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Hong Kong in the 1950s

During the British National Service years I was stationed in Hong Kong from 1954 to 1957. Initially I was one of the R.E.M.E. personnel attached to the 27th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment at Stanley Fort on Hong Kong Island. Then followed a short period on Stone Cutters Island before I was finally transferred to the R.E.M.E. workshop in Shamshuipo. Repatriation came in July 1957, and I was sorry to leave. Hong Kong I mean, not the Army! I couldn't wait to get out of the bxxxxy Army! But I had fallen in love with Hong Kong.

This was a period when the expression 'old China hand' still had a resonance. Colonialism was still very much alive, and in Hong Kong grand hotels such as the Peninsula or fashionable watering holes such as Jimmy's Kitchen catered for the middle-class European establishment.

All well out of range of a humble squaddy's pocket of course. At weekends they could generally be found downing draught Tiger at the China Fleet Club or trying to make their San Mig go a long way in a Wanchai bar.(1) And no doubt muttering invective against the officer class who were clearly determined to curtail their fun.

There were 10,000 British servicemen stationed in Hong Kong, the number of potential combatants on the street periodically swollen when the US Sixth Fleet were in harbour. And every one of them, squaddies and gobs alike, looking for a drink. Water shortages and rationing were frequent in Hong Kong, with bars full of blocked toilets which would stay like that until the authorities turned the water on again, but it seemed to have no effect on the Hong Kong breweries' ability to keep pace with the servicemens' throats.

This was the era when Bill Haley and the Saddlemen reinvented themselves as Bill Haley and the Comets and introduced Rock and Roll to the world. Blackboard Jungle was showing at Hong Kong's Hoover Cinema, Fats Domino's Blueberry Hill was in every jukebox, and Buddy Holly's Peggy Sue was in everyone's head.

A long gone world when Pearl River junks, British destroyers, and US aircraft carriers mingled in the harbour, and at Hong Kong Village ('Aberdeen') you could still the sampaan people in their 'floating world'. William Holden was a big hit in Han Suyin's Love Is A Many Splendored Thing, and Richard Mason was writing the World of Suzie Wong, also to star Holden when they made it into a film. But little of that era is left today.

Looking at old photos of Hong Kong - with more perceptive eyes than I had then - it can now be seen that the era was a bridge between two periods. In the banks and Hong Kong commercial establishments typewriters and adding machines were the norm, but in the small shops that lined every street the abacus was still king and a receipt was as likely to be written with a brush as with a pen. On the Hong Kong waterfront, nineteenth-century colonial architecture was cheek-by-jowl with new high-rise buildings. The race for visual supremacy had begun, and the Bank of China was currently in the lead. No prizes for guessing who won.

Ever since my time in Hong Kong I have had an interest in Chinese language and literature. I studied for several years at the Working Man's College in London, and later at the Polytechnic of Central London (now the University of Westminster). In 1981 I spent the summer studying in China at Renmin University, Beijing.

The China Fleet Club was an icon to British servicemen, and it is therefore surprising that its official history is not hosted by the British Royal Navy or the British Army, but at The Gun Plot, a personal site concerning the Royal Australian Navy. [See links page] On second thoughts, given the difference in class attitudes, perhaps it's not so surprising.