City of Broken Promises


Austin Coates

ISBN : 978-962-209-076-7

Literary Studies Echoes: Classics in Hong Kong Culture and History

July 2009

320 pages, 5.125″ x 7.75″

  • HK$150.00

The city is Macao, the Portuguese settlement on the China Coast, as it was more than 200 years ago. The promises are those made by Englishmen to marry their Macao mistresses, only to leave them abandoned and their children bastards.

Martha Merop and her English lover are unique in this period. He, son of the founder of Lloyd’s and cousin of the philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, was one of the first merchants to oppose the trade in opium. She, Chinese, abandoned at birth and sold into prostitution at the age of thirteen, became an international trader in her own right, the richest woman on the China Coast and Macao’s greatest public benefactress.

This moving novel that captures the time and place so convincingly is a historical reconstruction of the years 1780 to 1795 when the two were together. It is based on oral tradition handed down through generations in Macao, and on documents that survive about them in Macao, Lisbon and London. Austin Coates identified Martha Merop’s lover, about whom little was known. The documents about him confirmed the traditional Macao story, and the outcome was this book.

Austin Coates (1922–97), a former senior British civil servant in Hong Kong, Malaya, and Sarawak, left government service at age forty to pursue a professional writing career. Widely regarded as the most distinguished English-language author in Hong Kong, Coates remained a long-time Hong Kong resident, later dividing his time between Hong Kong and Portugal, where he died. The City of Broken Promises is a companion to his two other books on Macao: A Macao Narrative and Macao and the British. Both these books and his other novel, The Road, are also available in the Echoes series from Hong Kong University Press.

“This magnificent novel brings to vibrant life an exceptional period in the evolution of a great Asian trading city, vividly evoking the unique hybrid culture that developed there.” —David Brookshaw, Professor of Portuguese, University of Bristol and translator of The Bewitched Braid and Visions of China

“This is a beautifully written novel, focusing upon a largely forgotten world of shuttered passions and tragic alliances. Martha Merop is surely one of the great characters of fiction, rising above personal tragedy in her determination to send her name into the world.” —Brian Castro, author of Shanghai Dancing and The Garden Book

“Austin Coates is an author with far more expertise than others who have tried to explore the history and customs of Hong Kong and Macau. City of Broken Promises is a well-paced and intuitive look at the real-life character, Martha Merop: a lively, gripping and enjoyable tale.” —Justin Hill, author of The Drink and Dream Teahouse