Historical Fiction

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Booth, Martin. (1997). Music on the Bamboo Radio. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Music on the Bamboo Radio is a romantic adventure story about an adolescent English boy who grows up in a Chinese community after escaping the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941. Nicholas Holford is rescued by his family’s Chinese gardener, Ah Kwan, on the eve of the Japanese occupation and brought to a remote fishing village named Sek Wan (fictitious) in the north east New Territories. His parents, possibly captured by the Japanese, do not reappear until the end of the story. Within the village, Nicholas experiences a somewhat improbable integration into Chinese peasant society. He learns Cantonese and develops a close bond with many of the villages, and in keeping with the romantic quality of the story, no class or racial tensions intervene to disrupt this seemingly organic integration of a white child into Chinese peasant culture.

Nicholas wins the hearts and minds of the villages by being keenly attuned to cultural nuances and by performing his acquired Chineseness with considerable skill. Nicholas’s selfless act of volunteering for a dangerous foray into Kowloon city to obtain quinine for a malarial villager further establishes his standing in the village community. During this journey, he also proves his bravery by managing to keep his cool at a Japanese checkpoint. News of this act result in Nicholas being asked to join a group of Chinese communist resistance fighters who need help in translating instructions on using high explosives given to them by the British.

Nicholas again proves his worth not only by translating the instructions and demonstrating the use of the explosive but also in actually helping the resistance to blow up a railway bridge in Kowloon. Nicholas’ final act of bravery is when a British resistance fighter asks him to deliver a much needed diphtheria vaccine to a Japanese POW camp in Hong Kong. The man supposed to pick up the vaccine fails to do so but Nicholas, though instructed to return if the drop-off fails, uses his initiative and sneaks into the camp and safely delivers the vaccine. The title “Music on the Bamboo Radio” refers to much coveted news of the outside world and progress of the war reaching British POWs through agents like Nicholas, giving them hope. But Nicholas’ act goes beyond the mere conveyance of news to giving the prisoners something that can actually save lives. The story ends with Nicholas being reunited with his mother. At first, he is reluctant to leave the village and is uncertain of his re-integration into British society but the story ends with a tableau where the peasant family looks on as Nicholas embraces his mother, suggesting a happy resolution. Throughout the story, Nicholas, though a child, is portrayed as having more ingenuity, courage and intelligence than most of the villagers.  This story can be interestingly compared to Timothy Mo’s An Insular Possession and Booth’s own  memoir, Gweilo. (HR)

Booth, Martin. (2004). Gweilo: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood. London: Doubleday.

 

 
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