Downtown visits, July 19th 1953
The Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club on Kellet Island lies in the sheltered waters of the harbour, connected to the waterfront by a narrow causeway. Offshore, in the busy harbour between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, numbers of picturesque junks and sampans move their way laboriously among the graceful little racing yachts of the club. Any officer of the regiment is automatically a member of the club and can have his expenses here placed on his messing account. All you have to do is to sign a chit, no cash is needed. It is a spacious building, with large, shady terraces, cool, carefully tended lawns, a dance hall, bars and other rooms more directly concerned with sailing.
It is rare for Roger and I to escape for any length of time from Brickhill, since every three days one of us has to be Orderly Officer and stay in camp. This weekend I got away to meet Chris again and explore the Chinese environment. In the evening, we walked for an hour within the maze of streets between the bank and West Point. Leaving the large buildings of the commercial heart of Victoria behind us, the roads became narrower and lined with cavernous arcades, resplendent with Chinese shop signs. Each shop opens directly on to the arcade like a row of brightly lit caves. The whole area was full of bustling, chattering Chinese, wearing their distinctive pyjamas and, often, great coolie hats.
It grew dark early in these shadowed streets and we turned off into an alleyway and thence up a broad flight of steep steps covered with squatting Chinese eating from little bowls. The crowding around the little food stalls was intimidating. Rice, soup, curries, dried fish – oh the smell – bananas, melons and other fruits, were all on sale as were suits of clothes, underwear, curious Chinese toys and, indeed, almost anything from a watch to a walking stick. All the while, the vendors chanted their wares in toneless, chirping voices. Above us rose the tiers of tenement balconies, each with a set of bamboo poles and lines, for holding washing, suspended over the street from every floor. The Chinese seem to have a mania for washing and such cleanliness must account for their generally healthy and fresh appearance. Such cleanliness is limited to personal concerns, however, for the dowdy streets, with plaster peeling from the walls, are full of waste, rubbish and rubble piled in corners. Rows of camp beds were being put out for the night, lit by thousands of little lanterns flickering against a backcloth of neon signs in Chinese characters. Many of these streets are out of bounds to the military but the signs are difficult to see and we have probably gone beyond the limits already. The Chinese seem peaceable enough and untroubled by children running naked and barefoot in the streets, while families eat their bowls of rice ‘chow’ in the open air. Mothers carry babies in shawls on their backs and even eight year olds do the same.
On visiting a cinema in the Wanchai District, we went up several floors to find ourselves at a window on the top storey, from which we could look directly into the upper tenements opposite. Each room was lit by candles in lanterns or by dim electric lights and was subdivided into numerous little cubicles, of which we could only see into the outer ones. There were camp beds, hanging matting to mark the divisions of the room, occasional tables, piles of clothes, hungry children being served food in bowls, pots of ferns and other plants and birdcages. Yesterday, I saw two Cantonese coolies walking along with their birds in their cages, presumably giving them an airing.
The street below the cinema was now filled by rows of camp beds placed strategically between the stalls. Although it was a poor quarter, it was ablaze with lamps and candles and the milling people created an ever-changing pattern of reticulated shadows, dramatised by the great Chinese signs hanging in front of the shops and covering every wall space.
Returning along the causeway to the yacht club, we found yet another way of life. The causeway, like the street, was full of people, most of them sitting on the low stone walls above the water and dangling their feet or fishing lines over the edge. Just offshore and against the causeway itself, lay the sampans of the boat people, each loaded with a family, the lady of the craft dishing out suppers to father and kids. The little boats were spotlessly clean, the decking scrubbed and the white or blue bowls of rice shone in the light of the lanterns, above the filth in the water around them.
On this first occasion, the smells, the dirt and the unfamiliar slant-eyed faces rather appalled me. It was an overwhelming first encounter with another culture. Gradually, as I am beginning to see more of it, I accept the environment and I would like to get to know some of these polite and gentle people. Chinese loyalties are clearly to their families and friends. There is little sense of responsibility to a community. They are said to show a social callousness at times, not bothering with other people’s lives. An injured man would be left at the roadside in all probability, unless he was one of the family. In my limited experience, the Chinese here are easy to put at ease, a word or smile will make their faces wrinkle up with pleasure into a great grin. Some, however, look taciturn and very self-sufficient.
When I go about these streets, I try, so far as I can, to feel Chinese; to feel what it must be like to live in a sampan community or in a crowded tenement. In a way it horrifies me, this plentiful ants’ nest, gyrating about the shores of this green-hilled island. There is so much poverty preventing self-improvement or the exploration of life. Even so, the Chinese of Hong Kong do not seem degraded by poverty. They remain clean, polite and family-conscious. You should see the way they play with their children.
The average Englishman in the Army out here has little interest in the problems of life of the Chinese in Hong Kong, a people split from their motherland by politics and protected by an alien and largely Victorian regime. Colonialism and imperialism are written all over the English higher classes here. We have done much for the Chinese but I am sure it is really China they feel strongly about, not Britain, Queen or Commonwealth. In this, the atmosphere is very different from Colombo, where a sense of loyalty to Commonwealth and the Crown was manifest. Most of the young officers I meet do little else except go to American films, play cricket, visit expensive and palatial European clubs and behave and talk exactly as if they were at home. Their conversation is dominated by the latest happenings at Lords or Wimbledon. I see nothing wrong with that, but it is oh so rarely balanced by anything other than a sort of stupefied bewilderment and condescension, if not arrogance, towards the people who form ninety per cent of the population of this densely-crowded city. I am continually amazed by the lack of understanding and even humanity in the way in which many of our British officers, especially the younger ‘sporting’ types, treat the Chinese with whom they come in contact. Chris tells me that, in his mess, the Chinese ‘boys’ are ordered about as if they were slaves, no ‘please’ or ‘thank you’, no smiles or tolerance of language problems.
One such officer remarked to me, “Of course, they are so uncultured, an illiterate people. Look how far they are behind us! I cannot see any point in living like that at all, caged together on a small boat like animals – worse than animals because of their diseases, which wild animals avoid. They work all day. How futile, no ability to think or do anything else than squat amongst the filth. They’re dirty, just smell them. Ugh, horrid!”
Apart from their utter lack of charity, remarks like these reveal an appalling ignorance of the ancient history of civilisation in China, the enduring culture which has given rise to family systems, customs and religions curious to us, and also a quiet refinement and politeness that is to be much admired. All the paraphernalia which marks the technological advances of the Europeans, should not obscure from us the fact that a civilisation rests not on loud noises, the pops and bangs of ingenious machines, but upon the dignified, tolerant, reasoned and gentlemanly behaviour of its peoples. The Chinese, of some education, often show a cultivated sophistication above that of their British and American equivalents, many of whom, in spite of their university accomplishments, fail to realise that self-centredness is the basis of all misunderstanding.
Yet, I must not write too harshly of these young chaps, since most of them have come out, as I have myself indeed, either through compulsion or simply to see a few exotic sights. Of course, seeing in itself demands rather more than the uncritical use of eyesight. It is insight and understanding which are important. As Chris reminds me, “Just because you want to know Rome as a Roman, it does not follow that you should forget you were originally a Londoner, nor should you expect everyone else to show such enthusiasm as you do for this overpopulated den.” Fair enough criticism but I do find it strange that there is so little curiosity or desire among these subalterns to get to know any of the Chinese personally. Naturally, the language difficulties are considerable and, unlike European languages, there are no Latin roots to help, no common linguistic culture or trend of ideas.
On Sunday afternoon, Chris and I went up the tramway to the Peak. The tramcar is hauled by a long cable, which waved to and fro in the air before us, as we climbed a concave slope at an angle of quite forty-five degrees. As we rose, we passed through dense jungle broken by occasional fashionable houses, perched like castles in the air for the Olympian gods. The higher up the Peak – the higher up the Hong Kong social ladder, I am told. Yet, Jove himself, the Governor, who should be perpetually enshrouded in cloud, lives well down in Victoria, near the cathedral. The Peak was indeed beautiful. Wooded slopes fall away into extraordinary, dreamlike views. There is a fine waterfall supplying a reservoir, great houses and miraculous gardens. It is certainly close to a paradise of the gods, even if all too frequently cloud-encompassed and very damp. From above, the Chinatown areas again have that burnt-out look. The gaunt tenement balconies, festooned with forests of poles and washing, have a kind of hollow appearance, enhanced by rotting plaster and a lack of paint.
Taxi dancing – not quite
From time to time RHQ holds a regimental party at which ladies are invited to the officers’ mess. After one such event Roger, two other subalterns and I went into Kowloon with two young ladies, whose looks and general desirability had been greatly improved by the cocktails. They turned out to be a couple of gold-diggers with a vengeance. Poor Roger has not got over it yet.
They seemed to know their way around and told us of a very good dance hall where, provided one did not drink, one could dance for nothing. After a four dollar taxi ride, we found the place shut and returned to the Imperial Ballroom. Here we had to pay a five dollar fee to gain entrance for the ladies, which made me suspicious. It was, however, an impressive place, with dim lights hidden in pilasters and recesses, changing in colour all the time, so that, at one moment, the room was red with a green ceiling and, the next, yellow with a blue one and so on. The band was sprightly and two Chinese sing-song girls were rendering native songs very nicely and English ones not so well.
We had some coffee and perused the scene. While the ladies were ‘out’, the elegant Chinese maître d’hôtel approached me and spoke softly in my ear.
“Excuse me, Sir, but before the ladies return, there is one little matter. I see two of you are without ladies, would you enjoy the company of two of our dancing hostesses for half an hour at eight dollars each?”
By the time we had begun to consider this question, our own ‘ladies’ were seating themselves. They expressed great amusement at the idea, until they suddenly realised that two of us were quite prepared to dance with a hostess, going halves for half an hour! At that their amusement turned to horror. But the maître d’hôtel was still enthusiastic.
“Sirs, this is an opportunity. I will, myself, choose the prettiest, slim and young, only nineteen years old and a perfect dancer!”
The first dance had begun and I bagged one of our girls and was away into a quickstep before the others could wake up. Sobriety paid, and, although I had been fairly merry over the cocktails, I was now as alert as a judge. Roger was pounced upon – the wily maître d’hotel having caught his name.
“Mr Roger, Sir. Just think of it. Only eight dollars for half an hour.”
At this the lordly Roger thumped the table.
“Look here, I am the Duke of Beaufort, don’t you know? I will not have these sordid women at my table – and, anyway, we have two perfectly eligible popsies as it is!” The Chinaman fled.
These dancing girls are not what they might appear. They are very companionable, talkative and friendly, probably first-class amateur psychologists, but they allow no monkey business and, perhaps with one or two exceptions, are chosen for their good behaviour. Such entertainment is known as taxi dancing and is very popular in the East. I was amused by the fact that one would have to have paid ten per cent government tax for one’s pleasure. Out of respect for our ladies we desisted and, anyway, the price was rather high. The gunners dance with reputedly poorer quality girls at fifty cents a go.
The total cost of our evening, what with cover charges, taxis and other extras was a high one. But did our ladies offer to pay a cent? Not a bit of it! So four of Her Majesty’s subalterns are rather ruefully poorer this weekend. Roger and I arrived in camp at twenty to three, the guards having hollow chuckles to themselves as we passed our gates.
One Sunday morning, Chris and I went to explore the Anglican cathedral. It lies in a little valley full of flowers and vegetation, right in the heart of the city, a sizeable church, opening to the gardens on all sides, cool and airy. During lunch times, many Chinese come and sit quietly in there, relaxing from the city rush.
The bishop preached a sermon, describing the expansion of the Church in Hong Kong. We were invited to a sort of Sunday fellowship meeting where we ‘got on to’ the dean’s wife, who became most excited when she heard my name. Apparently, someone had told them of my impending arrival and they had sent to meet me off the ship. Plans had gone awry for they were told I was not on board. I promptly became a deanery mystery and the dean and friends now gave me a great welcome. We played party games in the large Cathedral hall, a modern gothic building, with a high timbered roof. The whole event was so astonishingly like a church club in England that I had to rub my eyes to believe what I saw; tea and gentle friendliness with a group of Cathedral ladies and keen Christian youngsters – but very few Chinese. I was invited to serve at Holy Communion but this I had to decline. I did, however, express great interest in welfare work amongst the Chinese and, since this is the bishop’s pet theme, it may lead on to other invitations. I am not sure how all this Englishness fits into the rest of the world I am seeing here, nor whether this can be the best introduction to it.
Below Brickhill lies a one-time fishing village, now a growing port called Aberdeen. It was once a hamlet called Heung Kong Chai and it is said that, when the British first set foot on the island, they named it Hong Kong after this comfortable harbour. Aberdeen has flourished, yet it remains almost entirely a harbour for the fishing junks and is influenced little by the British. One evening, Roger and I drove down from Brickhill to have a look around.
A major part of the coastal fishing fleet of Hong Kong finds shelter in this anchorage, protected from the open sea by the island of Apleichau. Together with the other junk harbours on Cheung Chau Island and at Tai O on Lantao island, it forms the main centre for the fishing activities of the colony. The inlet is always crowded with a multitude of craft, hardly ever identical in appearance but differing in outline of hull, housing, sails or rigging in a thousand ways. The bat-veined sails, ribbed like a pterodactyl’s wing, may be blue, white, brown or yellow or a merry patchwork quilt of colours. Sometimes they are so holed and tattered that it seems the slightest gust of wind would bring the slats clattering on the deck. Parts of the harbour dry out at low tide and then one can admire the shapely lines of the hulls. This is a species of ship that sailed these coasts centuries before the first caravel headed south from Portugal to find a route around Africa to the East. Fishermen sailed this way many centuries ago and, while in Europe we have forgotten the galleon and the clipper, the Chinese junk, older than either, still sails superbly across these seas, which may suddenly become terrible, sullenly ferocious, in moods less predictable than the windy aggression of the Atlantic upon our shores at home.
Three prettily painted houseboats sit out on the tideway. They are fish restaurants, where one can choose one’s prey, alive, from a glass tank or a wicker frame suspended over the side in the water and have it cooked to one’s delight. As we stood on the quay, a car load of would-be diners drew up near us. A gang of young women at once rushed, like vultures, upon it and, after peals of merriment, remonstrations and bargaining, one of them was chosen to ferry the party across in her sampan. The army calls them ‘Sampan Annies’ and no one can approach the quay without being besieged by them. To avoid such an assault, we parked in the main street, down the side of which runs an enormous open and stinking sewer, that soon disgorges itself straight into the sea near the restaurants.
On the streets the busy people were spilling off the pavement and filling the roadway in a throng of blue pyjamas, shiny black tunics and flared trousers, khaki shirts, white shirts or flowing, stiff-collared robes, all selling or buying vociferously, laughingly pricing articles absurdly high and buying them deliciously cheap; cigarettes, medicinal drugs, stamps, lanterns, paper monsters for a feast day, bananas, pineapples and mangoes. Here is somebody mending shoes, another shaving the heads of children and, in an alcove, a letter writer slowly inscribing characters, while a fishwife sits on a stool and dictates. A thousand clogs go clip clap click clat along the arcades and the smells in the fetid air are so hot and sweaty you could smear windows with them. This Hong Kong smell is like nothing else, rich in spices, body perfumes, the peculiar Chinese sweat smell and the odours of rotting foods that lie, slowly crushing to an ooze, underfoot. The sewers add their taint and the blocked drains, ill-ventilated interiors of the houses, car exhausts and the fish in baskets just off the junks, all combine to create a unique, aromatic mixture. Old China hands will comment pensively on the blend of odours, as if tasting teas, and even tell little stories beginning: “Now I remember a little place where the flavours...” leaning all the while on a sewer railing, with a Chinese kitchen opening on the street behind them.
Little boys and girls play barefoot in the roadway, some with sores and skin diseases, others clean and robust, in spite of the overcrowding. Pavement sleepers lie in odd corners of the arcades, covered with a sack or a piece of ragged cloth, and, from time to time, an old woman, horridly malformed and wrinkled, sells a Chinese newspaper to a passer-by, while another crone comes up to us cackling ‘Gumsah, Gumsah’ and holding out her palm.
The purpose of our visit was to find a cobbler who would mend a pair of sandals. In one alleyway we found just the man. He was sitting on an upturned box, stitching shoes together, with a boy apprentice beside him. We watched them. First the sole was selected and the leather sewn laboriously around it inside out. Then, turning it outside out, the final titivating was done by the boy, who was already adept with the immense cobbler’s needle both of them were using.
Roger sat on a box and removed his sandals. A clean piece of paper was set beneath his feet and the cobbler got to work at great speed. A little crowd gathered, all smiling and friendly, jabbering away, as if we were an eclipse of the moon. It was growing dark, so they drew out an electric light bulb on a flex, from a hole in the wall, and dangled the light over the workers. At another street stall next door, a barber was shaving the heads of his clients and, on the other side of the road, an old woman was brewing a kind of stew and selling it to people sitting before her on upturned boxes.
In half an hour the shoes were completed and we were delighted by the excellence of the work. We retrieved the car and drove back up the mountain, feeling we had discovered an excellent artisan and made several friends.