LIFE'S HELL IN THE EAST | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong


This first appeared in issue #1 of 'History Notes', compiled by the late Phillip Bruce. It is reproduced here on Gwulo by kind permission of Mr Bruce's family.

In December 1987 I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase a copy of "Notes On The China Command 1932". This was a semi-official publication as it was on sale in Hong Kong during the latter half of 1932 and during 1933 for 50 cents. It was printed by "Ye Olde Printerie Ltd, Hong Kong".

There is a note on page one, dated May 1932, which reads: "...The Director of Movements and Quartering at the War Office has been asked to send (in the same envelope which contains his embarkation orders) a copy of the 'Notes On The China Command' to every individual officer embarking for the China Command during the trooping season 1932/33..."

The following brief extracts will show readers the life-style of the British Army officer serving in the colony in the early 1930s.

The section dealing with dress makes the following recommendations:

"...Uniform - Dress Regulations are strictly enforced with certain modifications dictated by the climate. During the winter, Service Dress is worn. During the summer, from April to November, Khaki Drill and white mess jackets. Solar topees from May to November.

"Officers are advised not to bring more Khaki Drill or white mess jackets than are necessary for the voyage - normally two sets of each should be sufficient as all requirements can be made up very cheaply by local tailors (Indian or Chinese). Khaki material normally worn is the green pattern. Full dress is not required.

"Mufti. For winter ordinary outfit, as worn at home, is suitable, but very thick clothes are seldom required. Woolens, flannels and tweeds are expensive locally. Ladies' furs are worth bringing out.

"For summer, Palm Beach or other thin suitings. Except for wear on the voyage out there is no need to bring a summer outfit, the local tailors being good and cheap..."

Under the heading "Accommodation" the then current hotel rates and monthly rental for private flats was given and are reproduced here as they will form a sharp contrast with prices 56 years later.

"...Officers' messes are in use by the British and Indian Infantry battalions and Royal Artillery. The latter have a Headquarters Mess at Kowloon and other messes at Stonecutters and Lyemun for the British Batteries stationed at these places.

"There are a few quarters for RA officers both on the island of Stonecutters and on the mainland. There are five officers' flats, 1 400 feet up the Peak, in Mount Austin Barracks. Otherwise, there are no officers' quarters in Hong Kong.

"Married officers can obtain modern flats at a monthly rental ranging from HK$190-$240 at Kowloon and $270-$320 on the Peak. This includes rates and taxes.

"Hotels give special monthly rates which vary considerably.

  Married Couple Single Officer
Peninsula Hotel  $510-$700 $270-$450
Repulse Bay Hotel $450-$700 $200-$450
Peak Hotel $350-$500 $200-$250

"There are good boarding houses, both at Kowloon and on the island. Their charges vary, but, as a rule, are extremely reasonable. All-in rates for a married couple are from $300 to $500 per month. Single officers can also obtain board and lodgings from $200 per month at the Hong Kong Club, but normally there is a long waiting list..."

There was also a note added to the publication to the effect that the Lodging Allowance payable at Hong Kong "approximately covers local rentals."

The publication covers a whole range of information for those officers who were about to be posted to Hong Kong and one other interesting note deals with the attendance at Mess and reads as follows:

"It is quite possible, therefore, for an individual living on the Peak who wishes to dine in the Mess of the British Infantry battalion on the mainland at Shamshuipo to be compelled on a wet night to use, in succession, the following means of transport: 1, Chair; 2, Peak Tramway; 3, Ricksha; 4, Ferry; 5, Hired motor car or ricksha.."

One item that brings to light the difference in serving in Hong Kong in the 1930s and the present day is the time taken for correspondence to travel between Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.

The following paragraph is reproduced from the notes which quite clearly shows that the air-mail postal service was still a thing of the future.

"Correspondence. Letters via Siberia arrive in 20 days whilst those via Suez take about 30 days. Considering the disturbed state of the country, interruptions of the Siberian Railway are reasonably few and far between..."

Finally in the summary the officer who had been nominated for service at Hong Kong must have been encouraged by the next comment, but it was of little consolation to those posted to Shanghai or Tientsin. The paragraph reads; " opposed to the flatness and ugliness of Shanghai and Tientsin, Hong Kong can justly rank as one the world's beauty spots. The scenery in places is truly wonderful. ... "

- Alan Harfield