Memories Of A Happy Childhood In Hong Kong 1956-1959

I lived in Hong Kong for three years in the late 1950s.  My father was in the army and had a posting there: my parents and I sailed out on the 'Chusan' in late 1956, and we had a ground-floor flat in Tweed Road, Kowloon - with an Amah (or servant) who didn't speak more than a couple of words of English.  In those days Hong Kong was still very much a British colony, and the prospect of the lease running out and reverting to Chinese ownership seemed so far in the future that no-one much appeared to worry about it.  My very first memory of it all was of the ship docking and after a month's sea voyage, I wanted to go off exploring - but at the age of just turned eight I had to be physically restrained by my mother on the pretext that she "didn't know where we were allowed to go".

I went to school at Minden Row Junior School.  This was a Service childrens' school, so what we learned was at a guess roughly what our conterparts back in the UK would've learned at our ages,  I was picked up every morning in the "School Bus" - a three-ton army truck adapted by fitting a set of iron steps and wooden benches in the back.  We used to buy ice lollies or ice creams from one of the many guys on bicycles with an ice-box in the front at 10c each, if my memory serves me right.  Then (as now), I hated sport or 'Games', but the tracks of the Kowloon-Canton railway ran alongside the edge of the playing fields, and so I spent many a happy hour trainspotting instead!  Academically I did really well, winning several class prizes and I have an old photo of a Brigadier Cholmondeley doing the presentation, which I daresay was one of his pleasanter official duties.  The school, the main part of which was housed in high-ceilinged rooms with verandahs, is no longer there now.  I'm not surprised, such was the frantic pace of building construction which went on everywhere, but I was delighted recently to come across a scanned image of an old map online, which showed where it once was.

We soon settled in.  Our Amah (whom we called Ah-Tai although I've no idea whether that was her real name or not) helped with the cleaning, housework and laundry, but not the cooking.  My mother would go food shopping, occasionally taking me with her, the favourite haunt being the Dairy Farm store which was somewhere along the main Nathan Road and which we reached via the No 8 bus from Arglye Street.  The flat-rate bus fare was 20c for adults (yellow ticket) or 10c for children (pink ticket): I used to collect the Kowloon Motor Bus tickets, so that's how I remember!  A few of the most modern shops were fully air-conditioned: an absolute godsend as we were soon to find out in the oppressively sticky humid heat of the Hong Kong summer.  The bus went to right to the terminus at the Star Ferry pier, and we regularly took the ferry ride across the harbour to Hong Kong Island.  In those days the ferry was the only way of making the crossing and although there was also a vehicular ferry from Jordan Road in Kowloon I don't recall that we ever used that one.

On the Island, occasionally we went somewhere like Lane Crawfords to do a bit of upmarket shopping, but most of the time we went sightseeing.  Up the Peak (on the Peak Tram, of course), to the Tiger Balm Gardens with their high pagodas, round the other side of the island to the floating fish restaurants at Aberdeen harbour - and quite often to Repulse Bay.  I still have a few photos of me on the beach there, building sandcastles and eating ice lollies at the age of 9.  I remember always wanting to go for a ride on the trams - I'd never been on a tram before or since - but try as I might, I never succeeded in persuading my parents.  I wasn't allowed to go out exploring on my own, but my parents bought me a Tri-Ang push scooter which I rode up and down the hilly streets round by where we lived.  I had a Meccano set with which I built replicas of the Kowloon buses, and a growing collection of Dinky toys.

The previous place we'd lived at back in the UK was a small village in Wiltshire, so the heat of the Hong Kong summer was nothing like we'd ever experienced before.  Our flat had ceiling fans in the rooms, and ornamental metal grilles inside the windows so they could be left open without too much fear of being burgled, and our kitchen area had a large water-butt in order to cope with water rationing which was in force for several hours a day periodically.  But the only sure-fire way of keeping cool was to go swimming, and the ideal place for that was the USRC, which I discovered is still very much in existence now and celebrated its 100th anniversary last year.  I spent many a happy hour in the learners' pool there with my rubber ring until one day when I was about nine I lent the ring to one of the other kids, got tired of waiting for him to give it me back, and just started to manage without it.  I was then allowed in the big pool, and started to acquire a set of badges to sew on my swimming trunks to denote how many lengths of the pool I could swim.  The top one was 50.  My diving technique on the other hand rarely amounted to more than belly flops.  Sitting at one of the little tables by the side of the pool I got through copious quantities of ice-cream, Pepsis and 7ups by virtue of initialling the little chitty-thing which charged them to my father's account - until he found out what I'd been doing and told me I could jolly well pay for my own!  Talking of Pepsis, I became an avid collector of the numbered bottle-tops and got several of the rarer ones, but never managing to get hold of the rarest one of all (17?).  For the life of me I can't remember now what the prize was for a full set of 20.  Occasionally I got treated to a meal in the USRC restaurant.

Once or twice we ventured further afield into the New Territories.  A diesel-hauled train journey along the single track took us out to Tai-Po, and I remember one day going on a trip by boat round Tolo Harbour.  A few of the adults dived off the boat and swam in the sea: I wanted to do so as well but the organizers were distinctly dubious about this - until I proudly displayed my 50-length swimming badge!  From what I recall of the occasion, though, swimming in the sea wasn't all it was cracked up to be.  Very occasionally, if I wasn't at school, my father took me with him if he'd got to go out somewhere.  I've no idea why he went there, but a couple of times we went on a bus journey in an old No 21 single-decker past Kai Tak airport and down a winding road to Tai O Mun.  Nissan huts had been built one side along much of the length of the road surface, effectively reducing it to single-track with passing places.  The other place I can still remember was Stonecutters Island, reached by boat.  My father had some business at an isolated house at the top of a steep hill on the island: in the fertile imagination of a nine-year old, it was just like I envisaged the infamous Alcatraz would be, and I was relieved when the boat duly returned to take us off again. 

Unfortunately my mother then became seriously ill, and was admitted to hospital with what I wasn't told at the time and only very much later found out was a cancer requiring a hysterectomy.  Initially I wasn't allowed to go and visit her, but eventually she started to slowly recover and my father used to take me on the journey across to Hong Kong Island and along the twisting hilly Bowen Road to the British Military Hospital there.  She was by no means well afterwards, and so we got the services of a second, part-time, Amah to do the cooking.  This one did speak English, which was just as well: otherwise the culinary results would've been interesting to say the least.

For the final year of our 3-year stay, my sister flew out to join us.  She'd been at boarding school back in the UK doing her O levels, and she enrolled at King George V School to do what I think was some sort of commerce course.  We didn't have a TV, just a Rediffusion Radio subscription, so as my parents bought my sister a portable Philips record player for passing her exams, her arrival livened things up a bit for me on the entertainment scene.  The late 1950s Hong Kong pop music was made up mostly of locally pressed 45rpm recordings of American stars: one of the first records we bought being Ricky Nelson's "Poor little fool" - which I still have to this day.  Despite it being a British colony, the Amercan influence in Hong Kong was noticeably strong: the US Pacific Fleet stopped by regularly, and the canny Chinese shopkeepers used to put their prices up a couple of days beforehand in eager anticipation.  My father became quite friendly with an officer from one of the aircraft carriers, who lived I think in San Diego, and they swapped letters for some little while before losing touch.

I had a few friends amongst my classmates at school, but such is (or was) the inherently transient nature of Army postings, they had a distinctly 'here today - gone tomorrow' feel to them.  So when one of my friends wanted to join the Wolf Cubs, I agreed to go with him and join too.  His father took us both in his car - an old Triumph Mayflower - out to somewhere on the perimeter of Kai-Tak.  I can't say I liked it all that much, although at the age of ten I did my best to enter into the spirit of things.  I can't remember now whether I passed any of the tests or whatever they were, but it was something I felt no urge to pursue after I left. 

And so alas, all good things come to an end, and in the autumn of 1959 we embarked on the month-long voyage back to the UK.  I bade quite a tearful farewell to Ah-Tai, of whom I'd become quite fond in my own little way, and one of my lasting regrets about my time in Hong Kong is that I never learnt how to speak Cantonese.  My memories of those three years are now more than just a little bit distant, and what I've written here is as much as I can recall with any degree of clarity.  It was a happy time, and I shall always remember it as a bustling vibrant place, full of activity extending well into the night.  I wish in a way I'd been older and able to appreciate it more.  Would I like to go back?  Yes and no.  My father wanted to go back just after my mother died in 1988 but I feared that he'd be disappointed: nothing would still be like he'd remembered it.  That would certainly be my fear too, although from what I've read and seen of it since, my innate curiosity might well overcome it.  For now, though, I'm content with all my memories.

61-65, M
2 Responses Dec 23, 2011

I also spent some time in Hong Kong. We landed on New Years Day 1956 and stayed at the Melbourne Hotel in Kowloon, then a flat the address of which escapes me. After a while, we moved to Army quarters in Perth Street - out towards Kai Tak - and I remember the 'school bus' very well.
My father was the OC of the school and would embarrass me during inspections at Minden Row. I remember the Headmaster was Mr Carter.
I have quite a few memories, which include crossing to HK on the Star Ferry on my own, which was forbidden - I was only 8.
There was rioting while we were there and school was suspended for a time, during which we were closely guarded.
I also joined the Cub Scouts and my father had a Triumph - not the Mayflower - the rounded one, was it the Triumph Standard? - I remember the number was HK155.
My Mother also became ill and my two brothers and I returned to the UK with her but without my father, who finished his tour and was then posted to Quala Lumpur.
We sailed on the 24th July 1957, 4 days after my 10th birthday on the SS Oxfordshire and I remember having a birthday party on the 20th at a long table alongside the small pool at the USRC.

What an amazing story! Thank for for sharing it. I've lived in Hong Kong for the past 30 months and it is nothing like the charming small town you describe.

It sounds like it was a world full of enchantment for a child at your age. Thank you once again for sharing!!!