Peter Moss
India (1947) Malaya (1957) Hong Kong (1997)   A Journey through the Twilight of Empire   Lichen Books
News & Events

Peter Moss took part in the Man Hong Kong Literary Festival of 2007, whose other participants included Man Booker Prize winner Kiran Desai, the iconic Gore Vidal, legendary Jan Morris, renowned actress and chef Madhur Jaffrey, adventurer Simon Winchester and bestselling novelist Amy Tan.

The last volume of his autobiographical trilogy No Babylon was reviewed by Liam Fitzpatrick in Time magazine, October 2006, under the heading The Civil Savant:                                                                       

Just when you thought there was not one word left to be added to the vast canon of postcolonial literature—no more stern apologia from superannuated officials, no more sobbing memoirs of privileged childhood from the waifs and strays of empire—along comes a work that is neither a defense of colonialism nor a veiled lament for its passing.      


The glib assumption one first makes of Peter Moss's No Babylon—coming as it does from British Hong Kong's former propaganda chief—is that it will be the kind of memoir any undergraduate seminar could destroy in minutes, excoriating an Orientalist cliché here, seizing upon a political or gender bias there. In fact, the book is nothing of the kind. Moss has an acute sense of separateness from the colonial hierarchy of which he was officially a part, stemming, one soon reads, from his Anglo-Indian ethnicity and his sexual orientation (he was gay at a time when it was not only socially unacceptable in the territory but illegal). This otherness means that he is just as comfortable, if not more so, in the company of the second-class citizens of empire—the maids, the drivers, the delivery boys, the rural poor—than he is with his establishment peers. He sends his servants' children to costly international schools; he puts up an incessant parade of deserving cases at his government quarters (from a disabled Nigerian asylum seeker to the abandoned son of destitute Chinese refugees); and, despite warnings of treason on the eve of the 1982 Falklands war, insists on dining with the Argentine consul, who is about to be deported, "because he is a family friend." Any erstwhile colleagues who suspected Moss of harboring anti-establishment sympathies beneath his M.B.E. need only skim through No Babylon to have their apprehensions resoundingly confirmed.

Moss's book—the third volume in an autobiographical trilogy that began with Bye Bye Blackbird and Distant Archipelagos—is more than just a civil servant's confessional, however. The story begins with his arrival in Hong Kong in 1965 as a senior information officer in Government Information Services (the departmental initials were sarcastically said to stand for "God Is Speaking"). A rich store of anecdotes spans what were, arguably, the most tumultuous periods of Hong Kong's history—the civil unrest and refugee influx of the late 1960s, the social changes wrought by the rapid industrialization of the 1970s, and the 1980s boom years (which were never fully enjoyed, owing to the deep anxieties surrounding Hong Kong's return to China in 1997). The book nears conclusion with Moss's eventual appointment as department head and it also—in a marvelous final twist—relates a fall of sorts. During his career, Moss kept his employer at arm's length not only emotionally but contractually, turning down opportunities to join the government's "permanent and pensionable establishment" in favor of remaining on ad hoc terms. This meant that he retired, at 58, without the comfortable pension that a long-serving official could expect. Neither had he saved the bonuses that were payable at the end of each of his contracts. "I had treated my gratuities as pocket money, and had continued to blow most of them," he writes. "'Live for the moment' had been my motto, and the moments had been many and memorable." Thus, at the end of it all, Moss is broke and living, astonishingly, among the masses in a blue-collar housing estate, dependent for a time on handouts from friends, of which he deservedly has many (the abandoned boy that Moss sheltered decades ago, now married and middle class, returns to make his old benefactor a gift of almost $30,000). Far from being bitter about his circumstances, Moss merely notes that it was "especially pleasing" to realize that his neighbors on the estate were the descendants of squatters resettled in housing programs that he had once extolled as the government's spin supremo.

Spirits don't come much more generous than this. These days, Moss is not short of remunerative assignments if his prolific output of books and articles is anything to go by, and he is living in a spacious new home on Ma Wan—an outlying island of Hong Kong where slick new apartment blocks juxtapose a largely abandoned fishing village that was once the island's only settlement. From the highest colonial circles to a working-class estate to an island home that encapsulates the new Hong Kong as it hovers between the past and future: Moss's trajectory mirrors much of the territory's own journey, these past 40 years. And his delighted absorption into the people of Hong Kong—after decades spent inculcating their loyalty to a colonial regime—is, surely, among the happiest of postcolonial endings.

Now in Production 

This hitherto unpublished portfolio of The Beatles, at the start of their last world tour, contrasts their friendly, relaxed and informal offstage personalities with the dynamism of their concert appearance the following day. The photographer who gained exclusive admittance to their hotel room recalls that their "charming, boyish insouciance and willingness to oblige now make it seem that it all happened only yesterday, when all our troubles seemed so far away".