TRAVELLER'S AND LITERARY COMPANION: South-East Asia, Alastair Dingwall, In Print, $238 IF you want to know why Hong Kong has been such a fertile ground for writers, you only have to look out the window. The place is suffering from advanced schizophrenia, if not multiple personality disorder. Some of the most futuristic buildings in the world are here, yet they are built with exaggerated respect to fung shui, an ancient Chinese tradition of geomancy. The territory is extremely Westernised, with its liberal values and laissez-faire government, and yet the society is fundamentally Eastern, with its live-food markets and steamy pavement noodle-shops. To a tourist, Hong Kong looks like a quiet community of accountants living in a giant shopping mall. Yet under the surface, there are layers of sub-groups - the triads, old boys' networks, the China patriots, expatriate groups, the clans. It is this multi-layered effect that makes it enticing for the literary mind. The scribe doesn't have to create a fictional society with enough complexity to provide him with varied characters and enough sub-plots. It's all here. You just bring your quill and your notebook, find a vantage point and start scrawling. And there's always the draw of inter-racial sex (almost always a Chinese woman and a Western man). People who have written successfully about Hong Kong are mainly those who have aimed their works at the masses. James Clavell's Taipan and Noble House remain two of the easiest study aids for learning about Hong Kong history. They may be fiction rather than historical documents, but they capture much of the spirit of Hong Kong life in the eras on which they focus. Hong Kong is fundamentally a business town, and Noble House is probably the first heavyweight (in a literal rather than a literary sense) thriller which tells the story of a man seeking a loan. Hundreds of pages with dozens of characters are all linked to taipan Ian Dunross's search for funds to shore up his ailing business empire. The other book widely linked with Hong Kong is Richard Mason's The World of Suzie Wong, a rather cliched inter-racial romance that today comes across as horribly dated. Indeed, it had been out of print until a small Hong Kong publisher put out a new edition recently aimed, one suspects, largely at tourists. The best recent overview of literature about or from Hong Kong that I have seen is to be found in the Southeast Asia edition of the Traveller's and Literary Companion - a feat all the more impressive because it covers Hong Kong and nine other countries, from Burma to Indonesia. An essay discussing the literary connections of each country is provided, followed by a handful of extracts from the most notable writers mentioned. No book reviewer will agree exactly with the choice of writers quoted in any anthology, but it cannot be denied that all the obvious names are included here. Editor Alastair Dingwall is to be congratulated for pulling the project together, the difficulty of the task evident when you note there are 51/2 pages of tiny print listing acknowledgements, citations, picture sources and so on. The Hong Kong section of the book has been impressively researched by Mimi Chan of the University of Hong Kong. Her findings range from old cuttings about a visit to the territory by George Bernard Shaw in 1933, to discovering that almost all the old mansions immortalised in literature about Hong Kong have been replaced by anonymous apartment blocks. My main complaint is the book's brevity, a rare gripe for a beefy volume of 450 pages. The extracts are so brief as to give no useful impression of a writer's style. In the Hong Kong section it is only the poets - and a single rather poetic extract from Robert Elegant's Dynasty - which give the reader a useful impression of a writer's work. Three paragraphs from Timothy Mo and half a page from James Clavell convey almost no useful information. Some of the other countries featured, such as Laos and Cambodia, provide fascinating reading, simply because they exist in world consciousness mainly as war zones or former war zones. To find a rich seam of literature within them is a delight. But this book leaves one pondering: why is there such a dearth of locally generated literature in Southeast Asia? Why have most of the greats been Westerners who have flown in, sometimes only for a brief visit? True, the term 'literature' tends to indicate material written in English or French, but the language barrier has not been an insurmountable obstacle to writers in Sri Lanka and India, for example. Furthermore, this collection includes works written in native languages and translated, so that the language excuse cannot be used.