Throughout history, China has attracted people who become delighted, disgusted and every spectrum of emotion in between at the culture and society around them. Whether they have passed briefly through, spent "a cycle of Cathay" (as the popular phrase went) or lived their entire lives in China, finally leaving their bones in the country, few have remained impervious to the world they encounter.

Ageing China watchers - and their successors - can still be found in Hong Kong, if one knows where to look, loudly pontificating about "Beijing this and Beijing that". They have an air of great authority that is often unmatched - alas - by genuine knowledge and insight. But among the beer-froth and the blowhards, some genuine experts continue to quietly document the world in which they live.

Following the Communist takeover in 1949, many scholarly types drifted down to Hong Kong. By the early 1950s, an extraordinary range of China-related expertise could be found in the colony. Hong Kong was close enough to accurately observe events yet far enough away to avoid personal risk.

The best China watchers were self-taught amateur scholars who combined an abiding personal interest in all things Chinese with an astonishing erudition about their chosen subject. The soul-destroying hyper-specialisation found within formal academic life - especially apparent today - was not for these people; their combination of enthusiasm, human sympathy and a wide range of quirky interests, common to all autodidacts, made their work both original and of lasting broader value.

John Blofeld was one such individual. He lived in Hong Kong in the early 1930s before moving to Peking. After undertaking wartime British intelligence work, he returned to Hong Kong in 1949, lived in Sha Tin, taught at a college in Kowloon and observed China from the sidelines.

Peter Goullart was another; a White Russian refugee who combined a tremendous linguistic facility with the capacity to forge friendships with all kinds of people. After several years spent in a remote corner of Yunnan province, which inspired his memorable travel account, Forgotten Kingdom, Goullart left China in 1949.

Both men absorbed aspects of Chinese life. Blofeld became a Buddhist, wrote extensively on this subject in memoirs such as Wheel of Life, and later settled in Bangkok, Thailand, where he died in 1987.

Goullart became a Taoist; his evocative The Monastery of Jade Mountain, which records the profound inner journey of its remarkable author, remains a classic. After leaving Hong Kong, Goullart worked among Chinese communities in Malaya and Borneo before settling in Singapore, where he lived until his death in 1978.

Naturally, personnel from national intelligence agencies (in particular those of Britain, Australia and the United States) were busily engaged in watching the China watchers; and diverse individuals were kept busy watching both groups. All this cross-observation helped turn corners of Hong Kong into a seething cauldron of (mostly tin-pot) localised intrigue.

Today's more interesting - and best-informed - China watchers are usually found in the business community, a significant departure from earlier times, when knowledge of Chinese language, culture and history was unusual to the point of eccentricity in commercial circles.

These days, language facility, in particular, is considered essential for wider understanding.