Hong Kong, 1946: Report of a R.A.F. Pilot
Hong Kong, 1946
For a change, this part contains nothing directly related to aviation but instead describes our very different way of life following arrival in Hong Kong in early May 1946.
After weeks of living in dusty, fly-blown tents the change in lifestyle offered by 96 Sqdn's transfer to HK was profound, and most welcome into the bargain. The Sergeants' mess was situated in several blocks of flats off Argyle Street, a main thoroughfare directly in line with RW25 and thus leading to Nathan Road and the centre of Kowloon, my crew particularly fortunate in being allocated a flat in the nearby Eu Gardens, a modern 2-storey art-deco block possessing proper plumbing including running h&c plus a working fridge – our quality of life thus instantly taking a distinct upturn, as compared with anything offered by the Burmese ulu!
Indeed, for whatever reason Hong Kong appeared to be recovering from its wartime travails far quicker than Singapore, and was in another world as compared with dumps such as Rangoon. Restaurants of various types proliferated, serving quality fare at reasonable prices with cuisine ranging from Oriental to Russian, while the whole place even then gave more than a hint of the general 'buzz' that so typified it in later years. However the Tsim Sha Tsui central area was then much less commercialised than now, to the extent that zones such as Cameron Road and its environs were almost 100% residential with a mixture of villas, small blocks of flats and buildings such as the 1920s style Arlington Hotel (taken over by the RAF for use as a transit facility, its site to be later occupied by the Park Hotel); indeed, many properties even had small front gardens, property values obviously being much lower in those days! Across the harbour (as ever, courtesy of the Star Ferry) the central area of Victoria with its solid banking houses, mercantile buildings, colonial-style supreme court and other government offices all gave a distinct air of 'the Empire is here to stay', while the antiquated, top-heavy tramcars (incredibly still running today) provided a somewhat nostalgic link with home.
Behind all this arose the well-wooded slopes of Victoria Peak and conjoined summits, their virgin surface yet unsullied by the numerous concrete monoliths of today, while the few buildings that perched on or near the top in the vicinity of the Peak Tramway terminus were bare, empty ruins. Given that the city below appeared to be unmarked by war the contrast was initially difficult to understand, but in fact had a simple explanation: during the gap between cessation of hostilities and re-occupation by our own forces the Japs had virtually relinquished any attempt at keeping public order, and so the local populace had stripped them bare of everything – roofing, plumbing, wiring, furniture & fittings and, most desirable of all, the timber, there being a desperate shortage of all these items.
At ground level the most obvious deficiency for our daily living was lack of most forms of public transport. With the MTR long in the future the few buses, always grossly overloaded and with engine covers removed to aid cooling, groaned along belching clouds of smoke while taxis were almost non-existent, so either one hitched a ride off any military vehicle that came in sight or relied on human power - not rickshaws (too slow), but either a tricycle or plain bike. The trikes carried two in front on a seat between the wheels and were none too safe, while as for the bike one perched on a pillion seat with the rider sweating away in front; neither were a comfortable mode of travel, but had the advantage of being relatively cheap. Which leads to the topic of money, which in Hong Kong at that time seemed to involve the use of more paper than anywhere else, a situation exacerbated by there being no coinage whatever - only notes, yes even a note for 1c! Furthermore, denominations of $10 or above were issued by no less than three commercial banks rather than the government so inevitably, given an exchange rate of something like $16HK to the £, one's few pockets became somewhat stuffed with bumf.
Those familiar with the region will know this was the height of the hot season with its drenching humidity and frequent heavy rain, yet there were sufficient spells of reasonable weather to allow the only sensible form of exercise in such a climate – swimming. Although there was a shortage of wheeled transport in the civil world, the services seemed to have enough of the inevitable 3-tonners to spare for regular runs to selected sites – usually either a sandy beach somewhere to the west of Kowloon, or another spot with a diving platform over the hills behind the airfield. Undefiled by the litter and detritus of later years, and almost totally devoid of other humans whether Euro or local, they offered a pleasant swim in clean water, even if one did have to keep an eye open for the occasional sea snake.
Us SNCOs being accommodated two or more miles distant from the airfield we normally attended Squadron HQ only when required for duty, a sensible policy deserving of wider use. This HQ was initially in a somewhat ramshackle wooden building that was later obliterated by a typhoon (more on this event later) with its contents, including the log books of around 95% of our aircrew, scattered to the four winds; however, fearing such a calamity, I had previously disregarded what I considered a pointless and stupid order that all log books should be kept therein and was thus spared having to 'guesstimate' my flying record when fabricating a new one.
However it was not long before one drawback to my recent elevation in rank became apparent, that of being eligible for the chore of Orderly Officer. Aside from the usual duties associated with this office, on certain days it involved having to pay the civilian cleaning staff - not on base, but for some strange reason in a corrugated iron building on the other side of the main road. So, having collected a Chinese clerk and the necessary funds, the pair of us would trudge through a vegetable garden to reach this strange place that reputedly housed a few reclusive (but never seen) nuns, where from a bare table I doled out money as called out by the clerk. The recipients were female, all clad in the pyjama-like dress worn by working Chinese women of those days, but what mainly struck me was the miserably low pay that was their lot – usually in the order of $15HK (barely £1) for what was presumably a week's work – no wonder they all looked so glum. Then there was the curious incident of the enraged senior naval officer, who blasted me down the phone because he had found a local using his private loo; exactly what I was supposed to do about it was not clear, as I was on the RAF side of the airfield (with no transport) and he on the other, non-RAF side.
So altogether life was on a different level as compared to our previous existence, especially to the unaccustomed but much-appreciated availability of adequate supplies of beer – the San Mig brewery having (praise be) survived the war unharmed!
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