The Spackman residence in Hong Kong didn’t get hot running water in the kitchen until the late 1970s. From 1967, when we first rented the flat in Macdonnell Road, until 1978, when I was packed off to Brisbane, Australia to endure the final years of my education, we would have to boil water for all our cooking and cleaning needs. And drinking water too, of course, in the early years. Traditionally, only servants would have used the kitchen, so hot running water was presumably deemed an unnecessary luxury.
When I returned to Hong Kong for Christmas 1978 the hot water fairy had arrived in my absence. I have no idea what prompted the long overdue upgrade, but it says something about the world of my parents’ Australia that neither of them regarded a lack of hot running water as a deal breaker.
For your young Girl Reporter it was just another glaring neon announcement of the Spackman Family Failure to fit into any of the rigid strata of Hong Kong’s colonial society. As if being Australian wasn’t enough, we were not expatriates in the accepted sense of the word. We were in Hong Kong on local terms.
My first real inkling that all things may not be entirely equal was the shocked reaction of a child who came home from school with me one afternoon. “You don’t live there do you? That’s a Chinese building.”
Until that moment I had assumed they were all Chinese buildings. It only took a few birthday parties in well-appointed apartments to appreciate some of the differences but “Chinese building” doesn’t begin to cover the social complexities of Hong Kong.
The kid was right in the sense that Grosvenor House, halfway up Victoria Peak at the unfashionable end of town, was a building for middle income locals, not expatriates with generous housing allowances.
She was wrong, however, to assume that only Chinese people fit that criteria, just as she was wrong to assume that only privileged British people lived in ostentatious luxury.
Though some of it was pretty ostentatious – one fortunate child lived in an enormous apartment (‘flat’ just didn’t seem to cover its glories) which included a gently curving glass bar – the kind an older Sally might drape herself across while clutching a cocktail – which doubled as an aquarium filled with tropical fish.
It was a British family who lived in that particular lap of luxury but I was similarly impressed by the lifestyle of some of my Chinese and Indian school friends, for example. I have no idea what their Daddies did for a living, although it was an important question judging by how often it was asked by my Daddy.
Rarely did I have an answer, just a vague sense that there was something disreputable about our own circumstances, even by the regrettable standards of the inhabitants of Grosvenor House.
The distinguished Australian journalist Dick Hughes was one of those, living in the ground floor flat below ours, and he made the point that for most people in Hong Kong money was the main game when it came to determining social status, while racism had a subtler role to play.
Hughes observed that Chinese and foreign devils tended to live largely separate lives, intersecting rarely. I don’t know if that was becoming less true by the time we arrived in Hong Kong, or whether – not knowing our place – we roamed freer than most.
Whenever I did encounter an example of the appalling social snobbery that was undoubtedly rife in Hong Kong it seemed alien and strange, and I’m very grateful to my parents for that.
“The worst offenders are the young clerks and half-assed white collar ex-suburbanites with prissy wives, who suddenly find themselves on a first foreign assignment with good quarters – and a servant or two to boot,” Hughes wrote in his seminal book, Borrowed Place, Borrowed Time.
Such was their self-imposed rigid social stratification that I seldom met any of these young clerks and other servants of the Crown, even though some of them lived right across the road in the Hermitage, a grim complex which housed lower ranking and single expatriates in the style known as ‘forces accommodation.’
While I did not know the people who lived there, we were all familiar with the Welsh policeman who would stand on his tiny balcony and sing hymns in a fine baritone on his return from a night’s drinking.
He and his fellows (none below the rank of inspector, which was the lowliest you could be as an expat in the Royal Hong Kong Police) would have been in Hong Kong on a contract which gave them a standard of living they could only dream of in their native lands.
And it was that contract which defined you as a foreigner in Hong Kong. It was not unheard of for an 18-year-old to score a Hong Kong Government posting which included housing and furniture, servants and paid passage back to the UK every year.
The rest of us could sink or swim in that tide of humanity which had mostly washed up in Hong Kong from somewhere else. Hughes reckoned that for every 30 adults in Hong Kong, 20 were refugees in those days.
Mostly, of course, they came from China but the world has never been short of reasons to flee one’s homeland and Hong Kong took in the desperate and the destitute from many nations, all on local terms.
Martin Booth, in his book Gweilo (which means ‘Foreign Devil’) gave the best account I’ve read of just how harsh those local terms could be. Booth’s time growing up in Hong Kong was roughly 10 years ahead of mine but I do remember one of his examples, a White Russian known as the Queen of Kowloon.
She had ended up in Shanghai after the Bolshevik Revolution and left in a hurry just ahead of Mao’s Red Army. When Booth met her she was pawning the occasional piece of jewellery and wandering the back streets of Mong Kok, swearing in fluent Cantonese and claiming to be Princess Anastasia.
Far from pity, she attracted revulsion and Booth recalls joining the local kids in pelting her with rocks and abuse.
Life is tough in Hong Kong when you’re sick and old and broke but there was something especially objectionable about being a foreign devil who was sick and old and broke.
We weren’t old, but Dad was often sick and we were often broke. That was probably at the heart of my developing sense that we weren’t quite respectable, with our mismatched furniture and cold water taps.
On the eve of a school trip to somewhere, I was acutely aware that Dad didn’t make the payment for it until the last minute. “Don’t worry,” he said without prompting. “I paid the full amount, not the hardship discount.”
It didn’t matter, I protested, but when I got to school one girl (Chinese, rich) whispered in my ear that another girl (Chinese, poor) hadn’t paid the full amount. It was clear from her tone that contempt was the expected response.
When Jack accepted the position of Business Editor at the China Mail in 1973 it was the first and only time his contract of employment included an annual airfare (Economy) to Melbourne, Australia.
It wasn’t the full glory of an expatriate contract but it did feel that the Spackman family might finally be stepping up a rung on Hong Kong’s social ladder. Unfortunately the China Mail closed the following year before my father could enjoy the enhanced conditions. We were, once again, on local terms.
© Sally Baxter 2016
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