To First Pagoda and Beyond

I used to love to run, even into adulthood I would run the various tracks around H.K. island. So school runs to ‘First Pagoda’ and beyond to ‘Second Pagoda’, were always fun.

The Pagodas were landmarks on our school Cross Country runs along Bowen Road. Not really pagodas in the true sense of the word but rather pavilions with pagoda style roofs. They provided shade and rest spots for walkers.

Sometimes we would run down the concrete steps at the side of the school, down onto Bowen Road or for a longer run, we would start from the main entrance of the school.

We started with runs to First Pagoda before advancing to Second Pagoda runs.

Second Pagoda runs stretched the course several hundred metres further. Second Pagoda was the turnaround point taking us back on the course to school via First Pagoda once more.

For the less enthusiastic, First Pagoda provided a stopping point whilst the rest of the class ran onto Second Pagoda. They would then join the back of the main group on their return, for the last home stretch. In latter years, for some this also meant an opportunity for a ‘sneaky fag’. They thought, in fact we all thought, the P.E. teachers didn’t know anything about these pit stops but years later, we found out of course they did!

I was a member of the school’s athletics team which involved training sessions after school, particularly leading up to competition time. Fitness training was a sprint up the steep incline on  Borrett Road which now leads to the current school buildings. In groups we would line up at the bottom and Mr. Connolly, our athletics coach, would set us off in waves, up the hill. The walk back down, was our recovery before setting off again on the next sprint.

One time after the Heats day of a competition, I turned up at one of these training sessions, with very stiff legs, sure in the knowledge that I would be excused from training that day. But oh no, Mr. Connolly sent me off to run three laps around the school! I was horrified, but of course by the end of the run, the tightness and soreness had eased as he knew it would.

We practised our relay runs and baton handovers, running around the school too. So resourceful!

At the school’s first Inter-house athletics competition, I entered the 100m and 200m events. Based on that performance, Mrs. Poland, our P.E. teacher, thought I would do well in the 400m in the upcoming Inter-school competition. I wasn’t so sure as the 200m had been pretty tough.

For the Inter-school competition, all participants had to register with the Education Dept. We had to produce two passport photos and proof of date of birth. There were three grades of competition – A, B and C. Participation for the girls was based on age – you could go up a grade or two but not go down if over the cut off age of the grade below. In the boys competition however, it was based on height. Once registered, we were issued with a photo ID card which had to be shown on the day of competition or else we were not permitted to participate.

Heats day duly arrived and with some concern, I watched the boys 400m heats which took place before mine. Not one, but several of the Chinese boys participating, crashed dramatically over the finish line, one even vomited, through sheer exhaustion or what I’m not sure. Whatever it was, it didn’t do a lot for my nerves. Aided by the new spikes my Dad had bought me, my race however, went according to plan – it was a good run and thereafter, 400m became my event of choice.

In about 1970, Island School Athletics really reached the dais with the arrival of Glen Horsted from Australia. He was a running machine – unbeatable! His legendary records stood, unreachable for many years past his vintage.

The Early Years

On the 19th September, 1967, the very first day of Island School, I was on a ship somewhere in the South China Sea en route to Hong Kong. We were returning from my father’s contractual leave. With us were great family friends, the Luxtons, also returning to Hong Kong after leave in the UK.

Carol Luxton and I therefore missed the first few days of the new school term. Once settled back into our flats, together we went for our school interviews with the Prinicipal, Rev. Geoffrey Speak. Carol went in for her interview first. As she came out of the Principal’s office, she whispered to me “1D”.

Although mixed ability classes, the four classes in our year group, were labelled A, B, C & D. D did not denote the bottom group! Later the class names changed to the House names that are still in use now.

I duly went in for my interview. I don’t remember much about it except for when Rev. Speak asked me if I had any preference for which class I went into, I was happily able to announce “1D”.

Our form tutor, was Mrs. Fletcher who also taught us Needlework – the girls only. We were yet to reach the novel idea of boys doing Domestic Science and the girls Woodwork and Metalwork.

I owe my ability to iron shirts correctly and sew on a button correctly, to Mrs. Fletcher. At home, the Amahs did those tasks for us so we never learnt them through necessity!

One of the first major Needlework tasks we were set, was to make a pair of Baby Doll Pyjamas. We all worked off the same pattern, producing identically styled Pyjamas with big, puffy gathered sleeves and puffy pantaloons. Although the pattern was the same, the finished products didn’t all look the same – some of the class being more skilled than others of us. My friend Lis, was one of those with more talent than most – she had perfectly spaced gathers and even pin tucks on her gathers!

Baby Doll pyjamas

Pattern: Baby Doll Pyjamas 

Before the commencement of the project, it was our responsibility to purchase the fabric – Mrs. Fletcher provided the dimensions required.

At the time, I think my friends, Carol, Lis, Julia and I were so busy with our swimming club activities, we forgot to purchase our fabric, only realising on the morning it was required. The lesson was timetabled for the afternoon and we knew we would be in trouble if we turned up without our material. So we hatched a plan to taxi down to Cloth Alley in Central at lunch time, to get what we needed. We must have had enough money between us to make the purchase but it was probably very inexpensive anyway. Our taxi driver waited for us on Queens Road whilst we bolted down the alley, selected our fabric, ran back up the alley and jumped into the waiting taxi. Thanks to his rather reckless endeavours, hastened along with our chants of “Faaidee Pangjau”, the taxi driver got us back to school just in time for the lesson. Mrs. Fletcher was blissfully unaware. Had she known, we probably would have been chastised for leaving the school premises without permission! Without doubt, a far worse crime than forgetting our fabric.

The extra-curricular timetable was varied. All students were expected to enrol for at least two nights per week of extra-curricular activities.  Enrolment evening was a major exercise that took place in the school hall with the whole school present. Teachers sat behind desks with registration lists for whichever activity they would be overseeing. On the very first of these evenings, Mr Harding (snr) was coordinating everything. He explained what we were required to do and then set us off on task. On entering the hall, I had been separated from my friends and was anxious to find them. As soon as we were given the signal to move, I sprinted across the hall towards them. Apparently in my avidity to be reunited with my friends, I missed Mr. Harding saying we were not to run. It took me a few seconds to realise the ferocious, hostile holler booming across the room was directed at me. Mr. Harding pulled me up onto the stage, made the whole school stop and look at ‘This girl who has no regard for what she has just been told!’ I was eleven, it was cripplingly embarrassing. He then sent me to my classroom where I was to stay until dismissed. I sat there for a good hour before my friends came to find me after the registration process had finished. Clearly I had been forgotten about but much to my relief, they managed to find another teacher, to dismiss me. The drama didn’t end there though as Mr. Harding castigated me the following day for not having enrolled for any activities. The injustice of it! I had an aversion towards him based on fear, from that day forward. Thankful that I never ended up in one of his classes, I succeeded in giving him a wide berth for the rest of his time at the school.

Mrs. Fairey, the music teacher, who had not only been the teacher who had dismissed me the previous evening, saved the day again.  I was able to make a late registration with her for Choir which was one of the after school activities. She was a real ‘Fairey’ Godmother.  She welcomed all students into the choir whether they could sing or not. She believed everybody could sing, you just needed a tune to sing along to.  A very different experience from one I had at another school when the music teacher had the whole class sing whilst he came around and listened in to each pupil, discarding those whose voices he didn’t think good enough for the choir.

Despite my unfortunate experience at the initial extra-curricular acitivities registration evening, I went onto derive many hours of immense pleasure from the program and indeed all my continuing years at Island School.

 

50 Years

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the opening of Island School, the flagship of the English Schools Foundation. In September, 1967, the school along with it’s twelve starting teachers, opened it’s doors to 200 + children  – the sons and daughters of Hong Kong expats.

Island School was the inspiration of Rev. Geoffrey Speak who headed up a working party established to resolve the burgeoning issue of a short fall in school places. Prior to the concept for Island School, he had researched the possibility of setting up a weekly boarding school on Lantau island. An idea which never came to fruition.

The idea for Island School however, a secondary school on Hong Kong island was a winning stroke.

King George V School (KGV), the only school serving the families of HK expats, was by 1966, bursting at the seams, despite the construction in 1964 of the ‘New Block’ to house the growing student numbers. The only alternative for these children reaching secondary school age, was for them to return to their parents home countries to attend boarding schools.

In addition to the increasing demand for places at KGV,  before the days of the Cross Harbour Tunnel (not constructed until 1972), for children living on the island, the daily weekday commute to and from KGV, situated in Ho Man Tin on Kowloon side,  made it a very long day.

The advent of Island School, based in mid-levels, was therefore welcomed by parents, and supported by the Dept. of Education in the form of subsidies.

Rev. Speak, previously the head of St Pauls College, assumed the role of Principal of Island School and Secretary of the English Schools Foundation, then in its infancy.

In early 1967, the British Military Hospital on Borrett Road, had been de-commissioned by the British Government and handed over to the Hong Kong Government. Thus, this became home to the new school.

The grand old building with it’s wide balconies, archways and architectural symmetry, commanded spectacular harbour views. In 1973, the school moved into new, purpose built premises up the hill but it was this old building that remained a favourite with the ‘Original Islanders’.

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Old and New standing together (Google images)

The building consisted of three parts – two three storey wings  linked by a central tower presided over by a grand stairwell on either side. The layout lent itself well to the schools needs, the central tower providing accommodation for the school offices, staff-room, some craft rooms and most importantly for those coming straight from primary school, the tuck shop, run by Greg (everyone knew and loved Greg!). Crowned on the top floor by the school mini-zoo. The classrooms and main school hall, were housed in the two wings. It was a quirky old building, we believed it to be haunted, and in the humid months of Spring, the walls would drip with condensation which was always cause for trepidation!

Our playground surrounded the buildings – the road on one side and gardens on the harbour side. P.E. lessons took place in the main hall or in the ‘playground’ outside the main entrance which was actually Borrett Road – fortunately quiet in those days although we did on occasion have to stop a class to let a car or delivery truck through. On days when we did athletics, our running track circumvented the building. Cross country was a run along Bowen Road to the ‘first pagoda’ and then later we progressed to the ‘second pagoda’. Our teachers were incredibly resourceful and I don’t think anyone of us felt we missed out on anything for the lack of facilities.

Rev. Speak introduced the pastoral house system which is still operational today. Our base class was our house, we remained in this unit with the same teaching staff (as far as possible), for our entire school career. Affiliation to the house unit became very strong, it became a ‘family’ unit.  I was followed into Nansen house by my sister, two of my own children and my niece.

Rev. Speak also pioneered the extra-curricular program which all students were encouraged and expected to participate in.

Each of us were given a five digit reference number. The first two numbers denoting the year in which ‘O’ levels would be taken, the third number denoted the house you belonged to (Da Vinci 1, Einstein 2, Fleming 3, Nansen 4……) and the final two numbers, were your place on the register. Ask any ex Island School student and I would think 9 out of 10 would remember their reference number.

In those early years, we were a small school, none of the facilities, or even smart uniform, tradition nor history of course of KGV, and were often looked upon as the poorer relation. But not for long, as the proverbial Ugly Duckling was about to mature into a beautiful swan.

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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.

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‘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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Mooncakes – Google images

The Ferry Man

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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

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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.

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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.