If it be my destiny to go trotting about the globe for years and years to come, my one wish is that all places that I trot to will be as magical, mysterious and exotic (in the true sense of the word) as the beautiful Colony of Hong Kong – “a jewel set in the silver sea”.
I might mention, before I begin, that the Colony of Hong Kong is made up of several cities, the principals being Kowloon City on the Chinese mainland and Victoria City on the island across the bay.
The following is a day-by-day, surprise-by-surprise account of my second visit to this bewitching HONG KONG. It all started on…
Friday, May 20, 1955
At 2:30 in the afternoon I left Phnom Penh on the International Commission’s courier plane. I arrived in Saigon at 3:15 and was taken in a white jeep to the Continental Palace Hotel in downtown Saigon. I then made a brief visit to our Delegation’s office and proceeded to the travel bureau to pick up my ticket and the inevitable FORMS that must accompany each trip made by an individual in the Far East.
That evening I shared my room with Vernon Turner, a newly arrived External Affairs chap from Ottawa. It was nice to see someone so freshly arrived from the old home town. After dinner Vernon and I walked around Saigon for a short time. It was just a wee bit unnerving to see the streets full of armed soldiers due to the recent disturbances in Saigon.
Saturday, May 21, 1955
Exactly why airlines schedule their take-offs for weird little hours in the middle of the night shall always be a bit of a mystery to me. This morning I had to crawl from beneath my mosquito net at the vulgar hour of 4:30 a.m.!! At 5:15 I was at the front of the hotel where I was “packed” into a white jeep and driven to the airport for 5:30. On the way to the airport we were stopped by a road-block and one of the chaps in the jeep had to produce a document of some sort or another before we were permitted to pass. I guess they just can’t be too careful who they let in and out of Saigon these days! However, we arrived at the airport without further ceremony and I was thrown on the mercy of the Vietnamese Customs Officials. By the number of Police Forms, Personal History Sheets, and various other documents I had to fill out, I was convinced that I must have been on somebody’s “WANTED” list! Fortunately, everybody else had to fill out these FORMS too, so I didn’t feel too bad about it.
At 6:30 I boarded one of the most stream-lined planes I have ever flown in. It was an Air France Lockheed Super-Constellation. This plane was somewhat in the shape of a warped banana and had three rudders instead of the conventional one rudder. The interior of the plane was all very modern and clean. Because this trip was partly on my own expense, I chose to fly “Tourist” instead of “First Class”. Consequently, my travelling companions were a motley bunch indeed! Just across from me, a pig-tailed Chinese woman of some ancient indeterminable age removed her shoes just after take-off and curled her feet up under her on the plush seat. Rather an incongruous sight if I ever saw one. I might add here that the Orientals prefer to carry their own food wherever they go, even on a Lockheed Super-Constellation! Every one of them had little wicker baskets or newspaper bundles full of their native dishes (especially prepared for air travel, I imagine) and a great variety of fruit.
I, however, chose to risk Air France cuisine. Unfortunately, we hit an air pocket about halfway through breakfast and I suddenly had an omelette full of coffee! Hmmm. Maybe the natives have the right idea after all!!
Far below I could see the rugged Indochinese coastline and then nothing but the South China Sea for miles and miles.
At just about this point, the stewardess put Eau de Cologne into the air-conditioning – no fooling! It was all quite delightful and very relaxing, so I dozed off for about an hour. When I awoke, the stewardess came charging down the aisle with a cocktail for me, which I very gratefully accepted. This was certainly luxury, floating in a perfumed cocktail lounge 17,000 feet above the South China Sea!
Shortly after cocktails, the plane began to descend. The sea turned from deep blue in colour to a bright jade-green and I could see hundreds of those fabulous “Terry and the Pirates” junks down below. I well remembered my thrill at seeing these wonderful old junks with their patched fan-sails on my last visit to Hong Kong las September, but, I must admit, I was just as (if not more) excited on seeing them for a second time. The sun was very bright and, where it sparkled the jade see, it was silver. And these junks looked like great turned-up lily pads against the background of green and silver.
And suddenly – THERE WAS HONG KONG!!
We first sighted Hong Kong at 10:15 and circled about until 10:40. Landing at Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong is an experience that no visitor to this colony will ever forget! Kai Tak is one of the most difficult airports to land at in the world and is only open for traffic during daylight hours. All around the airport are the mountains of South China (to say nothing of the South China Sea, which laps practically right up to the runway!!) The plane came in very low. So low indeed that I was afraid that some of those afore-mentioned fabulous old junks were going to have to lower their sails!! Then the pilot did the most frightening thing! He turned the plane almost on its edge and oozed between two mountains. Then – PLOP!! That’s right – PLOP! We had landed, just like that!!!
So here I was in Hong Kong once again. Being a Canadian citizen and British subject, I was ushered through customs in a breeze. I was utterly amazed at the efficiency of a British Colony’s administration. In the baggage room, a little man in a very smart uniform asked me if I was bringing any opium or other narcotics into the Colony – nothing like getting right to the point I always say. I assured him I wasn’t and that’s all there as to it.
I was taken via double-decker bus to the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon where Air France had made my reservations. HA!! They had never heard of me! This, I thought, was the last touch of Indochinese efficiency. I guess I’m getting to be a rather hard-boiled-world-traveler type because this news of no accommodation didn’t rattle me in the least. I merely asked the clerk at the Peninsula Hotel to make a reservation for me at the International Hotel, one that had had been highly recommended by all Canadians who had preceded me to Hong Kong. This was done in a flash and I took a taxi for $1.00 H.K. (about 17 cents U.S.) to the International Hotel.
The International is a very modern establishment situated right in the heart of the shopping district of Kowloon. Rather like the Lord Elgin as compared to the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa. I decided to really “live it up” while out of the bush so I took a double room for $45.00 H.K. per day (about $8.50 U.S.) rather than a single room for $40.00 H.K. By taking a double room I had the advantage of a BATHTUB rather than a shower. My room was on the second floor and I must admit looked like an oasis after the bleakness of my cell in the Hotel de la Poste in Phnom Penh. The beds had SPRINGS AND MATTRESSES. There was a lovely big chair (stuffed) and a lovely big chesterfield (also stuffed) which was quite a novelty after Indochinese wood and wicker furniture. The room was air-c0nditioned and had a radio from which issued wonderful classical music and English-speaking voices all day long. Also, the brightness of the lights was rather a pleasant surprise.
Then, there was the bathroom with H O T W A T E R !!! Just try living with nothing but cold water for 8 months and you’ll know what a thrill it is to be able to wash, shave and bathe in steamy hot water once again! I’m fully convinced that HOT WATER comes under the category of “one of the finer things in life”. There was a bay window in my room with a wonderful view of the harbour at the end of the street.
The final touch in this room, however, and the touch that really made me feel at home, was the presence of a Gideon Bible on the bedside table. It was nice to be among Christian people again.
I unpacked, changed clothes and rang for the room boy. He was at the door almost before I could get my finger off the buzzer! I gave him my suit to be pressed and some laundry to be washed. The suit came back in half an hour and the laundry arrived back that evening!!!
I then left the hotel and ran into Errol Wyse just a block later!! Errol is a chap I knew at the Ottawa “Y” and who had been posted to Tokyo a year prior. We had been asking Ottawa for another clerk for some time to assist us with our work in Phnom Penh and also to be my replacement when I return to Canada. Errol was leaving Hong Kong for Phnom Penh exactly two hours after I saw him!! Who says it’s such a big world??
After warning Errol about the wilds of Cambodia, I bade him farewell and went to the Dairy Farm (something like Bordens) for lunch. Oh my goodness!! To actually taste FOOD again!! I had a wonderful three-decker club sandwich, A GLASS OF MILK (I nearly died!) and a freshly perculated cup of coffee! Right at this point I cursed the International Commission for not having set up shop in Hong Kong rather than Phnom Penh!
From the Dairy Far I took a taxi to the General Hospital to visit Mr. Duder, our Canadian Commissioner, who was hospitalized in Hong Kong with hepatitis. He had a lovely room overlooking the mountains of South China and certainly seemed in much better health than when he left Cambodia. We chatted for a while, then Frank Ballachey arrived. Frank is an External Affairs chap who is posted to Vientiane, Laos, and was also in Hong Kong on leave.
Shortly after, Frank and I left the hospital and Frank took me for a drive around Kowloon in a wee Fiat convertible a friend had loaned him during his stay in Hong Kong. We then took the car-ferry across to Victoria City and drove around there for a while. Frank suggested that we go for a swim and I was all for it. I should mention here that Frank was staying on the other side of the island at a place called Repulse Bay, an inlet of the South China Sea. So over to Repulse Bay we drove. And what a drive that was!! Hong Kong Island is all mountains. Most of Victoria City (the main city in the Colony) is built on the side of Victoria Mountain – 1800 feet high. However, we drove up steep-winding roads – wonderfully paved – all lined with bright tropical flowers and palm trees. Every so often we would get a breathtaking view of Victoria and Kowloon, with the high mountains on the Chinese mainland in the background. We were soon descending the other side of the mountains and here we had wonderful views of the sea and little inlets.
And then we were at Repulse Bay. Frank was staying at the swank Repulse Bay Hotel and I can’t say that I blame him. After seeing Frank’s “suite” at this hotel and breathing in some of the wonderful sea air, and after seeing the VIEW from his sitting-room window, I decided right there and then that “this was for me!” However, more about that later.
Frank loaned me a bathing suit and we went for a swim in the bay. The beach is just a stone’s throw from the hotel and what a beach it is! Soft white sand for miles! The water here was turquoise and crystal-clear. Being salt water it left just tingling all over and very refreshed.
Well, we swam for about half an hour and then went back to Frank’s suite, changed and ordered two big glasses of MILK! Frank had a dinner engagement in town that evening, so we took a taxi back to Victoria City. Frank went off to his dinner and I took the ferry back to Kowloon. I walked back to the hotel and went to see Gene Loo.
Gene Loo is a “Hallmark Tailor” who lives in a basement flat right next door to the International Hotel. Nearly every Canadian who went to Hong Kong had his clothes made by Gene Loo. Before you buy anything from him, Gene lets you know that you could probably get clothes made cheaper at other tailors, but after seeing his high-quality English materials and workmanship, nobody ever regrets having done business with Gene Loo. He has a charming wife who works for Radio Hong Kong and a wonderful little 9 year old daughter named Nancy who plays the piano like José Iturbi!! All sorts of people run in and out with glasses of hot Chinese tea all the time you’re there. Gene has 40 tailors working for him and just uses his flat for showing samples of materials and fittings. I ordered quite a lot of clothes and Gene took my measurements.
From Gene’s I went to the Palm Court Hotel for dinner. The meals at the International Hotel were quite good, but the Palm Court was highly recommended as being one of the best eating places in the Colony. For dinner I had, first of all, a glass of milk, then a shrimp cocktail, filet mignon, mushrooms and sauce, mashed potatoes, corn, milk (again), ice cream (wow!) and coffee. Whew, was I full!! I must say I was rather embarrassed when the waiter put a plate of hot melba toast on my table. I was so surprised I blurted out “what’s that?” Well, really!! The poor little man just looked at me and said “you like?” I said “er, oh yes, I like!” then sat there for a few minutes trying to figure out what this strange civilized food might be. Another wonderful thing was the presence of ice water (drinkable) on the table.
After dinner I went back to the International Hotel and wrote some post cards. Then, to bed and I must say I slept like a log, what with springs and air-conditioning. I even used a BLANKET!!!