Review: Hong Kong on the Brink

Hong Kong on the Brink is a memoir by an American diplomat who writes about Hong Kong in the 1960s during the tumultuous days of the Cultural Revolution. It’s a personal story with historical relevance.

The author, Syd Goldsmith, is not known as a particularly high-level diplomat. Yet his take as a Cantonese speaker at the American Consulate gives him a window into the inner workings of the time which makes this book about far more than just granting visas. With over fifty chapters, it covers a wide range showcasing both day-to-day life as well as complex international politics.

Goldsmith starts out with his backstory, explaining just how he became a Foreign Service Officer and found himself sent to Hong Kong in 1965. With an exceptional education, he decided to forego the business world and instead enter government service. He also delves into his personal life, his marriage and the birth of his first child, although those topics often seem to warrant less attention than the focus on his career (which he even admits in some critically self-reflective parts).

After a thorough screening process, he is sent to Hong Kong. It was not his first choice, but he soon starts to embrace it and studies Cantonese seriously. In the chapter entitled ‘The Tricks They Try,’ the book gets entertaining with an overview of the scams that immigrants utilized in the hopes of coming to the United States. Goldsmith always writes with no judgment. As a diplomat, he also gets to observe the high life of the rich and powerful. For the first third of the book all seems well even with the backdrop of Maoist China and the Vietnam War… Then, by chapter fifteen it is explained to him that “there was real trouble just below Hong Kong’s appearance of calm.”

The crux of the book is the communist riots of the year 1965, which is often foreshadowed until it finally explodes in the climax of the narrative.

The title of the chapter ‘The Labor Strife Boils Over’ shows an example of how  economics caused much unrest in the British colony. In the following chapters it is noted how many of Mao’s infamous Little Red Books have taken over the streets. At first it may not be judged as a serious threat, but the reader can feel the rising tension.

Meanwhile, various chapters jump from one topic to another, from briefly meeting Richard Nixon to an expose of Macau. Eventually, the author becomes a sort of CIA analyst as he meets with Cold War agents to discuss what may come. Not to mention a source for journalists as the resident expert.

Goldsmith can be downright poetic at times. “It strikes me that fright can sear memory, etching it deeply into grooves,” he muses. “A needle will play it like a 33-rpm record, over and over for a lifetime. But the trauma can also reduce memory to ashes.”

I learned a lot in reading this book. There were many complicated factors that tied colonial Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China even during the heights of the Cold War. For example, even under the threat of a possible military attack they still hoped to be able to trade for water with officials across the border. But the book is still from the subjective perspective of one man, and not meant to be a complete history of all things Hong Kong during that decade. Still, a very informative perspective indeed.

Fortunately, cooler heads did prevail in the end although the city went through very challenging times. Syd Goldsmith made it. The extremism of the Cultural Revolution, as we all know, never did fully overtake Hong Kong. The cost of freedom was, however, rather high as the British ultimately seized control.

“By early 1968 Hong Kong’s emergency was pretty much behind me,” the author writers at the end of the book, as he reflects upon what he witnessed and survived.

Hong Kong on the Brink (appropriately subtitled An American diplomat relives 1967’s darkest days) is not introductory and is only recommended for those already familiar with Hong Kong and modern Chinese history. Hong Kong expats particularly curious would be most interested. For a certain kind of reader, this an excellent read.

Published by Blacksmith Books, the book is available on Amazon and at bookstores within the former colony and current special administrative region.

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