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Texas | Features | Columns

Pink Gin and Gunpowder Tea
A review of a Hong Kong Memoir:

Golden Boy
Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood by Martin Booth

Published in Great Britain as Gweilo

(Not to be confused with Golden Boy by Tara Sullivan
- the story of a 13-year Albino in Tanzania)


Review by Paige Turner

After the prolific British author Martin Booth was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2002, he penned this memoir of his youth in Hong Kong (1952-1955). Intended as a gift to his children, every one reading this unique book will be a beneficiary. He died in 2004, dedicating the book to his children and his tolerant mother, who was an early forerunner of what we now call an enabler. The reader will learn through tears and laughter that Martin was most certainly his mother's son.

Gweilo
Gweilo: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood

Martin's Huckleberry Finnish adventures began with a whiff of opium inhaled on a balcony overlooking a rickshaw taxi stand on the family's first night in Mong Kok, a seedy neighborhood of sailors, bar girls and cheap restaurants. Martin's blond hair was his ticket to enter the bowels of Mong Kok - which he did on his first night while his amah was occupied. Stroking yellow hair was thought to bring good fortune to the stroker (as well as irritation to the strokee). Before the end of the book, Martin had everyone from a leper to the Governor of Hong Kong pat his head. Seeing Mr. Booth's photo in later life, one has to wonder if this near-constant stroking contributed to his baldness.

His sponge-like ability to soak up the tonal language surprised more than a few natives and shocked his father who feared his son would "go native"- a fate worse than death. Quartered in a transient hotel until his father (a Royal Navy supply bureaucrat) worked his way up Victoria Peak, Martin was befriended by bellmen, coolies, amahs and waiters who guided him through what was an Asian version of Alice's Wonderland. In Martin's case, it was not a dream although the characters met were just as colorful as Alice's.

Martin's father, a pompous bigot who yearned to be a "real" naval officer instead of a chandler, looked down on all Chinese, except, perhaps, the family's servants (who might have poisoned him). Martin's mother Joyce took to Hong Kong like a fish escaping from a goldfish bowl takes to a pond. While his mother swam in higher circles in the pond, Martin explored the muddy depths, learning street Cantonese from the many refugees escaping the then-recent Communist takeover of China.

A comparison to Tom Sawyer is inevitable. Tom Sawyer and Martin were cut from the same cloth of curiosity and both wore the pattern of "rules-are-made-to-be-broken." The book also compares to the Pulitzer Prize-winning (but fictitious) Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, by Robert Lewis Taylor.

Martin's palate expanded as rapidly as his vocabulary and he often drew a crowd at street stalls where he tried to eat while passersby patted his head. The family was finally given an apartment on Victoria Peak (which was then housing for military dependents). Martin then learned to wheedle sodas from American servicemen who were on leave from Korea.

His mother's charitable day trips (one to an island leper colony) are remembered in great detail, as well as an earthquake, a typhoon and Martin's attendance at the elaborate 1953 bicultural Coronation celebration of Queen Elizabeth.

His explorations brought him to places the police avoided and while Martin wasn't the first boy to explore old battlefields hoping to find relics, his prodding for spent ammunition one day unearthed a gruesome relic from the Japanese invasion.

Sadly, the book ends with the reader knowing there is never to be a sequel. One is now curious as to his mother, who is mentioned in the dedication as being "an old China hand" - a honorific that is hard-earned. Booth did write several novels based on stories within Golden Boy and his nonfiction book on Opium is considered to be the definitive on that subject.

Other than his father's unpleasantness, the book is a fascinating and extremely humorous look at bicultural foibles and faux-pas in a place far away from boring old England (as it was described by the author).

TE International Book Reviews
1-1-2017
© John Troesser



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