By Hannah Lee
Anyone who has ties to Hong Kong will find things in the book that he or she can identify with, says Nicole Kwan (MJ 2003) referring to The Dragon and the Crown (HKU Press 2009), the memoirs she co-wrote with her 83-year-old uncle, Stanley Kwan. Why? “Because these are really our collective memories,” she says.
From the material shortages during the Japanese occupation, to the dire water shortage of 1963 when citizens only had four hours of water supply every four days; from the riots and bombings inspired by the Cultural Revolution in 1967, to the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 – The Dragon and the Crown recalls the events of the past 80 years that shaped and created the Hong Kong as we know it today.
“Underlying the memoirs is the theme of patriotism and nationalism, and the ideological divide that separated the Chinese people,” Nicole says. “Despite the negative experiences of his younger brothers on the mainland and his own decision to emigrate, my uncle, like many within the Chinese community in Hong Kong and overseas, remains patriotic and continues to care deeply about China.”
Kwan says the 200-page book, published last month had a simple beginning. Stanley, her father’s younger brother – who created and launched the Hang Seng Index in 1969 – began writing down his thoughts and experiences when he emigrated to Canada in 1984, so his daughters and grandchildren would know something about his life and find a link to the past.
As the prospect of 1997 approached, there was great interest in Hong Kong within the Chinese community in Canada. Stanley Kwan was invited by the University of Toronto – York University Joint Centre for Asia Pacific Studies to publish his writings in 1999 as part of its Hong Kong Life Stories series. The following year, the publishers suggested that he re-write his memoirs in English, in order to reach a wider audience.
Intrigued by her 83 year-old uncle’s stories and captivated by the history of her extended family – much of which she was unaware of – Nicole offered to help work on the draft when she moved to the US in 2003. And so she began four years of probing and stirring her uncle’s memories, seeking clarification from Mainland as well as Hong Kong relatives, and piecing together the whole story from different angles.
The uncle and niece finished their first full draft in 2007. The Royal Asiatic Society and HKU Press readily agreed to publish the memoirs as part of their Hong Kong Studies Series, which is designed to share with readers important contributions on the history, culture and society of Hong Kong and the surrounding region.
“The hardest part about the writing was to give the memoirs a true feel of what life was like in Hong Kong and China from the eyes of my uncle over a span of 70 years: through his childhood, his war experiences as a youth, his banking career, and his retirement in Canada,” Nicole says.
“At the same time, we had to weave into the background the tremendous social, economic and political upheavals that Hong Kong was undergoing during this period.”
Jan Wong, author of Red China Blues and Beijing Confidential, says The Dragon and the Crown is “a fascinating account of the 20th-century history of Hong Kong,” and that Stanley Kwan’s odyssey is “gripping.”
Christine Loh, CEO of Civic Exchange, says, “Our lives today seem dull compared to those who lived through the war, who not only witnessed but experienced the tussle between the Nationalists and Communists in the borrowed place of British colonial Hong Kong…
“Old heartaches come alive through the retelling of the personal stories in this book to remind us of lost hope and the need to soldier on nevertheless.”