Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 March, 2011, 12:00am

Internationally renowned authors need reasons to come to Hong Kong. In the lead-up to the 1997 handover, the city offered the underlying frisson of what many writers - Paul Theroux was one of them - not-so-secretly hoped would be a cataclysmic transition to Chinese rule. Contemporary Hong Kong offers no comparable excitement.

Annual literary festivals - one is in progress at the moment - provide opportunities for these transnational birds of passage to roost in the city for a while, soak up some applause and shift a few signed copies of their latest book. Few stay in the city long enough to really get to know the place. And given that this society is so nakedly dominated by banking, trade and industry, why would they?

But what do visiting authors really think, both of Hong Kong and that tiny, unrepresentative section of the population who lavishly lionise them over a few days of champagne brunches? Literary visitors from 70 years ago have left a few clues.

British writer Christopher Isherwood and his travelling companion, noted poet W.H. Auden, made a journey to war-torn China in 1938. They passed through Hong Kong, as virtually every mainland-bound writer and war correspondent did at that tumultuous time, and later wrote a book about their experiences.

Journey to a War artfully combines prose and poetry to unusual effect, and gives a dramatic portrait of a country already two years into a desperate conflict with Japan. In his poem Hongkong, Auden observed with some bemusement that:

The leading characters are wise and witty

Substantial men of birth and education

With wide experience of administration

They know the manners of a modern city

During their brief local sojourn the couple spent their time 'in a perpetual hurry, struggling into our dinner jackets, racing off in taxis to keep appointments for which we were already hopelessly late'. Many festival delegates would, no doubt, sympathise.

Money-worship and parochial vulgarity, as starkly apparent in Hong Kong in 1938 as they are today, provoked Auden's oft-quoted line:

Here in the East the bankers have erected

A worthy temple to the Comic Muse

Auden's sly dig was directed at the recently completed Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation headquarters on Queen's Road Central, and in particular the brightly coloured mosaics on the banking hall ceiling, designed by a White Russian artist, which depicted luridly triumphal images of regional commerce and industry.

One might ask, gazing around modern Hong Kong's glittering, tawdry business district, whether anything - or anyone - has really changed, more than 70 years on.