October Diary
On China, tyranny, and unique Hong Kong.


John Derbyshire

Lip-reading. We had some fun on the Corner with taking on Mitt Romney.

Good for a chuckle, with no offense to Mitt, who is A VERY FINE CANDIDATE INDEED. It left me wondering, though: How good is lip reading, actually? It’s always seemed to me like a handy skill to have. You could know what someone was saying across a crowded, noisy room. You could eavesdrop on private conversations in restaurants . . . and so on.

Can the skill actually rise to a level where you can get unambiguous meaning from a person’s lip movements, though? The Wikipedia article suggests not, but there’s a lot of junk in Wikipedia. Anybody know?

Chungking Mansions. Good grief: Someone’s written a book about Chungking Mansions.

Chungking Mansions is a huge residential complex in the center of Hong Kong. In the 1970s, when I frequented the place — I actually lived there, on and off, for an aggregate two years — it was the heart of expatriate bohemia in the city, filled with every kind of non-Chinese oddity, and a few Chinese ones too.

The surprising thing about Chungking Mansions is that it hasn’t generated more novels. All human life is there. In my own brief residence, without trying hard, I encountered at close quarters: an old lady — actually the proprietress of my guest house — with bound feet, surely one of the last such; the hippie son of a famous Hollywood star; an exquisitely beautiful Korean poetess, famous in her own country but unknown outside it; a full-blood Maori nightclub singer; an old fellow who had been a senior staff officer in Chiang Kai-shek’s army during the Chinese civil war (1946–49); a player of classical Spanish flamenco guitar (doing the Hong Kong nightclub circuit, like the Maori); the casting director for Bruce Lee’s movies; Filipino pole dancers; deserters from the U.S. Navy; Brits cashiered from the Hong Kong civil service (usually for sex offenses with Chinese boys); Vietnam vets who could not face going home to the U.S. for one reason or another; failed businessmen of every conceivable entrepreneurial niche (the acronym for the British contingent was FILTH — “Failed In London, Try Hongkong,” though in fact it seemed to me that Indians and Australians dominated this demographic); and every other kind of riff-raff you can imagine. Chungking Mansions was, and I hope still is, a human menagerie.

Good times. It’s getting late and I’m sinking into nostalgia. Next item.

Mervyn Peake. This year is the centenary of the English writer and artist Mervyn Peake. He seems to be completely unknown on this side of the pond: one of those writers, like Rupert Brooke or Barbara Pym, who appeal only to the native English.

Peake is best known for the Gormenghast trilogy of novels. “Everyone seems to discover Gormenghast at the age of nineteen,” says Fergus Fleming to a British readership in the July Literary Review. I was actually about five years older than that, but the memory is still bright.

The Gormenghast books are, as Fleming says, unclassifiable: fantasy without anything supernatural, gothic yet ahistorical, grotesque yet shot through with beauty. Fleming tries to convey the flavor, the strangeness of Peake:

Here you have a white mare and her foal swimming in a pool on top of a tower. There you have Titus’s wet nurse throwing herself off a precipice, her fall illuminated simultaneously by the setting sun and the rising moon. Hundreds of feet above ground a dead tree protrudes from a room that was once filled with earth. A naked fireman hoses down a mule and a camel as they pursue their ancient feud. And a deck-chair attendant patrols a cliff as people take their seats to watch the sunset. It’s a trip.

It surely is: very Seventies, though written in the Forties and Fifties.

Perhaps there’s no point in trying to propagandize for Peake over here. I’ve long since given up on getting American friends to appreciate Brooke, or Walter De La Mare. They, returning the favor, have given up on getting me to see the point of Walt Whitman or Flannery O’Connor.