John Larrysson Column: Book Review: The Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography

This week I will review a local English history book, The Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography. It answers questions like, Who is Kennedy and why do we have a Hong Kong Island neighbourhood named after him? Since the Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography is a reference book, it is easy to look up needed information. Use the name index in the back to find what you want. (Kennedy is on page 221.) The earliest biography is about a fifth-century Buddhist monk and the most recent is for Szeto Wah, the teacher and politician who died at the beginning of 2011.

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The Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography is an alphabetic collection of more than 500 short biographies of people from Hong Kong. The people in this book had to be dead and had to have been in Hong Kong at some time in their life. About ninety different people wrote the biographies, with editors May Holdsworth and Christopher Munn writing many of them.

May Holdsworth is a well known author of popular Chinese history books, such as The Forbidden City, Foreign Devils: Expatriates in Hong Kong and Women of the Tang Dynasty. She also has written various Chinese tourist guidebooks.

Christopher Munn has written about Chinese politics and history; he is the author of the popular book, Anglo-China: Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong, 1841-1880.

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Hong Kong's history has been made by the lives of many exciting people. Of course both famous and infamous (famous in a bad way) people are well described. However there was an effort to include a few inserts describing ordinary people. Chan Yin, the coolie, is on page 55. This was needed to bring some balance to the book. Much of Hong Kong's history has been dominated by the rich and powerful. So it is natural that most of the people in this book are wealthy and a great proportion of them are Westerners.

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The book is also balanced in that it includes people from different backgrounds. There are tycoons and thieves (who are not always different people). Of course the colonial governors are included, but so are business people, reporters, artists, athletes, corrupt police, gangsters, missionaries, movie stars, triads, revolutionaries, clan leaders, pirates, politicians, military leaders and scientists.

This book records much of Hong Kong’s exciting history, the sort of history that is not taught in school. The cost of the book is high, but this is not a book one will read once and then throw away. It can be used and referred to by many people over a lifetime. My recommendation is that every secondary school library in Hong Kong should have a copy.

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Details of The Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography:

by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.