Opportunity in the Orient

In early 1954, David was made aware of job vacancies in what was then the Department of External Affairs. He applied for and was accepted in an entry-level position in a department that offered many opportunities for those who were willing to travel and accept non-standard living arrangements.

This is David’s first letter home after arriving in Hanoi. His father, Glen, had seen him off in Vancouver on August 31st because he had had to attend his father’s funeral there a day earlier.

Hanoi, Thurs, Sept. 9, 1954

Dear Dad & Russ:

Well here I am in Hanoi at last.  It’s certainly hard to believe that I’m exactly half way around the world from Ottawa but that, however, is the case.  I would now like to tell you about a few little experiences I have had since leaving Vancouver and about some of the places and things I have seen in the Far East.

The Empress of Tokyo (Bristol Britannia)

Well Dad, you know what the “Empress of Tokyo” looked like from the outside as you saw the plane at Vancouver airport.  Inside it was like a flying hotel.   It was all finished in grey and maroon with dark wood panelling.  On board were 3 stewardesses and 2 stewards.  There were 3 washrooms.  The view on the way to Cold Bay Alaska was really breathtaking.  We were flying at 13,000 feet and passed over rugged snow-capped mountains, deep valleys, blue lakes and utterly fantastic cloud formations.  At 11 pm it was still very bright.  The horizon was a deep crimson, almost purple colour.  We passed over several active volcanoes, one of which obliged us by belching a puff of black smoke just as we passed it.  The plane was equipped with an intercom system and every so often the pilot would point out some location, mountain, etc. of special interest, or just give us information about the flight itself.  About 11 pm he announced that due to unsatisfactory weather conditions we were unable to land at Cold Bay and that we were going on down the Aleutian chain to a place called Adak, Alaska.  Well after an hour or so we landed at Adak.  That was some experience.  We filed into a waiting room that soon filled with coffee, smoke and small talk.  I should mention here that when we taxied up to the waiting room the ground crew appeared clad in fur-lined parkas!  We soon found out why!  Nearly froze just going from plane to waiting room!  It was bitterly cold and a strong wind didn’t help matters one little bit.  It seems that the inhabitants of Adak very rarely see the sun because of the heavy overcast most of the year.  It was soon announced that the plane was refuelled and ready to leave for Tokyo.  However, after much taxiing about and warming up of engines it was announced that due to the strong wind we would be unable to take off for several hours.  Consequently we spent the night sleeping in the plane in Adak!  The next morning was a rare one indeed according to these people, for the sun shone bright and clear (although it certainly was not very warm).  We were served a very delicious breakfast.  We could see what this strange island was really like.  There were absolutely no trees.  What vegetation there was consisted of what is known as tundra and unusual scrub flowers.  We then were able to take off and were on our way to Tokyo!

On the way to Tokyo we passed over the International Date Line and automatically lost September 2, 1954!  One of the stewardesses gave me an electric razor and I had a most delightful shave overlooking the blue, blue Pacific!  Later on during the day I dozed off and about four o’clock I was awoken and presented with the most delicious meal of the trip.  It consisted of shrimp salad with a tasty tartar sauce, a thick tender juicy steak covered with mushrooms, 1/2 doz. small baked potatoes, mixed vegetables, rolls, 2 cups of coffee and golden chunks of juicy pineapple floating in fresh whipped cream.  Um good!

Very shortly after this I looked out of my window and there was Japan!  It is very hard to put into words the beauty of the Japanese countryside as seen from an aeroplane!  It is all very green with carefully laid out fields set out in terraces all up the sides of the hills.  We could see small villages in deep green valleys and most of the houses had curving pagoda roofs.

Then we landed Haneda Airport, Tokyo and I had my first introduction to the Far East.  We were met by Mr. R. L. Rogers, a Charge d’Affaires of the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo.  He drove us to the Imperial Hotel in downtown Tokyo.  All of the homes we passed on the way to the Hotel were one story high and were made of bamboo frames covered with very light wood.  This is because of the ever present danger of earthquakes in Japan.

The Japanese people still wear the traditional kimonos and wooden clogs.  Some, however, have taken up the western style of clothing.  The traffic in Tokyo is really quite mad.  It is all left hand drive, that is when you are not wandering all over the road avoiding bicycles, rickshaws, and people jaywalking.  It is the custom here to blow your horn like mad and the noise is really quite deafening.  Over 200 people a month are killed in Tokyo due to traffic!  The population of Tokyo alone is over half the population of the whole of Canada!  Anyway, in spite of the mad traffic, we arrived safely at the Imperial Hotel.

Now this is a building that you really have to see to believe.  It is somewhat like something described in James Hilton’s book “Lost Horizon” – you know, sort of a Shangri-la type of place.  It is very low and constructed solely of bricks and cement.  It was the only building in Tokyo to withstand the terrible earthquake of 1923!  The whole hotel smells of a very pleasant Japanese incense.  The lobby of the hotel is decorated with Japanese lanterns of various shapes, sizes and colours.  Very beautiful.  My room was on the second floor.  Instead of the usual type of window there were two floor-to-ceiling doors overlooking a courtyard, fish pond, and garden.  Some sort of lovely tropical flowering tree grew up right outside my windows.  Besides the usual heavy door to my room there was a swinging door made of teak wood slats.  This was for additional ventilation.  The bathroom was really something.  I have never in all my life seen such a huge bathtub.  It was all tile and stretched from one end of the room to the other and was about four feet deep.  One end of the tub was sloped so as to make a comfortable back rest.  It was easily large enough for three or four people!

Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel, Tokyo (opened 1923 - demolished 1968) David's postcard home.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel, Tokyo (opened 1923 – demolished 1968) David’s postcard home.

The Embassy car picked us up at the hotel and took us to the Embassy, which by the way, is a very lovely building with beautifully landscaped grounds and gardens.  I was given 30,000 yen which amounts to about $70 Cdn.  While Messrs. Kilgour and Crepault were having talks with Mr. Rogers I waited in the Ambassador’s personal office.  Tokyo, incidentally, does not have an Ambassador at present.  I might mention here that the Japanese have some trouble pronouncing Kilgour and Crepault, but no trouble at all with “Nick-sun”.  From the Embassy, Mr. Rogers took us to his home for cocktails.  He lives in a real Japanese home at the end of a little alley.  His home is surrounded with palm trees.  When we entered, a Japanese servant presented us with slippers and we left our shoes at the door.  The ceilings were very low due to the small size of the Japanese.  The floors were covered with rice mats and all of the walls were really sliding doors which could be opened or closed to make large rooms or a series of small rooms.  From his home, Mr. Rogers took us to a Japanese restaurant located about half way down another little alley.  Again, we removed our shoes at the door and were taken upstairs to a low room with floors covered with rice mats.  In one corner of the room there was a low curved counter and we sat in front of this counter on cushions on the floor.  A man and a girl sat on the other side of the counter and prepared all of our food in front of us.  First of all, they gave us hot scented face cloths to clean our hands and faces with.  They then poured warm sake from little pitchers into little sake howls. This is a very delicious drink and very relaxing.  We were then served shrimp, ginger, and a great variety of fish.  Then came what is known as the “heavenly tea”.  This consists of steamed rice in bowls on which is placed fried shrimp and tea is then poured over the whole thing.  After the meal, we were given fans and gallons of tea.  We then returned to the hotel.

The next day I spent shopping with Errol Wyse whom I knew from the Georgian Club in the Ottawa Y.M.C.A.  I bought an umbrella, a kimono and a Japanese camera ($22).  That evening we were all guests of four members of the Japanese Foreign Ministry at Tokyo’s most fashionable night spot.  It is on the roof of a hotel overlooking the Imperial Palace grounds and the Japanese Diet Building.  We had cocktails and then another type of Japanese dinner, also very delicious.  The little man to my left kept pouring me gallons of warm sake and offering me Japanese cigarettes (cough, cough).  The roof of this hotel was very cleverly landscaped with gardens, fountains, lanterns, bamboo huts and quite a good orchestra that played western tunes as well as Japanese!  We were served by kimono clad waitresses.  Something I forgot to mention before was that the Japanese have a quaint custom of bowing like mad when you meet them or say goodbye or sometimes just when you pass them on the streets.  One could almost get a superiority complex with all these people bowing to you.  The department stores in Japan are indeed very lovely.  Something like Freimans [the Bay].

I spent most of the next day walking through a park right across the street from the hotel.  It was very beautiful with delicate trees, lakes, bridges, etc.  There was even a game of baseball going on.  From the park I wandered around the grounds of the Imperial Palace.  The public is allowed only as far as the inner moat around the Palace, but even this much was really something to see.  The Palace is surrounded by a high stone wall jutting out of the inner moat.  Along this wall grow some of the most utterly fantastic trees I have ever seen in my life.  They are mostly pine trees but have been specially trained to grow in weird shapes.  The gates of the Imperial Palace are all of the pagoda style.  It was certainly a strange feeling to have people staring at me.  Now I know what it is like to be a stranger in a foreign country

That night we left for Hong Kong.  The Japanese customs are really a madhouse.  There were thousands of people at the airport to see Mr. Bevan off, who flew to Hong Kong on the same plane as we did.  Well, anyways, we left Tokyo all right.  On the way to Hong Kong we stopped for 45 minutes at (of all places) Okinawa.  The air in Okinawa was like a Turkish steam bath, but very relaxing.

We were met in Hong Kong by a Mr. Blackwood, the assistant Canadian Trade Commissioner.  He took us to our hotel, which by the way is situated on the Chinese mainland.  Hong Kong proper is an island just across the strait from Kowloon.  So very much happened at Hong Kong that it would take me hours to tell you but I’ll just say here that we were treated like kings.  We were taken to lovely restaurants, visited Mr. Blackwood’s apartment for lunch one day (his apartment is half way up the side of a mountain overlooking the whole of Hong Kong and Kowloon) and were taken for a drive around the whole island.  The island scenery is breathtaking.  Beautiful views of the dark green sea; palm shaded winding roads and red hibiscus growing wild everywhere.  We did all of our shopping in Hong Kong and really, what you can get here for $100 would make your eyes pop!  Fabulous bargains! e.g. suits – $22.00!!!  A little man on the street tried to sell us “genuine imitation diamonds” from Bangkok!  Honestly!

By the way, we flew over the island of Formosa after we left Okinawa and today we discovered that Formosa had been bombed at just about the same time as we flew over it!  We had noticed some flashes off in the distance but we thought they were just lightning flashes.  Oh well, we made it all right and that’s the main thing.

And now I am in Hanoi.  We arrived right in the middle of one of the first monsoon storms of the season.  After going through customs we were met by a member of the Foreign Legion who took us to his office to await the arrival of some Canadians who were on their way to the airport but were having difficulty getting through because of the flooded roads.  The first two things I noticed when we stepped into his office were (1) Little lizards crawling all over the walls catching flies and insects, and (2) The short wave set blaring away “Shortning Bread”, by Nelson Eddy”!  However, our car soon arrived and we were taken to our hotel.  The hotel has been requisitioned by the International Supervisory Commission as have been all our office buildings.  Hanoi is a surprisingly modern city.  All the buildings are of cement construction and are either pink, yellow, or orange in colour.  My room here is really quite comfortable and clean.  Sleeping here is really a riot!  The bed is covered with a clean sheet with a long padded roll at the top (this is the pillow) and when you go to bed you unfold a huge skeet net from behind a red curtain at the head of the bed.  There are no bed clothes.  The room is kept cool by a huge overhead electric fan.

David's photo of the lake in the middle of Hanoi

David’s photo of the lake in the middle of Hanoi

Well Dad, there is so much more I would like to tell you but I really have not got the time.  All being well I will be leaving tomorrow for Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  This is where I shall be stationed for quite some time until they can get additional help from Ottawa.  I am quite pleased with this posting to Phnom Penh because it is supposed to be the most liveable and peaceful of all the cities in Indo-China.  As far as mail goes, you will just send it the same way as if you sending it to Hanoi.

Dad, would you please phone Bob, Bill, Sylvia and any other gang that you may think of and tell them of this letter.  Please apologize to them for me but I just have not got the time to write as many letters as I would like to.  Be sure to tell them however, that just as soon as I get settled in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I will be sure to write them all a great long letter.

Well, that’s all for now.  I’ll write you again just as soon as it is possible.



P.S.  I forgot to  tell you that the Army have guards outside the hotel and our office building 24 hours a day.  These guards are armed with machine guns, hand grenades, etc.

Certainly gives one a feeling of security!

Well – bye again.



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