British Empire Books


AuthorJames Clavell
Originally published1966
Original publisherMichael Joseph
This publisherCoronet
This Edition1975
ISBN No.034020446X

This is a real blockbuster of a story set around the establishment of Hong Kong in the turbulent days of the 1840's. It is not exactly historically accurate, taking huge liberties with established facts. The book is also full of the grossest racial and sexual stereotyping in the best traditions of Hollywood. However, for all these problems it is an immensely fun book to read. It conjures up some excellent historical imagery and introduces many of the most important historical developments of the era.

The hero of the book is Dirk Struan: The Taipan (Taipan having a first amongst equals type of meaning). The book is about his struggle to maintain his pre-eminence amonst the China traders, establish his kith and kin to take over the dynasty after him and to turn Hong Kong from a small rocky island into the centre of Britain's Asian Policy. The story rapidly turns into a swashbuckling adventure combined with a liberal dose of romance.

This book raises the issues of Imperial trade, the duplicitousness of Opium smuggling, the strained heirachical positioning of both Chinese and Imperial British society and touches on many of the taboos and prejudices of the British community. It is less successful at portraying the situation from a Chinese viewpoint and much of the stereotyping is crude to the point of banality. In addition, the historical facts thrown up tend to be treated on a lowest possible common denominator for the reader to 'understand'. But, despite it's failings this book is easy to read and is a lot of fun. It's recommended from an entertainment perspective rather than for any historical gleanings that might be achieved.

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by Stephen Luscombe