Possibly the only popular English-language classic that Hong Kong's small-pond literary scene has generated is Myself a Mandarin, Austin Coates' perennially delightful memoir of early 1950s New Territories life. First published in 1968 and never out of print, the book magically evokes unnamed but easily recognisable localities, such as Lantau, Sai Kung, Cheung Chau and Ma On Shan. Coates (bottom) successfully melds people, places and situations into broadly accurate yet individually unrecognisable composites. One literal-minded contemporary notes, when questioned about the book's veracity, that particular incidents 'didn't happen quite as Austin related, but he tells a story so well'. The only child of English popular-music composer Eric Coates, he served in the Royal Air Force Intelligence in India and Burma during the second world war. A life-long love affair with Asia developed and, appointed to the colonial service in 1949, Coates came to Hong Kong a few months before the communists claimed total victory in the mainland. After a very short time as a Government House aide ('I didn't come out to Hong Kong to carry Lady Grantham's handbag for her') he was posted to the New Territories district administration. Eventually transferred to Sarawak in 1956, Coates later served with the British High Commission in Malaya. He resigned from government service and returned permanently to Hong Kong, in 1966. Over the next decade, he produced an enchanting series of historical works on Hong Kong and Macau, most of which remain in print. With a succession of Asian males for company, he lived in Hong Kong and wrote prolifically, until the early 1990s. He then retired to Sintra, in Portugal, and died in 1997. The final evocative words of Myself a Mandarin record Coates' feelings towards his unconventional New Territories life as a special magistrate. His name, inscribed in Chinese on a New Territories village bridge that he caused to be built, 'will for long years confirm, I was once myself a Mandarin'. This telling phrase summed Coates up; the embodiment of charm if he liked you, he was testily impatient of time-wasters and solitude-invaders - Hong Kong produces plenty of these - and often deployed a Mandarin-like manner to brush them off. Nevertheless, he encouraged several other talented writers to produce Asian-themed works. Like Coates, most were cosmopolitan, highly cultivated male homosexuals who, for various reasons, had made their lives in the Far East. Now out of print, they provide beguiling glimpses of other times in Penang, Amoy (Xiamen) and Singapore.