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Phil Brown

Phil Brown

The Kowloon Kid by Phil Brown


PHIL BROWN was just six years old when his family moved from small-town, rural Australia to the sprawling oasis of Kowloon West, Hong Kong. The year was 1963 and the city was a Eurasian enclave, a melting pot of cultures and contradictions. The Brisbane author’s latest memoir, The Kowloon Kid, is a love letter to the magic and tumult of 1960s Hong Kong, and a funny, warm-hearted reflection on childhood, culture, and family. In this Q&A, Phil shares his memories of old Hong Kong, being neighbours with INXS’ Michael Hutchence, and his thoughts on the city’s uncertain future.

Why did your family decide to make the big move from Maitland, NSW, to Hong Kong in 1963?

My British-born father and his family had come to Australia in the 1950s from Hong Kong with their construction business. In 1963 we were living in Maitland and my father went back to Hong Kong to scope business opportunities. He called my mum a week later and told her to pack up the house and the three kids and we flaw to Hong Kong to start a new life.

Can you describe the climate of Kowloon Tong at this time, and how it differed from the rest of Hong Kong Island?

Kowloon Tong is at the back of Kowloon Peninsula across the harbour from Hong Kong Island. Our suburb was a gracious, exclusive one with mansions and streets named after English counties. Bruce Lee lived there not long after us. It was a little world of privilege.

You were neighbours with one Michael Hutchence! What was that friendship like?

We were good friends with the Hutchence brothers, Michael and Rhett, who lived across the road. They were just regular kids with a glamourous mum who worked in the film business as a make-up artist. Apparently some of the girls in the neighbourhood were in love with Michael. Go figure.

Though your family remained in relative safety, the unrest and violence brewing on Mainland China forms the backdrop to many of your memories from this time. What was it like to watch the Cultural Revolution play out before your eyes?

It was a bit scary and when the dead bodies from China started floating into Hong Kong harbour we were worried. Then there was serious rioting and a Communist insurrection in 1967 with riots and curfews. But somehow we felt safe knowing the British Army garrison was protecting us.

Your family moved back to Australia in 1969. How did it feel to leave Hong Kong behind?

It was quite devastating because Hong Kong was my home. All of a sudden it was taken from me and it was actually rather traumatic. I never quite got over it and I constantly yearn for old Hong Kong.

Despite being born in Australia, you write in your book that you still consider Hong Kong your ‘home’. Why is this?

Because those years were so formative and I felt such a part of the place. I was at a great school, I had plenty of close friends and we lived like minor royals in a mansion.   

You now live in Brisbane with your wife, Sandra, and son, Hamish. Does Hong Kong culture ever creep into your day-to-day?

Every day at some point I close my eyes and I am walking down a laneway in Kowloon smelling the smells and seeing the old familiar sights. It’s like a film archive in my mind that I am constantly dipping into

You’ve been back to the city a number of times since the British handed sovereignty back to Mainland China in 1997. In the book, you observe that Wan Chai, once a red-light district, has become a gentrified area filled with boutique hotels and cafés. What other changes have you noticed? 

Physically the place has changed with more skyscrapers and more reclamation. The vestiges of British colonialism are not as evident and it’s more extensive. But the essential Hong Kong is still intact, my old Hong Kong. You just have to search for it a bit harder.

The Kowloon Kid is particularly timely given the pro-democracy protests unfolding in the streets of Hong Kong right now. What do you make of this political anxiety?

There’s a sense of panic now that people realise they will eventually be part of China, like it or not. In the 1960s Hong Jong was referred to as a “borrowed place” living on “borrowed time” because it had been largely leased to Britain after the Opium wars. In those days we couldn’t imagine being part of China and I think Hong Kongers are now panicking about that. Who can blame them?

Do you have any plans to return?

We will be there in November. I can’t wait.