Hong Kong is one of the world’s most enigmatic cities and its complex history has captured people’s imaginations around the world, these ten must-read books about Hong Kong will help visitors understand what makes this extraordinary city’s heart beat. Covering the political and cultural angles on the city as well as fiction and personal memoirs, these are our ten best books about Hong Kong.
One of Hong Kong’s most influential figures, Chris Patten was the city’s last British governor and while enjoying huge popularity in the then colony, Patten also clashed explosively with the Chinese government over democracy for Hong Kong. Here, Jonathan Dimbleby examines Patten's time as governor, the Hong Kong handover and relations between China and the West now, and in the future. Revelatory.
If you’re looking to get to grips with Hong Kong’s rollercoaster history, Tsangs’ documenting of Opium smugglers, pirates and colonial mandarins is a definitive and thoroughly engaging account of the city’s history from the Opium Wars to the Handover. His balanced approach to the subject means both British and Chinese influences are dealt with equally with the starring role reserved for ordinary Hong Kongers, who, as Tsang details, transformed the city into the powerhouse it is today.
'Kowloon Tong' by Paul Theroux
A stinging critique of Hong Kong and its British elite in the dying days of colonial rule, Kowloon Tong is a typically gripping Theroux novel stringing together inept British families, corrupt mainland businessmen and the shadowy streets of the Hong Kong crime world. The book is an excellent thriller outright, but is also an insight into the uncertainty Hong Kong felt at the impending Hong Kong Handover.
'Gweilo: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood' by Martin Booth
This superbly evocative memoir set in the unique and bizarre world of 1950’s Hong Kong is filled with a child’s reminisces and anecdotes about a city of starched British naval officers, rickshaw drivers and drunken expats stumbling out of exclusive white only clubs. These powerful and personal stories are of an exotic, colonial Hong Kong that, like the Empire was once part of, has long since passed.
'Hong Kong Action Cinema' by Bey Logan
While there are several more rounded, and better books, about Hong Kong cinema, if you want to dive straight into the heat of the city’s Kung-Fu genre you can’t beat "Hong Kong Action Cinema." Profiling blockbuster names like Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and John Woo, the book also delves into some of the city’s lesser-known stars and hits, and traces how the genre has developed, making the transition from backstreet brawls in the streets of Kowloon to the bright lights of Hollywood. Enthusiastically written and thankfully light, it’s a good base for getting to know Hong Kong’s action cinema.
'Hong Kong; China’s New Colony' by Stephen Vine
An in-depth examination of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China and the city’s new role as a Chinese SAR as experienced by journalist Stephen Vine. As a resident of the then colony, Vines’ account is thoroughly subjective in its pessimistic presentation of the political and wrangling that led up to the handover, although he is as hard on the British as he is on the Chinese. This personal angle is also the book's greatest strength, with Vine’s personal tales and small anecdotes of Hong Kong changing hands incredibly absorbing. Find out what exactly it felt like for British residents to watch the Union flag come down.
'We Shall Suffer There' by Tony Banham
One of Hong Kong’s most traumatic experiences, the city’s invasion by Japanese forces in World War II saw the badly defended colony put up a heroic defense before surrender ushered in internment and Japanese brutality. Tony Banham has been researching and writing about Hong Kong’s war for over twenty years, interviewing survivors of the battle and their children. His book We Shall Suffer There is a comprehensive account, as heard from the internees themselves, of the cruel life faced by the British, Canadian, Indian and Chinese defenders of the city inside Japanese internment camps.
Considered one of the classic books about the city, "Myself a Mandarin" is an autobiographical account of a British magistrate in 1950’s Hong Kong. The author, Coates offers a wholehearted and honest retelling of his attempts to understand the colony’s largely Cantonese citizens and his effort to administer British justice on a completely foreign culture. He is usually baffled, often unsuccessful and almost always entertaining. If you’re planning on working in the city, this is an excellent and largely updated insight into Chinese mentality.
Hong Kong is one of the world’s most photogenic cities and it’s hard to turn a corner without reaching for your Kodak. If you and your camera can’t make it to the city or you just want the professional view, Nury Vittachi’s stunning panoramic views of the city are unbeatable. Budding photographers can also check where Vittachi took his pictures with a small map provided at the back.
The perfect book to give you an appetitive to visit the city, "Traveller’s Tales" is a terrific collection of over 50 insightful and often witty stories by visitors to Hong Kong. The stories range from first-time visitors' cultural mishaps to what keeps return tourists coming back. The book paints a fantastically colorful picture of the city’s exotic sights and sounds and is as good for the armchair traveler as those hoping on the next flight.