Tales From The Alarm Industry Hong Kong Special

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I hadn’t intended to write about my trip to Hong Kong and subsequent work but here it is. I hope you find it interesting.

Having finished with the alarm company on Friday, I was due to start officially on Monday, however having to go to Hong Kong had changed all that. Stuart was to pick me up around lunchtime on Saturday. On Friday night I packed enough clothes for the week I expected to be away. On Saturday at around 12.00, Stuart arrived, he came in to sort out the flight tickets and make sure I had my passport. He also gave me £750.00 which was for incidental expenses. He had the same, plus a company credit card. Once we had finished sorting out the paperwork and drunk our coffees, it was time to go. I kissed the kids and then Mrs 10210. “Take care and look after yourself,” were her parting words. We drove off up the road, I was excited, a new job and a new adventure.

Down the M1 and round the M25 to Heathrow. Valet parking had been booked for the car and once it was dropped off it was into the terminal. We were booked to fly out on Cathy Pacific around seven that evening. Stuart said as we headed for the desk that he had an expired Cathy Pacific hospitality card and he would try to get us into the executive lounge. Having presented our tickets and passports, I tried to get us an upgrade to business class, we were both fairly smartly dressed and would have fitted in. The girl behind the desk was having none of it, she said business class was full, “what about first class then”, I asked jokingly. She ignored me and then it was Stuarts turn. He said that his card had expired and that the new one hadn’t arrived in the post, could we still get in. Again she looked at us, but this time we had some luck. She phoned up to the lounge and we could go in. We went through security which at that time was a bobby sitting behind a desk in his shirtsleeves.

I had never been in an airport hospitality lounge before. The place was about half full, mostly with businessmen but there were a couple of families sitting in groups. We sat down at the bar, Stuart ordered a glass of wine, I had a gin and tonic. Stuart hadn’t told me that he wasn’t a good flier and had to have quite a few glasses of Dutch courage to get on board. There was also a buffet in the lounge and in between drinks we made several forays for food. By the time the flight was called both of us steady but by no means sober. Another first for me was a Boeing 747, I was amazed at the size of the cabin, Stuart had the window seat, with me next to him, the seat next to me was occupied by a middle aged business man who didn’t want to engage in any form of conversation. The plane was packed, I don’t think there were any spare seats. I didn’t know that this was one of the last flights into Kai Tak airport. We would be flying out from Chek Lap Kok, the new airport.

As soon as we had taken off, I turned to speak to Stuart but he was fast asleep. A stewardess came round with a menu for dinner, there was a mixture of Chinese and European on the menu, I chose Chinese, I gave Stuart a dunt in the ribs and when he woke, he chose the European dishes. After dinner blankets were handed round for those that wanted it. I had another gin and tonic and dosed fitfully. Breakfast was served later in the flight but by Hong Kong time it was the middle of the afternoon. I had been told about flying into Hong Kong past multi-storey buildings that are higher than the flight path. It was true and one of the most memorable landings I have ever made. We arrived at around 18.00 Hong Kong time on what was now Sunday evening. At immigration, we had to open our bags for inspection. Our suitcases were fine, it was the contents of our hand luggage that raised some questions. Other than phones and chargers, we had packed our tools in our hand luggage. When my briefcase was opened, my tool belt full of screwdrivers, pliers, Stanley knife and electrical test kit caused some chattering amongst the staff. An English speaker asked what we were doing in Hong Kong. Our explanation must have been acceptable as we were allowed on our way. Outside the terminal the heat and humidity hits you and saps the energy from you. The taxis, however are all air conditioned. It took some time to explain to the driver where we wanted to go. The Chinese nod and smile a lot, whether they understand you or not. We were staying at the Hotel Newton, now long gone, and it was only when we showed the driver a fax from the hotel with the address in Chinese that we were on our way.

Once booked in and in my room, I phoned home, we couldn’t believe how clear the mobile phone was despite being thousands of miles apart.

We had agreed to meet back down in the bar at 20.00 then into the restaurant for dinner. My body was saying I needed to go to sleep but I needed to eat. After a couple of G&T’s before dinner and a bottle of wine with our meal, I desperately needed to sleep. I booked a call for 07.00 in the morning and went to bed. I left Stuart in the bar talking to an American.


I was down for breakfast by 07.30, Stuart was already eating, in between mouthfuls he was talking to another person at the table; he had a coffee in front of him. As I approached the table, the stranger got up; he held out his hand and introduced himself as Harvey. I sat down, a waitress approached and I ordered coffee, toast and sausage, bacon and beans. Once that was done, Harvey turned to me saying that he worked for the main contractor as a problem solver with the Chinese workforce on site. He had lived in Hong Kong for twenty years, had a Chinese girlfriend and spoke fluent Cantonese. His job today was to get us onto site show us the problems and work to get a solution.

After breakfast, we both went back to our rooms to pick up our hand tools. Harvey was waiting in reception. We went back out into the heat and humidity and jumped in a cab. “If you are going out and about, get the receptionist to write where you want to go on a piece of paper with the hotel address on the back. Very few of the taxi drivers speak English.” Wise words from Harvey which we used throughout our stay. On site we had to go through a health and safety induction, have ID cards printed with our pictures on them and then a tour of the site. With that done, Harvey took us on a tour of the part of the site we would be working on. There were twenty doors, set in ten pairs on two sides of the building. Each door was about 2.5mtr high and 2mtr wide. The doors were about 30cm thick and covered in stainless steel. They were emergency exits from the station concourse and would only be opened in the event of fire. Hung Hom Station was terminus on a line that ran from mainland China. There was a border within the station with immigration and border guards. Stuart suggested we went to the first door to try to figure out what had happened. Above each door was a power supply the served the locks on that door. There were three cables wired into the box. I asked Harvey if he could find us some steps. He disappeared and after a few minutes was back with two Chinese carrying what looked like giant trestles. This we found out were Chinese steps, two wooden frames with rungs across, hinges at the top and two bits of rope to stop the frames collapsing. They were rickety and took a bit of getting used to. We both climbed up to try to find out what had happened. With the power supply opened up we could see one of the cables was a mains cable wired into the power supply. The other cables were fire alarm cable, one coming in, the other going out to the next set of doors. Looking at the connections we could see that the fire alarm cable had been connected directly to the locks. I said to Harvey that we needed to trace the fire cable back to where it came from. We eventually traced the cable back to a fire alarm relay point, This had a power supply mounted above and opening up that we could see that the cable had been wired directly into the mains. When they powered up, they put 230volt AC onto locks that needed 24 volt DC. Hence a lot of burnt out locks.

By the time all this had been worked out, it was lunchtime. “Will McDonalds be OK,” asked Harvey. We both nodded and we left site to grab some food and work out what we needed to do. “The fire alarm cable and the power supplies will be OK,” Stuart said, “but everything else needs to be taken out and replaced. Do you have electricians who can do that, but not connect anything up, we just need them to install new locks and cable from the locks to the power supplies. We will do everything else. We also need someone from the fire alarm company to be here on Wednesday/Thursday to connect into the fire alarm system and then test it all works.” Harvey is making notes, some are in English, some in Chinese.

When we got back from lunch, there is a pallet by the side of the door we were working on, “that must be the locks,” said Harvey. We opened the top box to check, sure enough, brand new locks. We opened all the boxes and counted, twenty locks. “They should have put in a couple of spares,” I said, I hope we don’t have any failures. Harvey had been on the phone while we were checking the locks and soon two Chinese arrived carrying a roll of low volt cable. We had to explain to Harvey what they needed to do and to not connect anything up, just fit new locks and cables, we would do everything else. Two more Chinese arrived with two more trestle steps which the electricians took. We asked Harvey to set them to work on the second set of doors and we would start where we were. Stuart took the locks out while I worked out how everything was to wire together. I hadn’t noticed that there was a small electronic relay stuck on the back of the power supply. It was a ‘magic’ relay, so called because it would work on any DC voltage between 5 and 28.

I climbed back down and on one of the flaps of the cardboard boxes, I sat and worked out the wiring, once I was sure, I found another piece of cardboard and drew a fresh diagram without any scribbles. I showed it to Stuart who spent some time looking at it before nodding his approval. I was to find out later that Stuart was great at installations, but anything he didn’t have a diagram for, he struggled.

We set to work, Stuart had the new locks in and the cable threaded up through the wall where the burnt out ones had been. I wired everything up in the power supply and with the power switched on we went for a trial run. The doors were closed and with the last wire put in place, we could hear the locks trying to activate. With the power off, the locks were adjusted and we tried again. It took a few goes to get the locks just right before it was a total success. We now had a working plan for the rest of the doors. The link from the fire alarm still needed to be wired in, but we knew what we were doing.

We had had one problem during the day, the air conditioning was working in the building but as we were working both inside and out we would be sweating one minute and cool the next. A hot sticky ‘T’ shirt then a chill across your back. We managed another set of doors that day before we finished, only eighteen more to do, with each set taking around an hour, that meant we could be finished tomorrow. “No chance,” I thought.


As it transpired, I was correct, there was no way we were going to get all the doors done that day. The electricians were missing when we arrived and we had to find Harvey to get them back to work. They still had four sets of doors to do, but we didn’t want to catch them up and then be delayed. Half way through the morning, two men in suits are walking towards us, everyone else is wearing shorts and open neck shirts or ‘T’ shirts. These two have suits and ties, “how is it going lads,” they have stopped and are looking at Stuart and I. “Fine” says Stuart, “who are you,” he follows up. “We are the people who are paying the exorbitant cost your company has demanded. We are the electrical contractors for the site.” “I’m Stuart and this is Ken.” I climb down off my steps and shake hands with both of them. “I’m Charles and this is Peter, are you making progress. We are on the fourth set of doors and Stuart gives them a run-down of how it is going and how when the fire alarm engineer arrives tomorrow we can test everything and sign it off. “Ahh,” this time it is Peter who speaks, it may be Thursday morning before he can be here.” He carries on, “would you be available to do another job for us once this one is finished and before you go home.” “What and where,” was all Stuart replied. This time it is Charles, “we had the contract for the cargo sheds over at the new airport and we have one storm door that won’t close when the alarm sounds. It’s pretty much the same sort of set up as this. We would organise Harvey to go with you to liaise and give assistance where required.” “Can you contact our office in the UK and ask them to let us know yes or no. Then we can see if we can fit it in.” “Charles then asks if we are free for dinner this evening. “Be in the bar of your hotel at 19.30, smart casual.” We get back to work and by lunchtime we have completed the fifth set. The Chinese electricians have done their work and have gone. Harvey and two other ex-pats ask us if we want to go for lunch with them, “not McDonalds he says, local.” We both agree and we set off away from site and down a couple of side streets to a shop with a long bench outside. We all sit down, it looks like a right dirty place, there are cars going by belching fumes. Next door is an undertaker and there are two people outside creating a huge flower arrangement for the next funeral. On the other side is a tool shop which after lunch we check out and buy some tools. Five beers are brought out onto the table. “Is there a menu,” I ask, “no, you just wait for the food to be brought out. One thing you can be sure of is that there will be pork.” Five bowls of noodles are brought out together with chopsticks. Harvey has a word and they are taken away and replaced by forks, next a large saucepan is brought out and a ladle full of whatever is in it is poured on top of the noodles. It smells great but looks very plain. Harvey and the two ex-pats pick up their bowls and start. I dubiously pick mine up, give it another sniff and gingerly put a forkful in my mouth. It tasted like no other Chinese food I had ever had. It wasn’t over salty and I could taste the different flavours of whatever the pork had been cooked in. It didn’t take long to finish it off, which is more than can be said for the beer, it tasted awful, thin and weak. The cost of the meal came to less than £5.00 for all of us. Richard and John, the two ex-pats said they eat there most days. As we left, we went into the tool shop next door. There was everything you could need and I bought a set of screwdrivers, some of which I still have.

Back at work there wasn’t much done in the afternoon. We did another two sets of doors and then knocked off so we could get ready for the evening. Once back in the hotel, I showered and then lay on the bed, I woke at 19.00, just in time to get dressed and down to the bar. Charles, Peter and Stuart were already sitting round a table with drinks in front of them, they were drinking bottled imported beer and after lunchtimes experience with Chinese beer I joined them ordering a Carlsberg. They told us that they were based in Hong Kong and worked mostly with UK firms that had won contracts and needed a local company but with UK connections and could work with the locals. Another beer and then we were off, they were taking us to an upmarket restaurant. We got in a taxi and ten minutes later we were heading through doors opened by two uniformed door men and up an escalator to a restaurant on the first floor of what looked like a huge glass office block. There were two ornamental lions either side of the entrance and paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling above the tables. Once the reservation had been checked we were ushered to booth with a table set for four. Stuart and I sat on one side and Charles and Peter sat on the other. Fortunately one side of the menu was in English. One of the starters was pigeon and Peter recommended that we have a whole pigeon between us for starters and then whatever main course we wanted. I opted for sizzling beef with rice. Charles ordered the wine and two bottles of chilled white wine arrived. Before the pigeon arrived one of the bottles was empty and the second one started.

Four hot plates heralded the arrival of the pigeon. It had been plucked, gutted and deep fried. It now sat on a hot metal plate in the middle of the table. Peter was the first to start, “if no one minds, I’ll have the head, he pulled it off with his fork and put it on his plate, he then cut some of the breast meat off and started to eat. It looked a scrawny bird, the meat was an orangey brown colour. I scraped off some of the breast from the other side and put it on my plate. There was some green salad surrounding the bird and I took some of that as well. There was a flavour there, but it was more the juices that it had been marinated in rather than taste of pigeon. The sizzling beef was fantastic and the second bottle of wine was polished off, as if by magic a third one appeared. I am not sure the Chinese are into desserts, I had ice cream, it tasted like three scoops of Walls vanilla, the only disappointment of the whole meal. Coffee followed and a dish of mints was left on the table. Charles was asking if we wanted liqueurs or brandy with our coffee. I declined but Stuart had malt whisky. By the time we left the restaurant, Stuart could hardly stand. We said our goodnights and thanks to Charles and Peter, I showed the driver the piece of paper with our hotel address on and smiling and nodding, we set off. Back in the hotel, Stuart wanted another drink, I tried to say that he would be better off in bed but he was insistent. We ordered two Carlsberg’s and sat down in the bar. A few sips in, Stuart went off to the toilet. Ten minutes later he had not appeared. I set off to find him. In the toilet Stuart was leaning against the wall having peed down most of his trousers. There was a Chinese attendant watching over him. “Your friend, very drunk,” he was pointing at Stuart. I got him under one arm and started to drag him out the toilet. The attendant was smiling as he held the door open. I got him to his room and found his key in his jacket pocket. I opened his door and dumped him on the bed. Although not fully in control myself I made it to my room and managed to get undressed and into bed. The next morning nursing a bloody big hangover I thought I might be the only one working. To my surprise, Stuart was eating breakfast as if nothing had happened the night before. “You were absolutely wrecked last night,” I said, “You fell asleep in the toilet and pissed yourself. I had to get you to your room.” “Ahh, was that why my trousers were wet, I put them in a laundry bag and left them for housekeeping to clean them. Are you having breakfast?” “No, just coffee.”

We had managed two more sets on Tuesday afternoon and had four left to do. We would take it steady and hopefully be finished by mid-afternoon. To our surprise it did go well and by the time we had finished we had also connected in the fire alarm, so all that was needed on Thursday was to wait for the fire alarm engineer to connect his bit, test it and then we were done.

That evening, we had a quiet meal in the hotel, with very little to drink.


We were on site waiting for the fire alarm engineer, Harvey had called him several times trying to get an ETA, eventually he arrived at 11.30 and everything was done and tested by 12.00. Charles and Peter turned up shortly after and with everything working, the main contractor was called in to get it all signed off. There were handshakes all round and we were finished. Charles asked if we had heard about the other bit of work he had for us. Stuart nodded and said we had been given the all clear to go ahead, but only if it didn’t delay our return. Harvey was again to be our guide on where to go and he would do all the introductions and sorting out of permits.

We still had half a day and Harvey asked if we wanted to go to Stanley Market. He described it to us as Hong Kong’s biggest knock off and second’s market. “Loads of designer stuff at ridiculous prices.” Stanley market is located on the far side of Hong Kong Island, it was an adventure just getting there, across from the mainland on one of the ferries and then a taxi ride over the island to the market. There were stores and stalls selling everything from Rolex watches to Gucci handbags, Chinese silk underwear to Helly Hansen ski jackets. I bought a couple of Timberland linen shirts, some underwear and was tempted by a Rolex watch for £10.00 but I thought it might be a fake!!! Stuart bought a bright yellow Helly Hansen coat and a pair of leather shoes. After that, we headed to a bar by the water’s edge for some drinks. We left the bar about 20.00 and retraced our route from earlier. Harvey joined us for a meal and it was midnight before we finished.


Harvey was waiting for us in reception when we had finished breakfast. We followed him to a station where we boarded the new Mass Transit Railway which would take us out to the new airport. The journey was fast and smooth, the carriages were incredibly clean. We got off at the new airport and Harvey led us out the terminal and across towards the huge area that was given over to cargo. We had to show our passports and we were issued with temporary passes for that day only. He led us between buildings until we eventually arrived at a vast cargo warehouse. We again had to show our passports and were given yet another pass. Harvey led the way, the building was almost fully automated, Harvey went into the main office, there was a conversation in Chinese with a mixture of shaking heads, frowning and then nodding. “We have half an hour in which they can stop work in the area we are working. That is all I could get.” We were now accompanied by a Chinese worker who had a walkie talkie with him. We were led up to the door. The controller for the typhoon door was located about eight feet up on a wall. “We need steps,” Stuart said. Harvey relayed this and there was much chatter over the walkie talkies. A pair of steps arrived. Stuart said for me to go up and see if I could see what the fault was. Inside the control box it was a bit like the doors we had been working on at the station, I stared at it for a few minutes trying to figure out what was meant to be happening. There were wires everywhere, it wasn’t neat. I was able to simulate what would happen in the event of an alarm and sure enough nothing happened. I traced each step and eventually I found that there was a relay that had been wired up incorrectly. With the wiring sorted, I tested it again and the door worked. Job done. It was almost 17.00 by the time we got back to the hotel. Stuart phoned Cathy Pacific and booked us on a flight that got us back into London early on Sunday morning.


This was to be our last day. We had a long leisurely breakfast, packed, and left our luggage with the hotel. Stuart had instructions to buy a specific camera for one of the directors which was about £200.00 cheaper than in the UK. We went off to find a camera shop, the hotel concierge had said where to go. With that done, we went back over to Hong Kong Island and made for the Peak Tram. This would take us to the top of the island where we were told we would have great views of the whole of Hong Kong. I’m sure the views would have been spectacular except that when we got to the top, it was pissing down. No it wasn’t, it was pissing up, the rain was blowing that hard against the side of the ‘mountain’ it was being deflected upwards. The sun had been shining when we set off, but we had come up through clouds. We didn’t stay long, as the tram returned down through the clouds, there were Chinese workers dismantling the scaffolding on a newly built hi-rise. The scaffold was bamboo held together with cable ties. They were working bare footed and using Stanley knives to cut the ties. There were no hard hats or safety lines. We watched open mouthed as the tram passed by. Back down at the ferry terminal, there were rickshaw drivers hustling the tourists. We watched as they plied their trade, once they got the money, they ran about a hundred yards along the road and back. The occupants were quickly ushered out and they were back plying for more business.

When we got off the ferry, we took a taxi back to the hotel, we had a few hours to wait before we set off for the airport and decided to have a few drinks in the bar. We arrived at the airport, the difference between the one we landed at and the new one we were leaving from was like chalk and cheese. This was clean and bright, there were information boards everywhere. We checked in again, there would be no executive lounge this time. Stuart went to the bar, I went to the shops, I bought a model airport for my son, it had two planes, a petrol tanker and a bus, there was a slight scale issue in that the bus and tanker were bigger than the planes. The box it came in doubled up as a scenic backdrop for the planes. The 747 was much less full this time and we had no one sitting next to us. Stuart as he had done on the outward journey fell asleep, I watched the inflight movies and listened to the piped music on the headphones supplied. At Heathrow, Stuart phoned the valet parking company to say we had landed. With our baggage retrieved, we walked straight through immigration and customs with no checks. The car was waiting and we were soon on our way home. It was still early for a Sunday morning, Mrs 10210 was still in bed, I crept up the stairs, she had heard me and was sitting up in bed. Also in the bed were our two children, a very excited boy and a sleeping daughter. It didn’t take long for me to join them in the bed.

That was my tale of time in Hong Kong. I always wanted to go back but there was never the right time to do it. I have my memories and no one can take those away. And what of the job, for two years it was great, we were making money for the company, however other divisions were not and liquidators were called in. We moved to be part of another ironmongery company, but again two years later it was in difficulty. We were offered to opportunity to buy our part of the company for the value of the stock on the shelves. We jumped at the opportunity, we had built up relationships with major customers that would continue well into the future.

© 10210ken 2023