By Brian Jeffries
Updated May 04, 1981 12:00 PM

The heady aroma of a thousand burning incense sticks sweetens the air of Hong Kong’s Wong Tai Sin Temple as a wrinkled palm reader laconically recites his divinations: “You will be financially secure in your old age. You will have a very good year this year.” James Clavell then withdraws his palm with a quiet smile. “But will I win the Nobel Prize for literature?” he asks. “Not this year,” replies the seer. Clavell is undisturbed. “My life generally is a holiday,” he says as he leaves the temple. “I’m very happy about where I’m at.”

Well he might be. Even if Stockholm never acknowledges James Clavell’s contribution to literature, the rest of the world already has. Last September the 12-hour NBC maxiseries Shogun, based on Clavell’s 1975 best-seller, drew the second largest such audience in TV history (trailing only Roots). Now Clavell’s typewriter has disgorged a new Asian epic, Noble House—a sprawling Chinese banquet of a book set in Hong Kong in 1963. The work is Clavell at his most—1,206 pages of a thriller-cum-Baedeker about an international plot to take over the Crown Colony’s leading and most legend-haunted hong, or trading house. Its first printing of 250,000 copies is the largest in the history of Clavell’s publisher, Delacorte Press, and another 100,000 copies were ordered up before the book’s official publication date last week. That means a lot of felled forests. Noble House weighs in at four pounds two ounces, and its $19.95 price tag is the costliest ever hung on a popular novel. CBS and NBC are already talking about giving Noble House the Shogun treatment—and the book trade is confident that Clavell’s latest will become this summer’s beach-blanket bonanza, perhaps crushing a few ribs on the way.

The 57-year-old Clavell came by his love of the Orient in an unlikely fashion. As an 18-year-old captain in the British army, he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and held in the infamous Changi prison camp in Singapore. He mined that experience in his first novel, King Rat (1962), building an interest in the East that has never flagged. “Sometimes I think that in a previous life I was Chinese,” he likes to joke. Clavell, a naturalized American citizen, lives with his wife, April, in Los Angeles. It was after a 12-month Hong Kong stay in 1963 that he produced the best-selling Tai Pan—the story of the founding of the same trading house he returns to in his new book. “There is something about Hong Kong that touches Europeans, especially English people,” muses Clavell. “It might be the smells, the food, but it’s particularly the people.”

The Hong Kong of James Clavell encompasses more than the tawdry world of Suzie Wong. “When I lived here, I would sit in the kitchens of Chinese friends and listen to them gossip,” he recalls. “Sometimes I would arbitrate their family feuds. They call me quai loh, which means ‘foreign devil.’ ” Glimpses of his Oriental cronies appear in Noble House characters with names like Venus Poon and Four Finger Wu. Such bizarre nicknames, he insists, are authentic—and necessary in the crowded colony. “After all,” he explains, “there are only a limited number of surnames in Chinese.”

Clavell revisits Hong Kong nearly every year and praises the colony as unabashedly in person as he does in print. “I love this city,” he says. “It must be the most extraordinary place on earth.” His passion embraces Hong Kong’s depressing density—six million people live there on 400 square miles—and uncertain future. The lease from the Chinese government under which Britain rules part of Hong Kong will expire in 16 years—and, although Peking is likely to renew, Clavell worries that the character of the community is changing. “So many of the old buildings have been torn down,” he sighs. “I suppose that’s not necessarily bad. It’s part of the character of Hong Kong, the drive to succeed.”

Clavell’s own drive to succeed is extraordinary. Although he points out that Shogun gave him the money he needed to say “drop dead” to any offer, he still works tirelessly and will soon throw himself into Nippon, his next Japanese saga. Even with his drop-dead money, Clavell has yet to realize one dream—to live again in Hong Kong. “It’s the queen of cities,” he says longingly. “But I sometimes think that’s an illusion. Perhaps it only exists when I’m there.”