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.