One of our bestselling titles from last year — King Hui: The Man Who Owned All The Opium In Hong Kong, by Jonathan Chamberlain — was chosen by Dymocks Booksellers last month as one of their 100 great reads of the decade. Below we print the first few pages of the book.
This is the story of a man’s life. He was not an important man, if importance is measured by social position, but he was a man who was at one time rich and socially well-connected, and he might have continued to be if only he had been just a little bit different – but then this book would not have been written. Instead, like Icarus, he revelled too much in the glorious sensation that all possibilities were open to him. Then, singed, he fell headlong, tumbling down through the layers of Hong Kong society – now and then his descent was interrupted, occasionally he wafted upwards briefly on a favourable thermal – but always, inevitably, the fall continued until he hit rock bottom.
He was a man of certain uncommon gifts whose destiny it was to be drawn irresistibly to folly. His story is the living story of Hong Kong. This book is, therefore, a subjective, intimate history of this curious territory: where Shanghainese money and industry, Cantonese grit and fiery doggedness, and British phlegmatism and sense of order created a place where East and West worked out a way of living together.
Histories of Hong Kong have unanimously ignored the man in the street, concerning themselves instead with the dry bureaucratic colonial facts and particularly with the prisoner-of-war experience. But what of the local experiences of the war, and more importantly perhaps, of daily life during the peaceful years both before and after the war?
There is a smell that distils for me all the essential ingredients of Hong Kong. It is the smell of browned cubes of tofu being heated in a dry wok by a street hawker. Black heat waves vibrate upwards carrying the stench, worse than diesel fumes, of the marinade that this tofu has sat in, seemingly for days on end: vinegar, sesame oil, chilli and shrimp paste. Not for nothing is it called chow tofu, stinky beancurd. This is the authentic smell of Hong Kong. This book is a stinky beancurd history of this city.
The island of Cheung Chau lies about eight kilometres south south-west of Hong Kong’s main harbour, less than an hour by ferry from the centre of the city. It is a small but densely populated island. In the spring of 1976 I came to live on Cheung Chau. I had come for the simple reason that it had everything an island should have. It was a fishing village with a waterfront and a pier where the ferry came, and when you got off the ferry, there you were, right in the middle of the village. There was no ugly hinterland of docks to walk past.
The island was still quiet then. It is amazing to remember a deserted waterfront on a midsummer Sunday. Now, of course, it has been discovered and the ferries are packed with day-trippers. But back then it was different. It was a place discovered only by those in need of cheap rents or a quiet, unruffled life.