Out and about
Modern fiction about Hong Kong falls into three broad categories. There is the blockbuster airport novel, such as James Clavell's Taipan and Noble House. There are the sex-soaked successors to Victorian-era 'penny-dreadful' shockers, one of the tamer examples of which is Richard Mason's perennial best-seller, The World of Suzy Wong. And then there are the somewhat-earnest attempts to come to terms with the city and the author's place in it. Xu Xi's The Unwalled City springs to mind.
One novel, however, bestrides all three categories: The Honourable Schoolboy. John Le Carre's 1974 spy thriller accurately, and chillingly, evokes the fecund possibilities of free-booting, early-1970s Hong Kong. The action moves from seedy North Point tenements to Sai Kung fishing villages via a succession of extravagantly vulgar, hilariously true-to-life Mid-Levels apartments.
Naturally, the Foreign Correspondents' Club, then in Sutherland House on Connaught Road, Central, features heavily. Stoneycroft, the remote Peak residence once used as a Security Intelligence Service clearing house, is depicted with period accuracy, complete with clean-cut young Americans who materialise from nowhere, quietly take instruc- tions and vanish into the night.
Le Carre's motley assortment of characters contains - like most Hong Kong-based fiction - a broad variety of semi-recognisable composite figures. Some, such as veteran Australian newspaper correspondent Richard Hughes, are unashamedly drawn from real life. Other foreign press-corps barflies are generically accurate, even if individual identification is impossible. Decoding other leading characters, in particular the shadier Chinese and Western business personalities, requires a more forensic understanding of the times.
Drake Ko, the virtually untouchable business figure with shadowy Russian links, who lies at the heart of Le Carre's story, was drawn in large measure from a late Hong Kong tycoon, monumentally corrupt and equally untouchable, with a massive drugs- and arms-related fortune. Ko's fantasy-prone mistress, Lizzie Worthington, the blond English slapper who, in the process of personal reinvention, becomes hopelessly mired in the twilight world of cold-war intelligence, is the kind of sharp-eyed chancer Hong Kong continues to attract.
Some aspects of Hong Kong never change. Pen-portraits of porcine businessmen 'whose vision of the world doesn't extend beyond their own waistlines', over-compensated investment bankers and spoiled wives lolling peevishly around private boxes at the Jockey Club 'like expensive pieces of unused equipment' are as recognisable in 2010 as they were in 1974.