Brits in HK – book review 1

I recently acquired some of Blacksmith Books’ latest. The three have a common theme: British people who came to Hong Kong (and in one case went elsewhere in China). Perhaps inevitably, the older the account, the more interesting it is. So we’ll go backwards, starting with the most recent of the three…


Paper Tigress: A life in the Hong Kong government by Rachel Cartland

Rachel Cartland arrived in Hong Kong in the early 1970s, fresh out of university, to become a colonial civil servant. She ended up as a senior official in the Social Welfare Department; she has since been on Anson Chan’s moderate pro-democracy group.

The story starts with the author growing up in the south of England: her father runs a betting shop at one stage, and she does part-time work at Woolworths. She sort of accidentally joins the Hong Kong civil service by going along to an interview out of mild curiosity, impressing the panel with her optimism about handling humidity, and getting accepted.

She arrives in a Hong Kong recovering from unrest in the 60s and starting to fix things like corruption. After familiarization, she joins one of the district offices just opened to help the government get in touch with the grassroots. Among her duties in Kowloon City, she pushes the Lap Sap Chung anti-littering campaign in schools and officiates at the opening of a social-services centre in the Walled City slum. Plenty for the nostalgia fans here. It was a different world – a far less prosperous and less sophisticated city, where no-one thought it odd for a young Englishwoman with no relevant knowledge to (gingerly) oversee the locals.

A long-lost relative turns out to be prominent in Hong Kong church circles. While obviously important to the author personally, it’s perhaps a bit too ‘family’ for the reader. Then again, this is a memoir, so marriage and friendships figure quite highly. There doesn’t seem to have been much alternative to an almost stereotype ‘expat’ lifestyle, with junks, parties etc, and a circle of mainly civil-servant friends.

She offers quite a few amusing stories, like the time they had to get a helicopter to rush a generator to Ocean Park after a typhoon. And some grimmer things, such as the Garley Building Fire. She takes pride in the professionalism and diligence of the civil service, and the reader gets a glimpse of a few racier problem-solving excitements among the horrendous tedium of the memo-approving and other drudgery in the bureaucracy. The subtitle’s reference to a life in the Hong Kong government is perhaps a slight exaggeration.

The biggest event of the era comes and goes in just a few pages. Her apparent remoteness from 1989’s months of excitement and ultimately grief (and it was in no small part grief for the fate of Hong Kong itself) comes across as rather chilling. Unless the expat-bureaucrat bubble really is impervious, this presumably comes down to the deliberate discretion and caution of a retired official: if in doubt, don’t talk about it. (I’ve never read David Akers-Jones’ book, but I imagine it must be unbearably dry and dull for this reason.)

Localization and the coming handover limit Cartland’s opportunities, but she still ends up in a senior position overseeing welfare and social work during such times as SARS. There is some interesting insight into the bureaucratic thinking that still applies to government policy on poverty.

Not a thrilling page-turner – but a readable personal history about an interesting era.


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7 Responses to Brits in HK – book review 1

  1. PD says:

    Thanks for this — and for the quotes around the loaded term of “expat”. While on the subject, I see that Yonden is on the way out: the combination of referring to HK people in the third person and complaining about poor accommodation is a give-away.

    I bought a copy of RC in a Pay ‘n’ Weep bakery a while ago, and gave it to the girlfriend, who at least hasn’t thrown it aside yet.

    But the genre itself is limiting. Spending too long in places where English is merely tolerated seems to curtail the linguistic resources available. And civil servants aren’t paid to think, so one shouldn’t be surprised to recognise a style not dissimilar to that of retired superintendents: avuncular, well-rounded, pipe-smoking and jovial, but hardly world-shaking.

    I do hope you’re not planning to do Bokhary: repetitive, self-indulgent and little or no copy-editing or typographic production values, as if self-published (no aspersions intended).

  2. Cassowary says:

    I suspect the expat bubble really was that impenetrable; some years ago I had occasion to read through three weeks of newspaper coverage on Tiananmen Square for a research project. The SCMP covered it as if it were a civil war in far-away central Africa. No sense of ownership or outrage, just the detached, mildly voyeuristic tone used by foreign correspondents. I distinctly remember the “Basher” cartoon published on the morning of the bloodshed – one mustachioed expat quips to another, “At least people won’t think Beijing’s in Japan anymore”. Really?

    “Chilling” is a very apt description. Although I prefer the term “self-absorbed, myopic bastards”.

  3. WTF says:

    What dance would Leo Goodstadt and the pulpy quadruped perform if captive in the same room?

  4. dimuendo says:

    Noticed two things about the book when I read it.

    The sense of (self) entitlement.

    She and her HK civil service husband in addition to getting very nice pensions can afford to retire to their house in Switzerland.

  5. Red Dragon says:

    dimuendo (see, I got it right this time, but I do prefer diminuendo).

    You’re absolutely right about this. It’s from the Cartlands of this world that the present shower of British trained AO’s get their sense of entitlement.

    I don’t think that John Tsang and Carrie Lam “do” Switzerland, but you can bet your boots that they’ve got some equally agreeable bolt hole lined up when the time comes for them to pass responsibility for destroying Hong Kong to the next generation of psycho-bureaucrats.

    And will the bolt hole be in Hong Kong? Will it fuck.

  6. delboy says:

    You want self absorbed drivel? Austin Coates “Myself a Mandarin”. Oh god, did I really read it twice?

  7. Joe Blow says:

    I never understood the attraction of Switzerland. I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.

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