Postcard from Lille, Part 14


Colin Cross, Going Postal
Kowloon Street View
ywchow – Public Domain

“Ladies and gentlemen this is your captain speaking we are just commencing our approach into Kai Tak international airport in Hong Kong, the weather is fine, during the approach we’ll have Kowloon City on the right hand side of the aircraft and in the distance you’ll be able to see Hong Kong Island. We do hope that you’ve enjoyed your flight with us and we look forward to seeing you on board Cathay Pacific again in the very near future, thank you and good day.”

What the pilot could have added was that from the front of the aircraft he could just about see a red and white  checker board painted on the hillside which meant it was time for a very sharp heave to starboard, between the high rises, a tyre tread width above the roof of Kowloon Mall, and to point his aircraft’s nose at a concrete postage stamp of a runway, jutting into the bay, which, laughing at the laws of perspective, gets smaller as you get closer to it.

From a passenger’s view you certainly could see Kowloon City and in a bit too much detail. You could see what people were watching on their televisions though their apartment windows. And if, as you flew past, you waved to a coolie on the fifteenth floor doing his ironing on the other side of the kitchen window mesh, he may well wave back.

In the days when passengers mixed with air crew after a flight, a well known English travelling gentleman, of a certain class and occupation, who must remain anonymous, once confided to a chap with a handlebar moustache and covered in gold braid, that he always closed his eyes on the way into Kai Tak. To which his Imperial Airways pilot replied,

“Frankly, Mr Whicker, old bean, so do I”.

You will recall my family connection with Pakistan, or more accurately at the time, Imperial India. My mother’s father lived in Peshawar and my father’s grandfather in Waziristan. Being hill and mountain people from a remote part of our beautiful isle , our local regiment tended to be posted to such places.

Therefore if there was a bit of a dust up on the remote hilly trading posts and islets in South East China, in a little pink dot on the map called Hong Kong, then so be it. Even up until it’s final amalgamation our local regiment had a prowling dragon on its cap badge in remembrance of their posting there during the China War in the 1840’s.

And if one or two stout north country yeomen preferred to stay behind and seek their fortune, no one need be surprised.

Such an ancestor of mine is also well remembered, his story passed down through the family, perhaps mildly embellished and slightly exaggerated as these things always are (and most certainly should be). Though oddly, I can find no documentary evidence whatsoever to support this, which suggests to me, it originating from the age of quadrupole bluff, the Great Game, rampant Sinophobia and fear of the Yellow Peril, that every single word of it must be true.

Part way to becoming one of the great banking and trading house proprietors of the colony my ancestor lost the lot in a particularly ungentlemanly  game of mah-jong in a drinking den near Mai Po. Not only that but, in the ensuing hail of chairs, tables and bullets, he lost a pretty wife, two mistresses and three fingers. With no more than the clothes he stood up in and a modest bag of (somebody else’s) pearls he escaped across the ditches into China proper and started again from nothing in a little one horse town called Shenzhen.

A dozen decades later my forth cousin eight times removed was smuggled, as a toddler, away from Mao’s cultural revolution, across a border post between the barbed wire, in the bottom of a sack of rice.

Three years after that her sister, a diminutive but determined girl crawled all the way under the border through the drains. Bereft of landmarks and fortified by sewer gas she crawled all the way to Sai Wan Ho and emerged through a grate between the tramlines, next to half  a lettuce that had just been thrown to a Shenlong dragon. I kid you not. Thank goodness the trams had been stopped for the local festival.

Let us call her ‘Lotus Flower’. Now Lotus was good fun and very clever. She was a talented linguist and had a foot on each side of the border allowing her a useful set of contacts.

She could dance and play a number of musical instruments, break a paving flag with her fist and balance a chair by it’s leg on her forehead. Not only that but she could pick up a razor blade from the floor using her upper lip and nose without cutting herself. She was an accomplished contortionist.

Her local knowledge was excellent and, most importantly of all, while she was in the mail room and I was in an important meeting on the top floor, her insight could be passed off as mine.

Speaking of razor blades, paving flags and contortionists, a couple of characters stand out in this old fool’s dull and fading recollections. One, a Singaporean Malay in Ang Mo Kio, the other a Berber tribesman, (with six fingers on one hand) in Marrakesh. The former scattered razor blades and broken glass on the ground, stripped naked and lay on it. He invited passers by to pile paving flags on top of him and then to climb on top of them. When we’d all got off, removed the paving flags and picked him up, he was covered in blood from head to toe and in a bit if a state. An ambulance had to be called.

The latter  was a more successful street performer and I must say that to this day I cannot understand how it was done, except perhaps with concealed mirrors and some kind of distraction, or even a manipulation of the supernatural itself.

The tribesman concerned was a wiry, elderly gentleman. He put his left arm behind the right hand side of his back and his right arm down the left hand side of his back. He bent his left leg way up above the right buttock and his right leg up above his left, and then disappeared up his own bottom. Astonishing. As I say, mirrors, distraction and the supernatural.

Colin Cross, Going Postal
Hong Kong Skyline
Hong Kong Skyline, Ryan ChengLicence CC BY-SA 2.0

Meanwhile back in the colony we were a while away from Handover, as the ninety nine year lease over the territory was still a few years from expiring. Technically Hong Kong Island and Kowloon were crown territory in perpetuity but there was no reasonable that way we could expect to defend them so they were being passed to China too. This is why it was referred to as a ‘Handover’ rather than a ‘Hand Back’. Whatever the outcome, it was a few years off and, as the Chinese say, the catching of the bird with an early stitch can save nine worms in time, and all that.

My superior, who shall remain nameless, despite being cringingly middle class and an old boy of an unknown private London day school, was a higher high panjandrum than anything seen dressed in silk and tights on the mainland during the previous five thousand years.

One day, he called me into his office.

We had a bit of a problem, a mountain that had to be moved. Thanks to British ingenuity and Chinese hard work, combined with Chinese ingenuity and British hard work, the colony had amassed a mountain of money. A mountain of money that would belong to the Chinese Communists upon Handover. What to do with it? Sending it all back to Blighty would be a bit obvious and also cheating. And it wouldn’t help the ongoing negotiations with China which at times were a bit tetchy.

My suggestion was that we should start a casino, incorporate it via another pink dot on the map whose native language contained no word for ‘tax’ and then lose all the money to ourselves. A sort of nationalised privatisation. Stranger things have been done.  Perhaps a little of my ancestor’s legacy lingers? It was pointed out that all types of laws would have to be changed and / or broken and that building it in Macao (which was plan B) although more legal was a bit too obvious and would result in the Portuguese expecting a cut.

We settled upon spending it all on something localised and tangible and giving (i.e. awarding after ferocious competitive tendering) as many of the contracts as possible to our own captains of industry in their Union Jack Y fronts. High speed rail is eye wateringly expensive but Her Majesty’s rocks and islets are only thirty miles by thirty miles so there isn’t much scope for it. A nuclear power station would be wallet anhilatingly pricey, but there was nowhere to put it plus we didn’t want to give such a thing to the Chinese. In fact anything concrete would be difficult as the place is already very built up.

Which leads us to poor old Kai Tak. Despite being the greatest ever airfield in the history of aviation it was looking a bit dated and was difficult to expand. It would be handy and expensive to build a new airport, and the mega expense would be just north of obscene if we dammed and drained a bay to build it in and built a motorway, bridges and railway line to get to it. We might even be able to hand over to the Chinese Communist Party a very satisfyingly high mountain of debt owed to those surviving great British (well, Scottish) trading houses. Stone Cutters Bay (Chep Lap Kok) was conceived .

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

Work began at a canter and increased in pace from there. In no time the bay was empoldered and beginning to drain. But what we hadn’t envisaged was the trillion stranded dead fish. And believe me, it smelt like a lot more. When I say ‘we’ I should really say ‘I’. Fault and blame are two different things and blame was winging it’s way towards me faster than an eternal and infinite miasmic mistral of maggot ridden putrid fish meat finding a direct route from Stone Cutters to Hong Kong harbour.

Salvation was on it’s way. My accommodations were rather cramped but walking distance from the office. On that morning they were sprinting distance as Lotus had run the whole way, as fast as she could, because the equivalent of the Bat Phone had gone off in the mail room. Something of great importance had cropped up in the tropics, which was my area of expertise, and muggins had to do something about it. Regular readers will have heard me mention ‘the tropics’ with affection many times and have suffered plenty of heavy hints such as ‘The Bulletin’, ‘The Star’ and ‘Yum Yum Burgers’. I can now reveal that these refer to ‘The Manila Bulletin’, ‘The Philippine Star’ and, well  ‘Yum Yum Burgers’.

Here’s one of those little pointless statistics that I can never forget, it is 631 nautical miles from Victoria Bay, Hong Kong, to Tondo Docks, Manila and Her Majesty had just invited me to cover them post haste, stinking of fish or not stinking of fish.

To be continued ….

© Always Worth Saying 2019

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