Thursday, June 25, 2015

Book Review: The Dragon and the Crown

This review is posted on Amazon.

In telling the story of his life with understated modesty, the author, with the help of his niece, successfully subsumed his ego into a broad epic, a narrative of the transformation of Hong Kong. From the time Stanley Kwan was born to when he emigrated to Toronto, the population in Hong Kong grew roughly ten fold. The transformation from being a British colony to a modern megapolis was fascinating as seen from his eyes. It’s safe to say that most of the people in today’s Hong Kong do not know much of the story of the city, much less the rest of us that are mere third party witnesses.

I am now in my 70s and the friends and classmates from Hong Kong that I knew from my college days remind me of Kwan. Their father or grandfather had multiple wives and thus were members of huge families. Dominated by Confucian values, only the first born of the first wife enjoyed privileged lives. The rest had to fight for their share of patriarchal attention and an opportunity to a better education and career. Those that succeed, like Kwan’s daughters, found their way to schools in the West and established their careers outside of Hong Kong.

Even though the invasion by Japan interrupted his higher education, the schooling under the loose controls of the British administration had already taught the author Chinese and English in addition to his native speaking Cantonese. His language proficiency gave him opportunities to work with the Nationalist Chinese government during the war years and the American Consulate in Hong Kong in post war years. Step by step as he moved from one post to another, we saw how Hong Kong was also evolving and changing.

By telling the stories of his brothers, two of whom left Hong Kong to live and work in the mainland shortly after the Communist takeover, we also learn how the tumult inside China affected his family and made his feelings of patriotism and identification with China more ambivalent. His book helped me understand the origin of the Hong Kong mindset: “Make as much money as you can, while you can.” After WWII, the feeling of uncertainty on the fate of Hong Kong hung heavily on the people of Hong Kong.

This book is a wonderful read on the history of Hong Kong. Too bad the author left for Canada in 1984. While negotiations had already begun between London and Beijing, it was quite some time before the handover on July 1, 1997. The book does not explain why or how the city has been transformed to the state it is in today.

Perhaps the story he told on the near fatal run on the Hang Seng Bank is symptomatic of the Hong Kong Chinese inherent lack of self-confidence and a western worship mindset. In April 1965 a run was made on the bank, heretofore the strongest among the Chinese owned banks in Hong Kong. Facing insolvency, the owners had to sell a controlling interest to the British owned Hong Kong Shanghai Bank. As soon as the deal was announced, the panic went away.