Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 13, 2019

The Kowloon Kid, a Hong Kong childhood, by Phil Brown

All over the world, there are people on the other side of middle age, who enjoyed life in one or other of Britain’s colonies during the Empire.

Which as you know, occupied a vast swathe of the globe.  (No, I’m not going to repeat the old clichés about maps coloured pink, or suns not setting).  But there are a lot of people who lived in luxury not shared by their counterparts in the native population, and who may—or may not have—nostalgic memories of a lifestyle vastly different to wherever they ended up after their colonial home gained independence.  Whether they were in India during the Raj, or Malaysia, or Egypt in the Middle East, or any number of countries in Africa  or the Caribbean, they tended to live beside but apart from the local culture.  Like expats, but perhaps with an added sense of entitlement. Not always, I hasten to add.  No one could accuse George Orwell’s Burmese Days (1934) of having a sense of colonial entitlement.  It was an exposé of corruption and bigotry, and a bitter portrayal of colonial society.

Some who grew up in the colonies transitioned from their experience to an adult awareness of the issues that surround colonialism.  In Oleander, Jacaranda (1994) Penelope Lively wrote vividly about her ashamed astonishment that as an adult she could not bear to witness the ubiquitous poverty and squalor in Egypt, but had never even noticed it as a child though it was all around her.  “How did I not see it? she asked herself… OTOH June Porter wrote a memoir about her time swanning about in India during the Raj… it was called Can a Duck Swim? (2013), and you can see my thoughts about her insouciance here.

The Kowloon Kid, a Hong Kong Childhood is interesting because so few authors tackle the mixed emotions arising from a colonial childhood.  There must be thousands of them, not just from when the Colonial Office sent its staff out hither and yon.  There were also families like Brown’s who had commercial interests in the colonies as well. Brown’s father had a construction business which did very well in postwar Hong Kong’s boom, and presumably provided a lot of employment and contributed to development generally.  So though born in Australia, Brown spent the formative years of his childhood in Kowloon from 1963 to 1969.

Brown is a columnist for a lifestyle magazine and is Arts Editor of The Courier Mail in Queensland, so he has a breezy, entertaining style.  Although the book is mostly about childhood fun and mischief and his growing anxiety about his father’s drinking which burgeoned amid the social life of Hong Kong, he does also contend with the realities of colonial life.  He notes, without being heavy-handed about it, that although he should, he knows next-to-nothing about their household staff, people who included his amah and the driver who were part of his daily life.  And although he was only a child at the time, he alludes to a Communist uprising in 1967:

On July 8, 1967 armed villagers from the People’s Republic attacked a border police post at Sha Tau Kok, killing five policemen.  Reports of uniformed people moving towards a major crossing point in force sent the colony into a panic.  Britain’s crack Nepalese troops, the Gurkha Rifles, led by Major General Ronald McAlister, ended the siege of the police station and protected the border throughout the troubles.  They were tough.  I know because we used to play their children at soccer and even the kids were tough. We doubled up our shin pads for those matches. (p.175)

[Brown’s light-hearted memoir is not the place for historical analysis, but I found myself wondering what China’s motivation might have been.  They could not seriously at that time have thought of taking on the British Empire, even though it was weakened after the war.  This incident makes me think of the way China has responded to the current situation in Hong Kong by massing armed forces near the border.  It conveys a clear message: look what we could do if we wanted to.  We might not win, but we can make you feel very insecure, and over time, that might be enough to break you.]

If you’re a regular reader here, you won’t be surprised to know that I had to Google ‘the kid across the road’ Michael Hutchence.  I had heard of him, and I knew he was some kind of rock star, and I had heard of INXS (though never listened to it, as far as I know).  But I did not connect the two, and I didn’t know what Brown was referring to when he referred to Hutchence’s tragic death.  But I was very interested to see what Brown has to say about him, because it speaks to the influence that any one of us might have, without knowing it.

When I knew Michael Hutchence only one of us had ever fronted a band and it wasn’t him.  My time as co-lead singer of The Sidetracks [a school band] was a flash in the pan, admittedly, but I had one up on him.  Now I’m not saying I’m the guy responsible for turning the future front man of INXS onto pop music.  Let me just add, I’m not saying I wasn’t either.  Because I might well have been.

The fact of the matter is I was the cool guy with the record player, the collection of Beatles records and the Jimi Hendrix poster on my bedroom wall.  And Michael was the younger kid from across the road who may — or may not — have looked to me as a rock god. (p.190)

It’s a tantalising idea, isn’t it?  And it has credibility.  I know this because I was the uncool kid who influenced her best friend from round the corner into loving classical music which she never heard at home.  We spent our weekends listening to Beethoven together at my place, and she even persuaded her parents to buy a piano and pay for music lessons because of me.  So Brown and Hutchence? Maybe.  Hutchence didn’t live long enough to write his memoirs…

The Kowloon Kid is entertaining reading, with an added frisson because of the current situation.   Snaps from the family album add to the authenticity of these reminiscences.

Author: Phil Brown
Title: The Kowloon Kid, a Hong Kong childhood
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2019, 304 pages
ISBN: 9781925760361
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Fishpond The Kowloon Kid: A Hong Kong Childhood or direct from Transit Lounge.

 


Responses

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly listened to INXS either. I have to Beethoven, maybe twice in my life, that’s enough! The sense of entitlement we ‘Anglos’ had with regards to our superiority over the rest of the world won’t be properly worked through for generations probably.

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    • Hmm, please don’t count me among your Anglos who feel entitled!

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      • I understand, but I think also that we will all carry a collective guilt for a number of generations yet. The English lived for a century on Indian gold and we Australians will live for ever on Aboriginal land while too many of the original owners live in poverty and despair.

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        • OK, point taken, but that doesn’t imply that I feel entitled, and I object to any assumption that I do. To the contrary, I support treaties, land rights, compensation and initiatives to redress disadvantage. Guilt, collective or otherwise is a useless emotion. It achieves nothing.

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  2. This sounds like an interesting book, judging by this informative and thoughtful write-up. As a Brit who grew up largely in China and Malaysia and who currently lives in India, I have long been interested in studying the legacy of British colonialism. Will have to look out for this. Also, Burmese Days is a great book – I recently finished reading it for the second time.

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    • Hello Sam, thanks for your comment:)
      It sounds as if you had an interesting childhood… I think a stable childhood in one place is much over-rated! Travel makes children tolerant, adaptable and interested in other cultures, and I wouldn’t have had mine any other way.
      I agree about Burmese Days… it was the first book I read that had a different perspective on colonialism. I had an aunt and a grandfather who served in India during the Raj, and I really wish I could have asked them what it was like.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] via The Kowloon Kid, a Hong Kong childhood, by Phil Brown — ANZ LitLovers LitBlog […]

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  4. […] The Kowloon Kid, a Hong Kong childhood, by Phil Brown […]

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