On a visit to Hong Kong last year, I revisited Tai O after a gap of at least 30 years.
There were lots of changes, obviously, but reassuringly there was also still a distinctly “rural” feel both to the village and to the whole island of Lantau, which is a fabulous green oasis.
In “The Tiger Hunters of Tai O”, set in the 1950s, Tai O is pretty much the back of (Hong Kong) beyond.
The literal end of Hong Kong.
A place to be banished to.
Which is what happens to the dedicated, thoughtful Eurasian policeman Simon Lee.
Tai O faces mainland China, and back then, shortly after the rise of Chairman Mao and the Communists, the islands of Hong Kong were a place of smugglers, of refugees, of people escaping, of people hoping for a better life.
In 1954, World War II was a very recent memory, the British were still the colonial power, but the Americans were beginning to make their presence felt. Hong Kong was a place of intrigue, of riches and dire poverty, and of rigid distinctions along class and race divides.
Simon Lee, as a Eurasian, is a brilliant choice as the main protagonist, since he sees issues from both sides. He is a part of the colonial police force, yet is treated dismissively by so many of his British colleagues. The abusive language is shocking to our 21st century ears, as is the attitude towards not only Simon but also his friend and fellow cop, the very likeable Sergeant Jagan Singh.
The story opens with a violent death, and as Simon Lee’s investigation gathers pace, the authorities from HQ in Hong Kong swoop in to try and hush things up, which makes the 2 policemen only more determined to get to the bottom of the case.
There are also rumours of a tiger roaming the hills above the village, a fear that unites everyone, regardless of rank or race. The description of the night time hunt for the tiger is particularly gripping.
There is a colourful cast of fishermen and smugglers and petty criminals and all-round dodgy characters, who live and fish and gamble and drink and smuggle in Tai O.
There is the enigmatic (& very wonderful) Madame Li, who shelters refugees from China who successfully make the dangerous crossing to Hong Kong and freedom – of sorts.
Mr. Saeki delves into the back stories of these characters, weaving their histories together – arrogant colonials, Mainland Chinese, poor villagers – and always at the centre you have 2 decent, honest young men who are trying to find out why a man was killed.
A good read.
An eye opener, as far as racism and downright unpleasant colonialism goes.
On my next trip to Tai O, I’ll make good on a promise we made to stay in the heritage hotel there.
Because it is the former police station where the imaginary Simon Lee and Jagan Singh worked.
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