Review: A Many Splendored Thing by Han Suyin

When I first moved to Hong Kong my friend and old book club member Krissy sent me a link to this list of books set in the British-colonial East. It’s a really great list! A Many Splendored Thing is on it, so I purchased a used copy as it’s out of print.

I love used books. Inside ‘Helen C. Prince’ is inscribed… I do wonder who she was?! Anyways, onto my review.

The book is semi-autobiographical account of Suyin’s year-long affair with a married British war correspondent in Hong Kong during 1949. Suyin is a Eurasian Doctor who yearns to move back to China after her Hong Kong residency.

What I liked about it:

  • This is one of those typical romance novels that men hate because it makes women wonder why they’re in a relationship where their feet are on the ground… even when the relationship turns out to be incredibly short-lived. I hate that this is true and it is especially true with this romance. You really get swept up in it!
  • Probably the best part of Han Suyin’s tale is the contrast between her descriptions of Hong Kong versus China.
  • She really captures the tension that still exists in Hong Kong between the caucasians living here and the Chinese.
  • She also does an amazing job of explaining how difficult the Cultural Revolution was for educated people who didn’t approve of the brutal extremes of the movement, but yet still strongly identified themselves as Chinese.
  • I loved all of the Hong Kong geographical references of places I now know well… from late nights at the Mathilda Hospital on the Peak to night swimming in Deep Water Bay.

What I didn’t like about it:

  • At times the writing is so flowery it is painful to read! Gentlemen readers be warned: this is a romance through and through so don’t expect great writing.

In short: 3 stars. If you’re curious about life in Hong Kong both today and in the 50s and wonder what the Communist revolution felt like on the ground, you’ll like this book. If you like romances, you’ll love this book!

Some good quotes (many of which I think are still true today):

“Hong Kong is a funny place; like a ship, and you never know what is going to happen to people in a ship.”

“Everywhere building is going on. Hong Kong’s population is nearly three what it was, and new arrivals from China stream in at the rate of ten thousand a week. Day night, blasting, drilling, hammering is heard. The quiet hills are not exempt from the clang of human agitation. On the promontories, slopes and hillocks jutting from the high center of the island, the rich erect their habitations. Before any building can be done, an approach road has to be cut deep into the hillside to reach the projected residence. The top of the hill must be taken off to obtain a level surface large enough for the foundations. Work is going on at a dozen places in the hills.” (Sounds more like today than 1949, don’t you think??)

“In the large level streets can be found all the world’s finished goods in profusion, for everything comes to or goes through Hong Kong, and the harbor is full of ships unloading more. ‘You can buy anything here,’ is the Colony’s motto.”

“There is a boom on. Hong Kong is dazzling with prosperity. The rich have brought their money, and they build and banquet and buy. The ships are crammed full with everything that the rich can desire, and what do the rich like best but American things, slick and streamlined and colorful? Cameras, bathing suits, lipsticks, perfumes, watches, shoes, nylons, silks and brocades, perfumes, stockings, all in great heaps on the shop counters. Hong Kong is a shopping paradise.”

“China, unseen, but always felt, the China which is the reason why we are here.”

“We are all here, bankers, businessmen, rich women, missionaries and squatters. Those that take off half a hill to build themselves a home and those that crowd on a mat on the sidewalk to sleep. Wanderers against our will, we are the refugees. And to me, a transient among so many transients, that is Hong Kong in April 1949: a refugee camp. Harbor of many ships, haven of people from China, squatter’s colony, fun fair, bazaar and boom town. Hong Kong, where people come and go and know themselves more impermanent than anywhere else on earth. Beautiful island of many worlds in the arms of the sea. Hong Kong. And China just beyond the hills.

“Summer is the least attractive of Hong Kong’s seasons. The island’s beauty is obscured by the harsh, unblinking light. Everything is blanched in the reflected glare from the steely sea and wan sky. It is too bright to see anything well, too hot to smell the earth, too damp to feel the texture of things.”

“There is something bird like about Hong Kong encompassed by sea and sky. From October to January, when the glare of summer has given place to a lucid, tranquil luminosity, Hong Kong riots and shimmers, flaunts and struts in emerald, sapphire, cobalt and jade like a peacock’s tail in the sun.”

“There is no people less reticent, more eager to discuss their physical ailments and their mental interiors, than the Chinese. In China one always knows everything about everyone else. Where, at a certain stage, Europeans withhold parts of the facts, draw a modest veil upon further events, the Chinese carry on, undismayed and unfaltering. There are no unmentionables in China.”

“You’ll never get away from the idea of China, Anne. It’s your inner climate. You’ve been bitten.”

“Being Eurasian is not being born of East and of West. It is a state of mind. A state of mind created by false values, prejudice, ignorance. We must get rid of that state of mind. We must carry ourselves with colossal assurance and say: Look at us, the Eurasians! Just look. How beautiful we are, more beautiful than either race along. More clever, more hardy. The meeting of both cultures, the fusion of all that can become a world civilization. Look at us, and envy us, you poor, one world people, riveted to your limitations. We are the future of the world. Look at us.”

“The strength of communism lies in giving people the illusion that their lived have had purpose, and therefore they are willing and glad to die in affirmation of their purpose.”

“Hong Kong, excrescence off the coast of China, entrepot of commerce and social anachronism, island of monopolies, where destitution is a punishable offense and refugee camps bloomed; Hong Kong poised between land and sea, dependent on China for its birth and the existence of its sumptuous capitalist enterprise; Hong Kong the haven of many like myself, waiting to make up their minds waiting to let the dust settle; waiting to choose.”

And just a few more emotional quotes less you forget that this was indeed a romance!

“You are very strong, you have so much gentleness. But then perhaps, like practically everyone I meet in Hong Kong, you’re at a loose end… perhaps you are on the brink of something. I know inside me that you are running away from something… and yet you are brave…”

“For he was gentle and his tenderness encompassed me. And there is not anything in the world stronger than tenderness.”

“Happiness,’ said Father Low, ‘is the positive acceptance of the will of God.’”

The book was made into a movie (post at top) during the ’50s. Has anyone seen it?

Interested in other books set here? Read my reviews of Waiting and The Piano Teacher.

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2 responses to “Review: A Many Splendored Thing by Han Suyin

  1. It is a magnificent novel which I first read in 1956 during my first year at Med School. I was drawn to it after seeing the film based on the novel, but as is so often the case the film was a pale shadow of the novel. I would recommend reading Han Suyin’s biographical work “My House Has Two Doors” which provides authentic details of her relationship with Australian foreign correspondent Ian Morrison on which the novel is based. I found the Epilogue of the novel particularly and poignantly beautiful. I could only describe it as “prose poetry”. The only downside for me was that the lovers seemed to speak to each other almost exclusively in platitudes in a way that would be unimaginable in real life.
    During the 1970’s and 1980’s I lived for 8 years in Hong Kong in Conduit Road in the Mid-Levels District of Hong Kong Island in an apartment complex called Realty Gardens. At the time little did I realise that this was in fact the site of a Chinese millionaire’s mansion that stood there in the 1950’s when the film was made and was used as location for the opening shots of the film as the “hospital” where Suyin was supposed to be working as a doctor. The mansion subsequently became the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondent’s Club before finally being demolished around 1970 to make way for Realty Gardens.

  2. Excuse me,i want this book very much,but i couldn’t find it anywhere.I could buy it through amason,but because i am now in China,and there will be many troubles if i order it online overseas.So do you have an electronic version of the book,if you have it,could you send it to my email.Thank you very much!I will appreciate you very much!

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