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Best books set in Hong Kong
Illustration: Time Out Hong Kong

The 13 best books set in Hong Kong

Because there’s no better city to have as a backdrop in a literary tome

Catharina Cheung
Edited by
Catharina Cheung
Written by
Time Out Hong Kong
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Our fair city is a film director’s favourite when it comes to needing an exotic locale to serve as a backdrop. Hong Kong provided aesthetic inspiration for Blade Runner’s dystopian Los Angeles, and has been featured in a wide variety of films, from Ghost in the Shell to The Dark Knight. But dont think Hong Kong doesnt have a literary pedigree too. More than a few famous novels have been set here...

RECOMMENDED: If television are more your thing, then Hong Kong’s best TV drama series should delight you. 

Immerse yourself in different Hong Kongs

1. Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah

If you want to read Crazy Rich Asians with a similar cast of unhinged, privileged characters, but with a plot that’s the polar opposite of a romcom, then Falling Leaves is your best bet. This is the autobiography of Chinese-American author Adeline Yen Mah, where she unflinchingly delves into various childhood core memories as well as continuous mistreatment from her well-off but dysfunctional family and stepmother. Part of the book is based in Hong Kong after her family fled mainland China to escape the communists, and the narrative mentions several locations around the city such as the Sacred Heart School and Orphanage on Caine Road and the luxurious apartment near the Peak that the Yen family lived in. 

2. Diamond Hill by Kit Fan

Diamond Hill is Hong Kong poet Kit Fan’s debut novel, and though Fan is now based in the UK, his book is set in the eponymous area of Diamond Hill in 1987, when the area was Hong Kong’s last shanty town. The narrator Budhha is a recovering heroin addict who goes to stay in a Buddhist monastery in the neighbourhood – modelled after Chi Lin Nunnery. The grim, crumbling state of Diamond Hill is juxtaposed against the glitz of pre-handover Hong Kong’s financial success, where Buddha encounters a motley crew of characters. Fan deals with the themes of colonialism, identity, and displacement with a deft, darkly comic hand, enhanced by a lyricism that comes from his background in poetry.

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3. The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carré

This 1977 spy novel is the middle entry in le Carré’s famous Karla Trilogy, which began with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The book takes us on a journey through much of Southeast Asia. Through the eyes of George Smiley, caretaker chief of the British secret intelligence service MI6, our imaginations are filled with scenes of drug smuggling, helicopter rescues, and espionage. The language can be a bit jargon-heavy, but once you get your head around it, you won’t be able to put it down.

4. Tai-Pan by James Clavell

Filled with backstabbing and libel, Tai-Pan gives us a look at post-Opium War Hong Kong. Set in 1842, just after the British acquisition of the island, the novel follows protagonists Dirk Struan and Tyler Brock, former shipmates turned business rivals, each vying for profit and looking to expand their commercial empires.

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5. The World of Suzie Wong by Richard Mason

Set your sights on the more risqué side of Hong Kong with this gritty romance centred around British artist Robert Lomax and his whirlwind relationship with Hong Kong sex worker Suzie Wong. A roaring success when it was first published in 1957, it has inspired two unofficial sequels and numerous plays.

6. The Bourne Supremacy by Robert Ludlum

Action more your thing? Then look no further than The Bourne Supremacy. Extremely different from the 2004 blockbuster movie starring Matt Damon, the sequel to The Bourne Identity takes us on a journey shrouded in mystery. Set towards the end of British rule, Jason Bourne is forced to take action and return to his old hunting ground of Asia when his wife, Marie, is kidnapped. The 1986 thriller is the very definition of a page-turner, with a head-to-head conflict between communist China and the CIA.

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7. Gweilo by Martin Booth

This is a delightful account of Hong Kong from the point of view of a seven-year-old boy – really an autobiographical account of Martin Booth’s childhood in the 1950s. We follow his travels through small fishing villages in Sha Tin and settlements in Sheung Shui, with fascinating if sometimes grim details about Kowloon’s Walled City and the fire that devastated Shek Kip Mei in 1953, all from the inquisitive perspective of a child.

8. The Monkey King by Timothy Mo

Highlighting complex and often tense family relationships, The Monkey King delivers these themes in a highly amusing fashion. We follow Wallace Nolasco, who marries into the Poon family to further the family’s lineage and improve his own social standing. This mutually beneficial trade turns out to be a disappointment for Nolasco, with corruption and resentment soon ruling his life. Armed with a host of Cantonese colloquialisms, Mo delivers a hilarious take on scenes many of us can relate to.

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9. Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester

Take four people from very different walks of life and you’re sure to capture a glimpse of the city in a way you’ve never seen. Fragrant Harbour is a book that spans several decades – from the Japanese occupation to the handover – and we see the city from the perspectives of local Chinese and expat residents.

10. The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee

This international bestseller explores Hong Kong’s high society under colonial rule. The love story is set in the 1940s and 50s and explores the relationships of Will Truesdale, an Englishman who ends up working as a chauffeur in Hong Kong. The story flits seamlessly between the two decades, interweaving stories of romance, loss and betrayal, and explores the notion of love in different historical contexts.

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11. White Ghost Girls by Alice Greenway

In this teenage rebellion novel with a twist, we’re given a glimpse into the lives of two sisters growing up in a time of political unease. With the Maoist revolution setting in, the novel explores the girls’ teenage years against a backdrop of danger and intrigue.

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