Life at the French Convent | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

Life at the French Convent

Date(s) of events described: 
Sat, 1 Jan 1921 to Mon, 1 Jan 1923

At our Convent: Ma Mere,the Reverend Mother,was French; and the Head Mistress of the school, Ma Soeur Beatrice, was English. Sister Beatrice was severe, and we were rather afraid of her. Most of the nuns were French, with a few Chinese and Portuguese. 
My favourite nun was Ma Soeur Alix. She came out from France in 1922, aged about 26, and was teacher of the top class. She was kind and sympathetic, and never lost her temper. If she left the classroom and we took advantage of her absence and began talking, she would come in again smiling, with her hands over her ears, exclaiming in her very French accent "What a cacophony"! In her class, the naughty girls always sat in front and the good girls at the back! I do not know how we learned English from so French a nun, but when I passed my matriculation at the University, I won a Distinction in English. 
Sister Alix taught the 4th (top) Class, Sister St. Louis (and later Sister Elizabeth) taught the 3rd Class, Sister St. Leon the 2nd Class, Sister John the 1st Class, and Sister Blandine (and later Sister Lawrence) the Babies' Class. Sister Cecile was the sewing teacher. I cannot remember ever learning anything except cross stitch in red cotton from her! Sister Vincent was the music teacher and there was always the sound of the piano. She used to shout angrily at us from the window of the music room, when our loud voices in the playground disturbed a piano lesson. 
The nuns liked to organise entertainments. I can remember "Queen of the Roses", with Audrey and some of the other younger girls as Rose Fairies. On another occasion, I was "Britannia", wearing a helmet. And once there was a grand fancy dress party, when we were all photographed on the school steps, Rosie Xavier and I both dressed as Watteau shepherdesses. 
We Church of England girls used sometimes to join the Catholics in the school chapel, with its ornate statues, and the altar decorated with lilies, and the strange aroma of incense. We sang the Lourdes "Ave Maria" and "Heart of Jesus", and were given Jesus pictures by the nuns. On the wall of our class room hung a large picture of St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, our nuns' favourite saint. Occasionally Catholic priests would visit the classrooms. They were French or Italian with huge black beards. The nuns would flutter around them, and we girls would feel nervous. 
The playground of the Convent and the stone steps leading up to the school were crowded with pots of flowering plants, marguerites covered with white blooms, and sweet smelling heliotrope, and many others. The Chinese excelled in pot gardening. 
From the playground we could see into the cellars. There were cases and cases of wine. The nuns would come into class after tiffin gently breathing whiffs of wine over us. 
In the dining room sometimes we had the school tiffin, but usually we brought sandwiches, envying the Chinese girls whose amahs appeared from home with grand hot meals in enamel containers fitted one on top of another. After tiffin we often went out and bought nuts or fruit from the Chinese stalls. 
The Convent girls were of many nationalities - English, French, Chinese, Portuguese, Scottish, Siamese, Parsee, Spanish, German, American and Eurasian. 
Our best friends among the Chinese were Jean, May and Alma 0 Hoy (they were from Australia), Agnes Pau., Ruby Chue, Frances and Sylvia Heyshing, and Julia Lam. I used to wish that I could draw and paint as well as Julia did. But all the Chinese girls seemed to find it quite easy to produce exquisite flower paintings, whenever the nuns demanded them of us. Agnes Pau was clever and rather serious. She became one of Hong Kong's teachers, and headmistress of a big school. Parrin Ruttonjee, a Parsee of India, loved to read the magazine "Titbits", and used to pass them on to me to enjoy the jokes. She was one of our-cleverest girls, and became a distinguished Hong Kong doctor. 
Emily Landolt was partly Swiss and partly Japanese. I liked her for her easygoing, laughing nature. Lily Shearer was partly English and partly Japanese - she was a boarder at the Convent, very gentle and sweet and rather holy - the girls used to say she would become a nun. Yvonne and Cecilia Phalavasu were Siamese; Mary Soriano was Spanish; Mercedes Muller was German; Simone and Marcelle Gain, and their little identical twin sisters, Marie—Louise and Marie-Therese, were French. Rosie Xavier, Ernina Remedios, Leonora Collaco, Marie Nolasco and Lina Silva-Netto were Portuguese, Kathlynne Naylor and Dorothy and Katie Kirschberg were American, and came as boarders from the Philippines. Kathlynne was sophisticated, and I admired her and became her friend, but she hated the Convent and soon left Hong Kong. She used to write to me from California and send me pressed Mariposa lilies and other Californian flowers. Gladys Addison and her sister, half English and half French, came from the romantic Seychelle Islands. 
There was a large group of Scottish girls, daughters of employees of the Taikoo Dockyard - among them were, Betty Laing, Jenny Whyte, Jean Foulds, Mamie Wallace and Cathie Ferguson. We called them "The Taikoo Girls". Some of the English girls were Vera Stanley, Joyce and Iris Thornhill, Beatrice Hardwick, Lily and Katie Grimes, Daphne and Patsy Nicol, Irene Deacon, Zena Bersey, Marjorie Hansen (who was partly Danish) and Nancy and Kathleen McEwen (partly Scottish). Marjorie and Nancy were my two best English friends - they joined the Girl Guides with me. Zena was a lively little girl from Cornwall, very pretty with black curly hair, whose father had a fine voice and sang at concerts. Zena herself loved to sing "My beautiful my beautiful" (the Arab's farewell to his steed). Among our other school friends were Gertie and Kathleen Simmons, and Ruby, Rosebud and Vivienne Young, all of whom were exceptionally pretty; and Tootsie and Connie Smith. 
Fat cheerful Daphne Nicol got appendicitis and died. We all went to her funeral, and hysterically threw earth on to her coffin. Poor Mrs. Nicol had masses of photographs of Daphne copied and distributed among her school friends.


There's a list of staff of the French Convent in the early days of the Japanese occupation in the Hong Kong PRO and it seems that a number of the nuns mentioned in the diary were still there.

The headmistress (' Sister Beatrice') might be Beatrix Robert, aged 66, French.

The friendly Sister Alice might be Alice Merat, 47, French.

There are also:

Elisabeth Chevalier, 64 French

Cecile Michaud, 69, French

Laurence Billet, 49, French

Louise Pereux, 53, French (might just be 'Sister St. Louis).

The Reverend Mother in 1942 was St. Saviour Vermeesch, a Belgian woman of 74.


Dr. Parrin Ruttonjee helped Dr. Selwyn-Clarke in his relief work during the occupation.