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Fragrant Harbor

3.80  ·  Rating details ·  1,628 ratings  ·  160 reviews
It is 1935, and Tom Stewart, a young Englishman with a longing for adventure, buys himself a cheap ticket aboard the SS Darjeeling-en route to the complex and corrupt world of Hong Kong. A shipboard wager leads to an unlikely friendship that spans seven decades as Hong Kong endures the savagery of the Japanese occupation, emerging as a crossroads of international finance a ...more
Paperback, 352 pages
Published August 26th 2003 by Penguin Books (first published 2002)
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Average rating 3.80  · 
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Ian "Marvin" Graye
"That Unique Hong Kong Style"

First impressions of "Fragrant Harbour" (John Lanchester’s third novel) are that it's a well-written family epic about Hong Kong from 1935 to 2000 told from the perspective of four different narrators.

How (well) the juxtaposed stories gel together at the end is hidden in "that unique Hong Kong style in which the most significant information is present in the gaps, omissions and implications."

It's this concern with the detection of presence (despite and through its
A Hong Kong family history covering a time frame of 70 years that involves both Chinese and expats that is ideal for those that want an interesting but easy to read story.

One small error was the author calling the Jacaranda Tree flame red when it is purple. I think he meant Flamboyant Flame Trees as they are known in Hong Kong.
Dec 22, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2015, modern-lit
I enjoyed this book hugely - a sort of history of Hong Kong since the 1930s told through the interlinked stories of 4 very different protagonists, full of rich descriptions and colourful characters, who reflect the changing nature of the society there. Lanchester also has a feel for language (not just English, since there is quite a lot on the nature of Cantonese). Parts of it also reminded me of J.G. Farrell's epic The Singapore Grip, but Lanchester is a more sympathetic and less caustic narrat ...more
Jan 12, 2009 rated it liked it
I bought this when I was in Hong Kong this summer because I was looking for a novel that would give me an overview of the city's history and tell a compelling story as well. I did learn a great deal about Hong Kong from the 1930s through the 1990's, but the story was certainly not compelling though much of it was interesting. The tale is told through the voices of four different characters- a young woman from England who's climbing hand over fist up the career ladder, a Chinese businessman on th ...more
As a self-confessed Hong Kong fangirl I'm always on the lookout for novels set in the city. John Lanchester's novel set in the city of the title ("fragrant harbour" is the literal translation of the Chinese for Hong Kong) spans the 20th century - from the 1930s to the 90s - and was just the novel I was looking for.

Lanchester's novel follows four characters, but the central character is Tom Stewart, a Brit who moves to Hong Kong as a young man in search of a new life. The other central characters
Leonie Drew
Jun 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved this unusual book written through the eyes of 4 protagonists each with a different but entwined story and recount of life in HongKong from the 1930s to the 90s. I learnt so much about the time of war in Hong Kong and had no idea how people here had been so affected. I have lived in Hong Kong for almost eleven years and so many of the names and places are familiar to me. It was interesting to see how things have changed. A great read!
Interesting book, capturing Hong Kong from the 1930,s until just before 1997.
Nov 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
This is the second book I've read about Hong Kong in recent weeks, "Gweilo" (Golden Boy) by Martin Booth being the other. (Highly recommended)
Like Booth, Lanchester grew up in HK and imparts the history, people and description of the area with feeling and insight. Unfortunately, the harbor has long since been fragrant and the current protests decry a vibrant metropolis. I'm wondering what the future holds? A quote from the book: "Things are always about to get worse in China. That's China's vers
Jun 12, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I loved the four stories featured in Fragrant Harbour. Such an interesting view of an unfamiliar time and place. The connections among them were surprising yet never forced. I love it when I end each section both wanting more and eager for what is next
Mike Coleman
Jul 20, 2013 rated it really liked it
A big, ambitious novel that doesn’t read like one. There are no pretensions here. Lanchester’s prose is so clean and his style seems so effortless that one begins to underestimate the real achievement: In four personal narratives from four engaging characters, Lanchester chronicles the history of Hong Kong in the 20th century. Wow. He makes it look so easy.

You will meet Dawn Stone, the hilariously self-deprecating and man-weary writer for the Thatcher-era British tabloids who stumbles her way to
This is, in some ways, a really difficult book to review. Having lived in Hong Kong for four years, I got a frission of recognition and excitement when - particularly in the first section - the book seems to have been a carbon copy of the time I went through. This makes it difficult to separate the book from my own personal memories of my time in Hong Kong. However, the second section is almost like a history lesson of Hong Kong and again, was interesting just to see how the city had come togeth ...more
Richard Bon
Oct 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Historical fiction without trying to be historical fiction, without shoving facts and figures and culture down readers' throats, without pretension - such is Lanchester's accomplishment via engaging, believable characters telling their own fascinating, fictional stories. The book features:

Tom Stewart- British expat living in Hong Kong for nearly 70 years since the 1930s, P.O.W. during the Japanese occupation, successful hotelier.

Dawn Stone- the 1990s British transplant to Hong Kong, a journalist
Gumble's Yard
Jan 15, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2013
The book is very different to Lanchester's other books - multi-narrator (which should have dealt with the over longer feel of the other books) but also multi-dimensional. However each of the 3 narrators lacks any real depth or character, so much of the action or their feelings take place ""off stage" and the whole seems to lack engagement. The book has much more of the restraint of an Kazuo Ishiguro than the otherness and exoticism of David Mitchell (it also lacks Mitchell's knack with inter-con ...more
Jul 23, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Historical Fiction Readers, Anyone interested in history of modern Hong Kong.
Recommended to Ed by: Harrie
I'm not sure exactly why I enjoyed this book so much. Was it because it takes place in Hong Kong, my home for the last 16 years? Was it the description of pre-war colonial Hong Kong? Was it the insightful comments about the nature of both Hong Kong people and mainland Chinese? Was it the interesting juxtaposition of four separate stories? Was it the ending which left me creating my own version of "what happened next"? I guess it was all of those things.

The plot is not that well drawn. It's more
Feb 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: senior-year-hs
"Fragrant Harbour" is a very interesting and moving story of Hong Kong from the 1930s to the new millennium. Through the intertwining tales of four different narrators, the reader is taken on a journey through Hong Kong's history. It is fascinating because the novel spans all Hong Kong's major events of the 20th century so one can learn about its past--and on a different, more personal level than one could from a work of nonfiction. That is probably what I liked best about "Fragrant Harbour" and ...more
Jack London
Aug 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing
In a departure from his Euro-centric novels, Lanchester writes of Hong Kong before World War II, during the Japanese occupation, and through to the hand-off of the British colony to the Chinese. But, in his remarkable way, he finds a point of view that is perfect. Tom Stewart has no prospects in England so sets out by tramp steamer for far-away Hong Kong. He is joined by a bank employee, a devoted couple, and two nuns, one of whom teaches him Chinese as the ship makes its way to the Orient. He f ...more
Brendan le Grange
Jul 03, 2014 rated it really liked it
Fragrant Harbour interweaves both personal and global stories, as it charts Hong Kong’s ups and downs at the hands of it various occupiers, using the points-of-view of a few memorable characters.
That said, while it’s certainly a book that anyone could enjoy, I’ve lived in the city for three years now and I think some of its charm comes from recognizing the sites and how they’ve changed or stayed the same. If you’ve no interest in the region or its modern history I don’t think there’s quite enou
This book was not that easy to begin, but it's getting more exciting if you can endure the first few chapters (and the first character).
I have to salute the author to give me quite a surprise towards the end of the book (there was a hint in the beginning but I totally missed it), and I found myself getting more eager to finish the book - to find about the ending.

The ending is not a fairy-tale-like ending. But it made me reflect about... that is how life goes.
This is a good book, good story, b
Jan 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
Typical Lanchester really; busy, hectic and engaging portrayal of city life. Four separate but cleverly linked narrators tell of their experiences in Hong Kong between 1930-1990s. Didn't realise 'Hong Kong' translates as 'Fragrant Harbour'. We do get lots of smells, but also sounds, sights and the worlds of cut throat businesses, Triads and of course, the Japanese occupation. Tom Stewart is the real protagonist; affable, loyal and quietly brave. Masses of information and some lovely surprises to ...more
Robin Stevens
Jul 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
I was a little apprehensive about this book before I began it, but I ended up liking it hugely. It's an excellent story of generations of Hong Kong residents (I thought the middle section was by far the best - but of course I'm biased towards anything set in the 1930s) that, as always, made me understand historical events so much more fully. Wry, thoughtful and with real emotional impact. 14+

*Please note: this review is meant as a recommendation only. Please do not use it in any marketing materi
Jul 23, 2007 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: quest-into-china
I don’t understand how this book won a “Best Fiction” award. It read like a bad action adventure novel. Filled with insignificant details and a unsatisfying storyline, it was a pain to read. In fact towards the end I found myself skimming chapters just to get to the conclusion of the story. I felt cheated at the end of this story. In retrospect, however, I feel I learned a bit about the history of Hong Kong and how it was impacted by the turmoil occurring in China.
Apr 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
What I love about Johnny Lanch is that, aside from his first book which is a total evisceration of a certain type of man, his other fiction is so patient and forgiving of what it is to be an adult. Clear but not judgemental, moral but not moralising. Feels like a sibling a decade or so older than you who you weren't close with growing up but in adulthood sets you straight on one or two things without giving you any shit at all. ...more
Kate Millin
Sep 18, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An excellent telling of the story of Hong Kong in the 70 years coming up to its passing back to China. Written from the viewpoint of 4 people whose lives intertwine. Difficult to put down.
Jul 16, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I live in HK and loved learning a little bit more about the city I live in.
Feb 08, 2013 rated it really liked it
Very enjoyable and thought provoking. Didn't quite come together but certainly gave it a good try. ...more
Connie Smith
Mar 07, 2013 rated it it was amazing
It was a moderately hard read, but extremely interesting with a wonderful twist.
Oct 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Wonderful book. I loved the setting, the contrast between the characters, and how it is reflected in the description of their thoughts and interior monologues. Beautifully done and very moving too.
Sep 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester is a novel that is hard to praise too highly. Set in Hong Kong, it presents the stories of four main characters, each of which is an immigrant to this city. Behind them at all times is a culture that rules their lives, sets the limits of what might be possible, but is always hard for outsiders to penetrate.

That the culture affects all aspects of their lives, however, is a given. Each character pursues self-interest, the different eras they inhabit defining an
Jan Priddy
Nov 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
There is action but subtlety, tragedy and comedy, a foreign perspective made palatable, understandable, and even appealing. I am sorry I will never see Hong Kong, even today's Hong Kong. "Fragrant Harbor" is the literal translation of Hong Kong. It is an ironic name. The city has always been both filthy and wild in every sense of that term.

I ordered this novel because I had read and laughed out loud atDebt to Pleasure. That one is funny is ways it should not be, because of what the main charact
Apr 27, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Lots of interesting stuff about Hong Kong and its history. Engaging characters and some major historical events such as the Japanese occupation. Overall, i found the structure a bit frustrating - there were a few too many bits of information sacrificed for the sake of getting to a particular point. Some of the things that happened "off stage" were a bit too significant to only be referred to in retrospect.. (telling that without spoilers). ...more
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John Lanchester is the author of four novels and three books of non-fiction. He was born in Germany and moved to Hong Kong. He studied in UK. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and was awarded the 2008 E.M. Forster Award. He lives in London.

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