Keeping up with traditions

THE FRAGRANT CHINESE By Anthony Lawrence (Chinese University Press, $188) THE bride wore white, carried a red parasol - and was stone dead. She was a ghost, but her husband did not seem to mind. No, this is not a movie. This is real life, Hong Kong-style. Marriages of ghosts still occur in the territory, although they are much rarer than a few decades ago.

Weddings involving dead people (either the bride or the groom, or in some cases both), are curious affairs, but include many of the trimmings of weddings in which both parties are still warm and moving around. Guests bring presents, but all are made of paper, so they can be burnt and thus transported to the other life.

In a wedding where both participants have popped their clogs, friends and relatives escort the bride, resplendent in her off-the-shoulder coffin, to the cemetery where her gallant husband waits - six feet under the ground.

Why marry a dead person? Because a marriage ties two families together in a way that no other contract can.

This and several hundred other observations on Hong Kong life are contained in The Fragrant Chinese, a study of the people and culture of the territory by former BBC correspondent Anthony Lawrence.

Can a man in a profession known for its 40-second ''soundbites'' write a whole 233-page book? Yes, but it wasn't easy. Mr Lawrence writes in his preface: ''A radio and TV journalist trying to write a book is a piteous spectacle, like a man used to the 100 metres' dash facing a 10-mile marathon.'' But he is being modest. The strain doesn't show at all: he writes smoothly, in a simple style which is a pleasant surprise in a book with a university logo on the back.

When you first flick through it, you think: oh, it's filled with stuff I already know. But well-known Hong Kong conventions are brought to life by Anthony Lawrence's cavernous mental store of anecdotes and quotations.

For instance, everyone knows that a host at a party in a restaurant will order a magnificent banquet and then pretend it is nothing. But did you know about an incident in which a Chinese diplomat hosted a meal in a world-famous Paris restaurant? The foodwas wonderful - but, the host rose to his feet and grandly apologised for the fact that it was of such poor quality. The restaurant managers overheard him, however - and sued him.

Much of the book is colourful reportage, made up of direct quotes from Hong Kong people to whom Mr Lawrence has spoken. He asked a shop proprietor in North Point about the tradition of Hong Kong families going back to the mainland to visit their families. ''I shan't go next year,'' spat the shopkeeper. ''They were really ungrateful. A black-and-white TV wasn't good enough; they expected a colour set.'' The Fragrant Chinese is clearly aimed at foreigners, and includes a great deal of practical advice on matters such as using Cantonese swear-words (his recommendation: don't). ''Swearing in Cantonese usually refers to turtles' eggs (a very evil connectionfor some reason) and the status of one's mother,'' he writes.

Of course, it is commonplace to berate Hong Kong as a city where people are interested in nothing but money. Mr Lawrence turns a spotlight on other facets of society, and finds much to admire. Who can fail to be impressed by the way many Hong Kong youngsters grow up to be decent, law-abiding professionals after spending the first 25 years of their lives in tiny, overcrowded, claustrophobic rooms in slum-like tenement blocks? And it is not just the physical pressure. The stress factor has never been so great as in the present years, with 1997 fast approaching. ''Heaven knows the abuse cases unrecorded, children growing up in a private scene of nightmares and menace,'' Mr Lawrence writes.

Some of the Cantonese conventions seem frankly bizarre. A woman at a funeral says: ''We are also to abstain from washing our hair for a month after the funeral because if this were observed from beyond the grave our dear departed would be forced, in the next world, to drink our shampoo-water.'' Humour creeps in quite often. Hell, you may be interested to know, has 18 different layers. The lowest is reserved for children who murder their parents and wives who kill their husbands. ''It's less serious for a husband to kill his wife; that may be just an unfortunate lapse,'' writes Mr Lawrence.