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Gweilo: Memories Of A Hong Kong Childhood [Paperback]

Martin Booth
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Aug 2005

Martin Booth died in February 2004, shortly after finishing the book that would be his epitaph - this wonderfully remembered, beautifully told memoir of a childhood lived to the full in a far-flung outpost of the British Empire...

An inquisitive seven-year-old, Martin Booth found himself with the whole of Hong Kong at his feet when his father was posted there in the early 1950s. Unrestricted by parental control and blessed with bright blond hair that signified good luck to the Chinese, he had free access to hidden corners of the colony normally closed to a Gweilo, a 'pale fellow' like him. Befriending rickshaw coolies and local stallholders, he learnt Cantonese, sampled delicacies such as boiled water beetles and one-hundred-year-old eggs, and participated in colourful festivals. He even entered the forbidden Kowloon Walled City, wandered into the secret lair of the Triads and visited an opium den. Along the way he encountered a colourful array of people, from the plink plonk man with his dancing monkey to Nagasaki Jim, a drunken child molester, and the Queen of Kowloon, the crazed tramp who may have been a member of the Romanov family.

Shadowed by the unhappiness of his warring parents, a broad-minded mother who, like her son, was keen to embrace all things Chinese, and a bigoted father who was enraged by his family's interest in 'going native', Martin Booth's compelling memoir is a journey into Chinese culture and an extinct colonial way of life that glows with infectious curiosity and humour.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam (1 Aug 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0553816721
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553816723
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 27,535 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"A classic memoir... the voice of the youthful narrator carries the reader on in a wonderfully honest tone... Booth has delivered a pre-coming-of-age book that ranks with the best of the breed. The writing is superb... it is a more than worth legacy to his prolific literary life, but also stands as one of the most original and engaging memoirs of recent years, all the more telling because it is so personal, witty and true" (The Times)

"Admirably evocative... one longs to learn what happened next; but, alas, we never will" (The Sunday Times)

"It has such pace and power... his memoir is, above all, a celebration... the portrait of his parents... is particularly fine" (Sunday Telegraph)

"Highly evocative... as a sharp-eyed, sensitive child of a vanished Hong Kong, Booth earns his nostalgia... his family are not the only ones who will enjoy the book" (Daily Telegraph)

"His finest work. Full of local colour and packed with incident" (Evening Standard 'Pick of the Year')

Book Description

Evocative, funny and full of life - a beautifully written and observed childhood memoir of growing up in colonial Hong Kong shortly after World War 2.

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Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
4.8 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful mémoire of a Hong Kong childhood 16 Nov 2009
I need not add much to the very positive reviews already given to this book. Gweilo was one of Booth's last works before he sadly died of cancer. Those who are interested in Hong Kong history will find the descriptions of 1950's Hong Kong fascinating. As a constantly changing place, it is helpful to have a snapshot in time preserved through the memories of a young boy. Highly recommended.
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29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a hong kong childhood 10 Aug 2004
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I read this book with great interest. I also lived in Hong Kong as a child (and shared the same birthday as the author),and saw many similar scenes there myself. He seems to mention every special scene himself, from the Peak tram to the Star ferry,even Kowloon local areas. It is accurate,precise and local to the area.
If you want a read about this part of the world in some detail, you can do no better.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
By frhout
Hong Kong has been thoroughly written about over the decades, but I have known of no recent autobiographies, even if there have been, non is in print. This makes "Gweilo" stand out as one of its kind, it is a most engaging and loving memoir, socially rich in details as it relates the intercourse of different walks of life in Hong Kong, a far-fetched colony which Booth considers already ahead of the still-under-ration Britain in many ways. His description of the relationships between foreigners and the local people, as epitomised by his parents, his father's superiors, Amercian sailors, long-term lodgers in the hotels and their employees, shopkeepers, servants and ordinary locals, is acute, with observations worthy of a sociologist's.
Few expatriates have such a critical eye, even fewer expats' children are curious and courageous enough to learn the Cantonese dialect with some its excruciatingly rude foul words, to go to dai pai dongs (street restaurants) on his own, and to wander into places, like the Kowloon Walled City, where locals, and even armed policemen would not venture into and to witness the social ills among opium addicts, pimps and triad members. Many scenes described in the book belong to the not-too-distant past, yet many others remain the same to this day.
This book covers only three years of Booth's first bout in Hong Kong, from 1952 (when he was 7) to 1955. Instinctively, I feel the need for more, but Booth's untimely death in 2004 has deprived us of a sequel, when his family returned to Hong Kong for good four years after their initial departure. This is a magnificent book to read for anyone who cares for Hong Kong, Chinese and expatriates alike.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is an excellent book 27 July 2006
In `Gweilo' Martin Booth describes his life in Hong Kong from 1952 to 1955. I loved roaming around with Booth through the streets of Kowloon and the Walled City - which I didn't visit until shortly before it was torn down - and the various bits of Hong Kong Island. A seven-year old would presumably never be allowed to roam around like this in Europe. But as Booth notes in the beginning in Hong Kong he was very much treated as an `adult in training', which I think puts a much fairer value on what is called `childhood'.

I loved the many anecdotes in the book including the one where Booth describes their hiking tour to Ngong Ping Monastery on Lantau Island and being awoken by the sound of castanets, which turned out to be a pair of clapping teeth (his father's).

The one ugly character in the book is indeed Booth's father. The guy has a rather large chip on his shoulder and he comes over like the big ugly Expat - Hong Kong has seen a few of those in its time. One shudders knowing that the guy came back in 1959 as a civil servant.

It is a pity that Booth's untimely death deprives us of a memoir of his second stay in Hong Kong, but I would not have been at all surprised if it would have been as marvelous as `Gweilo'.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
By Petrolhead VINE VOICE
This delightful memoir is doubtless mainly of interest to people who know Hong Kong and want to know about, or remember, the very different Hong Kong that existed in the early 1950s. But it also stands on its own as a very touching piece of writing about childhood, a portrait of a feisty, loving mother, and an intimate gift by a man on his deathbed to his children. Martin Booth wrote this because he knew he was dying and because he was sad that his own father had never told him anything of his boyhood. In fact, after reading Gweilo, one's picture of Booth Sr is one of such a grotesque and narrow-minded philistine that it is hardly a surprise to hear he never sat down with his son and related the stories of his early life.

Gweilo is the story of the author's adventures in Hong Kong as a child, between the ages of seven and nine. It contains nothing about young Martin going to school, but describes instead his adventures and discoveries and the people and places he encountered, from coolie rickshaw drivers to the disturbed demobbed British officer Nagasaki Jim (presumably the model for Booth's 1985 novel Hiroshima Joe), with gangsters, cooks, colonials and lepers all thrown into the mix. Young Martin was an explorer and a curious child, but distinguished himself from the likes of his awful father by learning some Cantonese and seeing ordinary Chinese as real people rather than soul-less colonial subjects. Martin (and to some extent his mother) was open to trying almost anything new and always poking his nose into other people's business. The result is an often hilarious series of adventures, gathered into a rare and affectionate portrait of the lives of Hong Kongers of the time.

If you know the modern Hong Kong, it is intriguing to see just how much has changed, and how little.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Pure nostalgia
I have read it 15 times and visited all the places mentioned - wonderful
Published 7 hours ago by Carole Adams
5.0 out of 5 stars Great, takes you right there
Great, takes you right there, you feel as if you're on Hong Kong's streets trying 1000 year old eggs and dodging cops. Read more
Published 11 days ago by PHaire
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful
A brilliant account of life in HK in a bygone age. It is so well written and one is quite sad when it finishes. Read more
Published 29 days ago by Karin Gardiner
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating
This was great to read whilst working in present day Hong Kong, giving a view into the past, through the eyes of the author as a little boy. Useful glossary too.
Published 2 months ago by Anniemal
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic!
Discovered this book recently and gave a copy to my daughter (who currently lives in Hong Kong) she loves it. Read more
Published 3 months ago by dustybee
5.0 out of 5 stars Great reading for trip to HK
I read this on a first trip to HK and it was great for filling in gaps in my knowledge.
Published 4 months ago by Mrs.Pamela M Pallister
5.0 out of 5 stars Gweilo.
This book is magic, We lived in Hongkong from 1962 to 1965 and I really enjoyed hearing about places and things I remembered. Have re read it now and will never part with it!
Published 4 months ago by dg
5.0 out of 5 stars Loved it
I would recommend this book to people who like both Martin Booth and Hong Kong. This book is not for everyone.
Published 6 months ago by Sebastian Swallow
5.0 out of 5 stars Gweilo Memories of a Hong KONG CHILDHOOD
What a superb book and so well written, a true story of this lads family life ,, and I look forward to Martins other book Music on a bamboo radio,,,,,,,,,,but it is just sad to... Read more
Published 6 months ago by rhod
5.0 out of 5 stars Great.
Previously read this in hardback and wanted a copy to carry around with me. If you have any interest in Hong Kong at all then this is a must read. Read more
Published 9 months ago by The Scrivener
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