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[134] Gweilo: A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood – Martin Booth

“I thought about it. I had been happy in Hong Kong. It had been an exciting place in which I 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.” (371)

For an eight-year-old who has to leave his home country for a far-flung unknown territory, Martin Booth fares really well, aside from the fear that his hair might be put into a braid upon arrival in Hong Kong in 1952. Homesickness doesn’t seem to have a clutch on the amicable boy, besides his grandparents with whom he maintains a scrupulous correspondence in letters, who scrapes pleasant acquaintance with locals everywhere he goes. The beauty of Gweilo: A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood is the recreation of a city that had long vanished through the curious eye of a boy, his inquisitive mind, his penchant for urban adventure and a desire to understand its people and culture. His blond hair is what makes him the Congeniality Boy—for the golden color bespeaks good fortune. Amazingly this physical attribute gives him a passport to many a nook and cranny of Chinese life. Locals lay their hands on the head of this walking talisman.

Besides the fact that Booth’s narrative, sometimes very novelistic for a memoir, is full of color and anecdote, wit and originality, this book strokes my heart-string because his first residence in Hong Kong, on Waterloo Road near Soares Avenue in Ho Man Tin, is right across the street from where I used to go to school. The disparate expatriates at Four Seas Hotel on 75 Waterloo Road find themselves living in proximity of locals. The alleys and streets on which Booth is centered are the very same that I have trundled for a decade en route to school. The food stalls, known as dai pai dongs as Booth fondly recalls his patronizing, are typical sights of Hong Kong back in the 50s and eventually disappeared in early 80s. They are shanties made of wood with corrugated tin roof. Served underneath these shanties are noodle soups, milk tea, and other local savories. A thin pall of smoke hangs over them. I’m amazed how well a little boy could fit in and assimilate to living in a neighborhood that is not traditionally an expatriate quarter. He is not even a bit dismayed at the staccato rattle of mahjong tiles at nights, the humming richshaw traffic, and the stench of pipes.

I won’t be guilty of hyperbole to say that young Booth has taken Hong Kong for what it is—the ubiquitous bamboo poles on which hung drippy laundries, the burning joss-sticks as thick as cigars with which ladies hedge their bets on good fortune by being on the good side of gods, the signs erupted in numerous shades of neon color in twilight, the live hens in bamboo cages that clank with aviary irritation, and the narrow cobbled streets infused with aroma of herbs in Western District—and has seen more of what Hong Kong has to offer than many of us natives. His escapades take us to secluded sites like the walled city ghetto, Islamic cemetery, and even the typhoon shelter where sampans with arched awnings under which live a whole family of fishing folk.

Gweilo, with all the vivid details and comic elements, reaches out to my heart. That the colony and its culture pique the little boy’s interest makes this book a very engrossing read. I’m not surprised that Martin Booth has become a native who roams around the city and befriends the locals after living there for only three years. His mother, who puts herself at equal level to the locals and her servants, without ever condescending, imparts a very positive lesson to him in commanding respect. Full of color and packed with incident, this book is evocative of the noise and bustle of Hong Kong half a century ago. Most of the landscapes that Booth depicts in the book still remain today so it will make a great travel companion.

Click here to see my latest pictures from Hong Kong.

11 Responses

  1. You’ve made me want to run out and buy this one right away!

  2. The bookstore is not stocked with this title yet. Guess it’s available in the UK and Asia for now.

  3. Eva:

    You might have to order it online, since it’s not released in the US yet. But I *strongly* recommend this book. 🙂

    John:

    Yes and you might want to check the release date. 🙂

  4. […] really muster up my determination are my friend’s tribute to his school and the perusal of Gweilo: A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood. The book strokes my heart-string because his first residence in Hong Kong, on Waterloo Road near […]

  5. […] reviewed it for Time. Sophie Harrison reviewed it for The New York Times. Matthew says Gweilo reaches to his heart and calls it a great travel companion. I think this is another Matthew. Chris was expecting […]

  6. […] Nonfiction Gweilo: A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood Martin […]

  7. […] Gweilo: A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood, Martin Booth […]

  8. Thanks for pointing out this book. I thoroughly enjoyed this read–every page.
    Having traveled to Hong Kong, I loved the author’s pointing out locations with such detailed descriptions. It made me want to go back soon. This book was a great combination with recent books I have read by Eileen Chang and Janice Y.K. Lee. One definitely would like to meet his mother. Tea at the Pennisula Hotel? I can almost taste it!

  9. […] category travel, but they are also memoirs, and history. Another great read is Martin Booth’s Gweilo: A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood, which I read all in one sitting on the Peak in my hometown. During my trip to the Chinese capital […]

  10. […] native’s perspective. This memoir evokes and mirrors that of Martin Booth’s who penned Gweilo: A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood. Like Booth’s the book is full of color and packed with incident, and is evocative of the […]

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