BY Christopher Rice
April 08 2010 7:50 PM ET
My obsession with Hong Kong began when I was 10 years old and my parents and I watched an NBC miniseries called Noble House. Adapted from an epic James Clavell novel about extortion and murder at a fictional British–East Asia trading company, it was one of the last of the sprawling, book-to-TV miniseries that defined event television throughout my childhood.
I can't recall all the murders and plot twists that held us in thrall for several nights. But I do remember that a high-rise apartment building collapsed in a mudslide, deus ex machina-style, just when the action started to flag around the fifth hour, and that most of the characters had a knack for turning to one another at pivotal moments and explaining each turn of events with the line "This is Hong Kong!"
Somewhere around the zillionth time this proclamation was made to a rising underscore of bass notes, my mother and I were reduced to tears of laughter, and for weeks afterward, we would say these words to each other, with increasing inappropriateness, to explain strange happenings in locations as varied as the grocery store or the doctor's waiting room. More significant for me as a future writer was the sense throughout the entire series that Hong Kong was as a place of concentrated spectacle, intrigue, and disaster, three themes that hold me in thrall even to this day.
As best I can recall, my father's fixation with Hong Kong predates our viewing of Noble House, and it's entirely possible he insisted the three of us watch the miniseries in the first place. "Hong Kong and Japan were two of the only places he wanted to go later in his life," my mother told me the other day on the phone. "I'm not sure why I couldn't get him interested in Europe anymore. We would land in Vienna, and he would announce it was too influenced by the Nazis and just shut down for the entire trip. I finally said to him, 'I'm not taking you to some great European city again if I have to explain to you what we're doing there.'"
My mother was referring to a luxurious research expedition for one of her best-selling novels, a stand-alone supernatural thriller with no trace of the vampires or witches that turned her into a household name in the mid 1990s. But despite my mother's success, my father was a slave to routine, easily upset by any unexpected change in his immediate environment, a combination which made him a difficult traveler no matter the circumstances. Later in life he was catlike and withdrawn, choosing to spend most of his hours in his painting studio on the third floor of our house in the New Orleans Garden District.
This is why his preoccupation with Hong Kong perplexes me to this day. When I finally had a chance to visit the city myself, six years after he died of a brain tumor, I thought I might bring some token of him overseas to leave at some meaningful location. But having no clear idea of what had truly captivated him about the city to begin with, I couldn't think of a token or a location with which to execute such a sentimental ritual.