Saturday, 13 December 2008

Gweilo, A memoir of a Hong Kong childhood

Martin Booth's autobiography, Gweilo, was written at the end of his life and covers three years of his young life in Hong Kong. For research, he relied on memory and a scrap book as well as visits to Hong Kong as an adult.

Not that this is a problem, but the groupie who chose and presented Gweilo probably had a lack of objectivity with regard to this autobiography: as a child she too had travelled on a liner on her way to an exotic new life abroad. She too had been allowed an enormous amount of freedom, of the sort that parents today would shudder at the thought of. So many of the experiences in this autobiography echoed those of her own childhood.

But she chose the book because she felt we would all enjoy it. And we did: it’s an easy and enjoyable enough read. Another of our group has lived in Hong Kong and was delighted with Booth’s descriptions of places. And for those of us who have only visited it is also possible to recognize many of the places that crop up in the book. There is an authenticity to the descriptions of Hong Kong: the places totally believable and colourful.

Many of the stories recounted in the memoir must be apocryphal – they feel it anyway – and quite obviously he could not possibly recall the conversations he writes about. But this brings us to the whole question of ‘what is memoir?’ In his case it is a construct: a reconstruction of a period (1940’s/50’s), its mores, the culture of Hong Kong, its atmosphere and family relationships.

The style of the autobiography is a bit of a hybrid: it veers between travelogue and memoir. He may have chosen style this to beef up the landscape and life in Hong Kong for his readers. I understand that in his other novels he includes facts for the reader so perhaps this is just his way.

I’m aware too, from my father’s descriptions, that Booth’s depiction of the boat journey across the oceans was spot on. And he conveys very well the sense of freedom that all children in the Colonies (and in Britain at that time) enjoyed. His descriptions of places in Hong Kong are colourful and lively, and he manages to get across the magic and excitement of his childhood there.

And Booth captures the moment too: there is a description of his visit to an opium den in the Forbidden City that is an experience that could never happen now. As such it encapsulates a period in the history of Hong Kong that is quite unique. Being British, and in the Services, gave those who were posted there an elevated sense of their own importance and this was true of his father.

His father may well have been pompous and a bully but the one thing in the book that I did not like was his biased portrayal of him. The young Booth was totally in thrall to his mother: she was his hero. His mother was Peter Pan, his father Captain Hook. He admired her - and not without reason - as he portrays her as a woman ahead of her time. But, like many war-time babies, he had spent his early years alone with his mother, his father’s return an unwelcome one.

He shows us a mother who derided her husband, and championed her son. And his character assassination of his father sits uncomfortably on the page. I should have hoped that at stage he wrote the book, and having experienced fatherhood himself, he might have shown us a little more insight into their relationship or at least let the reader make up their own mind about his parents and their relationships.

Gweilo is, after all, as much a book about his parent’s marriage as about his childhood exploits in Hong Kong. As such it captures the time perfectly, as well as the excitement of a childhood spent in an outpost of the British Empire. A good book to buy if you’re planning to visit Hong Kong or want to reminisce about your time spent there.


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