Hong Kong has been extensively exploited as the setting for novels since the mid-19th century. Then as now, most works were in the lurid, "penny-dreadful" category, with unusual sexual exploits, eye-popping scandals and obscure forms of Oriental debauchery liberally distributed, to help the pages turn faster.
Hong Kong's 1941-45 Japanese occupation period has spawned an expanding literary sub-genre. Siobhan Daiko's The Orchid Tree is a recently released, Mills-and-Boon style love yarn, with the Stanley civilian internment camp as a dramatic backdrop. John Lanchester's Fragrant Harbour and Janice Y.K. Lee's massively over-hyped The Piano Teacher also deployed heavily imagined versions of wartime Hong Kong.
While fictionalisation of the Hong Kong war experience is a relatively recent phenomenon, published memoirs have regularly appeared from the late 1940s. Regrettably few, however, ever seem to have been seriously utilised. Nevertheless, "original research" is breathlessly paraded in promotional material to demonstrate just how much work the author did to achieve authenticity. On closer examination, however, most have only read a couple of readily available, highly coloured secondary sources.
In consequence, so-called "research" explodes throughout these texts like mustard gas shells. Any reader genuinely well informed about the events and circumstances described with such alleged attention to historical accuracy is left gasping in horrified disbelief. Tellingly, these scribbles have appeared in print when anyone who was actually an adult Stanley internee is either safely dead or too old to protest.
When written by authors who trade on a family heritage in wartime Hong Kong as a hallmark of authenticity, the free-and-easy way with which historical facts are sometimes treated becomes inexcusable.
Because both Lanchester and Daiko's grandparents were Stanley internees, readers naturally presume they have some special insight into that experience. As relative insiders, however, such authors carry extensive personal and family baggage, which all too often militates against historical accuracy.
The version of the past they relate has been reflected in a distorting mirror of elaborate, carefully rehearsed family legends. Complete outsiders, with no long-standing axes to grind or crosses to bear, tend to take a more objective view of the past.
Littered throughout these novels are stock characters so hackneyed they could have been chosen from a travelling theatre troupe's "Exotic East" prop box. Among Hong Kong writing's most overworked human clichés is the Eurasian character. Whether male or female, these sad, conflicted individuals are habitually deployed to embody needlessly complex, East-meets-West, "Never the twain …" fusion metaphors.
An inherent problem for Hong Kong-themed novels - especially those set during the war years - is that the available canvas is geographically and socially tiny. Colonial Hong Kong basically offers a series of diminutive portraits of miniatures, in particular among its European community, and miniatures when magnified are notoriously unforgiving art forms. Somewhere larger allows a greater degree of broad-brush characterisation.
One really good novel to emerge from the Hong Kong wartime experience is Martin Booth's Hiroshima Joe. A multilayered exploration of a shattered individual left terminally damaged in the aftermath of conflict by the horrific experience of war, this deeply moving novel speaks to a universality of human experience with considerable power and resonance, and has deservedly become a minor classic. Hong Kong is simply the backdrop for a psychological examination that could have been set just as effectively elsewhere.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong