Hong Kong Reads: “Diamond Hill” by Feng Chi-shun

Feng Chi-shun opens his book with an admission: “My first ten years of life are a bit of a blur.” Luckily for us, he remembers the remainder of his youth with vivid detail. Diamond Hill is the result. It’s a colourful memoir that is less about Feng than it is about the part of Hong Kong he grew up in, one whose name in Cantonese — Zyun3 Sek6 Saan1 (鑽石山), referring both to diamonds and ordinary quarrying — reflects the tension between glittering aspirations and rough reality.

That’s still true today. If you’ve ever visited Diamond Hill, it’s probably to visit the splendid Nan Lian Garden, the elaborate Chi Lin Nunnery or the rather underwhelming Plaza Hollywood shopping centre, which sits directly atop the Diamond Hill MTR station. It’s less a neighbourhood than a collection of things. But it wasn’t always that way. 

The Diamond Hill remembered by Feng was a vast sprawl of squatter settlements that had engulfed the farms, Buddhist temples and historic villages that occupied the previously bucolic slopes just east of Lion Rock. At its peak, about 50,000 people lived in the area, some in crudely built shanties, others in sturdy concrete houses. In the decades after World War II and the Chinese Civil War, which ended with a Communist victory in 1949, millions of refugees poured into Hong Kong from mainland China, most fleeing poverty, others political persecution. (Feng’s family came from Wuhan.) Most of them settled in squatter villages that soon crawled up nearly every hillside surrounding the urban areas of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

All but a few of those urban squatter villages have been erased from the landscape, replaced by high-rise housing estates, office towers, motorways and parks. It’s easy to forget what a fundamental part of the cityscape they were for several of Hong Kong’s most formative decades. And that’s exactly what makes Diamond Hill worth reading for its richly remembered details of life in such an environment. 

This isn’t an exercise in nostalgia. “There was little community spirit in Diamond Hill,” writes Feng. “It was partly Chinese pathos, and partly refugee mentality. Diamond Hill to most was a temporary home, a stepping stone until something better came along.” He remembers close friends and neighbours disappearing without so much as a goodbye as soon as they had earned enough money to leave. 

“Those years in Diamond Hill were harsh and impoverished,” notes Feng in the book’s prologue. But it was a unique moment in Hong Kong’s history, when poverty was not the bottomless hole it seems to be today and — like Feng himself, who became a doctor — there was a reasonable expectation that the future would be better than the present. “The unique Diamond Hill way of life made us, its one-time inhabitants, for better or worse, what we are today. We, in turn, played a part in making Hong Kong what it is today.”

So what was that Diamond Hill way of life? Beyond the grind of poverty, it was a place of industrious thrift, perseverance and constant activity. “There was always some kind of odour,” writes Feng. Sometimes it was the sweet aroma of rice wine from a nearby distillery; other times it was the stench of sewage from the farmer who fertilised his fields with sludge from the neighbourhood septic tanks. “We regularly bought the vegetables harvested by the farmer and sold by his hawker wife in the wet market,” writes Feng, adding a bit of wry commentary: “Recycling is not a new concept.” 

It was a diverse place, with inhabitants from across the spectrum of Hong Kong life, from indigent refugees sleeping rough to British and Portuguese families living in well-appointed houses. Some were merchants, others industrial workers, and still others intellectuals trying to rebuild their scholarly lives after fleeing China. There were temples and churches, shops and factories, gambling dens and brothels. “There were even movie studios,” writes Feng. 

There are small narratives in Diamond Hill, like the story of a friend lost to heroin addiction. But the book is structured by theme, with chapters on food, transport, crime, schools, gambling, drugs and religion, among other topics. This is above all a portrait of a very specific time and place, and it’s that specificity that makes it worth reading. “There is no more Diamond Hill the way it was, and there never will be again,” writes Feng with a typical lack of sentimentality. But it lives on, in memory and in writing. 

Diamond Hill is published by Blacksmith Books.

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