By Jonathan Chamberlain
Blacksmith Books, Hong Kong
In 1997, a teacher and writer named Jonathan Chamberlain was stopped on the street on Cheung Chau Island, a kind of low-cost home for teachers, musicians, journalists and others eight kilometers east of Hong Kong island itself, by a man he had known for years as a teller of tall stories and a cadger of drinks.
The man was Peter Hui, and eventually he prevailed on Chamberlain to write the story of his life. Over the next months, Chamberlain recorded as many as 70 sessions with Hui.
The result is “King Hui: The Man Who Owned All the Opium in Hong Kong,” which was published several months ago. And, it turned out, the tall stories were true – maybe. As to the ownership of the opium, Hui told Chamberlain he was given the opium by the Japanese on their way out of Hong Kong at the end of World War II, only to have it confiscated by the British as they returned to the colony. Was he? There are no records to indicate whether the stories were true or false.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of other stories in this oral history assembled by Chamberlain as a series of picaresque chapters. Hui, born in China and brought to Hong Kong as a child, appears to have been a prodigiously unlucky gangster/entrepreneur/adventurer, making fortunes and losing them with great regularity in gambling, hotels, restaurants and smuggling, ultimately ending up strolling the isolated reaches of the Cheung Chau sidewalks and trying to get people to buy him drinks. All of which would tend to give the critical reviewer pause.
Nonetheless, whether these stories are true or not, the aura they give off of another Hong Kong – of a mass of hard-bitten and long suffering people who escaped to the city because of the entrepreneurial opportunity it provided under the laissez-faire British – that rings very true.
As Chamberlain himself said in an introduction, “histories of Hong Kong have unanimously ignored the man in the street, concerning themselves instead with the dry bureaucratic colonial facts and particularly with the prisoner-of-war experience. But what of the local experiences of World War II, and more importantly, perhaps, of daily life during the peaceful years before and after the war?”
This is the story the book tells. It’s interesting. The colonial histories of Hong Kong are filled with the bitter last stand of the British as the Japanese descended upon them. All of that is strangely missing from Hui’s account: “I don’t remember much about the Japanese invasion,” he writes. “People say there was a lot of bombing. As far as I’m aware, the city was largely untouched.”
“In fact,” he told Chamberlain, “I can say that most people on Hong Kong island were unaware of the fighting.”
That is hardly how the colonials remember it. But it’s almost certainly the way the Chinese felt. They basically got out of the way while the colonials held out desperately. They got their money out of the banks, stocked up on food and gold and took safety in the numbers of their millions anything, that lends veracity to Hui’s account. The Chinese by and large didn’t care what happened to the whites. And, at the end of the war, the Chinese threw stones at the Japanese as they left.
Whether the stories recounted in the book are true or not, it is the hardscrabble descriptions of just living that make it valuable – of Hui, at one point, not having the money to pay for joss sticks for his father’s funeral, spending his money when he had it, chasing girls through the night clubs. This is not the world that Hong Kong’s aristocratic Chinese occupy, although many of them arose from it. In all, an enjoyable read, and a valuable source for anyone interested in Hong Kong’s 20th century history.