Historical Fiction





Austin Coates. Myself a Mandarin (1968). rpt. Hong Kong: Oxford UP, 1987.

Myself a Mandarin is Coates’s memoir of his years as Special Magistrate (Li Man Fu) in Hong Kong during the 1950s. It consists of 17 chapters, most of which are accounts of the cases that Coates presided over and which he found unusual or
particularly intriguing. In the conduct of his court and delivering judgments,
Coates believed that he was meting out justice according to ‘Chinese law and
custom’ (18) to the country people under his rule in contrast to the trials under
common law in the urban courts. Though non-fictional, this work merits attention
in the anglophone Hong Kong literature corpus for a number of reasons. Coates
is a lively story-teller, and at its best, his witty characterization, in which precise
external description is manipulated to suggest internal qualities, recalls Dickens.
This external focus is contextually appropriate in the sense that Coates was often
describing Chinese rural subjects whose language and behaviour he could not
understand. He was clearly aware of this barrier especially in his courtroom, and
drew attention to it for narrative purposes, though it did not prevent him from
making general and sweeping observations about ‘the Chinese’, their customs,
behaviour, beliefs – in other words, culture – at the end of each of the cases he
relates. There is a clear didactic tendency for Coates likes to draw out the larger
significance of each of the cases – not so much in terms of moral standards, but
more as ethnographic lessons on ‘the Chinese’. Some of his general remarks and
self-assumed authority may be irksome and out-of-date, but this is offset by the
memoir’s attractive formal qualities; at the same time, Coates’s theatricality in the
performance of his role is usually accompanied by a self-reflexiveness about
what he is doing and the import of his actions. The memoir also offers a rare and
detailed account of grassroot subjects in their everyday life in 1950s Hong Kong
though this ethnographic picture is necessarily coloured by Coates’s official
position and his foreign provenance. His term of office coincided with the influx of
refugees from mainland China after 1949, the momentum this brought to
urbanization and industrialization, and the Cold War in Asia. Coates attempts to
forge links between his everyday work and case details and this larger world of
change. In this respect, he makes a conscious attempt to connect the provincial
with the international, and in so doing, demonstrate that his “Chinese” knowledge,
acquired from experience, is the necessary local complement of his
cosmopolitan consciousness. (EH)

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