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Reflections of the past

Sue White

History buffs, literary fans, nostalgia junkies and hopeless romantics should be grateful to Barbara-Sue White. The writer and musician, who has been partly based in the territory since 1968, has just completed an anthology of writings that is a means to remember Hong Kong by.

Within the 300-odd pages of Hong Kong: Somewhere Between Heaven And Earth, White chronicles the memories, delusions, reports and rantings of people who have been associated with the territory stretching back centuries.

Through a distilled series of the finest, most evocative writings she could find, White portrays the evolution of Hong Kong as seen through the eyes of celebrated writers such as Rudyard Kipling and Anton Chekov as well as ordinary folk - clergymen, doctors, soldiers and sailers.

They all experienced Hong Kong at some point in its extraordinary history, White said, and put their impressions to paper in the form of poems, letters, postcards, journals, reports and biographies.

The material, some of it unpublished, is the fruit of White's rummaging through library shelves and antique shops in Hong Kong, London and Princeton.

In dust-covered books and boxes of old letters, she stumbled across so much material that there could easily be a volume two. For the present anthology, she had to whittle her selections down to 60, each highlighting a different perspective of the territory, at a different time in its history.

While there was plenty of material available, White conceded it was not always easy to obtain. Expensive copyright permission prevented her from using much of what she wanted to, but writers of unpublished or out-of-print works were delighted by her request to use their material.

'I would write to publishers and some would either not reply or they wanted a lot of money. I learned it was much more effective to get in touch with the writer directly, because everyone likes to see their work printed again,' she said.

White's enthusiasm to reprint one of John le Carre's references to Hong Kong was doused when his publisher demanded a 'wildly expensive' fee. But then she was heartened when she made contact with the author of a book called Chop Suey, who worked as a policeman in Hong Kong between 1912 and 1934, and who wrote endearingly of 'what it was like catching the bad guys in those days'.

The Devon-based publisher suggested White contact the writer directly. He is now 101, was thrilled to hear from her and said he 'still remembered his time in Hong Kong as the most exciting years of his life', she said.

An advertisement placed through the Royal Asiatic Society drew a response from a family who had saved the letters and cards of their relatives dating back to the 1940s; one was an employee of China Light & Power who worked to get the electricity re-started in the post-war years.

With history about to be made next year, White believes this is an ideal time for people to reflect on the past.

'People are so sentimental about Hong Kong, which explains why there are so many collectors of China Coast prints and old postcards,' she said.

While the book contains references to Hong Kong from when it was nothing more than a barren rock island, the anthology opens with a tourist's impression of the territory written in the earlier part of the decade; the views expressed by the traveller, referred to only as Veronica, are those that many will be able to relate to.

'This tourist was one of many who loathed Hong Kong at first, and then discovered how marvellous it is,' White said.

White also takes her reader back to the Tang Dynasty (AD618 to 906), when a famous poet of the time, Han Yu, composed a poem describing the area now known as the New Territories during a storm.

On a more prosaic level, a Sung dynasty report written in 1729 describes how gambling had become a great social ill at the time.

From then, White divides her literary findings into two-decade stages starting from the 1840s until the present. Many of the writings are heartfelt and personal. White was careful to include anecdotes from a wide cross-section of the community: a century ago, some British wrote in a derogatory way about the 'locals' while one particularly outspoken Chinese man in the 1930s expressed some scathingly anti-British sentiments.

White hopes that the anthology will encourage similar writing now.

'Doing this has affected the way I write my own letters, because it's forced me to really think about what is happening here and how we react to life in Hong Kong.

'And because we are approaching the end of an era, I hope this encourages people to write what they feel about Hong Kong now. In so doing, we can all understand where Hong Kong has been and where it is going.'