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Martin Booth: Gweilo

Given the title, this is a book I had to read, though I have to admit I was expecting something a little different - maybe something more like Liam Fitzpatrick's tales of 'Bottoms Up'.

Martin Booth wrote 'Gweilo' because (just over two years ago) he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. His children asked him to write about his childhood, and he completed the book shortly before he died earlier this year.

What surprised me about the book was that it covers a comparatively short period in the 1950's, from when the author left the UK at the age of 7 to travel with his parents to Hong Kong, to when they returned exactly three years later. Martin Booth says in the introduction that he felt that it smacked of arrogance to write an autobiography. I'm not sure about that, though it's certainly true that most published autobiographies are by famous people, presumably because the publishers expect them to sell well. Unfortunately most famous people turn out to desperately dull, and their autobiographies disappointingly unrevealing. Not this one, though.

Martin Booth approached the task as a novelist rather than a celebrity, and happily he succeeded in creating a work that is absorbing, evocative and funny. The reader gets a real sense of Hong Kong in the 1950's, but from the perspective of a young boy. It is this aspect that I found a little puzzling - could a 7 or 8 year old really be quite so perceptive about what was going on, and could the author remember quite so vividly things that happened 50 years ago? I'm not sure I could, but perhaps that is because my childhood took place in a rather dull suburb of London. In any case, I have no complaints if a novelist embellishes the story - autobiographies are never wholly true, and overall this one seems more honest and authentic than most. Certainly it's a relief to read a book about Hong Kong that doesn't resort to tired old cliches (er, this means you, Paul Theroux). No one can be in any doubt that Martin Booth both knew and loved Hong Kong

Booth's father was a civil servant in the Admiralty, who had been posted to Hong Kong for three years. He appears to have been a typical colonial civil servant, regarding himself as superior to the locals and making little effort to understand Hong Kong or its people. He also drank rather too much. On the other hand, Booth's long-suffering mother appears to have made a real effort to embrace Hong Kong, and hence one theme of the book is the author's growing closeness to his mother and estrangement from his father.

He describes outings to the wilds of the New Territories, with his father determined to follow a pre-set itinerary, and his mother anxious to find out more about the countryside and to stop along the way. This struck a chord with me - my father used to want holidays to be well planned whilst my mother was happy to 'go with the flow'.

The places his mother wanted to see included the small fishing villages of Sha Tin and Tai Po, and other small settlements at Fanling and Sheung Shui. These days they are all large new towns (with virtually no evidence of how things were 40-50 years ago), but Martin Booth paints a vivid picture of the New Territories as a rural backwater.

It's clear from reading this book that life in Hong Kong in the 1950's was better than life back in the UK, and it appears that even an ordinary civil servant could enjoy a fairly luxurious lifestyle (though I confess I was never quite clear what rank Booth's father held). The family lived in the Fourseas Hotel, near to Mong Kok, and then a house close by in Boundary Street before they moved to an apartment on the Peak. They had servants and a car, and were a world away from the austerity of post-war Britain.

There are a couple of interesting tales in the book about how the Booth family managed to get things changed in Hong Kong. Martin's mother fought to allow their servants (a married couple) to carry on living with them after they had a baby, and eventually got the Governor to change the law. Meanwhile his father had so many collisions with trams that the law was changed to prevent cars stopping on tramlines.

The young Martin Booth seems to have very adventurous, exploring the area where he lived, and venturing into Kowloon Walled City and Tsim Sha Tsui. There are some great tales in the book, particularly about the criminal underworld in Kowloon Walled City (now demolished, of course), and the fire at the Sham Shui Po squatter camp.

One theme that appears throughout the book is the old Hong Kong culinary standby - toast. For example, on the trip to the New Territories described above, toast accompanied all the drinks on offer in the Sha Tin Dairy Farm Restaurant, and the author obviously finds this both bizarre and incongruous. It is, I suppose, an example of the way that somewhat random aspects of Western cusine crops up in Hong Kong (another being that ghastly red soup with cabbage floating in it that is a standby of ersatz Western food). His views of Mooncakes are similar to my own, which is always comforting to learn.

There's a lot more, but you should read the book to find out!!

Overall, it's a good read and a fascinating insight into life in Hong Kong forty years ago. The sad thing is that there won't be a sequel - if Martin Booth could wrote at such length (and so well) about just three years, what might he have done with the rest of his time in Hong Kong? We'll never know, but at least he completed the first part. Recommended.

Comments

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Andrew

Hey - great blog, I really enjoy it. I'm a gweilo living in Canada (my fiancee being Cantonese) and so it's really neat hearing your stories about life in Hong Kong.

BWG

Glad you finally got to read it.

Another book by Booth you might like, but written quite differently, is The Dragon Syndicates.

AgentOrange

Ahhhh... ! Borsch soup. You forgot the carrots and greasy pieces of meat. I'm sure that all the restaurants in the New Territories are pumping it up from some central well, it all tastes the same.
I read that after World War Two many Russians operated snack bars and cafes in HK, hence the introduction of Borsch. Anyway, I'll give Martin Booth's book a read.

WaterMargin

Borsch was on the menus of most "Western" style resturants in HK during the 60's and 70's. They went by the names of "ABC," "Golden Chariot," and, one of them was "Cherikoff"(?) -- on Prince Edward Road. As students, we used to get set lunch menu from such restaurants for about $2.80 HK (circa early 70's) and you either got as a first course a "Borsch" -- which meant some tomato-y broth with cabbage and onion floating in it. A big surprise to me was when I surveyed recipes for Borsch in the 80's in the US and found that most or all of them had beets in them. As well they should. And I have had beets in Hong kong, albeit canned ones. I suppose Borsch adapted or evolved or became "localized" in Hong Kong during those early years.

Tyrone Slothrop

I picked up Gweilo on a recent trip to Hong Kong, and I just finished it this evening. I thought it was a wonderful account of a world gone by; I very much enjoyed it. I also wondered just how Booth could remember so much of those years of his life. I don't think he embellished -- I think, perhaps, that some people are just gifted with that kind of recall, though certainly I'm not.

Gwaipor

As someone who was born and bred in HK, I found Martin Booth's book interesting but there were certain parts that really didn't ring true. I was 3 years younger than him, having been born in 1947, and I know what it was like growing up in HK. My parents weren't British civil servants but there were certain freedoms which no "gwailo" (or his wife) would have allowed his child to have.

I think it was a great read but took it with tongue in cheek. You could see the novelist in Martin Booth coming out in the book and I guess that's what made it a fun read.

brad

hi..im a martin booth fan. iv bin searching for d 3rd book of alchemist son. did martin finish the 3rd book? i cant find any info abt it.

Michael Rogge

Hello,
I'm a bit late to comment on Gweilo, but thought about throwing in my penny's worth as I have been living in Hong Kong at the same time as Martin Booth did. I have published photo's and clips of my being there. I concur with the above contributors that I cannot imagine a prodigal child of hardly nine years old to come to the reflections put in his mind by the author. I cannot imagine at the time I was in Hong Kong (1949-55) to see a young blond boy wondering through the streets. I often walked to Cat Street but would have been extremely surprised to see a boy like Martin walking around there and striking up conversation with all and everyone.
Yet, I find the the book wonderful. It has revived my memories and the details he gives are extraordinary. I guess that his mother must have left a wealth of information. I also visited Sunshine island and even planned to do a movie on Gus Borgeest there. Made one of the Yau Ma Tei typhoon shelter, though.

Alan Pickett

I too have only just caught up with this gem of a read, although I have to agree to being intrigued by the depth of recollection. I wonder if perhaps he kept a diary. Nevertheless, the book triggered many wonderful memories of my own childhood experiences in Hong Kong as much of Martin's ramblings mirrored my own, albeit a little later (1958~1982). Living on The Peak at about the same age and having cycled around most of the footpaths and tracks on the Island, (Black's Link was a favourite cut through to Wong Nei Chong Gap en route to the beach at Repulse Bay), I could almost visualise every footfall as he circled Lugard Road and explored the reservoirs around Pokfulam and Aberdeen. Truly an insight into a world now lost forever.

John Turville

I concur with most that has been posted. I was in Hong Kong and almost every page brought back memories. I too was perplexed; each evening as I put the book down at the end of a chapter, thinking about how could he possibly recall the detail. He obviously did have an incredibly retentive memory. All that matters though is that I spent 5 days reading and reliving so much that I almost want to go back and retrace those steps and do the things he did and that I missed! I would never have dared, for example, going anywhere the near the Walled City. I will however agree on one thing. My parents let me "roam" in a similar way that Martin Booth describes or perhaps it was a case of "not letting on" as most of the time my father to was on the pink gin and my mother was out and about at bridge parties et al. We children (I have two brothers) spent a great deal of time speaking Cantonese and in the company of our amahs.....well if I go on I will be writing the sequel........lol.

Lavina

awsome book full of amazing thoughts and expression that with make you never want to stop reading. the story is so realistic it made me very emotional.

danny chan

i am local chinese born in hong kong late 60's, just finished the chapter "sei hoi jau dim" i and my friends decided to follow martin's foot step to visit all mentioned places.
i can't find any book similar to this, it taught me a lot of hong kong history especially from gweilo's point of view.
sad thing is i can't see or visit martin and say thank you ..... :(

Anne Carter

I am still reading Gweilo and love it. I was born in HK and have returned on quite a few occasions chasing up family history. The last time I stayed in Mong Kok and wish I had read the book before the trip. Thank you Martin Booth for a great and entertaining read. It would have been a wonderful experience to meet the man

Mike McNamara

What a great book. I picked this up at Gatwick recently for holiday reading along with Fragrant Harbour and both have been great reads.

I first visited Hong Kong as a very young naval rating in 1966 and instantly fell in love with the place. I have also been very lucky to have visited Hong Kong more than thirty times over the following years both with the Navy - in fact I was stationed for two years at the Stonecutters Wireless Station mentioned by Martin in his book - and subsequently on business and holiday trips.

Hong Kong has never lost is fascination for me, from my first 'forays' into that world of 'Suzie Wong' that still existed in 1966, to the last time I was there in 2004 with it's majestic sky scrapers and laser light shows.

It's true that many things have change, but somehow, much has not and it still (at least on my last visit) combines that mystery of the East with the hustle bustle of a serious metropolis.

Although Martins book recalls events some 12 years before I first visited, his descriptions brought back many memories for me of places that still existed in much the way he described when I first arrived. The old shops of Eastern District, Wanchai & The China Fleet Club, Mong Kok, the Trams, many others places and particularly the descriptions of the New Territories (NT).

Later on when I was stationed there, I was involved in Orienteering and as most of it was carried out all over the NT, it showed that Hong Kong had a much more rural and somewhat surreal side to it's very noisy hub. I certainly came across similar sites that Martin described as we ran(desperately trying to catch the Gurkha's, as they always seemed to win) through various NT locations startling astonished inhabitants of various outlaying NT villages as we tried to complete the run!

Some have questioned Martins young recollections. I think that if you find yourself in an unique situation so different from what you have experienced previously, then I you are bound to absorb much more than you realise at the time and only with the aid of very good memory do you begin to remember more than you thought you ever could

This was a brilliant read, I was disappointed when I finished the last page and wish that he had written a follow up about his return visit. It was the first book of his that I have read and I will certainly buy some more of his writings.

Highly recommended.

You can visit a small website where some of us that served at the Stonecutters Wireless station share some thoughts and pictures of our time there.

www.stonecuttersisland.com.

Philip

readers might be interested on a location project done by the Batgung boys on the following link to their website gwulo.com.

Martin Booth's 'Golden Boy' : Further information

It just explains some of the locations Booth wrote about in Gweilo/Golden Boy

Pauline Simpson

I've just read the Readers Digest publication of "Gweilo". I couldn't put the book down. I felt sorry that his father was a stick in the mud type of person. He reminded me of my husband who never likes to stray off the beaten path. This book is a good read for all age groups

Bob McLachlan

I am 74 and visited Hong Kong twice in 1958 (on a ship, going to and coming back from Japan) and very recently returned with my wife for a week at the Hotel Kowloon. I found it extremely fascinating and while looking for something to read on our return flight I found Gweilo and it was a delight to read. I finished it last night. Martin Booth wrote beautifully and I agree with Mike McNamara that new and absorbing situations, especially when you are young, make such an impression that they can stay clear memories throughout your life. I am fortunate in having clear memories back to when I was 3, even to particular conversations, so I realise that it is quite possible for Martin to have recalled what he wrote.
I found it a delight when he mentioned locations such as streets that we walked up and down daily as well as the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island where we spent a day. Since Martin's time there the largest outdoor statue of Buddha in the world has been built there in the last few years. Highly recommended for future visitors.
Through Google Earth I tracked-down the apartment block (Block A, Mount Austin) where he lived for some time. It is just up from the Peak Tram Tower towards Victoria Peak.
Anyway, this not my travelogue, just an appreciation of a most enjoyable book. As some reviewer in the book said, it would have been interesting to know what Martin's life was in the years when he and his family returned to HK for good. Sadly, we will never know.

Philip Wong

I am the third generation of Chinese born in Hong Kong. Like Martin Booth I was a child in the 50s and remember the events and things that he described very well. I thoroughly enjoyed his book. It presented a surprisingly vivid and accurate picture of the time. The colonial British really treated locals badly, and continued to do so until the 70s. On the other hand “expatriate” Brits were paid under hugely inflated terms. Hence the Booth lived on the Peak, had servants and car. I would guess Mr Booth Snr held an equivalent rank of a Petty Officer at best. People like him suddenly had an inflated ego and a superiority complex. I saw many like him even in the 60s and 70s.

While most of the book could be Martin Booth’s own experience some parts no doubt came from his research of the events. There is no way he could have ventured into scenes of the “Squatters’ Fire” for instance.

I understand there are many Brits, like Booth, who grew up in Hong Kong, spoke the language and chose to stay after the Colony was returned to China. I just hope the Chinese treat them correctly as one of them and not as a second class citizen, like the British Colony treated me.

Diane Rogers

I was in Kowloon,from 1955-1958 as a teenager, and went to school there. It was the best 3 years of my life, returned to UK in '58 and I can remember everything like it was yesterday, every detail. We did roam around safely,loved the place & the people, venturing into places we had been told not to go!! Always treated well by the people we met, and we treated them well and respected them. Such happy memories one never ever forgets.
I have ordered the book Golden Boy and eagerly await it's arrival. I am
returning to Kowloon this year after 53 years.
From what I have read so far, it will be an excellent read full of great memories.

Patrik Lockne

Thanks for your review of what was truly a good read! It is indeed sad we'll never get to read a sequel. I would have loved to have Mr. Booth describe the transition of Hong Kong from what it was then to what it is today.

Jabalong

Just finished Gweilo, which was great. Readers who liked Booth's autobiography must pick up his novel Hiroshima Joe, which features a character based on himself as well as the titular character based on Nagasaki Jim in Gweilo.

Reading the comments here, I don't know why people question the level of detail. Booth didn't just live in Hong Kong from ages seven to ten, but returned later living many years here, which would have cemented his early childhood memories.

When one writes an autobiography, you don't just spit it out on a whim - it involves digging deeper and deeper into your memories, pulling back the layers. You'd be surprised at what comes back to you over time, especially as you research things.

The other slight criticism in the comments seems to be doubt that a Gweilo kid would have had such adventures. The point is that his mother was not your typical gweipo and his was not a typical childhood. And that's why his story was worth writing.

To echo the review, it's sad that we'll never read the rest of the Booths' story. Had he lived to see the success, maybe there'd have been a sequel. But on the other hand, had Booth not been dying, perhaps he'd never have written this book.

Gill Draper

I have found the book has transported me back to my childhood. I was born & lived in HK from 1958. I have lovely memories of those short years , the most vivid being the last day saying goodbye to all our friends & my amaha. I can still remember the red tassled lanterns & fireworks when a ship was launched from tai koo dockyard where my Father was a marine engineer. So many special memories.

elena

I'm reading the last pages of the book tonight, which I started reading after a 20 days stay in HK and I feel so sad it is coming to an end...it is definetively a pitty we can not enjoy a second, third, forth sequel. It would had been great that Martin's father had been posted from HK to another exotic place and after some years another and we could read about these places at those years from Martin's eyes!. Just a note, for those who wonder how Martin could remember so well that amount of details: he says on the book that he used to keep mail with Granpy to whom he told all about his roaming keeping no secrets. And a question: has this book been transated to spanish? I can'n find it and I'd love my children read it.

Philip K.C. Wong

I just finished the book 2 days ago and I like it. I know all the places (except the Kowloon Walled City which I studied at a secondary school adjacent to but never dared approach) Martin described and I felt like walking the streets with him. But I cannot help thinking how he could recall things so vividly. It is also unthinkable how he dared enter the Walled City without getting bullied or harmed. As a Chinese, I never dared go near there, lest a boy of European origin. Chinese people tend to have a little inferiority-induced-resentment toward gweilos because they used to hold all the top positions, earn big bucks and scold their Chinese subordinates with a foreign language they are not apt to fight back with. A lone European boy would have been ridiculed at least, on entering the Walled City.
Martin’s boldness swearing with the dirtiest Cantonese to the tram driver was hilarious.
Martin continued to emphasize throughout that the Chinese caressed his blonde hair to attract a fortune. While there is some degree of truth to that, I think from a Chinese perspective, it was rather his small stature, street boldness, openness and down-to-earthness (as opposed to the usual aloof attitude of the typical gweilos) that made the general Chinese like him and stroke him.

I am disappointed that there are no photos showing the Booth family and friends, and old HK street scenes. I also wonder if the Chinese boy Martin carried on his back was Tuppence?

Ling Ling

My brother strongly recommended this book to me around Christmas time, so I spent the last few months reading it. Glad to have completed it last night. I am amazed at the excellent memory and meticulous description of the author's childhood life in HK as an expatriate boy. To a certain extent, the frequent squabbles between his parents reflected many similar situations between my own parents. On many junctures, I could even imagine myself being present to witness and experience the actual conversations and arguments. Little did I expect a seemingly ordinary book could carry such powerful and moving style ! Congrats ! Strongly recommended (especially for those who were born in HK or who have lived there before or around the 60s) !

Philip K.C. Wong

On Ling ling's comments, well, Martin's mother was kind of well-off. Or rather, her husband was submissive in a way that he surrendered his salary and subsidies, probably. So she could have tea at Penninsula and afford the occasional jewellery, pets........and stood her ground.

So there had to be some good points about her husband, anyway.

If she was an average Chinese housewife whose husband either could hardly make ends meet or simply withheld his meager earnings, she would have had no say but worked her own butts off to help out. She would have had been an overworked woman with resentment and grudges. Her kid(s)would have been victims of her disgruntled outlashes in an argumentative and dysfunctional family.

Martin and his mother, in this case, were fortunate enough (at the right time when HK needed UK officers) to have a certain amount of monetary support. Martin's mother was therefore free enough to be able to instill a certain amount of autonomy in him.

Martha Newbold

I loved this book. My young adult son who lives and works in Hong Kong gifted this book to me with the sentiment, "I didn't want it to end." He learned so much about his newfound homeland. My husband and I were sad to see this story end, as well. We now will be viewing Hong Kong through new lenses when we visit our son this month. I belong to a book club, and we will be discussing Gweilo for this month's read. So far, my friends have been charmed by Martin Booth's skilled storytelling. This is a keeper, for sure.

Ruth Whaites

What a wonderful read! I lived and worked in Hong Kong in the 1980s and loved every minute of it This book gave me flash backs to when I was there the sights and sounds and continuous activity all day and night. I sympathised with Martin's reluctance to leave this fascinating city and I had an acute case of homesickness for years afterwards
The book was recommended to me by a friend who had also lived in Hong Kong in the 60's and with whom I have spent many hours reminiscing Its one of those books that I shall read again and again

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