Eclipse of empire

Jan Morris Hong Kong: the End of an Empire
Penguin 1990 (1989)

Even though the cover of the edition I have sports the subtitle ‘Epilogue to an Empire’, the correct subtitle to Jan Morris’ Hong Kong is ‘The End of an Empire’. The latter is a more accurate description in that even this 1990 updating still long preceded the handing over of the colony to mainland China in 1997, the date that is a truer encapsulation of the eclipse of Empire.

What this revision does do, however, is to take into account the social and cultural repercussions of the Tiananmen Square massacre which took place in the year which intervened between hardback and paperback, an inauspicious augury for the run-up to 1997 which Morris discusses in the closing pages.

I had two justifications to read this book, if any were needed. One was because I enjoyed Morris’ foray into fiction, the two instalments that comprise Hav, in which she visited an imaginary Mediterranean country in her guise as a travel writer; into this she poured her experiences of commenting on many places worldwide and distilling the essential character or personality of each geographical entity, thereby successfully evoking the otherness of so many unfamiliar locations. The second reason was because, having myself spent a decade as a child in Hong Kong, I was curious to know both the changes which had taken place in the half century or so since I had left and to see if the impressions I’d acquired as that child under ten had any bearing on reality.

It was an unsettling read. Alongside many fleeting memories prompted by smells, sights and sounds that Morris hints at in passing she relates more uncomfortable historical facts largely concerning the forcible annexation of the island and adjacent territories, albeit by treaty, and multiple examples of misgovernment ranging from ineptitude to arrogance, occasionally mitigated by a kind of benign dictatorship. As well as more historically distant distressing episodes in the colony’s history, I was largely unaware of the nature of the Japanese occupation which had ended less than five years before I was first taken to live there, on the Kowloon peninsula, at the tender age of less than two years old. I was however fascinated to have much of what I took for granted put into context: streets named after influential individuals, Hong Kong’s significance in geopolitics and commerce, the isolated nature of the ex-pat community and the unique relationship that existed between native Chinese and transient British. I also had an inkling of why post-war Hong Kong itself felt transient, not just because populations and economies were growing, but because there was an uneasy stand-off involving Britain, Communist China and the United States, whose cultural sway was then much more prevalent than I understood.

I did also find this a tough read: two or three times I put it aside, not because Morris is not an engaging writer (she certainly is, with the enviable ability to confidently intersperse dispassionate observations with personal anecdotes) but because the information she packs in is dense and, even for one with a little experience of the island, bewildering. Have no doubt about it, she writes with authority as a frequent visitor, a widely-read researcher and an experienced commentator, but I was often confused as to whether this was primarily a history, a social critique or a travelogue. Of necessity this is told from the viewpoint of an interested outsider; there is not much reflection of the views of the ordinary Chinese people, and it would be wrong to criticise the book for not so doing: after all, the clue is in the subtitle of the book.

There is a fine bibliography going up to the eighties when the book was first published, several sketch maps to help the reader navigate around the island and its hinterland, and a detailed index, though I would have also welcomed a short glossary of terms such as hong which frequently re-appear in later pages after only a passing definition, easy to miss or forget. And of course much has changed in the interim, meaning that the few select photographs can only literally give snapshot impressions of life in the Pearl of the Orient, and that inadequately. But nowadays in the world of the internet a wider variety of images are almost instantly available so as to render the paucity of pictures irrelevant.

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4 thoughts on “Eclipse of empire

  1. That must have been an interesting decade, which would qualify you to look at this book with greater insight than most, like myself, who only know OF it from such fiction or news items as one may have come across..

  2. It was interesting — in retrospect of course. My kids keep urging me to do a write-up, memoirs I suppose. Presumably before I go doolally on them, which is always a possibility.

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