Year of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong is a new memoir by Hong Kong-based American writer Shannon Young, who is also editor of the anthology How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?
In Year of the Fire Dragons, Young gets very personal, and begins with the romantic story of meeting a Hong Konger named Ben in London. The long distance relationship continues while she intimately explores the Special Administrative Region.
The book details Young’s time as a NET teacher (Native English Teacher) in her first year in Hong Kong as she figures out how to maneuver the city. With an outsider’s perspective, she gives vivid descriptions of shopping markets, embraces the glamour of Central, learns about tensions with the mainland, discovers cultural differences in teaching, and travels the world.
The prose is often fanciful, with lines such as, “The humidity surrounded me like steam pouring out of a broken dumpling,” and, “As the sun dipped toward the horizon, we fell silent, watching the way it reflected through the quiet ripples marking our passage.”
Young is a talented writer. Her knowledge of food in particular truly gets to the core of Hong Kong culture. However, she can get lost in details at times, with scattered chapters ranging from Cantonese classes to clubbing in Lan Kwai Fong. She repeatedly introduces various friends over drinks and then we never see them again in the course of the book. Of course, it is a memoir and real life often doesn’t translate into novel-style story structure. Still, one of the most intriguing and consistent subplots is about her sister’s expat romance and wedding, which contrasts with Young’s own relationship.
The main bulk of the narrative concerns the challenges of having a long-distance partner, focusing on the tragic irony that her boyfriend Ben is from Hong Kong yet she lives there and he doesn’t. As the book progresses, Young finds it harder and harder to defend the two-year plus relationship to her coworkers and friends. No spoilers how it all turns out, but rest assured Young’s perspective is always optimistic despite tough times.
One of the most interesting parts comes in the midpoint when Young reveals her roots: her father was born in Hong Kong (though not raised there). Quotes from the letters of her Asia-traveling grandparents are included.
From 1955: Actually, Hong Kong is a wonderful place to live—we think. Of course there are many things one could complain about, as there are wherever you go, but we think there are far more things to enjoy and be thankful for.
Truly an amazing find, to see the similarities between expats of that era and those of today!
The book as a whole may not be particularly interesting for old China hands. Experienced expats and English teachers probably won’t learn many new things. But for readers less familiar with Hong Kong and life abroad, this memoir can make the perfect introduction.
Recommended both for Hong Kong newcomers and as a good gift for China-based readers to share with friends back home in order to explain what life is like for expats.
Year of Fire Dragons is published by Blacksmith Books, available in Hong Kong and on Amazon.