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.