Hong Kong 1925 – 1930
“A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every person leaves a mark” (ancient Chinese proverb)
When I lived in Hong Kong in 2002, I found the place as exciting as it was overwhelming. It was buzzing with life, a heady mixture of the old and the new that was constantly evolving. My mother had always keen that I should visit the place. Hong Kong held a special place in her heart. It was, after all, the place where she grew up in until the age of seven. But her perception of Hong Kong has stood still since then even she was so taken aback at how much it had changed since she left.
Her first comment was “I feel more British than Chinese”.
It’s hard to imagine how much the city must have changed since my grandmother’s day. Long before the high rise buildings and tract s of reclaimed, Hong Kong had long been considered one of the marvels of the East. Victoria Harbour is one of the deepest maritime ports in the world and had been selected by the British as a safe haven for boats of all sizes against the fierce and unpredictable storms of the Pacific.
My grandmother remembers her arrival in Victoria Harbour as a wide eyed, seven year old child, perched on her father’s knee at the front of the little ferry boat as they bobbed across the choppy waters. Flotillas of commercial junks and sleek private sailboats of the rich clustered around them. Beyond those, she could just make out a huge grey navy battleship at anchor like some sleeping whale.
They crossed the harbour with their little boat hugged the coastline for safety. As they approached shore, they passed through messy groups of small, rag tag fishing boats, swathed in loose rigging and weighted down with fishing nets, boxes and barrels. As they passed each vessel, their crews, who were lounging on deck in the morning sunshine, roused themselves and shouted greetings, offers to buy and sell, sometimes holding up their wares for those on the ferry to see. Lilly’s father, Leung, who had made the trip many times, turned them down with a friendly, confident wave.
From the harbour, Hong Kong sat in the lap of high green mountains. The city seemed to spread itself out as far as my grandmother could see in either direction. At its centre was the heavily populated nub of Wan Chai where dozens of ramshackle wooded buildings were crammed into an impossibly small space; behind them stood stately white colonial buildings that dominated Hong Kong
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Island. Such architecture was the physical symbol of British power and civilisation. The imposing blocks stood two or three stories high and were lined with long cool verandas supported by whitewashed pillars. The slums of Wan Chai were dense and familiar looking to a country girl whereas the wide boulevards and municipal square created a feeling of space and order in the centre of a city that made it look like some great citadel.
My grandmother had never seen so many buildings piled next to each other; a crazy concept to a child used only to one room huts. The city was eating its way into the lush green forest around the harbour. Some outcrops stretching so far up into the hills off winding roads that they faded into the mist as if the urban sprawl carried on up into heaven itself. My grandmother said she was worried that some of the little houses would fall off the cliff’s edge they seemed so precariously placed.
In Guangzhou the air had been dusty and dry, approaching Hong Kong by sea, the atmosphere was heavy and tropical yet laced with the salty tang of the ocean. Seagulls squawking overhead as they approached the shore and my grandmother heard the first sounds of people, rickshaws and cars over the splutter of the little boat’s engine. It was the hubbub of a busy port; the honk of distant foghorns and the steady trundle of cranes unloading cargo. Men shouting orders at running labourers and everywhere chains slipping and ropes creaking as crates and barrels made their way ashore. There were people everywhere, hurtling back and forth with wild purpose up and down the quay. They were carrying, lifting, shouting and smoking, joking and jostling as they went about their business. The scene was so frenetic it made her heart race.
They moored next to a high concrete wharf and climbed a wooden ladder to exit the boat. Stepping ashore, the family huddled in a circle around their meagre pile of possessions, a few tatty bags. All around them the bustle of Hong Kong’s streets spewed out onto the quayside. There were sailors of all nationalities arguing inventories with Chinese dock men dressed in oily rags.
My grandmother had to look twice when she saw her first English man. He seemed like a giant. Twice as tall as her father, with full round eyes and a thick
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blond moustache, he strode past her in a white linen suit as crisp as a sheet of paper. She told me her mouth dropped open with the shock. She did not take her eyes off the man until he walked out of sight.
I could imagine rural Chinese today having that same initial reaction to Westerners visiting their homeland. Nothing much ever happened in my grandmother’s village to make anyone walk with purpose let alone run, in Hong Kong the people seemed to be moving at double speed. They hurried between shops decorated with strings of lights and long thin signs displaying columns of Chinese characters in a blur of movement and colour. On the dusty streets stood small compact stores selling all kinds of food, clothes, dried goods, utensils and beautiful trinkets. Lanterns red and gold in colours adorned the stores and the hawkers yelled out special offers to all that would listen. The frantic bargaining of the customers and stall holders standing by them was part of the public spectacle as wooden abacuses were handed from seller to buyer as each flicked the smooth balls back and forth to find a mutually agreed price.
My grandmother clung onto her father’s coat tightly as she took in the scene. As a young child who had never seen such sights, she was truly frightened by the deafening noise.
For all the excitement, my grandmother told me what she most remembers of her first moments in Hong Kong was how hungry she felt as she stood on the quayside. The family had not eaten since they left home and all around her the air was thick with the smoke from small fires. Smells of fresh fish on ice and roasting char siu pork wafted from quay side eateries that fed the local fishermen drifted through the air. I could only imagine the colourful and startling scenes that lay before my grandmother’s eyes as I stood on the now pristine Wan Chai harbour fifty years later. The International Convention Centre, a huge flat glass building that housed thousands of people for exhibitions and concerts, stands there now on reclaimed land that would have been water in my grandmother’s day. But then a lone street hawker, his trolley stacked with smoked and barbecued chicken skewers walked past me, the smells made me hungry as her. Some things never change.
This excerpt is taken from Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse. Published by Random House in 33 countries. Now available on Kindle.