Visiting writers have had a mixed response to Hong Kong over the years. In 1873, novelist Jules Verne published Around the World in Eighty Days, in which he wrote that Hong Kong had “the appearance of a town in Kent or Surrey transferred by some strange magic to the antipodes”.
Rudyard Kipling may have gone on to be dubbed the “Bard of the British Empire”, but he had nothing good to say about Hong Kong, which he visited in 1889, only to be outraged by the presence of white prostitutes (he’d never had any problems with Indian ones in the brothels of Lahore).
Kipling wrote little of his brief Hong Kong sojourn, but if he was shocked by the presence of white prostitutes, we can assume he at least ventured as far as Lan Kwai Fong, as well as Wellington and Peel streets, and Hollywood Road, where most of the European-staffed bordellos were.
He may also have strolled Lyndhurst Terrace and patronised (I mean, of course, “been shocked by”) Vera’s, which was run by an American madam of the same name who was reputedly very well spoken, took extremely good care of her health, did not smoke, was teetotal and, if possible, would not hire diseased girls. To be truly shocked, Kipling may have found himself on Gage Street, a rookery of immense villainy at the time.
‘Shanghai is the ultimate noir.’ British author Paul French talks about his obsession at Hong Kong festival
Somerset Maugham was famously “welcome only once” wherever he went. This was due to his rather scurrilous short stories that resulted from his travels, and which enraged expats in the likes of Malaya and Singapore. In 1925, Maugham’s novel The Painted Veil was published. It was set partly in Hong Kong, which he had visited. The story of the lovely but shallow Kitty Fane, adulterous wife of Walter, a bacteriologist stationed in China, and of her husband’s revenge, outraged Hong Kong.
The book had first been serialised in Nash’s Magazine in England, where Walter and Kitty Fane were originally surnamed Lane. A certain Mr Lane of Hong Kong successfully sued for libel, and the action ended in a settlement of £250, and with Lane becoming Fane in the book.
Still, the government in Hong Kong complained that the novel accused senior colonial officials of adultery and insisted that the location be changed. Hence, Hong Kong became the fictional Tching-Yen, Happy Valley was now Pleasant Valley, Kowloon redesignated as Lushan, and The Peak became the Mount. That was not quite enough for the pedantic Hong Kong government, however, and all references to nearby Canton had to be removed too.
Despite this, the first three editions referred to Hong Kong. The 2006 movie of the novel (the third film adaptation) , starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, also shied away from the British colony and set the adulterous affair in Shanghai. With cinema audiences, at least, Shanghai’s reputation as sin city has frequently overwhelmed that of Hong Kong, though – in keeping with tradition – after The Painted Veil, Maugham was no longer welcome in the territory.
American playwright Eugene O’Neill sought to escape the hassles of success and a failed marriage, and travel to Shanghai in 1928. He sailed from Marseilles with his new love, Broadway actress Carlotta Monterey. Along the way, O’Neill got sunstroke in Colombo, went for a swim in Singapore in water Monterey described as “sewer infested”, and then caught a nasty dose of flu in Saigon. When his liner finally reached Victoria Harbour, O’Neill opted to stay aboard, deciding that Hong Kong was “too damp” for him. Once in Shanghai, he had a nervous breakdown.
Shanghai and Hong Kong are the subject of a little disagreement when it comes to Noël Coward. In his 1937 memoir Present Indicative, Coward says that he wrote his play Private Lives in Shanghai, in 1930, while staying at the Cathay Hotel, revised the draft in Hong Kong, in his room at the Peninsula, and made final corrections at Raffles Hotel in Singapore. While in Shanghai, however, Coward suffered from influenza, so the actual sequence of events is unclear, and both the Peninsula and the Raffles may have equal claim to Private Lives.
The Cathay Hotel of old, on Shanghai’s Bund, is now called the Fairmont Peace Hotel, but it holds rigidly to the story of how Coward, tucked up in bed, penned his brilliant comedy of sexual manners there. (Perhaps Shanghai would not be so keen to claim Coward if they knew he described the city as “a cross between Huddersfield and Brussels”.)
Whatever the truth, the play, set in Deauville, France, was written somewhere between those three hotels, making Private Lives a truly pan-Asian play about nothing Asian whatsoever.
A year later, in 1931, Coward immortalised Hong Kong’s noonday gun in the song Mad Dogs and Englishmen, composed during a car journey from Hanoi to Saigon. The song has summed up the eccentricities of the colonial English for generations, and became Coward’s show-stopper turn during his famous 1960s Las Vegas cabaret shows, telling of how:
Mad Dogs and Englishmen, go out in the midday sun
The smallest Malay rabbit, deplores this stupid habit.
In Hong Kong, they strike a gong, and fire off a noonday gun,
to reprimand each inmate, who’s in late.
In 1938, W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood came to Hong Kong, en route for China, to cover the war with Japan. The trip led to their book Journey to a War (1939). In one of the sonnets in the book, Auden referred to still peaceful Hong Kong:
Here in the East our bankers have erected
A worthy temple to the comic muse.
Ten thousand miles from home and What’s-Her-Name,
A bugle on this late Victorian hill
Puts out the soldier’s light; offstage a war
Thuds like the slamming of a distant door:
Each has his comic role in life to fill,
Though life be neither comic nor a game.
The pair, who rolled out of the city from Kowloon railway station, heading up through the New Territories to Guangdong, noted that the countryside was reminiscent of England’s Severn Valley. Of course, it is not, but they had just spent a few days largely on the gin, having experienced Hong Kong as a “dream” due to there being no war. They described it as a city of dinner parties, dinner jackets and taxis home.
War brought smart and savvy American war correspondent Martha Gellhorn to town in 1941. It was her first trip to the East and – despite her reason for coming – she had visions of a Maugham-type colonial lifestyle in the Orient. Gellhorn liked Hong Kong, but she was keen to get up into China and see the war. However, she was having a hard time shifting her “UC”.
The “Unwilling Companion” in question was her new husband and supposed war correspondent colleague Ernest Hemingway. Reporting their marriage, some wag at the South China Morning Post came up with the (rather good) headline, “For Whom the Belle Falls”.
Gellhorn was independent and tough. She had been a foreign correspondent in Paris with United Press in the early 1930s, then worked for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration during the Great Depression, as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Her work with photographer Dorothea Lange, documenting America’s poorest communities, resulted in one of the great books of the Depression, The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936).
Gellhorn had met Hemingway and then gone to cover the Spanish civil war and Nazi Germany. Now she wanted to see the war in China. However, the Post was only interested in Hemingway, whose arrival they eagerly anticipated. Gellhorn was dismissed in a passing mention as “a bottle blonde” – she certainly was not.
UC Hemingway had immediately taken to Hong Kong. He was happy to find a ready circle of hangers-on to praise him and pour his drinks at the bar of the Hongkong Hotel (which was on Pedder Street, in Central). Former Shanghailander and New Yorker correspondent Emily Hahn claimed Hemingway introduced the concept of the Bloody Mary to Hong Kong.
The problem, however, was that the bar of the Hongkong Hotel was not where the story was. Gellhorn famously said, “Where I want to be, boy, is where it is all blowing up.” And that was not Hong Kong – not quite yet. But Hemingway would not be moved from the bar and so, in March 1941, Gellhorn flew to Chungking (today Chongqing), at night, freezing cold and at high altitude to avoid Japanese fighter planes.
Hemingway opted to stay in the British colony, enjoying his circle of admirers, annoying the management of the Hongkong Hotel by letting off firecrackers in his room and pushing all the furniture out into the corridor so he could teach his new gang of acolytes and drinking buddies to box. Hemingway then headed into the New Territories to hunt for pheasant in the company of Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen, who had been Sun Yat-sen’s cockney bodyguard, and who was in semi-retirement in Kennedy Town. Eventually, Hemingway had to go to China proper too – but he hated it and was glad to eventually get back to the United States, describing his entire Hong Kong-China trip as an “unshakeable hangover”.
More positively, in 1962, writer Ian Fleming arrived in Hong Kong on a BOAC jet and started enjoying life on The Sunday Times tab. The James Bond author thought Hong Kong the “most vivid and exciting city I have ever seen” and spent plenty of time enjoying Shek O and Big Wave Bay. In his Sunday Times column, later collated as the travelogue Thrilling Cities (1963), Fleming listed the best three things about Hong Kong as: 1) food; 2) suits tailored perfectly in 48 hours; and 3) cheap cigarettes at 1s 3d for twenty.
Finally, multiple countries and cities celebrate Joseph Conrad. These include his home country of Poland, and his adopted country England, obviously, and there are various plaques and memorials to the great writer of the sea in Sydney, Singapore and San Francisco, among others.
Conrad visited nearly every port city in the world at one time or another before his death in 1924, and there was long a rumour that he dropped into Hong Kong and stayed at the Peninsula (which opened in 1928). But, though the city gets a mention or two in his novels, it seems he probably never called in at all. And, if he did, he certainly did not stay in the Peninsula.
But no matter, many believed he did, including fan Graham Greene, who arrived in Hong Kong in 1955, on his way to Hanoi. Greene checked in at the Peninsula and requested Conrad’s room, believing the tale to be true. A canny receptionist nodded knowingly, gave him a room key and assured him it had been Mr Conrad’s home from home.
Paul French, author of true-crime bestseller Midnight in Peking (2011), was in Hong Kong for the Hong Kong International Literary Festival.