By Christopher Rice
Originally published on Advocate.com April 08 2010 8:50 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.
I remember talking to him as a boy about the romantic idea of flying across the Pacific, surrounded by the luxurious trappings of a Singapore Airlines Boeing 747. (To this day, Singapore Airlines Flight 1 flies nonstop between San Francisco and Hong Kong, although the aircraft used on the route have been updated to newer, sleeker triple-7s.) When I was a kid, someone told me that Singapore Airlines had piano bars on the top decks of all of its 747s, a bogus claim it turned out, but an image that burned itself into my young mind nonetheless.
The opportunity to cavort in a playground of such vast but impeccably ordered wealth had to have been part of my father's love of Hong Kong — or at least the idea of such a Hong Kong, considering he never got around to visiting it, even though he had both the time and the means. This was what drew me to the city. It was also what drew me, even as a 10-year-old, into the miniseries that started my fixation on the place. On one level, Noble House was a chronicle of an extremely affluent city. But as with most works of popular entertainment about the extremely wealthy, right at the moment when the audience begins to resent the characters for deriving so much gratification from the pleasures afforded them by their status, those same wealthy characters are punished with fires, murders, and mudslides.
Years later, after I became a published novelist myself, it took me two tries to get to Hong Kong. Both trips were planned with the idea of setting a novel in a nearby Southeast Asian country, and since Hong Kong was right there, why not just stop off for a day or two? The first trip never happened at all. It was 2002, and when my father was first diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor about seven months before I was due to cross the Pacific, he insisted I continue with my plans. But the devastating Bali nightclub bombings killed 202 people on the island where I planned to set my third novel, and my father changed his mind out of concern for my safety. (I ended up abandoning that book entirely.)
In 2008, with the memories of that aborted trip and my father's death still fresh in my mind, I boarded a Singapore Airlines jet at LAX with the intention of setting my next novel, The Moonlit Earth, in Thailand. One of the central characters would be a wealthy, closeted Saudi teenager, looking to misbehave far outside the restrictive orbit of his family. Friends had suggested Thailand as a suitably permissive locale for such a lad, so I had scheduled a week in Bangkok and another week on the island of Phuket, because I knew my wealthy Saudi would have a yacht at his disposal. Then, almost as an afterthought, I scheduled three days in Hong Kong, so I could finally see the place.
Today, whenever I come across someone who has made a similar trip to Southeast Asia, usually for reasons they would define as being vaguely spiritual, this person gives me a wounded look when I tell them Hong Kong turned out to be my favorite city and that I couldn't leave the chaotic, steaming sprawl of Bangkok quickly enough. In their eyes I am a Western poseur who only stuck my big toe in the waters of Asia, a spoiled dilettante who flew to the other side of the planet only to opt for the Mandarin Oriental experience over the rugged, finding-oneself-in-the-jungle treks, of which my privileged peers are such fans.
They are partly right. I've never been one for backpacking. But to dismiss Hong Kong as being merely a Western outpost clinging to the edge of one of the most intriguing and intimidating countries on the planet or to write it off as nothing more than a museum of the British colonial era in Asia is to miss the island for the buildings.
The Chinese took possession of Hong Kong back from the British in 1997, amid widespread fears that the modern metropolis would collapse into a desiccated version of its former self almost overnight. (Indeed, if there's one statement I can remember my father making about the place repeatedly, it was "I want to get there before the Chinese take it back.") Such fears turned out to be unfounded, thanks largely to a series of sweeping economic reforms started in 1978 by Prime Minister Deng Xiaoping, in which the state maintained control of large enterprises but allowed prices to be set by the free market. Hence the financial powerhouse that many Americans have come to fear today. In 1984, as China began to map out the eventual "reunification" that would occur 13 years later when the British lease on Hong Kong and the adjoining New Territories would expire, Deng introduced the concept of "one country, two systems," which declared that Hong Kong would become a special administrative region where "the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years."
My favorite story about that period, which was related to me by one of my tour guides — a thickly accented Chinese man with the startling first name of Norman — was Margaret Thatcher's last-minute attempt to find a loophole in the lease agreement with the Chinese. According to Norman, Thatcher tried to make the case that the reversion did not in fact apply to Hong Kong Island itself but to the New Territories, a considerably larger landmass that sits between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. To this, the Chinese replied with something along the lines of "Perhaps, but good luck running Hong Kong without a water supply." Thatcher caved, Hong Kong was handed over without a hitch in 1997, and Norman repeats this story proudly to his clients in the Bird Market in Kowloon, beneath giant signs that warn visitors about the risks of avian flu.
Forgive me if I can only describe Hong Kong in terms of comparison to large American cities, but Hong Kong requires comparisons to so many of those cities that it seems to transcend and overpower all of them at once. The gray coastal skies and green landscape bring the Bay Area to mind, but the mountains seem higher and sharper; they stare down the urban areas with blunt authority. The tides of people packed onto the elevated sidewalks in central Hong Kong move at a pace that would make a lifelong New Yorker pause for breath every few minutes. There are reflections of Chicago's famed glass skyscrapers in the clean lines and orderliness of Hong Kong's waterfront skyline — the Bank of China building even resembles a squatter version of the Sears Tower — but the city is so tightly packed onto a narrow strip of land between Victoria Peak and the harbor that it seems to radiate more energy and determination than the entire length of Manhattan. So while its aesthetic influences appear to be largely Western, they play out on a scale and at a pace that most of the world has come to identify with modern China.
And even though it pains me to make the claim, having come of age in an America now defined by its lack of meaningful investment in infrastructure, it was Hong Kong's overall efficiency that struck me as exotic to my experience, if not precisely Eastern. I have not traveled extensively throughout Asia, so I'm not comfortable using easy dichotomies between East and West. But there was a palpable sense during my stay that despite having been under Chinese control for 11 years Hong Kong had managed to improve upon civic attributes to which Western metropolises used to lay an exclusive claim: cleanliness, order, and economic growth. Indeed, throughout Asia, accomplishments that used to define Western nations are being re-created and expanded under the auspices of governmental systems and religions many Westerners used to regard as enemies of progress. This apparent contradiction seems to lie at the heart of modern Asia, or at least our American perception of it, and in Hong Kong it is on brilliant display. So I insist that my stay there and my affection for the place deserve a bit more respect from my globetrotting peers. There is a great truth about the other side of the world to be experienced in Hong Kong, even if one doesn't reach it by trekking up a rugged trail to a quaint Buddhist temple situated beneath swaying palm fronds.
When I returned home, I abandoned Thailand as the primary setting for my new novel and shifted most of the action to Hong Kong. Hong Kong had become more to me than just a stage set for prime-time intrigue. I had come to see it as a true crossroads of the world, where cultural distinctions such as East and West, capitalist and Marxist, were eroded daily by the baffling influences of globalization.
From a writer's perspective, it was the perfect place to bring together a cross section of characters from all over the world and force them to question the support systems they had relied on for most of their lives. This idea, along with a story line I developed for the book involving financial corruption, turned Hong Kong into the ideal setting for The Moonlit Earth, and I have the often last-minute, accidental nature of travel and my father's puzzling obsessions to thank for these discoveries.
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