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Authors: Martin Booth


BOOK: Gweilo
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Martin Booth is internationally known as a writer and biographer. An acclaimed novelist, his
The Industry of Souls
was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1998. When he was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2002 he was inspired to delve into his Hong Kong childhood and write
. He died in February 2004, shortly after completing the manuscript.

Acclaim for Martin Booth's

'A more than worthy legacy to his prolific literary life, but also stands as one of the most original and engaging memoirs of recent years, all the more telling because it is so personal, witty and true'
The Times

'Wonderful . . . it has such pace and power. The theme of good fortune may be ironic in the light of his death, but his memoir is, above all, a celebration of an enviable start in life . . . The portrait of his parents is particularly fine. There are some great comic moments too'
Sunday Telegraph

'Highly evocative . . . As a sharp-eyed, sensitive child of a vanished Hong Kong, Booth earns his nostalgia. Booth has a grimmer excuse for recalling the past, writing these memoirs for his children before his death from cancer this February. His family are not the only ones who will enjoy the book'
Daily Telegraph

'The best autobiographies are written by observers rather than participants, evoking memories and emotions familiar to us all . . .
is admirably evocative of the noise and bustle of Hong Kong half a century ago, but none of the characters Booth meets on his wanderings is anything like as interesting as his increasingly embattled parents . . . One longs to learn what happened next; but, alas, we never will'
Sunday Times

'His finest work. Full of local colour and packed with incident'
Evening Standard
'Books of the Year'

'Booth must rank as a giant of modern English letters . . . it is alive with delight in the new . . . Sadly there will be no sequel. So this sunny, luminous account of a very special time and place will have to serve as an epitaph . . . ensuring that he will remain forever young'

'Full of colour and anecdote, wit and originality, his tale of the young "gweilo" (pale fellow) loose in an exotic motley of rickshaw coolies, street magicians, Triads, drunken expats and others is crafted with deftness and aplomb. My type of leisure reading – off-beat and polished'
Good Book Guide

Also by Martin Booth

A Life of Jim Corbett


The Natural History and Conservation of the African Rhino



A Biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


A Biography of Aleister Crowley



Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood


This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

ISBN 9781409084563

Version 1.0


ISBN: 9781409084563

Version 1.0

Originally published in Great Britain by Doubleday,
a division of Transworld Publishers

Doubleday edition published 2004
Bantam edition published 2005

9 10 8

Copyright © Martin Booth 2004

The right of Martin Booth to be identified as the author of this work
has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Condition of Sale

This electronic book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

Typeset in 12/131/2pt Granjon by
Kestrel Data, Exeter, Devon.

Bantam Books are published by Transworld Publishers,
61–63 Uxbridge Road, London W5 5SA,
a division of The Random House Group Ltd.

Addresses for companies within The Random House Group Limited
can be found at:

for Helen, Alex and Emma, with love
in memory of my mother, Joyce, a true
China Hand

The colophon –
– used in this book is of a dragon riding the waves. It dates to the pre-Christian Han dynasty and is thought to suggest that the legends of dragons were based upon saltwater crocodiles then extant in South China but now long extinct.

– Chinese slang for a European male – translates literally as
, but implies a ghost or devil. Once a derogatory or vulgar term, referring to a European's pale skin, it is now a generic expression devoid of denigration. The feminine is


It had never been my intention to write an autobiography. To do so smacked of arrogance: it was not as if I were a rock star, an explorer, a footballer or a member of the miscreant aristocracy. It is true that I have had an interesting and remarkably lucky life, but that is far from unique and I never thought to document it. I have never kept a diary, except when travelling, but I do have a very retentive memory, all the more so for its being permanently exercised by my being a writer.

Then, in October 2002, I was diagnosed with the nastiest type of brain tumour around. A craniotomy did little but confirm I was suffering from a curiously named cancer known as a
glioblastoma multiforma grade IV
. It was incurable, essentially inoperable and immune to chemotherapy. Whilst I was convalescing, with a metal plate and half a dozen screws in my head, and most of the cancer still
in situ
, my two children – both in their twenties – asked me to tell them about my early life.

Having tried, without even a smidgen of success, to persuade my father to do the same for me, and tell me about our forebears – he went to his grave in adamant silence on the matter and I had never thought to ask my mother, who had died suddenly and at a comparatively young age seven years earlier – I decided I would tackle the task of writing about my childhood, which was spent in Hong Kong.

Once I had set out upon the task, the past began to unfold – perhaps it is better to say unravel – before me. I did have some assistance in the form of a scrapbook and several photograph albums my mother had compiled, yet these did not so much prompt as confirm certain memories, flesh out anecdotes that have spun in my mind for years, rekindle lost names and put faces to them.

If the truth be told, I have never really left Hong Kong, its streets and hillsides, wooded valleys, myriad islands and deserted shores with which I was closely acquainted as a curious, sometimes devious, not unadventurous and streetwise seven-year-old. My life there has been forever repeating itself in the recesses of my mind, like films in wartime cartoon cinemas, showing over and over again as if on an endless loop.

This is hardly surprising. Hong Kong was my home, was where I spent my formative years, is where my roots are, is where I grew up.

Martin Booth
Devon, 2003


was a warm spring day, yet my paternal grandfather, Grampy, wore a grey trilby with a black band and an overcoat buttoned to his neck. From far off, he looked like a retired Chicago mobster. His wife wore a broad-brimmed Edwardian hat decorated with faded feathers and wax flowers, which, even at that distance, gave the impression of being on the verge of melting. Her mound of white hair being insufficiently dense to retain her hat pin, every time she craned her neck to look up at me, the hat slid off backwards and Grampy deftly caught it.

It was late on the afternoon of Friday, 2 May 1952, and I was seven.

A deck steward in a white uniform approached. He carried a silver salver bearing rolls of coloured paper streamers.

'Where're you going to, sunshine?' he asked me as he handed me three rolls.

'Hong Kong,' I replied. 'My father's been posted,' I added, although I had not the faintest idea what this meant. As far as I knew, one only posted letters.

'You'll need to grow your hair, then,' he announced, making a show of studying the nape of my neck. 'Far too short . . .'

I asked why.

'Well,' he went on, 'in China men wear their hair in pigtails. You're not going to be able to put a plait in that.' Then he winked at me and moved on down the deck.

Aghast at the thought my hair would be put in a braid, I asked my mother if this was true but her response was obscured by the thunderous blare of the ship's horn, high up on the funnel, announcing our imminent departure.

Further along the rail, my father threw a streamer over the ship's side. I followed suit, hurling mine with all my might into the sky. It arched through the air and, striking the corrugated iron roof of a dockside warehouse, bounced then rolled down to lodge in the drain. It was then I realized one was supposed to keep hold of one end of the ribbon. I threw another streamer. My grandfather caught it and held it firmly until, eventually, it tautened and tore as the ship edged away from the quayside. It was over three years before I saw him again.

The vessel upon which we were embarked was the SS
. According to my father, she (not
, he impressed upon me) was a twenty-two-year-old liner operated by the Peninsula & Oriental Steam Navigation Company and accommodated 400 passengers.

At first, the ship's movement was infinitesimal; yet, quite suddenly it seemed, my grandparents were minute figures on a dockside far away, indistinguishable from others in the waving crowds. Once well clear of the dock, I watched the land pivot round as the bow gradually turned to face the open sea, the deck beneath my feet beginning to vibrate gently as the engines gathered speed.

My father disappeared to his cabin, but my mother and I stood at the ship's rail for over an hour. The wind ruffled her short blond hair and tugged at her dress as we passed the Isle of Wight to head down the English Channel. Above us, the funnel pumped out a plume of smoke and the windows of the bridge glistened with the late sunlight reflecting off the sea. Every now and then, a passenger or crew member passed us by but otherwise we were alone with the lifeboats. My mother held my hand, not once letting it go. It was not that she was afraid I might fall overboard but that she wanted to share her exhilaration, too wide for words. As we sailed down Southampton Water, one might have expected her to cry, yet she did not. This was an adventure and one did not cry on adventures. She had told me as much the night before as I lay in the bed in her mother's terraced house in Wykeham Road, Portsmouth, in which she had slept throughout her childhood.

At last, with England a small but thin line on the darkening horizon, she said, 'Let's go and sort out our cabin.'

Ahead was an ocean of sea water and endless possibilities.

My mother and I shared a twin-berth, second-class cabin whilst my father 'bunked up', as he put it, with another male passenger, a forestry officer travelling solo to Colombo. Although attached to the Royal Navy, my father was no more than an Admiralty civil servant, having left school at sixteen to become a clerk in the chandlery offices of Portsmouth Royal Naval dockyard. He never wore a uniform with a rank on it, yet this did not prevent him from assuming naval ways and speech. He drank pink gin, called sausages 'bangers', ate curry puffs and kedgeree, never let a knocked glass chime (for fear it sounded a sailor's knell), referred to his superior as 'the Old Man' and used nautical expressions whenever possible.

The cabin I shared with my mother was fairly basic: two bunks, one above the other, a wardrobe and a small chest of drawers, a steel washbasin the top of which folded down to make a vanity table, two collapsible stools and a chair. I was allotted the top bunk. The ablutions (or, as my father would have it in navy-speak, 'the heads') were communal and a little way down the corridor. The cabin walls were cream-painted iron bulkheads lined with rivets, the ceiling the same but traversed by girders and ventilation pipes. Under an oblong of patterned carpet, the floor was made of iron painted dark green. The furniture was fashioned out of heavily varnished mahogany.

That I was surrounded by metal did not concern me. I somehow accepted that, as houses were made of bricks, plaster and wallpaper, so a ship would be made of iron plates and paint. What was strange was the fact that everything continually quivered, never changing its frequency. It was like living in the entrails of a vast, benign beast, the corridors its bowels, the pipes its arteries and the various cabins its organs or dead-end intestines. What was more, everything smelt of paint, diesel, tar, brass polish and warm lubricating oil.

We unpacked our cases and the steward took them to stow away for the duration of the voyage, then my mother ran me a bath of what I quickly realized, from the taste and sting in my eyes, was hot sea water. On returning to the cabin, I found a silver tray on the table bearing a plate of thin-cut sandwiches, a freshly sliced pear and a glass of milk.

'Supper,' my mother announced. She lifted one end of a sandwich and exclaimed, 'Roast chicken!'

This was opulence indeed. In England, still held in the grip of post-war austerity, chicken was an oft-dreamt-of, but rarely experienced, luxury. So was a pear.

As night settled upon the sea, I climbed the three-step ladder into my bunk, pulled the blanket up to my neck and lay on my side. Next to my pillow was a porthole, closed tight by heavy brass clamps. Pressing my forehead to it, I looked down. The sea was speeding by, the white tops of the wake catching the light from other portholes and the promenade deck above. Now well down the French coast, the
rolled gently in the Atlantic swell.

My mother leant up and kissed me. 'We're on our way now,' she whispered with hardly suppressed excitement. 'Aren't we the lucky ones?'

The voyage to Hong Kong took a month, with seven ports of call
en route
. My father, assiduously studying our course on a daily progress map pinned to a notice board in the lounge and maintained by the officer of the watch – whom he accosted whenever he could for a mariners' chat – announced what we might see each day. His first prediction was that we should see Gibraltar 'off the port beam', but it was hidden in sea mist. This upset him greatly. To see Gibraltar was, he considered, a rite of passage.

'You've not lived until you've seen Gib.,' he informed me with an eye as misty as the distance.

'Why not?' I replied. 'It's just a big rock.'

'Just a rock! Did you hear the boy, Joyce? Just a rock . . . What did they teach him in that bloody school?'

'To read and write,' my mother answered. 'Well.'

My father, not to be wrong-footed, went on, 'The Romans used to think that if you sailed too far out from Gib., you fell off the edge of the world.'

'But you don't,' I rejoined. 'It's round. You just come back again.'

This piece of puerile logic was met with a brief snort of contempt.

We arrived at our first port of call, Algiers, three days out of Southampton. The city consisted of low buildings encircling a bay into which several moles and pontoons projected. Only a very few minarets poked upwards into the sky, contrary to my expectations, my father having lectured me on Muslims and mosques. There was little shipping in the harbour and almost every vehicle was either of pre-war vintage or ex-military, both Allied and German. All the cars, without exception, were black French Citroëns. The air, warm and dry, tasted of the desert, which I knew from geography lessons covered north Africa.

As soon as the ship was berthed, our steward entered our cabin and, closing the porthole, warned us to keep it shut whenever we were in port in order to deter pole-fishers.

'What's a pole-fisher?' I enquired.

'Pole-fisher's a thief,' he explained in his cockney accent. ''e 'as a long flex'ble pole with an 'ook on it. 'e shoves it through the por'hole an' sees what 'e can catch. But,' he added sternly, 'if you see the pole wigglin' about in the cabin, don't make a grab for it, even,' he glanced at my bunk, 'if 'e's 'ooked yer teddy bear. See, 'e'll've set razor blades in the pole. You grab it an' – zip! – 'e pulls the pole an' you ain't got no fingers.'

I immediately put the bear in the wardrobe, hid it behind my mother's frocks and closed the door.

My mother was eager to go ashore. This was the first time she had set foot outside Britain. I was just as eager to follow. My father, conversely, was not at all enthusiastic. A friend of his had been stabbed to death in Algiers during the war and he considered the place unsafe. That this friend had been in military intelligence, that Algiers had been under the influence of Vichy France and that the war against Hitler had been in full flood at the time did not seem to occur to him. However, my mother prevailed and we set off to see the sights in a small, decrepit bus with some other passengers from the ship. Our ride culminated in the Casbah, the sixteenth-century fortified part of the old Ottoman city. Here, we got out of the bus and, after my father had exhorted us to stay close together and be alert, wandered through the narrow thoroughfares of the

Every street and alley was an animated illustration from my grandfather's morocco-bound copy of
The Thousand and One Nights
. Men wearing turbans and baggy trousers passed by, leading donkeys. Some of the women wore burkas, their eyes bright in the darkness of the slits. Dogs scratched themselves indifferently or lay asleep in the shade. Stalls erected under arcaded buildings sold vegetables I had never seen before, quaintly shaped copper jugs, vicious-looking daggers (the better for stabbing British spies with), leather ware and sand-coloured pottery. In coffee shops, men sat around tables drinking from small cups or smoking hookahs, the scent of their tobacco alien when compared to my father's Sobranie Black Russian or my mother's State Express 555 cigarettes. Away from the smokers, I found the air heavy with smells reminiscent of my grandmothers' spice cabinets, of minced pies and apple tart – and the odour of donkeys, camels and human sweat. My mother purchased some fresh dates from a stall and set about eating them, much to my father's alarm.

'How can you tell where they've been?' he remonstrated with her.

'They've been up a date palm,' my mother replied.

'And they picked themselves, I suppose?'

'No,' she responded, in the same tone of voice as she might have used to a dog sniffing at the Sunday dinner table. 'I expect they were plucked by a scrofulous urchin and thrown down to his tubercular aunt who wrapped them in her phlegm-stiffened handkerchief.'

'Well, if you want to poison yourself, at least don't give one to Martin. The last thing he'll want is dysentery.'

'But I want one,' I butted in.

I had no idea what I was being forbidden, but I was determined not to miss out on it or the promise of dysentery. Surreptitiously my mother slipped me a date. Its taste and texture reminded me of solidified honey.

Once through the
, we climbed up to a battlement where I sat on a large cannon. From this vantage point, I could see camels down below, their wooden-framed cargo saddles being laden with sacks. My mother asked me what I thought of the city and was later to write to relatives that I compared Algiers favourably to the outer-London suburb of Woking.

As we retraced our steps through the
to catch the bus, we were beset by a horde of children, many of them about my age, dressed in flowing rags and the fragrances of warm humanity. They called vociferously for
, their hands out-stretched, their eyes devious and pleading. One or two of the more courageous plucked at my father's tropical-weight linen jacket. He raised his hand as if to strike them and they adroitly retreated.

'What do they want?' I asked my mother, somewhat shocked that my father had thought to hit someone else's child. Smacking me was one thing, but clipping the ear of a stranger was an altogether different matter.

'They want money,' my mother answered. 'They're beggars. Ignore them.'

BOOK: Gweilo
6.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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