Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Hong Kong: Visiting one of Ian Fleming's Thrilling Cities

A trip to New Zealand gave me the opportunity to visit one of Ian Fleming's Thrilling Cities en route. Hong Kong was the first city Fleming visited on his Sunday Times-sponsored tour of the world in 1959. Time didn't permit me to follow in Fleming's footsteps exactly, but I could match him in two aspects at least.

My flight to Hong Kong was rather more straight-forward than Fleming's. Today, one takes a direct flight to Hong Kong from Heathrow. In 1959, Fleming's flight took him to Beirut, Bahrain, Delhi, and Bangkok before landing in Hong Kong. Without in-flight entertainment, Fleming needed a good book. He took a proof copy of Eric Ambler's 1959 novel, Passage of Arms. I took Fleming's lead and read the book on my flight too.

Passage of Arms, set in Malaya, Hong Kong and Singapore, follows the movement of a cache of arms, hidden by Communist insurgents, discovered by a clerk of a rubber plantation estate, and sold on to Indonesian revolutionaries through two Chinese merchants, brothers Tan Siow Mong and Tan Yam Heng, by a naive American tourist looking for adventure.

The novel is a thrilling tale of tension, excitement, comedy, well-drawn characters, vivid descriptions, torture, and a hint of lesbianism, and it's no surprise that Fleming thought the book wonderful. In the descriptions of the Tans, I was reminded of the Foo brothers with whom Major Smythe trades his stolen gold in Fleming's short story, 'Octopussy', written in 1962, and wondered whether Fleming was inspired by Ambler in this aspect.

Once in Hong Kong, Fleming's guide, journalist Richard Hughes (immortalised in You Only Live Twice as Dikko Henderson), insisted that Fleming experience an authentic Chinese meal. They visited the Peking Restaurant, where Fleming had shark's fin soup with crab, shrimp balls in oil, bamboo shoots with seaweed, chicken and walnuts, and roast Peking duckling.

I couldn't find the Peking Restaurant (does it still exist?), but did go to the Peking Garden, a cavernous and smart-looking restaurant on the third floor of an office block. It had everything that Fleming ate on the menu, including shark's fin soup with crab, but looking at the prices, I quickly realised I wasn't going to be able to replicate Fleming's meal entirely. I did, however, order the Peking duck. As with much of the food in the Bond books, Peking duck is no longer as exotic as it was in Fleming's day, but to me the dish remains special, and was delicious.

I just had time before making my way to the airport for my onward flight to visit the Peninsula Hotel, which briefly appears in the film of The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). Alas, I didn't see any of its famous green Rolls Royces. Still, I'll have another chance on the return journey. Watch this space! 

1 comment:

  1. I read Thrilling Cities a few years ago; and I will try to find a copy. Some reviewers have noted that Fleming's favorite city was Hong Kong. Surely, he would have written a Bond book set there. Even today, it's still a splendid city, and you can imagine dark dealings along with exotic pleasures (well, you don't have to imagine everything). Once, I was walking into the Pacific Mall, and a big band (probably a high school) was playing Bond songs. Also, when you take the MTR from the airport to Central side, it's easy to have Bond music playing in your head, the glittering lights beckoning. I still remember taking a red taxi (they're all red) zipping from the central station up the winding road to Mid-levels to my Bond hotel, with the bass guitar of You Only Live Twice in my head (you know, after Bond has just killed the baddie who knifed Mr Henderson).


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