James Clavell and his Hong Kong epic. Best-seller author finds TV a big help in selling his books

``It might well be that China won't possess Hong Kong in 1997..., but Hong Kong will possess China,'' predicts James Clavell, author of the best-selling novel ``Noble House,'' on which the new miniseries ``James Clavell's Noble House'' is based. He is being interviewed in the rear seat of his limo, en route to Kennedy Airport.

``I'm taking the Concorde to London tomorrow morning,'' he had said, when contacted by telephone at his hotel the night before. ``Why don't you come along, too, and we can do the interview in the air?''

Reason and economics prevailed over romanticism, though, and we compromised on a chat during the journey from mid-Manhattan to Kennedy. His car picked me up at 7 a.m. Mr. and Mrs. Clavell clambered aboard the luxuriously fitted stretch limo at their hotel a half-hour later, and we were off.

``Our feeling,'' he says, pointing to himself and his attractive blond wife, April, who is listening attentively, ``is that mainland China never wanted that 1997 treaty to be brought up. They've already guaranteed that Hong Kong will exist for at least 50 years after the treaty expires. Anyway, people forget that the 99-year lease expiring in 1997 applied only to the New Territories. The British always considered Hong Kong was ceded to them in perpetuity.''

Clavell, the son of a British naval captain, grew up in ports throughout the United Kingdom. At age 18, he was captured in Java by the invading Japanese and spent three war years in Japan's infamous Changi camp in Singapore. After the war, he was a film distributor in England before he moved to Hollywood, where he became a screenwriter and director. His pictures include ``The Fly,'' ``The Great Escape,'' and ``To Sir With Love.'' More recently, between visits to Hong Kong and his homes in Canada and Switzerland, he has devoted his time to writing novels and producing the TV versions of them.

Clavell believes Hong Kong is as much an idea as a place. ``It represents the best of Chinese entrepreneurship, combined with a well disciplined force in the workplace,'' he says. ``We believe China will allow the Hong Kong economy to continue indefinitely. Don't forget that a very large proportion of businesses in Hong Kong today are owned by interests based in mainland China. They're a very wise people, and so I'm very bullish on the future of Hong Kong.''

Clavell, who is also author of ``Shogun,'' the novel about ancient Japan, first intrigued the public with Hong Kong in his 1966 blockbuster, ``Tai-pan,'' about the founding of the British crown colony. Then in 1981 came ``Noble House,'' set in contemporary Hong Kong.

Clavell says the TV miniseries had an enormous effect on sales of the paperback edition of ``Shogun.'' ``About 3 million books were sold in a six-week period. I'm hoping that the same thing will happen with the paperback version of `Noble House,''' he says. ``It's the best way to sell books in existence today.''

Does he feel the criticism is valid that the TV version of ``Noble House'' focuses almost completely on the upper classes, with very little about the millions of ordinary people who slave away in factories?

``Perhaps that is true of the miniseries. But in TV you have to spend most of your time on the main story, and the main story happens to be about two members of the Noble House. If you want the full picture of Hong Kong, you will have to read the book. It is a mosaic of coolies and amahs and every class of Hong Kong resident.''

Then as befits an author determined to better his ``Shogun'' sales record, he remembers to make one last pitch, as the driver opens the door and announces we have arrived at the Concorde lounge. ``Read `Noble House,' he says. ``It's all there. Better than I can say it.''

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