A WEEK IN BOOKS

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The Independent Culture
Huang Zun-xian was a reforming diplomat for the 19th-century Qing court who served in London, San Francisco and Tokyo. As a poet, he strove to open up classical Chinese verse to the wider world he witnessed, but the prospect he saw "On Reaching Hong Kong" in 1885 didn't much delight him: "Climbing the tower, I look all around - /this truly is my land, /yet on the great flags I do not see /our yellow dragon."

On Monday, the yellow dragon's red successors will swallow the Union Jacks that so upset Huang. The perfect moment, you may think, to find shelves crammed with learned yet polished books about the almost-ex Crown Colony and the much older empire back in charge of it. Easily said than done. You can consult the superb special issue of Index magazine (reviewed by Denis MacShane on 22 March), taste the sour wit of Paul Theroux in Kowloon Tong or switch off with duff catchpenny thrillers bearing titles such as Red Mandarin or The Last Six Million Seconds. Yet sound non-fiction written for non-academic eyes remains pretty scarce, even though the date of Hong Kong's reversion has been etched in scarlet for more than a decade.

A few publishers have caught the tide. Huang's polite little protest appears in the vast treasure-trove of Stephen Owen's Anthology of Chinese Literature: beginnings to 1911, shrewdly paperbacked by WW Norton (pounds 18.95) to snare a fresh wave of China watchers. Well arranged, with helpful commentaries, its 3,000 years of verse and prose could keep browsers happy until the next plum blossom falls.

Owen features endless generations of brave, reflective scholar-poets spurned by the tyrants and toadies at court. Tragically, the pattern endures. Viking has collected the prison letters of the dissident Wei Jingsheng as The Courage to Stand Alone (pounds 16.99). Wei was first tried in 1979 after pasting his eloquent pleas for liberty on Beijing's short-lived "Democracy Wall". He still languishes in Tangshan jail. If the West really cared much about rights in Hong Hong (which ultimately now depend on rights in Beijing) then stadia would be crammed for "Free Wei" rock concerts. But we've been there, done that, bought the T-shirt.

As for the the "Fragrant Harbour" itself, the handiest new analyses come in Roger Buckley's Hong Kong: the Road to 1997 (Cambridge, pounds 12.95) and Steve Tsang's Hong Kong: an Appointment with China (IB Tauris, pounds 10.95), both fact-packed but rather colourless. Tsang ends by comparing the hand- over to an arranged match, and offers the shy "bride" this prognosis: "Although the husband is prone to bullying, he wants to make a success of the marriage and thus provides a glimpse of hope." Charming, I'm sure. Home life with a returning dragon has its drawbacks.

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