By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, December 11, 2005
On May 2, 1952, 7-year-old Martin Booth set sail from England with his mother and father on the month-long voyage to Hong Kong aboard a ship called the Corfu. His father, Ken, a civil servant in the Admiralty, was to assume a post there as "Deputy Naval Stores Officer," serving "upon a Royal Fleet Auxiliary naval supply ship plying between the British crown colony and the Japanese military dockyard of Sasebo." His mother, Joyce, who had worked as a telephone operator in Britain, was along for the ride, which turned out to be at once uncomfortably bumpy and unexpectedly exhilarating.
It was bumpy because the marriage of Martin's parents grew ever more unhappy; it was exhilarating because Martin and his mother fell madly, totally in love with Hong Kong. They were there for only three years, but that was enough time for the place to work its way into their hearts, and when Ken Booth was called back to England, mother and son vowed that they would return, as indeed they did, four years later. Martin remained there until he was in his late teens, and his experience of Hong Kong and the mainland proved crucial to his subsequent career as a writer of books and screenplays, many of them set in the Far East or other exotic locales.
Booth was in his late fifties when, in the fall of 2002, he "was diagnosed with the nastiest type of brain tumor around. . . . incurable, essentially inoperable and immune to chemotherapy." His "two children -- both in their twenties -- asked me to tell them about my early life," and he decided to do so. His own father had refused to talk about his past, leaving Booth ignorant about his forebears, and he was determined not to leave his children with the same lacunae.
Golden Boy , completed in the two years before Booth's death last year at the age of 59, is the result. No doubt it gives great comfort to the author's son and daughter, but it rises far above private memoir. It is a vivid recreation of a lost time and place, and a quite unsparingly candid portrait of a marriage in disarray. There is a great deal of dialogue in it, leaving the reader to wonder how much is accurately recollected and how much is invented, but this doesn't really matter. For one thing, memoir is as much a creative art as fiction -- at least in the hands of gifted, imaginative writers -- and for another, Golden Boy rings true from first page to last.
Upon landing in Hong Kong, the Booths went to the first of their several lodgings, "the somewhat ostentatiously named Grand Hotel," in Kowloon, on the mainland across from Hong Kong island. Martin was an adventuresome boy, and his mother -- "full of fun, with a quick wit, an abounding sense of humor, an easy ability to make friends from all walks of life and an intense intellectual curiosity" -- was inclined to give him a long leash, though his father cautioned him against "monkeying about." Ignored for a moment by his Chinese amah, he set forth:
"The door to the corridor was open. Leaving the room, I headed nimbly along it and down the stairs, into the lobby and out on to the street. I knew this excursion came under the 'monkeying about' heading yet I could not resist it. The street called to me as a gold nugget must beckon to a prospector. Until then, my life had been bounded by my parents' small suburban garden, a nearby playing field, an ancient tractor and, more recently, a ship's rail. Now, it was colorfully lit, boundless, unknown, exciting and throbbing with adventurous potential."
Adventurous, indeed. Soon the family moved to the Fourseas Hotel, and once again Martin set out to explore the streets around it: "At the time I was not to know it, but these streets were to be my patch, my playground, and I was to become as well known in them as any of the shopkeepers." He picked up a smattering of street Cantonese and managed to communicate with many Chinese, some of whom spoke pidgin English. His mother "was not unduly averse to my wandering the streets and I began ranging more widely." Hong Kong "was famously street-safe. Muggings were unheard of, child-molesters non-existent and street violence usually restricted to a territorial fight amongst hawkers and stallholders. The nearest a European was likely to come to crime was when he had his pocket picked."
In addition to that, Martin had a built-in asset: "My blond hair, considered by the Chinese to be the color of gold and therefore likely to impart wealth or good fortune, was my passport to many a nook and cranny of Chinese life. It was also the reason why, whilst walking down the street, a passer-by would often briefly stroke my head. I was a walking talking talisman." When he introduced himself -- "I am Martin" -- to a Chinese man named Lau, he learned that he bore even more good luck: " ' Mah Tin ,' he repeated. 'In Cantonese, this mean horse, electric . You are electric horse.' He grinned at his interpretation and mimicked riding a lively steed. 'Like at Laichikok fun garden.' It was a reasonable translation of fairground ."
Many of those whom he encountered on the streets were refugees from mainland China who "had had to abandon their families." His mother, "perhaps because she had lost her father and her widowed mother lived 7,000 miles away, . . . identified with them and, over the years, as they improved their lot, she remained in touch with them, attending their weddings, becoming godmother to their first born, giving them advice and loaning them money."
None of which sat well with her husband. Ken Booth was a small-timer, a "naval grocer" as Joyce called him, "a lonely, disenchanted and bitter man" and "a natural-born bully" who meanly and constantly criticized his wife and son. He spouted "imperial, monarchist jargon," yet "loathed Britain." He was barely an Admiralty clerk, yet he put on nautical airs, strutted about importantly and seems to have been generally regarded as a fool and an ass. "Don't ever tell," his mother once whispered to Martin, "but if it weren't for you, I'd leave him. . . . " Martin tried hard to ignore or tolerate him, but one especially vicious beating did the trick: "It was from that moment that I hated my father, truly abhorred him with a loathing that deepened as time went by and was to sour the rest of both of our lives."
How sad that all is, especially the image of Martin's lively, vivacious, implacably decent mother sacrificing her life on this petty tyrant's altar, yet Golden Boy is anything except a sad book. Instead it is filled with stories of Martin's adventures with his Chinese friends, his exploration of Kowloon's Walled City and its opium dens, his acceptance of "the inevitable cruelty of life in the Orient" for the coolies and rickshaw drivers and amahs, his visit to a fortune teller (arranged by his mother without his father's knowledge), his move from Kowloon to Hong Kong island, to an apartment with a view that "left me speechless."
In that new location, Martin found "a gamut of new experiences to undergo and new lessons to be learnt." He was especially captivated by the famous Peak Tram, "the world's steepest funicular railway," which ran near his apartment and which he rode over and over again. He and his parents weathered a brutal typhoon (his father, as usual, was more talk than action), and he was served a birthday cake the likes of which any boy would kill for; his account of this is especially tender and touching.
When the time came to leave, his mother asked him if he wanted to come back, as she herself most emphatically did: "I thought about it. I had been happy in Hong Kong. It had been an exciting place in which to live and I was sure it had much to offer that I had yet to uncover. However, there was more to it than that. I felt I had grown up in Hong Kong. I could recall little of my life prior to the Corfu. It was as if my memory -- my actual existence -- had begun the moment my foot had touched the dock in Algiers. England was as strange a place to me now as Hong Kong had been on that June morning in 1952. In short, I felt I belonged there."
So he told his mother, "Yes. Definitely."
Four years later he was back. And now, in this quite wonderful book, he brings the Hong Kong of his youth back to life, for his children and for us.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.