“Confessions of a Hong Kong Naturalist” by Graham Reels


Scientists don’t write autobiographies. That’s strange, really, because in most cases they’re obliged to record everything they do in some sort of laboratory notebook for either patent or publication purposes. Here, though, we have an exception. In Confessions of a Hong Kong Naturalist, Graham Reels recounts 12 years of wading watercourses, slogging through swamps and beating about in the bushes of Hong Kong. Reels spent several years in the 1980s involved with the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden and was involved in a series of major surveys of Hong Kong wildlife. His field notes form the backbone of his confessions.

If wildlife is not your interest, it must be admitted that the confessions contain a great deal along the lines of


In the female the wing pattern is reversed: clear at the base, white in the middle, black at the tips.


But that’s leavened with a certain amount of


Michael nodded and got undressed, looking like a condemned man. We swam out slowly… me pushing one of the boxes containing our precious binoculars, and Michael clinging grimly to his float. All went well. We reached the sampan.


and a judicious infusion of


The only access to my bedroom was through my brother’s. Occasionally, coming home all lit up from a night on the town, I’d swing the door open to encounter the unedifying spectacle of my brother’s broad, pumping buttocks. This would be followed, in quick succession by a frantic scramble involving several sets of limbs to retrieve sheets and blankets, a deflated groan from my brother, and an amused giggle from my sister-in-law.


Reels blends the logistics, the wildlife and the wild nightlife skillfully into a very readable life story that will appeal even to those with no particular interest in Hong Kong’s fauna. Indeed, he even crafts a surprise ending that might have been imagined by John le Carré, but in his case it’s all true.


Confessions of a Hong Kong Naturalist,  GT Reels (Atratothemis Books, May 2017)
Confessions of a Hong Kong Naturalist, GT Reels (Atratothemis Books, May 2017)

It’s an interesting commentary on the scientific mindset that for all his care to catalog each species he worked with, Reels pays little attention to those who might put down money to purchase his book. The more than 375 species mentioned in the text are all indexed with both their common and Latin names. But a book on Hong Kong’s wildlife is going to be of interest primarily to Hong Kong readers. Those readers speak Cantonese. They know the pangolin, the mudskipper, the python and so on, but not by those names. But Chinese names are excluded both from the text and from the index. Similarly, his readers know Castle Peak, Route Twisk and Crooked Island, but only by their Chinese names. Using only English names just complicates things for amateurs already reading in a second language.

Though to be fair, native English speakers are not spared. Reels mentions about 80 colleagues he worked with over the years, a cast worthy of a Russian novel, but they’re not indexed at all. About 35% of them appear only once, and several appear two or three times at intervals of 100 pages or so. It would take a photographic memory to remember them from one appearance to the next. Reels is an accomplished naturalist and a captivating writer, but he’s no businessman.

Anyone familiar with Hong Kong is going to find Reels’ confessions an enthralling read. And for those interested in Hong Kong wildlife, Confessions is a keeper.

Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People’s Republic.