Author(s): Martin BoothDownload
Martin Booth died in February 2004, shortly after finishing the book that would be his epitaph – this wonderfully remembered, beautifully told memoir of a childhood lived to the full in a far-flung outpost of the British Empire…An inquisitive seven-year-old, Martin Booth found himself with the whole of Hong Kong at his feet when his father was posted there in the early 1950s. Unrestricted by parental control and blessed with bright blond hair that signified good luck to the Chinese, he had free access to hidden corners of the colony normally closed to a Gweilo, a ‘pale fellow’ like him. Befriending rickshaw coolies and local stallholders, he learnt Cantonese, sampled delicacies such as boiled water beetles and one-hundred-year-old eggs, and participated in colourful festivals. He even entered the forbidden Kowloon Walled City, wandered into the secret lair of the Triads and visited an opium den. Along the way he encountered a colourful array of people, from the plink plonk man with his dancing monkey to Nagasaki Jim, a drunken child molester, and the Queen of Kowloon, the crazed tramp who may have been a member of the Romanov family.Shadowed by the unhappiness of his warring parents, a broad-minded mother who, like her son, was keen to embrace all things Chinese, and a bigoted father who was enraged by his family’s interest in ‘going native’, Martin Booth’s compelling memoir is a journey into Chinese culture and an extinct colonial way of life that glows with infectious curiosity and humour.
Some Reviews: 213 in Goodreads.com
Loved this book. Really think you need to be familiar with HK to enjoy this book. I lived there between 2002 & 2006 . Wow what a ride. Just beautifully written. My husband and I read it at the same time. Highly recommend xxx
At age 59 Martin Booth was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. He spent the last year of his life writing of his boyhood from roughly ages 7 to 12 spent in Hong Kong where his father, a British naval officer, had been posted.
The book is a loving glimpse of a city that has now vanished entirely in the face of massive Westernization. (It was already gone when I visited there myself in 1995, though it was still technically a British colony.) It’s extremely entertaining and informative. Not only was he young, but Booth also had blonde hair which was regarded as a good luck talisman among the Chinese. Accordingly he was given access to areas that normally would have been off limits to Europeans, including a forbidden city ruled by the triads. Considering his age, he was an astute observer of local customs and points of interest. Reading his account can only make one long to have visited Hong Kong in the 1950’s when its traditional Chinese culture was still intact.
It’s soon apparent Booth also had another agenda in writing the book. He used the last year of his life to settle accounts with his long deceased father whom he consistently portrays as a petty alcoholic mediocrity. One would have thought Booth would have been in a more forgiving mood as he approached death. Apparently not.
Having lived in Hong Kong all my life, I never expected that the city had changed so much in only fifty years. It’s hard to believe the author is really just recounting all this from memory, as the intricate storyline and details seem too vivid and evocative for that to be true. Gweilo truly was an eye-opening autobiography: one small kid managed to view Hong Kong in both the local way and the expatriate way, and the combination of the two in the book shows us just how unique Hong Kong was back in the days. I enjoyed reading about Booth’s mother in particular; the relationship between the two seems so loving and intimate that it is hard to believe that his father was really her antithesis. I think what the book is lacking is a reason why Booth’s father was the man he was – was he really the antagonist or was he represented such from a child’s perspective? I can hardly believe he was genuinely such a detestable man when Joyce, the literal light of Martin’s life, married him. Otherwise, I absolutely adore this book and plan on re-reading it.
As someone who has also written about a life in Hong Kong (albeit1990’s HK: ‘The Kowloon English Club’) I would have loved to have known the Hong Kong, 40 years earlier, he describes so vividly. It was a place yet to be transformed by modernity, with extraordinary street life and old customs still holding sway. The idea of a small, inquisitive English boy exploring unaccompanied these impoverished (yet surprisingly safe) neighbourhoods, making friends with strangers, learning street Cantonese and immersing himself in the local culture, is unimaginable in today’s world.
Equally so, is the idea of colonial privilege as exemplified by Martin’s father. The family dynamic and conflict between the starchy, conservative father and the mother who, like son, ‘goes native’ is a fascinating side story to a great read.