Thursday, 3 April 2014

Hong Kong Finale, March 17 - 20

At Least We Lived on display at Bookazine
Landing at HKIA on Monday afternoon after a flight from Shanghai, and arriving at the JW Marriott on Pacific Place is a homecoming of sorts - and a relief after nine days of touring mainland cities. I have three days to see old friends (and make some new ones), but also have to hunker down at the hotel to write a lecture. The weather is just right - warm enough to sit out at the bar by the pool, and (unusually for March) free of rain.

On Wednesday evening, Bookazine, a leading Hong Kong bookseller, hosts a book signing at their Prince's Building branch. Over a glass of wine I welcome friends and book purchasers - it's particularly nice to see Mason Chan, daughter-in-law of Admiral Chan Chak, Samuel Tse, who staffed the Christmas Day Escape exhibition at the Museum of Coastal Defence, and Philip and Amanda Snow (who take me for wonderful Chinese food afterwards).

View of freshly-painted St John's Cathedral from the China Club
Thursday is a very full day. After a quick breakfast, I print out the talk I've been working on for tonight, and take a cab to a meeting of the Friends of the Art Museum of CUHK, a group I still belong to. It's a small gathering at a private home to meet Irene Lee, who recently became chairman of Hysan Development, the real estate company founded by her grandfather, Lee Hysan. I am especially interested in meeting her because Max and Audrey knew her parents, Harold and Christine, and uncle, Dick Lee, and I give her a copy of my book which has several references to their friendship. Irene talks movingly about the Lee family history and her plans to commemorate it further.

Vicki Firth, a friend from 'the Friends', has invited me to talk about At Least We Lived at a lunch meeting of her book group. This is actually her last meeting before she and her husband return to England after many years in HK, and the group has arranged a special lunch at the American Club on Exchange Square. It is an extraordinary gathering of fifteen women with deep roots in Hong Kong. It turns out that several have close connections to Max and Audrey's story - knowing people who knew them (such as Stanley and May Smith, Berkeley Gage, Joy and Eddie Teesdale), and knowing Max's old house on Kadoorie Avenue. We have a fascinating discussion over a lovely lunch.

Lunch with Hong Kong book group
The Hong Kong branch of the Royal Asiatic Society hosts the final event of my trip: an evening talk in the Helena May Club on Garden Road. I learn from Michael Broom, the RAS president, that we will have a completely full house with ninety plus expected. I have thirty copies of At Least We Lived with me - but could have sold more! People gather from 6pm for drinks, and it's great to see some familiar faces, including friends who have helped me with the book. But it's even more encouraging that many people who don't know me are in the audience.

My talk is on the theme of Audrey's journeys - both physical and emotional - I include more material on her postwar life in Hong Kong than I've used in other talks, and show a Powerpoint of maps and photos. The audience is highly appreciative, and this is a terrific finale to a very good trip.

Friends Lucy Reed and Michael Glennon give me and other friends supper afterwards at their great apartment (one that they're about to give up on moving to Singapore) - a welcome chance to relax before packing and leaving for the long return trip to DC early tomorrow.

Shanghai International Literary Festival, March 14 - 16

Flags fly above M on the Bund's historic home
Leaving Chongqing, the city in the clouds, I reach sea level at Shanghai on Friday afternoon and, finally, spring is in the air. Here I'm a guest of M on the Bund's international literary festival, and staying at the fabulous Hotel Indigo. This is a twenty minute walk along the promenade on the west bank of Shanghai's Huangpu River to the famed Bund. The grand old waterfront buildings are often compared to those of another port, Liverpool, and several more have been restored since my last visit to Shanghai.

The festival is held at M's Restaurant and Glamour Bar. On Friday evening, I absorb the ambience by going along to a packed session with Chris Doyle, the cinematographer who has In the Mood for Love and many other great movies among his credits. The venues are a bit more sophisticated than the Bookworm's, as the Glamour Bar name suggests - but the audiences are equally engaged and well-informed.

View from my room at Hotel Indigo
I wake up to the sight of a fleet of barges making their stately way upriver - this is still a working waterway. After an excellent breakfast at Indigo, I walk along to M for coffee with Jeff Wasserstrom, UC-Irvine history professor and writer on China, who's generously agreed to moderate my session.

Before my 1pm session, we listen to an interesting discussion with Anna Greenspan, a philosopher, on the future of Shanghai: she calls it a ‘mellow’ city, which I kind of appreciate when I walk around the old French Concession later.

Tina Kanagaratnam, festival co-director, introduces Jeff and Emma

Jeff moderates beautifully, working in pertinent questions about Emily Hahn and Max, (and he bails me out a couple of times by reading passages from the book when my voice dries up!). We have perhaps seventy people in a great audience at the Glamour Bar, including luminaries of the Shanghai branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, and lots of questions.

People watching in a French quarter park

Later on, I enjoy hearing Pamela Williams talk about her book, Killing Fairfax: Packer, Murdoch and the Ultimate Revenge - she has traveled from Australia and has her leg in a cast after tripping and breaking her foot on arrival in Shanghai. Some writers are coping with much more than a bad cold to appear at the festival! But with my cold, I'm happy to have a restful evening back at the hotel before another full day.

On Sunday I make a side trip to Suzhou, known for its canals and gardens, to talk at a small branch of the Bookworm there. This takes up most of the day – high speed trains there and back, but long taxi rides to and from stations. Toby Flett, a Californian who teaches English in Suzhou and is also an animator, is my volunteer and moderator. 

Emma at the Master of the Nets garden
After a stop at the Bookworm for coffee, we take a walk around one of Suzhou’s exquisite classical gardens: blossom is just out on the magnolia and a red-flowered tree.

The Bookworm Suzhou
Our session back at the Bookworm has a small but lively audience, including local expats and Chinese, and it's good to see another friendly gathering place for English-speakers.

Back in Shanghai, I'm part of a big and entertaining authors' dinner at M. It's great to meet Emma Larkin, the author of the wonderful Finding George Orwell in Burma, and see familiar faces including Hannah Beech, Evan Osnos, Jeff Wasserstrom and Maura Cunningham.