From the 1920s until the 1950s China’s largest and most cosmopolitan city Shanghai (‘The Paradise of Adventurers’, ‘The Paris of the East’, ‘The Whore of Asia’) was the exotic backdrop for pulp fiction, novels, magazine articles and studio bound Hollywood movies. Arguably the best films were ‘Shanghai Express’ (1932) and ‘The Shanghai Gesture’ (1941) both directed by Josef von Sternberg. In May 1949 the city fell to the communists and six months later the founding of the People’s Republic was declared in Beijing. Chiang Kai-shek and the remnants of his nationalist army fled to Taiwan. Foreigners were never officially expelled but living and working in the city became unsustainable and by the early 1950’s most had left.
The Chinese civil war resumed at the end of World War 2 and between 1945 and 1951 refugees fleeing to Hong Kong increased the population from 600,000 to 2.1 million. The relocation of businesses from Shanghai to Hong Kong is now seen as the basis for Hong Kong’s economic success. As the bamboo curtain descended Hong Kong took over Shanghai’s role as ‘The Port of a Thousand Dangers’, ‘The World’s Worst Spy Nest’ and one of ‘The Sin Capitals of the World’. Cheaply produced black and white B movies including; ‘Target Hong Kong’ (1953), ‘Flight to Hong Kong’ (1956), ‘Hong Kong Affair’ (1958) and ‘Hong Kong Confidential’ (1958) capitalized on the city’s cliched reputation. Publication of Richard Mason’s novel ‘The World of Suzie Wong’ in 1957 and a hit stage play reinforced the image. In March 1958 Ian Fleming released his sixth James Bond novel ‘Dr No’ with an Oriental villain and the first in the series to receive literary criticism. Paul Johnson of the New Statesman opened his review, ‘Sex, Snobbery and Sadism’, with: ‘I have just finished what is, without doubt, the nastiest book I have ever read’.
Hong Kong was becoming world famous for the wrong reasons and also in 1958 Bryan Peters chose the city as setting for his first spy novel – ‘Hong Kong Kill’.
Tangier…Frisco…Tokyo…Macao…Hong Kong. By 1956 Shanghai no longer made the cut as one of the world’s ‘Sin Capitals‘.
Bryan Peters was a pen name of Peter Bryan George, RAF officer and author, who wrote nine novels between 1952 and 1965. He is best known for ‘Red Alert’ a 1958 Cold War thriller that was the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy ‘Dr Strangelove or; How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’. George was born in Treorchy, Wales in 1924. During World War 2 he served as a Flight Lieutenant and navigator flying missions over Malta and Italy. He reenlisted in 1951 and began writing crime fiction and spy novels often with the threat of nuclear annihilation as a recurring theme. On June 1st 1966 George’s wife found him dead in his chair, a discharged shotgun between his knees. It was reported that he had been depressed and unwell. The author Brian Aldiss wrote later that George was ‘a victim of the demon alcohol. He would start with a sip of whisky and wake up a fortnight later in a Glaswegian gutter.’ Aldiss also stated that George was ‘suffering fear and pain about the threat of nuclear war’. Two of his spy novels – Hong Kong Kill (1958) and The Big H (1961) featured British agent Anthony Brandon and CIA operative Jess Lundstrom battling Chinese assassins and Russian drug dealers.
LONDON – THE BRIEFING
Hong Kong Kill opens with Anthony Brandon, agent in the Far East section of ‘The Department’, waiting for another mission. His background is vague, presumably to be revealed in later novels, but:
‘from Malaya eastwards… that was his own piece of jungle. He knew it, and its human animals, and the language they spoke’.
Like Bond he is in ‘splendid physical condition’ despite a diet of rare steak, draught Bass, three packs a day of Pall Mall king size cigarettes and all night poker games. When a fellow agent is tortured, killed and dumped in the sea by the Chinese Extermination Section (code name – Yellowknife) he gets his mission:
‘I want the Yellowknife organisation in Hong Kong identified and smashed. I want the head man of it, preferably alive. I’ll accept him dead if I have to.’
With a .357 Smith & Wesson Magnum in his briefcase, Beretta Bantam in his shoulder holster, half a million dollars credited to the Chartered Bank and customs clearance waived Brandon is on the next British Overseas Airways Corporation (B.O.A.C.) flight to Hong Kong.
The lightweight Beretta Bantam. Bond also favoured a Beretta until Dr No when he was ordered to replace it with a Walther PPK.
HONG KONG – THE KILL
In October 1959 Ian Fleming flew B.O.A.C. 7,000 miles from London to Hong Kong via Zurich, Beirut, Bahrain, New Delhi and Bangkok in 26 hours. He enjoyed the service as did Brandon who after landing heads for the Kai Tak terminal bar where he pulls up a stool next to two Civil Air Transport (C.A.T.) stewardesses and orders:
‘a cold bottle of the beer he considered to be the finest lager in the world.’
One of the founders of C.A.T. in 1946 was General Claire Lee Chennault of the Flying Tigers who purchased war surplus planes, recruited veterans and flew missions in support of Nationalist China. Headquartered in Taipei the airline was sold to the CIA in 1950 but the regular passenger service continued as a cover. At the end of the 1950’s the CIA retained the name for half its fleet naming the other half Air America. C.A.T. ceased operations in 1968 after the crash of a Boeing 727 near Linkou in Northern Taiwan.
Fleming’s 007 was the king of product placement but he would have turned his nose up at bottled beer. Brandon muses on a well-known local brand:
‘The cold beer coursed down his throat with the refreshing cleanness of a mountain spring…San Miguel beer, he thought was yet another reason for preferring Hong Kong to Singapore. The Chinese characters for the beer meant ‘life’ and ‘force. And that was just what it had. He drank the second glass more slowly, savouring the mild tangy flavour to which he always returned with fresh pleasure. The beer was brewed in the colony at a splendid modern brewery out in the New Territories. Brandon remembered it had always been a great favourite with the British troops out there – though it often acted as a trap for the unwary ones fresh from England who were deceived by its apparent mildness’.
In 1955 San Miguel Brewery installed Hong Kong’s largest neon sign on top of the China Fleet Club on Gloucester Road opposite Police Headquarters. Established in 1890 as a brewery in the Philippines the San Miguel Corporation started its international brewing business in Hong Kong in 1948. Ian Fleming declared the Hong Kong product: ‘a very unencouraging brew’. A few old hands swear by it but since the mid 1990’s it has been largely overtaken by sales of the Philippines brewed San Miguel.
The China Fleet Club Royal Navy.
Brandon takes the non air conditioned B.O.A.C. bus to the Peninsula Hotel and is amused at his fellow passenger’s reaction to the smell from Kai Tak Nullah. The nullah is a 2.4km watercourse collecting water from rivers and streams flowing from the nearby hills emptying into the Kwun Tong Typhoon Shelter. For many residents and returning visitors the toxic smell on a hot day was a more memorable reminder of their return than even the famous landing at runway 13/31.
After alighting at the Peninsula Hotel Brandon takes the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour and then a rickshaw to the Sunning House Hotel in Causeway Bay. In a nod to Suzie Wong Brandon flirts with two Chinese girls on the ferry who are inevitably wearing cheongsams and cracking melon seeds. In the 1940’s there were an estimated 100,000 rickshaw pullers in Shanghai but after 1949 rickshaws were banned regarded as a symbol of working class oppression. The last rickshaw license in Hong Kong was issued in 1975 and in 2017 only three old men were licensed one of whom posed for photographs on The Peak.
Sunning House Hotel demolished and replaced by Sunning Plaza. The Sunning Restaurant opened in 1948 is now at Percival St.
Locking his firearms in the hotel safe Brandon heads out to Conder’s Bar to meet CIA contact Jess Lundstrom. Conder’s Bar at 22A Queen’s Road Central was run by the real life Jack Conder an ex-Shanghai Municipal Policeman who escaped from Japanese internment by trekking across China. The fictional Brandon had known Jack in Shanghai and now:
‘like so many Englishmen who had lived in Shanghai pre-war, he took Hong Kong as the only possible substitute for what Shanghai had once been’.
As they reminisce Brandon drinks a large bottle of San Miguel:
‘an enjoyment made more intense by the familiar sight of the alligator which hung suspended over the bar, a realistic replica of a human foot protruding gruesomely from between its formidable jaws.’
During a steak dinner at Jimmy’s Kitchen he learns about the mysterious Lily Wang head of the Chengtu Corporation a front for heroin smuggling from China to the US.
Jimmy’s Kitchen in Wyndham Street Central closed in 2020 after 92 years, a victim not just of the pandemic but also soaring rents, an over-priced menu and decline in quality. The writing was on the wall in 2018 when the restaurant closed temporarily with a new head chef acknowledging that its traditional food had deviated wildly from traditional recipes.
The founder of Jimmy’s Kitchen Aaron Landau was the son of a Jewish refugee in Shanghai and together with an American ex-sailor Jimmy James they opened a modest bar and restaurant. In 1928 Aaron moved his family and business to Hong Kong with the restaurant located in the 1950’s at Theatre Lane. In its heyday Jimmy’s Kitchen hosted celebrities including Frank Sinatra, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, John Wayne and William Holden. The huge menu had dishes now seldom seen such as Mulligatawny Soup, Beetroot and Vegetable Borscht (from our Shanghai days), Dover Sole, Corned Beef Hash, Wong Beef Rice, Baked Alaska and Knickerbocker Glory along with a bowl of pickled onions on each table.
Undated newspaper advertisement – when both the food and the prices were special.
Hong Kong Kill meanders along with predictable guidebook locations thrown in; Mid Levels, the Peak tram, Boundary Street, Repulse Bay and more steak dinners at the Repulse Bay Lido and Champagne Room. The murder of his Eurasian girlfriend Susie Pereira finally spurs Brandon to violence and his showdown with Lily Wang.
The Art Deco Repulse Bay Lido in 1955 front view with swimming section, sun deck, cabins & cubicles facing the bay. (Source: Jennifer Fresco Pinterest)
SAN FRANCISCO – THE PRIZE
In the final part of the novel Brandon and Lundstrom race to San Francisco to arrest Mr Li mastermind of the heroin smuggling ring as he flees from Hong Kong.
‘From now on Li counted only as a source of information, as a man who could supply the details needed to crack open the Yellowknife organizations wherever they existed’.
Yellowknife, the Oriental SPECTRE, is left active as a plot device for further adventures.
HONG KONG IN THE 1950’s
The hardcover version of Hong Kong Kill begins with an Author’s Note omitted from the paperback version:
‘This story is fiction. Unfortunately, most of the incidents in it are not. Brandon exists, though not under the name I have given him. Lily Wang exists too, though that was not the name under which she operated either. But Brandon still lives. While he does, and all those other nameless people who voluntarily walk in that savage other world, we can feel reasonably content that the other world will not encroach on our carefully balanced, peaceful lives. That was not the reason this story was written, but it is its justification’.
It’s possible Hong Kong Kill was written without George setting foot in Hong Kong but his author’s note, introduction of the real Jack Conder and local detail suggests at least a brief visit either as a tourist or on official duty. A newspaper reference to the Suez Crisis and Brandon getting caught up in the Double Tenth riots dates the story to October 1956.
Hong Kong was the first stop on Ian Fleming’s ‘Thrilling Cities’ world tour and he wasn’t disappointed:
‘Hong Kong is the most vivid and exciting city I have ever seen…It seems to have everything – modern comfort in a theatrically oriental setting’.
Apart from a reference to Bond ending the war in Hong Kong as Commander RNVR he never went there in Fleming’s stories. Out of print since 1960 Hong Kong Kill fills in what Bond might have faced had he taken a flight to Hong Kong.
According to a 2021 Time Out list the top five books set in Hong Kong were: The Honourable Schoolboy by John Le Carre, Tai-Pan by James Clavell, The World of Suzie Wong by Richard Mason, The Bourne Supremacy by Robert Ludlum and Gweilo by Martin Booth. Hong Kong Kill probably wouldn’t make the top 50 but on closer reading it is a semi-accurate recreation of Hong Kong in the 1950’s.
In 1954 UK born Dan Waters was offered a teaching post in the Hong Kong civil service.
‘You’re going to the Far East?!’ an acquaintance exclaimed. ‘The communists have just acquired half Korea. There’s fighting in Vietnam and Malaya. Hong Kong will be the next to fall!’.
Waters, a veteran of the Eighth Army, was undeterred and went on to become a best-selling local author. Reminiscing for the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society he recalled the tense atmosphere in the post war period with frequent parades and shows of military strength to boost local confidence. Conscription was still in force; men in their 20’s joined the Royal Hong Kong Regiment (The Volunteers), those in their 30’s the Special Constabulary and older men Essential Services like air raid warden duties.
In 1949 Mao ordered the People’s Liberation Army to stop at the Shenzhen / Hong Kong border. Hong Kong stayed a British Crown Colony but the threat remained and along with the fresh water supply allowed the Chinese to apply pressure when it suited their interests. They decided ultimately on a long-term strategy not to overthrow or destabilise the Hong Kong Government because of the colony’s economic value.
British troops patrolling the New Territories (Source: LIFE Magazine).
In his novels George voiced his own fears about the cold war and threat of nuclear destruction through his characters. As Brandon walks across the baking concrete apron to the terminal at Kai Tak he observes the few RAF planes and wonders how long they would survive:
‘against the hundreds of Migs that could come screaming across the frontier’
in support of human wave attacks. The garrison’s only hope was to hold out long enough for carrier borne jets of the US Seventh Fleet to intervene. Behind the front line the civil authorities faced threats from fifth column activity, sabotage and Yellowknife’s plans to assassinate key defence personnel down to Chief Superintendent of Police and Lieutenant-Colonel level.
During World War 2 Hong Kong lacking effective air cover fell to the Japanese on Christmas Day 1941 after only 18 days of fighting. Three days into the battle on 11th December the Hong Kong Police received intelligence that triad gangs numbering around 60,000 were planning to murder all Europeans on the 13th to speed up the inevitable British defeat. The Commissioner of Police was forced to hold a meeting with representatives from five triad societies at which triad control of ‘protection’ rackets was conceded in return for the plot to be abandoned. During the Korean War in 1950 as UN forces moved rapidly towards China’s border on the Yalu River the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) crossed over and entered the war. Thousands of Chinese soldiers launched deadly human wave attacks against U.S. and Republic of Korea troops driving them back to a stalemate at the 38th parallel.
In 1959 Ian Fleming, the former naval intelligence officer, was more optimistic about the remainder of Hong Kong’s borrowed time:
‘The fact that six hundred and fifty million Communist Chinese are a few miles away across the frontier seems only to add zest to the excitement at all levels of life in the colony, and from the Governor down, if there is an underlying tension, there is certainly no dismay. Obviously China could take Hong Kong by a snap of its giant fingers, but China has shown no signs of wishing to do so,’.
Today Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places in the world but in 1945 there were only 600,000 residents. As a result of voluntary escape or forced expulsion by the Japanese around one million Chinese had left for the mainland. As the communist victory drew near this movement of refugees was reversed with an estimated 1.4 million people fleeing from Shanghai to Hong Kong. Many rebuilt their fortunes in textiles, clothing and other light industries like toy and plastics manufacturing. By 1956 Hong Kong had a population of 2.5 million and the influx of Shanghainese influenced not only the economy but many aspects of society from the entertainment industry to barber shops, fashion, food, and politics. Well known politicians with family origins in Shanghai include Hong Kong Chief Executives Tung Chee-hwa and Carrie Lam along with Chief Secretary for Administration Anson Chan.
Brandon brought up in Shanghai speaking Mandarin is more comfortable with these ‘northerners’ as the Cantonese called them. The characters he interacts with: Susie Pereira, Jack Conder, his Shanghainese hotel manager and childhood friend Superintendent ‘Bill’ of the Hong Kong Police are all refugees from happier times in Shanghai.
The cheongsam introduced from the mainland to Hong Kong and Taiwan by Shanghai tailors.
The two female characters Susie Pereira and Lily Wang are standard Asian stereotypes of the time. Susie, half Portuguese, half Chinese runs the shady Szechuan Palace Restaurant & Nightclub in Kowloon as a front for intelligence gathering. She ‘has violence in her blood and the morals of an alley cat’ but a childlike devotion to Brandon. Susie’s violent death is the catalyst for action and justifies Brandon’s cold-blooded execution of Lily Wang. The theme of interracial romance was common in films and books set in the Far East but inevitably ended in tragedy for the heroine as a subtle reminder that east is east and west is west.
Lily Wang, ‘with lithe greyhound slimness…pride in her walk and arrogance in her glance’ is the standard evil ‘Dragon Lady’ character, mysterious and beautiful but ultimately deceitful and dangerous.
‘Beautiful,’ Brandon tells himself, ‘this woman I have come ten thousand miles to kill!’.
The ‘Dragon Lady’ stereotype popularised in the 1940’s comic strip ‘Terry & the Pirates’.
Han Suyin, the Chinese born Eurasian doctor and author is best remembered for her novel ‘A Many Splendoured Thing’ set in Hong Kong between 1949 to 1950. Apart from being a love story it is one of the best depictions of Hong Kong at that time and the racial attitudes experienced by the Eurasian community, not accepted by the Chinese and not fully trusted by the British.
In the 1955 film version; ‘Love is a Many-Splendored Thing’, American actress Jennifer Jones was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Han Suyin. With taped eyes and prosthetics to appear more Asian her performance is derided now as yet another example of ‘yellowface’. Acknowledging the prejudice from her family and colonial Hong Kong society she declares:
‘I’m Eurasian. The word itself seems to suggest a certain moral laxity in the minds of some people. People never think of the meaning of words. They only feel them’.
Hong Kong Kill’s violent climax takes place during the Double Tenth riots in Kowloon. Tensions were always high in October around the national holidays. October 1st is celebrated as the foundation date of the People’s Republic while October 10th is the anniversary of the Wuchang uprising which led to the establishment of the Chinese republic in 1912. This event is still commemorated by Nationalist supporters and in Taiwan.
On October 10th 1956 removal of the Republic of China flag and a large ‘Double Ten’ emblem by re-settlement officials at Lei Cheng Uk Estate triggered rioting that quickly spread to other parts of Kowloon. In Tsuen Wan four civilians were killed by the mob and the next day a taxi carrying the Swiss Vice Consul Fritz Ernst was overturned and set on fire in Nathan Road. Ernst survived but his wife and the driver later died from their injuries. Triad gangs began looting and three army battalions were deployed to assist the police. Major disorder was suppressed by midnight on October 11th at the cost of 59 dead and 500 injured. Four convicted rioters were later hanged for murder. Enquiries concluded that the riots had been orchestrated by Nationalist agents provocateurs and affiliated triad gangs who had fled from China.
Tiu Keng Leng / Rennie’s Mill or ‘Little Taiwan’. Widespread display of Nationalist flags was last seen in October 1996.
George’s sub-plot on heroin smuggling is also based on fact. Between 1947 and 1950 almost the entire Shanghai underworld including the notorious Green Gang migrated to Hong Kong. Their chemists began to produce high grade heroin not previously seen before in the colony.
Brandon and Bond are fictional characters but a story in Hong Kong’s Standard newspaper in 2014 – ‘High-profile funeral for James Bond’ suggested that maybe Hong Kong really was the ‘Berlin of Asia’ in the 1950s.
The funeral of John Tsang Chao-ko, vice chairman of Guangdong Provincial People’s Congress and former English professor at Jinan University was held in Guangzhou with 200 guests attending and a wreath sent by President Xi Jinping. In November 1961 Tsang had been deported from Hong Kong after discovery of a spy network he ran to steal and photograph secret colonial government documents about the colony’s defences and internal security. At the time he was the most senior Chinese officer in the Hong Kong Police Force, a former bodyguard of the Hong Kong Governor and Deputy Commandant of the Police Training School. He was dubbed ‘Hong Kong’s first spy’ because up to then none had been publicly named, the ‘Spy dragged in from cold’ and inevitably James Bond in the English language press.
Hong Kong Kill isn’t likely to be re-printed. If it was the author’s note would be replaced with a warning about outdated attitudes on race, gender and cultural stereotyping. For those interested in Hong Kong’s post war history it’s an easy read just about worth the cost of postage and packing.
Hong Kong Kill (1958) – Bryan Peters
Thrilling Cities (1963) – Ian Fleming
The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (1972) – Alfred W.McCoy
Hong Kong in the 1950s and ‘60s: Reminiscences – Dan Waters, Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society Vol. 42 (2002)
existentialennui.com – Commander – I: ‘The Life and Death of Author Peter George, alias Peter Bryant / Bryan Peters, co-writer of Dr. Strangelove; inc. Bibliography, 19thOctober 2012
‘High-profile funeral for ‘James Bond’’ – The Standard (HK) 30thDecember 2014
‘Jimmy’s Kitchen closes to restore standards and traditional recipes as head chef and manager vows to burnish restaurant’s legend’ – SCMP 23rdApril 2018
Photos courtesy of https;//gwulo.com