MY OLD CHINA
After 24 years in Melbourne, I revisited places that had most influenced my childhood in Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels.
First published in The Age, Saturday Extra Travel (edited by Gary Walsh), 27 November 1999
Sweating, I continue uphill. The temperature must be at least 35 degrees. The air is so thick. Not a breath of wind stirs. I stop, still panting. How did I do it when I was a child? What has wiped out my power to climb this familiar driveway with ease?
It is early September 1999 in Hong Kong and I walk again a path I had not trodden since I was a child at my grandmother’s at 14B Oaklands Path, Hoover Mansion, off Bonham Road. That was more than 20 years ago. Now I need to carry a bottle of Evian to make it up this hill, hardly ten metres, but so steep.
The round apartment building at the bottom of the crammed intersection of Park Road, Babbington Path and Oaklands Path is covered with dark water stains and moss. This building and its surrounding area form some of my earliest memories.
Tropical plants and washing tumble haphazard from narrow window balconies. The footpath is custom-designed for the slim Cantonese who slide fish-like past each other. The women are dressed, this particular season, in hippie-revival tops and platform slipper shoes; the men, in designer suits.
Their pace is brisk and directed. Not for them exhaustion, exertion, sweat and all the maddening signs of fatigue. Envious, I press on, guzzling my Evian, the camera round my neck weighing a tonne.
The path up to Hoover Mansion used to be crammed with tiny shops. The charm and delight of this magical, village-like nook is what brings me back. The luxurious furniture and interior decoration shop is still there, right at the bottom, packed with gorgeous fabrics, tassels and cushions from France, Italy and India.
I realise also the shop is the size of a matchbox, so small it can only display one piece of furniture in the window. But what a choice - a plush wing chair, upholstered in Regency.
Then there is the drycleaners and the stationery shop, buried half underground. It’s mainly full of magazines now, but as kids we had our eyes glued to all the different types of erasers and pencils and pencil boxes that were so attractive you just wanted to hoard them and never use them.
I continue taking small steps. The gradient is tough on my knees and calves. How did grandmother and mother ever manage in their high heels? I think of the cars and taxis going up this hill. How our ’67 Beetle, crammed full with family and shopping, must have roared up in hardy first gear and deafened the neighbourhood.
I look for the red taxi that used to park on the incline, serving the residents of Hoover Mansion. It is no longer there. Neither is the small eatery the enterprising driver had opened in conjunction with his taxi business. It served delicious cheap eats like the beloved Chinese junket (juk – watery rice soup) and deep fried savoury sticks (yul tsar gui – known literally as deep-fried devils).
After Sunday hikes to the Peak, we used to sit down to steamy bowls of juk that are revered by the Chinese as a traditional cleansing soup, with similar medicinal properties to garlic.
There was a tailor further up the road. You had to climb a few steps to get into his tiny workshop, where there were squat bamboo seats for his customers. He stood all day and night by his workbench with a neon light hanging from the ceiling, held precariously by two thin chains. With pins in his mouth and a brown measuring tape draped around his neck, he drew, measured, cut and sewed ceaselessly, producing cheongsams, suits, blouses, pants, padded jackets.
I had never seen his shop close. He was all industry and humility. I had forgotten him. He is no longer there.
Finally, I reach the top. Hoover Mansion. There is a giant tree protruding at the top of the driveway. It stands in the middle of nowhere, wedged deep into the ground. Like so many things in Hong Kong, it is covered in fine moss encouraged by the tropical heat and humidity.
The tree is old. It was there when I was there. It was there before I was there. I shudder when I see the new, two-metre-high security gate - monumental and Victorian with matching lamps. They have also put up a large name plate, brassy and polished. It was a tiny sign in grandma’s day, so small you often missed it, but the post always arrived. I recognised everything about the building, but the colour has changed. I recognised the security guard box, but the old man I knew is no longer there.
Twenty years ago there was no gate, or if there was one, it was never closed and the old man liked to hover about chatting to all and sundry. Shielding my eyes from glare, I count the balconies rising uniformly one above the other. “One, two, three… eight.”
I catch a glimpse of familiar black and white tiles. My heart simmers with joy. Some things have not changed.
The small park adjacent to Hoover Mansion does not amount to much in area but I adore it. It is composed of lush, tropical trees with extravagant, droopy, rope-like branches perfect for Tarzan swings. Two pretty pavilions where old women meet to chatter and practise tai chi sit on a small hill brimming with undergrowth.
The air is filled with a thousand rustlings and birdcalls. The roots of the giant trees are probably as old as the island itself, predating the Opium War by hundreds of years; they resemble the long, bony fingers of ancient hands arched tautly upwards.
I’ve known this lovely jungle all my life, having roamed this isolated garden for seven years, and scoured every corner with my sister. My eyes are lost among the dense growth, so majestic and unsullied by pleasure-seekers.
A sudden sense of mystery and loneliness overwhelms me. It is like I had stood here a long, long time, quite still. My whole being is steeped in the memories of games I played and the songs and rhymes I used to sing.
“I have known this lovely jungle all my life, having roamed this isolated garden… and scoured every corner with my sister.”
On account of the very steep path around the park, I descend by taking small steps, my rope-soled canvas shoes serve me well as I edge downhill to my first primary school.
St. Stephen’s Girls’ School
From the side gate of St. Stephen’s Girls’ School, a narrow row of steps take you up through a wonderful, tropical garden. I have no recollection of this sun-drenched, palm filled garden. It is probably because in my day this was an area restricted for senior students.
I take the path uphill to the front gate passing the bubbling water steps or Hong Kong drain, covered in fine velvet moss. Inevitably, you will find a large rattan basket filled with rubbish and a bamboo rake nearby.
This is the resting spot for street cleaners. Being prim and fastidious, I found this drain nauseating as a child, and would walk quickly past it, overtaking my amah, bent on escaping from things I did not like.
The journey to school seemed long and insufferable as tens of water holes, equally grimy and covered in moss, accompanied me all the way uphill. But now the fears and illogical torments of childhood give way to detached interest.
I examine these water holes. They are dry but stained, and together they create a pattern. I see them now as fine opportunities for black and white photography, which is one of my passions.
I must have gone too far. I feel I have missed something. But what and where? I turn my head back and forth. This can’t be it. The front gate to the playground is gone. I had expected a contraption of green monkey bars and a slide and sweeping steps ascending from behind to an elegant cream building in colonial style.
Instead, perched on high concrete foundations surrounded by a wire fence, I find a new basketball court and a multiple-storey building with air-conditioning units installed on each floor.
A mirror of my past suddenly comes upon me. A stream of junior students, dismissed from morning class, are walking home with their mothers and amahs. They wear the pale blue, waistless uniform that I had worn; they carry the red school bag I had once slung across my shoulders. Time stands perfectly still again.
I enter the wide double doors through which the students come out. The ceilings are high and beautifully cool. Those old pale blue walls, their very colour is like a welcoming smile. An elegant calligraphy hangs above the carved rosewood bench. Everything is in its proper place. It is the very setting I had known and left.
‘Excuse me, Miss. Are you lost?’
I did not know whether to nod or to shake my head at this small woman, wizened with age. My being was a tumble of emotions for a place deserted of magic. Standing in this hall, I see nothing, in fact, was missing. But it was a hall emptied of the harmony I had known - the murmur of voices, cries, clatter, footsteps, light and scent that would never be revived.
How do you begin to explain the secret you have taken with you? I retreat politely. There are no words I can say to her that describe the incomprehensible passion in searching for a world held in the memory and in the imagination.
In spite of the harsh sun, I did not stop once as I followed the narrow footpath uphill to the Park Road apartments where we lived briefly after moving out of grandmother’s place.
When I walked home from school there was nothing lovelier than passing the castle with its profusion of morning glory tumbling over the grey brick fence. Euston Castle, built by a romantic businessman, had towers sheathed in ivy and possessed all the architectural barbicans, walkways, bridges, corridors and windows of fortified strongholds in the European Middle Ages.
By leaning over the kitchen balcony of our apartment on Park Road, you could get an enchanting view of the inner courtyard, reserved for deck chairs, vines and potted plants. Inert in a chair covered by a flattened hat, a man reads with never a pause.
But no! The castle has been demolished (in fact, years ago). Where the ivy-clad towers once stood, there are now multi-storey apartment blocks - Euston Court Apartments. Anonymous and sombre, they greet me stiffly. I feel weak.
An infinitely tender voice inside me keeps saying, “What a shame. What a shame.” I must sit and rest. I have to nurse my hurt in a sheltered place. I have to go to a place where I can conjure up the past without a torturing pang, without knotting my brows in anguish.
With hardly a thought for seeing again the Park Road apartments which still exist, and the blue Government apartments across the road where I took my earliest French lessons, I almost ran downhill. In ten minutes I am at the top end of the Bonham Road markets. There I stop, heaving a great sigh.
Bonham Road Markets
Up on the highest step of the market on Bonham Road, which I have known my whole life simply as “the market”, you can get an extraordinary glimpse of the sea in the distance.
Up here on the heights with a view of ships and the sky and the market spreading below, ensconced along hundreds of descending steps that taper into a narrow trail, you feel the fineness of Hong Kong, radiant with colour and health.
“Up on the highest step of the Bonham Road markets, you get an extraordinary glimpse of the sea in the distance.”
I take a short rest. Every metre is an opportunity for commerce. The man selling newspapers and cigarettes must be stifling in this midday heat but he shows no indication of discomfort, tucked behind his desk-width counter.
I see the locksmith is still there. That corrugated iron shack takes me back to Saturday mornings when mother used to choose her weekly bunches of gladioli and chrysanthemums in tall tin cans from an old woman who sat next to the locksmith. Mother only cared for scarlet or yellow blooms.
Plastic bowls, buckets, strainers, mops, brooms, feather dusters, rattan mats and baskets, vinyl table cloths, face washers, towels, baby’s bibs. All the goods are displayed neatly, sloping down.
Nobody seems to be deterred by the forty-five degree angle which I find atrociously dangerous.
How many stairs! How they go on and on. How steep! Some 24 years have to elapse before I discover this. Surely these stairs must have multiplied in my absence!
I am exhausted after the first dozen and certainly looking terrible with my hair all dishevelled, my forehead beaded with sweat. Beside me, extremely stylish ladies mount and descend the stairs as if they are at the theatre. Cool and queenly.
“Nobody seems to be deterred by the 45-degree angle, which I find atrociously dangerous.”
Finally I step off the last step to the entrance of the covered vegetable, fish and poultry market. I remember a very wet, blood-stained floor.
The butchers are ten feet tall as they clop around in thirty centimetre wooden clogs like men on stilts brandishing fearful blades. Their grotesque shadows dance along the walls.
The smell of the place is distinctively fishy and I used to wrinkle my nose in disgust. The fish are mostly swimming behind glass or in large, shallow blue buckets. Prawns are displayed on thick beds of ice under naked light bulbs and spinning ceiling fans.
How as a five-year old I had shuddered and choked with terror at those dreadful eels in glass tanks. Their flat, black, cold bodies gliding before my frozen eyes.
At the entrance, the same smell of fish and meat and fresh vegetables. Then alas! The clinical, hygienic face-lift stops me in my tracks – the blast of cold air from the air-conditioning, the bloodless floor, the carefully tiled, modern stalls, neatly laid out in rows; there is even an elevator.
The platform clogs have been discarded for gumboots, plastic bags have replaced newspaper and long grass strings, cleaning and washing activities are ceaseless. It’s a modern market with a future, a future I keep forgetting as I come back to search for the world of my childhood.
How skilfully, simply and beautifully they used to wrap up the purchases. With a twist, a knot and a pull around a page of yesterday’s newspaper, there was your parcel of neatly wrapped capsicums, beans, bean sprouts, carrots and choi sum, complete with a long, grass carrying handle.
I think, now, how ever did grandma and amah carry all that those odd-sized, paper parcels of groceries and fruit and poultry, including live chickens tied together by the feet, and long sticks of sugarcane – up all those damned stairs!
That ordeal was a daily affair. No loading up the supermarket trolley once a week and driving home in style and comfort. Everything at the dinner table was purchased that morning. Everything cooked had to be as fresh as possible. But then of course, going shopping at the market is a Cantonese prerequisite.
One must have the excitement of a bit of yelling and screaming over the cost of everything and voice one’s opinion on how properly or improperly the vegetables are being weighed or costed or how one is being cheated. Or how the broccoli aren’t sufficiently fresh and the arh choi is too old and the ginger is not old enough.
Shopping in the markets is all about verbal communication and interaction and letting off steam through harmless ping-pong. It’s a spiritual ritual, deep within the blood of the Cantonese. These ceaseless mini-battles and slinging insults are their way of justifying their existence. Fatiguing but so amusing. This has not changed.
I smell fried noodles and wonton soup. Before me a stream of students are on the move – schoolboys from St Paul’s College sporting snow white shirts and trousers and schoolgirls from St. Stephen’s in electric blue cheongsams.
They overtake me one by one, carrying McDonald’s takeaway or polystyrene boxes of fast food. The students are multiplying, seemingly tearing past me uphill. I give up. Dead beat. I cannot keep up with their youthful verve. The springs in my legs are crying for rest.
It was time for my special treat. No matter how short is my stay in Hong Kong, even overnight, I always have time to purchase this one little thing which has that strange, magical power to instantly reopen the house of enchanted memories. I head into Welcome for a mango ice-cream.