Fragrant Harbour

Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester is one of my favourite novels. It’s a complex, evocative story set in Hong Kong from the 1930s to the late 1990s, told through the lives of four characters. It has an amazing sense of place – of Hong Kong as a city – so I decided to re-read Fragrant Harbour on the plane out. Due to an electrical fault at Manchester, a midnight race through Helsinki to make my connection, a loudly snoring neighbour and a frankly shite collection of movies on Finnair I was unable to spend much of the journey time watching movies, sleeping or drinking in airports. Giving me much more reading time. I finished the last page of the book as Hong Kong came into sight.

I realised as I was re-reading it that many of the places named in the book are now tourist attractions and so decided to spend some of my sightseeing time checking out things from the book. Hong Kong is a city that has changed and developed an awful lot – new buildings going up all the time, reclamation work has extended the coastline – and I thought it would be interesting to see how things match up with my mental image from the book. Some places – like Causeway Bay, pictured below – are mentioned but don’t pay a major role in the plot. Other addresses and sights are key. I didn’t get to visit them all (I was after all only there for 6 days, and spent 3 of those in a conference) but I did get to see quite a few.

The first place I visited was the peak tram; where Michael and Tom meet, and where some of Tom’s long walks start. This runs from Central up to Victoria peak on Hong Kong island and was introduced in 1888 (first funicular in Asia, don’t you know). The novel does not mention the queues… which are now rather well-developed:

The rolling stock would be the same as the characters rode (well, for later sections of the book, as the trains were changed in 1989).

The view is still stunning. This is looking down over Central/Wan Chai over to Kowloon with the New Territories beyond in the haze:

And this is looking down the other side to Deepwater Harbour, where Tom opened his new hotel:

St John’s Cathedral is just down the way. This – the main protestant church on the island – features quite often in the novel, with characters meeting on the steps and so on. I think the catholic church mentioned in the book (St Joseph’s) is nearby, but I didn’t get to see it.

The Star Ferry company have been running since 1898 ferrying people from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island and back again. They’re still going, and they’re still extremely popular. The trip from the conference centre in Wan Chai to Kowloon (Tsim Sha Sui) took about 5 minutes and cost $2.50 (about 20 pence).

The ferry is the scene of several events in the book, and I’m not going to go into any detail here in case any of my readers haven’t read it yet (although if you’ve not read Fragrant Harbour, I’d be very surprised if you’d made it this far through the blog post).

Just on the Kowloon side of the Star Ferry you’ll find the Peninsula hotel, an imposing and very very posh hotel that’s been the place to stay in Hong Kong since 1928. It’s a major landmark.

I became very fond of the Hong Kong tramway during my brief stay there. I was based in a hotel by Happy Valley racecourse, and a tram from just outside my front door went to Wan Chai metro station which was fairly near the conference, so I caught it most days. It has a flat fare of only $2 (which is less than 20p!) and provides a great view of the passing shops from the top deck so I jumped on and off trams just like the characters in Fragrant Harbour. This next photo also captures a certain something about Hong Kong that I didn’t think I’d be able to convey in a photograph – the humidity. My celtic blood is not best suited to the weather in Hong Kong and whilst I did a lot of walking around I didn’t take on any major walks or hikes. The fictional Tom from Fragrant Harbour walked a lot, and his fondness for walking was cause for comment; now I see why.

On the last day of the conference, a few friends and I went across to Kowloon to visit the night market. I realised that close by was 124 Nathan Road, an address featuring early on in the Tom section of the book, when Masterson & Tom visit it as a possible hotel to buy. I persuaded my friends that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to wander past after the night market. We would see a bit more of Kowloon and then we could get the Star Ferry. It made perfect sense. I then explained my Fragrant Harbour related quest, and as we strolled down Nathan Road we discussed how an author might choose such an address. One friend suggested that Lanchester probably just hit the keyboard and got “123”, thought that looked too regular, and so made it 124 Nathan Road. I wasn’t so sure – maybe there was something there to see, maybe there wasn’t, but I didn’t like the idea of it being entirely random. And then we got there; part of a long terrace of identical new shops.

I’d just led two friends to a shut jewellers shop, based upon an address that two fictional characters had visited in a fictional Hong Kong in the late 1930s. What was I expecting to see?

It was at this point I began to realise that my Fragrant Harbour related tourism was getting a bit excessive.

It could have been worse though. A few doors on and the address would have led me to a shop called Wanko.

During the war the Japanese internment camp for civilian prisoners was at Stanley on the south side of Hong Kong island. “The setting, in a bay surrounded by hills, was incongruously lovely. Some people, more finely grained than I, felt the physical beauty of the location kept them alive.

I was a bit disappointed with it, myself; it’s very busy and one of the main tourist destinations thanks to Stanley Market. The market was OK but had nothing that wasn’t available at the night market in Kowloon, and with similar prices. The beaches were surrounded by resorts, shops and bars. There’s even a Pizza Express. Hong Kong seems to be either rugged mountains or built up, and Stanley is no exception.

Discussing the Hong Kong of the 90s, Dawn describes the prevalance of Philipina maids (indeed she has one herself, as did several Hong Kongers I met out there). A lot of these women gather in the central district on their day off – Sunday – near Statue square. “In Hong Kong you get used, without really noticing it, to the fact that everyone is always speaking Cantonese, which tends to sound like a constant argument, whereas in Statue Square on a Sunday you are suddenly in a space where everyone is speaking the exotic twittery sound of Tagalog.”. I feel kind of uncomfortable taking photos of strangers in public places so here’s a photo of a fountain with a couple of people at the edge.

In any case none of these guys was in the same league as the drug-dealing companies who had founded Hong Kong, like Jardines. Not for nothing was the HQ of Jardines, a skyscraper with hundreds of porthole-like windows, known as the Palace of a Thousand Arseholes.

So, the Hong Kong of the book is still there but as a dynamic city (and how dynamic!) it’s changed and moved on too. And, of course, air conditioning is everywhere.


  1. I haven’t read the book, but made it all the way through the post because I like a) boats and b) travel photos. As for tourism based on works of fiction, I spent 3 days walking around Washington DC taking photos of locations from TWW and then added suitable captions.

    If I can get a kindle version, I may try Fragrant Harbour.

  2. ohhh, nice post H. I will order a copy of the book from the library right away xx

  3. Well, I read it all the way through – though it took me a week to get a round tuit – because I’m still feeling guilty I haven’t got round to reading it yet.

    And then I got to the bit about the funicular and thought – hang on, isn’t the one in Istanbul earlier than that? – which it is – and it took me two days to realise that of course its on the wrrong side of the Bosphorus…

  4. I loved studying your blog and I wanted to inform you that I utterly agree with you. It is tough to search out people that assume alike these days. Keep it up

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