’m not one of those parents who are hysterical about sleepovers, but I don’t see them as a rite of passage that needs to be done with aged five. It’s possible that I stayed away from my parents quite young – I definitely had nights, even a week, at my cousin’s house and vice versa, but I’m not sure at what age. Family is different though, you have ages to build comfort with not just the children, but the adults.

These days children talk about sleepovers at friend’s houses aged four or five. I’m like whut. I’m just going to say it – it seems like a Western thing. It actually makes no sense because kids get sleepy super early; it’s not like being teenagers and talking through the night.

Nene actually had his first sleepover last year (or a couple of years ago) at his kindergarten friend’s house. I was skeptical because he is the kind of kid who does not want to sleep alone, and I see no reason to force him. In the end, I sent my helper along, just in case. The other option was going to be basically, a no. I do trust the parent involved though – I knew my son would be safe in her hands, even if I wasn’t sure he would be comfortable around her to tell her if he was really uncomfortable. I frankly don’t think kids need to feel that kind of stranded – unless they are forced to – aged five.

There was a post I read which I cannot now seem to find in which a girl talked about how her mother taught her to have boundaries. She was told that if she was in any situation she was uncomfortable in, she could come to call her and her mother would come to get her, no questions asked. And this is what she did, several times. It allowed her to draw the line at people being mean to her, something that is hard to do at sleepovers where one is essentially trapped in someone’s space. While there is something to be said for resilience, there is also something to be said for young children knowing that they don’t have to face the world alone or stay in situations that are too hard to bear.

It never occurred to me to say “no” to Nene, though I can understand why a parent would. Thirty kids with 3 known adults (the camp would have staff but we were not informed how many) is not a reassuring adult-child ratio to me for an overnight event. It was at the seaside. Basically, if something happened to my kid, I would give the school hell, but it would be my guilt talking. Because this was never a fool-proof situation.

On the couple of days before the camp, I was edgier than usual. It could have been something else – PMS, work – or it could have been me being latently worried. Apart from not being conceptually 100% on board with any overnight camp, there were the masses of things they had to pack.

Not just Nene’s bag but Mimi’s for day camp too. The instructions for each were blurring into each other and I did not want to be the mother that forgot to send her kid sunscreen or god forbid, lunch.

On the morning of the camp, V told me he had only seen me look like this when Nene was a baby and had colic. I pointed out that I wasn’t the only one stressed out. My helper E had the same tense expression and cat-who-just-littered expression. She wasn’t thrilled about this too.

Once again, it was brought home to me who my children are privileged to have two mothers each. Two women who are deeply attuned to their innermost thoughts and feelings, who will do what it takes to ensure their welfare on instinct.

It went as well as it could – they actually eventually fell asleep – so at least I knew he could handle camp. He is also pretty popular which always eases stuff like this. In Mimi’s case, I’m more wary – she has never slept away from home or without an adult, and I don’t foresee any opportunities for her to do so. Moreover, she doesn’t seem to have close friends at school so a whole day-and-a-half of people she doesn’t particularly like is going to be a lot. But fortunately, we have another year to go for that.

Nene came home exhausted but mostly happy. When V asked him whether he wanted to go again next year, he said: “Yeah … but could I not stay the night?




Three books on groups of ‘cool kids’


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Reading Tana French’s The Likeness reminded me of two other books which deal with groups of precocious youngsters – Donna Tart’s The Secret History and Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Let’s talk about The Likeness. The most obvious parallel is Donna Tart’s The Secret History which I really did not think was all that. If the main point of that novel was “the secret”, it was a let down. If the main point was the group, which I suspect it was, then meh. Maybe because I’m always slightly impatient with those “too cool for school” kids.

I think it is the deliberate crafting that goes into their individual and collective existences that puts me off. I tend to admire the illusion of effortlessness and I can respect the Kim Kardashian/Paris Hilton extreme artifice but with these “cool kids”, their stylishness is always showing. It’s like they try as hard as your average Kim Kardasian just in a relentlessly counter-cultural sort of way. The problem is that somewhere along the way, the counter part is lost in the conformity. Do I sound like I have a massive chip on my shoulder about “cool kids”? I’ll own it.

In both novels it’s not exactly clear to me what is so special about the groups involved. Okay in The Secret History, it’s that they are obsessed with Ancient Greece, but I dunno, they seemed to be to so closely role playing that it comes across as more odd than charming. I vaguely remember that they’re supposed to be beautiful, but the only one that sticks in the mind is the female twin, just as in The Likeness Rafe stands out for his looks. And then they’re mainly defined by being “chosen” by this one difficult teacher, which for me is a turn-off. Being a groupie/teacher’s pet does not a cool kid make in my book.

Thankfully, in The Likeness the group is not beholden to any particular teacher. They are wrapped up in each other and the whimsical desire to live some kind of communal life in the house one of them inherited. They are all Lit postgrads – thankfully not Classics majors again – and they seem to reject the trappings of modernity – the internet, texting and the pursuit of money.

The problem though is that although each of them has a different research interest which is spelled out, they don’t seem to talk about it or literature at all. Rather, they all blur into one amorphous lump of people lying around idylically stroking one another’s hair, repairing odd knickknacks that they find in the attic and occasionally painting the walls. Okay.

The Likeness is an improvement over The Secret History, both in terms of the fleshing out the individual,  making them somewhat likeable and also in the actual mystery at the heart of it all. But the novel that I think does ‘cool kids’ the best is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

This classic by Muriel Spark is about a group of chosen one’s by a schoolteacher in Scotland. Each of the girls is special in her own way, even if one of them is special for being mediocre and basically the runt that gets picked on. Miss Brodie stands among them as a towering figure – one that we can admire even as her flaws become increasingly apparent.

Miss Brodie reminded me of our revered English Lit professor in college. She too had an aura about her, was a rebel who flouted authority and who edged us towards rebellion ourselves, whose life was a slap in the face of conventional morality that she saw herself as superior to. She also had her chosen ones – and the casual but cruel way that Miss Brodie goes about her choice reminded me retrospectively about this teacher too. If you were not in her inner circle you always felt slightly like a fish out of water. I wonder if she sneered at us like Miss Brodie did. I hope she was kinder, but Miss Brodie makes me suspicious.

I liked how each of the girls were allowed to grow up and outgrow Miss Brodie even though she remains the most profound influence on their lives. I loved how even as children, some of them defied her and how each of them had a personality, even though the whole thing is narrated through one surprising perspective. These girls too were defined by their choice of Latin in senior school – what is it with these classical languages – but somehow they are more interesting than the “too cool for school” types of The Likeness and The Secret History.

It just struck me – the only “cool kids” I can bear are the ones in Clueless who are such over-the-top parodies they are genuinely funny.

So, were you one of the “cool kids” in school or college? Did you want to be? Did you like The Secret History?



Dr Christine Blasey Ford and #metoo



I did not listen to Dr Christine Blasey Ford testify before a senate judiciary committee about being sexually assaulted by the man set to sit in judgement of and hold the fate of countless women in his hands.

I did not need to. The main parts of Dr Ford’s statement had been public knowledge before she was compelled to out herself and face the judgement of the whole world. I did not need to hear her speak her pain and trauma out loud, I did not need to hear her voice crack or to witness her keeping her composure so that she could be a model witness, the only kind that has any hope of garnering belief if you’re a woman.

I believed Dr Ford from the start. I tend to believe women. What part of her story was unbelievable anyway?

Then two other women stepped forward and it was clear to me that this is going to be another Bill Cosby situation if it was given enough time.

Dr Ford wants an FBI investigation because she knows that only with time and persistent digging will the truth she has lived with so long be confirmed in the eyes of the public. Her opponents want to rush this through – why?

As always we hear cries of due process – but Dr Ford is the one in fact arguing for process. If she had whispered her story softly and let the wheels of bureaucracy turn, she would have been ignored. So she kickstarted due process by going public. Her voice could then not be stifled or ignored even if she herself did not want the limelight. That is the essence of #metoo – not the disavowal of due process but the forcing of it so that “troublesome” women are seen and heard, not smothered. In coming forward, these women – even in our current climate of disclosure – stand to lose a lot. Contrary to popular belief, these women are judged too, to stick their necks out is a risk.

My belief in Dr Ford is not the only reason I walked out when V started listening to her testimony. I was triggered. How many of us, I wonder, have had the privilege of not knowing what it feels like to have the dead weight of a man grinding on top of us while we try to push him off. Maybe we struggled in vain, maybe at some point we switched off, maybe we were confused and didn’t know what to do until it was too late. Maybe we were very young.

The word triggered is associated with the word snowflake. I’m not sure where I stand on trigger warnings. I don’t see how they could be harmful, though I wonder if it’s ever possible to cover the whole range of triggers.

I do find it is a useful description for ow I feel these days when I hear details of sexual harassment in the news. There is a disjuncture between the horror of it and the normalisation of life going on around the television set not to mention the detachment of the talking heads.

It does not help that V watches Fox News because ‘entertainment.” I can get on board with the value of not living in an echo chamber but sometimes the misogyny and racism is too much to hear.

Dr Ford’s trauma is personal.

And what of the accused – the man who quipped, then cried, then professed his love of beer? I can only say that no woman fighting for her career could have gotten away with the way he handled that hearing.

Would he barefaced lie to the public? Yes, he would. He has more to lose than Dr Ford. Lying is his only recourse at this point. And he didn’t even do it very well.

Besides, remember Bill Clinton?

I am convinced Brett Kavanaugh will get the job he wants and that in a few months it will be life as usual. Because isn’t that what normally happens – men getting away with it is so normal that what’s one more?

On Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series


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This post contains spoilers so stop reading if you would like to get to these books at some point. Because of course you should.

If you have read the series, please join the discussion because that is the point of this post.

So far I’ve read In The Woods and The Likeness and I loved them but also I.Have.Thoughts:

1. In the Woods was the better book and is it terrible to say that I liked Cassie better in the context of Rob’s narrative than in the book in which she is the protagonist?

2. I have no problem with the end of In the Woods. Throughout this series (I reckon, because I’m still on book 2), French is playing with the conventions of the detective novel and the idea of fixed, knowable truth.

3. The writing is beautiful especially in In the Woods

4. My problem is with her characters’ motivations. Rob’s volte face with respect to Cassie was especially strange – it just did not ring true. It was such cliched boy behaviour that his past trauma could not explain it unless all boys have similar skeletons in their closet. Frank’s decision to throw Cassie into the mix is not convincing – would a police department go through all this effort for one murder? Cassie’s decision to keep the diary and the developments with N under wraps from Frank also did not make sense.

5. There’s a bit in In the Woods in which Rob says to the reader: “she fooled you too.” Er no, she didn’t. It was obvious there was something off with her from her second airing. The only twist would have been if Cassie or Sam turned out to be the villain.

Similarly in The Likeness, the reader would have guessed pretty quick that the killer was in the house, no matter how much French tried to throw one off course. And the killer(s) did not come as a big surprise, nor how it went down.

So French’s mystery crafting skills are somewhat lacking. It is possible she is purposely doing this because the mystery is not the point, but I dunno. She seems to take a fair bit of trouble to set up and lay out the murder trail.

6. Other character inconsistencies: Cassie does not lie, we are told, but then she does. How is being an undercover detective possible without lying?

Also the idea that not one but two women could just slip into a PhD programme at a prestigious uni made me a bit mad. So it’s English Lit, so just anyone can do it? It would have been more convincing if Lexie had stayed home after her stabbing and not gone to tutorials not to mention a meeting with her advisor because you know been there done that. Or maybe the lesson here is that I was putting too much effort in.

7. As for the group of kids in The Likeness, I have so many thoughts that it turned into a mini rant. So that will be a separate post.

8. There’s a classic line at the end of In the Woods when Rob goes out with Sophie, the forensics head, and she tells him “she was old enough to know the difference between intriguiing and fucked up. ‘You should go for younger women,’ she advised me. ‘They can’t always tell.'” He took this on the nose, which makes me like him, post-coital ghosting notwithstanding (which I put down French’s flawed writing rather than Rob himself.) I want to see more of Rob.

Have you read this series? What did you think?


Medical fails

Things that have been wrong with me in the past months:

  1. Weight gain
  2. Itchiness in weird spots
  3. Weird sunburn thing on my back
  4. Teeth falling apart
  5. Digestive system shot

I decided to fix 3. and 4. since I had been living with them for a while. Bad idea.

After much hoing and humming, I got a tooth extracted. It was fine – well as fine as a tooth that was deeply rooted, although infected, can be – until it was not. Had crazy pain for two days, before I saw the dentist who was like – how are you cleaning it? I was like: erm, maybe you should have given me some instructions on what to do instead of letting me leave with a mouthful of blood? Anyway, he sent me off with a stronger painkiller and instructions to brush (!), then chided me again when I went back to remove the stitches, as if the fact that I have an infected gum is my fault for not dreaming that I should have brushed an open wound.

Consider the irony, I got a tooth extracted because my gum was infected, now I have lost a tooth and my gum is still infected.

Dentist asks me what I want to do with the other tooth. Nothing, I think. I will live with my dodgy tooth and infected gum, thank you.


After generally living with on and off diarrhoea for oh five (10?) years, I decided I should get my bowels checked out. Scheduled a colonoscopy, then regretted it when I saw the prep involved laxatives and near-starvation.

I fail to understand why a person who has regular diarrhoea needs a laxative. To add to it, I got my period during that time so I was cramping and running to the loo anyway. But no, instructions must be followed.

The instructions were only carbs and protein for two days, which I could do, and avoided spicy food for good measure, and then laxative at night. I had severe runs the next night, so the nurse caved and asked me to skip the laxative one night.

Then one day of only liquid diet – with 3 to 4 pieces of white bread allowed if starving. When I told my mum this is, she said: “what nonsense, how can you only eat white bread with nothing.”

Turns out you can.

See, I have never fasted. My family’s version of fasting is eating vegetarian food on Friday’s in Lent, and skipping tea and dessert on Good Friday.

But it turns out, it is entirely possible to spend 24 hours on water, soup and three pieces of toast. Maybe having the runs helps.

Honestly, I was astonished. A colleague had planned to do a 48-hour fast subsisting on only  lemon water and had said that hunger comes in waves and it’s a mental thing that can be ignored. I scoffed. Honestly, if I don’t eat regularly, I get gas and acidity – not to mention a very bad mood.

But it turns out, it is actually possible to go a day without proper food and even be productive. I had arranged to work from home in case I fainted, but it turns out I finished work in short order – maybe because my lunch break consisted of downing a bowl of soup while trying to switch on the Apple TV and then giving up.

Then, I spent four hours that night pissing through my ass, had my last sip of water at 4.55 am and then didn’t drink another sip till a good 11 am. Which is again astounding. I am constantly sipping water, so not being allowed to drink water from 5 am onwards worried be. I’m now convinced I drink too much water in addition to eating too much food.

Anyway, it turns out my large intestine is fine. So back to square one.

Then again, I did lose 3 kg over the 3 days. Which is a pretty good result I think.

I am now trying to eat only soup noodles for lunch – luckily living in Hong Kong means bland food is never lacking – and skipping the tea-time snack (gasp!). It’s been two days, and the bland food is getting old.

While it lasts, I’ve dug out the shirts that were a little too snug in my cupboard.

My plan was to clinch the deal with exercise, but unfortunately, I’m too hungry to run.

Sense and Sensibility, and Serena Williams


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So, okay, another book post.

But! I am remedying my paucity of Austen reading, having just confessed to it.

There has been reams written on Jane Austen’s work so far be it for me to even attempt to say anything new or worthwhile. However:

1. Having read Pride and Prejudice first (one of my all-time favourite novels ever), I blasphemously began to think that the two novels were too similar. Two women of modest means fall in love, are thwarted (the lovers absent themselves), a rival woman presents herself, one man proves to be a rake, over-talkative maternal figure, snooty elderly aristocrat etc.

But then I realised – the difference is the perspective. Sense and Sensibility is written from viewpoint of the sensible and good sister, Pride and Prejudice from that of the feisty one.

Of course, Elizabeth is a far cry from Marianne in intensity, but maybe that’s why she’s Austen’s perfect heroine – all that strong feeling but tempered by good manners and judgement.

2. An aside: Why does Jane Austen always write in pointless extra sisters? In Pride and Prejudice, Kitty, and here, even more so, Margaret. Oh Austen experts, do explain.

3. Marianne typifies the excess of emotions that came to be known as the romantic sensibility. Elinor represents the demands for people to hem their feelings in, in the wider social interest.

The introduction to the Penguin edition of the novel I read cited Foucault who talked about how there was explosion of diagnoses of mental illness in the 19th C. Women were, of course, prone to hysteria.

Marianne expresses this hysteria in her scream at the heart of the novel when she receives Willoughby’s letter. While Austen seems to circumscribe her heroines in the need for good manners (and thus curtailing their emotions), she gives Marianne this space to grieve … and scream.

3. Now Serena. A big, black woman playing a white man’s sport, who has been slighted since she and her sister made their presence felt on court. A black woman whose rage will always be unruly.

Serena is our Marianne. She refuses to play by the rules and be either nice or dainty. Serena broke the rules of the game – the game of polite society in which women must contain their emotions, must express them rationally. How many of us have been told by men: “don’t yell.”

Serena touches this nerve of the Marianne in us. She is the big woman told to make herself smaller. She is the black woman whose rage threatens the social order because it is twice alien – black and female.

Like Austen did, we know the rules of propriety. And yet, can we help sympathising with the woman who broke them?

I read a Russian novel and I liked it


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But first, some clarifications

  1. The novel was Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  2. If you’re wondering whether this has become a books blog, not intentionally. But since the PhD, I have been reading like a fiend. The stuff I post here is a drop in the ocean of my entire reading existence. I’ve been reading tonnes of fiction but also some theoretical stuff.
  3. Life has been going fairly smoothly since I started the new job and though I have rants connected to it, nothing I would want to post online. I’m also fairly busy, so when I think of random things, I don’t always have the time to pound out a post, alas, and then I lose the momentum for it.
  4. The fact that I have a Master’s in English Literature and never read any of the great Russian novels has been a niggling botheration over the years. On the one hand, as I age, I have come to believe that life is too short to waste reading stuff you’re not into given as that there are so many great books that one could alternatively read and enjoy (I have the same approach to dessert – no point eating, say, jelly if you don’t like wobbly stuff because it’s not like those calories are nutrition and they’re basically going to sit on your hips forever). On the other hand, I felt I should at least try to read a great Russian novel, or rather, try again – because my one attempt at The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky gave me a headache but that was while I had malaria so the jury is out on what the cause of the headache is.
  5. Gratuitous confession – I have only read Pride and Prejudice of all Jane Austen’s novels. I keep feeling I should read at least one more so that I can justify claiming to be an Austen fan, but I’ve never managed to get through any of the others. What say you – can I be a card-carrying member of the Austen club having read only one novel?

Speaking of Austen (and I have no idea why I seem to be writing in point form, possibly in an attempt to pre-empt my propensity to go off on tangents, which is clearly happening anyway):

  1. My first impression of Anna Karenina was that it was Austenian. An aristocratic family, three sisters, courtship. Why on earth was I so scared of this novel?
  2. Crazy Rich Asians came up and colleague commented derisively about it (having never read it) and then I said it’s Austenian, and he said, “You like Austen?” and proceeded to tell me some disparaging thing Mark Twain had said about Austen. I mean, this is the year two thousand and eighteen of our lord jesus jones and we still have to defend Austen to condescending men, do we?
  3. Of course, noone would dare criticise Tolstoy, although Anna Karenina proceeds very similarly. The difference is, however, the breadth. It proceeds past courtship and scandal to early married life, pregnancy and death so that it could never be excused of providing a fairytale ending without tearing the veil of what comes after.
  4. Of course, I liked the courtship and marriage parts best. Tolstoy has an – dare I say it (and I mean it as the ultimate compliment) – feminine way of observing social relations and getting into people’s heads. Like how women are totally into weddings, while the men are basically indifferent, except the bridegroom who is both clueless and totally moved. Having read the wedding scene in the novel on the back of Crazy Rich Asians (lookit here, I brought Crazy Rich Asians together with not only Austen but also Tolstoy!), I’ve decided that as jaded as I am about marriage, I am just going to be one of those people that smiles like a fool (and sometimes even tears up) at weddings. I guess weddings are like births, they’re like hope in a pretty pink/white wrapping paper. You know it’s going to be a nightmare after, but they can’t help but provoke euphoria.
  5. Also, I like that Tolstoy takes love seriously. None of this pomo irony about romance. No siree, Levin will be all gloomy and fed up with life, the universe, and everything, then he sees Kitty and it’s like, heh, everyone is wonderful. Isn’t that basically love? (at its best, anyway).
  6. Levin’s take on intellectuals also hit quite close to home – something along the lines of people going on and on about the rights of this and that but usually living in comfortable homes for whom the poor/marginalised etc are an academic problem. Well intentioned, but somehow disconnected. My time in academia showed me that a lot of people I thought were deeply involved in some cause – making me feel somehow lacking by not being activisty enough – actually were dabbling and moved on from that cause once their academic interest shifting. This is not everyone, and academics deserve credit for thinking through and being socially engaged, just that sometimes all the outrage and earnestness seems to … performative. And also tiring.
  7. That said, Tolstoy hammered this home a bit too much, what with the long description of the bewildering voting process, discussions on farming, meaning of life whatevs. I suppose we are supposed to marvel at the depth of Levin/Tolsoy’s mind, but I just wished they would move on to the relationships.
  8. While Levin is apparently a stand-in for Tolstoy, he offers a refreshingly female-sympathetic perspective. For example, when Levin judges Dolly on her parenting, Tolstoy writes that Dolly had thought through all the things Levin did and arrived at this as the best way to parent her child (and I feel like this passage would be apt on our local mom’s Facebook page). Or when Levin thinks Kitty is just “doing nothing”, Tolstoy writes that Kitty knows what is coming in her role as wife and would like to just enjoy this early free period a bit. There is also an amazing description of birth (from Levin’s and thus a male perspective, but one that honours the experience, even as it honestly conveys both the father’s awe and his detachment from the wriggly red baby)
  9. Have you noticed that I mentioned Anna Karenina, the woman who the book is named after, very little. This is because I didn’t love her, even found her annoying at the end, though apparently Tolstoy deliberately left Anna as an enigma and the annoyance that one feels with her is exactly what one drives her to desperate measures. The way the novel ties the beginning and the end through a dream is just one of those flourishes that puts Tolstoy there among the greats.
  10. To my utter astonishment, as I began reading the novel, I had the feeling that it would be up there on my favourites list. When I finished it, I would say that half of it is one of my favourite novels. I feel it went on a tad too long, but there is something to be admired in its scope.

    Now I’m all, I need to read more Russians. What next – Gogol? Pushkin?





Very boring things (in Hong Kong)


1. People dissing mainland Chinese people for everything wrong with the city. This is a longstanding Hongkonger “quirk” if you may, but a recent egregious example is this New York Times piece which highlights mainlanders as the cause of rising international school prices. Please.

2. People dissing Crazy Rich Asians without having seen the movie, leave alone having read the book. Boring.

3. People criticising everything the Hong Kong government does as a kind of knee jerk reaction. Au contraire, my dears, while the government has its flaws, the city is only slipping from its alleged pinnacle. Of course, complaining is Hong Kong’s favourite mode, one I’m not immune to, but when you’re a journalist at least don’t just reflexively rebel no?

End of rant. What’s been annoying you these days?

Hong Kong reading list


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So from my reading binge on books on China, I segued into reading books about Hong Kong.

I started with James Clavell’s Asian saga, specifically the Hong Kong books Tai Pan and Noble House.

Tai Pan is set at the dawn of Hong Kong and the island’s transformation from barren rock to thriving port in the aftermath of the Opium War. It follows the fortunes of Dirk Struan, loosely based on the opium trader William Jardine.

Struan is presented as a rakish, devil-may-care person with nerves of steel, who is both ruthless and who has luck on his side. The novel opens with the proclamation of Hong Kong as a colony of Great Britain, and the entire plan is dreamed up as Struan’s project.

Early on, I had some impatience with reading a narrative entirely from a white man’s perspective. It struck me that I should be reading Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy instead, the first book of which I had read years earlier. Like Ghosh’s book, a large part of Tai Pan is written in pigdin of the time and I found that somewhat hard going too, authenticity or not.

I persevered with Tai Pan and managed to get into it, and Struan did grow on me. The book literally charts how Hong Kong came to be and it not but hold fascination from me – from the earliest warehouses on the coast to the Happy Valley racecourse to the influx of Chinese and the settlements in Tai Ping Shan.

What was most fascinating to me was the parallel society of the Chinese, with its own power structures. While Hong Kong today presents itself as an east-meets-west entrepot, anyone who has been here for a while will soon notice (or maybe not, some expats are truly oblivious) that it is less melting pot and more two societies carrying on in parallel with the majority tolerating the presence of the outsiders, who were once the founts of power. Reading this book made me realise that this separation goes back to the very origins of Hong Kong itself.

On the one hand, it is the whites who (apparently) determine the destiny of and control Hong Kong. But the white man’s perspective is complicated by the fact that in some ways they are being influenced, if not manipulated, by Chinese society.

This is apparent in Dirk Struan’s relationship with May-May, his Chinese mistress who he dotes on and who he is unaware is the granddaughter of Jinqua, the powerful Chinese co-hung merchant. There is an extremely problematic scene at the beginning of the novel in which Struan spanks May-May, she fights him but then succumbs and admits that she deserved it (yech!). Yet, Struan basically loves her – when she is sick, he moves heaven and earth to save her, something he didn’t do for his own brother.

I found May-May. the workings of Chinese society and especially Gordan Chen, Struan’s son from his first mistress who goes on to found the House of Chen, more intriguing than the British society.

While Struan wanted to continue trading opium and was firm about defending their right to do so, his justification for the foundation of Hong Kong was construed as more noble – a long-term plan to open up China to the world. The idea was that he loved China and wanted to do what was best for it, even if China didn’t know or realise this – the good old white saviour complex.

I should mention that apart from the interaction between the British merchants and the Chinese, the plot basically turns around the rivalry between Struan and Tyler Brock. While one can’t help getting caught up in who will prevail in this contest – or rather how Struan will prevail – I did not actually care too much about Brock.

The end of the novel, when it came, was, however, a shocker.


Having got through but not entirely enjoyed Tai Pan, I felt obliged to read Noble House. And within a few pages, I realised I was going to love it. And reading Tai Pan became worth it because it provided the backstory for the events in Noble House. It is entirely possible to read Noble House without reading Tai Pan, but there is an extra frisson of delight knowing the backstory and seeing how it played forward. Given how much I loved Noble House, I’m pretty sure I would have read Tai Pan afterwards, so I’m glad I read it in the correct order.

Noble House is set in Hong Kong of the 60s, when the colony was well established and opium a thing of the past. Like Tai Pan, at the centre of Noble House is the rivalry between Dirk Struan’s descendant Ian Dunross and Tyler Brock’s descendant Quillan Gornt (I have no idea why Gornt had to have such a weird name). Both are tai pan of their respective business empires, but like Struan, Ian is the tai pan of Hong Kong, the alpha males of alpha males.

Into this hothouse of testosterone (of the stiff upper lipped British variety) lands the very American Casey Tcholok, vice president of Par Con, an American firm that is interested in investing in Struans, and her boss Lincoln Bartlett. The novel is a page-turner from the get go, when guns are discovered on Bartlett’s plane. From then we traverse through not only M&A, takeovers, a run on a bank which threatens the entire financial future of Hong Kong, the drug trade and triads,  international spy rings and the cold war and the looming presence of China and the handover.

Some have commented that this makes Noble House three or four books rather than one, but I loved it. As long as you don’t expect a quick finish and set out for the long ride, you’re good to go.

Like Tai Pan, this book shows the parallel British and Chinese societies, but they are much more integrated now. There are Chinese businessmen and Chinese banks and the two communities mingle socially, but the British hold onto control. Like Tai Pan, though, there is a whole teeming Chinese society underneath that sees and knows all.

Ian Dunross faces everything that fate throws his way with nerves of steel and unflappable class, making him heart-throb extraordinaire. The only off note is his sexism, which is presented as a British thing. Clavell lays bare the chauvinism of British society, through Casey, who is Bartlett’s trusted lieutenant but who struggles with the reactions of the male-dominated world of power in Hong Kong and the strictly separated social spheres in which women are dismissed to powder their noses at dinner parties while the boys discuss business. Ian accepts Casey with more grace than some of his peers, but he also insists of these protocols.

There is a seething chemistry between Ian and Casey that never gets consumated. In fact, Casey feels attraction of several of the powerful men in the novel – Ian, Quillan, Lando Mata (the Macau tycoon) but in the end, her heart is with Bartlett. For his part, while around him mistresses and liaisons with prostitutes abound, Ian remains faithful to his wife Penelope.

Apart from the business shenanigans, the spy sub-plot in the novel and Hong Kong’s place as the centre of cold war politics is fascinating. When whistle-blower Edward Snowden decided to seek harbour in Hong Kong, he was harking back to this history.

Of course, after finishing the novel, I had to hunt down the miniseries, which features Pierce Brosnan as Dunross. The series was shot in the 80s, and it surprised me how many landmarks are still recognisable today. The casting was pretty perfect, but I have to say that Brosnan was a tad hammy in his delivery of Dunross, even if I cannot picture him or anyone else any other way now. The miniseries does a pretty good job of representing many of the novel’s major plot points, though it could not possibly encompass all its fabulous complexity.  [spoiler alert] The one major change is that it consummates the underlying Ian-Casey complexity, which is kind of like seeing Darcy and Elizabeth get it off, and yet, I can’t say I was displeased to see it.


Finally, I went back to Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy.

I had read Sea of Poppies some years ago, and like Tai Pan, I struggled through it. I could admire the massive undertaking that it was and appreciate the authenticity of the language but I struggled with it. I found the Deeti plot a bit trying and quite simplistically written in terms of abused wife/Dalit romance. The best part was Paulette and all the botany stuff.

It was an eye-opener to me in the fact that the British empire was basically built on opium trading and how that trade linked China and India. It brought home to me once again the poverty of our history textbooks which basically glossed over this. I was also surprised to learn that this was the original ‘free trade’ doctrine, used to justify basically forcing drugs on another country.

These themes are developed in River of Smoke which centres on the period of turbulence in Canton before the Chinese emperor came down on the opium trade. This book opens with Deeti in Mauritius in again some mysticism in a temple – but I actually liked this part and wanted more of it, but this was not to be.

Instead, the novel takes us through Neel to Canton and focuses on a Parsi trader Bahram Modi, which again was a fascinating perspective of Indian traders’ role in the opium trade and their complicity with the British.

The breathtaking hypocrisy of the opium trade is reiterated through the speeches of British the traders, who insist that free trade is the will of god (even though the sale of opium is forbidden in Britain). Modi, for his part, is much more circumspect about this – his fortunes are built on the trade and yet he is more receptive to the argument that it is evil.

Through River of Smoke and the final novel in the trilogy, Flood of Fire, the interaction between Indians and Chinese becomes more prominent. This strain is present throughout the novel – starting with Ah Fat, the Indo-Chinese character, the Chinese boatman who speaks Bengali, Neel’s closeness to Compton the printer, and most prominently Bahram’s relationship with Chi-mei, the washerwoman, which becomes a symbol of his torn loyalties to China and India. The novel culminates in the battles between the Chinese and the British, in which Indians are ranged on both sides.

This novel parallel’s Tai Pan in being set during the founding of Hong Kong, but the same characters that we accept as the heroic protagonists of Tai Pan are the villains of this piece. There are plenty of interesting heroic details – from the obsession with masturbation as a sin, the sexually repressed English mehmsahib, and the army, the part I liked least even as I admit the importance of the realistic depiction of this battles.

In each novel, I liked the unconventional women the most – Paulette in the first and second novels and Shireen, Bahram’s wife, in the last novel. Ghosh redeems all his female characters, a refreshing change from the woman as vamp novels.


Having read all this, I found myself editing a column in which the author tries to argue that Hong Kong was not really colonised. I am noticing a trend of revisionism with relation to colonialism, this idea that it possibly wasn’t so bad, that there were benefits, a notion that Hong Kong, which arguably was built “out of nothing” by the British, is used to buttress and which deep down many English people I have met seem to harbor.

It is however not an academically tenable position, and frankly akin to Kanye saying slaves benefited from slavery. There is enough research on how colonialism did not benefit the colonised territories from economic, psychological and social perspectives.

Clavell’s and Ghosh’s series take somewhat different positions on this question.