Club Life

November in Hong Kong is one of the best times of the year, the hot humid weather of the summer months, stretches into October but by November, the humidity has abated and temperatures drop to a comfortable level.

Thus my mother would take me out in my pram each day in order to partake in the cooler fresh air and get some exercise herself. She would walk down the steep incline of Leighton Hill Road into the valley and to the Hong Kong Football Club. The return journey, pushing a pram up the hill would certainly have kept her fit!

The Hong Kong Football Club became the centre of their social life. It was here my mother and I would spend our afternoons, along with other young mothers and their offspring. Each of the women were far from home and through these afternoons spent at the Club, a support network and lifelong friendships were forged.

Although it started out solely as a rugby football club, the Hong Kong Football Club was also home to soccer teams which played in the local leagues. Hockey was played throughout the colony, predominantly by the Pakistani and Indian communities but there was no team at the Hong Kong Football Club. My father, a keen hockey player, along with friends and colleagues, the Chamberlain brothers, changed this by forming the first HKFC hockey team.

Hong Kong Football Club – Hockey Team 1st XI circa 1958. Howard Chamberlain, seated 1st on left next to my father. Howard’s brother, standing far right.

And so the Football Club became a second home as mid-week training nights and weekend games meant time spent at the Club. I grew up playing in the grounds, attending birthday parties there and some of my earliest childhood memories are of Sundays spent at the club. My love of the hibiscus plant dates back to then as the hedges that encased the grounds would be full of red flowers. I have them in my garden now, planted there as a reminder of Hong Kong.

It also became a convenient stop on the way home from the office for my father and other residents of Leighton Hill where a cooling beer and a game of liar dice in the men only bar would provide respite from the days work.

stained glass windows

‘Stained Glass Windows’ – HKFC Masquerade Party. All costumes made by my father.

My parents attended the many social functions at the Club; New Years Eve Balls and Masquerade parties, my father often getting coerced into making the fancy dress outfits for their group of immediate friends as he had a talent for crafting innovative costumes.

As a family, we would drive out to the south side of the island to the beaches of Middle Bay and South Bay. Through friends, my parents were introduced to Stanley Fort Beach. This was a private beach for members of the Stanley Club. There were often beach barbecue parties organised by the Club. My parents joined the Club and were active participants of the beach barbecues. The Stanley Club also housed an extensive library. One evening a week, my parents would go out to ‘Library Night’. They did go with books in hand and returned with different ones but I think it was more of an excuse to get together with friends. Years later, with our own families in tow, my sister and I continued the tradition of ‘Library Night’ every Friday night at a different club, no books in sight and no excuses for the fact that we just wanted to get together. Indeed our children, now grown, still talk about ‘library night’ in Hong Kong.

Stanley Beach 2

Stanley Fort Beach

Stanley Beach

Stanley Fort Beach 2

 

Club life was the centre of life for all expatriates living in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Club in the CBD, was, and still is, the business mans club. Membership was only afforded to the most influential people, the Taipans of the colony – senior government officials, senior local businessmen, the chiefs of the major trading firms and banks and other leading professionals.

Also in the CBD, was the Hong Kong Cricket Club on Chater Road, an oasis in the centre of the busy heart of the city. Established in 1851, the Hong Kong Cricket Club was one of the first cricket clubs outside England. Although a private club, primarily for cricket, it did also stage important events which were open to the public and on a Saturday morning, the Cricket Club would open its gates to hundreds of young children.

Children from all over the colony, dressed in white shorts and shirts, the boys with red and white striped caps, would amass to facilitate themselves of Billy Tingles exercise classes. Split into groups, there would be children doing jumping jacks, running races and such like, as they rotated around a circuit, completing all the exercises on the programme for that particular morning. There would be team games too, his mantle being competitive but fair play. The morning would culminate with the reward of a fizzy drink – Sunkist Orange, Coke or 7 up and a cold, rock hard Kit Kat bar issued straight from the freezer to prevent melting chocolate sullying the white uniforms.

Billy Tingle was a legend in Hong Kong. He had started out as a boxer in his native Australia. With success under his belt, he was able to travel to competitions in Asia, ending up in Shanghai where, nearing the end of his professional boxing career, he turned his attention to what would become his calling, education. He was interned in Shanghai in a Japanese POW camp during WW2 and after liberation, was part of the exodus to Hong Kong, arriving in the colony in 1949. In Hong Kong he made himself responsible for affording the opportunity of access to physical education to as many children as possible. His was a peripatetic role, in addition to the Saturday morning sports institute sessions at the HKCC, he took his sports classes around various primary schools and also taught hundreds of children, including myself, to swim at the LRC. Anyone of my generation who grew up in Hong Kong will have fond memories of Billy Tingle. He touched so many young lives. Even after he suffered a stroke in the late 1960’s which left him without the use of one arm and impaired speech, he would be surrounded by children as he came to the LRC for his daily swim in the pool where he had taught so many.

As we grew older and my father stopped playing hockey, we spent more and more time at the LRC – the Ladies Recreation Club.

The Club which opened in 1884, was the brainchild of a group of expat women seeking to establish a sanctuary where ladies in the colony could venture for ‘the purpose of health and recreation’. Over time, the small piece of ground allocated to them on Old Peak Road, has seem many metamorphoses in terms of expanding facilities, both sporting and dining. Now they even allow men on the committee! Unheard of in earlier years.

My sister and I both had swimming lessons twice a week at the LRC and soon, as it did for many others, it assumed that role of second home. Long summer holidays were spent by the poolside or on the tennis courts. We would regularly emerge from the pool with prune like fingers from having spent so long in the water and over time, favourite swimsuits would fade from the constant exposure to chlorine. When teens, we would go on excursions with big groups of friends, to see the latest movie showing at the Queens Theatre in Central, on the corner of Queens Road Central and Theatre Lane, walking in a long snake, down the steep incline of Old Peak Road, past the Botanical Gardens, into the heart of Central.

In 1967, my sister and I became founding members of the LRC Swim team. Training nights and competitions, dominated the next few years of our lives. After school, along with friends, we would walk from our school on Borrett Road up to the LRC for swimming training. Sometimes if we were feeling particularly lazy or if it was a hot day, we would flag a taxi down, willing to share  the $3.50 flag fall rather than climb the steep steps from Magazine Gap Road, up past the lower tennis courts to the family clubhouse.

My mother took on a part-time job as assistant secretary at the Club, in charge of the pay-roll for Club employees, later being promoted to full time secretary. So she was always there when we arrived from school and my father would join us after work, himself becoming involved in the training of the Swim squad.

We spent many, many happy hours at the Club. As so often happens in expatriate communities, living far away from grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, the families of the Swim Squad became our extended family.

Old Pool, New Pool

Image

The Original Victoria Park Swimming Pool

On 1st Sept, 2013, the doors of the original Victoria Park swimming pool, the first ever public swimming pool in Hong Kong, closed for the last time. As it was such a public icon – where millions of Hong Kong people learnt to swim or spent their leisure hours, to mark the closure, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department held two open days on the 2nd and 3rd September so interested members of the public, could take a walk down memory lane and view all the different areas of the complex – the entrance hall, the changing rooms, the spectator stand, the pool areas and first aid post.

They also planned to erect a permanent display at the entrance to the new complex to celebrate the old and the new which was to include photographs, a history of significant events and architectural drawings. It was this last inclusion which caught my attention and filled me with excitement for my father was the architect of the original pool.

It was his first major project after having arrived in Hong Kong in 1955. Of course I don’t remember anything of that though I am told when the development was nearing completion in 1957, he would often take me down to the site on a Saturday morning where as a toddler, I would be carted off by the band of cleaning Amahs and could be found pushing a broom around the yet to be filled baby pool.

In later years, Victoria Park swimming pool became a regular fixture for our family. Once a week during the spring and summer terms, we would be bussed there from school for swimming lessons. It was the home to inter-school swimming galas and as our interest in competitive swimming grew, we ventured there again for colony age-group and inter-club competitions too.

My sister and I learnt to swim at an early age under the expert guidance of Billy Tingle at the LRC. He got us water borne then water safe before perfecting our technique in each of the four strokes. He helped us gain our B badges which enabled us to swim without parental supervision in the ‘middle’ pool, a step up from the baby pool.Then in time, we progressed onto the A badge which entailed passing the test of confidently swimming two lengths of the 25 yard ‘big’ pool and treading water for a minute. For all the children growing up at the LRC in those days, acquiring an A badge was the ultimate achievement. once acquired, the badge was worn proudly stitched onto our swimming costumes.

Swimming galas were always a feature of summers at the LRC. There was the pennant gala followed by the cup gala but the LRC swimming team, wasn’t created until 1967. It was the brainchild of Betty Mair, herself a keen swimmer and heavily involved through her job at the Dept of Education, in developing swimming throughout the colony. Aware of the enthusiasm and potential talent at the LRC, she recruited a handful of children and supportive parents and so the LRC swimming team was born.

Training sessions in the early days, took place twice a week but as the team grew in size and successes in the age-group championships at Victoria Park built up, the training sessions increased in frequency. By the time I was in my teens, we were training in the early morning and in the evening every day.

Competition days at Victoria Park, were real family days, parents were appointed to jobs – marshalling swimmers, supervising warm up sessions, timekeeping or recording results. The LRC swimmers were easily identified in the changing room showers by their stripy tanned bodies acquired by hours spent in the black and white striped team swimsuit which allowed the sun to penetrate through the white stripes. Hungry swimmers would be sated, once their races were completed by a plate of steaming chow fan from the pool cafeteria.

On our recent visit to Hong Kong, I was keen to visit the new complex and to view the display of photographs and drawings of old and new.

The photographs were there and an explanation of the facilities and modern technologies of the new buildings but none of the promised architectural drawings of the old pool which was disappointing. I only hope that the display isn’t yet complete and more awaits on future visits.

The pool building itself however, didn’t disappoint. It is a magnificent facility, encompassing all the things Hong Kong does so well. There are two high spec pools, one meeting competition standards, the second over which the competition standard diving boards preside, has a moveable floor, thus allowing it to be used for both swimming teaching at a safe depth and competitive diving which requires a much greater depth. Unlike the old complex, this one is indoor, allowing it to be used year round but it suffers none of the smell of chlorine, or noise usually associated with indoor swimming pools. Such is the technology, that sitting in the spectator stands, was very pleasant whilst we watched dozens of lap swimmers and several swimming classes, each group identified by their coloured caps.

image

Inside the new pool complex

As we left the building, I cast my eyes over to the old complex now shrouded in tarpaulin and in the midst of demolition. Still visible was the mural that once heralded the entrance to the pool, the colours faded by the passage of time and the accumulation of dust from the partially demolished walls but still so familiar and reminiscent of several of my fathers paintings that had hung on our walls at home. I felt a tinge of sadness but as I turned back to look at the modern building, I knew my Dad would have welcomed this progression and taken pride in this achievement from a department he helped to shape.

The Amahs

It’s Sunday. As we walk through leafy Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, the place is buzzing with hundreds and hundreds of foreign domestic helpers enjoying their day off. It seems as though every square centimetre of ground is being utilised and the hum of voices – friends catching up on the week’s news, pervades any peacefulness the park has to offer. These are the maids of expatriate and local middle class Chinese families who have ventured to Hong Kong from Indonesia and the Philippines to seek domestic employment, which even at the paltry minimum wage they receive, is far more than they can expect to earn in their home countries.

They have replaced the Chinese black and white Amahs, so called because they always wore a white top with a mandarin collar and loose black trousers.

The word Amah, is a derivative of the Cantonese word for mother. In the 1930’s when there was a flood of these women migrating to colonial South East Asia, their role was that of surrogate mother – looking after the young families of officers in the Crown services or the more affluent Chinese families. Generally there would be several domestic helpers in one household, each assigned a different task, thus over time, the term Amah became a generic one.

Image

Ah Yuen at 19 Severn Road with Cass

The influx of domestic workers followed industrialisation of the silk trade in Southern China when  women worked on the silk farms or were spinners. New technology coupled with a recession, meant that many of them found themselves without work.

Traditionally Amahs were unmarried women who sought financial independence in paid employment. They wore the black and white uniform and their hair in a bun or as a long braid down their backs. These were the symbols of the sisterhood.

Back in 1955, settled into their new apartment in Leighton Hill, my parents set about the task of preparing for the impending arrival of a new member of the family. This included employing two Amahs. Ah Jung was the sister of a neighbours Amah. She had completed her training under the watchful eye of her older sister, and was now ready to take on the role of primary helper. Ah Jung was the cook amah and general housekeeper. She brought with her, Ah Bun, her make-e-learn, whose primary duty would be the laundry but under Ah Jung’s tutelage, would learn other crafts in the hope that one day she would accede to the senior role in another household.

After three years in our household, it was time for the Amahs to seek new employment as our family were returning to Scotland for nine months. On our return, we moved into another apartment and welcomed two new Amahs into the household.

I was too young to have any memories of Ah Jung and Ah Bun, but my memories of Ah Gum and Ah Su, are clearer. My prevailing memory of Ah Gum is the long braid of hair that stretched right down past her bottom – she had never cut it. I loved to watch her washing her hair. Sat on a small stool, her legs wrapped around a wooden barrel filled with water, she would unwind her braid. Head hung over the barrel; she then proceeded to pour ladles of water over her hair. The sun streaming through the breeze block wall which bordered the washing area would create a myriad of shades of black, almost midnight blue, on her wet hair. When wet, it looked even longer. Once finished she often allowed me to run a comb through it before she wrapped it in a towel which she twisted at the top of her head creating a turban. Later when dry, Ah Su would assist her to braid it again. I seized every opportunity to be an observer of this activity, craving her long locks for myself, until one Monday morning, when she returned from her day off sporting a short Western style bob. Seemingly she had tired of the care it took to manage her long hair. The new hairstyle would surely have saved her time, been much cooler in the hot summer months and I suspect she had made a few dollars by selling her hair to a wig maker. I was devastated!

Another three years passed and it was time once again, for our family to travel to Scotland for my father’s contractual leave. Again we would be away for nine months and again, our Amahs would leave us for new employment.

Image

Ah Yuen with the next generation

When we returned, we moved to a new apartment block – Mt Nicholson Gap. By this time, it was becoming more common to only employ one Amah who would fulfil all the necessary domestic tasks. This was when Ah Yuen joined our family. I was now seven. Ah Yuen stayed with our family for 20 years. She made herself indispensable and as we were no longer required to move apartments at the end of each contract, my parents would pay her full wages during our statutory leave periods.

Ah Yuen was illiterate, yet she could look at a picture in a recipe book and instinctively know how to cook the dish. She baked beautiful pies and cakes. On our birthdays, she would bake a cake and ice the words “Happy Birthday” which she copied from an old birthday card she had kept. She couldn’t read a dressmaking pattern but she could make clothes, copying items or making her own patterns out of tissue paper. She made all her own clothes and my sister and I were always treated to a new party dress each birthday.

She never married but helped her brother to pay for the education of his children all of whom now have successful careers. She saved as much as she could and with assistance from my father, was able to put a deposit on a small unit which she rented out until her retirement.

By the time she left our family, my sister and I were both adults but she followed our lives with interest, often visiting us and our children – the next generation.

She was the last of the dying breed of Black and White Amahs. The younger generation preferring to go into industry or office work with shorter hours and better pay.

In their place, to fill the niche, came the first of the foreign domestic helpers from the Philippines.

Image

Ah Yuen with even more of the next generation

Wah Muis and Mooncakes

Wah muis and Mooncakes. These are what I miss from Hong Kong. Our Chinese Amah introduced us to both treats. Wah muis – preserved dried plums, were always available but Mooncakes, of course only once a year for the mid-autumn festival in September. The date is moveable but always falls on the 15th day of the 8th moon. There were different varieties of moon cake, some just plain red bean paste or the more expensive lotus bean paste whilst others had a salted duck egg yolk symbolising the moon, tantalisingly hidden inside the paste. All of this was encased in a sweet thin crust pastry which would be decorated with the Chinese characters for Longevity or Prosperity and sometimes we would find a rabbit shape impressed on the pastry top, also symbolic of the moon. The cakes were dense and hugely rich in calories so our Amah would only ever allow us a tiny wedge washed down with a small cup of Chinese tea to aid it’s digestion.

Image

Wah Muis – Google images

The mid-autumn festival, for us also meant ‘lantern time’. My sister and I would look forward to our Amah coming home bearing two rabbit shaped lanterns beautifully crafted out of colourful paper and suspended from a bamboo cane handle. Inside the frame of the lantern was a structure in which you could place a candle but she never permitted us to do this for fear of us either getting burnt or the lantern going up in flames or both! We never questioned her rule, content in enjoying ownership of our new paper pets to replace the faded, misshapen and forgotten ones from the previous year.

Image

Google images

Ask anyone who grew up in Hong Kong and they will be able to tell you about Wah Muis – where they used to buy their favourite ones, the way they tasted, a mixture of sweet, sour, salty, tangy, all unfolding in your mouth as you ate them and then there was how you ate them. Some would nibble away at the flesh, discarding the pip. Others would peel the flesh from the pip with their fingers but the best way was to pop the entire thing in your mouth and suck away at the juices which would make you wince with the tartness.

These delicacies could be bought from the corner shop and the markets but also from the Popsi man who would come to our apartment block each day. He would signal his arrival by the tinkling of his bicycle bell. Secured to the side of his bike, was a freezer box stuffed full of ice cold Popsicles and ice cream tubs. There were the plain orange popsis, or chocolate ones, some with ice cream inside. My favourite were Beanos – frozen red bean but you had to be careful, as let your tongue linger too long on the surface of a Beano which for some reason melted less quickly than the other popsis, and your tongue would stick. If that happened, it was a painful process trying to unstick it!

The Wah Muis were sold from a basket on the back of the bike. In later years, the bicycle was replaced with a motorised scooter, I’m sure much to the relief of the Popsi men who had to pedal their way around their sales route transporting a heavy chest freezer, strapped to one side of their vehicle and a basket to the back. Alongside the Wah Muis, were packets of dried cuttlefish, lemon peel, sweet pink slivers of ginger and other such yummy treats.

It amuses my husband to think that these were the treats of my youth when he was eating midget gems, liquorice and fruit gums.

Image

Mooncakes – Google images

The Ferry Man

Image

 

I’ve always enjoyed traveling on the Star Ferry. Even though today it is more of a tourist attraction than the primary means of crossing Hong Kong harbour. It is always something I choose to do when visiting Hong Kong and this visit is no exception.

 

There was a time when I traveled on the Ferry twice a day, to and from school each day. Each morning, my father would drop me off at the Star Ferry concourse where I would join hundreds of other KGV school students making the journey across the harbour by ferry. This of course was pre the first cross harbour tunnel which didn’t open until 1972 and the ferries were our only means of transport between Hong Kong island and the Kowloon Peninsula.

 

Hong Kong harbour is one of the busiest harbours in the world with vessels of all sizes going about their business. The Star Ferries have to cut their way across the main channel, navigating around other craft, sometimes having to idle whilst a larger ship enters or departs the harbour.

 

Also traversing the harbour everyday are ocean going ships carrying goods and passengers, small pleasure craft and working fishing boats and junks. Land reclamation over recent years, has narrowed the channel but this has done nothing to diminish the energy and bustling activity synonymous with Hong Kong harbour.

 

Before I started traveling independently, any time we traveled on the Star Ferry, my Mum would always warn us to prepare for ‘the bump’ as the ferry came alongside its berth. I always liked to watch the ferry men attired in their company issue sailors uniforms – one perched in a squat on the railings of the ferry itself, leaning out when the time was right, to deftly cast the thick twine of marine rope onto the upraised hook of a docking pole held in the firm grip of his team mate on the pier, who would then haul it in, looping the heavy rope around a bollard, simultaneously drawing the ferry into dock. The ‘bump’ would invariably come when the vessel, its gunnels protected by thick black rubber bumpers, would rebound off the side of the pier.

 

The bump never concerned me; I was more intrigued by the patterns formed in the wash of water below as it swirled up in white eddies of froth finding new spaces to go.

Image

 

Once the ferry was securely tied to the bollard, the first ferryman would hop down from his position on the railing and prepare to lower the gangplank for the impending rush of departing passengers, some of whom would be climbing the plank before it had even hit the ground.

 

 

Image

 

Sometimes, just for fun and to save 10 cents which could be spent on a bag of wah muis (dried sour plums) instead, my friends and I would travel on the lower deck of the ferry, excited at the prospect of being closer to the sea. With fewer seats but more passengers however, it would inevitably mean rubbing shoulders with fellow trippers. In the summer months, when the odour of hot sweaty bodies mingled with the fumes of unregulated marine fuel, the fetid smell, would keep us on the upper decks.

Despite the passage of 40+ years, not much has changed on the ferry trip today to that I experienced as a ten year old journeying to and from school. The same green and white livery, the crew in their same uniforms, the two tiered decks – upper and lower class, the bench seats perforated with the sign of a star in the centre of each. The lowering and raising of the gangplank is now automated and the ferries are maybe not as busy as they once were, but the journey is just as much fun, I still watch in wonder as to where the frothing wash of water finds new places to go and that Ferry Man looks vaguely familiar.

The Hong Kong Turn

“Welcome aboard flight CX171 to Hong Kong. Flying time to Hong Kong will be 7 hours and 15 minutes. The weather in Hong Kong is fine, with a temperature of 18 degrees centigrade. We anticipate fine weather for most of the flight with a little bit of turbulence about an hour from Hong Kong which may cause a few bumps. Our purser today is Honey who will look after your needs. Please sit back and enjoy our inflight entertainment.”

My husband and I are on our way to Hong Kong from our home in Perth. I could almost do the introduction and safety demonstration on the flight myself, I’ve done this journey or ones like it, so many times. Flights to and from the UK, to and from Asian holiday destinations, to and from the US and more recently to and from Australia

Travel was just something as a child I took for granted. Living in Hong Kong, meant that every three to four years we would travel back to the Scotland to see our extended family. Up until I turned eighteen, whilst travelling with my parents, these journeys were always by ship. This was the common mode of travel when my parents moved to Hong Kong in 1955. At eighteen, I embarked on my tertiary education in England and my journeys to and from Hong Kong were then by air. No direct flights though, the aircraft always had to stop en route to re-fuel, usually Bombay (now known as Mumbai) and the journeys were seventeen hours long.

In those early days I usually booked my flights through Eupo Air. A budget travel agent with offices in Hong Kong and Soho, the Chinatown of London. The flights seemed interminable and were exasperatingly uncomfortable, always full. The passengers were either students like myself or part of the influx of Chinese migrants to London to service the increasing number of Chinese restaurants that were springing up in the capital and spreading out to other British cities in the 70’s. Not known for travelling light the Chinese passengers would fill the overhead lockers and still sit with bags or the 70’s style boom boxes or rice cookers balanced on their laps for the entire journey. That wouldn’t be allowed on today’s aircraft but neither is smoking, another frustration which had to be tolerated on those flights.

Retuning to Hong Kong though, however uncomfortable the flight was, was always exciting as I was coming home and back to my family. And then there was the landing at Kai Tak airport. Pilots had to undergo special training to acquire the skill needed to negotiate the precarious landing. It was a notoriously difficult steep descent between the densely populated high rise buildings of western Kowloon and the surrounding craggy mountains. If that wasn’t enough, pilots were also required to make a sharp turn, ‘The Hong Kong Turn’, once the chequerboard emblazoned above Kowloon Tsai park, came into view, before making the final descent past the buildings and onto the single runway that stretched out into the harbour. From inside the aircraft,you could almost see people busy in their kitchens oblivious to the thunderously noisy aeroplane sailing past their windows.

Daryl Scott Chapman/HotSpot Media

image
Google Images

As the airport got busier with the increasing population and noise pollution was affecting hundreds of thousands of residents, Kai Tak airport closed on the 6th July, 1998. It was replaced by Chek Lap Kok Airport on Lantau island which on its opening, was the largest airport terminal in the world and remains one of the busiest airports in the world.

With the introduction of more scheduled flights and improved technology, over the years, the flights became more comfortable and today I am going to sit back and enjoy my business class seat on the relatively short journey to Hong Kong.

An Assault on the Senses

On their initiation into Hong Kong harbour, in July 1955, I can only imagine the impact for my parents as they set their sights for the first time on the dramatic, rocky outcrop which was Hong Kong island, devoid of the skyscrapers which is its trademark today, Victoria Peak rising majestically into the skies, would have been clearly visible, not shrouded by the haze of pollutants that sadly too often obscure it now. Dozens of craft small and large would have been criss-crossing the harbour, going about their daily tasks, their only means of traveling between the island and the Kowloon peninsula on the mainland.

Hong Kong Harbout 1950's  -  google images

Hong Kong Harbour 1950’s – google images

As much as it was visually captivating, it would have been an assault on other senses too. The unforgiving heat serving to emphasise the pungent smells of the nullahs transporting industrial and human effluence into the harbour, not always as aromatic as its name suggested.

Meeting my parents  in Hong Kong on that  oppressively humid July day in 1955, was my fathers new boss and his wife.  Together they boarded a tender which transported them from the Chusan’s mooring, to Blakes Pier. The pier was populated with wizened men decked out in white vests, dark shorts, their outfits completed by wide brimmed straw hats secured with a string strap slung under the chin, as protection from the harsh sun. Each crouched, on their haunches, in between the arms of their red wooden, green canopied rickshaws, awaiting a passenger to transport away from the pier, into the heart of the city.

image

Fearful this was how one traveled in Hong Kong, my mother was greatly relieved when their guide directed them away from the rickshaws, towards a waiting car which was to take them to the Central Government Offices on Garden Road.

Whilst my father was inducted into his new workplace, my mother was given a tour of the island. At five months pregnant, sat in a hot car for several hours – no air conditioned cars then, my mother, feeling homesick and anxious about her impending delivery, began to wonder about their decision to venture so far from home, to this British Crown colony which thus far, was not feeling anything like familiar nor comfortable. Like it or not, this was to be their destiny for the next three years which at that point, seemed interminable.

The initial weeks in their new home, was spent in the Victoria  Hotel on Queens Road in the Central business district, while they awaited the allocation of government quarters. This came in early  October when they moved into 31 Leighton Hill flats in Happy Valley.

In the period leading up to the move,  my father tried to acclimatise to the uncomfortable conditions at the office where again there was no air conditioning.  Sitting at his drawing board, he battled with either trying to control papers from flying around if the fans were on or having them stick to his arms if they weren’t.

Whilst my mother was taken under the wing of some of the more seasoned wives whose husbands were on their second or third tours in Hong Kong. Under their guidance, she was educated in the best places to source upholstery for the  government issue furniture. All furnishings were standard issue, only differentiated by the fabric chosen to dress them; she was taken to Whiteaways and Lane Crawfords where she could buy western products  for both herself and the home. And she was introduced to the one-stop compradore. The local compradore store at the foot of Leighton Hill Road, was like many others around the colony, an Aladdin’s cave. Every inch of space was crammed with goods, even hanging space was utilised. It stocked everything from ironing boards to baby formula and what you couldn’t find in the store, if available on the island, the compradore would not only find it for you but deliver it to your home. This included anything from Robertsons strawberry jam to a favourite shade of Revlon lipstick.

Aside

Fancy Dress

Over the coming years, my parents were to make similar trips either at the beginning or the end of each tour of duty and later of course my sister and I accompanied them. We traveled on several of the P&O Ships – SS Cathay, SS Arcadia amongst them. We also experienced other Cruise liners, cargo ships with small passenger numbers and a variety of routes.
For us life on ‘the ship’, meant days spent playing with friends we made on board, in the ships nursery or playing games such as ‘Marco Polo’ in the swimming pool.

The fancy dress parties were a highlight of these journeys. My sister and I always took out the first prize on each of the occasions we participated and on each of the occasions we were dressed as Siamese dancers. My father would spend hours making the headdresses out of card and drawing intricate Thai patterns on sheets of white cotton which would become our sarong styled outfits. With four years between trips, he would have to make new costumes each time as we had grown out of earlier ones. We took turn about to play the part of the boy dancer and rubbed a brown pigment over our bodies to darken our skin. One year, my sister had broken her leg so was in a cast. That year I carried the usual sign, ‘Siamese Dancers’ and she followed behind with a sign which read, ‘Damned difficult these Siamese Dances!’

Siamese 1

Damned difficult these Siamese Dances

Siamese 2

Roles Reversed

The broken leg had been sustained on the ship when we decided it would be fun to jump from the top bunk in our cabin, onto some pillows we had scattered across the floor to serve as our soft landing. Looking back now, we were lucky to only get away with one broken limb between us.

Another highlight was In Port Said when we would be entertained by the Gully Gully man. He was an Egyptian magician who would come on board to perform magic tricks. After the close of the Suez Canal in 1967 following the Arab-Israeli six day war, our ship travel became longer as now the route meant circumventing the Cape of Good Hope

Crossing the equator was yet another highlight although we only experienced this once. The ceremony that accompanies the crossing goes back to ancient times when superstitious sailors would try to appease King Neptune, ruler of the seas, to ensure their safe journey. In modern times, it is regarded as an initiation for crew members, known as Pollywogs, who haven’t crossed the line before and usually a few unsuspecting passengers are rounded up too. Sitting in judgement of the Pollywogs is King Neptune and his courtiers supported by the Shellbacks, already initiated crew members whose job is to police the Pollywogs and dole out whatever punishment King Neptune deems to defer on them. In our experience, in addition to transgressing King Neptune’s realm without acknowledging his sovereignty, other dubious crimes were conferred on each of the Pollywogs who if found guilty and without exception they were,  were lifted onto a table by the Shellbacks, covered in shaving cream, flour and raw eggs before being thrown into a tub of water. It was all very messy but highly entertaining and each of us who were ‘tried’ in the court of King Neptune, received a certificate to say as much!

I secured my first paid job on the SS Cathay. On a trip from Southampton back to Hong Kong in 1968, we were traveling with good family friends, the Luxtons. Carol Luxton and I were the same age and at 12, we were just old enough to dine with the adults. One of the other passengers was a woman traveling out to Singapore. Accompanying her were her two Afghan Hounds who were kenneled at the bow of the ship. In the afternoon, she had a regular bridge game which unfortunately coincided with meal time for the hounds. In order to get around this, one evening at dinner,  she approached Carol and I with the proposal of us spending a couple of hours each  afternoon with the dogs,  exercising them and feeding them for which she would pay us. We would happily have done it for nothing but weren’t averse to a bit of extra pocket money and so our afternoons for the remainder of the trip until we docked in Singapore, were spent enjoying the company of Sheva and Ava who equally enjoyed our pampering and when we had saved up enough, we were able to buy the round of pre-dinner drinks for our table.  For Carol and I this was a ‘Pussyfoot’ – a Mock-tail which the barman would make for us.

For the ships of the Peninsular & Oriental steam Navigation Co. Hong Kong was the final destination on the outbound trips before they turned around to head home to Southampton.

Another Ship, Another Time

Backtrack 42 years to July 1955 and another cruise ship, the SS Chusan, this time entering Hong Kong waters , masterfully guided by tug boats to its mooring on the western reaches of Victoria harbour. A flotilla of small sampans following at a safe distance, carrying opportunistic boys, their nut brown bodies from hours spent in the sun, balancing on the bow of their boats. They were poised, ready to dive into the waters when the ships passengers, coaxed by the drivers of the boats, threw coins down from the decks above. The divers, watched and waited keenly for the glint of metal, timing their dive precisely to at once claim their treasure and entertain the new arrivals.

S.S. Chusan - Google images

S.S. Chusan – Google images

 

Standing at the rails on the ships deck observing this spectacle, were my parents, about to embark on a new life in the Crown colony of Hong Kong. Five weeks earlier, they had left their home, their families and friends in Dundee to travel by train to the docks in  Southampton and the commencement of a three year tour of duty in Hong Kong.

My father, an architect, had been working in the Dundee firm Gauldie, Hardy, Wright and Needham. He knew he was being groomed for partnership in the firm but he had a yen for travel and had been exploring the options of going overseas to work. His initial research took him to the Crown agents who recruited professionals to work in their various colonial outposts. The first offer was a job in Singapore but this coincided with the tragic news that my maternal grandfather had advanced lung cancer and so the offer was declined. Following my grandfathers death, a second offer was made, this time the posting was for Nairobi in Kenya but again it was short lived as it was 1955, the year of the Mao Mao uprising and the British Government were starting to advise their nationals to leave Kenya. When the offer of a posting in Hong Kong was made, my father had no idea either where Hong Kong was nor anything about it  He confessed to me years later, how he had gone to the local library to educate himself. Obviously what he read and subsequently conveyed to my mother, was positive, as they made the decision to accept the offer.

Life on board ship was unchartered territory for my parents. They were at second sitting for meals and dinner was a formal affair. Every evening the steward assigned to their care, laid out my father’s dinner suit and freshly polished shoes. There was a myriad of activities laid on in order to entertain the passengers on their journey to their respective destinations and of course each port of call brought it’s own intrigue. The four week journey from Southampton to Hong Kong, through the Suez Canal, via India and into the Far East, must have been an exciting adventure for a couple who had never ventured further than France.

1st July, 1997

img034

Ah Jung

When growing up, Our Amah, had often kept my sister and I spellbound with her stories of escape from communist rule in China. We would sit opposite her on little stools as she prepared vegetables for the evening meal and listen intently as she relayed to us how one of her brothers had swum across a four mile stretch of shark infested water connecting China to Hong Kong, having first traveled by bus and then on foot for several miles in order to flee the oppression in search of a better life; or how others hadn’t been so lucky in their quest having either been caught by the Red guard or succumbed to sharks. The stuff of fantasy to our young ears but only years later did we start to understand the magnitude of what she had been telling us. I wondered how she must be feeling, was this going to be a return to her former life and all the fears and uncertainty that were synonymous with that?

HMS Tamar was the name for the Royal Navy’s base in Hong Kong from 1897 to 1997. It took its name from HMS Tamar, a ship that was used as the base until replaced by buildings ashore. It was here that the Governor was now to preside over the farewell ceremony conducted by the Black Watch. It had been planned as a sunset ceremony but 1997 had been one of the wettest summers on record and the heavens were about to open!

As water equals money in Feng Shui, this downpour may well have been viewed as a positive omen. It certainly didn’t deter the throngs who were also lining the barriers, several bodies deep, around the parade ground. In his speech, Chris Patten, acknowledged the local people as  “only ordinary, in the sense that most of them came here with nothing.” He then qualified that in saying “They are extraordinary in what they have achieved against the odds”. They responded by stamping their feet on the metal plates on which they stood. And the rain continued to fall in torrents on the parade ground where tomorrow, standing in place of the British troops, would be the People’s Liberation Army.

What followed as the actual handover ceremony in the dry confines of the Convention and Exhibition Centre, was as anticipated, slickly and masterfully organised but bereft of any emotion. Our five charges were starving by this  stage and so whilst keeping the TV running in the background we settled down to our dinner of bangers and chow fan!  The parents of the two additional members at our dining table were meanwhile, squelching through the sodden ground at the Hong Kong Cricket Club where the Ball they were attending in a marquis on the grounds was becoming a bit of a mud bath!

As the British contingent returned to HMS Tamar and to the friends and colleagues who waited on the quayside by the Royal Yacht, we returned to our seats in front of the TV. Amongst this group were members of the Island School community where Alice, the youngest Patten girl had attended and to which I had a great affinity having been one the schools founding students. The Pattens made their way down the line, exchanging the final and difficult goodbyes. This was clearly Chris Patten’s moment as Prince Charles, lingered in the background almost forgotten and unimportant!

I wondered now what must have been going through the mind of Chris Patten.  Following a disastrous personal election defeat in the UK, he had been dispatched to Hong Kong by John Major, essentially to oversee the end of the final outpost of the British Empire. Never one to take things anything less than seriously, he spent the next few years working hard to secure the very best for the people of Hong Kong, much to the chagrin and annoyance of the communist Chinese. That he had succeeded in this crusade was seen in the high popularity he enjoyed with the Hong Kong people and the fact that the mainland Chinese adorned him with the derogatory nickname Fatty Pang.  His mission now at an end, he and his family were having to leave a place they had come to love and regard as home.

Chris Patten

Chris Patten accepting the Union Flag – Google Images

Once on board the Royal Yacht, tears streaming down the faces of the Patten girls, the vessel moved away from the quayside. Fortunate enough to have a harbour view from our verandah, we watched them sail through and out of Hong Kong harbour amidst the spectacular spraying jets  of the Hong Kong fire service fire boats. It was 12.15am on July 1st. It had been an emotionally wrenching night.

Red Guard

People’s Liberation Army drive into Hong Kong – Google images