Asia, 1996. What do you do when you have failed to find the meaning of life in India, your money has run out, your girlfriend has gone, and prospects at home are limited? Go further east, young man! Meet Joe Walsh, a backpacker who is determined to put a wayward life behind him and make it big in Hong Kong, where fortune still favours the British and opportunities are there for the taking. In the final full year of British-ruled Hong Kong, tourists and hordes of transient workers are exploiting the economy as well as the occasion.
Arriving almost penniless, with issues in love and life, Joe decides to make the most of this opportunity: he discovers one of the world’s most exciting cities, finds challenging new jobs, makes friends with an extraordinary cast of characters, and dates local women. He finds himself absorbed into a vibrant social scene through the communal existence of a travellers’ hostel, where drink, drugs and casual sex are a way of life. A stint selling sandwiches gives way to an English-teaching job, where he can at last start to live out his ambitions. But an already stressful existence worsens after a night out goes wrong. As personal relationships sour and the pressures of long hours, minimum pay, classroom clashes and abject living conditions mount, Joe is forced to confront people he wishes he’d never met, and answer important questions that cannot be put off a moment longer.
“The Kowloon English Club ultimately is a book about desperate relationships in a transient city. As such, it could be depressing, but is instead by turns affectionate and funny. Although a novel, it has the pace and voice of a memoir. In this case, that pace and voice works: it is a book set in a certain place at a certain time and, as such, the underplayed narrative tension of a memoir allows that time and place to breathe in a way that a stronger narrative structure could not. The characters are well-delineated, the central character’s observations and conflicts come out, and the supporting characters add texture. I am not a fan of accents in dialogue, but the author pulls them off well and I found myself chuckling despite my predispositions.” – Chris Maden, Hong Kong Review of Books
“But, of course, what matters is this: is it any good? To which the reply must be, good for what? Good as in, worth a place on the “books written on, in, or by people from, Hong Kong shelf.” (We should all have one of these!) And here comes the resounding, unreserved verdict: Yes, yes it is. For what The Kowloon English Club most certainly does is give a delightfully grim, unvarnished, honest and accurate depiction of the life lived by those it describes; the expatriate, itinerant underclass scratching out a hand-to-mouth existence living in some of the most unpleasant places in Hong Kong, and trying to find ways to get enough money together to enable something larger and more exciting to happen to them. And as a historical document of that and that lifestyle at that time, it is spot on. Anyone who says this isn’t what it was like is lying.” – Andrew Barker, Cha: a literary journal
“What a great read! Griffiths sums up life in Hong Kong as a British backpacker attempting to teach English in the late 1990s (in a pokey language club) so eloquently and humorously. He manages to show the weird and wonderful contrasts of HK life that were all around him… from the controversial and hilarious conversations with his students in the classroom, to the mouthy opinions of his expat colleagues over pints at the pub, all under the impending loom of the HK handover. Griffiths also manages to describe the beauty of nature against the grit of the city and hostel life. His portrayal of love and lust as a young man shows that the mystery and confusion of the opposite sex, sadly and humorously, has no cultural boundaries nor rhyme or reason. A fantastic read and reflection that really comes at an almost eerily and uncanny time, as HK struggles today with its identity and freedoms. Loved this book!” – Melissa Kong
“One of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time, featuring the remarkable tales of a British backpacker-turned English teacher in 1990s Hong Kong. The author really gets under the skin of HK, revealing much about Cantonese traits, expat decadence, intercultural relations, classroom dynamics and also about himself! And at a time when Hong Kong politics is making headlines around the world, there are some pertinent historic references and dialogue in which the thoughts and fears of locals and expats are told. But don’t think you have to be interested in Hong Kong to get this, I would recommend it to anyone.” – Eddie Small