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A Colonial Childhood

This category contains 14 posts

My Extraordinary Aunt: College days in 1960s Hong Kong


When the school year started in September 1967 my honorary aunt Joan ‘The Bone’ Byrne took up her post at Hong Kong’s Wellington College in Caine Road and I began my undistinguished academic career at Kennedy Road Junior School.

It was a steep learning curve for us both.

Wellington College was a private English language school for middle class Chinese. The college was owned by a millionaire who spoke no English and owned four such establishments, according to Joan who was engaged to teach English and ‘oral,’ which I don’t believe had the same connotations in 1960s Hong Kong as it does today.

Salary was by negotiation and there was no sick pay. In fact, not only was there no sick pay, teachers who had to take a day off were required to find and pay for their own replacement. Continue reading

Hong Kong 1967: Snapshots of my grandmother


Macau 1967 Perfectly composed amidst the chaos: My grandmother Doris Estelle Spackman, taken either just before or just after a Communist demonstration. Picture by Jack Spackman

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. Continue reading

My Extraordinary Aunt: In the shadow of Lion Rock


There’s a mountain in Kowloon called the Lion Rock which has come to embody the spirit of Hong Kong. It’s a spirit that had yet to rise in February 1967, when my family disembarked from the SS Chusan at Ocean Terminal and settled into a small room at the YMCA in Tsim Sha Tsui. But its first stirrings were only a few months away.

Education was not compulsory in Hong Kong in 1967 and children from poor families either went without or crammed their learning in between working and caring for their siblings.

It was perfectly legal for women and children to work a maximum of 60 hours each week with permitted overtime of 100 hours per year. Prosecutions of firms violating this maximum were not uncommon but there was a simple way round it: Take home piece work! Fun for all the family! Continue reading

My Extraordinary Aunt: Taking the long way to London


Joan “The Bone” Byrne, Hong Kong 1967. Picture by Jack Spackman.

Every child needs an extraordinary aunt. If Nature fails to provide, one must invent or appoint one. Mine was Aunty Joan. Strictly speaking she was my dad’s cousin, and therefore an Aunt by Appointment. But since she was most notable in my life for her absence, I did sometimes feel I had invented her.

Fifty years after she sailed with us from Australia in 1967, I finally got around to asking what she’d been up to when she left us to pick up her own adventure. And, not unexpectedly, it’s an extraordinary tale. Continue reading

Silly streak seals pressman’s fate at Dragon Boat race


There was even more colour and movement than usual at Hong Kong’s premier dragon boat races when the 1974 craze for running through a public place naked reached the shores of Stanley. They called it the Streak. Your Girl Reporter was on the scene. “Don’t look, Sally!” But it was too late. I’d already been mooned.  Continue reading

Livin’ La Vida Local in class-conscious Hong Kong


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. Continue reading

My secret life of crime revealed


It will shock you, I know, to learn that Your Girl Reporter is not averse to the occasional act of thievery. Every so often I am reminded of past misdeeds which trouble my conscience to greater and lesser degree. The recent publication of a new book by journalist, author and artist Derek Maitland was one such reminder.

The Fatal Line documents the biggest public enquiry ever held into Australia’s commercial broadcasting industry from the ringside perspective of Maitland and his fellow whistleblower at Sydney’s TCN Channel Nine.

I knew Maitland as one of the noisy, amorphous group of Hong Kong journalists on whose fringe I dwelt in those years of childhood when you don’t care what people do for a living. So it was a surprise years later to see his name on a bookshelf in England. And it gives me enormous joy that accuracy enables me to begin my tale of crime and misdeed with the following observation:

It was a dark and stormy night. Continue reading

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.  Continue reading

Growing up in distinguished company


With Tony and Irmgard Lawrence above us and Dick Hughes and his wife Ann below, the Baxters were in fine company

With Tony and Irmgard Lawrence above us and Dick Hughes and his wife Ann below, the Baxters were in fine company

At one time Grosvenor House, our block of flats at the end of Macdonnell Road in Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels, was home to BBC correspondent Tony Lawrence, who died on 24 September 2013, and Dick Hughes, the legendary Australian journalist who covered the Asia beat for half a century.

Continue reading

The red-haired devil who wormed his way into Hong Kong hearts


Lap Sap Chung poster 2Arthur Hacker single-handedly brought civic pride to a Hong Kong generation. It’s impossible to overstate the impact of his creation Lap Sap Chung (literally Litter Worm) on the city in the 1970s.

Hong Kong, it must be said, was a pretty filthy place in 1972 when the government’s Information Services Department launched a campaign to clean it up.

Hacker had worked for GIS since arriving in Hong Kong in December 1967, just 10 months after the Baxters. He was a fine historian and cartoonist who deserves to be celebrated for his tireless work in documenting the history of that remarkable city.

But he will be mostly remembered by Hong Kongers of my generation for a vile green creature with red spots which became one of our most beloved icons. Continue reading

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From the vault