Author John Saeki talks us through the process of writing his new novel, The Tiger Hunters of Tai O.

The Tiger Hunters of Tai O came into existence as a direct result of hiking on Lantau island.

Hikes are a great way of putting yourself in touch with places that have resisted change over the decades. You can walk off the main road and immediately find yourself transported to a physical environment that is similar to that in the 1800s, the 1910s or the 1950s. I remember being at Tung Chung Fort and reading up on how the Hong Kong police had used it as a base decades ago and I started wondering what life would have been like for young recruits posted there. Simon Lee, the Eurasian officer banished from Central to Lantau, came to life early on.

I didn’t really have any plot in mind but I’d go on walks with my girlfriend Catherine — who is thankfully my wife now — and I’d start describing him and the things he got up to. He didn’t have a name then but I figured out the backstory of how he ended up on Lantau early on. He was definitely a city boy thrown into a backwater, he was out of place, but he had his own way of connecting with the locals. He was probably a bit like James Herriot thrown into deep-dark Yorkshire as a vet, though that wasn’t intentional.

John Saeki (left) with Karl Law, manager of the heritage hotel which occupies the old Tai O police station

Simon already existed in my head before Cath and I stayed at Tai O police station heritage hotel. To be honest he had been knocking about for a few years by then but was a bit homeless. So when we had a lovely night at the converted police station it became obvious that he had to have been stationed there. Once I had Tai O, important parts of the story almost started writing themselves. The place is unique and magical, its stilt houses, seafaring history, its position at the remote tip of Hong Kong territory, that you can climb up Tiger Hill and see Zhuhai and Macau, all these factors helped the story come alive for me.

After years of many hikes, I finally started writing the book in February 2015 when my wife arranged for me to house-sit for a few days at our friends’ place in Tai Long Wan village on the island. That gave me a good start to get the main plot going. After that I carried around a notebook everywhere I went and I jotted out new characters and plot lines, half an hour or so at a time, as I went about my daily chores. I finally had the first draft typed up by mid-July of that year.

I set the novel in the 1950s because I felt as though, in some ways, the 50s has similar characteristics in time as Tai O has in geography. To me it seems to work as a crossroads between very different eras. I like the way you can imagine how the 1950s has strong connections to pre-20th century history, is well within the shadow of the Second World War, and yet is at the dawn of a modern era that I would be born into. I think this gives it a lot of potential as a setting for dramatic events and connected stories.

I also have to admit that I was attracted to writing in an era that was technologically simpler. It seems you can concentrate on people and the things they do, rather than get caught up trying to describe a technological landscape. It might sound silly but so far I’ve been put off writing a story in the current era because it somehow seems to demand that you spend much of your time describing the electronic environment that we’re forced to live in. I’m sure there are ways around that, but in the meantime it was a pleasure to launch into an era of old fishing boats, landlines and radios.

Once I started writing the book I quickly realised that this was not a historical novel. I would be glad if one day I might be lucky enough to write historical fiction, but once I started ‘Tiger Hunters’ I had to choose between research and writing.

This is a made up story that borrows on titbits of history that I heard and read from living, working, walking and talking in Hong Kong. There were certain events and people I looked up because I wanted to fit them into the story in a plausible way. But the main point of any history referred to was to provide a backdrop to imagined events and people.

I had read articles about police corruption in Hong Kong in the 1970s and the setting up of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, so I used my imagination to envisage the roots of graft being put into place by young protagonists two decades earlier. I looked up events like the Sham Shui Po riots, and of course I had read numerous articles and book chapters about the Japanese occupation. I learned a lot about Tai O from many visits and the book “Tai O — love stories from the fishing village” by Wong Wai King provides some great local stories and brings the past era to life. “The Old Tai O Police Station: the evolution of a Centenary Monument” also has some great pictures and details about life at the police station and in the village. I read biographies from the era, and I read fiction from the period such as “The Road” by Austin Coates, which is set on Lantau, as well as Richard Mason’s “World of Suzie Wong”.

These bits and pieces helped me form an idea about a place in an era that I had not experienced. But I wouldn’t want people to call that research, or to think of the book as historical. The book exists in an imaginary world that I hope is recognisable as being similar to the Hong Kong of the 1950s.

After finishing the book, finding a publisher was thankfully somewhat easy. When I told Pete Spurrier at Blacksmith Books about this story he was very enthusiastic, so we took it from there. I’m proud to be published by Blacksmith as they have done a great job over the years of bringing Hong Kong stories to life.

Read more about John’s book here.