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A Colonial Childhood, Hong Kong Deadline, The Big Baxter

Journey interrupted

The question of why my family left Australia in 1967 has a different answer depending on who you ask. My father, Jack Spackman, would say that he wanted to get closer to Vietnam, to find out what was really happening there. So he gave up his job and took his wife, his mother and his two small daughters to Asia, Destination Bangkok. 

My mother Margaret would say that my father’s health was so desperately bad that it was ‘now or never’ for the great overseas adventure they had always dreamed of. He was a chronic asthmatic and every small cold would lead inevitably to his chest and pneumonia or bronchitis, or both. She would say that they scraped together every penny they could and booked the trip – by boat to Bangkok, then by rail through Asia and Russia and finally to Europe.

The truth must be somewhere in the middle.

My father would indeed have packed us up and taken us as close to a war zone as he reasonably could. My mother, who looked like Elizabeth Taylor and dressed in stylish miniskirts and boots, would have dreamed of the great glamorous capitals of Europe and of fame and fortune in London.

The S.S. Chu San. Baxters not pictured.

The S.S. Chu San. Baxters not pictured.

Wherever we were headed – Bangkok or beyond – we set sail from Sydney on the SS Chu San in February 1967. But we were destined never to reach our goal. 

The ship docked briefly at Darwin and there was time before our departure to visit the rainforest. As my mother put it, “What does it do in a bloody rainforest? It rains. We hadn’t even left Australia and your father had caught pneumonia.”

He was admitted to the ship’s hospital where his condition would slowly worsen as the voyage progressed.

And that wasn’t the only drama. Grandma tripped on some stairs and broke her arm. My poor mother – who amidst all this was suffering terrible seasickness – must have felt the fates were ranged against her.

We stopped in Singapore and Grandma stayed onboard with Dad while Mum – relieved to get back on dry land – took us to the zoo. Of course we were late getting back to the ship and had to run up the gangway as the crew shouted and hollered at us to hurry, hauling it up behind us with a whoosh that lifted our dresses.

By the time we reached Hong Kong Dad’s condition had deteriorated to such an extent the captain refused to take any further responsibility for him and threw us off the boat.

So, there was my mum, stranded in Hong Kong with her husband in hospital, possibly dying, two small children and a mother-in-law with a broken arm.

Undaunted, she moved us into the YMCA in Tsimshatsui while Dad made his slow recovery.

Whether the destination was Bangkok or Europe, I expect both my parents intended to stay in Hong Kong just as long as it took to earn the cash to get their plans back on track.

It was a while before Dad could contribute to that effort and Mum had to support us all until he was fit to start looking for a job.

In those early days she was working as a court reporter and she told me years later that she was regularly sickened to see the obvious signs of beatings on the defendants who appeared in the dock to have justice meted out in a language they didn’t understand.

While Mum covered the courts Jack, fresh from hospital, went looking for a flat and found one at the very end of Macdonnell Road in the Mid-Levels.

He walked past many lovely blocks, all with ‘for rent’ signs hanging out of numerous windows, any one of them well situated for the Botanical Gardens, the Kennedy Road Primary School, and the main business district of Central below.

Perhaps he had half decided on a place when he came round that gentle corner to the winding drive up the hill right at the end, across the road from the grim looking Hermitage, which housed policemen and other middle ranking servants of the Crown.

I wonder if he had high hopes when he strolled up the hill, or whether it was just a case of doing the job properly having come this far. Whatever, it was a magnificent flat – enormous by any standards and most especially by Hong Kong’s.

It was cheap and even cheaper when Dad declined the included parking space – “My biggest mistake after not buying that flat,” he said. “I could have rented the car park out for a fortune.”

Not long afterwards housing demand inevitably picked up and landlords all over Hong Kong were jacking up rents by outrageous amounts.

My mother wrote a series of campaigning articles which contributed to a change in the law, capping increases to a more reasonable percentage and saving many tenants from being forced out of their homes, the Spackman family very much included.

Two decades later I was outraged to learn I was paying more in rent for a box on Lamma Island than my father was paying for a huge three-bedroom flat with swimming pool a short stroll from Central.

But in those early days our position was precarious. I wasn’t old enough to know how close to the wind we were sailing, but I remember hiding behind Grandma while she refused to let the bailiffs in, telling them to come back when her son was home.

I don’t believe a conscious decision was ever made to stay in Hong Kong. My mother was carving out a career for herself as a local journalist with a particular interest in social justice and my father was stringing for Australia’s Fairfax newspapers when Grandma left us there and headed home in 1968.

It wasn’t how my mother had imagined our lives turning out and I guess she paid the highest price. Hong Kong, fascinated as she was by it, was never meant to be her final destination. Instead, she sacrificed her dreams or, more accurately, watched them get cut down one by one with every passing year.

Our flat gradually filled with a hotch-potch of mismatched furniture donated by various expatriates as they moved on from Hong Kong but we stayed put, more by accident than design, for 20 years.

It’s a journalistic tradition to give departing newsmen a mock-up of the front page and my Dad had one from the Sydney Telegraph for many years, hanging on the back of the door of his darkroom at Grosvenor House.

“They’’ll never Thai me down” – that’s what it said. But that was before he fell in love with Hong Kong.

© Sally Baxter 2014
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About Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter. Now I'm an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.

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