When we were children, the Compradore Book was an important
item of housekeeping. Every day Mamma would write in it the
food and household things needed, and the Boy or Amah would
take it to the Compradore's (Chinese grocer's shop), where the
prices would be added beside Mamma's list, and Boy or Amah would bring the various items home.
Mamma never went into the kitchen. She said it was better
not to interfere. And certainly everything worked smoothly
that way. Our food could not have been more delicious, or the
house run better. The servants were early risers, and by breakfast
time the house would be clean and tidy. But of course Mamma,
Audrey and I were away all day at our offices.
House Boys wore white jackets and trousers. Coolies also wore
white, but someimes their trousers were black. Amahs always
wore white jackets and shiny black trousers.
Considering how noisy the Chinese could be, it was amazing
how quiet the servants were. In their soft shoes they made no
sound as they moved over the bare wooden highly polished floors.
And from the kitchen no loud voices were ever heard.
In the old days every house had a filter, an earthenware jar for
filtering the drinking water in times of epidemics of cholera or
some such disease. Filtered water tasted horrid. We often had
water shortages, when the reservoirs nearly ran dry in times of
drought - then our drinking water had to be filtered too.
Soft drinks were made locally by Watson's the chemist, - lemonade,
orangeade, ice cream soda, sarsaparilla - called "sarsy-suey" by the
Chinese, "suey" being water. The bottles were light green and
closed by green marbles. To open the bottle you pushed the
marble in with your thumb, and out would come an
explosion of fizz.
When two Chinese friends saw each other coming in the street,
they could not wait to meet, but began to shout to each other,
"Wai, hai pin su-ah?" - Hello, where are you going?
The Taipans, (heads of business firms) and their families lived in
beautiful houses on the Peak, with grand views over the sea
and islands. The bachelors' messes of the Hongs or business firms,
such as Wayfoong, (the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank,) and Ewo
(Jardine, Matheson and Co), and the others, were on the Peak too. But we envied them not, for although it was cooler up there in the
summer, they were often enveloped in thick fog, and their houses
became damp, and books and shoes grew mouldy. Wardrobes and
cupboards in Peak houses had electric lights inside to stave off
The wealthy Chinese lived in grand houses too, mostly: on the
slopes of the Peak and other hills to the west of Victoria.
Mah Jong was played by Westerners as well as by Chinese, but
there was a world of difference. For us it was quite an effort
to play with the Chinese and to keep up with them! They played
at high speed, notlooking at the tiles, but just feeling them, and
they would bang them down on the table without bothering to
call out the number or suit of the tile. Of course the game was
much more exciting played in this old Chinese way. They were great
gamblers, and large sums of money changed hands at Mah Jong.
They would play until the early hours of morning. The clatter of
tiles could be heard far away, especially in the summer when
everyone's windows were open. Poor Mamma used to be kept
awake by the noise, and would complain bitterly.
West Point was full of life at night. From the brilliantly lit
Chinese restaurants came loud voices and the sound of Chinese
music, mingled with the clatter of Mah Jong tiles. The Chinese
loved bright lights and plenty of noise. No wonder Hong
Kong was such a cheerful place.
A Chinese dinner at one of these restaurants was a grand affair.
Sometimes we children were invited with the grownups. The dinner
always started late, and to while away the time we ate "fa sang",
peanuts, and "kwa chee", melon seeds. You cracked the
kwa chee shells and took out the seeds with your front teeth,
and the shells fell everywhere. The Chinese restaurants were vast
places full of private rooms all engaged by Chinese for dinner
parties, and we children were allowed to wander about
the building until dinner was served. There were children in the
Chinese parties having to wait too, it seemed, because we
used to meet them in our wanderings, all of us peeping into
the other private dining rooms to see the other parties, but no
one minded. There was a great feeling of fun and gaiety and
plenty of noise and the clatter of dishes, and waiters coming in
from the kitchen with trays laden with bowls of lovely smelling
food, and sometimes the sound of Chinese music. Our dinner
began at last, everyone sitting at a huge round table, with
chopsticks and bowls, and feasting on sharksfin and birdsnest soup,
garoupa, sweet and sour pork, roast duck skin, chicken and
walnuts, fried rice', and countless other delicacies.
But honestly we liked just as much to share some of our
Amah's food at home. She used to squat on the ground
cooking it over a charcoal fire, a little fish and cabbage and
boiled rice. We loved the layer of rice that had stuck to the
bottom of the pan and was all crackly and burnt. Rich foods are
kept for parties, but everyday Chinese food is quite simple.
At the Chinese hotels and restaurants special rooms were set aside
for Mah Jong games, and also for those who wished to smoke
opium; these provided couches with small tables beside them,
both I think made of blackwood and marble. Opium was smoked
while reclining, and the little tables were for preparing the opium
There is a memory of being stranded on a beach when we were
very young. I think it was at Lyemun Bay. Our launch had to
go away on business and the coxswain promised to return soon.
Afternoon came, and no launch - and evening came, and still
no launch! The sun set and darkness began to fall. We all
sat at the top of the beach, waiting and wondering. The night
insects came out and began to make buzzing noises in the
bushes behind us. How thankful we were when the launch arrived
Our newspapers were the South China Morning Post, the Hong
Kong Telegraph, and the China Mail. Young Chinese boys sold
them in the streets, calling out "Mor Po", "Te Ga", "Chai Mei"!
Our favourite fruits were the laichees, persimmons and tangerines,
and all the children loved the sweet juicy sugar cane. It was
sold in pieces several inches long, and we bit off pieces and
after chewing them spat the remains out on the ground.
Causeway Bay near our Convent was a typhoon shelter for junks
and sampans, being an especially sheltered bay. It was a
favourite place at all times with the junk people - those who
lived their whole lives in junks - and we would see their
sampans yulo-ing people back and forth to the junks. A sampan
was propelled by a man or woman standing, moving the single
oar back and forth - this was to "yulo". We saw the fishermen
pulling in their nets, wearing the usual large straw hats,
white jackets and black or brown trousers.
Typhoons were awe-inspiring happenings. At the first sign of
the coming of a typhoon, signals were hoisted, so that people
could prepare, The sampan and junk people took their boats to
the typhoon shelters, and the Naval and merchant ships went to
the middle of the harbour to "ride out" the storm. Typhoons
came in the heat of the summer. At first there was a queer
stillness, a dark grey sky and a little rain.
Offices and shops closed, and everyone hurried to catch the
last ferries or trams to get home. Then the last signal went
up, and our houses were made safe by closing and barring
the wooden shutters over the windows, and shutting every
door. The rain came, and the wind started blowing, harder and
harder. It was so hot indoors with everything closed up, we
felt stifled. And the wind howled and shrieked, and trees
were uprooted, branches torn off, and everything loose in the
streets would fly. People were knocked over - you couldn't stand
in such a wind - and sometimes ships were sunk in the
harbour. Once Audrey and I tried to go outside our house in a
typhoon, but we were soon knocked over and had to crawl back
indoors. We were lucky not to be hit by flying debris.
In a few hours the typhoon was over, and people left the
shelter of buildings to see the most awful scenes of devastation.
Trees and branches and pieces of houses and all kinds of
things lying about, and everything was wet, and the air felt hot
and wet too. "Typhoon" comes from the Chinese "dai fung",
meaning "big wind".
Cloth Street was a collection of little open-fronted shops, selling
pretty flowered cotton material in great variety. The Chinese
women bought cloth here for their dresses, and we did too
when we needed something unusual. Once Audrey and I went to a fancy dress party dressed as "Early Victorian" ladies, wearing
elaborate gowns made by our tailor and his assistants out
of material from Cloth Street. But they were used to making our
long evening dresses, so nothing deterred these clever men.