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 only a three year 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 their return exactly three years later (in May 1955). They were back in Hong Kong in 1959 and this time stayed much longer, finally leaving for the UK in 1972, but this book only covers that first stay.
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, 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 write 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.