The British Crown Colony of Hong Kong was a free international port; a veritable paradise for shoppers. However, the only thing I recall buying was an electric typewriter, which I purchased at a very reasonable price. I found the condition of over-crowded humanity disconcerting, and it was probably this sentiment that tainted my visits to the area.
Looking down from the peaks behind either Hong Kong or Kowloon one could see miles of gleaming, high-rise city ribboning along both sides of the blue, sampan and ship littered waterway. One also could see the H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth, largest passenger liner ever built, moored about five miles from the Midway in Hong Kong Harbor. The Queen Elizabeth was being refitted to become a floating university. Students would travel the world while partaking of their studies. What a great idea! The ship was so large that it took three weeks from the time a welder's spark touched off a fire in January of 1972 until she was destroyed. What a terrible loss!
The colony's government would not allow the Midway to pull up to one of their piers due to the fear we carried nuclear bombs. So we had to tie up to a mooring barge anchored several miles from land. It took forty-five minutes by boat to get from or to the ship. The ship's First Division ran a schedule of liberty launches. Also, commercial and private ferries gave us a paid lift to and from Ocean Terminal, Hong Kong. To get between Hong Kong and Kowloon one would take the double-deck Star Ferry.
The trip to shore was not so bad during daylight hours since we could watch the various harbor activities always in full swing. Of particular interest to me was seeing rows of sampans queued up to ocean-going merchant ships in order to load or unload cargo. During a tour I heard the guide say that some people, who lived on sampans, especially the larger ones, seldom, if ever, set foot on land.
I also enjoyed watching hydrofoils like the Flying Condor skim atop the water. Some of these headed for exotic places like Portuguese Macao (muh KOW) forty miles from Hong Kong and situated on the Chu Chiang (Pearl River). Macao was a tourist mecca complete with alluring gambling casinos, but the six-square-mile Portuguese enclave was strictly off limits to us. After dark, and in foul weather, the trip back to the ship was both cold and interminable.
There were so many Chinese people living on Hong Kong Island, in Kowloon and the New Territories, that tremendous housing projects were constantly being planned and executed. In spite of the over-population, the Crown Colony boasted of having enough work for anyone willing to work. However, wages were generally low, and several families often had to live together. In government housing projects kitchens were seldom included in apartment plans. Families living in these projects had to cook in the living room or on the terrace. Ironically, the government promoted a growing population by refusing to consider renting a project apartment to a family unless the parents had at least three children.
I took paid tours of Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories. Everywhere I saw people hustling about trying to make enough money not to starve, and there were very few places where Chinese children and adults could play. The recreational places I did see, including beaches and parks, were for use by the local Britishers and tourists. I surmised from this that the Chinese inhabitants did not have the time nor money to afford such luxuries as recreation. Local Chinese were everywhere begging, hawking, and some even stealing (mostly from each other). However, in later years I learned that this was a very short-sighted look at Hong Kong Chinese. Many were, and are, quite well to-do, and all are very industrious. Upon passing one government housing project, we on the tour saw a set of two public, Olympic-size swimming pools that lay near the project. It was midday and extremely hot, yet not one person out of the multitude was using the pool facility.
Rough-built, temporary shanty towns nestled among sturdier structures. New refugees would find their first home in one of these shacks, which were not legally provided with electricity. Refugees also found they were answerable to a strong Chinese organized crime brotherhood called the Triad (Earth-Man-Heaven), who would provide protection, or bootleg electricity for a very high price.
The Triad, which is now international, was invisible to the British government because it victimized the Chinese peasantry almost exclusively. As with all British colonies throughout history, the colonial government had difficulty understanding and dealing effectively with the wogs. [The term "wog" is a snide British acrostic for Worthy Oriental Gentleman.] Consequently, their answer to handling the growing Triad influence was to deny it even existed. Begun as an honorable institution to foster some form of order during the chaos following the end of China's last dynasty, the Triad eventually degenerated into a Mafia-type organization. Some of its members were forced into joining against their will.
One tour stopped at the Tiger Balm Garden on Hong Kong Island. I was dismayed at my first exposure to Chinese art. The paintings and statuary all seemed gaudily painted in flamboyant colors. Faces were caricatured, and motions were exaggerated without subtlety. My surmise of the reason behind the artistic flamboyance was that the local people came from a grudging land that lacked color and prosperity. They made up for the lack by exaggerations in their aesthetic efforts. [Whether this is the explanation, since then I have developed an appreciation for Chinese art that has dissipated any negative opinion developed out of that first encounter.] At the time, I also did not understand the significance to the Chinese of the colors gold and red. These seemed everywhere and on everything. Much later, I learned that gold stood for value, both spiritual and material, and red meant happiness (luck, hope, prosperity, joy).
I met an Indian by the name of Placad (Pla SOD) while on the tour of Kowloon and the New Territories. He was a pleasant fellow, having stopped off at Hong Kong on his way home to Calcutta. During the tour we had a good chance to talk. He said, in his distinctly Indian/British accent, that he had been chosen for a scholarship to a school in Australia. Recently he had graduated after four years of study. He was now on his way back home to be a civil engineer for his country. We had a very interesting conversation about Hong Kong and about our respective countries. He was very concerned with the predicament in which his part of India found itself. It was in the middle between West Pakistan and what used to be called East Pakistan. East Pakistan, which had changed its name to the People's Republic of Bangladesh, had been fighting for its political separation from West Pakistan since March, 1971. [The war resulted in heavy loss of life, with final separation occurring in December, 1971.]
I received my first glimpse of Communist China bordering the New Territories during this tour. The guide did not take us very close, because many people had been escaping into the New Territories from China near this locale. The armed Communist guards were skittish near this small tear in the bamboo curtain. The New Territories, themselves, seemed to provide the most accurate view of genuine Chinese life. There, one could see Chinese farmers guiding plows pulled behind animals I took to be water buffalo. People everywhere dressed in traditional Chinese garb and seemed more natural and happy than those grubbing for a living in the cities.
Not everything was shanty towns, deprivation, crime and the like. Nathan Road's "Golden Mile" in the Mongkok District of Kowloon was equivalent to Chinatown in San Francisco or New York City. Bustling, hustling people were everywhere as were neon-bedecked stores and restaurants. I especially enjoyed the bi-level, light-festooned, pagoda-style floating restaurants like the Sha Tin Floating Restaurant in the New Territories, Tai Pak Floating Restaurant, and Aberdeen Floating Restaurant near Hong Kong's Aberdeen fishing village. Although these restaurants were technically afloat, they remained firmly moored to piers.
I rode a rickshaw once just to say I had. During this experience, when we arrived at my destination I had to haggle with the leg man. He said the fare was one dollar. However, when I tried giving him a Hong Kong dollar, which was their legal tender, he said "No! US dollar!" This type of situation was common in the colony, since the US dollar was worth significantly more than that of Hong Kong. A verbal altercation took place when I refused to give him the US money. In the end he grudgingly took the Hong Kong money, cursing me, no doubt, in Chinese. It wasn't the paltry sum that was at issue but the fact he had tried to slicker me.
Other modes of transportation were taxis, buses and trams, all of which fascinated me. One thing that surprised me was the fact that most taxis were Mercedes-Benz. The buses intrigued me because they were the narrow, English-style double-deckers. Also, a ride on the tram service that used cable and tracks to make its regular, death defying, near vertical journey to the top of Victoria Peak behind Hong Kong, was sheer excitement. Once reached, the Peak's summit presented Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories in all their glory.
Repulse Bay provided internationally renowned beaches, but I did not sun bathe. Instead, I toured and took many pictures. During one of my walking trips on Hong Kong Island I came upon a wall covered with movie advertisement posters for a Chinese samurai flick. The title was Black and White Swordsmen, and it showed a man in white crossing samurai swords with, you guessed it, a man in black. Below them on the poster was a woman in red holding a long dagger high above her head with the left hand and a shield with her right. More than ten years later I happened to be showing the Hong Kong pictures to a group of people at work. A woman who was originally from Taiwan spoke up and said "That is my aunt!" She was pointing at the woman in the photo I had taken of the poster. That goes to show it's a small world after all.
Copyright 1992, 1998 Charles W. Paige
Last modified: Sunday December 7, 2003
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