Bluntly and simply, this is a very scholarly book about twenty-one tombstones with Arabic and Persian inscriptions on them, epitaphs commemorating people whom most of us have never heard of. Every one of them is carefully photographed front and back, the texts transcribed and translated in the lengthy appendix. A second appendix describes “The Islamic Stelae of Hangzhou”.

When we had finished tea, we went down to the beach. My host untied an outrigger canoe and pushed it out into the shallows. I rolled up my trousers and followed him, my backpack on my back. I tossed the backpack into the boat and climbed in. Soon we were out in the bay, the sea floor falling rapidly away beneath us, the water sparkling and clear. We paddled away from the land, and then he turned the boat to the north, following the line of the coast. It was a beautiful day, and it felt good to be out on the water.

Anton Chekhov, it appears, was not the first Russian literary luminary to visit Hong Kong. Chekhov had stopped off in October 1890 and wrote about its “wonderful bay”. English-language literature had to wait until Somerset Maugham came through more than a quarter-century later. But Chekhov was beaten to the punch by Ivan Goncharov who stopped by in 1853.

Jurrick Oson is a big man, forty-six years old, with muscles bulging inside his bright purple sleeveless T-shirt. He was raised to work around nets, fish, tides, and weather, and his skin is leathery from a lifetime at sea. His boat had always been moored at the end of a dirt track, with shacks and small stalls on one side and the gently lapping sea on the other. It was a colorful, chaotic old vessel, painted in yellows, greens and blues, and she plied her trade as such boats had done for thousands of years.

 

Excerpted from Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the South China Sea & the Strategy of Chinese Expansion by Humphrey Hawksley