May 23, 2005
Book review: Song of the Azalea
What is history? Often it is taught as numbers and factoids to be memorised and repeated. But there is an alternative: the personification of history. First hand accounts of events from those that were part of them. This has the benefit of making history live rather than a mass of numbers. It also leads to the natural problem of all reportage: perspective. Those involved in events will never be neutral about them, although one could argue that using numbers only gives a vaneer of objectivity. History, especially modern history in the era of cheap information, benefits from memoirs such as Songs of the Azalea. One can allow for bias and it is far outwieghed by the human element. It turns two dimensional facts and figures into three dimensional real life.
Kenneth Ore retraces a living history of Hong Kong from the Japanese occupation through the troubles of the 1960s and to more recent times through the eyes of a reformed secret Communist. For anyone lover or student of this city and history it is a vital tool in understanding the mindset of those who have lived through such periods.
The book is framed around an apology to Ore's mother. She was a phenomenal woman who was dealt a crappy hand by life. The story of the young Ore's life under the Japanese gives an inkling into the depth of hatred many still hold. It is also the tale of a well educated woman and the extent she went to protect her family. As the story unfolds the feeling of disenfranchisement with the ruling Nationalists grows. The KMT's soldiers quickly lose there place as the defenders of the Chinese nation, at least in Ore's eyes, and he soon falls under the spell of the Communists. It is a testament to the power of propaganda that until Ore was well into middle age he still fervently believed the Communists were the answer to all China's problems, defenders of the peasantry and proletariat. Ore and his brother both become secret members of the CCP in Hong Kong, taking orders, recruiting, getting involved in riots, getting told who to marry and how many children to have. But an organisation as paranoid as the Communists would inevitably turn on even such loyal soliders as Ore, especially once he started challenging his fellow members when personal tragedy strikes. As the wool is removed from his eyes he sees that self-interest has overtaken (indeed, was likely was always) the ideals of the movement. Hell hath no fury like an ex-Commie scorned.
Within 280 pages anti-Japanese feelings, impressions of the KMT and Communists, the secret operations of the Communists in Hong Kong, the British Government in Hong Kong and how it dealt with leftists are all covered. The book shows the power of brain-washing and mass movements and the gradual awakening from indoctrination. For those who say "I would never be like that", Ore's account demonstrates how easily it is to fall under the sway of ideals. Ore amply demonstrates the personal costs of blind faith and adherence to ideology. Page 252, as Ore is kicked out of the Communists to whom he has devoted his life:
To lose all hope is a terrible sentence to bear. A man without hope is dead, even thought he continue to walk.That's the true horror within its pages.
Like much history, there are parts that are relevant to today. Page 151:
Even after 1997, when the Hong Kong legislative members were "elected" from their local constituencies, the Communists called all left-wing supporters in each district to vote for the "selected" member.They've made it even easier now. Just vote DAB. In the Epilogue, on pages 275-277, Ore discusses what became of his fellow comrades. One is a unversity vice-chancellor, another an adviser to the Chief Executive. He goes on:
Hok Yau Club continues to be a non-political student fellowship on the surface. However the Communist Party in Hong Kong is still up to its old tricks, placing members to work in various institutions...the Chinese Communist Party does not officially exist there, and many people are naively unaware of the Communists' agenda and opeations in their city.Ore has far kinder words for the former colonial masters, the British:
...after the May Riot of 1967, the British did try to improve their governing with much more humane policies...For the majority of Hong Kong people, there was likely a great deal of sadness and more than a trace of apprehension with the lowering of the Union Jack on July 1, 1997.Through covering small tragedies we also see the larger tragedy. A similar example is First they killed my father by Loung Ung, the story of a young girl living through the horrors of the Khemer Rogue. This personification of history has taught me far more than any number of textbooks.
To anyone interested in Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party, or simply a interesting story well told, I can recommend Songs of the Azalea. It should be handed out by the Immigration Department to anyone coming to live here.
* I was sent this book gratis for this review.posted by Simon on 05.23.05 at 04:13 PM in the Reviews category.
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