10 terrific books about London and Hong Kong you will really love

08/07/2021

As you know, we have offices in both London and Hong Kong.

If you’re looking for a great read about one of these two cities, these ten terrific books reflect the history of both and the experience of living in them – either in the present day, or in history.

Add them to your reading list!

Five books set in London

As you would expect from a capital city with such a rich history going back more than 2,000 years, London has been the setting for countless books.

These are five that we think you’ll love. They are very varied, but all have one thing in common, and that’s that they could only really have been set in London. Nowhere else would have worked.

1. Capital – John Lanchester

Capital is set in a single road in South West London. It’s the London of rising property prices, city bonuses and ostentatious wealth on one hand, and hidden deprivation and the plight of refugees on the other.

A series of postcards, all bearing the same sinister message, are sent to many of the residents in the road, causing mutual suspicion and recrimination. The 2008 financial collapse then adds a further layer of disturbance and upheaval.

2. Absolute Beginners – Colin MacInnes

Absolute Beginners is set in late 1950s Notting Hill, at a time when the area was all low-rent slum housing rather than the rows of seven-figure properties of today.

The first post-war wave of Commonwealth immigrants was trying to assimilate and receiving a very waspish welcome from certain quarters. At the same time, “teenagers” were becoming an entity in their own right, with money to spend and lives to live.

It’s all coffee bars, jazz clubs and smart clothes – you can almost smell the cappuccino coming off the pages as you read.

3. White Teeth – Zadie Smith

London is one of the most diverse and multicultural cities in the world, and that’s celebrated in this much-feted debut novel by Zadie Smith.

Set in the North London suburbs of Kilburn and Willesden, it follows the stories of a range of characters from the end of the second world war through to the millennium.

4. Saturday – Ian McEwan

Many authors have used the “day in the life” theme in books – following a single character over a 24-hour period to make up the book in its entirety.

The day in question in Saturday is that of the biggest demonstration in London’s history when over a million people marched against the Iraq War in 2003.

The march itself is peripheral to the plot, which takes in a traffic accident, the fear of terrorism and family reconciliation.

It’s set in London, and it’s very much of London.

5. A Week in December – Sebastian Faulks

This isn’t Faulks’s most well-known work – you’ll probably be more familiar with Birdsong and Charlotte Grey. But it makes our list because it’s a great illustration of how closely entwined lives can be – even in a big city like London.

It follows the lives of seven people over seven days. Again, London is central to the story. All the characters use the Circle Line to travel, and the story follows them as they face their problems in the run-up to Christmas.

Five books set in Hong Kong

With its complex ”East meets West” history, teeming mix of nationalities, and geographical position, Hong Kong has frequently been the backdrop to compelling stories.

Here are five to add to your reading list. It’s a selection that covers nearly two centuries of history, and in which Hong Kong itself comes alive, almost as a character in each of the books.

1. The Honourable Schoolboy – John Le Carre

This is the sixth of Le Carre’s books that feature the legendary British secret agent George Smiley – played in film and on TV by both Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman.

Set in the mid-70s, The Honourable Schoolboy sees Smiley trying to pull the British secret service back together after the cataclysmic events at the end of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Rather than the usual Eastern Europe, the main theatre is the Far East. Large parts of the book are based in Hong Kong, and it paints a superb picture of the sometimes-insular expat community of the time, as well as the geopolitical intrigue deriving from the proximity to communist China.

It’s a classic spy story with enough excitement to make it worth struggling through some of the weighty espionage dialogue.

2. Fragrant Harbour – John Lanchester

Before Capital, John Lanchester wrote one of the very best books set in Hong Kong.

Apart from some flashback scenes, this majestic history is based totally in Hong Kong. The title itself is the English translation of it.

It takes place over seven decades – from the pre-war colonial period, through the Japanese occupation, to the post-war territory as the crossroads of international finance. It finally ends at the handover in 1997.

The story follows four very diverse characters through three generations. It delves into many aspects of Hong Kong life – politics, crime, finance, sport, and culture – as the four stories intertwine and then converge on the day of handover.

3. The Piano Teacher – Janice YK Lee

This is not to be confused with the French film of the same name.

This covers some of the same historical ground as Fragrant Harbour, being set in the 40s and 50s, during occupation and its aftermath.

Again, Hong Kong itself takes centre stage. It’s a vivid portrayal of the city teeming with people, sights, sounds, and smells.

The comfortable, sheltered life lived by foreign nationals is shattered by the Japanese occupation. We see the varied reactions from initial trepidation, to the choice of resistance or submission, followed by the post-war rebuilding.

4. Tai-Pan – James Clavell

Tai-Pan begins at the conclusion of the opium wars with China in the 1840s just after the British acquisition of Hong Kong. It’s a fast-moving story of smuggling, piracy, and trade wars as two former friends, but now deadly business rivals, look to make their fortune.

It also tells the story of Hong Kong itself at that time, growing from virtually nothing to a busy commercial trading port.

5. Gweilo – Martin Booth

Soon after this was published in 2004, it was pretty much omnipresent on the shelves of bookshops both in Hong Kong and around the world.

It’s based on author Martin Booth’s childhood memories of growing up in 1950s Hong Kong. The book is written from the perspective of a seven-year-old 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.

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If you’ve got any book recommendations of your own, we’d love to know about them. Please contact us by email to let us know.

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