Those first months in Hong Kong for your Young Girl Reporter are a series of snapshots which must be connected by the memories of others. Hong Kong in 1967 was a very different place to the city I left 20 years later. My memories are small but so was I. And it was a small place, on the verge of becoming something bigger.
Traces of an older society were still visible. One day my grandmother and I were walking on Macdonnell Road when we saw an old woman hobbling on bound feet. We were amazed that she could walk at all.
Another time, on the way to a birthday party, it was patiently explained to me that the woman we were honouring had two mums and I was not to remark upon it at the gathering.
I was told that the British had banned the Chinese practice of taking concubines in addition to wives but relationships established prior to a certain date continued to be recognised. This family was one of them. “So don’t be surprised that Wendy has two mums.”
At Grosvenor House, on the upper level entrance, amahs in their traditional black trousers and white shirts, long braids swaying across their backs, brought their choppers and big round handled scissors to the knife-sharpening man. He would grind the edges to a fine blade on a large stone while the women squatted on their haunches in the sunshine around him gossiping and cracking melon seeds.
On other days the dah-fu man would come, frying bean curd in the same spot, and throwing the pungent aroma as high as the eighth floor above, overpowering the freshly applied chicken shit on Aunty Niti Patel’s tiny balcony garden.
It was a vertical village and at its heart were two ancient service lifts which ratcheted through the servants’ quarters and the kitchens. The children roamed freely, knew the friendly cooks and amahs and the ones to avoid.
The rooftops were our playground. We would chase each other between the billowing drying sheets and fly kites bought for a few cents at the Kennedy Road shops, a little cluster of general purpose stores just down the road from the primary school.
While I settled in quickly, it was harder for my grandmother. Doris Estelle Spackman, nee Fogarty, was the smallest of small town girls, from a little place called Grenfell in the vast central plains of New South Wales, Australia.
She grew up in the bosom of a large Catholic family and married a local man, son of the Spackmans of Crookwell.
When my grandfather Charles, known to all as Jim, died of pneumonia in 1937 at just 43, she was left to raise their four sons, all under the age of five, alone.
Doris never remarried and devoted her life not only to the raising of her boys but also to helping her enormous family through sickness and struggle. When her sons grew up and left Grenfell, so did she, following them through their early adulthood and providing a safe haven when needed.
When I arrived she was on hand, to care for your baby girl reporter while my mother Margaret picked up her career in Sydney’s newspapers and also at the ABC, and my father Jack battled through a succession of ever-worsening asthma-related illnesses.
Having followed him to Toowoomba – where she got a job with Mr Weiss, packing his iconic fruit bars on his kitchen table – and to Sydney, it was no surprise that Doris chose to accompany us to Hong Kong.
Dad’s illness meant my mother was the sole breadwinner in those early months, so Grandma’s presence would have been vital to our well-being. I was 4 and my sister Alin was 14 months old.
But while she was no doubt motivated by concerns for Dad’s health and the perils which awaited his young family in the Mysterious East, there was a sense of fun and adventure in my grandmother that meant she wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
My honorary Aunty Joan ‘The Bone’ Byrne, who was also in Hong Kong with us in those early days, says Grandma was lonely in her time there, finding it hard to fit in to its rather rigid society. She loved the social life that Jack, Margaret and Joan were enjoying, but found it almost impossible to build her own.
But, like everything else she did, Grandma tackled the challenge with gusto. She quickly became proficient in Cantonese cooking – and shopping. I would often accompany her to Central Market and marvel at the ease with which she took to haggling.
When the bombs started going off in the civil unrest which ran from May 1967 until the end of the year, Grandma showed no inclination to head back to a quieter part of the world.
Nor could that summer’s drought deter her. When water rationing was introduced she headed to the market and came back with a good supply of red plastic buckets, obtained at a reasonable price I’m sure.
Hong Kong relied on China for much of its water in those days. Additional supplies were requested to help with the drought-induced shortages, but China had so far failed to respond.
In July water restrictions were down to four hours of supply every four days.
We filled the bath with water for washing and cleaning and lined up our red buckets outside the kitchen door for cooking and drinking.
All drinking water in those days had to be boiled and that was part of the job too – to boil the kettle and let the water cool before pouring it into old cordial bottles, lined up on the kitchen counter and waiting for room in the fridge.
While Grandma was polishing her wok skills, Joan was filling in her time between tutoring by working nights at a Shanghainese restaurant.
“It’s quite an experience just for the cooking, even if some of the dishes are exotic, among the more unusual wood fungus, ducks’ tongues, hormones of cockerel, bean cheese and thousands of others,” Joan wrote in a letter home that year.
Shanghai cuisine is richer than Cantonese fare, which relies more on steaming and stir-frying the freshest possible ingredients. Shanghai specialties include fried freshwater crab with red beans, beggar’s chicken, Eight Treasure duck and dancing crab. But Your Girl Reporter’s favourite was always the pot stickers – pan-fried dumplings filled with a dab of minced pork and cabbage, swimming in a little burst of soup.
Few of the staff at the restaurant spoke English but in spite of the language barrier they and Joan got on pretty well.
“They are kindness itself to me, watching every mouthful of food I eat, fetching me knife, fork and spoon as soon as my chopsticks fail me, and they mixed me hot rums when I had a cold (from the air-conditioning),” Joan wrote.
There were also contacts to be made for the next stage of Joan’s journey. The restaurant’s clientele were largely international business people. “I have already had an invitation to stay with a family in Japan who are regular customers there and possibly contacts for jobs which is even better.”
Dog was still widely eaten, although it was illegal. My father, to his ongoing irritation, was regularly asked to arrange covert banquets by visiting journalists keen to expose the trade to their readers back home. There was a popular tonic called Essence of Chicken. Dad had some labels mocked up for the bottles saying “Essence of Dog” which he would give to journalists who came a-knocking looking for an illicit meal.
Most of my shopping trips were with Grandma but every so often Dad would take me down to the street stalls for a shared bowl of wonton mein or a plate of Hainan chicken.
First we would stop at a newspaper stall and buy the day’s paper for him and the latest Old Master Q comic for me. Then we would pick our spot for lunch, sometimes sitting at tables set up in the street and at other times in one of the steaming little covered stalls, washing our bowls and chopsticks in a big metal bowl of boiling tea.
Before we headed for home Dad would buy five bucks worth of cha siu, chopped from a big red hank of pork on a butcher’s hook, and wrapped in newspaper, to be eaten later in big buttery sandwiches, in front of English football TV show The Big Match with Brian Moore in the appropriate season.
Grandma stayed until October 1968 and did make some good friends. She was treated to a home-cooked Cantonese meal at the home of two gentlemen, Mr Yuen and Mr Liu, before she left, as big an honour in 1967 as it is today in space-strapped Hong Kong.
Joan turned up to see her off in the company of a male Indian friend, who presented my grandmother with a bottle of Scotch for the journey.
Joan said Grandma was a bit taken aback, but warmed to her friend when he gave her the present. “She told me later she appreciated the opportunity to face ideas on racial differences,” said Joan.
That was my grandmother, unconstrained by her upbringing and always willing to consider new ideas and ways of doing things.
She kept moving after she left us – shuttling between her sons’ families as they needed her, while continuing to support brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews. There isn’t a member of the enormous Fogarty family and its many branches that doesn’t have a fond memory of her.
Grandma visited us a couple of times in Hong Kong over the years and never lost her love for the place. She died in 2003 aged 90, an indomitable spirit to the end. And a lady, always a lady. “It’s no burden to carry,” as she used to say.
With all the snapshots in my memory, it’s strange that I didn’t recognise her when I saw her again just a year after she left, on our first visit back to Australia. Perhaps I had finally learned what goodbye meant and wanted no further part of it.
Obituary for the historic Central Market – Chloe Lai, Hong Kong Free Press, on the sad fate of Central Market, where my grandmother Doris learned to haggle. There are ghosts in that shell.
Official Report of the Hong Kong Legislative Council meeting, 2 August 1967 – includes thanks for the housewives of Hong Kong in coping with the water crisis while word from China comes there none.
© Sally Baxter 2017
Regular viewers will note that my focus on the blog this year is very much on the past, with two significant anniversaries – the 50th of the Hong Kong riots in 1967 which were inspired by the Cultural Revolution, and the 20th of Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, both occurring this year. It’s also the 50th anniversary of my family’s arrival in Hong Kong.
Catch up on the story so far here:
Hong Kong 1967: So you say you want a revolution – a personal reflection on the tumultuous summer of riots and bombings which began on 6 May, 1967
Journey Interrupted – The unusual tale of how we ended up in Hong Kong in 1967, by Your Girl Reporter
Growing up in distinguished company – our neighbours in Grosvenor House included the BBC’s Anthony Lawrence and Australian Richard Hughes, the doyen of Asian journalism and inspiration to both Ian Fleming and John Le Carre.
My Extraordinary Aunt: In the shadow of Lion Rock – In 1967 my honorary aunt Joan ‘The Bone’ Byrne was teaching the children of some of Hong Kong’s poorest families, as well as some of the wealthiest.