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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

The Never-Ending Story

Another contender for those handover dollars


THERE IS SOMETHING LEMMING-LIKE in the way publishers are rushing to mark -- exploit? -- the handing over of Hong Kong with commemorative books. Can there really be that many people who wish to fill their bookshelves with offerings in which many of the same things must be said over and over again?

With The Hong Kong Story (Oxford University Press, HK$225, 136 pages, hardback), we have a middleweight entry: not grand enough for the coffee table but not pocket-sized, either. It boasts two authors, Caroline Courtauld and May Holdsworth, and credit is also given to Simon Vickers for "additional text," whatever and wherever that might be. The final chapter is by Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong and the first to combine his office with extensive freelance journalism. Like other Patten offerings, this one is well written, but not much different from previous efforts in other publications.

Much the same could be said of the rest of the book, which does a respectable enough job of Hong Kong's history in a small space but offers little that will be new to anyone who has read a book on the territory before. There are potted biographies of several important historical figures: ex-governors and high-profile business leaders, for the most part. But there are also some remarkable omissions. There is a good deal about opium (as there should be) but much less about triads. Missing altogether are the Happy Valley racecourse fire (1918), the Mid-Levels landslide disaster (1972) and the burning and sinking in the harbor of the Queen Elizabeth (1972). As if to compensate for these absences, there is an unexpected summary of the history of the East River guerrillas, a wartime resistance group.

Working-class life is not the book's strong point. An unfortunate consequence of relying on English-language documents is that the local population appears for much of this history as a series of administrative inconveniences: a dock strike here, a cholera epidemic there, that kind of thing. The doings of the rich and glamorous are far more extensively chronicled. As you would expect in a tome of this kind, the foreword is written by none other than David Tang, clothier, millionaire and cigar-toting local personality.

This book imparts a fair amount of information in a painless and attractive way. It would make a nice present for a friend in a distant country who knows little about Hong Kong and whose regular reading includes society magazines.

-- By Tim Hamlett


IN BRIEF

IN BLU'S HANGING, LOIS-Ann Yamanaka, a native of Hawaii, creates a compelling portrait of three working-class Hawaiian children, the Ogatas. Their mother has died and their drug-using, self-pitying father can rarely afford to put much more than mayonnaise sandwiches on the family table.

The mother's death has left a gap so vast that not even a sympathetic adult such as Miss Ito, a Toyota Corolla-driving schoolteacher, can fill it. Ivah, at 13 the eldest of the trio, has the task of keeping the family together -- not easy in a marginalized community with its full complement of winos and sex perverts.

Blu's Hanging (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 260 pages, $22, hardback) is about more than a family's plight. It deals with racism and the hate it breeds. Whites look down on people like the Ogatas, leading Poppy, the children's father, to complain: "Everybody mo' brown than them is dirt under their feet."

The children protect their identity by speaking pidgin English, a dialect only their own can understand and one that resists the obliterating tongue of the people who refuse to care about them. It takes a little while to get used to pidgin rhythms, but Yamanaka uses them eloquently and persuasively.

A major fault is that the author's moral universe is too black and white. The kids are good, complex characters but the others veer to caricature. And the ending holds up the predictable promise of redemption through education. Nevertheless, Blu's Hanging is a sensitive read -- and a fascinating, insightful introduction to a side of Hawaii that will never make it into the guide books.

-- By Luis Francia


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