BOOK REVIEW Hong Kong and the oral tradition The Man Who Owned All the Opium in Hong Kong by Jonathan
Reviewed by Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - At different times, Peter Hui played the role of playboy, gambler,
tailor, wartime collaborator with the Japanese and CIA agent. He rubbed
shoulders with triads and, at one point, briefly owned all the opium in Hong
Kong. Yet no one would have remembered this thoroughly engaging - if not always
admirable - man if Jonathan Chamberlain had not turned on his tape recorder one
day and asked Hui to tell him a story.
Years later, that story became King Hui: The Man Who Owned All the Opium in Hong
Kong, an oral history of Hui's fascinating life
that, as the book progresses, also turns into a history of Hong Kong in the
first half of the 20th century. Refreshingly, this is not yet another official
account of the Hong Kong story with which we have all become so familiar. This
is the story of a true son of Hong Kong whose rise and fall in the city
introduces readers to people, places and attitudes left largely untouched by
There will be a nagging question for readers of Chamberlain's book, however: Is
Hui, a man clearly capable of a great con, a reliable narrator of his own life
story? The author, at first skeptical of his subject, vouches unreservedly for
him in the end. Many readers may follow suit, although a grain of salt is
advised for a number of Huiís anecdotes.
In the book's introduction, Chamberlain eloquently establishes his purpose for
devoting 348 pages to the life of a man who, by all conventional measurements,
was a failure - in business, in marriage and in fatherhood.
"There is a smell that distills for me all the essential ingredients of Hong
Kong," Chamberlain writes. "It is the smell of browned cubes of tofu being
heated in a dry wok by a street hawker. Black heat waves vibrate upwards
carrying the stench, worse than diesel fumes, of the marinade that this tofu
has sat in, seemingly for days on end: vinegar, sesame oil, chilli and shrimp
paste. Not for nothing is it called chow tofu, stinky beancurd. This is
the authentic smell of Hong Kong. This book is a stinky beancurd history of
After the short introduction, the voice of Hui takes over, and Chamberlainís
metaphorical eloquence is replaced by a loquacious affability that frequently
breaks into braggadocio. When the author meets him, Hui is an old man living a
humble, lonely life on the small island of Cheung Chau, 10 kilometers southwest
of Hong Kong, but he claims to have been a wealthy, irresistibly handsome mover
and shaker in his day. He also boasts of a prodigious capacity for alcohol and
heroic ability as a kung fu fighter. Indeed, in his days as a student at
Queenís College, he remembers being called Tai Wong, or "King", because
(despite his diminutive height and slender build) he never lost a fight.
Huiís stories of his kung fu prowess continue well into his years as young man
enjoying the nightlife of Hong Kong in the 1940s and 1950s, with several
antagonists left reeling after foolishly trying to take him on. On one
occasion, our hero battles 15 men and comes out the winner! As life goes on, he
also takes two wives, has 11 children and makes and loses lots of money and
lots of women, all the time drinking cognac like water.
Besides money and kung fu, Huiís favorite theme is his own good looks.
Repeatedly, this lonely and garrulous old man reminds his listener of how
attractive women found him in his youth, and stories of romantic conquests and
encounters with nightclub hostesses and prostitutes abound. By his own account,
Huiís life was directed, like the city in which he lived, by the relentless
pursuit of wealth and pleasure.
Born into comfort and wealth, Hui also made and lost his own fortune. He first
struck it rich as a collaborator during Japanís wartime occupation of Hong
Kong. This could be the hardest part of the book for some Chinese readers
because of Huiís generally sympathetic and complimentary portrayal of the
1941-1945 occupation. It was during this time that he claims to have briefly
become Hong Kongís opium king, thanks to his Japanese contacts as the war ended
and the occupation crumbled.
"Now, imagine this: I owned all the opium in Hong Kong," he tells Chamberlain.
"We are talking about tons of opium. Just imagine it. Can you believe it? Tons
of opium. It was like a wonderful dream. I was near ruin and now I was rich
again. Now I was richer than I had ever been before."
Until, that is, the returning British seized the opium. After that, things get
tough for Hui. Because of his competence in English, however, he winds up
landing a job as an interpreter in the traffic department of the Royal Hong
Kong Police Force. His salary is a pittance, but the departmentís deeply rooted
culture of bribery makes this a lucrative position. Fate and a flawed character
kick in again, however, when - nine months after taking this plum job - he must
resign for his own drunken involvement in a traffic accident.
After that, there are more hard times and another ephemeral bout of wealth as a
raffle organizer in Canton that is destroyed by the communist revolution. In
the end, an old man is left wondering about the vicissitudes of fate but also
acknowledging his spendthrift carelessness, which has alienated his family and
left him alone in his final years. Still, no reader can deny that this has been
a life fully lived, suffered and enjoyed.
At the same time, Huiís story gives us glimpses of a Hong Kong - the opium
dens, the pool halls, the nightclubs, the casinos and the girls, girls, girls -
not adequately reflected in official histories of the city. Suzie Wong, the
cinematic representation of the Hong Kong of this era, could have been Hui's
girlfriend - at least before William Holden butted in.
The book's biggest achievement, however, is that its protagonistís triumphs and
tragedies wind up underscoring the dynamism of the city and the times that
shaped him. Readers are left wondering whether, with a tweak of character here
or there, this man might not have been another Hong Kong business icon, like Li
Ka-shing, of wealth and success.
But that was not meant to be. Instead, after suffering a stroke, Hui died
humble and alone in 1993. He was 79 and, although he died poor, no one could
say that his life was not rich, as is the book that tells his story.
As for Hui's veracity, certainly the book's cover photo provides proof enough
of his good looks. After that, one must trust the author and his subject.
King Hui: The Man Who Owned All the Opium in Hong Kong by Jonathan
Chamberlain. Blacksmith Books, December 2007. ISBN-13: 9789889979980. Price
US$17.95, 348 pages.
Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer at Hong Kong International School. He
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.