Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Golden Gweilo

(A book which is alternatively entitled Golden Boy:
A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood in the U.S.A.)

'Your son's more Chinese than a coolie. He'll have a bloody pole and a rattan hat next. Is this what you want?'

'Yes!' my mother replied emphatically. 'It is just what I want. I want a child who knows the world, knows the value of people whatever their race or rank and can appreciate what he sees.' She picked up her evening bag: it was black with silver beads sewn on to it. 'What I don't want is a boring, narrow-minded bigot with a drink problem [like you/my husband].'

As the late Martin Booth (who started writing this book after he had been, to use his words, "diagnosed with the nastiest type of brain tumour around" and died in February 2004, shortly after completing the manuscript) was to show full well in, and through, that which the New York Times' has described as "a grand adventure, seen through a boy's eyes but remembered by a novelist with a sensualist's appreciation of sights", his beloved mother managed to get her wish in spades.

Initially, I had feared that it would not be thus; and this not least when the Englishman wrote that the first Chinese individual who he met after landing in Hong Kong on 2nd June, 1952, was called Ah Choo; a state of affairs which -- not too surprisingly -- prompted the then not yet eight-year-old future writer to collapse "into paroxysms of laughter" -- and this even before "this diminuitive alien stranger called Sneeze" spoke in the kind of fractured English that turned the announcement that "Your bath is ready" into "You bafu w'eddy".

Alternatively put: I wouldn't have been all that surprised if the author of a book entitled Gweilo -- a Cantonese slang term which Mr. Booth knew, and proceeded to point out in his tome, "translates literally into as ghost (or pale) fellow" -- had gone on to, like so many other Westerners before him, paint a portrait of Chinese people that was on the disparaging and/or exoticizing (or, to use a particular term for this with regards to East Asians, Orientalizing (or Orientalist)) side.

And this especially since there seemed ample grist for that mill if he had indeed sought to go along that particular path. For young Martin Booth was in Hong Kong at a time when: there weren't only still rickshaw pullers on the streets but ones, at that, who were invariably addicted to opium; the Kowloon Walled City was still extant, inhabited, and apparently ruled by Triads; squatter settlements full of refugees from China and other unfortunate folk abounded; and, as is recounted in Gweilo (and I myself was warned about prior to my first trip to the then British crown colony), seemingly every Hong Konger had few qualms about "throwing their garbage out of the window into the street. Without looking first. From some way up"!

Rather than disparage the foreign, however, the golden-haired boy that was Martin Booth almost invariably chose to, to borrow a phrase from the TIME magazine review of this actually very charming work, "delight in the new." In doing so, he was applying a sage piece of advice to food given to him on his first day in Hong Kong in a more general manner than the adult individual who had tendered that piece probably ever could imagine the then young child would. In any event, that passage in the book seems worth quoting; so here it is:-

'So long as you are in Hong Kong, whenever someone offers you something to eat, accept it. That's being polite. If you don't find it to your fancy, don't have any more. But...always try it. No matter what. Besides...Hong Kong is the best place in the world to eat'!

As far as food was concerned, this led young Master Booth -- or, as the increasingly fluent Cantonese speaker would often introduce himself to other Cantonese speakers, "Mah Tin" (trans., horse, electric => "electric horse" in Cantonese!) -- to not only discover the wonders that are Coca Cola, prawns and salad cream in Hong Kong but, also, the grapefruit-like fruit known as pomelo and sticks of sugarcane plus more distinctively Chinese delights like 100 (or as they're sometimes called -- 1,000) year old eggs, Chinese tea and other culinary offerings that were to be had at neighborhood dai pai dong (street-side cooked-food stalls).

And as far non-culinary experiences go: Well, let's just say that they -- which take in a few years spent living in various sections of Kowloon as well as up on The Peak -- are colorful and interesting enough to have thoroughly merited a book; and one, at that, which deserves to be read -- and thoroughly enjoyed -- by far more than just the author's children.

Moreover, it seems to me that -- and if this strikes readers as rather Asian, so be it! -- reading this enthralling work will honor the memory as well as memories of a man who's very much worth honoring. And, also, honor the memory of Hong Kong itself along with Martin Booth's mother, an English woman named Joyce who realized even back in the early 1950s that:

We [-- that is, the British --] do not own Hong Kong. It's a crown colony. We merely administer it. A hundred and something years ago, we stole this land from the Chinese.

Yet, at the same time, loved Hong Kong as Martin Booth did. And in the latter's case, enough so that he could state in his final book -- and those who read it can whole-heartedly believe -- that:

If the truth be told, I never left Hong Kong, its streets and hillsides, wooded valleys, myriad islands and deserted shores with which I was closely acquainted as a curious, sometimes devious, not unadventurous and streetwise seven-year-old...Hong Kong was my home, was where I spent my formative years, is where my roots are, is where I grew up.

And, one gets the definite sense, felt extraordinarily grateful plus blessed that this happened to be so.


sbk said...

I read the US editon, Golden Boy, in two sittings as I was captivated by Booth's descriptions of a bygone Hong Kong and his adventures there. Booth's writing is so engaging, I, the reader, felt I was there with him getting into mischief, etc. I was sorry to read Booth died just after finishing the manuscript as I wanted to know more. More about the neighborhoods and people he encountered, more about his extraordinary mother and more about his later life.

YTSL said...

Hi SBK --

Glad you've read the book and agree that Martin Booth's writing makes for engaging reading.

Something else that struck me while reading the book: Yes, there are lots of descriptions of a bygone Hong Kong. But, considering how people are prone to lamenting that Hong Kong doesn't treasure and preserve the old, there's actually quite a bit there which still exists and endures (notably the Man Mo temple on Hollywood Road and the Tin Hau temple which gave Temple Street its name).

Jessica said...

I came from HK and I am studying in the US now. This book is simply amazing. It gives a richer history of Hong Kong as a British colony than any Hong Konger could. Booth's writing is so vivid and engaging that the reader feels as if he has gone back in time and traveled with young Booth. I miss HK><

YTSL said...

Hi Jessica --

Thanks for leaving some comments and hope you come back to read my response and also more of my blog posts. Re the Martin Booth book: Yes, it's really amazing. Also, hope you come back to Hong Kong before too long. :)