THE FAR HORIZONS
CHAPTER TEN: HONG KONG AND MACAO
The flight with Swissair was not particularly exciting, for we flew high above a smooth carpet of white cloud that blotted out all signs of the earth below. The plane's route lay over Cambodia, Laos, and the bloody battlefield of Vietnam, which was no doubt the reason for maintaining maximum altitude.
The clouds were peaceful, the big jet cruised serenely, and there was nothing to indicate that a futile and senseless war was raging at ground level. The politicians and generals were at each other’s throats, career and power conscious, and ignorant and uncaring for mere humanity and the painful lessons of past history, but up here the Timeless Sun was shining unconcerned.
When we landed at Hong Kong the skies had become grey and murky, and the sea appeared through the cloud like a flat expanse of greenish-grey, corrugated paper. There were brief glimpses of the outlying islands, and then Lantau, the largest island, passing very close with white foam curling around its rocky headlands. Then the island of Hong Kong itself flashed past, the dark green blur of Victoria Peak ringed with white skyscrapers. The straits between Hong Kong and the mainland were thick with scattered shipping, like a great armada awaiting the signal to move. The plane circled above the main- land city of Kowloon, a sprawling forest of white skyscrapers, towering flats, and great grey tenement blocks, and then swooped down on KaiTak airport where the single runway runs straight out to sea. Ships passed in a blur of movement, and then a roar of sound momentarily filled the cabin before the pilot shut down the jets. The Coronado rolled to a stop, and then turned and taxied slowly back to the airport buildings.
Once clear of the airport I took a taxi to the Salvation Army Youth Hostel on Wing Sing Road, for the Thai Song Greet in Bangkok had been a useful source of on-going accommodation addresses. Her I was able to stay for only two HK dollars per night, and meals were only one dollar. (A dollar here in Hong Kong was worth one shilling and three pence.) The dormitory rooms had eight beds, and my room already accommodated an American, an Englishman, a Frenchman, and four Chinese boys all named Wong. It was like moving into the United Nations, except that we were much more compatible than that squabbling organization, and nobody screamed insults or banged their shoes on the table. In fact we got on very well together. Living was inexpensive, the hostel was only just off Nathan Road which cuts right through the heart of bustling Kowloon, and I stayed there for the best part of a month.
Nathan Road was a shopper s paradise of exotic goods at low prices, and the sky was almost blotted from view by the huge vertical shop signs with their red-splotched Chinese characters. By night it was a neon glory of sparkling red, green, blue and golden light, like walking down a canyon of blazing fire, and its magnificence surpassed even Bangkok. The sky above took on a soft violet hue that radiated upward from the fiery glow, fading gradually into the blackness of space. However, unlike most other cities, the lights of Hong Kong did not flicker and move. If they had done so they would have dazzled and blinded the airline pilots who had to search for Kai Tak.
The streets on either side of Nathan Road did their garish utmost to compete in terms of hurrying traffic and swarming crowds, and everywhere the cluttered unreadable shop signs. At night some streets cleared of traffic and were filled instead with market stalls that sold anything from cheap junk to light- weight suits and transistor radios. In the Typhoon harbor on Kowloon's west side were rows of big cargo and fishing junks, and at the back of the harbor the sampan slums filled with water dwellers and draped with washing. Chinese laborers hurried to and fro with boxes or buckets slung from old fashioned yokes across their shoulders and there was the overhanging smell of fish and over-ripe fruit. One the east side were the hundreds of gaudy bars where the Suzie Wongs showed their white thighs through slit dresses and gulped down lemonade and tea at champagne and whisky prices. There was the Banal Bar, the Playgirl Bar, the Tokyo Bar, Rikkifs Bar, the Soho Bar, the Horseshoe Bar, the Cherry Bar; the list was endless and I didn't bother to go into any of them. The beer was much cheaper in the China Fleet Club on Hong Kong side, and when that closed at eleven thirty there was always the Ship Inn where there were no bar girls, the beer was still reasonable, and they didn't throw you out until two or three in the morning. I left the Suzie Wongs for the American sailors.
At the bottom end of Nathan Road and just around the corner to the right was the Star ferry that took five minutes to cross the straits to Victoria and Hong Kong Island. Victoria was similar to Kowloon, the white skyscrapers soared higher and there were intriguing little stepped streets leading up the lower slopes of the Peak, but the bars, the touting rickshaw boys and the throb and bustle of surging life were all the same. From the top or the Peak there were superb aerial views out to sea, and back over the straits, Kowloon and the New Territories. Kowloon means nine dragons, and it was possible to pick out the encircling nine hills which give the mainland city its name. By day the scene was a vast panorama of sparkling blue sea, toy ships, shrunken white building blocks mushrooming upwards, and smudged purple hills fading into clouded China beyond. By night it was a starry display of lights, as though the Peak were an island in space rising above the Milky Way, and on the way down the tram car shot down its cable like a descending bullet.
On the seaward side of Hong Kong was the fishing settlement of Aberdeen, a narrow harbor packed tight with a forest of a forest of masts, junks and sampans. There were long rows of dead white fish laid out to dry on boards along the harbor and everywhere there was the mixed tangy smell of salt and sea and nets. A young Chinese woman with a baby on her back and a big lampshade hat won from her clamoring competitors the dubious privilege of showing me around the harbor, and I climbed down into her rocking sampan. The craft was steered by a long, rudder oar which she weaved slowly back and forth, and her only crew was a toddling little girl who stood happily on tip-toe and strained her pudgy arms to help push on the oar. The little tot finally slipped on her bottom and sat there laughing.
The mother simply worked and smiled.
The sampan moved out through a dark tunnel made by the slanting square sterns of two rows of large junks moored back to back, and then reached fairly open water. The dreamy rocking motion and the gentle creaking of the oar almost lulled me to sleep, but the passing variety of waterborne life held too much interest. Two little girls hauled lobster pots into a small, wobbling boat, and graceful junks carved a passage to the open sea. Across the blue water were the richly colored Sea Palace restaurants where you could select you fish supper while it was still swimming in special tanks. They looked like two elaborate Chinese riverboats on an oriental Mississippi.
At the back end of Aberdeen was a colorful slum of tin, wood and rag covered sampans all immovably crushed together. It was almost hidden behind a steep, yellow-dirt bank, and here a network of rickety plank catwalks zig-zagged precariously through the narrow gaps between the sun-bleached hulls. The planks sagged almost into the water and were built upon hotchpotch pilings of odd timbers and were lined with a flimsy bamboo handrail. I picked my way through the maze and there was cheerful poverty on all sides, shrouded with every conceivable kind of washing like ragged and faded flags. The women looked up guardedly as they squatted over cooking fires in the open sterns of the flat-bottomed sampans, but their men grinned with friendly curiosity. The children were excited little urchins who mobbed me every step of the way, like a vast tribe of gleeful monkeys. They all had open palms, but although they were begging there was nothing whining or sniveling about this lot, it was all a game and they all had slit-eyed faces that bubbled over with laughter. They bounced the wildly springing planks until I bounced them even harder and sent them all scurrying away, and it was a miracle that the whole network of plank bridges didn't collapse under their antics. They were the poorest of all the floating poor and their surroundings were squalid, but the kids at least knew how to have fun.
I toured the rest of Hong Kong Island on the local buses that followed the coast road around the green headlands and the bone-white crescent-moon beaches of Deep Water and Repulse Bay. At Stanley there was another jumbled fishing community, and in fact in every sheltered nook and inlet around Hong Kong and the New Territories the crowded scenes of junks and sampans were repeated over and over again. Nobody knows exactly how many floating Chinese live, love, breed and die on the water, for their numbers are always increasing as they flee from the Chinese mainland. In the time that it would take for any serious count to be taken so many would have been born and so many would have died that the total number would still be wrong.
Later I also toured around the New Territories on the mainland, the bus routes and numbers were given to me by one of the helpful Wongs. On leaving Kowloon there were great, soulless tenement blocks like square rabbit warrens, all with bamboo flagpoles of washing thrust out of every one of their thousands of windows. Beyond were the big modern factories, textile firms, weaving and dying malls, clothing manufacturers, and odd misfit firms like a biscuit factory. Further inland the landscape was all low hills, flat rice fields and cultivated plots. The small towns were like transplanted sections of Kowloon dumped here and there. Castle Peak which was once a beacon and lookout post to warn the pearling fleets of approaching pirates now overlooked another Aberdeen.
After my first two energetic weeks in Hong Kong I relaxed and waited for the Chinese New Year to come round. I had then been travelling continuously for five months and it was suddenly a pleasure to just waste time at the cheap, mid-day movie shows. My evenings were always spent in the China Fleet Club with a bunch of happy-go-lucky layabouts from the hostel. The Fleet Club was open to merchant seamen as well as the services, and so we simply wandered in and looked nautical, and nobody ever questioned our right to be there. When that closed we took the Star Ferry back to Kowloon and the ship inn where most of the World Travelers tended to congregate. Our rowdy parties were broken up at about half-past two in the morning when we marched back up Nathan Road and chased the Sikh doormen who stood all night outside two of the biggest hotels. There was the elderly Mister Singh who always ran up an arcade when he saw us coming, because we always insisted on shaking his hand to bid him good- night and our hands were always covered in grease from the fish and chips we were eating at the time. And then there was the young Mister Singh who always slept in his chair, and always tried to hide his chair in a different corner so that we couldn't find him. We always did find him, and we always woke him gently to bid him a polite goodnight. Both these Sikh gentlemen suffered with all cheerfulness when they were caught, but no doubt they were very glad when our particular group had all departed for new horizons.
The Wing Sing hostel piously closed its doors at twelve-thirty, so to gain entry to our rooms we had to make regular commando assaults over the back wall. The climb consisted of a three- foot wall, topped by a ten-foot almost perpendicular concrete slope, topped by an eight-foot fence. Fortunately there was a convenient tree growing from the top of the slope with its roots breaking through the concrete, and we were all adept at making a fast scramble over the whole barrier. In the dark and from the bottom it didn’t look too bad, but in sober daylight we would look down from the top and decide that we were all lunatics.
No doubt the devil does look after his for accidents were few. One night an Irishman named Barney split his trousers, but the only real tragedy was when Dave, the American, came over at dawn and dropped a bottle of beer. The beer bottle smashed and Dave cried and cursed. Finally he recovered from his loss and decided that he was going to teach all the ''fornicating chinks how to play baseball.” A bold Chinese voice uttered the traditional “Yank, go home,” and Dave spent the next half hour storming up and down the landing calling upon its owner to come out and fight. Finally he collapsed, but we had all barely got to sleep again before the four Wongs were moving about at eight in the morning and entertaining each other with mimed interpretations of how drunken Americans behaved.
We were all fortunate that the Captain in charge of that hostel was a tolerant and understanding man. That morning he asked a Canadian resident, “Who came over the wall last night?” To which the Canadian replied with all honesty, “just about everybody.”
During this time dramatic events had been taking place in Macao, the six-mile square Portuguese colony forty miles away on the other side of the great Pearl River estuary. In early December there had been serious riots and a Portuguese army commander had panicked and ordered his men to open fire. Seven Chinese were killed, and although the army commander had been whisked quickly back to Portugal, the Communist Chinese on the mainland had seized their opportunity to launch a massive propaganda drive against the Imperialists. Thousands of Mao’s thug Red Guards had massed on the Macao border, screaming slogans, threatening a massacre and demanding compensation and humble apologies on behalf of the dead rioters. While the propaganda was on their side they had also included a long list of other demands, and the ugly state of tension had been maintained for weeks. Finally Portugal had capitulated and signed a humiliating confession of responsibility, and the Red Guards had then staged massive victory demonstrations in Macao. When the fuss was over I paid the colony a visit.
It took just over an hour to get there on a fast-speeding hydrofoil that bounced and bucked as it skimmed over the calm blue waves. A two day visit was enough for Macao has aptly been described as the lesser of two pimples on the backside of China, (the other being Hong Kong) and it was no rush to walk around the whole of the colony in an afternoon. Almost, but not quite an island, it is separated from China by a narrow strip of land where the frontier is marked by a barrier gate. It was raining when I approached, and seen through the rain it was just a sleepy stone archway with not a single Chinese soldier in sight. No doubt they were all sheltering somewhere, for the policeman on the Portuguese side was careful not to let me get within a hundred yards.
Macao itself was like a lost corner of old world Portugal, full of narrow cobbled streets and mellowed buildings, all washed in pastel shades of yellow, pink and green. All the houses had elaborately grilled windows and bulging railed balconies suitable for Romeo and Juliet to play their love scenes. The roofs were all covered with ancient brown tiles. The Chinese influence was added by the gay shop signs, the oriental faces that flooded the streets, and the masses of junks and sampans that lined the inner harbor. Across the harbor channel were the rolling green hills that began the vast land mass of the Communist Peoples Republic.
There were three predominant landmarks: the rising hill that is marked by the white tower of the Guia Lighthouse, which looks out across the outer harbor to Hong Kong; the final bulge of narrow headland that wears the grey chateau of
Bishop's Palace like a drab crown, and a third hill in the center of the colony which supports the grey-stone, cannon- protected walls of the old Monte Fort. Close beside the fort stands the ruined facade of St. Paul’s cathedral which was gutted by a terrible fire in 1834. A long flight of wide stone steps leads up to the impressive front face, which is all that remains, and there are legends of lost tunnels and buried gold hidden by the cathedral priests which still draw the occasional treasure hunters to Macao.
However, most seekers after a quick fortune prefer to try the casinos. Thousands of Hong Kong Chinese usually pour into Macao during the New Year celebrations to gamble, but this year, due to the recent troubles, the flood had been reduced to a trickle. Three of the colony's five casinos were for Chinese only, but the plush casino at the Estoril Hotel and the more famous Floating Casino were open to tourists. The Floating Casino was like a three-decked riverboat with long golden dragons wriggling over it. Inside were long rows of one-armed bandits, and the traditional tables for roulette, blackjack, craps, and a variety of Chinese card and dice games. The upper deck was elegant and luxurious and the minimum stake was ten HK dollars, but on the lower deck the layout of the tables was identical but the surroundings less glamorous, and here the minimum stake was a mere dollar. I am not a gambling man, and merely wandered through with the interested eye of an observer.
Macao was at peace but it certainly didn't sound like it. The Chinese New Year depends upon the first sighting of the moon and came a day earlier than I had expected, and so found me still in Macao. Everyone in the colony was firing off Chinese crackers as fast as they could light the tiny fuses, and the noise was continuous. It sounded like rattling bursts of machine gun fire exploding through the streets and a revolution would have been almost inaudible by comparison. There were no puny November the fifth sparklers here, for when the Chinese make a cracker it’s a giant Jumping Jack that goes off like a barrage of artillery. And they let off millions of them. By evening the streets were almost ankle deep in a litter of red paper from the shredded cracker cartons, and I didn't envy whoever had to clean up the mess afterwards.
For the past two weeks the windows or the big stores in Hong Kong had been filled with big red banners reading Kung Hei Fat Choy, a traditional greeting meaning may you grow wealthy, and here in Macao the banners were repeated. Every house and junk and sampan also had its own fluttering little banners with New Year messages painted in gold letters, and joss sticks burned in every doorway. Paper money and paper effigies of houses were solemnly burned to the gods, and the water dwellers launched bright red and yellow paper ships and watched them drift out into the harbor until they heeled over and sank. Most families had ritual meals laid out for the gods, which were blessed by the priests and then eaten by the families themselves. The festivities were noisy and cheerful and lasted throughout the day. Through the three or four days following the children continued the cracker-banging to a lesser degree.
With the New Year over I set about planning my departure from Hong Kong. I had hoped to save myself a big chunk of money by working a passage home, but that sort of thing wasn't so easily done anymore, and even my old Merchant Navy discharge book was no help in finding me a place aboard a ship. The cargo ships carried mainly Chinese crews, and aboard the larger passenger liners like the P&O’s Himalaya all I got were snooty looks and the information that crew members were only signed on at the home port. There was a possibility that I might have got a Scandinavian ship if I had waited long enough, but a letter from home told me that my brother was getting married at the end of March and I had decided to try and get home for the wedding. The cheapest way was via Japan and the USSR, and having come all this way it did seem a pity not to take at least a quick look at Japan before I returned. Consequently I cabled home for some more money and booked a night flight with JAL to Tokyo.