Author, Book review, China, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Hong Kong, John Lanchester, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Fragrant Harbour’ by John Lanchester


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 299 pages; 2003.

John Lanchester’s Fragrant Harbour is billed as a novel about Hong Kong. I recently spotted it in my local Oxfam shop and bought it in preparation for an upcoming trip to the former British colony.

The story is really three stories, although the lives of the main characters are intertwined so that it reads as one giant narrative spanning 70 years and three generations.

The central character is Tom Stewart, an Englishman in his 80s looking back on his life as an expat in the “fragrant harbour” (Cantonese for Hong Kong). He moved there in 1935, partly to escape the family business of running a pub in Faversham, Kent, but ironically ends up making his fortune in a similar trade: the hotel business.

But before we get to hear Tom’s tale, the book opens in bombastic style with the story of an ambitious female journalist wanting to make her mark on the world. Dawn Stone (real name Doris) charts her climb up the career ladder, from a local newspaper in Blackpool to the nationals in London, before accepting a job offer in glamorous Hong Kong in 1995.

Dawn’s plotted history is told in a breathless, almost arrogant style, in just 50 short pages. By the end of her story we know that she’s shallow enough to ditch her journalistic principles for the offer of big bucks and power. The message? That Hong Kong might be glamorous and the most crowded city on earth, but it’s also fuelled by greed and it doesn’t take much to be seduced by her charms.

Thank goodness, then, for fine upstanding citizen Tom, whose story takes up the greater chunk of this novel. Tom has the benefit of being a survivor, first as a hotelier in a cut-throat business and second as a prisoner of war captured by the Japanese during the Second World War. His friendship with Sister Maria, the Chinese-born Catholic nun whom he meets on the boat trip from England (she teaches him Cantonese during the six-week sea voyage) is the one constant that grounds him. But is there more to their relationship than meets the eye?

The third story follows Matthew Ho, a Chinese-born businessman in his 30s, who divides his time between Hong Kong and Australia, where his young family, including his in-laws, have emigrated. Like Dawn Stone, Matthew, too, is ambitious, and through some plot implausibility, meets Dawn on the very first flight Dawn makes from Heathrow to Hong Kong. Their “friendship”, albeit as journalist and source, works both ways: Dawn gets to use him for stories, he later gets to use her to pitch a business idea to her powerful boss.

Of course the main “character” in this book is Hong Kong itself. Lanchester does a good job of bringing the city to life, with rich descriptions of the junk-filled harbour, the steep streets and the skyscrapers that line them. He provides a strong sense of history too, covering the city’s physical development from the mid-1930s to the Chinese handover in 1997. Key political events — the Japanese capture of Hong Kong in 1941, the Chinese civil war and Mao’s cultural revolution, the 1967 riots in which pro-communists demonstrated against British rule, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing — are dotted throughout, giving the story a truly epic feel.

But at times it does feel slightly forced, particularly in part one, when Dawn arrives on foreign shores and is given a running commentary on the city by her boss:

See that stone wall around the airport perimeter? That used to be the Walled City of Kowloon. During the war the Japanese tore down the walls and made POWs build the perimeter of the airport. The city stayed where it was, a total no-go area to the cops thanks to some ancient row over jurisdiction between the Chinese and the Brits. Literally swarming with Triads, junkies, sweatshops, whorehouses, you name it. More edifyingly, if you look out the back window you can catch a glimpse of the mountains around Kowloon. They’re in the New Territories, which is the last bit of mainland between China proper. The Chinese said the hills were dragons. There were eight of them. Then the last of the Sung emperors came here in the thirteenth century, fleeing the Mongols, Kubla Khan among them, he of the stately pleasure-dome where Alph the sacred river ran.

This, I hasten to point out, goes on for pages. To be fair, this kind of author knowledge, masquerading as scene-setting, is only present in the first part of the novel. By the time we get to Tom’s story we pretty much know that Hong Kong is beset by political corruption, dirty money, crime gangs, drugs and prostitution. But we also know that the city attracts the rich and powerful, and offers a lifestyle many can only dream about.

While Fragrant Harbour is a highly entertaining read, one that taught me much about Hong Kong’s recent history in an enjoyable manner, its narrative structure lets it down slightly. It would have worked equally well told entirely through Tom’s eyes without cluttering it up with Dawn’s and Matthew’s voices as well.

That said, I still ate up the book in a matter of days, and found myself caught completely off-guard by some unexpected plot surprises.

Fragrant Harbour was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2002.

10 thoughts on “‘Fragrant Harbour’ by John Lanchester”

  1. Like Will, I much preferred A Debt to Pleasure. I think there is quite a bit of Lanchester the journalist (and he is a good one) in Lanchester the novelist, as you observe in your review. In A Debt to Pleasure, I found that interesting (since a lot of it concerned food and gastronomy) while in this book (about three stars for me as well) it did verge on tiresome at points.


  2. Its a good read, Lisa, but not without its failings, as I point out above. Toms story is especially good; the others less so. For £1.95 I am certainly not complaining.


  3. I did think of you when I started reading this, Kevin, primarily because the first character was a journalist. I was hooked right from the outset, but didn’t realise the book would go off in another direction completely by page 50. Somehow these two parts just didn’t sit comfortably beside one another.


  4. I am quite a fan of Lanchester’s books and articles about literature but less keen on his fiction. This is one I have been meaning to read for some time now but have never got around to it – your review suggests to me that this might have been wise!


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