The kitchen at our flat in Macdonnell Road in Hong Kong backed on to a dank, rat-infested space, a convenient landing spot for rubbish hurled from the windows above.
Mr Chan, the building manager, was a regular visitor and would organise workers to come and clean up the waste, set traps and write letters to the residents reminding them to use the bins.
On one of his visits, he called it a courtyard, which made it sound like something you could visit or stroll through, but we only ever called it ‘Out the Back’. I only ever went through it at a run and would have avoided the place altogether except for one very tantalising attraction. That’s where my father Jack Spackman had set up his darkroom. Continue reading
My father Jack Spackman grew up in abject poverty, a widow’s son, in the tiny town of Grenfell, way out past the Blue Mountains in rural New South Wales, Australia. He was the second of four boys born to Charles Spackman – known to all as Jim – and Doris Fogarty.
Jim died in 1937, just months after the birth of their youngest son Bob. The eldest, Alf, was four years old. Doris and her sons survived through the kindness of relatives but the extent of the debt was mostly hidden from the family history Jack told, coming up in oblique ways that were never truly explained or understood by your young Girl Reporter.
For example, Jack loathed lamb – couldn’t stomach the smell of it cooking and wouldn’t have it in the house. To this day, it’s a meat I associate with restaurants and other people’s tables, not my own. Continue reading
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
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. The practice of concubinage was still legal in Hong Kong – it wasn’t banned until 1971. “So don’t be surprised that Wendy has two mums,” I was told.
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
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
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
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
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
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