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Literature

Asia Society Hong Kong executive director’s must-reads for a desert island: five books Alice Mong can’t do without

Mong’s essential list includes a novel about a North Korean mole in the Vietnam war, Malcolm Gladwell’s debut release, The Joy Luck Club, her first self-help book and a memoir of growing up in the Appalachians

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 August, 2018, 1:32pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 August, 2018, 8:16am

Taiwan-born Alice Mong emigrated to the US with her parents and two younger siblings in the 1970s, living first in Virginia and then in northern Ohio where her parents worked in the restaurant business. She went to Ohio State University and began her career working for the state of Ohio promoting trade.

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She came to Hong Kong in 1992 to work at the Ohio trade office and quit in 1995 to join Hang Lung Group. In 2002, she returned to the US to work for a couple of non-profit organisations and then served as director of the Museum of Chinese in America. She returned to Hong Kong in late 2011 and helped with the opening of Hong Kong’s Asia Society, where she is now executive director.

Here are the five books she would take to a desert island, in her own words

The Sympathizer

by Viet Thanh Nguyen, 2015

The story is about an anonymous narrator who is a North Vietnamese mole in the South Vietnamese army. The book goes back and forth through flashbacks. The narrator’s identity is never made clear – he’s half white and half Asian. I enjoy his voice as he navigates these two roles and there’s plenty of dark humour. My favourite part is when he describes being a Hollywood consultant about the Vietnam war: it’s an excellent depiction of the film director. When you look at Hollywood it’s as though Asians don’t exist, they are props, not characters.

The Tipping Point

by Malcolm Gladwell, 2000

I read this about 10 years ago after hearing so much about the book. It’s not like the typical business books I tend to read – it’s about social phenomena – and there are a couple of things that have stuck with me.

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Gladwell writes about the “connector”: someone with an extraordinary knack of making friends and acquaintances and explains the concept of “six degrees of separation”. I can identify with that as someone who is a connector and has friends in every field. I’ve been following Gladwell for a long time and I now keep up with his via his podcast, Revisionist History.

The Joy Luck Club

by Amy Tan, 1989

I was in college when I read this and found it really empowering. It was the first time I’d read an author who looked like me. The Joy Luck Club follows four sets of mothers and daughters. All the daughters are trying to live up to their mothers’ expectations. It made me realise that my mother was human, that she had a backstory before I was born.

If you’re Chinese American, you can’t tell your mother you love them or hug them. I’ve heard Amy Tan speak a number of times. She came to Hong Kong for the Literary Festival last November and also attended a concert for jazz pianist Joey Alexander at Asia Society. We haven’t had a programme with her at the Asia Society, but I hope we can in the future.

The Road Less Travelled

by M. Scott Peck, 1978

I read this at a difficult time in my mid-20s and it had a big impact. We’d had a traumatic event in the family and I couldn’t afford a shrink – this book helped guide me through that period. It was my first exposure to a self-help book. I still remember that opening line – “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths”.

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It set the stage for the book. Why do we think the world is a happy place and we have to be happy? That first line got me to keep on reading. We don’t live in a happy-ever-after world; life is difficult and we have to learn to deal with it. The book made me realise that it’s OK to look for help.

Hillbilly Elegy

by JD Vance, 2016

I read this book because I wanted to understand what happened in my home state of Ohio in the recent election – why did Trump win? Vance writes about his dysfunctional family – his mother grew up in the 1960s, had a drug addiction and multiple partners.

He grew up with three or four stepfathers and step siblings. There wasn’t much stability in his life aside from his grandmother. He uses his family as the social backdrop to what it’s like being a white American in Ohio. I’ve always been politically motivated.