“Orientalist”, in both scholarly and popular writing, has been a term of abuse ever since the publication of Edward Said’s deliberately controversial polemic Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (1978). This now-pejorative word generally refers to a “white” male authority on some aspect of “non-white” cultures. But there was a time – not that long ago – when “Orientalist” was an admiring label that recognised a consuming desire to learn about, know and understand cultures and societies profoundly different from one’s own. Instead of reinforcing a sense of racial or cultural superiority – as Said and his acolytes wearily insist – why could it not equally end, as the late Belgian sinologist Pierre Ryckmans noted, “in admiration, wonderment, increased self-knowledge, relativisation and readjustment of one’s own values, and awareness of the limitations of one’s own civilisation?” Alexander Grantham, governor of Hong Kong from 1947 to 1957, pithily observed Orientalists in his chatty memoir Via Ports: From Hong Kong to Hong Kong (1965). “A few Westerners become almost Oriental in their mental make-up,” he wrote. “But whilst they cease to be European, they do not become completely Asian and are neither one thing nor the other. Neither race accepts them; but of this fact, they are pathetically unaware.” To assume that all Westerners came from – or remained within – mental states characterised by a sense of their own superiority was to combine the scholarly with the mercantile, and assume – with unconscious racism – that all Europeans who lived long in Asia were fundamentally the same. Those Europeans who became deeply integrated in various parts of Asia were unquestionably unusual. From the 18th century until the present, for mercantile types completely out of their depth in the complexity of the Asian worlds within which they found themselves living for large tracts of their lives, the “gone native” Westerner was an easy target to sneer at. Missionaries were an exception; by the late 19th century, Christian groups in China and elsewhere encouraged their clergy to Orientalise themselves, and thus insinuate themselves more deeply into the target populations they wished to proselytise and convert. Many dressed in Chinese costume, and lived and ate as far as possible in a Chinese manner, as period photographs attest. But did those who had “gone native” ever fit into their adopted milieu? “After living in the East for a long time, a Westerner will come to learn the likely reaction of an Easterner to a certain set of circumstances, and vice versa, but fundamentally they are different,” Grantham noted. “That does not mean that we cannot like and respect each other’s qualities. On the contrary, it adds fascination.” While many Asian societies were tolerant of these differences, few Westerners ever fully integrated and those who tried to were regarded as cranks or eccentrics, from the English Buddhist monk in a remote hermitage in Burma or Ceylon to the devout Muslim convert in a Malay kampong and the saffron-clad Western sadhu wandering alone across the vastness of India. All of these human variations appear in period travel writings. Secular Orientalised Westerners were harder to pigeon-hole. Most were written off as eccentrics – harmless or sinister, according to each personality. Hong Kong’s overwhelmingly commercial nature militated against spiritual pursuits, which could be explored in other parts of Asia with minimal outlay. Only those with private means could afford Hong Kong expenses and generally such people preferred places that offered more spiritual or cultural experiences. Pre-war, a few serious Orientalists, such as noted British Buddhist scholar John Blofeld, lived around Sha Tin; Hong Kong’s outlying islands – in particular Cheung Chau, from the early 1950s – offered an inexpensive, picturesque life for others.