Chapter Eleven

A Chinese Tenement



An evening visit, January 31st 1954

One evening I met Yannang outside the vehicle ferry. He said, “Tonight you come home with me.” I was delighted since never before had I entered a Chinese home as a guest.

“My uncle says it is too poor a place for you to visit and that he has nothing to offer you but, since you are a friend of mine and I know you want to come, you are most welcome.”

I said it was happiness not wealth or poverty that counted and that good conversation was better than wine or food. So we began our evening with a classical Chinese exchange and set the standard for the occasion.

We walked past the colourful shops of Des Voeux Road, gay with lanterns, decorations and displays for the forthcoming Chinese New Year. We came upon a steep little stairway leading up between shops, climbed over the rubbish littering the lower steps to the third floor and paused outside a front door opening off the stairway. A shrine to the Door God was set into the wall, bright with crimson paper and good luck writing. Joss sticks smoked before it and others were stuck into the woodwork around the door.

“It ensures that only good luck can enter!” said Yannang.

Somebody opened the large letter box and looked at us; the door was opened and in we went. What had once been a large room was divided into many cubicles and only the rear end of the tenement belonged to Yannang’s people. We entered the living area, which already contained a sizeable party. ‘Uncle’, the head of the family, was gambling with three friends at a small table, playing with small Chinese cards with figures I did not know upon them. A pile of coins and dollar notes lay beside each man. The merchant rose and shook hands, bidding me welcome. He spoke a few words of English, since he had at one time lived in Shanghai. Several women and children sat around talking or sewing, the kids round-eyed and curious. I was not introduced to any of them. A young student appeared, apparently another nephew of the merchant. Studying English in the city, he spoke it well, although not so clearly as Yannang. Kut Lok, “lucky happiness”, was a bird-like youngster with bright eyes and a merry glance.

Against the wall was another shrine, gaudy with crimson paper and containing two brilliant silver and gold paper images. One of these was the protector of the household and the other a kind of policeman who regulated the lives of the household.

“Yesterday we had a small festival,” Yannang explained “The Kitchen God went back to visit Heaven and deliver his report on the behaviour of the family during the year. He will return on New Year’s Day, when we will set up a new image in the kitchen shrine. We gave him a very good send-off, so that he will give us a good report. You know, for two days all the Kitchen Gods are in Heaven so we can do what we like!”

I asked him which members of the family believed these stories.

“All the women believe them and it is they who maintain the shrines and the correct observances. They have no education and this is part of their traditional life. My uncle and other men enjoy the stories but we do not believe that the events they portray really happen.”

The women stayed at a distance, preserving a reserve. I never discovered who was the old man’s wife nor who was his concubine. Judging by the number of faces travelling in and out the room there was no lack of talent.

The evening passed in a wonderfully leisurely way; no complex etiquette to observe, for, after the introduction, the elders carried on gambling, the women sewing and Yannang, Kut Lok and I sat talking around a business desk; folk stories; cultural contrasts; unscientific philosophies and the interpretation of poetry. One of the children brought us tea and I was treated to a glass of Lai Chi wine, earthy and strong, from a poisonous looking preserving jar where the fermenting liquor swilled around the ancient fruits. Yannang brought out an old cough mixture bottle and we each had a glass of Benedictine!

Yannang had a big book in large Chinese characters, the Tao Te Ching of Laotse. It was exceptionally obscure, he told me. Many of the characters were rarely used today, so it was a difficult book to understand. He read it because it made him think. He translated a few paragraphs for me and I offered to bring down Waley’s translation to see if we could penetrate the more difficult parts.

Kut Lok enthused about the origin of characters.

“They were originally like Egyptian hieroglyphics, picture drawings of objects but as writing evolved so the characters changed.”

He drew the ancient characters for a house, a tree, a ship and put them beside the modern versions. There was a clear resemblance but one could not imagine the object designated from the present-day version, whereas it was possible to guess it from the original.

“You see, a character often acquires a metaphorical meaning so that it is not always easy to follow an ancient script.”

Yannang showed me the books he was reading, Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, The Mill on the Floss, The Three Hostages and Kidnapped. We talked about Bardell versus Pickwick, the life of Dickens, highland scenery and the Hebrides and then he brought out a tattered copy of The Golden Treasury. Thumbing it through, he found Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale which he asked me to read. I knew it fairly well and gave a careful rendering. Then came the inevitable barrage of questions. What was a dryad? What was Hippocrene? Why did the poet use thees, thous and thys? What was the metaphysical implication of some phrases? My friends revealed a scholarly love for interpretation and language. I had to think hard for Keats is by no means always easy to explain.

Out came some notes on English scansion and here I had to tread warily for, although I love poetry, I have never used or treated scansion seriously and, in my own efforts, I rely on an intuitive feeling for assonance and dissonance rather than versification. I was amazed at the knowledge and persistence of these boys, their interest and depth of understanding. Yannang was particularly quick at sensing the meaning of the more abstract matters we discussed. He had an alert mind, which I had not entirely appreciated earlier because, at first, he had conveyed the impression of casual enjoyment of life whatever it might bring him.

The merchant was engaged in the import and export of fishing nets and tackle which he used to obtain from Swatow. Kut Lok’s people were fishing net makers in Swatow and could carry on normal life under the Communists since they were not “landlords”. In Hong Kong, the exiled sons of fisherman and landlord study literature under the same roof like brothers. There is a Chinese parable, “Once there was an old man who lost his horse so that he became most distressed. Soon after it returned, accompanied by others. Who knows what is good luck or bad for each in time may lead to the other”.

I asked Yannang if he could concentrate on his studies in so crowded a room.

“In the daytime it is normally fairly quiet here but, whenever I can, I take a rug and pillow up to the Botanic Gardens and read there. It is a beautiful place.”

Out the back and down the steps a crowd of highly vocal people were practising songs from Chinese operas, cymbals clashed, gongs, rattles and drums strummed wildly. Nearby some people were playing mahjong and a continuous rattle came from the table as the players slammed their pieces down. In the front tenement, the wireless was playing swing, every now and then an English disc jockey changing the music. Chatter and laughter was all around, except in our corner where it was quite peaceful, doubtless with respect to the gambling fraternity and the scholars discussing philosophy!

A journalist I once met at Ngong Ping monastery thought that the stability and happy appearance of so many Chinese under adverse conditions has to do with their upbringing. A child is carried on mother’s back or, if she is busy, then on the backs of older children, brothers or sisters. Kids of five or six hurry about with the lolling baby strapped to them. Babies are not left alone for hours in prams or alone in the lonesome dark of rooms at night. Somebody is always with the child and, as it grows, it meets so many people that all the sharp edges of character are worn smooth. The children of the boat people can handle sampans alone at five or six. Commonly one sees a kid of six or less manfully rowing with the great stern oar, almost as heavy as the child, swinging the little craft from side to side across the water.

The crush of humanity brings a certain security but, for those who wish to study or think for themselves, this massive pullulation of people, so characteristic of China town life, can be depressing. I was soon to learn the extent of Yannang’s reaction to it.



Cross-cultural vision

To walk and talk with Yannang, visit his home, meet his relatives, look at his books, sit in the room protected by the family shrines and offerings to gods while the old men gambled and mahjong rattled was an entry into a new life. Any European can see these things from the outside but to participate in Chinese life in their company gives a new insight and constitutes a challenge. The effort and strain is often considerable, although unnoticed at the time. It would be easy to offend in some breach of etiquette, to do or say something repugnant in Chinese eyes.

I have no doubt the Chinese react with aversion to some of our habits, just as many Europeans are revolted by Chinese spitting. Until one is accepted as a friend one is no more than an outsider, but, once a friendship has begun, thoughts and feelings merge and mould themselves in a mutual harmony. One has to advance and retreat, straighten out knots of language, laugh at misunderstandings, solve puzzles about what a chap is called, where to sit, the correct way to eat, how to be open or maintain reserve in the company of elders. There is a continuous focusing on how to fit into another world. Alone with the Chinese there is only intuition, mutual respect and a will to understand that can help one through.

The Chinese are proud people, outwardly reserved and living in a city where old colonial attitudes are still only too evident. Yet, once friendship is formed, barriers quickly fall. When I left the tenement I thanked the ‘old man’ very copiously and genuinely for his invitation and he, who had had an ear in our direction all evening, I warrant, shook hands and told me I could return whenever I wished. Yannang looked as delighted as I felt.

Up on the hill the Troop Commander cannot understand these trips of mine. “Dirty, foolish people!” he mutters, “All firecrackers, din and smell!” Many of my brother officers are disparaging about the Chinese simply because they have no wish, being as self-satisfied as Cheshire cats, to understand them at all and lack any sense of the compassion needed to feel at home with a strange people. For this there has to be love.

Often it is difficult. I cannot yet understand my own reactions to these immersions in another world, different, yet also so similar, to our own. I come away exalted, treading on air, knowing the barrier of race no longer hinders me, that I too have been accepted by others simply as myself. Yet, sometimes, a gesture or the fall of light on a face causes a kind of mental twist, a sudden wish to flee such queer company, to be alone to adjust oneself. Although I try to believe I have no race consciousness, yet these occasional twists occur and I feel I am not yet truly at home. In others such twists cause race hatred, bad feeling and spite.

Of course it might be easier as a civilian. I have met a number of men of real knowledge of the East with the right attitude to racial contrasts. Brook Bernacchi, the famous Hong Kong lawyer, and his mother have adopted a refugee lad of fifteen and are bringing him up as their son. I do not know where he comes from but he is a jolly, energetic boy. Such action cuts across European aloofness in Hong Kong and Bernacchi’s courage reaps reward in their relationship. To see Bernacchi at his mountain farm in Lantao with the boy riding his horse and chatting in his native tongue with the villagers, while his guardian talks high politics and Buddhist metaphysics with his welcomed guests, is an inspiring sight.

In the ranks of regular officers and most subalterns the lack of interest in the world around them, the obsession with cricket or squash, the clique-mindedness, the public school bias, a niggling class and racial attitude – all this makes me vomit. I will never say a man or a race is superior or inferior to another, merely that they are different. My criteria for civilisation are happiness, mutual understanding and goodwill, not metropolitan railways or poetry recitals in upper rooms. A friend reproved me saying I was a lover of the “noble savage”, to which I retorted that there was no essential difference between the humanity of a villager and a city bank manager.




Chinese New Year, February 4th 1954

The streets were thronged with people, everyone with pockets stuffed with firecrackers; in at the windows of cars they went, under the tyres and feet of passers-by, flashes, showers of sparks, popping, crackling and exploding in alarming detonations. Outside some of the shops dangled enormous decorations fitted with artistic lanterns, whirls of roman candles, bright signs and writing. In front of first floor windows hung great composite crackers in long streamers, their explosions throwing off smaller missiles into the roadway where further crackings and bangings sustained the racket.

Some stalls were selling New Year cards with little envelopes marked with the double Hei character for marital bliss and Tai Kut for ‘Great Luck’ in which gifts of money are put. Yannang in make-believe said, “You must imagine I am older than you and married. You are perhaps my nephew. Here is a New Year remembrance for you,” and he gave me a little red envelope containing a ten cent piece. I thanked him with correct effusion – doje doje sup fan doje.

Along Bonham Strand West the Chinese traders had formed an association to make their streets especially attractive. Great wickerwork lanterns hung outside the shops, parchment colour with huge vermilion characters written on them. Each front room was decorated in a traditional manner, with the long shop counter laid with cloth on which stood bowls of flowers and fruit. Often a great vase held aloft a cherry tree, its leafless branches bursting with little pink flowers, like butterflies clinging in spring to unsapped twigs. If a tree fails to bloom before the festival it is an unlucky sign so the growers have to take special care before supplying their customers. Great scrolls hung down the walls depicting mystical mountain scenes with gaunt trees, swirling mists, high perched temples, vast chasms and extraordinary bridges. Some depicted mandarin scholars in their grandiose clothes, stately and magnificent.

In one front room a band with singers was in full voice singing songs Yannang recognised as hailing from his home area near Swatow. We ate in restaurants far off the European track, where I was greeted with many noddings of heads, smiles, “allos” and chuckles. One evening we had a dish of Yeung Chow Chou Fan, fried rice with prawns, scrambled eggs and diced meat and followed it with a steaming bowl of snake’s meat – stringy but highly flavoured complete with arteries and veins and swimming in a tasty, thin gravy.

A beggar came round and, giving a reserved bow, placed a little piece of red paper on our table. We rewarded him with a fifty cent piece for which he again bowed and thanked us. He left us the paper, on which a golden god brandishing a great whip rode a rampant golden lion. It was the God of Wealth. By giving alms to the old man we had invoked the god to bless us in the coming year.

At these restaurants there is a curious system of ordering and paying. The waiter takes an order, which he then shouts at the top of his voice to the cook standing by his stove, with the foodstuffs hanging on hooks around him. Once finished, one simply gets up and walks to the door. The waiter, who has noted the number and type of dishes eaten, shouts again, this time to the cash desk where we make payment. The noise is terrific with some twenty waiters all bellowing orders and bills at once. Apparently they use a sort of code – ‘one week’ meaning seven dollars for example.

Outside, several fortune tellers sat at little tables illuminated by oil lamps. Most of them had palmist drawings or sketches of physiognomies and cranial shapes on boards beside them. The most entertaining was a gentleman with a small cage of birds. For thirty cents a bird would answer any question which another bird would check by performing an exact repetition of the behaviour of the first. A sheet of paper lay before the cage upon which was a pile of envelopes. The first bird hopped out and chose one. In each was a sketch, depicting a particular Chinese story which the soothsayer used to answer a question. After the first bird had made a choice, the second was brought out and chose identically the same envelope. Quite impressive. I was to have two wives, the first by October. The Chinaman gleamed at us, the little crowd chuckled at his remarks, which may well have been more colourful in the original tongue!