The British Empire Library

Another Disaster: Hong Kong Sketches

by Denys Roberts

Courtesy of OSPA

Peter Moss (Malaysia 1957-65, Hong Kong 1965 -)
Denys Roberts arrived in Hong Kong as Solicitor General in 1962, became Attorney General in 1966, and Colonial Secretary in 1973. While occupying the latter post he contributed to the decision to change its title to that of Chief Secretary. In 1979 he was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, where he remained until his retirement in 1988.

One of the last great individualists in the annals of Hong Kong's civil service, Roberts is especially remembered for his whimsical sense of humour and his memorable way with words. We therefore anticipate, even before opening its pages, that Another Disaster will give the lie to its provocative title by proving anything but that, and we are not disappointed.

These Hong Kong Sketches are constantly entertaining, yes, but along with the whimsical anecdotes we receive a conducted tour through the corridors of power and some fascinating insights into what went on in its innermost sanctums. Roberts was party to key decision making and policy formulation during the colony's most formative years, from the spillover of China's Cultural Revolution in 1967 to Hong Kong's emergence as one of Asia's dragon economies.

The author provides us with a wonderfully variegated mosaic of a time and a city fast fading from our collective memory, and therefore in dire need of recapturing through the eyes of just such a raconteur. His rich narrative style must not be hurried through, for it encompasses a great deal with admirable clarity and economy of means. Whether naming them or not, his pen portraits of fellow civil servants, adroit and sometimes acerbic, will make their subjects instantly familiar to those acquainted with them. We do not have to have known Hong Kong to enjoy this book. However if we have known it, and loved it, as the author clearly does, our delight is all the keener; so much so that we are reluctant to take our leave of these pages, right up to the final chapter, where, as Chief Secretary, Roberts receives a visit from the secret service man, who closes the door behind him in a furtive way.

His visitor informs him "You are vulnerable to a beam from the Bank of China. Have a look for yourself."

Roberts takes a look out of the small window behind his chair. The Bank of China, which was one of the principal buildings occupied by the officials of the Chinese People's Government stationed in Hong Kong, was a couple of hundred yards away. "I don't see anything, Mr. Plinth," says Roberts.

"You wouldn't. If the Communists had a secret device in the top floor, or on the roof, they could point it at your office and find out what you are doing!"

"I don't think I do anything most of the time!"

"Anyone on the roof with a high-powered rifle could take you out easily."

"Ah, that is different. What do you want me to do?"

"No need for you to do anything. I will arrange for a couple of men to put in some bulletproof glass, which will protect you against being assassinated and will stop the Communists listening to you all day."

We close the covers with a sigh. Even if it isn't all entirely true, with every word accurately recorded and preserved verbatim, it has been a terrific feast. And we can mentally see Roberts' unforgettable eyebrows quizzically raised to gauge our reaction.

British Empire Book
Denys Roberts
The Radcliffe Press
1 84511 112 5


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