Gweilo – A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood

Martin Booth has written a marvelous memoir about moving to Hong Kong and living there as a young boy in the early 1950’s.  Booth, an important British author, was moved to write Gweilo – A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2004.  The result of this last literary effort is a warm, amazing tale where Booth’s mother proves to be a major heroine and Martin emerges as someone we would all like to know.

In 1952, Booth’s father was posted to Hong Kong as a civilian employee of the British Navy.  As is sometimes sadly the case, Booth Senior’s importance to the Empire was in inverse proportion to his self-importance, and he was content to leave Martin, his only child, in an English boarding school.  Fortunately Booth’s mother was having none of that and insisted on bringing their son with them to Hong Kong.   And so in 1952 Martin Booth left an impoverished England, still struggling with post-war privation, and travelled to Hong Kong where he and his family lived for three years.  Martin and his mother loved exotic Hong Kong for all the reasons his literally gin-swilling father detested it.  Indeed the Booth family can be seen as a microcosm of the struggle between the old guard determination to hang on to the vestiges of the British Empire and the contrasting determination of a new generation eager explore new things and embrace variety and change.  

Martin was clearly his mother’s child, and remained resentful of his father for all sort of reasons.  The unhappiness of his parents’ marriage provides a sad back drop to what is otherwise a thrilling story of what happens when a seven year old boy is given license to explore an exotic city.  Allowing a seven year old child free rein to explore a new city, let along Hong Kong, on his own is unimaginable today, but that is what Martin got to do.  While Martin and his mother certainly did some exploring together, Martin’s independent solo forays provide the most amazing and exciting adventures in the book.  Happily Martin emerged from these adventures unharmed.  He also developed a deep empathy, understanding and love for Hong Kong.  His freedom enabled him to poke around, ask questions and learn to speak some rudimentary Chinese.  Martin encountered horrific poverty and encountered dangerous snakes and some pretty shady people, but he had a blast and learned a lot.  Indeed,  I found Martin’s adventures in the 1950’s to be considerably more thrilling and informative than my own trip to Hong Kong this past August.  Among other things this book shows what Hong Kong has lost, both good and bad.  

Martin’s mother deserves a major shout out.  Her openness and spirit of adventure educated and inspired her son to explore the city and its neighborhoods on his own.  Martin Booth learned a lot from watching his mother.  Observing how she coped with difficulties gave him some useful tools when he met his own difficulties.  Today this remarkable woman would undoubtedly be charged with child neglect, but this was the 1950’s, when many of us recall a lot more childhood freedom to roam and fend for ourselves than his common today.  Still, Martin’s mother comes across as uniquely permissive when it comes to letting her young son explore Hong Kong on his own.

The book ends when the family sails back to England after their three years in Hong Kong, but fortunately Booth got to return to Hong Kong a few years later.  I was so happy he got to return.

I loved this book.  It is a warm remembrance of a few years of childhood in exotic Hong Kong.

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Thomas Keneally’s Shame and the Captives -A Riveting Novel about Australia During WWII

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Thomas Keneally has written a memorable novel, Shame and the Captives.  Set in Australia, away from the fighting during World War II, this novel focuses on prisoners of war held in a prison camp in Australia, as well as some Australians who have husbands and sons held in Axis prisoner of war camps.  Apparently some Japanese prisoners of war actually did break out of their Australian prison camp during World War II, and this is a fictionalized account of that break out.  As always Keneally focuses on what his characters are feeling and why they are doing what they do, and there are a wealth of personalities in play.  The Japanese prisoners can scarcely believe they have been captured instead of killed, and basically feel their lives are over.  Prisoners from Korea and Italy are more stoic about their present circumstances and ultimately more optimistic that they will have a future.  Alice, the major female character is a young Australian bride whose husband went to war and was soon captured.  She doesn’t know what to feel and is trying to find her way.  The Australian officers running the camp seem uncomfortable with their situation and take an instant dislike to each other.  Their hostility to each other is more intense than any feelings they might have toward their prisoners.

This book presents an odd juxtaposition of characters in an unfamiliar (to me) setting.  People are doing their jobs and are careful to treat the prisoners carefully for a number of reasons:   the prison officials in this book aren’t motivated by cruelty, they are acutely aware of the Red Cross’s requirements and they are particularly motivated to treat their Japanese prisoners well so that their own sons held in captivity won’t face reprisals.   This makes for a very interesting book showing aspects of the “War at Home” that aren’t frequently addressed.

Finally, it is impossible to write about Thomas Keneally and a fictionalized novel based on wartime events without mentioning his epic novel Schindler’s List.  To see the movie Schindler’s List is to focus on the horrors of the Holocaust and to recognize some of the heroic rescuers.  To read the book, is to delve into why Oskar Schindler, of all unlikely people, was moved to take such imaginative and heroic actions.  And then there is the next question, if Schindler did it, why were so few others similarly motivated.  All this is by way of saying that if you haven’t read Schindler’s List, you really need to do that.

 

 

Hubris – The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century

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Alistair Horne’s Hubris – The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century focuses on the dangers of over-confidence in the military arena.  He begins with a brilliant quote from the German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck:  “A generation that deals out a thrashing is usually followed by one that receives it.”

While focusing on the fateful decisions made by various admirals and generals, Horne provides a useful history of warfare in the Twentieth Century.  This is no history of the Korean War or of the Russo-Japanese War, but I learned a lot about both from this very readable book.  Again and again Horne shows how prior victories gave outstanding tacticians unfounded confidence in their ability to keep winning.  At some point, they stopped reflecting and accounting for worst case scenarios and just got carried away by feelings of invincibilty.

Horne’s study of why wars unfolded as they did is well told.  Plainly there are a myriad of factors, but I’d much rather focus on individuals and their fateful decisions.  There were plenty of fundamentally evil players on the battlefields of the Twentieth Century, but Horne also shows how more thoughtful and nuanced individuals also got carried away and just kept pushing until they seized defeat from the jaws of victory, as one of my colleagues used to say.

I recommend this book for its focus on the folly of hubris and also because it provides a lucid tour of warfare in the Twentieth Century.

 

Harrowing Tale of the Cambodian Genocide as Told by a Child Survivor

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At times all of the mass murder and genocide across the globe can be numbing.  You know it is happening and you see the awful photos, but there is just so much of it that it can seem remote and, God forbid, routine.  Well, Loung Ung’s 2000 memoir of her childhood under the Khmer Rouge brings it home.  First  They Killed My Father – A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, tells a harrowing tale of exile, murder and overwhelming hunger as seen through the eyes of a privileged middle class five year old.

This child knows what she had and has absolutely no idea why she has been  abruptly pulled from her comfortable life in Phnom Penh and, together with her family, cast into a hostile rural environment. Ung survives, but as the title of her book suggests, not all of her family was so lucky.   The mindless beatings and killings all occur in a numbing environment of hunger and fear.  No one trusts anyone; the author and her siblings are told they must hide their Chinese ancestry and middle class roots.  It is actually pretty amazing that the kids were able to follow these life-saving directions.  They showed a lot of discipline and seemed to have entered into survival mode.

Fortunately, Ung managed to get out.  After tough times in a Thai refugee camp, she immigrated to the United States with one of her brothers.  She went on to an American high school and college and ended up writing at least two books and working with the Campaign for a Landmine Free World.

I Googled Ung to see what she has been up to since writing this book and learned that she has prompted some controversy within the Cambodian community.  In particular, some have questioned whether Ung could have called the details of her childhood trauma so specifically, given that she was so young, only five years old, when the nightmare began.  Given that she wasn’t in a position to write it all down, it seems entirely plausible that her youth and the passage of time may have affected some of the specifics of her recollections.  Of course the passage of time affects the recollections of many of us.

Such controversies do not blunt the impact of this book.  Ung’s story hits you right in the face and breaks your heart.  This is what genocide felt like to a young child.  She may not have focused on the politics  behind the Khmer Rouge’s absurd cruelty and meglomania, but she saw the lunacy behind the terror.  People turned on each other with unimaginable viciousness, and mass murder and loss were the result.  At some level the politics really didn’t matter.