Originally published to fanfare in Britain last year as "Gweilo" — a mildly pejorative Cantonese term for a Westerner — this...
“Golden Boy: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood”
by Martin Booth
St. Martin’s Press, 342 pp., $25.95
Originally published to fanfare in Britain last year as “Gweilo” — a mildly pejorative Cantonese term for a Westerner — this memoir has been far more aptly retitled here as “Golden Boy.” The three years that Martin Booth spent in Hong Kong from age 7 to 10 were, more than anything, utterly charmed.
Rescued from dreary postwar England in 1952 when his father was transferred by the Royal Navy, young Martin was dazzled by Hong Kong from day one: introduced to Coke and prawns, a hotel room set in the teeming midst of Kowloon (“Peering over the balcony was like looking down on a fairground”), and a solo adventure exploring the streets that evening.
It only got better for Martin, as the boy — often with his equally daring mother — ventured farther out, discovering the secrets that Hong Kong reveals to those who give themselves in to it.
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The markets and restaurants, opium dens, the infamous Walled City, the surprising countryside (where the boy variously confronted a pangolin, a barking deer, even a porcupine), the sheer “otherness” of the place — these can only have been entrancing if sometimes risky for a boy his age.
And these experiences, while lived by a child, are conveyed with the clarity and adult wisdom of a superb prose stylist. Booth was a prolific poet, nonfiction writer and novelist whose “The Industry of Souls” was shortlisted for the 1998 Booker Prize for fiction.
The backdrop to all of this, though, was a drama played out between Martin’s parents — his father the overbearing patriarch, his mother the spirited explorer. It’s obvious whom the boy favored, as he makes clear in snide comments toward his father at every turn.
The remarks might be justified, but since Father was the reason Mother and Son even lived in Hong Kong — and a comfortable life it was — one can’t help but feel a touch of compassion for the man.
Still, this is really Hong Kong’s story, and Booth, who died last year shortly after finishing the book, relates that story with unmatched skill and wonder.