Festivities on a hilltop
The camp was in a state of high excitement. Speke, one of the drivers, was drunk and wandering about the camp, with a Chinese broom between his legs, pretending to be the Wizard of Oz. Mulberry, who I had retrieved from a police station only a week before, had smuggled whisky into the camp and had spent the morning dodging the Troop Commander, slipping into a latrine now and then for a ‘wee dram’. Another gunner had a whole cache buried just outside the perimeter wire and, despite the orders forbidding it, as soon as the TC left for Christmas in his hotel, the liquor started to flow with alarming rapidity.
Our noble Cook Corporal had arranged a Christmas party for the evening. It was a marvellous show, decorations all over the gunners’ mess hall, jellies shivering on their plates, cakes in mounds and everything seasonal to please. The camp rocked with carousing gunners displaying their linguistic abilities to a nicety. We three subalterns served at table and there was riotous fraternisation. One bombadier, with his arms around my neck, was calling me John when “Good old Crook” was called upon to make a speech. I climbed on two chairs.
“Gentlemen!” Loud cheers. “Having just returned from the wilds of China – ” Riotous cheering. “I can think of nothing better than to join you all here!” Dramatic, prolonged cheering and the subsidence of Crook. Toast after toast we drank with gunner after gunner. I had just returned from the patrol in the New Territories and had eaten nothing since breakfast. Soon I could hardly see straight and retired to the calm of the MI room with Drabble, our medical orderly, only to find a neatly laid up table, complete with brand new wine glasses and bottles of sherry, port, brandy, whisky, beer, cigarettes and an ashtray. It was not for me to spoil his kindly show. I selected his best whisky and, having opened it with due ceremony, we drank it like a liqueur from the wine glasses.
My signalman from the patrol joined us, rolling with beer. Drabble quickly hid his spirits under the table and draped a towel over his range of some twenty beer bottles. ‘Sparks’ was well away.
“You know, shir – you and I – do a patrol to Mongolia – shee the world shir – blasht them Chinks – you and I shir – jolly good patrol shir – you know shir – you’re a horror – escushe me but I’m drunk!”
One by one, it seemed, the gunners rolled in to see us; the whole camp and even one of the guard must have been tipsy.
It was amazing how quietly everything went off; no fights; no broken windows; some remarkable things came to the surface, the gunners telling me things they would never have said at other times. They told me what they thought of the sergeants. I discovered they had a nickname for the Troop Commander – ‘The Flapper’. We subalterns seemed to be their favourites. I was surprised and indeed very moved by the expressions of affection several of the gunners showed towards me. The Cook Corporal complimented, “The best officer I’ve ever worked under!” Everyone seemed happy to use my first name as if I was an old pal.
I realised how deeply within themselves the men judged their officers. My policy had always been to encourage through influence and suggestion rather than through loud orders with no expression of understanding. I endeavoured always to make a man feel it was he who was important and that, although I might be directing his work, I was, nevertheless, more a friend than a superior. I tried to deal with the men as human beings not as numbers doing set jobs. I never felt different from the men as a being apart; essentially they were my brothers and no different, except in upbringing and their individual points of character, from myself.
I had some mince pies to absorb some of the spirit, but it was a hard job to retain control of myself, let alone keep the others from falling down the hill and hurting themselves. Eventually, I walked to my room in a straight line, congratulated myself on having a head for whisky and fell instantly into a deep but somewhat circulatory slumber.
The sergeants woke us at seven fifteen on Christmas morning and we went around the camp throwing Chinese crackers into the billets and dishing out tea laced with rum. Roger and I then zipped down in the car to the cathedral for Christmas Communion – very peaceful after the riotous celebrations in camp.
At breakfast, our mess was attacked by the gunners with firecrackers and battle royal ensued. One of the REME men climbed on the roof and dropped fireworks down the chimney. We retaliated with a stirrup pump, finally directing it so well as to soak his matches and wash him from the roof. The sergeants came to drink in the mess. The Battery Commander and Troop Commander both arrived and we all went down to serve the Christmas dinner to the men. The Corporal Cook had again done wonders with the turkeys, chickens, stuffing, two sorts of potatoes, green peas, cauliflower, Christmas puddings, blazing away in flaming brandy, and lashings of brandy butter.
Then it was off to the sergeants’ mess, brandy-dries running like water and the Battery Commander talking shop for an hour with a loquacious sergeant. I got fed up. At 3 p.m. we got our own lunch. By this time the soup was cold but the main dish still perfect. The commanders had left for town and the cook was deeply offended. I mollified him with extravagant praise and this, coming from the camp’s messing officer, at last made him happy.
Suddenly my mood changed, tired of drink, feeling cynical and depressed, I retired to my room, and, to my surprise, wept. Somehow, the innocent debauchery of the gunners seemed infinitely pathetic. I reflected on the way too much drink tended to make me feel the sorrows of the world and its veiled futility more than usually strongly. I supposed it was that, in that condition, I could not produce arguments to shore up my otherwise sometimes shaky faith in living.
After a shower and a good wash I cheered up and we three subalterns set off for Kowloon for the Battery Commander’s party on Stonecutters Island. It was quite a success. We played roulette with counters and I left feeling ready for a visit to Monte Carlo.
About twelve thirty, we crossed the harbour to find a great glow in the sky and a huge pall of smoke hanging ominously over the whole of Kowloon. I realised at once that a shantytown must be on fire and, knowing how sad a sight it would be, I was against going near it. The others, still in festive mood, seemed to think the occasion a kind of Guy Fawkes Night and even my acid remarks did not lessen their adolescent desire to see a spectacle.
We could not get very close for the police were blockading the streets; riot squads, wearing tin hats and carrying truncheons, were out in force in case of trouble. The fire brigades from all over the colony seemed to be converging on this one spot and, indeed, there was need. In the centre of Kowloon there were several low hills, the Nine Dragon hills, which were smothered by shantytowns; row upon row of decrepit, wooden buildings like chicken coops, garden sheds and shacks, all propped back-to-back, higgledy-piggledy, without any plan. Thousands of the Chinese poor live there, coolies and the many destitute refugees from Communist China. One of the hills was ablaze, flaming from top to bottom with towering billowing masses of black smoke and sparks twisting skywards, while a rain of ash and still-glowing particles fell around us. Shack after shack dissolved in flames, horrifying tongues of fire reaching fifty feet or more skywards, spewing smoke and crackling sparks. The fire was closing on the built-up area near Nathan Road and all the fire-fighters could do was to contain it among the shacks.
The streets, empty of their usual bustle, were filled with dazed Chinese standing about in numerous groups, like men watching a funeral and a weird, grieving silence pervaded them all. Refugees were hurrying away from the fire; ragged men and women with clusters of kids, all carrying great bundles of clothes and a few items of furniture, the only belongings they had left in the world. A sewing factory had been evacuated and men hurried past, dragging the metal sewing machines, scraping them with a shattering noise along the pavement. It was frightening, ominous, awful.
The Hong Kong Police, steadfast as ever, had all movement under strict control and their show of strength and purposeful activity was impressive. It was Christmas night and thousands of the world’s poorest people, in one of the world’s most overcrowded cities, were now entirely destitute. My companions had sobered. It wasn’t so funny after all. We drove away in silence.
By the end of November, I had began to experience a restlessness and irritation at the too few contacts I was able to make with Chinese people. I wanted so much to enter their society and be allowed at least an attempt at understanding their lives. Yet, with the shortage of free time and limited introductions, it seemed I never would be able to make headway.
One or two of the Hong Kong newspapers published contributions in English prose written by Chinese students. They published the prize-winners’ short articles, stories, descriptions of experiences, definitions of friendship and suchlike and I took to reading them, thinking I might, in this way, stumble across someone interesting. I made one attempt at a contact and spent a very dull evening with a young Chinese, who knew nothing of his own culture and whose general attitude resembled that of a totally uninspired schoolboy in England. The only entertaining thing about that visit was that he lived on the top storey of a large house to get into which one pulled a wire in the street to ring a bell outside a window. Then the key for the flat door would be tossed down to the road. All we did was to go to a cinema.
I was almost giving up hope when, one evening, I read the following article, which resonated with my own recent experience.
FIRE AT NIGHT
It was a moonlit night when I walked along the path on the hillside. The sky was high and clear, the moon bright and round; its silvery light pouring over the trees so that their green leaves glittered.
My mind was fully occupied with the beautiful scenery when suddenly I saw a column of smoke rising at a distance in front of me. I ran forward to see what was happening. As I drew near I caught sight of flames shooting out from one of the huts on the slope. “Oh Fire!” I cried out. I lost no time to render assistance and ran as fast as I could to ring the fire alarm.
The fire brigade arrived soon after but several huts were already in flames. Rescue work began at once. Several hoses were shooting water into the flames while two others played on the surrounding houses to prevent the fire from spreading. At the same time some firemen with wet towels covering their noses, hurried into the smoking huts to help the people out, away from danger.
The people were in a state of alarm and anxiety, confusion reigned in the village as the crying, shouting and sound of falling fragments filled the air. Children cried for their parents while parents ran shouting for their children.
As the wooden huts were very dry and the roofs oiled with shellac the fire spread with the most dreadful rapidity. The strong wind fanned it so that the flames darted out like golden dragons from the windows and doors into the air. The moon was concealed by thick black smoke. The water had no effect and the firemen could not save the village from ruin though they tried their best.
The poor refugees saw their homes being destroyed but were helpless. An hour later the fire died out and there remained only the black messes of ruins. Each family sat huddled together with its baskets, boxes and clothes facing the razed houses in great misery. The dreadful fire was to them a serious disaster. They were now homeless.
On the higher slope, there stood the white buildings. They seemed peaceful and quiet in the silvery light while their owners slept safely in comfortable beds. Oh! what a contrast it was.
I read the article several times. It seemed to catch the atmosphere of the occasion vividly and to show great empathy for the suffering of the refugees, often crowded in unhealthy shantytowns around the city. I was struck by the precision of the writer’s observation and his ability to present it in terse but reflective sentences. The style gave the text a detached tone with a slightly dreamlike quality. To say “My mind was fully occupied with the beautiful scenery,” suggested an introspective awareness different from, say, “The landscape was beautiful under the moon”. The writer was contemplating the spectacle, even as he described its horrors and even though he was, to a limited degree, a participant. The last paragraph observed the social inequalities of Hong Kong and the fate of unfortunate people in such a curiously detached and accepting way that I was touched. It could only have been written by a person of some maturity of mind, awareness and reflective sensitivity. I felt that the article was in some sense distinctively Chinese and that a British writer would not have used English in this manner. As a piece of student prose it seemed remarkably good.
It was signed Yiu Yannang, with an address in the most densely populated area of Victoria. I resolved to write to him suggesting that we might meet and talk. So it was that, one evening, I walked along the front of the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank to meet the writer. In front of the bolted doors a young Chinese was walking up and down, alone. I introduced myself; we shook hands and strolled off together to take coffee in a nearby restaurant.
I felt at once that there was something appealing and delightful in his company. He was quite tall, about an inch shorter than myself, slimly built and he moved gracefully with alertness. Tastefully dressed, he wore a blue blazer, a red tie and grey slacks. It was difficult to guess the ages of Chinese but I would have said he was anywhere between seventeen and twenty-five. He was in fact nineteen.
Yiu’s conversation was at once rewarding. While his English was not without faults, he spoke with little accent, with good pronunciation of words and with an intelligent use of a wide vocabulary. He told me he was learning English, Mandarin Chinese, Philosophy, Literature of both China and England, Geography, European History and basic Science at his college in the city. With the exception of topics concerning China, the subjects were taught in English and, because of the difficulties this posed for the students, the leaving age was high, around twenty for the few who were to go on to higher education.
We made ourselves comfortable in the café and he began to tell me about his life. He was a native of Hai Mun, a large coastal village north of Hong Kong, where the dialect was that of Swatow. Living now in Hong Kong, he also spoke Cantonese fluently. His father, Yiu Mingsing, had run a trading business between Swatow and Hong Kong. He had owned junks, some for fishing and some for the transportation of goods, and also some farming land. He travelled regularly on business between the two ports, where he retained offices. During the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong he had remained in China but the family had had to escape from the village when Japanese soldiers arrived.
Yannang had come to Hong Kong by junk for a holiday and, during his stay, the Communists took over his village and he preferred not to return. Later his mother and one of his sisters had also reached Hong Kong but his father had to remain in Hai Mun. All his ships and land were taken away from him. As a landlord, albeit a small one, he was subjected to continuous persecution by the Communists, as were so many others at that time. He emerged virtually destitute. Yannang, meanwhile, was accommodated by his father’s former business associate, whose son later married Yannang’s sister. This “uncle”, Chan Wingtak, was a kind man offering help not only to those to whom he was connected by reason of business or family ties but also to other villagers from his district. Often he was himself in some financial difficulty as a consequence of his generous heart.
“Life is very difficult, is it not?” said Yannang with quiet resignation, uncoloured by any tone of frustration. He seemed determined to enjoy and value life, even if it was not good to him as it was to some. We discussed how we should spend the evening together. He ruled out of hand the idea of visiting a cinema.
“It is much better to walk around and talk,” he said. “To sit together and see a film when we have barely met would be too absurd!”
We wandered through Victoria, visited the Hong Kong Products Exhibition in Kowloon and, finally, I took him for dinner to Jimmy’s Kitchen, one of the small, more fashionable and comfortable European restaurants with a pleasing atmosphere and excellent service.
We settled ourselves at a corner table while Yannang looked around with an astonishment that was amusingly naive. “All foreigners!” he said. I glanced around hurriedly, expecting a bevy of Spaniards or a bunch of Teutons, but all I could see were some rather dull English colonial businessmen with their very ordinary wives, one or two smarter military couples and a group of Americans, whose very noticeable wives had voices that seemed crossed in love with foghorns. I realised that, while I now accepted the mixture of English and Chinese in Hong Kong as natural, both being for different historical reasons equally ‘native’, Yannang only perceived Chinese as native and all Europeans, whether English or not, quite foreign. I then found that although he had read about English meals at school he had never before eaten one. It was Boxing Day, so I ordered turkey with stuffing, sauce, cauliflower and potatoes, followed by Christmas pudding with brandy butter. I also ordered glasses of Rhinegolde for each of us.
Yannang at first tried to use his fork as if it were a chopstick and he had to copy my own movements carefully before he could lift anything from his plate at all. While I had found my first experience with chopsticks infernally difficult, I had never thought a knife and fork could pose comparable problems too.
“You know Chinese food is always cut up prior to serving,” Yannang told me. “It is really very strange for me to cut up the food on my plate!”
He enjoyed the wine but was surprised to find it served cold. “Chinese rice wines are best served hot,” he told me.
After a while he asked me, “Would it be all right if I push some food on to your plate. In China this is a sign of friendship and I would like to do it!” I had to say that this was not the usual practice in a European restaurant.
We talked about religion. “Have you one?” I asked.
“None at all,” replied Yannang, as if the whole business was quite pointless and really not worth worrying about. To this realistic Chinese it was living that mattered; anything that might come after could not be known so why be troubled by it?
Relaxed from our meal, we went wandering in the shadows of the arcades hung with their brilliant neon signs. We passed a lavish prostitute who made eyes at me.
“I think most of the soldiers in Hong Kong live bad lives,” said Yannang.
“Hmm,” I replied. “I’m afraid most do.”
I realised that Yannang was a good person with a sensitivity for rightness in human conduct and relations. He revealed a kind of innocence that was not merely refreshing but something I found myself respecting. The soldiers, indeed, spoke of little else other than women and, among my brother officers, our ears and tongues were continually fouled by asides about the ladies of the streets, the pox, homosexuality and the vice dens of the city. Yannang, partly because of his youth, but mostly because he had already judged these things irrelevant to a good life, was free from such concerns. I suddenly felt that this innocence might become abused in my company and I feared my own earthy mind. Yet, it was clear that he was a realist too and by no means ignorant of the extent of the sex trade in Hong Kong.
I could not tell how well he had enjoyed his first European meal for he was scrupulously polite and I was afraid its oddity might have been too much for him. The subtlety of the intermixture of cultures in Hong Kong intrigued me. Yannang with his almost faultless English, his European dress and his school-scrubbed appearance had never before handled a knife and fork.
As we parted, he said “You are the first foreigner I have known as a friend.”