On Java Road by Lawrence Osborne

Narrated by Adrian Gyle an expat living in Hong Kong for 20 years, this story revolves around a crime but is not a detective, thriller or mystery, more a detailed observation of how the wealthy behave when the going gets tough and a discussion about how far we would go to preserve democracy.

Set during the pro-democracy protests, Gyle a reporter and Jimmy Tang his best friend from university days, spend their time eating and drinking, buying flash clothes and chasing women all funded by Tang who comes from wealth and who married into even more wealth. They are both in their mid fifties so it is a surprise when Tang turns up with a young woman in her early 20s, Rebecca To, who comes from a wealthy family but who is also an active protester in the rallies being held on the streets at night. Her death is a device used by the author to enable us to ask if Gyle has the courage to find out what happened and his friend’s role in it.

The friendship between Gyle and Tang has always seemed solid, lasted for decades and felt unbreakable – not unlike democracy in Hong Kong – but all it takes is one incident for the wealthy to flee and cover up their tracks and for the young to take to the streets. I suppose Osborne is asking us what we would do if our democracy were threatened. Would we have the courage to protest, to try and change it? Tang and Gyle continue to eat out, drink and visit each other as if nothing is going on. Like the friendship, the democracy of the country is more fragile than you think despite its longevity and is slowly being whittled away. So, this is also a reflection on the differences in response between the younger and older, wealthier and poorer communities.

The place is described well, the heat and humidity referred to frequently, the food listed and restaurants where you go downstairs to eat. The atmosphere is heavy and oppressive and not a little febrile but has an important impact on Gyle.

In fact, at the beginning of that summer, when the disturbances had first erupted, I felt as though I were being woken from a deep and meaningless sleep. The city I had grown so used to – comfortable, cynical, overflowing with wine dinners and white-truffle events – was shattered the first moment I saw one of my neighbours wander onto Java Road at midnight in a white sleeveless shirt wielding a butcher’s knife.


This idea of being like a sleeping beauty, woken by a threat is an interesting one, with more links throughout the story. China could be likened to the bad fairy Godmother who threatened the island when it was part of the UK. This ‘awakening’ means the downfall of the friendship with Gyle afterwards living his life seemingly without purpose. He ducked the issue when he had his chance.

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