Originally published by Amanda Sheppard. Last updated by Shania Siu.
From historical novels to the glitz and glam of twenty-first-century high society, Hong Kong has served as the backdrop to a wealth of literature. If you are fed up with your run-of-the-mill Netflix binge, why not pick up a few of these books about our treasured Hong Kong instead? Let’s take a look at some of the best books set in the city we call home.
Kit Fan’s debut novel is the newest release on this list, but its subject matter is by no means modern. It is set in 1987 and follows the journey of “Buddha,” a recovering heroin addict who is sent to a nunnery in the district of Diamond Hill, just as the neighbourhood was undergoing development to match the rest of Hong Kong’s rapidly booming economy. Expect vivid scenes of the squalor of Diamond Hill in the past, and life in the city before the handover of Hong Kong.
Kevin Kwan’s best-selling Crazy Rich Asians may have put Singapore on the blockbuster map, but some scenes from the sequel novel, China Rich Girlfriend, take place in Hong Kong! His sophomore effort chronicles the run-up to protagonists Rachel and Nick’s wedding and her quest to find her family, but her father’s identity reveals more than she expected. Readers can look forward to recognising familiar Hong Kong landmarks described in the book, as well as on-the-nose caricatures of how the uber-wealthy in Hong Kong lead their lives.
Set in the 1940s and 1950s, this tale of historical fiction revolves around Claire Pendleton, a piano teacher for the daughter of a rich family, the Chens. Pendleton later meets and falls in love with their driver, Will Truesdale, but ends up discovering a few too many secrets. Janice Y. K. Lee’s novel weaves between two timelines and views how the Second World War forever changed the lives of the protagonists of The Piano Teacher.
Alice Greenway’s debut novel is set in 1960s Hong Kong and follows the fictionalised story of Frankie and Kate, two American sisters living in the city who witness the events of the Cultural Revolution unfolding on their doorstep and the life-changing consequences that follow. A tale of tragedy, loss, and the unbreakable bond felt between family.
Anyone who has lived in Hong Kong in recent years must remember seeing this volume on the shelf of every bookshop at some point. Based on author Martin Booth’s childhood memories of growing up in 1950s Hong Kong, this autobiographical story is written from the perspective of a child with nothing but time to explore the city, from the sights and sounds of its unique street food to the far-reaching corners of the Kowloon Walled City.
Cantonese Love Stories is a compilation that features 25 short stories set in Hong Kong in the 1990s. Author Dung Kai-cheung takes readers through the diverse lives lived by those in the city, from two lovers whose photobooth stickers keep their love alive to a girl who reads stolen love letters in a café. It is part of the special “Hong Kong Series” released by Penguin Books in 2017 to mark 20 years since the handover of Hong Kong.
Timothy Mo’s first novel proved so popular on its release that it was later turned into a 10-part audiobook, read on BBC Radio 4’s “Book at Bedtime” segment. The Hong Kong-born author’s comedic novel follows a man’s attempt to fit into Hong Kong high society, with less wealth than he would have his peers believe.
The Honourable Schoolboy features John le Carré’s celebrated character, George Smiley, of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy fame. Filled with mystery, intrigue, and espionage, the sixth instalment in the series chronicles Smiley’s attempt to salvage a covert organisation from being levelled by the government.
This historical novel is set in Hong Kong in the aftermath of the First Opium War. Dirk Struan, the owner of a trading company, sees the financial viability of the island of Hong Kong and will stop at nothing to become a taipan. Tai-Pan is one of two James Clavell novels that are set in Hong Kong, so if you like this, you might want to read Noble House, too.
One of the original East-meets-West love stories, Richard Mason’s novel chronicles the relationship forged between Richard Lomax, a Malaysian-based plantation worker, and Suzie Wong, a lady of the night. Since the book’s release, The World of Suzie Wong has been transformed into both stage and film adaptations, including the 1960 movie, which launched Hollywood newcomer and leading lady Nancy Kwan into stardom.
Written by retired pathologist Feng Chi-shun, who once owned a dive bar in Kowloon City, Hong Kong Noir is a collection of 15 true tales from the dark side of Hong Kong. Strewn with details, it encompasses stories like the gruesome Hello Kitty murder, the taxi driver from hell, and the student who stumbled into the 1967 riots and entered the world of girlie bars—all are accounts that Feng heard during managing the dive bar.
Discover the history of Hong Kong as told through fiction by one of the city’s top writers, Xu Xi, in this book. Set against the backdrop of the historical events that occurred in the turbulent 1960s through to 1990s, History’s Fiction: Stories from the City of Hong Kong represents the evolution and shaping of a voice as Xu strives to create art out of her birthplace. Indulge in stories of the 852 painted with love and compassion.
Myself a Mandarin is a 1968 memoir by Austin Coates after he was unexpectedly appointed as a magistrate in a country district in Hong Kong. As a result, Coates was plunged into a Chinese world about which he knew nothing and had to learn as fast as possible. Myself a Mandarin takes readers through the cultural puzzles and bafflements of sixteen court cases that came into his court, which includes dealing with cows, dragons, a Buddhist abbot, and more.
Feng Chi-shun’s memoir about Diamond Hill revisits the low-income neighbourhood in the 1950s and 1960s, where the author spent his childhood. Diamond Hill: Memories of Growing up in a Hong Kong Squatter Village paints an eye-opening and vibrant image of this district, giving readers great insight into old Hong Kong.