48 Must-Read Books on Hong Kong

by | Mar 10, 2023 | Books, Hong Kong

This is what I fear the most: The skyscrapers remain intact, the countryside hikes still beautiful, and our harbor rippling with night lights; you can still go to work and tweet dumb shit and outwardly you can’t tell that anything is wrong, but the only ones left are those who believe this is the best version of Hong Kong there could ever be.”

Karen Cheung, The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir (2022)

Hong Kong has gone through a lot in the past eight years as its citizens have fought for freedom, democracy, and the rule of law only to see them all be taken away by the Chinese communist party.

Where did this desire for these western values come from?

Why are Hong Kongers so passionate about fighting for their rights and freedoms?

In these 48 books on Hong Kong, you’ll find the answer to these questions and more with a look at this former British colony’s history and its citizens’ identity.


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Before we get started on this list of the best books on Hong Kong, there’s something that you should know:

For me, this list of books is more special than any of my other ones because…

I love Hong Kong more than any other city I’ve been to.

The moment I stepped foot in the fragrant harbor, I fell head over heels in love with it.

It was 1994 and Hong Kong was still a British colony. In that year, I was teaching English in Guangzhou, China, and visiting Hong Kong involved a simple bus or train ride to Shenzhen before walking across the border at Lo Wu and then another ride on the subway to Kowloon.

I will never forget the first time I walked down Nathan Road, looked out over the harbor at the skyline of Hong Kong Island, road the Star Ferry, took a double-decker bus along the streets of Central, looked down on Hong Kong from the Peak, read the South China Morning Post, perused the bookshelves of the English language bookstores, stepped into a Watson’s drug store and ate dim sum with my in-laws, a late-night bowl of noodles in some small noodle shop, and seafood along the shore in Cheung Chau.

Something about the energy of the city, the optimism, the bright lights, the skyline, the mix of East and West, and the food grabbed me and never let me go. Hong Kong was everything I loved about Chinese culture without the stifling lack of freedom of expression, the lies, the propaganda, the pollution, and the endless battles over every aspect of daily life that pervaded the mainland.

Over the years, I have visited the city more times than any other city. I never got tired of it.

But to see what has become of it over the past several years but especially in 2020 with the passage of the National Security Law really and truly breaks my heart.

These 48 books have helped me understand a bit more about what and why the people fought back against the elites and the rulers in Beijing. I hope they also help you understand the people of Hong Kong a bit better as well.

Table of Contents

For those who want to explore Hong Kong in-depth, start out with a book on the Opium Wars.

Then add some background to your reading with Steve Tsang’s A Modern History of Hong Kong. After that jump into one of the many books about the pro-democracy movement I have listed here. I also loved The Impossible City by Karen Cheung, which will give you a look at the major social issues facing Hong Kong today.

Finally, pick up some novels set in Hong Kong. I have a long list of fiction books here ranging from historical fiction to modern novels.

The ones that will help you understand the city and culture better include The Borrowed, Ghost Forest, and On Java Road.

For those wanting to take understand Hong Kong’s past, try The Piano Teacher for a look at the war years and Gweilo for the 1950s. Tai-Pan is a flawed novel, but it will give you a sense of the first year of the British colony and Noble House, equally flawed, takes place during the 1960s and covers the rise of Hong Kong as the business center of Asia.

Books on the Opium War

To understand Hong Kong, you need to first understand the Opium War—why it was fought and how it led to the British colonizing Hong Kong. For the Chinese government, the Opium War was a great humiliation and the return of Hong Kong to China was seen as rectifying that humiliation.

Two books have been written recently about the opium war: Imperial Twilight and The Opium War.

Which book should you read?

The two books are really quite different. Imperial Twilight focuses on the British and mainly uses British sources. The Opium War by Julia Lovell focuses on the Chinese and uses Chinese sources.

But you probably want to know which one is BETTER?

Read both reviews to find out.

1. Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age

By: Stephen R. Platt, 2018

MY RATING: 5 out of 5

“The basic fact was that the opium poppy grew very well in British India, which otherwise was a spectacularly unprofitable colonial venture (and which, without the rich profits from the Canton tea trade to offset its losses and debts, would likely have bankrupted the East India Company).”

Imperial Twilight by Stephen Platt is an engaging and thorough analysis of what led to the first Opium War. The book starts with McCartney’s unsuccessful attempt to establish diplomatic relations with China and ends with the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing that gave Hong Kong to Britain. A key thing to note is that the book does not cover the second Opium War.

The highlight of Imperial Twilight for me was Platt’s detailed descriptions of the key players in the foreign community of traders, missionaries, and diplomats as well as the British politicians and military leaders. You’ll learn about the key opponents and proponents of the opium trade. I came away from the book as if I knew these people personally. Unfortunately, I didn’t get that same intimate feeling from his descriptions of the Chinese officials, merchants, and traders.

The other thing I liked about the book was how smoothly the author switched between accounts of the events on the ground and the wider picture of what was happening globally. It gave me a good context in which to understand why the war happened.  

Overall, this is a superb book that at times reads more like a novel than a history book. If you want to understand the causes of the war, Imperial Twilight is a good choice.  

2. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China

By Julia Lovell, 2015

MY RATING: 5 out of 5

“Why when China is more open to (and dependent on) global forces than at any other time in its history, has the government chosen to mobilize a nationalism fueled by resentment of the West’s historical crimes against China? Why, at a time when China is supposed to be on the edge of superpower status, are its people so regularly reminded of an abject history of humiliation?”

I wish all history books were written by Julia Lovell. Ok I know that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but man, I love the way she writes history! Lovell directly points out the dishonesty, corruption, and hypocrisy of the key players on both the Chinese and British sides, but she doesn’t do it in a preachy or sanctimonious way. Instead, she’s sarcastic, biting, and funny. Very refreshing!

So what’s The Opium War about?

The Opium War is essentially about the First Opium War. She devotes a part of one chapter to the Second Opium War and another chapter to how the wars have been used as propaganda by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), making the book relevant to our current geopolitics.

Lovell begins by discussing how the CCP claims that the Opium War marked the beginning of China’s 150 years of humiliation by the West and that only the Communist Party has been able to erase that humiliation. These years of humiliation seem to be China’s justification for its future battle with and “eventual” defeat of the West. The way the CCP manipulates history reminds me of Orwell’s famous quote in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

Lovell digs through both British AND Chinese original sources to uncover what REALLY happened during the First Opium War. The best stuff comes from Chinese sources—so juicy and eye-opening that it kept me up way past my bedtime. More Chinese sources are what Imperial Twilight is missing.

What Lovell uncovers shows a side of history that the CCP doesn’t want anyone to know about.

But the Brits (or the French, Americans, or Russians) shouldn’t think that what Lovell’s research uncovers lets them off the hook. She’s also critical of them for being responsible for one of the most egregious acts in history—forcing a country to import an addictive drug.

Overall, The Opium War is an eye-opening and riveting look at an important event in history that I hope you have a chance to read.

If I had to choose between Lovell’s book and Imperial Twilight, I’d choose The Opium War.

Books on the History of Hong Kong

If you want to understand Hong Kong, first get a book on its history. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many written in English or translated into English to choose from.

I think A Modern History of Hong Kong is the best out there as it’s told from a Hong Kong Chinese perspective. All of the other books I found were written by Brits or Americans and tended to ignore the Chinese.

A new book on the Special Administrative Region’s history by Vaudine England is coming out later in 2023. It focuses on the multicultural aspect of Hong Kong.

For those interested in the history of Hong Kong as it relates to China, the recently published, The Gate to China, is an interesting and eye-opening read.

3. A Modern History of Hong Kong

By Steve Tsang, 2007

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

“The Hong Kong identity that emerged was based on a shared outlook and a common popular culture which blended traditional Chinese culture with that imported from overseas, with the influences of the USA, Britain and Japan being particularly noticeable. This shared outlook incorporated elements of the traditional Confucian moral code and emphasis on the importance of the family, as well as modern concepts like the rule of law, freedom of speech and of movement, respect for human rights, a limited government, a free economy, a go-getting attitude and pride in the local community’s collective rejection of corruption.”

I was looking for a book on the history of Hong Kong that would focus as much, if not more, on the Chinese as on the British.

Luckily, I chose correctly with Steve Tsang’s insightful and informative A Modern History of Hong Kong. It recounts the story of Hong Kong starting from the Opium Wars in the 1840s to the handover of the colony back to China in 1997.

You don’t get a boring list of colonial governors like a lot of other books on Hong Kong’s history. Instead, Tsang presents the former colony’s history mainly with a focus on the ethnic Chinese.

Overall, Tsang tries to answer three important questions regarding Hong Kong’s history:

  • How and why did Hong Kong become so prosperous and successful (as of 1997)?
  • What mark did British rule leave on the ethnic Chinese of Hong Kong?
  • How did a local Hong Kong identity emerge that is distinct from that of mainland China?

Another thing that I liked was how balanced and nuanced Tsang’s account of Hong Kong’s history was. He was critical but also praiseworthy of certain aspects of British rule.

Although the government that emerged was not a democracy, Tsang believes that by the 1980s the British finally managed to create a system in Hong Kong that had never been “matched in over two thousand years of Chinese history as a unified country.” Read the book to find out what kind of government it was.

Overall, the book helped me understand how history has shaped Hong Kongers’ identity. A Modern History of Hong Kong goes well with any of the other books written by Hong Kong authors.

4. The Gate to China: A New History of the People’s Republic and Hong Kong

By Michael Sheridan, 2021

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

“To the Chinese side this was the end of a national humiliation. They were determined to make it drawn out and bitter for the departing colonialists. That was not a diversion—it was the whole point. About one thousand Chinese officials were directly engaged in the handover and many of them swelled with patriotic pride as the foreigners inevitably submitted to their demands. To some it was vengeance for the poverty and suffering inflicted on past generations.”

The Gate to China by Michael Sheridan is a well-researched, informative, and fascinating account of Hong Kong’s contribution to the rise of China and China’s contribution to the fall of Hong Kong.

The book begins with the story of the Opium Wars and why the humiliating period in China’s history still resonates today in China’s relationship with the West.

Sheridan then sketches out in detail the key players involved in the painful negotiations between Britain and China regarding the 1997 handover of Hong Kong. China comes across as a bully, while Britain appears weak and clueless. It’s interesting how little Britain understood China’s deep-seething resentment toward it and how ill-equipped Thatcher was in negotiating with China.

There’s also a good analysis of Governor Chris Patten’s minor democratic reforms—in the end, did they hurt or help Hong Kong people?

Unfortunately, there’s little mention of what the people of Hong Kong were thinking at the time, but that’s probably not Sheridan’s fault as Hong Kongers’ feelings were never considered by either the British or the PRC.

The highlight for me, though, was learning about Hong Kong’s role in China’s economic development. I had originally assumed, very wrongly and ethnocentrically, that China was trying to emulate the U.S. economy. But in fact, they were trying to copy Hong Kong’s economic success.

The last three chapters focus on how Hong Kong struggled for its freedom and how the PRC finally succeeded in crushing it over the past 8 years. Very fascinating!

Overall, The Gate to China is an eye-opening book on Hong Kong and China. I highly recommend it!

5. Fortune’s Bazaar: The Making of Hong Kong

By Vaudine England, 2023

Fortune’s Bazaar by Vaudine England won’t be released until May 2023, but it sounds like it’s going to be a great book.

England tells the history of Hong Kong through its melting pot of cultures. Most histories focus on British and Chinese figures, but in this book, England looks at the Indians, Parsis, Jews, Armenians, Portuguese, and Eurasians. She also focuses on the less well-known and in some cases less reputable characters such as the opium and gold smugglers, missionaries, and migrants.

You can pre-order Fortune’s Bazaar now.

Books on Hong Kong – Memoirs & Travelogues

You can find some good memoirs and autobiographies written by people who’ve visited or lived in Hong Kong over the years. And one brilliant book by a local Hong Konger.

In Hong Kong Holiday, journalist Emily Hahn writes about her time in Hong Kong during World War II.

Martin Booth has a beautifully written book called Gweilo describing his childhood in Hong Kong in the 1950s.

The best travel writer who’s ever lived, Jan Morris, writes about the last days of colonial Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Diaries by the last governor of Hong Kong gives you some observations and insights into the colony’s last five years leading up to the Handover.

But perhaps my favorite is The Impossible City, a very moving memoir by Hong Kong local, Karen Cheung, describing her childhood in Hong Kong and her struggles with mental health issues, a dysfunctional family, and Hong Kong’s housing situation.

6. Hong Kong

By Jan Morris, 1997

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

“The urge for profit, the taste for good living, the flair for the dazzling, the energy, the mayhem, the gossip—all were there. East and West merged kaleidoscopically in the city streets.”

Written by one of the greatest travel writers who has ever lived, Hong Kong is Jan Morris’s tribute to one of the world’s greatest cities. The book is part travelogue and part history. Using alternating chapters, Morris smoothly weaves in her impressions of Hong Kong in the final years of the colony with the history of Hong Kong from its beginning as a thriving fishing village.

What I love about this book is that Morris’s writing is so vivid that I found myself transported back to the Hong Kong I knew from my many visits to the former colony in the 1990s. She perfectly captures the energy and beauty of Hong Kong that I also felt whenever I was there.

However, the parts that really grabbed me were the history chapters. Morris writes history like a travelogue. She transports you not only across an ocean but also across decades. While reading her book, I wanted a time machine to be able to stand on the shore of Hong Kong Island watching the first opium smugglers coming ashore, or sit in the stands at Happy Valley watching the horses cross the finish line during the race track’s first race.

My one criticism is her description of the Chinese people of Hong Kong. Morris is never purposely disrespectful or racist. But in today’s world, her descriptions could come across as stereotypical and insensitive–exotic, foreign, inscrutable. She’s looking at the ethnic Chinese from afar, never getting close to them, and never getting to know them. Just generalizing. I suppose most travel writers don’t stay long enough to get to know the people.

Although the writing is brilliant (minus the descriptions of people), Hong Kong is probably too out-of-date to be worthy of your time.

7. Hong Kong Holiday

By Emily Hahn, 1946

In today’s world, Emily Hahn’s life wouldn’t cause anyone to blink an eye. But in the 1930s and 1940s, she was way ahead of her time. An American from the midwest, Hahn was the first woman to earn a degree in mining engineering from the University of Wisconsin. In the 1930s, she worked for the Red Cross in the Belgian Congo and hiked by herself across central Africa. In 1935 she moved to Shanghai, where she worked as an English teacher and journalist.

Hahn wrote 54 books and over 200 articles for the New Yorker and short stories. She is best known for her articles on China during World War II and her book on the Soong Sisters.

During her time in Shanghai, she became an opium addict and a concubine to the poet, Shao Xunmei. In 1941, she moved to Hong Kong. When the Japanese invaded, she was not interned like the rest of the British and American ex-pat community because she was recognized as the wife of a Chinese person. Hahn left Hong Kong in 1943.

Hong Kong Holiday is a series of articles that she wrote for the New Yorker on her observations of and experiences in Hong Kong.

I own the book but I have not read it yet.

8. The Hong Kong Diaries

By Chris Patten, 2022

Chris Patten was the last British governor of Hong Kong before its handover back to China. He was a bit of a controversial figure in that he introduced a sort of limited democracy to Hong Kong, which made the Chinese government angry, leading to a breakoff in talks between the two countries concerning Hong Kong’s post-1997 government. Once China took over, they scrapped everything that Patten had done.

The Hong Kong Diaries is his diary entries during his time as governor from 1992 to 1997. Patten describes how the British colony was governed and what happened in the last five years of colonial rule. The book gives insights into negotiating with the Chinese and the people who opposed Patten introducing democracy to Hong Kong. Patten ends with his assessment of recent events in Hong Kong (the 2019 protests and the 2020 National Security Law and his recommendations for dealing with China in the future.  

I have not read The Hong Kong Diaries yet. However, reviews of the book by readers have been very positive (4.11 out of 5 rating on Good Reads).

9. Gweilo: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood

By Martin Booth, 2005

MY RATING: 5 out of 5

“I thought about it. I had been happy in Hong Kong. It had been an exciting place in which to live and I was sure it had much to offer that I had yet to uncover. However, there was more to it than that. I felt I had grown up in Hong Kong. I could recall little of my life prior to the Corfu. It was as if my memory—my actual existence—had begun the minute my foot had touched the dock in Algiers. England was as strange a place to me now as Hong Kong had been on that June morning in 1952. In short, I felt I belonged here.”

Gweilo is writer Martin Booth’s beautifully-written and evocative autobiography about his childhood growing up in Hong Kong in the 1950s.

He wrote this book after being diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2002. Based on no diaries but on letters his mother wrote, scrapbooks, and photo albums, Booth recounts his childhood from the moment he left England for Hong Kong at the age of seven.

Booth is such a good writer that before you know it you’re whipping through the pages of Gweilo. The descriptions are so detailed. It feels like you’re right there with him as he sneaks out of the hotel on his first night in Hong Kong, roams the streets and back alleys of Hong Kong, and encounters the Queen of Kowloon.

For those wanting to know more about Hong Kong, the book gives you a good look at the city in the 1950s. At this time, Hong Kong was recovering from the war, waves of immigrants from China were flooding into Hong Kong and struggling to earn a living in the city, and sailors from the U.S., Australia, and England were passing by on their way to the war in Korea.

What I loved most about Gweilo is that the main focus is on the Chinese people of the city and not on the western expatriates.

As I read the book, though, I kept on asking myself how he could remember his childhood in such great detail 50 years after it all happened and without a diary.

10. The Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir

By Karen Cheung, 2022

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

“I had bought into all the cliches that the adults told me about my city: that it was an apolitical cultural desert inhabited by go-getters who have no real values except becoming rich. But I did not know yet that this is a place where parallel universes coexist, and you could live your entire life here without ever pulling back the curtains on the other Hong Kongs.”

The Impossible City by journalist and local Hong Konger, Karen Cheung, is another one of my favorite books on Hong Kong, It’s part memoir about growing up in Hong Kong and part social and cultural commentary about the problems facing Hong Kong.

The memoir part is deeply moving. Cheung reveals stories about her abusive and dysfunctional family, her struggles with mental health, and her love of Hong Kong.

The social and cultural criticisms part is equally fascinating. Cheung describes the social problems facing Hong Kong—a lack of affordable housing and a lack of mental health care. She also has some interesting insights on filial piety that you’ll rarely hear from a Chinese person.

Overall, The Impossible City is an excellent book for those who want to understand what it’s like growing up in Hong Kong, why Hong Kongers care so much about their city, and what the social and economic issues facing it are. One of my favorite books on Hong Kong.

Books on Hong Kong – Pro-Democracy Movement

If you want to read only one book on Hong Kong, I would suggest picking from one of these five brilliant books on the pro-democracy movement.

Out of all the books I read, these are the ones that helped me understand Hong Kongers the most–why they love their city so much, why they feel so strongly about democracy, freedom, and the rule of law, and why their identity is so distinct from those in mainland China.

11. Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong

By Louisa Lim, 2022

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

“The British had not endowed their subjects with full citizenship, the right of abode in Britain, or universal suffrage, but they had inculcated them with civic values, including an almost religious respect for freedom, democracy, and human rights. And Hong Kongers were not going down without a fight.”

One of my favorite books on contemporary Hong Kong is Indelible City by Louisa Lim. It’s a thought-provoking, well-researched, and personal examination of Hong Kong’s history and identity.

The book is divided into three parts.

The first two parts are titled dominion and dispossession. Lim dispels certain myths about Hong Kong’s history told by both the British and Chinese sides. Was it really just a barren rock with a few fishermen and pirates on it?

Lim argues that Hong Kongers have never really had a voice in how they’ve been governed. Under the British, there was no democracy. In schools, there were never any classes on Hong Kong history. During the handover process, Hong Kongers were never asked their opinion.

The last part of the book is titled defiance and it covers Hong Kongers’ fight for freedom, democracy, and the rule of law from 2014 to 2019. She recounts the events of the Umbrella Movement, the Causeway Bay Booksellers incident, and the 2019 protests. Lim also explains how the political system in the Special Administrative Region slowly changed to exclude Hong Kongers from it.

Interwoven throughout Indelible City are two side stories. The first is about Lim’s search for her identity. She’s half British and half Chinese. She was born in Hong Kong, but she doesn’t speak Cantonese well. As a journalist covering the protests, her job was to be as objective as possible. But as a Hong Konger, she found it hard not to be emotionally involved in what was going on around her.

The second story is that of Tsang Tsou-choi, known as the King of Kowloon—a local character whose story symbolizes Hong Kong’s own story of dispossession and defiance. Tsang started plastering Hong Kong with posters in the 1950s accusing the British of stealing his land. When China took over in 1997, the King continued putting up posters across the city, but this time he was accusing the PRC of taking away his land.

Overall, Indelible City is an excellent choice for those who want to understand Hong Kong today.

12. Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World

By Mark L Clifford, 2022

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

“In the post-1997 world, freedom is at the core of what it means to be a Hong Konger. Even a National Security Law, a patriotic education campaign, a hotline to snitch on neighbors and colleagues, purges of teachers and journalists, loyalty oaths for government officials, elections that are delayed and rigged, and the jailing of nonviolent political dissidents won’t be enough to extinguish Hong Kongers’ fight for freedom.”

Today Hong Kong Tomorrow the World is an engaging and informative book for those who want to understand how Hong Kongers fought for freedom, democracy, and the rule of law and how they eventually lost that fight to the PRC.

Clifford Sheridan is a British journalist who lived in Hong Kong for at least 20 years. He was in Hong Kong during the 2014 and 2019 protests and the passage of the 2020 National Security Law. He gives a different perspective on the events since 2014 that’s not quite local but not quite foreigner either.

The book covers the following:

  • Part 1 – This is an excellent series of chapters on the Umbrella Movement of 2014 and the different sides in the democracy debate in Hong Kong: the pro-democracy side and the pro-Beijing elite.
  • Part 2 – These chapters recount the history of Hong Kong.
  • Part 3 – A smaller section that describes how both China and Hong Kong prospered through their business relationship but how Hong Kong has slowly been losing its city and culture to mainland China.
  • Part 4 –A fantastic section that describes the events of 2019 and Xi Jinping’s response to the protests with the passage of the 2020 National Security Law.

Citing several examples, Sheridan’s premise is that what Beijing did to Hong Kong, the PRC is doing to the rest of the world.

Overall, Today Hong Kong Tomorrow the World is one of my favorite books about Hong Kong. It helped me understand the demonstrations of 2014 and 2019.

The book explained rather broadly how Beijing coopted the business elite to take control of Hong Kong. I would have liked a more in-depth account of how they did this, but I suspect that it’s going to take years to uncover the hidden machinations of the PRC.

13. Freedom: How We Lose It and How We Fight Back

By Nathan Law, 2021

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

“…Hong Kong is also a lesson in how authoritarian power undermines a free society. It may not always arrive in a tank. It does not always happen overnight, by means of a coup. More often than not, it happens through a million subtle adjustments, each in itself so incremental that it might seem unnecessary to object.”

Freedom is a passionate and beautifully written first-hand account of what has happened to freedom, democracy, and the rule of law in Hong Kong over the past several years by one of the major figures in the city’s democracy movement, Nathan Law.

Law was one of the organizers of the 2014 Occupy Central Movement (a.k.a. the Umbrella Movement). He also ran for office and won only to lose his seat when he was accused of violating a law that had been implemented retroactively. Law also spent time in prison for protesting in 2014. In 2020 he left Hong Kong and was awarded asylum in the United Kingdom.

Law lays out what freedom and democracy mean to him and what it’s like to have his country’s freedom taken away, the rule of law replaced by rule by law, his culture lost, truth erased, and promised democracy unfulfilled.

He also gives examples of how Beijing uses economic blackmail to control what private citizens in other countries say and do.

It was also interesting to learn about Law’s personal life—how he came to Hong Kong from Shenzhen as a child, became an activist, ran for office, and then decided to leave Hong Kong.

Out of all the books I’ve read on Hong Kong this one hit me the most emotionally–made me angry at what Beijing did to the Hong People.

Freedom is very personal, very powerful, and very beautifully written.

14. Unfree Speech: The Threat to Global Democracy and Why We Must Act, Now

By Joshua Wong and Jason Y. Ng, 2020

MY RATING: Not read yet

Unfree Speech is an important book by Joshua Wong, one of the key leaders in Hong Kong’s democracy movement.

Wong began his activism at the age of 14. In 2011, he led a fight against the passage of a moral and national curriculum that was biased toward the CCP and critical of the United States’ two-party system. The city rallied behind the students, and they won!

Wong continued his activism leading the struggle for freedom and democracy, and the rule of law during the Umbrella Movement of 2014 and the anti-Extradition Bill protests of 2019.

Wong ended up in prison three times. In 2022, he was found guilty of subversion in a trial without a jury and with a judge picked by the Justice Secretary.  

The book was written by Wong while he was imprisoned for his activities during the 2014 Umbrella Movement. It’s divided into three parts.

  • Part 1: Wong’s life story and how he became an activist.
  • Part 2: Collection of letters he wrote in prison.
  • Part 3: Description of the activism he was engaged in at the time of writing as well as a global call to action.

I haven’t read the book yet. But I wanted to include it here because Wong is such an important and fascinating person in Hong Kong. Netflix has a documentary about him that I recommend watching–Teenager versus Superpower.

Reviewers who have read both Wong’s and Law’s books seem to prefer Law as the writing is better and he comes off as a bit more mature.

I hope one day the Nobel committee has the courage to award Wong (and his fellow activists) the Nobel Peace Prize.  

Fiction Books Set in Hong Kong

I had a hard time finding novels set in Hong Kong written in English or translated into English. At first, I found a lot of books written before 2000 that portrayed the Hong Kong Chinese as exotic, strange, devious, and unscrupulous (Tai-Pan and Noble House). Contemporary novels on Hong Kong are better but they also tend to focus on westerners in Hong Kong. My favorite ones are The Piano Teacher, Expatriates, and On Java Road.

It took me quite a while to find books written by Hong Kongers. But luckily I found some good ones–romances, mysteries, and family dramas. The perfectly titled Love in a Fallen City by one of the best contemporary Chinese writers, Eileen Chang, is a good book of short stories set during the 1930s and 1940s in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Any of the following books:

15. Tai-Pan: The Epic Novel of the Founding of Hong Kong

By James Clavell, 1966

MY RATING: 2 out of 5 stars

“Godrot opium, he thought. But he knew that his life was inexorably tied to opium—and that without it neither The Noble House nor the British Empire could exist.”

At over 1,000 pages, Tai-Pan is a truly epic novel. The historic novel covers the first year of the founding of the colony of Hong Kong. It’s 1841 and the opium smugglers, Chinese compradors, missionaries, British colonial government, and Chinese laborers are starting to settle on Hong Kong island.

The main character is Dirk Struan, a Scottish trader and opium smuggler known as Tai-Pain, a title given to the most powerful and wealthiest trader in Asia. Struan is the head of a trading company called Noble House. The story is about how Struan established the colony, saved his business, and fought off his enemies.

Supposedly, James Clavell based Dirk Struan on William Jardine, the head of the most famous Hong Kong trading company, Jardine, Matheson, and Company. Everything I’ve read about Jardine is far different from the Struan character.

All of the names of historical figures have been changed, which I found really frustrating. I like my historical fiction to have enough facts to make it realistic. Tai-Pan seems to be more like 90% fiction and 10% fact. Historical events also take place at different times.

This is a much-loved book. Reviews are overwhelmingly positive. I can understand people liking it. Dirk Struan is a fabulous character and Hong Kong is a captivating setting. The plot held my attention for all 1,000 pages.

However, Tai-Pan hasn’t withstood the test of time. It was first published in 1966 when it was acceptable to portray Asian people as less than human—exotic, foreign, devious, unscrupulous, and inscrutable. In today’s world, it’s not and it shouldn’t be. I found myself cringing all the way through the book whenever a Chinese character came on the scene.

Someone should rewrite this book because the tale of Hong Kong is worth telling.

16. Noble House

By James Clavell, 1981

MY RATING: 2 out of 5 stars

“He took a deep breath of air. Once again he caught a strangeness on the wind, neither pleasant nor unpleasant, neither odor nor perfume—just strange, and curiously exciting. “Superintendent, what’s that smell? Casey noticed it too, the moment Sven opened the door.” Armstrong hesitated. Then he smiled. “That’s Hong Kong’s very own, Mr. Bartlett. It’s money.”

Noble House is the sequel to Tai-Pan. It’s now 1963 and the trading house that Dirk Struan built still exists. And one of Struan’s descendants is still the Tai-Pan of Noble House and he is still the most powerful and wealthiest tai-pan in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has changed, though. It’s now the business center of Asia. There’s also more interaction between the Chinese and European residents. However, the business community is as greedy and cutthroat as ever. If someone isn’t stabbing you in the back, just wait. They will eventually.

Still, Hong Kong has a lot of problems. Noble House does a good job of highlighting them. The Chinese population still experiences discrimination. The government neglects them, only taking action if an issue is relevant to the European population. The poor Chinese live in shoddy, unsafe dwellings that suffer from landslides continuously and the government seems to care very little. Corruption runs rampant in the police department and the colonial administration. Water is in such short supply that most people can only bathe every four days.

Now for the story. At over 1,000 pages it is a long, convoluted one with a cast of characters as large as the Bible. Oddly, though, I was able to keep track of who was who until the very end.

There are two storylines:

  • Ian Dunross, the new tai-pan, is trying to close a deal with Par-Con, an American company, while at the same time, the Noble House’s old nemesis (a descendant of Brock and his family) is trying to destroy him. Then everyone else is trying to make as much money as possible. This is the best part of the book.
  • The Soviet Union unleashes its spies all over Hong Kong. Every other person in the book seems to be a double agent either working for the communists in Russia or the ones in China. This was the weaker story and honestly could have been left out entirely, perhaps making Noble House a shorter and better book.

Unfortunately, Noble House doesn’t stand the test of time. The book was published in 1981 and Clavell’s writing reflects the sexism and racism of that time period. Women and Chinese characters are portrayed in ways that today’s writers would never do. All of this made it hard for me to finish the book.

Like Tai-Pan I wish someone would update this book to make it more palatable for the twenty-first century. The story of Hong Kong’s rise and downfall is one that ought to be told more in literature.

17. Love in a Fallen City

By Eileen Chang, 1943

MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

“That’s why Jimiao is desperate to leave Hong Kong. It’s too colonial here. If we go somewhere else, the race restrictions can’t possibly be as severe, can they? There must be some place in the world where we can live.“

Love in a Fallen City is a collection of short stories by one of China’s greatest contemporary writers, Eileen Chang (Aileen Zhang). All the stories are set in the 1930s and 1940s and in either Hong Kong or Shanghai. They focus on themes of romantic love and family relationships.

The book is composed of six novellas and short stories:

  • Set in Hong Kong, “Aloeswood Incense” is about a naïve young woman who goes to live with a narcissistic and manipulative aunt. The story is interesting but also confusing. I found the writing or translation to be rather awkward.
  • “Jasmine Tea” takes place in Hong Kong. It’s a bizarre story about a mentally unstable young man from a family whose wealth has been squandered on opium. The writing here is so much better than the previous story. Was this written by a different person?
  • “Love in a Fallen City” takes place during the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. The main character is Bai Liusu, a boring and pathetic divorced woman who lives with her extended family in Shanghai. She flees to Hong Kong where she meets a wealthy western-educated playboy who makes everyone think that she’s his mistress. The interactions and motivations of the characters confused me.
  • “The Golden Cangue” is one of those stories that you can’t get out of your head but you wish you could. It’s about a bitter and narcissistic woman named Ch’i-Ch’iao and her relationship with her family. A very, very bizarre story.
  • In “Sealed Off,” two strangers meet on a tram in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. I had a hard time understanding the interaction and motivations of the man and woman.
  • “Red Rose, White Rose” is about a young western-educated, narcissistic man named Zhenbao and how he mistreats everyone around him. Another story that is hard to get out of your head.

It’s hard not to be turned off by love, marriage, men, and family after reading these stories. The young female characters are boring and passive. The male characters are selfish and entitled. The families are all selfish, abusive, and manipulative. Older women are bitter and narcissistic. Even when supposedly the story ends happily for the woman, it’s sad.

All of the stories take place at a time when China was occupied by China, yet you rarely get a sense of the turmoil. Zhang usually kept politics out of her writing.

And yet I liked these short stories. Some were bizarre. Many of the characters were frustrating. I wanted to shake them and tell them to get a backbone and stand up to their family. As a non-Chinese, the interactions between characters and their motivations confounded me throughout. However, weeks later, I still can’t forget them.

Love in a Fallen City is also one of the only books I could find written by a Hong Kong Chinese person in the 1930s-40s. So if you want to know a bit about what Chinese people were thinking back then, this may be the only book out there in English.

Other books by Eileen Chang that take place in Hong Kong:

  • Little Reunions – A dark romance between Julie and the charismatic Chih-yung, a traitor and Japanese collaborator
  • Naked Earth – Not about Hong Kong but perhaps Chang’s greatest novel
  • Lust, Caution – This book was made into a movie that was set in Hong Kong, but the novel mainly takes place in Shanghai
  • Written on Water – a book of essays on Chang’s thoughts on art, literature, war, and her life as a writer and woman set during the war period in Shanghai and Hong Kong

18. The Language of Threads

By Gail Tsukiyama, 1999

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

“Just that we can’t run away from what defines our fates. Who we are and what we believe in grow from the roots of our past, no matter how much we might try to deny it.”

The Language of Threads by Gail Tsukiyama is the sequel to The Women of Silk. In the first book, at 8 years old, Pei is abandoned by her family to work in a silk factory and live in Auntie Yee’s girls house, where she finds friendship and love. Many years later, she goes through a hairdressing ceremony, in which she vows to never marry.

The Language of Threads begins in 1938 as the Japanese are entering Canton and Pei and Ji Shen are fleeing to Hong Kong.

Pei’s first job in Hong Kong as a maid in the home of a wealthy family ends in scandal. However, she soon finds a job with Mrs. Finch, a British widow who treats her and Ji Shen like family. Then the Japanese invade and occupy Hong Kong and life is turned upside down again.

My favorite part of the book was learning about the lives and culture of these “self-combed women.”

However, I found the plot to be too predictable. Pei was too one-dimensional. Too perfect to be realistic. She had no faults. Always forgiving, loving, selfless, patient, kind, hardworking, and good at everything, and never jealous or petty.

I like historical fiction because it gives me a sense of what life was like in the past. But The Language of Threads gave me a sanitized version of reality. No mention of British racism toward the Chinese. The Japanese were pretty tame here. Very few incidents of Japanese cruelty and barely any interaction between them and the main characters.

Another thing that really bothered me was that the book got some cultural facts wrong. For example, Ji Shen comes from Nanjing. Pei is from Guangdong. In the 1930s, both girls would have spoken “dialects” so different from each other that they wouldn’t have been able to understand each other. Neither would have been educated enough to have learned Mandarin.

Overall, the book was ok. Nothing special for me.

19. The Painted Veil

By W. Somerset Maugham, 1925

MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

“’I had no illusions about you,” he said. “I knew you were silly and frivolous and empty-headed. But I loved you. I knew that your aim and ideals were vulgar and commonplace. But I loved you. I knew that you were second-rate. But I loved you. Its comic when I think how hard I tried to be amused by the things that amused you and how anxious I was to hide from you that I wasn’t ignorant and vulgar and scandal-mongering and stupid.’”

The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham is a beautifully written novel set in 1920s Hong Kong and China. It follows the story of a married couple, Kitty and Walter. Kitty is vain, selfish, and superficial. She meets Walter who falls in love with her despite her flaws. She doesn’t love him but agrees to marry him in order to escape her life in England.

Walter takes her to Hong Kong where he works as a bacteriologist. Two years later, Kitty is having an affair with the equally vain Charlie Townsend. Walter finds out about the affair and in order to punish Kitty, he forces her to accompany him to a plague-infested village in China.

If you’re looking for a book that will give you a window into the lives of British expatriates in colonial Hong Kong, you’ll be sadly disappointed. The book could have taken place in any British colony. Hong Kong is irrelevant. Besides that, the bulk of the story doesn’t take place in Hong Kong at all.

That being said, The Painted Veil is still a great novel mainly because of its magnificent prose. The words just flowed effortlessly off the page so that you never tire of reading it. I also wanted to keep reading to find out whether Kitty was going to die.

Overall, The Painted Veil is a great novel with themes of redemption, freedom, and self-discovery, but not one with much of a focus on Hong Kong.

20. The Honourable Schoolboy: A George Smiley Novel

by John le Carre, 1977

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

“He breathed in, savouring the familiar pleasures. The east had never failed him: “We colonise them. Your graces, we corrupt them, we exploit them, we bomb them, sack their cities, ignore their culture, and confound them with the infinite variety of our religious sects. We are hideous not only in their sight, Monsignors, but in their nostrils as well—the stink of the round-eye is abhorrent to them and we’re too thick even to know it. Yet when we have done our worst, and more than our worst, my sons, we have barely scratched the surface of the Asian smile.”

Set partly in Hong Kong before the fall of Saigon, The Honourable Schoolboy is a book by the premier spy novelist, John le Carre. It’s the second book in the Karla Trilogy.

The book starts off where Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ended with the British Secret Service in tatters. A high-ranking member of the spy agency was actually a mole working for the Russians. George Smiley must repair the damaged agency and bring down the Russian mastermind, Karla.

Smiley puts together a small group of spies to find out what Karla is now up to. He finds it in Vientiane, Laos—a Russian named Boris is transferring money to a Hong Kong company. Smiley sends Gerald Westerby undercover to Hong Kong to find out what the Russians are up to. This in turn leads Gerald to travel all over Southeast Asia.

Spy thrillers are one of those books that I can whip through in a few days, but with The Honourable Schoolboy, I needed a lot of patience. I had to read carefully and reread certain parts, or else I would get lost. Plus, I think you need to have read the first novel in the Karla trilogy to get this book completely.

The writing is also quite stuffy and wordy. So many pages to say one simple thing. John le Carre is no Hemingway. There’s also a lot of jargon or old-fashioned British slang that slowed me down. Here’s just one example: “Smiley had blown staff to dismiss, and blown residencies to dismantle.”

Overall, I wasn’t impressed with The Honourable Schoolboy. The ending was a boring letdown. I also just didn’t get the protagonist’s motivations at the end of the novel.

Also, the book was written in the 1970s and the writing reflects the misogyny and racism of that decade. If you’re a guy, the book might appeal to you. But as a woman, I don’t want to read stories about helpless women who need a man to always save them.

21. The Piano Teacher

By Janice Y.K. Lee, 2009

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

“She is the most amiable rude person ever. People bask in her attention.”

I absolutely adored this book of historical fiction set during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. The Piano Teacher is beautifully written with a wonderful love story and vivid descriptions of an important time in Hong Kong’s history.

There are two overlapping stories:

The first story is my favorite. It takes place a few months before and during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. The two main characters are Trudy and Will. Trudy is Eurasian, which puts her in a different position in Hong Kong—not quite accepted by the European crowd but also not completely accepted by the Chinese crowd either. Will is British. He’s one of those cool guys who never go along with the crowd, just doing his own thing.

A few months before the Japanese occupation, they meet and fall in love. And then the Japanese invade and things change for both of them. Will goes into a prisoner-of-war camp and Trudy is on the outside dealing with the Japanese.

The second part takes place in 1952. The main character is Claire—a young British woman, newly married, who teaches piano to the daughter of a wealthy family. Claire’s story, though, isn’t really the focus of the book. Lee uses her as a way for us to find out what happened to Will and Trudy during the war.

I’m surprised that the reviews for this are not better than they are on GoodReads. I think this is such a good story. Some reviewers say Claire is rather dull. However, I think her dullness is so as not to distract from Trudy and Will’s story.

Anyway, I loved the book. If you want to get a sense of what life was like in Hong Kong during the war, The Piano Teacher is a good book of historical fiction.

22. The Expatriates

By Janice Y.K. Lee, 2016

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

“This is the Hong Kong curse that expat housewives talk about in hushed voices: the man who takes to Hong Kong the wrong way. He moves from an egalitarian American society, where he’s supposed to take out the trash every day and help with the dinner dishes, to a place where women cater to his every desire—a secretary who anticipates his needs before he does, a servant in the house who brings him his espresso just the way he likes it and irons his boxers and his socks—and the local population is not as sassy with the comebacks as where he came from, so, of course, he then looks for that in every corner of his life.”

I know Expatriates doesn’t get the highest reviews on Good Reads. But for me, I just couldn’t put the book down and I couldn’t get the characters and story out of my head.

The book centers around three main characters: Mercy, Margaret, and Hillary. All ex-pats in Hong Kong.

First, Mercy. 20 years old, Korean-American from Queens. She’s got a talent for making bad decisions and saying odd things. Can’t get her life in order. Everything she comes into contact with she breaks. In real life, you’d be her friend because you’d feel good about yourself for not being her. On the pages of a book, she’s like a car crash you can’t look away from.

Second, Margaret. Stay-at-home mom. Mother of three. Married to Clarke. Lives a cushy life in Hong Kong. She wants to get to know locals and have friends from all over the world, but instead she ends up settling in the American ex-pat ghetto.

Third, Hillary. Married to a very successful lawyer named David. Childless. She wants children but she has yet to conceive after years of trying. Her marriage is on the rocks. She’s lost and purposeless like Margaret.

One day early in the book Margaret and Mercy meet. Margaret hires her to babysit her children on a trip to Korea.

But even before the family and Mercy leave the airport in Hong Kong for Korea, the signs are there that perhaps hiring this woman to take care of her children was a mistake. Little does Margaret know that what was to happen in Korea would cost her and her family dearly.

The writing in Expatriates is so good that it will make you feel like you’re right there in Hong Kong living amongst these three women.

23. The Borrowed

By Chan Ho-Kei (author) and Jeremy Tiang (translator), 2014

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“People started insinuating that in Hong Kong, power was now able to crush justice, and that the police were just the stooges of those in authority, closing one eye when it came to groups supported by the government, serving no one but the politicians.”

The Borrowed by Ho-Kei Chan is a mystery novel with the perfecgt concept but with imperfect execution. At times, I thought the book was the most original and thought-provoking novel I’d read on Hong Kong. But at other times, I found myself rolling my eyes at the absurd plots while counting the number of pages left in the book.

That being said, I still recommend reading it. It’ll give you a good sense of the personality of Hong Kong during different periods in its history.

The Borrowed is divided into 6 parts. Each part is about 100 pages long and describes a stand-alone who-done-it-style mystery in the veins of Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes. The main detective is Kwan Chun-Dok, a clever investigator who uses logic, observation, and deductive reasoning to solve ridiculously complex mysteries involving murder, prison escapes, and kidnapping.

What’s unique about the 6 parts is that each one takes place in an important year in Hong Kong’s history (1967, 1977, 1989, etc.) The other original feature is that the parts are in reverse chronological order. Part 1 takes place in 2013 (year before the 2014 Umbrella Movement), Part 2 – 2003 (SARS), Part 3 – 1997 (Handover to China), Part 4 – 1989 (Tiananmen Square massacre), Part 5 – 1977 (establishment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption), and Part 6 – 1967 (Communist strikes and bombings). As the book goes backward in time, the reader can see how Hong Kong society and police have changed over time.

The concept is great and would have been even better if the book’s focus had been more consistent throughout.

The first 4 parts are classic mysteries. There are only brief mentions of the events and social changes going on around the detective. For example, in part 3, there’s one sentence about the handover that would take place a month later, and in part 4 one sentence about some protests in Beijing. I was bored with these mysteries and found them to be unrealistically complex.

Then the book changes course in parts 5 and 6 and the social changes and problems become the focus of the novel. In part 5, police corruption and the Independent Commission Against Corruption are the focus and in part 6, the labor protests and the communist uprisings are the centers of the story. I found myself savoring every page but at the same time wanting to get to the end to learn the answer.

Overall, parts 5 and 6 are by far the best sections of the book. if Chan had made all the chapters more social realism than a classic murder mystery, The Borrowed would have been a perfect book.

If you’re interested in reading The Borrowed, it’ll help to read Steve Tsang’s A Modern History of Hong Kong beforehand.

24. Second Sister

By Chan Ho-Kei (author) and Jeremy Tiang (translator), 2017

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“The problem isn’t the internet, it’s us.”

Second Sister is the second book on this list by Chan Ho-Kei. It’s a mystery set in 2014 during the Umbrella Movement. There’s only a brief mention of the protests and demonstrations impacting the closing down of streets and people’s distrust of the police. Other than that, it doesn’t play a key role in the story.

The mystery centers around a young woman named Nga Yee and her poor struggling family. Her mother and father both passed away, leaving Nga Yee and her younger sister, Siu Man, the only ones left in the family. But then one day Sui Man takes her own life. Nga Yee is devastated. She hires an investigator to find out what happened to her sister.

I didn’t expect that I would like this book as much as I did. The characters are so well-developed and intriguing and the mystery is so well plotted out that I had a hard time putting the book down. I actually liked it more than Chan’s other mystery, The Borrowed.

Nga Yee isn’t the most fascinating character, but I found her likable. I felt sorry for her and really wanted her to be happy. 

The other main character, N, the investigator/hacker, is a fascinating character. I like my detectives to have an edge to them and some imperfections. Makes a much more interesting character. N is an absolute jerk. He’s really mean to Nga Yee. Yet, I kept on thinking that his rudeness was perhaps masking a really nice and caring guy.

The other thing I liked about the book was its social dimensions. Second Sister gives a foreigner a look inside the problems with affordable housing and the difficulty Hong Kongers have in making ends meet. There’s a lot of commentary on universal social issues like bullying, sexual harassment, and social media.

25. Ghost Forest

By Pik-Shuen Fung, 2021

My RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

“And as I got older, I kept moving and moving—from Vancouver to Providence to London to New York—because whenever I started to feel attached to a place or to people, I wanted, subconsciously, to make sure I would be the first to leave.”

Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung is a beautifully written and emotionally powerful story about a complicated relationship between a father and daughter. The story is set in 1987, 10 years before Hong Kong’s return to China. Many Hong Kongers are filled with uncertainty and anxiety about the Handover, so they immigrate to Australia, the United Kingdom, or Canada.

The narrator (name unknown) is the daughter of the story. At the age of 3, she and her mother immigrate to Vancouver. Her father stays behind in Hong Kong to earn a living for the family. Eventually, a second daughter is born and the narrator’s grandparents join the family in Canada. A typical “astronaut family”–the father stays in Hong Kong to work while the family lives overseas.

The daughter and father have a complicated relationship. She rarely sees her father growing up and as she grows older, their encounters are a series of misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Many of these father-daughter conflicts are universal (forgiveness, disappointment, and trying to win approval), while others are distinctly Hong Kong Chinese (filial piety, wanting sons over daughters).

Each chapter is very short ranging from a few sentences to a few paragraphs long–briefly describing one scene of the narrator’s life with her family, usually her father.  The writing is very simple but beautiful—almost like a poem.

One of my favorite parts of Ghost Forest is the description of a traditional Hong Kong funeral.

Overall, a very moving story about family, memory, forgiveness, disappointment, and love.

26. Diamond Hill

By Kit Fan, 2021

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“We are in a state of transition here. In fact, everyone in Hong Kong is obsessed with one single date: 1 July 1997. The whole city is in a state of violent change, moving from one regime we are used to loathing, to another one we are loath to get used to.”

Diamond Hill takes place in 1987. It’s been three years since China and Britain signed the Joint Declaration laying out the terms for the Handover of Hong Kong on July 1, 1997.

The narrator, nicknamed Buddha (his real name is never revealed), has just returned to Hong Kong after living for two years in Thailand. Buddha is an ex-heroin addict, who has just recovered with the help of a Buddhist monk named Daishi. Daishi arranges for Buddha to stay with some nuns in a convent in Diamond Hill, a poorer part of Hong Kong.

Nicknamed Hollywood of the Orient, Diamond Hill was once the location of Hong Kong’s first movie studios. Jackie Chan made Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon in Diamond Hill. Eventually, the movie studios moved away and Diamond Hill turned into a shanty town full of drugs, prostitution, and triads.

In a place where land is scarce, property developers are eyeing Diamond Hill as prime real estate for development. Buddha shows up as developers are pushing the slum dwellers out of Diamond Hill, bulldozing their shacks, and laying the foundation for high-rise luxury apartment buildings.

The story starts out well. The writing has a nice smooth flow to it. There are some evocative descriptions of Diamond Hill and the period before the Handover that sucked me right in. The book does a good job of making you experience those feelings Hong Kongers have about the handover: helplessness and uncertainty but also excitement at the money-making opportunities.

But then I began to doze off in the middle. There’s not much of a plot. I kept on waiting for something to happen.

I liked Buddha. He’s a likable guy, but I just didn’t connect emotionally with any of the other characters. Prostitutes, drug dealers, and nuns should be interesting but for me, they weren’t.

However, thankfully, toward the end, as I learn bits and pieces of everyone’s background and how the different characters are related to each other, the story picks up and I’m sucked right back into Diamond Hill.

The book turns into a rather philosophical story about the temporariness of life and second chances. I like this aspect of the story.  It made me think about my own life and whether if given a second chance, I’d just screw it up again.

Overall, I highly recommend Diamond Hill if you like something philosophical and with a focus on time, place, and character.

27. Hong Kong Noir

Edited by Jason Y. Ng and Susan Blumberg-Kason, 2018

MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

“In a place that never sleeps and barely even blinks, violent crimes are a relative rarity and people feel safe hanging out on the street at all hours of the day. When Hong Kongers do commit murder, however, they do so with plenty of dramatic flourish. Dismemberment, cannibalism, a laced milkshake, and a severed head tucked inside a giant Hello Kitty doll—Hong Kongers have seen it all.”

Hong Kong Noir is a compilation of 14 short stories set in Hong Kong. You’ll find “ghost stories, murder- mysteries, domestic dramas, cops-and-robbers tales, and historical thrillers.”

If you’re reading these dark stories because you want something with a lot of horror and gore, you’ll probably be disappointed. Overall, they’re pretty tame.

However, if you want to learn more about the city-state, then the stories are a good description of today’s Hong Kong and its “Widening income gap, sky-high property prices, a tone-deaf government that citizens had no part in choosing, and above all, the gradual disappearance of Hong Kong’s unique character, epitomized by the demolition of heritage sites and other collective memories.”

There were a few interesting stories with ties to Hong Kong’s past—the Japanese occupation, the 1997 handover, and the 1967 riots.

Here are my favorite stories:

  • “Ghost of Yulan Past” – takes place after the 2014 Occupy Movement – interesting religious beliefs and political commentary.
  • “The Quintessence of Dust” – a bizarre, well-written, and fun story that really captures a sense of place
  • “You Deserve More” – about marriage, politics, and cross-cultural romance – this could have been a really good thriller if it were a full novel –
  • “One Marriage, Two People” – a story about a mainland Chinese husband and British wife on the day of the handover. Another good story that could be an even better novel.

I started reading this book at the start of my Hong Kong reading journey. Got to the third story and stopped reading. Boring. Then after reading over 40 books on Hong Kong, I picked it up again and zipped through it in a day–really enjoyed the collection and after knowing something about the city’s history, the stories were more meaningful.

28. On Java Road

By Lawrence Osborne, 2022

MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

“She believed in the efficiency of the communist party but what was important was that she saw the communist party as the one entity that could make China and thus she the greatest power in the world. This would be her future and her family’s future. Her duty was to her clan, her dynasty, her people, and her civilization.“

I loved Lawrence Osborne’s previous book, The Glass Kingdom, a thriller set in Bangkok. Great characters and an intense plot.  His latest, On Java Road, I equally loved but for completely different reasons—the setting, the atmosphere, and its insightful observations of Hong Kong.

The book takes place in Hong Kong during the 2019 democracy protests. Osborne is as good as Graham Greene was at capturing the mood of a city in political turmoil. Umbrellas. Tear gas. Rubber bullets. Riot police. Thugs beating up foreigners. Anger. Violence. Suicides. Students turning up dead. Because this is history, we already know that these are the last days of freedom in Hong Kong and the sign of a rising authoritarian power, and that I feel, for me anyway, adds to the mood and significance of the book.

The main character is Adrian Gyles, a mediocre British journalist and long-time resident of Hong Kong. Adrian has friends in high places like his best friend, Jimmy Tang, a member of a wealthy and powerful Hong Kong family.

One day Jimmy invites Adrian to dinner to meet his mistress, Rebecca To—23 years old from the same upper class as Jimmy. She’s also a democracy protestor.

Then Rebecca disappears and Jimmy hides. Adrian tries to piece together what happened to Rebecca. Did Jimmy kill her? Or was she another victim of the police and the communist party?

But the mystery of Rebecca’s disappearance doesn’t feel like the central focus of the novel. Instead, the focus is on what is happening on the streets of Hong Kong and what is going to happen to the city and to the new world order.

As an international politics and history junkie, I love how Osborne weaves into the story the various perspectives of the democracy movement and this rising China. There’s Jimmy’s wife who represents the pro-Beijing wealthy elite of Hong Kong and then there are two reporters—one from Sri Lanka representing the Global South, and another from Australia representing the left-wing anti-U.S. perspective.

Overall, I’m giving this book 4.5 out of 5 because I do feel that the book would have been even better if there was more suspense having to do with Rebecca’s disappearance. It felt a bit unfinished.

I think On Java Road is a good book to read alongside Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World.

29- 44. The Ava Lee Series

By Ian Hamilton, 2011 – 2022

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

I found this series of books about a really cool forensic accountant, Ava Lee, to be highly addictive. Impossible to put down once I started one. And then I’d immediately start the next one in the series.

I really hope you pick on up and get to know the coolest forensic accountant that’s ever made it onto the pageS of literature. Who knew that accounting could be so thrilling!

Along with accounting, Hong Kong Canadian, Ava Lee, is a Hong-Kong Canadian also knows a special form of martial arts.

Her business partner is a former triad leader, Uncle Chow. They run a small business helping people, mainly from Hong Kong, who’ve been cheated out of their money or business. Eva’s job is to track down the money.

Sometimes the cases take place in Hong Kong. Often Eva travels all over the world. In The Wild Beasts of Wuhan, she travels to Hong Kong, Wuhan, London, and the Faroe Islands.

The books are well-written, the plot is tight and thrilling, the dialogue sounds natural, and the settings are always fun.

Here’s a complete list of the Ava Lee Books in order:

45 – 48. The Lost Decades of Uncle Chow Tung Series (1 – 4)

By Ian Hamilton, 2019

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Basically, most things that ran contrary to the status quo were labelled criminal and since the British had imposed—and rigorously defended—their version of the status quo on a Chinese culture with a different set of values, there as a disconnect.”

The Uncle Chow Tung series is the prequel to the Ava Lee series by Ian Hamilton. It tells the story of Ava’s business partner and Triad leader, Uncle Chow Tung. The series covers the year 1969 when Uncle Chow was an ordinary member of the Fanling Triads until Chow’s last years when he was suffering from cancer. It focuses on Uncle Chow’s time as a member and leader of a Hong Kong triad.

So far I’ve only read book 1, Fate.

Fate starts out with the story of how Uncle Chow got to Hong Kong in 1959. Then it jumps to 1969, when Uncle Chow is a member of the Fanling Triad.

Unfortunately, the head of the Fanling Triad (Mountain Master) has just died and the person who is supposed to take over is weak, conservative, and ineffective. A struggle over the leadership of the triad ensues. Meanwhile, other neighboring triads can sense this weakness and try to make a move on Fanling’s territory. Uncle Chow organizes the rest of the gang to fend off their rivals, unite the group, and keep the money flowing in.

The story is good. The book starts out a bit too slowly but then picks up at the end and it becomes a page-turner.

My issue is that the dialogue doesn’t sound like how actual triad members would talk. They sound the way a bunch of men from the suburbs of Canada would talk to each other—too polite.

There are a few plot points that don’t seem realistic enough.

I also wish the author had weaved some background on Hong Kong triads into the story. Throughout the whole book, names of different positions in the triad would come up but without any explanation of what they meant.

Overall, I’d probably continue reading more books in the series.

Here is a list of all the books in the series:

Final Thoughts

That’s all 48 books about Hong Kong. I hope you’ve found something to read about what was once one of the greatest cities in the world.

I have enjoyed this reading journey through Hong Kong. If you were to ask me for my top 5 favorite books, here’s my answer:

  1. The Impossible City – passionate and insightful
  2. Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World – informative
  3. The Opium War – insightful and funny
  4. A Modern History of Hong Kong – informative
  5. All the books in the Ava Lee series – so fun!

Two books that deserve honorable mention are The Borrowed and On Java Road. Neither are perfect books, but both say something about Hong Kong that helped me understand the city better.

If you have any other books I should add to this list, let me know!

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About The Bamboo Traveler!

Welcome to The Bamboo Traveler, a travel blog dedicated to helping those travelers who want to dig deeply into the history, heritage, and culture of a place. Whether it’s through the pages of your passport or the pages of a book, I’ll help you travel the world and uncover the history, culture, food, architecture, and natural beauty of some of the world’s most fascinating places.

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