A Journey Back to a Forgotten Hong Kong
Few places in this world are quite like Hong Kong. This uniqueness is what makes it so fascinating to me as an area. I’ve researched this place consistently over the years, I’ve got friends there and visited it in 2017 to learn more of its history, culture and cuisine. This interest in the territory is why when I first saw Phil Brown’s memoir The Kowloon Kid, I knew I had to read it. It tells the story of Brown’s childhood life, when he lived in Hong Kong during the 1960s. The end result of this book is that it’s well written, but unfortunately does have some traces of tally ho colonialism in it.
From Love Me Do to Never Tear Us Apart
The Kowloon Kid (subtitled A Hong Kong Childhood) details Phil Brown’s childhood in Hong Kong from 1963 to 1969. Brown’s family had a long history with Hong Kong itself, starting with his grandfather, who originally worked in Shanghai before World War 2 and was later a POW in Hong Kong, with the rest of his family having fled to Australia. This lifelong love he continues into his adulthood, with moments in the book where he visits the territory with his wife and child.
One of the things that ties this book together is Brown’s frequent connection to music throughout the book, especially The Beatles. He says how his Hong Kong childhood started with ‘Love Me Do’ and ended with John Lennon leaving the band in 1969. As a Beatle fan myself, I loved all these connections to the band throughout the book. I also love the moment where he said his Dad was on the same plane as The Beatles between Bangkok and Hong Kong during their 1964 world tour.
Other connections to music include his brief time in a band in school and all the different posters of 60s rock legends throughout his room at 7 Devon Road (his main home in Hong Kong). Perhaps the biggest of these is how he was friends and neighbours with Michael Hutchence, lead singer of Australian band INXS. It was a lot of fun reading about his friendship with Hutchence and how he was later blown away upon seeing Hutchence again, with INXS, on ABC’s Countdown many years later. Although it all makes up only a part of the book, this connection to one of Australia’s most famous 20th century bands is part of what makes this book stand out. It’s remarkable, really, to know how much Hutchence loved Hong Kong and his childhood there.
Pleasant Memories of Tally Ho Colonialism
There’s a lot of fond memories of British Hong Kong from all aspects of life. Many remember it as a great time, where it was perhaps the freest place in the world for journalism and business. Especially with some of the things that have happened in the territory in recent years (a topic I’ll speak more of when I read books on it), these memories have only gotten more intense. Even my Hong Kong friends remember the time fondly, even if they were barely newborns and toddlers at the time of the Handover to mainland China in 1997.
This sort of pleasant memories of the region as a British colony is what appears in The Kowloon Kid frequently too. Brown grew up in a very sheltered part of Hong Kong; the expat Diaspora. His days were often spent at the Peninsula Hotel, the Kowloon Cricket Club and going to school with predominately British born teachers. He described his house as a sort of compound, a place where Europeans were kings in an unknown land.
While some of these were quite fascinating stories throughout the book, they couldn’t hide the fact that this was all old-time colonialism. Brown lived in that world separated from the rest of the people who lived in Hong Kong at the time. Where the old-time colonialism really showed though is in the way he describes the people of Hong Kong Island. He says how those who lived there were the wealthiest of the wealthiest in the colony, often looking down on those across Victoria Harbour.
Another aspect of old-time colonialism is shown from Australia when Brown comes back in 1969. He quickly finds himself as a fish out of water on the Gold Coast, Queensland, upon moving there. Other kids around him call him racial slurs and didn’t believe him when he says he’s come from Hong Kong. Similar happened to his father, when they were on holiday in Australia one time, and he was pulled over for speeding. The police thought his father was lying when he said he was from Hong Kong. These examples do showcase the narrowed perception of Australians at the time and the old-time colonialism prevalent in Australia.
These are the stories often forgotten about British Hong Kong, as well as 20th century Australia. It really was in the last 30 years of the colony’s 142 years as a British Colony where a lot of the pleasant memories of the colony come from.
Yet, even with this old-time colonialism, the expat community in Hong Kong was very diverse, as Brown discusses in the book. People from Australia, USA, UK, India, Pakistan and South Africa, to name a few countries, all descended on Hong Kong during the colonial days. It’s part of what made Hong Kong a special place; the mixing of cultures into one.
The Kowloon Kid is an engaging memoir on the life of an expat childhood. It is both a nostalgic throwback to a very different era in the history of Hong Kong and of growing up in a foreign land. I had a lot of fun with this piece, even with its unintentional traces of tally ho colonialism. I recommend this to anyone who has an interest in Hong Kong, childhood in a foreign land, or personal stories based in the mid-20th century.