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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]

Books on War

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I’ve been re-reading one of the Moleskine’s All-Time favorites, Shadow Without a Name by Ignacio Padilla. It’s a weaving fiction of men during World War II who appropriated multiple names and identities to save their back. It’s not an easy book to read because the novel proceeds with a zigzag timeline without a single narrator bridging each of the four narratives. I think it will be interesting to explore, through reading, the subject of war:

1. Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, Dang Thuy Tram. My friend Stephen whose upcoming art show in Bangkok I’ll attend told me about this memoir of a doctor working on the Ho Chi Minh trail. At the end of 1966, a young Vietnamese doctor shouldered a heavy backpack and joined a group of civilians heading south down the Ho Chi Minh trail. Dang Thuy Tram had taken up the call and volunteered to work in a Viet Cong battlefield hospital in central Vietnam. For the next three years, Thuy, as she was known, recorded her private thoughts, hopes and fears in a series of diaries, now translated into English. I’ve set this one aside for my vacation read.

2. Peace Breaks Out, John Knowles. After reading A Separate Peace and loving it, I’ve been exploring Knowles’ works and saving this one for the break as well. The book follows the story of Pete Hallam as he returns to the school and becomes a history teacher as well as a coach. It is a story of the aftermath of World War II and the loss of innocence of young men.

3. Sword and Blossom, Peter Pagnamenta and Momoko Williams. Several of you have mentioned and read this memoir–love in the time of war. It is the early twentieth century and British Army officer Arthur Hart-Synnot is sent to Japan to study the language and assist in the alliance between Britain and Japan during the Russo-Japanese War. Arthur meets Masa Suzuki, a kind Japanese woman who offers her assistance. They soon fall in love and spend as much time together as possible during his station in Japan.

4. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut. One of his most popular works and widely regarded as a classic, it combines science fiction elements with an analysis of the human condition from an uncommon perspective, using time travel as a plot device and the bombing of Dresden in World War II, the aftermath of which Vonnegut witnessed, as a starting point.