Chapter Seven

The Builders’ Rendezvous



Police and Triads, November 4th 1953

Two nights ago the Brickhill subalternary visited the nearest thing to a country pub in Hong Kong. This establishment, called The Builders’ Rendezvous, lies on the main road to Aberdeen and possesses a fine outdoor dance floor especially designed for moonlit occasions. The interior has been decorated by the various building firms of Hong Kong and reveals a variety of styles. It combines the functions of pub, dance hall, restaurant and roadhouse with that of an advertising concern.

Hardly had we settled down over some sherry than we were hailed with a rumbustious greeting from the far side of the room. Inspector Guyatt, the chief drill instructor of the HK Police School, had previously been the RSM of the Royal Norfolk Regiment and must have been a holy terror. Often, as we drove past the school, we had seen him drilling his recruits with a ferocity and vigour second only to that of RSM Britain at Mons.

There he sat, an immense gorilla of a man, half-ape, half-toad, his little eyes darting furtive glances around the room and a thin grin below his waxed moustache. He was reputed to have tattoos in more places than most would dare and a total collection of one hundred and twenty-seven designs. A thick leather belt hung loosely from his trousers, holding enough bullets to kill an army, while at his side dangled a black revolver. He invited us over to his table and, to entertain us, proceeded to smoke ten cigarettes in each hand claiming he could detect the presence of an American one in a fist full of British.

The other day we had seen him on parade at the Police School. A small recruit had been so misguided as to appear on parade carrying a personal baton instead of the heavy riot stick that was required. Guyatt had spotted him a hundred yards away.

“What the hell’s that there?” he yelled in fluent Cantonese. “Hades, I’ve got a cock twice the size of that!”

The Chinese apparently love him for it. The more he roars and swears the more amused they are and the better they drill. The methods are often as rough as in any military training today and it is true that no detachment from any of the regiments stationed in HK could approach the excellence of these Chinese in a drill competition. They could challenge the Guards in precision drilling. Guyatt is the sort of preposterous individual all soldiers love. Ferocious yet kindly, shrewd and humorous, he is vulgar, in the delicious way only a product of years in a sergeants’ mess can be.

Suddenly there was an uproar outside and in poured a mixed collection of young men, British, Chinese, Portuguese and Eurasian, all of them special constables staying at the school for their yearly week’s training camp. They greeted Guyatt with peals of merriment and heavy-handed back-slapping.

I found myself seated between a Chinese businessman, who clearly regarded the whole affair as a remarkable lark, and a young, sensitive-looking Chinese, with an unusually long face, large expressive eyes and a manner of talking that was fast and fluent like a freshman at a university who knows more than is good for him. His name was Chan and soon we were in the midst of a discussion of police ways and a swapping of police stories.

I had heard a little of the notorious Kowloon triad societies but, until then, had met no one who could tell me about them. Triad societies are illegal in Hong Kong because all societies must be registered. This would be embarrassing for an association of pickpockets and other criminals. These criminal associations take their name from the fact that one of the earliest of them utilised a three finger salute whereby members could recognise one another. The salute became known as the triad and the word became the name designating all similar associations which are essentially criminal co-operatives. Should a member of one triad be beaten up by a member of another triad, an inter-triad feud easily develops leading to street battles and the like. Fortunately, the headmen of the triads usually settle such quarrels among themselves by arbitration. There are triads for shoplifters, pick-pockets, burglars, vice racketeers, vendors of obscene literature and pornographic photographs, the pimping of prostitution and other kinds of relatively petty crime. At the end of a specified period, each headman receives the spoils and divides it up equally among the members. He may keep the haul in his possession for a day or two, in case he receives a complaint from the police when he has the wherewithal to respond.

Chan told me:

“Most headmen are well known to the police and there are CID men whose special duty is to maintain friendly relations with them. For example, should a wealthy American of some influence have his pockets picked in Nathan Road and lose his passport, it would most probably fall into the hands of a local headman, who would store it away for a few days. If the American contacted the police, they would have a shrewd idea of where the passport might be. Out would go the CID man and call on the headman. ‘Ah, yes to be sure, this passport came in yesterday. So sorry to have caused an inconvenience. Please return it with our kindest regards!’ And so, next day, the American would get his passport back and marvel at the efficiency of the police. A complaint to the police has a good chance of achieving a complete return of property but, if no complaint is made or the loss trivial, nothing can be done. The triads flourish as a running sore.”

I wondered, of course, why the police did not clamp down entirely upon such goings on.

“The fact is that given a population of three million it is not easy for a police force of five thousand to keep watch on everyone,” said Chan. “Furthermore, the population is never stable, there are continuous movements to and fro over the frontier although, with the frontier now more rigorously guarded, it is more difficult to enter the colony than it was a few years ago. Generally speaking, it is considered madness to want to travel the other way, although some do. Registration of persons is incomplete and whole populations of boat people live afloat on their junks and sampans with no address. Were the police to attempt to clamp down on triad activities, the societies would simply disappear underground and no one, least of all the population, whom the police endeavour to assist, would benefit in any way.”

In cases of a really serious crime, Chan told me, the police may obtain direct assistance from the triad leaders. Chan remarked,

“It is almost impossible to believe but the police and triads almost exist to benefit one another. Triads flourished especially in Shanghai where the son of Chiang Kai-shek had himself been sent to clear them out. He arrested a few ringleaders, only to find that the whole economy was threatened and he had no alternative but to let his captives go.”

Chan told me that only the Communists had been able to defeat the triads. The police state had so ruthlessly wormed its informers into society that the conditions necessary for the secret functioning of the associations no longer existed. Convictions for offences were swift; there was a majority decision and then it was either the firing squad or release.

There was a difference between Hong Kong and Macao in the administration of justice, Chan told me:

“In Hong Kong any charge against a man has to be heard in a magistrate’s court. The crime is thus aired publicly as in Britain. Cases are reported in the press and members of the public may attend the deliberations of the courts. By contrast, in Macao, petty crimes are mostly dealt with in the police stations without public knowledge and only major cases reach the courts. The resulting corruption can be imagined.”

The difficulty in Hong Kong was the scale of the problem. The sheer bulk of petty crime to be tried in court was fantastic. Many offenders might be placed in the box together, as the cases were often lumped together to speed up proceedings. Corruption of course was not absent in Hong Kong but it was not out of hand. Squeeze was commonplace and the citizens of the colony experts in its application.

When we left the Rendezvous, Guyatt’s bear-like figure led the way up the road under the moonlight. We left him at the Police School and climbed our hill to bed.




The Walled City and the Japanese occupation

The very next evening, Roger and I were standing forlornly beside the road at Aberdeen, praying for a taxi when who should emerge from one of the fish restaurants but a special constable we had seen the night before. He spotted us and came up to chat. ‘Rummy’, to his friends, was a Hong Kong businessman, a rotund and jolly young Cantonese gentleman. With him was Mike da Silva, a bronzed Portuguese, who had lived all his life out East. At once they said they would drive us home. They were amazed by our tortuous road leading up beyond the Police School and had no idea it led to our little mountain kingdom. In spite of the lateness of the hour, we persuaded them into the mess and, while Rummy took an orange juice, Mike swallowed a whisky and the conversation turned again to the oddities of Hong Kong life.

“You know,” said Rummy, “one of the oddest places in Hong Kong was the old Walled City.”

“Where was that?” we asked him encouragingly.

“Well, it was a district that used to exist towards the far end of Kowloon near the Kai Tak airport. Sadly, nowadays, it has almost disappeared among all the other streets of the area but, at one time, it was quite distinctive with walls around it. It was a little Chinese enclave within the territories ceded to the British and, as a result, the British colonial police had no jurisdiction there. It became a great sporting ground for all the activities which the British prohibited elsewhere. Opium dens smoked, gambling dens flourished, criminals fled there for safety and the brothels steamed with trade. In a way, it’s sad it has disappeared because a lot of people could let off steam there!”

“What happened to it?” we asked.

“When the Communists took over in China, some of their enthusiastic fellows started a printing concern there spreading literature in the colony that the authorities considered subversive. The Government began to take the place seriously and, one day, the police assembled all five of their armoured cars and invaded it. The raid was a complete success and the walls were gradually broken down.”

“You know,” he continued, “one of the jollier sports was the art of dancing in the nude, with a bed provided for afters in the brothel upstairs. There were three such establishments flourishing very nicely until the owner of one of them refused entry to some journalists. They published such a rousing story that public disgust, following on the heels of public delight, caused such a shindy that the police had to make another raid. I met a special constable the other evening who told me how sorry he was about it all. It was most inopportune, said he, for he had intended to book a table for the following night!”

Often in Hong Kong we met people who had been in the colony when it fell to the Japanese and afterwards suffered as their prisoners. The Japs made themselves loathed by both Chinese and Westerners alike. They came as conquerors and pillaged, looted, killed and raped for several days. When at last, some sort of law was established it was barbarous and cruel to an extreme. The worst offenders were, apparently, Koreans in the Japanese army, who were exceptionally callous and sadistic. For all their grins, suavity and double-dealing the passive Cantonese had a very hard time of it. One of our mess waiters told me that he was once stopped by a Japanese guard in Aberdeen. He had omitted to kow-tow to the conqueror, so he was knocked to the ground and beaten and then forced to stand in a guard room until someone else made the same mistake some hours later. He was then released and the next unfortunate took his place. The Japs were fond of bayonet practice in dark alleyways and Chinese, captured for minor offences, such as being late after curfew, were at very grave personal risk.

Mike da Silva had a lot to say about the Japs. Apparently the defence of Hong Kong had been hopelessly and badly organised, with little or no co-ordination between different military and civilian services. In those days Mike had been an acting police adjutant and, when the surrender was announced, he was working in makeshift Police Headquarters in the Gloucester Building in Victoria. The police destroyed all their arms and ammunition and then sat dejectedly around a table playing poker until the enemy arrived.

Suddenly the door was struck open, kicked in by the first Jap boot they were to see. In swaggered a corporal carrying a tremendous sword. They were all lined up against a wall and fleeced. Anything of value was stolen and, when some other Japs came in and found nothing to steal, they simply laid into them, slapping, kicking and punching. Da Silva and his colleagues were taken to Stanley Fort. On the way, they saw the wreckage and bodies remaining from the last desperate stand of the volunteers and a battalion of the Royal Scots. They had fought to a standstill on the Wong nei Chong gap road and on the Stanley Peninsula itself.

“The Japs created a prison at Stanley and I found most of the Europeans of the colony there, an extraordinary mixture of administrators, technicians, businessmen, intellectuals and civil servants. After a few days, I managed to escape and, since I speak fluent Cantonese, I grew a Chinese beard, wore a Chinese hat and lived with a woman of the boat people on a junk. I began to organise resistance but, and I am sad to say it, I was betrayed by some of my Chinese friends, taken back to prison and tortured.”

Mike had been beaten with a great, rusty iron bar, with the metal frayed into spikes at the end. He opened his shirt to show us terrible scars all over his powerful chest. He did not tell us the end of his story but he was apparently kept in prison until the end of the war, subjected to most of the indignities the Japs could force upon him.

On the whole Mike considered himself lucky. In Stanley and other prisons there had been terrible affairs. One of these had been the water torture.

“A towel is put over the face of a prisoner and a hose pipe rammed into his mouth. The tap is turned on and the prisoner made to drink and drink. The body becomes swollen and the stomach distended, water oozes from the eyes, ears, nose and every aperture. Finally, a small Jap jumps up and down on the prisoner’s stomach. Very nice.”

Another trick was the staged execution. A prisoner was condemned to death and, on the morning of the execution, instead of the usual handful of rice, he was given a splendid breakfast including rice wine and a cigarette. Of course the wretched prisoner rarely ate it and his guards enjoyed a second meal. Taken to the execution chamber, the prisoner found the Japs to be especially friendly, treating the affair as a kind of party, at which the prisoner was the honoured guest. The executioner then made him kneel with his head over a trough and went through a series of practice runs with an immense sword. At the last moment, someone would enter and lead the man away talking about a reprieve. The whole performance was a farce. Day after day it was repeated until the man was a gibbering wreck. He was then either shot or returned whimpering to the compounds. Sometimes a tough-minded character would walk brazenly into the chamber defying all. His head was removed at once.

Those who lived through those days soon reveal it. They all have a stock of vivid yarns, very similar, a few days of glory, bravery and terror and then years of prison. The Japanese ruined the colony, cutting down the forests, disorganising everything and the women suffered especially badly. As soldiers the Japanese were admired, as men they were despised.



A letter home, November 15th-17th 1953

I’m fed up. At least I was some twenty minutes ago, but now, sitting with my glass of beer, some nuts, a toothpick and a packet of State Express 555 beside me, I cannot write with quite the fury I had planned.

The day-to-day routine, the monotonous repetition of daily orders, the impossibility of getting out of camp frequently enough to get to know interesting people well, the inexplicable vagaries and moods of some of our senior officers, all make this army life a very worthless thing – or so it seems. It is often maddening to live in such a fascinating place and to see so very little of it. The army is such an unbelievably stupid organisation; where else could people be detailed for blood donations on Christmas Day? The amount of bumf is extraordinary, forms and returns of stores, equipment, men’s necessities and so on, always to be made out in triplicate, quadruplicate or even quintuplicate. The officers tend to become façades, playing roles rather than manifesting personalities, the majors interfere with the captains and the captains put the subalterns in a muddle. Nobody seems to be able to get on with his own job without some senior coming butting in with his own unwelcome modifications. There are preparatory inspections for the Battery Commander’s inspection, more for the CO and soon a welter of fuss for the Commandant Royal Artillery (CRA), who appears so much of an automaton that one might as well forget his name. He is THE Brigadier, much as a sausage machine is a sausage machine; to think of him as Mr X or Mr Y is as absurd as calling the kitchen stove Jimmy. Some officers identify themselves so much with their office that they lose whatever humanitarian feelings they may have once possessed. Only a great man rises above the pettiness of office to see the reality and humour of it.

Day after day we do the same routine, examination of equipment, tests, adjustments and co-ordination. As a final delight, we may do an aiming point check and, once a week, an aged aeroplane circles round our mountain, while we practise radar and tracker engagements. At its best, as in a recent exercise when planes from an Australian aircraft carrier out at sea made sorties against the colony, it can be very interesting; at its worst and at its most monotonous, the ‘ennui’ is terrible. Sometimes I am so bored I do not know what to do. Often, in fact, there is nothing to do except to see that no one else does anything wrong. It’s all so negative.

The main trouble, of course, is that sitting on our backsides in a static gun site encourages static-mindedness. I am not surprised some of the lads go after drink and women; they have insufficient outlet in their work and insufficient education to employ themselves otherwise. I confess I find it difficult myself. I know so few people whose houses here I can simply walk into, indeed no one, and the cinemas, although often very good here, become a bit tedious as one’s only relaxation. Hong Kong is poor in theatres but there are two splendid night-clubs; so far my pocket has prohibited my going. Roger made a wise remark the other day: “When one’s morale is low, one begins to turn to the women.”

A few weeks ago, I found our wonderful view growing flat and dull without expression, like a face one has known too well and for too long. When I first arrived here, every glance drew my eyes out through a succession of unfolding distances and succeeding horizons of shores, hill, mountains, sea, sky and the clouds beyond the clouds. Now my eyes have become used to focusing on the great distances and no longer do I find the physical immensity of the scene so compelling. The tedious common round draws the view within its grasp, devaluing its spacious serenity and lending it something of the futile business of day to day.

Yet the view remains quite wonderful. The peace of this great seascape is more like a lakeland paradise than any view of the sea we have in England. Now that the typhoons are past, it is always calm, twinkling in the sun, corrugated by passing breezes or lying flat and smooth at the whim of a current. The air is clear and the quiet of the distant islands shares the tranquillity of the mountains. There are no grey and urgent swelling seas; no hostile rain-filled clouds dropping curtains of mist as they hurry in from the ocean; there is no resemblance at all to the Atlantic we know so well at home. The distances, too, seem greater because, beyond every island, on another and clearer day, another cluster of island hills comes rising from the sea. The view stretches so far that on the clearest days the horizon merges with the sky, and then the clouds and final mountains look so alike there is no sure way of telling them apart.

The view was losing its savour for me. The white light of summer flattened it, three dimensions reduced themselves to two and the physical trick of focusing the eyes on receding distances no longer occurred. I felt that, unless I could recapture that trick, the wonder of the view would go. Its primary and almost religious significance lay in that travelling back of the eyes.

One evening after tea, as I walked down the steep ramp from the mess, I saw a thin, grey spiral of smoke rising from our showers’ boiler house. It rose above the hillside, among the clustered mountain pines and twisted away towards the sky. Beyond it, across the Aberdeen valley, the Peak reared its green, wooded slopes and along its ridge, silhouetted against a creamy blue sky, the white houses of the rich shimmered in the evening sun. For the first time I realised that Autumn had really come. The colours of the sky and land were different, suffused with pastel shades from a fine mist. It was as warm as English mid-summer but the air and feeling of the place was changed. At once the wonder began to creep back, the smoke twist became a writhing force and the far hills stood back from it, poignant now with a renewed meaning.

Every evening since that day, I have watched the mists come creeping up the valley and the black silhouettes of the islands etched against a horizon flaming with golden, scarlet and ruby cloud-dragons. Sometimes the sky itself glows like a furnace and a ridge of clouds, ranged across the horizon, is etched black against the brilliance, like a mirage of mountains in another world.

One evening, I scrambled down the steep hillside below the camp and sat on a ledge of the cliff some forty feet above the sea. It rose and fell so gently that not a fleck of foam was fanned against the rocks. A steady procession of sampans was passing, heading out from Aberdeen for a night’s fishing in Deep Water Bay and often draped with nets and poles for the work ahead. These were the ‘bright-light’ fishermen, whose brilliant lamps suspended over the stern of the vessel attract fish into their nets. In the well of one of the boats, a little fire was burning on a metal tray heating the evening chow. Inside a wicker basket hanging perilously over the stern, a duck was quacking. Two or three of the men and women were rowing standing up, using the long, single blades which, with the swing of their bodies and the twist of their hands, screwed the boat through the water. Sometimes one of them sat in the bow and rowed in the usual European manner with large sweeps. Further out, a small junk was heading home for Aberdeen under a large lateen sail, while its four rowers stood amid ships propelling it with great oars, black silhouettes against the setting sun.

Sometimes a sampan came by close under the cliff with a little coracle strapped across it or towed behind, with a young boy or girl rowing it. Sometimes they rowed beside the parent boat. Two adventurous boys were dodging their coracle as close to the rocks as they dared and, on scraping the base of the cliff, their merry laughter rose in the still air. Each sampan had several children aboard; the little, round-faced boys, cuddly like teddy bears, with their great shocks of black hair standing out all round like gollywogs and little girls, more demure, with their beautifully-tied pigtails hanging down their backs. Often they would spot me sitting on my rock and draw their elders’ attention. Through my glasses I could see them smiling and passing some remark to one another. Sometimes they would row on without looking, afraid perhaps of an evil eye. Several sampans were decorated with paper charms stuck on the bow or stern and one of them had a complete eruption of paper on the bow, doubtless an offering to a sea god.

There was something quite beautiful about this evening migration of the boat people, each sampan with its little family, the kiddies, the poultry, the evening fire and the warmth on their faces, as they worked with a will at the oars and talked among themselves. It was a procession of water-borne homes complete with old and sage, young and boisterous, tiny tots and mischievous boys. I wished I could join them, understand their talk and find, like them, their obvious pleasure in the lively movement of their buoyant craft.


Boat People Fishing at Night


Out, far out, in the darkness

beyond the lights of the camp’s perimeter

a frail quivering thing hangs

like a star below the cliff.