The worst part about law school was definitely the exams. But this was also one of the quirkiest things.

I don’t know about other countries but in Australia it’s a running joke among law professors to write exams with funny characters and cute pop culture references. I once sat a Lord of the Rings themed tort law exam, for example.

….Yes, well, law is rather dry and those embroiled in it must find humour any way they can….

One of the more memorable exams I sat was for private international law. This area of law deals with the complexities arising when, say, a German man marries and Italian woman in a Greek Orthodox Church in Egypt, and the children grow up in Canada but then the whole family migrates to New Zealand before retiring to the holiday home in Indonesia. Oh, and they drafted up their wills in France but using the Russian language just to make things super tricky. What we’re concerned with here is which legal system has jurisdiction when something goes wrong, and in which countries will your marriage/divorce/wills/children’s citizenships/retirement pensions be valid.

When D-Day came I went into the exam room. At the appointed hour I opened the first page of the paper and began reading. Chuckles soon murmured from the desks around me. We students were expecting that small piece of humour owed to us after all those long nights of study, and we weren’t disappointed.

Instead of using real countries in our exam, the professor had created fictional nations. And he did a darn good job of it. One fictional country in particular stands out for me, and that is the nation of Hongapore.

We had 30 minutes of reading time for three exam questions – that’s just 10 minutes to read about Hongapore. Those scarce pages of prose about Hongapore included:

  • Who the characters were, their relevant back story, and what they wanted (e.g. a married couple seeking divorce)
  • Just enough information about Hongapore and its legal system so that we could answer the question
  • Red herrings, to test our resolve
  • Some superfluous details about Hongapore (let’s call them fictional flourishes), just for funsies

I get the feeling my professor could have written on and on about Hongapore, but with his umpteen years of experience at writing exam papers, he knew exactly how much information to give and withhold, and exactly how many words he had to do it in. Now that’s some professional word budgeting.

Wordplay is my game of choice, and so the name Hongapore stuck with me. I got home and my husband asked how the exam went. And I was like ‘oh it was fine, but now I really want to go to Hongapore.’

A few months later, a messed up flight connection in South East Asia actually meant that I did go to Hongapore. Or at least, I got pretty close. I managed to visit both Hong Kong and Singapore on the same trip, and so to me, this was the equivalent of Hongapore, right? I mean, this was the closest I was ever going to get to the fictional wonderland, dungeon of hell, or utopia (I still wasn’t sure which) that is Hongapore.

I loved both Hong Kong and Singapore. But flicking through my photographs of dried squid and orchid blooms on the plane ride home, I realised something that I hadn’t actually gone to Hongapore. I wondered indeed if I was ever supposed to go there in the first place.

Hong Kong FoodSingapore Orchids

The nation of Hongapore has since been elevated to the mythical compartment inside my mind, where it resides along countless unanswered questions. Is it properly spelled Hongapura? Can I get Cantonese street food there? Does it rain every afternoon at 3pm? Do Hongapureans march in the street facing north toward a foreign government, pleading for their own democracy? Or do they kowtow to an ancient royal family?

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

That’s just one of Stephen King’s genius quotes. After meditating on this for a while, I’ve decided I’m glad that I never got to read for more than 10 minutes about Hongapore. And I’m really glad I’ll never get to visit. Hongapore isn’t a place I should learn about. It’s a place I should imagine.

All writers need to indulge this sometimes: pare back the details and let our readers imagine. If my law professor with no novel writing experience can master it, I’m sure the rest of us can at least give it a go.

So what do I imagine Hongapore to be like? In my mind it’s a place with remnant, mountainous rainforest where wild tigers run free, geckos suction themselves to tiled walls, and ferns and lilies grow out of skyscrapers. It’s a place that escaped the opium wars, European colonialism and the world wards. It’s a place where everyone still speaks Malay and Cantonese in public, instead of just English. Children go to school, but maybe not in tartan uniforms, and they buy chilli crab dumplings on the side of the road on their way home. There’s a particular variety of Orchid that’s native to Hongapore, and I’m pretty sure that it’s red.

You may disagree with my description. But I’m the reader, and so my Hongapore will always be mine to create. You are free to create your own.