Chris Maden reviews the third volume of David T. K. Wong’s memoirs of his life in 1970s Hong Kong.
David T. K. Wong, Hong Kong Confidential: Life as a Subversive (Blacksmith Books, 2018), 532pp.
The name David T.K. Wong will be known to many who are active in Hong Kong’s literary scene. Founder of the eponymous scholarship for creative writing at the University of East Anglia, and the author of many volumes of short stories, Hong Kong Confidential is the third volume of Wong’s memoirs, with (at least) one more to come.
The current volume covers the second half of Wong’s time in the civil service, which broadly overlapped Sir (later Lord) Murray MacLehose’s governorship. Sir Murray is held in high esteem and fond regard by many Hongkongers: his decade-long tenure saw Hong Kong burst forth on the world stage, and many of the institutions – public housing, the Independent Commission Against Corruption, the US dollar peg – that we now recognise as quintessentially Hong Kong were put in place under his tenure. As a result, Sir Murray has an almost mythical status amongst the public at large. This volume seeks if not to debunk then to at least re-appraise that myth.
The book is the third volume of David’s memoirs and opens in 1970, when the author is despatched to Oxford University for a year – “quite the wrong place for me to be at that time of life. It left me with too much leisure to reflect.” He returns to serve as a City District Officer under David Trench’s administration, “conveying to the upper government echelons unpalatable truths about ‘the great unwashed,” a task about which he has great misgivings given the Eurocentric British and Hong Kong Government policies of the time. Indeed, his first job is to mediate between rioting students and the government: on the one hand, he sympathises with the student’s political stance; on the other, his job is to restore order.
Enter Sir Murray, a career diplomat whose appointment “raise[d] a few eyebrows.” His style is not to Wong’s liking: a low-level introductory tour of Hong Kong turns into a publicity stunt; an expensive management consultancy is hired to restructure the civil service, the restructuring of which does nothing more than add another layer of bureaucracy. A planned peaceful protest march by the students is denied permission because, as Sir Murray declares, “Hong Kong is not London.” But when the march goes ahead anyway, the government pats itself on the back because it comes off without violence. Despite the march being illegal, no one is arrested – a complete climb down by the government. At Sir Murray’s behest, the civil service was expanded.
China has a millennia-long history of a professional civil service, recruitment to which has always been based on merit, open to all, and which had rules that mitigated against patronage and nepotism. The colonial system was Eurocentric, with a quota of one Chinese administrative officer per year until well into the 1950s, and only a few more in Wong’s time. The interviews were conducted in English, which favoured women; David sets them moral tests to weed out unsuitable candidates. However, to ramp up the numbers,
[Sir Murray] resorted to watering down recruitment standards. That erosion in standards gradually picked up pace and instead of a system that promoted merit it turned slowly into one which made for mediocrity. It resulted in the uncalled-for advancement of a fair number of third-raters, intellectual midgets, paper-shufflers, buck-passers, back-stabbers, time-servers, pension-calculators, opportunists and the like. (p. 295)
In disgust, David both removes himself and is removed from any active role in the recruitment process. He is seconded to the Housing Department, but has little commerce with his boss and so little opportunity to make a difference. He does, however, recommend in a memo a lottery for public housing of which he hears nothing – until he reads in the paper that it has been implemented.
From Housing he goes to negotiate aviation landing rights for Hong Kong. As a colony, these were subservient to Britain’s, and Wong’s hidden agenda is to secure a foothold for Cathay Pacific. Through some Machiavellian manoeuvring, he succeeds. This devious streak emerges once more when he sabotages a proposal to build a reverse osmosis seawater desalination plant by using back-door channels to secure a supply of drinking water from Guangdong province. He is then posted back to civil aviation, and is able through further devious manoeuvring to secure Cathay’s right to fly to London, and to Vancouver.
Mixed in with his career, we have details of Wong’s personal life: his love of mah-jong and his ownership of horses; the difficulties of attempting to have a love life as a divorcee father-of-three, and the difficulties of raising three sons as a single parent. This latter comes to a head when his sons, in their late teens, demand university education in the west. On a civil servant’s salary, David cannot afford this. He decides to move to the private sector, and the final chapter of the books detail his last few months, where he resolves a long-standing labour dispute at the post office before leaving the civil service.
Thus passes a decade that broadly overlaps Sir Murray’s governorship, but which also – and this goes under-remarked by Wong– came to define modern Hong Kong. A consistent theme throughout the book is the deep-seated cultural differences between the British rulers and the ruled Chinese: that the colonial service ruled first for remote British interests, a philosophy which worked against the deep-rooted Confucian ideal that civil servants are supposed to be responsible to those under their care. Wong worked for the colonial government, but the colonial government was an artefact of British greed and China’s then weakness. In a sense, the very act of working for the British required Wong to “sell out” and so, in the more reflective passages, one witnesses Wong attempt to reconcile his pride in China’s past achievements with Britain’s current dominance – something that sees his duty to the population he serves carried out often-times with the cultural insensitivity akin to that of his colonial masters.
Yet the analysis stops there – and is undermined by an uncritical view of the realities, as opposed to the ideal, of the traditional Chinese civil servant. While the reader is introduced to many paragons of virtue, the Chinese phrase “become an official and get rich” (成官發財) goes unnoticed, and he is rather quiet about Confucian Chief Secretary to the Ching Dynasty emperor Kin Long who, on his execution for corruption five days after the emperor’s death, was found to have pocketed assets equivalent to fifteen years of government revenues. Nor does Wong reflect upon the tension between a grounding in the Confucian classics that was the traditional criteria for entry into the Chinese civil service, and the need for a technological expertise to implement and execute sound government policies in a world that has advanced somewhat in that direction over the three millennia since Confucius lived. Even accepting the ideal over reality, surely if there is any lesson to be learned from the 1970s, it is not the specific deficiencies of Sir Murray’s governorship, but that colonial administration practised by any country is doomed to damaging conflicts of interest. Yet, Wong fails to draw this lesson in explicit terms, or – which I would have liked to have seen – apply it to contemporary Hong Kong.
The memoir is a slow read. The author has a tendency to digress and, while the introspective passages give a clear idea of the author’s state of mind, some go on for too long and those concerning the ideal of the Chinese civil servant are repetitive. This is a shame: a number of the incidents recounted, both professional and personal, have great potential to make forceful points through comedy or tragedy. A kindly cut of a quarter of the book need have had no loss of material, and would have given these points the stress they need. The details of Wong’s love life, in particular, while they could come across as gentle, self-deprecating comedy, struck me as turgid, and Wong’s protestations that, as a mah-jong player, cocktail-party circuit regular, and horse-owner, he couldn’t afford his sons’ education, as self-deceiving. Nevertheless, although perhaps not as well-realised as possible, humour and tragedy abound. The characters are well-drawn and, for those interested in the people who made Hong Kong what it is or of reappraising Sir Murray’s tenure, Wong’s memoir is an illuminating and intelligent read.
Chris Maden lives and works in Hong Kong. He is a key figure in the Hong Kong Writers Circle.