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[339] Diamond Hill – Chi-shun Feng

” Nobody knew why it was called Diamond Hill. There were certainly no diamond mines, nor diamonds on anyone’s fingers. ‘Diamond’ in Chinese can also mean excavation of stones and slate. It felt like a sick joke on the thousands of people there struggling to survive in poverty. ” [15]

A big thank you to my friend R for sending this thoughtful book, which is published by a local press in Hong Kong. Diamond Hill is a residential neighborhood in Hong Kong. I remember posing the same question to my mother when she took me to visit my grandmother’s distant relatives. That was 1970s. Feng’s family moved to Diamond Hill in 1956, when huge influx of immigrants from mainland arrived in the British colony. Everybody was an immigrant, Feng recalls, not so much the difference in ethnicity but the dialects spoken. The memoir of a native son of a Kowloon-side squatter village presents the early days of a life shaped by a now-extinct community.

Hong Kong in the 50s and 60s was a city of dirt-poor refugees, who had fled post-war hardship or communist rule in Mainland China. A minority were luckier and brought with them wealth and business know-how. And in the case of the garment industry owners, expensive machinery was transferred from big cities in China such as Shanghai to restart the business in Hong Kong. [42]

Despite the financial and commerce hub that it is now, upbringing of the generation that is responsible for the success of the city was not so rosy. Most people inhabit in houses built in a random fashion: legal ones built of bricks and mortar, and illegal shanty huts built in spaces between. The latter was especially susceptible to fire, which destroyed half of the Diamond Hill neighborhood in 1960s. To accommodate the victims, the government launched what has been known as the largest public housing project in the world.

Yesterday the news reported that Hong Kong housing cost tops the world, with the average price of an apartment being 11 times the average annual income. The picture Feng paints is certainly at loggerhead to what the city is now. The harsh but colorful world in which Feng grew up—the makeshift eating dives called dai pai dongs, kite flying, the pawn shops, the firecrackers—is no more, and the great value of Diamond Hill is that his story is also, in large part, the story of Hong Kong. Once upon a time, Hong Kong itself, its British colonial rulers and Chinese elite aside, was one big squatter village that transformed into a manufacturing mecca and then again into the financial center that it is today.

There were many shops down the road which tempted me. For breakfast, they sold congee and yauh ja gwai, a fried dough stick which you could split into two long pieces by pulling them apart in the middle. They still sell the thing today, but it is pre-cooked and soggy. Back then it was deep-fried in front of our eyes, and it was quite a spectacle. [79]

We seldom ate out, and if we did, there was coaching from the parents as to what to do to order and how to behave. Going to a tea house for dim sum was usually on a Sunday around noon, and it was quite an ordeal because every other family seemed to have the same agenda and scrambling for an open table could take hours. The usual practice, uncouth as it might have been, was to stand and wait beside some strangers’ table and stare at them eating until they called for the tab and quit. [86]

So right, and that was the reason I never missed having dim sum when I was a kid. That scrambling for table was dreadful! Food is a powerful trip down memory lane because it possesses that power of association. Ever wonder why something no longer tastes the same as when we ate it as kids? It seems to be the case for everything. While Feng doesn’t miss the shanty huts he grew up in, gone along the old Hong KOng were irreplaceable memories and nostalgia. In the British colonial government and Chinese’s collective rush to turn Hong Kong into Asia’s “world city” (official slogan), officials have torn down history and paved over the collective memory of its citizens. This book is a must read for those who learn about history of Hong Kong from a 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 noise and bustle of Hong Kong half a century ago, but more edgier in style.

198 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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9 Responses

  1. Memories of things past could be a painful one. Sounds really interesting. Sometimes the best books are the least publicised because they find themselves in the hands of small presses who lack the financial capacity to make noisy about the book. If it happens like that we settle to reading books which have become popularised by the corporate media. How do you decide on books to read: popularity? Recommendation?

    • More recommendation. Lots of independently published books are overlooked because of the lack of corporate backing. That said, living in San Francisco is a blessing because the indies are great sources of these books. Let the corporate chains publicize the bestsellers. I take the indies staff’s recommendation seriously.

  2. “Back then it was deep-fried in front of our eyes, and it was quite a spectacle.” A spectacle. What a great word choice. Unexpected. And it captures the delight that “back then” holds for us, perfectly!

    • It was deep-fried before my eyes when I was a kid! Hong Kong (I should say people of Hong Kong) has recently been swept by this wave of nostalgia. A lot of books that reflect upon the good old days are flooding the market.

  3. I would love to read this one and in the process learn more about Hong Kong.

  4. Matt: I’m glad that this book held your interest.

    “yauh ja gwai, a fried dough stick…They still sell the thing today, but it is pre-cooked and soggy.” Not totally true if you know where to look (although they aren’t everywhere) and it tastes amazingly hot and crispy on the outside and soft and slightly spongy in the middle, just like hot bread right out of the oven.

    And to Kathleen and others who may want to get a hold of this book, you can order the book directly from the publishers here: http://bit.ly/f7miOc This http://bit.ly/fHZygz takes you directly to a list of all its current books. Disclaimer: I don’t own or work for the company but I do know the publisher.

    • It just occurred to me that I didn’t have one in my last trip to Hong Kong. Bummer! I also like the slightly sweet, squatter and smaller fried dough called “ngo lei so”? (?) I know most of the “jook” (porridge) places are in the shops now. It’s hard to find fried dough on the street.

  5. […] [339] Diamond Hill – Chi-shun Feng […]

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