Fragrant Harbour

Title: Fragrant Harbour

Author: John Lanchester

Published: 2002

Period: The action here spans the bulk of the 20th century, but the book’s most important sections focus on the WWII years and the decade in the run-up to the 1997 handover.

One-sentence synopsis: The intertwining stories of four Hong Kong characters – two western, and two Chinese; two men, and two women – are told in separate narratives, but are unified by their focus on the book’s true protagonist, i.e. the city of Hong Kong itself.

Cultural focus (i.e. is the book about westerners or Chinese): Lanchester balances the cultural backgrounds of his main characters, with two of each:

  • The book’s first section chronicles the arrival of a western journalist – the archly-named ‘Dawn Stone’ – in Hong Kong, and her (rapid!) adjustment to expat life.
  • The second section, by far the book’s longest, tells the story of Tom Stewart, a British lad who comes over to Hong Kong in the 1930s, finds his vocation, survives the war, including a stint in Stanley internment camp, and then witnesses the transformation of the city into someplace we recognize today.
  • The third part unlocks the story of Sister Maria, a Chinese nun, and although she appears elsewhere in the book, the part she plays is summed up here in just one of her letters.
  • The finale focuses on Matthew Ho, who escapes to Hong Kong with his mother during the Cultural Revolution, and then goes on to live out the story of so many Hong Kong people who studied hard, founded businesses, and dealt with the uncertainties of changing political regimes.

Note, however, that the real breakdown of Lanchester’s story is much closer to a 70%-30% western/Chinese split, since the Tom Stewart section is quite long, and Sister Maria’s so short.

Evocation of Hong Kong setting: As the book’s title suggests, Lanchester intended this novel to tell the underlying story of Hong Kong itself, so the characters and plotting are usually secondary to his desire to evoke Hong Kong as a unique cultural phenomenon.

Does he succeed? Yes and no. Lanchester is not a lyrical writer; his descriptions are more of the travelogue/laundry-list variety. Here’s a typical account of a trip to Mongkok:

The bus went north on Nathan Road, as crowded and streaming as ever. Every time one saw it there were new businesses: Taiwoo Sewing Machine Emporium, with a huge pink Singer sign. Lotus Garden Dim Sum. Wishful Cottage Tea Shop. Cheng Kee Electronics. Sam’s Tailors. Auspicious Festival Men’s Tailoring. A huge branch of China Arts and Crafts, the company which sold goods from Communist China. Prosperous Future Watch Repairs: Cheaper Faster Better. The pavements were full of charging pedestrians. The only time I had seen Nathan Road anything other than seething with people was the day after the Japanese Invasion.

We get plenty of detail here, but not a lot of life. This is unfortunately the case throughout much of the book.

Also, the section of the book that’s the most exciting in terms of plot and action – i.e. the WWII years – is marred by vagueness about the war’s events, and some implausible scenarios.

Inscrutability index, on a scale of 1-10 (i.e., if the book is written by a westerner, to what degree does he see Chinese culture as 'inscrutable'?): I’ll give it a 5. Lanchester tries very hard to get into the heads of his Chinese characters, and in the book’s final section on Matthew Ho, he’s reasonably successful. Ho is plausible, both in the way he makes business decisions and personal choices, and in his characteristic Hong Kong motivations.

But Lanchester’s other Chinese character, a nun who occasionally appears in Tom Stewart’s life – and with memorable effect – is badly drawn. Lanchester seems incapable of grasping the nature of the religious devotion and commitment he more or less accuses her of practicing. A more sympathetic portrayal would have made for a more powerful story.

Typhoon count: Zero again. I was deeply disappointed in this.

Review: Fragrant Harbour is an occasionally-excellent, but often-frustrating read. It’s one of the more uneven efforts I’ve encountered in quite a while, in any genre.

The first section, the Dawn Stone Saga, nearly put me off the book entirely – I found it clichéd, tedious, almost insulting to me as a reader. But a caveat on this: my problem is that I’m a long-term Hong Kong expat, so there was no way I could read about Dawn’s initiation into all the Hong Kong expat in-jokes and bargain-basement epiphanies – the Bank of China shoots bad Fung Shui at its neighbors! Expats go on drunken junk trips! Some domestic helpers have more degrees than their employers! – with fresh eyes. But Lanchester gets no breaks just because he’s writing with tongue in cheek here: his satire is frequently smug; it’s rarely funny or insightful.

So if you too are a Hong Konger, I’d advise you to grit your teeth and bear with the book’s first 70 pages or so; they will end, and at least they’re easy reading. It’s worth persevering because the Tom Stewart story is so much better. In spite of its shaky historical accuracy, it’s an engaging tale with a sympathetic main character, and it’s very much the heart of the novel itself. Lanchester might have done a better job by simply fleshing out the sometimes-rushed episodes in Tom’s life and just dropping the other three sections altogether.

Another point in Fragrant Harbour's favor is that it ends rather well. Many books that track historical events just trail off as the calendar reaches the end of the era being covered, but not this one. There is a confluence of characters and events in the Matthew Ho section that follows on from the book’s events into a satisfactory resolution.

So I’ll give Fragrant Harbour a qualified recommendation, but I wouldn’t put it at the top of my reading list.

Bonus information: It seems very likely that John Lanchester lived on Cheung Chau at some point, as much of the book’s action takes place there.

Getting your hands on a copy:

The Amazon link is here.

This book is available for borrowing in the Hong Kong Public Library System. You can search for copies here.

Next up: Martin Booth’s Hiroshima Joe.


HK novels

I like this project - you have a wide field to cover. Try Bruce Venables' "Time of the Dragons". He is an ex-member of the RHKP, and has done a fair bit of research into the pre-war [WWII] Force. It's not great literature, but is a good read.

Thanks for the tip

Hi Scotty;

Thanks much; I've never heard of that one, and I'll see if I can get hold of it.

You're quite right that the field is pretty wide -- I've already discovered there are more options than I had first thought!

More recommendations are welcome.


Mr Tall

Reading the Hong Kong novels

I am a total hongkongophile - have never lived there but have visited often ever since I was very young.  I liked Fragrant Harbour, but understand that residents could find it a little cliched.  His memoir Family Romance is much better and is well worth reading.

My favourite HK book is The Honourable Schoolboy by John Le Carre.  It was written in the late 60's early 70's around contemporary events. Reading it ten years ago would have made it seem quite dated but its aged wonderfully and is a little time capsule of a fascinating time in HK history.

I've also just finished a new novel by an ex HKer The Hungry Ghosts by Anne Berry. Anne lived in HK as a child in the 70's and part of the book is set in the Island School.

I didn't like The Piano Teacher - the story just didn't come across as believable to me.

Thanks and I too will also enjoy getting some new recommendations.


Reading the Hong Kong novels

Mr Tall,

This is a great idea and most befitting for this site. I love Maugham's masterpiece "Human Bondage"  but "The Painted Veil" does not quite match the former in impact.  I had almost forgotten about it until the 2006 movie came out - it was grim!  I didn't like Kitty and wondered whether the expats of her time behaved as she did.

I agree with HKfan that "The Honorable Schoolboy" is a great read.  I read it again last year and I could well imagine atmospheric HK in the 60's as the hunting ground of spies and counterspies.

At a very different level, "The Piano Teacher" is "chick lit" minus the fun. I was distracted by the substandard research and didn't enjoy it.