In 1868, as now, the Middle East seemed to be a place where fortunes could be made from the region’s mineral resources and from its central location between Europe and India. The Persian empire was slowly recovering from decades of invasion, civil war, banditry, and plagues. A new monarch, Naseroddin Shah, made a good impression in the capitals of Europe, which he visited frequently beginning in 1873. Yet “the well-protected realm” remained mysterious. A lack of information about its people and geography challenged international investors, who still relied on John Chardin’s accounts of 150 years earlier. They were greedy for up-to-date insights into the country. Albert Houtum Schindler was their providential man.
Yunte Huang writes in his new book of a meeting between Anna May Wong and Sir Robert Ho Tung in Hong Kong. What started with a gathering at Ho Tung’s estate on the Peak quickly turned into a miniature biography of Ho Tung himself, the son of a Dutch Jewish father and Chinese mother. In this account, Huang writes of Ho Tung’s half-brother, a man with twelve wives and more than thirty children. One of these children was a woman named Grace Ho. This account appears to be a little slice of Hong Kong history, fascinating and not atypical of the mixing of families in the earlier years of the British colony. But then Huang writes that Grace Ho was the mother of Bruce Lee, an actor who, like Ho Tung’s guest, Anna May Wong, was slighted by Hollywood.
In Anarchy or Chaos, Ole Birk Laursen sets out to bring the life and intellectual contributions of MPT Acharya, a relatively unknown yet vitally important Indian revolutionary, to a wider audience. This biography delves into Acharya’s involvement in nationalism, anticolonialism, revolution, and anarchism, drawing extensively from memoirs, letters, newspapers, and intelligence reports. The result is a remarkable and comprehensive portrayal of a man, for whom much of his life was spent at the centre of major radical activity.
On a trip many years ago to New Delhi, I was struck by an official memorial to Subhas Chandra Bose, the wartime leader of the Indian National Army, the Japan-affiliated force of Indians who fought against the British during the Second World War. India, of course, has a more complex view of the fight against Japan than other countries involved in the War—with these soldiers being contentious, debated and, at times, celebrated.
Monica Macias, the youngest daughter of Equatorial Guinea’s first president at just seven years old, lands in Pyongyang, North Korea in 1979. Her father had sent her to the country to study, but what was meant to be a shorter visit grew to a decade-long stay when her father was ousted in a coup.
At the beginning of Once Our Lives, Qin Sun Stubis’s family memoir, the author’s grandmother feeds a beggar because she feels sorry for him. She is pregnant with the author’s father at the time and goes on to break the traditional month-long confinement after giving birth in order to continue giving food to the beggar. What ensues, according to the grandmother, is a curse that plagues her son throughout her life, and the family indeed meets with much hardship. But so did most people in China between the years of 1942 and 1975, the time in which most of the multi-generation story takes place.
When this book arrived, I scanned the contents and marked with a tick every individual whose name I recognized. The results were pretty dismal—about 19 out of 100! I was good on emperors and knew one or two literary figures, but of the other categories, namely religious figures, militarists, artists, observers, business people, statespeople, and makers (craftspeople, folklorists and scientists), I was abysmally ignorant.