Martin Booth certainly was a lucky boy. He and his parents moved to Hong Kong during the Korean War and Martin’s mother, rather than holding him back like the other boys, let him roam freely around the area. We’re lucky because of his ability to recall that time in his lovely book Golden Boy: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood. Living at the Fourseas Hotel in Kowloon, Marin explores his vast neighborhood. His distant and cruel father, away for work most of the time, usually spends his time at home sleeping or drinking. His fun and adventurous mother however turns a blind eye towards Martin’s wanderings and even takes part in some of it. His biggest asset might be his hunger to know and see everything. He has no fear about talking to people he doesn’t understand or who can’t understand him. In fact, he realizes quickly that he must learn Chinese if he wants to explore. What I loved best were the descriptions of what he saw—you could smell the streets, taste the food, and hear the sounds of the people going about their daily lives.
Sticking to the Biography genre, I turned to Da Chen’s Colors of the Mountain, his story of growing up during the Cultural Revolution in China. His memoir helped me see the Revolution in a new light. I’ve certainly read about its broad political and sociological ramifications but Chen’s memoir brought it all down to a much more personal level. Growing up as a member of the landlord class (though now certainly very poor), his family is subject to all sorts of torments and allowed to do nothing to defend themselves. His descriptions of school will make your blood boil. Made to suffer for being smart, he endures humiliation from the teachers on a regular basis. It’s not until he befriends a gang of tough kids that he feels like he fits in anywhere. I found the book engaging and its strength lies in its simplicity. Its weakness lies in Chen’s occasional self back patting. The memoir ends as Chen leaves his village to attend college in Beijing and I was not surprised to learn that there is a second memoir that picks up right where he left off. Also the Chen has a novel called Brothers appearing in the Fall—I’ll let you know how it is.