Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester

Fragrant Harbour

John Lanchester

I loved this book. I loved the atmosphere of Hong Kong, the view of the war as a resident, the tangled stories of the main protagonists and the times when the outcome was not what you expected. People who have lived in Hong King say it paints a really good picture of the colony before it was returned to China. I wish I could have visited it then, I fear it will not be the same now.

I had been taken by surprise by the ways in which I found Hong Kong a surprise. The exotic elements were what I had been expecting. Hakka women in their sombreros, which smelt of oil or lacquer; coolies dragging impossible bundles on their backs; rickshaw men, gold-toothed shoe shiners, gap-toothed Japanese business men, opium smokers visible through side street windows, eagles circling wind currents on the Peak, the brake man's crisp uniform on the Peak tram and the view from the Peak towards Kowloon; the mad clattering noise of mah-jong coming from servants quarters on a Sunday afternoon, girls in cheongsams showing more leg than I had ever seen; Europeans of no sure nationality, uncertain employment, and ambiguous appetite; family groups going for picnics on ancestors' graves; furious Chinese gods with green faces and red eyes; the smell of fermented fish outside Taoist temples; joss sticks, Chinese arts, mung-bean cake, dragon-boat races, face and joss and feng shui and the cheapest best tailors in the world, old women with bound feet - it would be untrue to say that all this was what I was expecting in detail, but the broader gist of it, yes. It was what I had come out here for. It wasn't Faversham and it wasn't the Plough.

The other side of Hong Kong, the expatriate side, was what took me by surprise.

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