In 1949, when he was just sixteen years old, my father left school and joined the navy. His first posting was in Hong Kong, and though he traveled to many places after that, it was Hong Kong that made the lasting impression, that he often spoke about.
The Harbour opens in Hong Kong some years earlier, in 1940, and it brought the place my father loved completely to life, and reminded me of so many of the things that he is no longer here to say.
The heroine of this particular story is Stevie Streiber, a young American writer who writes society gossip for magazines, while desperately wanting to write seriously about important issues. She’s independent, determined and just a little headstrong, following her instincts without always thinking about the consequences, or seeing the wisdom of diplomacy.
Katherine Hepburn is her idol, and it shows, but I would venture that there’s a little bit of Scarlett O’Hara in there too. It took me a little while to love Stevie, but very soon I did: she’s so very alive, and a wonderfully vibrant, fallible, infuriating leading lady.
Europe was at war and conflict was brewing between China and its old adversary, Japan but Stevie was so caught up with what she was doing that she barely thought of what that meant. That put her on a collision course with British Intelligence Officer Major Harry Field: he saw a reckless, thoughtless woman and she saw a rigid controlling man. But there was also a strong, mutual attraction that neither could ignore. Even though neither was free.
Japan invaded Hong Kong on 8 December 1941, battle ensued, but the colony was forced to surrender just seventeen days later. The occupying forces were brutal, and the population suffered terribly.
A British intelligence officer and an American woman with an unconventional lifestyle were sure to draw attention. They did, they were separated and both saw terrible things, both struggled to get through. Even when the war ended the damage remained, the repercussion continued …
It was easy to turn the pages quickly, caught up with interesting, evolving characters; a time and place brought wonderfully to life; a grand love story. But then the invasion came, and this became something more that a love story in a historical setting. This was a story that echoed a real war, real events, real lives, and I had to give it time and attention.
That time and attention were rewarded, because I saw so many details. Some things that I didn’t want to see, would rather not think about, but that I could not doubt would have happened.
A wonderful supporting cast allowed the author to say so much: Jishang, who travelled from China to Hong Kong with Stevie; Lily, his young cousin; Chen, her idealistic, communist brother; Madame Kung, a wealthy socialite who takes an interest in the young American woman who comes to interview her; Takeda, Harry’s Japanese friend whose true loyalties are uncertain; Declan, an Irish journalist who watches over Stevie …
They helped to build a wonderful picture of Hong Kong. First I saw the energy, the colour, the movement, the noise. Then I saw the terrible changes wrought by the occupying forces. And in the end I better understood why the place had such a hold on my father’s heart.
This is an epic tale of love, of war, and of a society.
It would make a wonderful film: I could see it all, and it surprised me not at all when I discovered that the author has written for the big screen.
I am even inspired to read a little more. Her acknowledgements include Emily Hahn, whose own story is reflected in this one, and I now have a copy of her memoir of this period, ‘China to Me’ to hand…