My grandparents came from Taishan/Toishan (台山), a region on the southern coast of Guangdong province of China and about 140 kilometres west of Hong Kong. Both the two words above refer to the same region, and Toishan’s English pronunciation is closer to how the people there call their home. Some of the villages and towns in their time no longer appear in today’s maps after they became a part of a large municipal entity.
When in their home town, my grandparents spoke Taishanese - a safe guess since I was not yet born. After they moved to Hong Kong, they continued to speak the Taishan dialect.
During my time in Kong Kong, I lived with Grandparents Chan in their rental flat in Sham Shui Po. Stepping outside our home, I found people around us spoke Cantonese which was, and still is, the most commonly spoken dialect in Hong Kong. So, learning both dialects was a natural process.
2.1 Grandparents (Maternal) On Mother’s Side
Grandpa* Chan / 陳凙雲 CHAN Chak Wan (1898-1966). Ah Gong in Taishanese.
Grandma* Chan- 麥翠亭 MARK Chu Ting (1898 – 1978). Ah Po in Taishanese.
Their home town - 廣州省 台山 斗山 江華村 Guangdong Province, Taishan, Doushanzhen, Jiangning, Gong Wah Village.
They moved to Hong Kong sometime in the 1930s. Grandma was fluent in her Taishan dialect, and skillful in her writing which was exceptional at the time when most women did not have access to education. Her writing ability enabled her to write letters in Chinese for friends and neighbours who could not.
Grandpa worked as an accountant in an import-export company 英盛隆 (Yin Sing Lung) at 83 Connaught Road West, First Floor (Level 2), a job he held until his death in 1966. To go to work, he took a rickshaw from where he lived (Ki Lung Street) to the Sham Shui Po ferry pier at Pei Ho Street and Tung Chau Street junction. After landing on the Hong Kong side, it was a short walk to the office.
Like grandma, grandpa was also well-educated, and his writing using the traditional Chinese brush-pen demonstrated exceptional penmanship. I was impressed one day when I visited him and saw him recording the shipments of goods going out and coming in, the payments, all in Chinese. He worked six days a week to verify the accuracy of goods shipment, and often came home late.
2.2 Grand-Parents (Paternal) On Father’s Side
Grandpa Yee - 余淙和 / YEE Dong Woo (1892-1952). Ah-Yah in Taishanese.
Grandma Yee - 甄裕秀 / YAN Yee Sou (1894-1963). Ah-Ngin in Taishanese.
Their home town - 廣州省 台山 荻 海 北山村 Guangdong Province, Huohai, Beishan Village, Taishan County (now part of Kaiping), on the south shore of Tanjiang River in Kaiping just west of Sanbu Residential District.
When he was a young man, grandpa went to Saskatchewan, Canada to work, which was common that time for young men in the Taishan region. Grandpa must have worked and saved hard, for he sent enough money home to support his wife (my grandma), their children one of them my father and father's attendance at university in Guangzhou. His savings also enabled grandma to buy a house in Guangzhou where he planned to live in his retirement.
Grandma grew up in an era when people had/followed different ideals and cultures. She had bound feet and had very little education. To help her with house chores – cooking, laundry and site maintenance, she had a young assistant living at the house, and we called her by her given name Yeu San. Some of these servants were orphans and I believe it was also true for her. She stayed with grandma until the latter left Guangzhou for Hong Kong in 1953. When she became an adult, she started her own family and eventually they also moved to Hong Kong.
Grandpa passed away in 1952 in Canada. I never met him but perhaps he had, on one of his home visits, patted me on the head when I was a baby. Here, I pay tribute to his courage and foresight going alone to a foreign place to work to support his family.
Mother - 陳玉屏 / CHAN Yuk Ping / Lena Yee (1922-2003) "Ma Ma"
Father – 余欽美 / YEE Ham Mee (1915-2008), Ham in Taishanese dialect "Ba Ba"
Mother (first on the left, standing) and her classmates and teachers. Mother has started her schooling at the new Maryknoll Convent School in Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong. The girls in different uniform continued their schooling in Chinese school.
My parents were born in their respective home villages. My mother and her parents moved to Hong Kong when she was young. She attended Chinese primary school and next Maryknoll Convent School in Kowloon, Hong Kong. Because most subjects at Maryknoll were taught in English, she became fluent with the English language. She also attended classes at other institutions about human health. I remember her giving injections to grandparents when they got sick. In those days, people believed, and I think it is true, that injections cured the sick faster than oral medicine. Luckily, I escaped her needles.
My father completed his university education in January 1943 at Kwong Tung Kuo Min University in Licki Wan, Canton (Guangzhou), major in Political Science. Licki Wan does not show in today's map but the present Liwan District might have been at one time called Licki Wan. While his main subject would later earn him a civil servant job with the provincial government, his main interests were also Chinese history, literature and poems. In later years, ball-room dancing was added to his list of interests.
Father passed away in 2008. By his bedside was a photo of him and mother at Hong Kong's Royal Botanical Garden.
He also kept several books close to him. One of them was 300 Tang Poems / 唐詩三百首 - a collection of 300 popular poems from the Tang Dynasty.
Another book was a collection of quotes and phrases about how we govern ourselves as individual, as parents, when dealing with friends and neighbours, in business. One chapter is about governance - how government works, its relations with citizens, the good and the bad, how to earn trust and support from citizens, why some governments succeed and others fail. This book (or similar books) is a good read regardless of time and place.
We learn from our parents at some point in time when and where we were born. In my case, I learned about it in 1950, one year after our family moved from Guangzhou to Hong Kong. There wasn’t much space for this active five-year old boy to play in grandparents flat. But I made the most of it. When father heard me playing, he would say “你 個 馬 壩 仔! (You Maba baby!)” I could see his smiling face and sense of relief. Mom didn’t say anything, perhaps father’s words had already covered it, not until many years later.
I had no idea where Maba was. We children were not encouraged to be inquisitive. One thing is certain – they never told us children about WWII and the subsequent civil war. It was their decision, I believe, to not burden us children with the memories of those horrible years.
From over-hearing their conversations with relatives, I learned about their wartime evacuation. One day, my uncle (to be precise, my grandpa Yee's younger brother’s son*) and mother were talking about them running from advancing Japanese soldiers. Mom said she was lucky and thankful of his loud warning “Auntie, duck down quick!”, for bullets from the invaders were flying just above them. Some relatives reached Shaoguan / 韶關, which was made temporary provincial capital during the war. Mother, carrying me at the time, travelled not as fast or as far. It was in a refugee camp in Maba where I was born, on November 9, 1944. Maba is located, in flying distance, about 270 kilometres north of Hong Kong. It must have been a very long and difficult journey using primitive roads and trails in those days.
*Uncle Joe Yee, first on right of photo. Mother third from right.
After WWII, our evacuation ended and we returned to the Guangzhou house. Father started his civil servant job in the provincial government. His work took him to many places to meet with local authorities. Every time he travelled, he carried a declaration issued by his superior. The declaration stated that he is on government business, and that no inspection of his luggage contents is necessary. Later, I learned the reason why. For his protection and safety, he carried a hand gun, so that paper made going through local police check point a simple process.
I lived in our Guangzhou home about the first four years of my life. It was at 23 錦 榮街 / Gum Wing Street, and was several minutes walk from the current site of Dr. Sun Yat-sen's Memorial Hall / 中山紀念堂. The 3-storey building was made of concrete, and our home was on the ground floor with a yard with a flower garden and a detached kitchen. There was a large iron gate wide enough for a car to drive through although they did not have a car. Levels 2 and 3 each had two flats rented out to tenants.
As a young boy, I ventured out to play with other children. I walked through a quiet neighbourhood with single houses on large lots similar to the atmosphere of the 1950s Kowloon Tong estate in Hong Kong. Next, I walked through rice paddies to join with my friends. Grandma was assisted by her daughter (my aunt) and subsequently her grandson in managing the property.
Seventy years have passed, and the area is now part of a dense busy metropolis. Tall buildings are everywhere, and amazingly, our three-level former home remains standing but I don’t know for how much longer.
The year 1949 was a pivotal point for China and by extension my family. The civil war on the mainland had ended and this time my parents needed to make another decision. Father kept this education and some work papers for memory's sake, and left his civil servant job. Next, the whole family including me and my two sisters took a ferry to Hong Kong. I was four years old at the time. Grandma Yee stayed behind in Guangzhou and would join us in Hong Kong in 1953.
After our ship reached in Hong Kong, we stayed several days at Grandpa Chan's work office on Connaught Road West. There was not much to do except waiting and watching grandpa work. They used an interesting method to record the goods delivered and received. As a coolie was leaving the junk carrying a sack of rice on his back, he was given a short bamboo stick by a man standing on the water's edge. After crossing the road, he gave the stick to another man who was sitting at the entrance to the warehouse. Next, he entered the warehouse to drop off the load.
A few days later, we loaded our belongings onto a small truck with uncovered bed. I remember sitting on a piece of our luggage as the Jordan vehicle ferry sailed towards Kowloon. As our ferry was inching towards the Jordan pier ramp, the scene was unforgettable.
The last stop was Grandpa Chan's flat at 111 Ki Lung Street, 2nd floor meaning level 3 counting from the ground. It had a walkout uncovered balcony we called 騎樓.
This week's newsletter is a guest post from Peter Yee, an extract from his colourful memories of growing up in Hong Kong in the 1950s.
7.1 My Neighbourhood
Ki Lung Street was quiet with almost no car traffic during my early years in Hong Kong. It was two city blocks from the wider Lai Chi Kok Road which handled the bulk of the vehicle and pedestrian traffic.
This photo was taken from the east end (first street block) of Ki Lung Street looking west. My home was two blocks up and on the left. Although it was taken in 1965, the scene on the left side was very similar to that in 1949. The street had no parked cars on my block. By the early 1960s, taller buildings have replaced some of the pre-war shophouses as shown on the right of the photo.
On our walk-out uncovered balcony, father had a large aquarium built for his collection of tropical fish. He kept pigeons as pets at one time. He spent a long time making and improving the water-feeder for the birds, which is typical of him trying to improve whatever he was interested in. After my parents left for Canada, I continued to use the aquarium although it had developed a small leak.
There were very few private residences at ground level in my neighbourhood. Shops and restaurants were everywhere making it convenient when buying grocery and dining out. Everything we bought were fresh - meat, vegetables and fish. There were two Dai Pai Dong's few shops from us to the east, one serving assorted beef needle soups and the other hot drinks and sandwiches. Later, ice cold coffee was added to their menu when they bought a large refrigerator. One block away from our home, on Poplar Street, there was a street market.
Across the street from our balcony was a small primary school 國䧏小學 occupying levels 2-3 and the rooftop. At street level was 東如茶室 a dim-sum restaurant. Both their signs were visible from our balcony, and I always looked at them whenever I looked outside. After a while, their word-strokes got etched in my mind and never left me. Below our flat at ground level was a tin-box factory with machinery and motor-belts moving along their ceiling. And on the other side of our staircase was a bicycle shop 順安單車 where arc-welding using sticks and acetylene torch were their main business. Because of my interest in both, the young workers there became my street-friends. These business are all long gone, only memories of them remain.
There were three street scenes that, though with no significant ramifications, had a lasting impression on this boy:
Police and Fish Sellers (1952)
In the early 1950s at the Poplar Street market, street vendors operated their business on the street and removed their belongings at closing time. Fruit and vegetable vendors were mainly women. Fish sellers were young men with minimal set up, for good reason. Occasionally, the police showed up unannounced, so the young men had to outrun them. One time, I saw a policeman walking with a young man he just caught, no handcuffs, no use of force, just a walk to the police vehicle and next no doubt to the police station several blocks away. The young man likely spent a few hours, or one night at most, at the station. Poor folks, they both had to work to support their family!
Two Gamblers Fighting But Not For Food (1955)
At Tai Nam Street and west of Boundary Street, there was a public washrooms building. It was not the most pleasant place to go to unless you have to go. Across from the service lane on Tai Nam Street was a Mahjong parlour with about ten tables inside making one combination of smell and sound, and with and unusual sight added one day!
Outside the Mahjong parlour and next to the shophouse pillar, a man sold/served sweet porridge (congee). His set up consisted of two large clay pots, one for red beans with dried orange peels and the other mung (green) beans with a herb call rue. He kept them hot with two small charcoal burners, and sat on his little low stool all day. There were also two stools for customers. His business survived because he made very tasty sweet food.
One day, I was walking by his business when two men ran out of the Mahjong parlour. Next, they started to fight on the sidewalk. The vendor immediately placed himself between the fighters and his business. Facing his two clay pots, he spread his feet, bent his knees to lower the body, his hands above the two pots while the two men fought behind him. What a sight to watch! After about 30 seconds, the two men walked away in different directions.
Run For His Life (1956)
Apliu Street near the Maple Street Playground was a quiet street with a T-junction at both ends. One late evening, I looked out from Grandma Yee's rental room and saw no one on the street. A moment later, I saw a man running and crossing the street to the other side towards Cheung Sha Wan Road. Another man was chasing him. Before the first man disappeared around the corner, he called out desperately " 救命啊!" (Save life please!). Next, his pursuer also disappeared around the corner. There was then complete silence, but only for about 30 seconds. Curious faces started to show up, adults and children about 30 of them, looking and wondering what had happened. Had the chaser caught up with a knife, I would have been the only crown witness. I wonder if they were the same two men who ran out of the Mahjong parlour.
7.2 My First Cigarette (1950)
Grandparents Chan's relatives often came over to play Mahjong. In those days, adults smoking cigarettes was a common sight so one day in 1950 it lit up this 5-year old's imagination. While they were concentrating on Mahjong, I rolled up a small piece of newspaper and put it in my mouth. Next, I lit it with a match, eye-lip-hand coordination just like what adults did. But this quickly turned bad as the flame moved towards my mouth. The semi-moist paper had glued to my lips. I screamed prompting the adults to rush over and put the fire out. They didn't say much. I guess that I was too young to be scolded. I went to bed to rest and shortly after that, I could feel several blisters on my lips.
7.3 Return Visits To Guangzhou (1949-1953)
Grandma Yee from Guangzhou visited us in Hong Kong several times. She took me back to Guangzhou when I asked. I still remembered the streets and the rice paddies so I ventured out and found several of my street friends.
To travel to Guangzhou, Grandma and I took an early bus to the Tsim Sha Tsui train station. The sight of the platform protective bumpers at the end of the tracks was the start of an exciting journey. On our first return trip, the border-crossing process was long. We waited in a queue inside a building. On the second return trip, we waited in a yard under hot sun. A female border guard wanted to check my pockets. I got nervous so grandma quickly said to me that it was ok.
News I heard about that time was that the financial situation of her grandson back home was in poor shape, and that people did not have enough to eat following the civil war. On another trip, grandma packed a cooked chicken for her grandson back home. Like all other return trips, it started in the early morning, and ended in the early evening when our 3-wheel-pedal taxi reached our Guangzhou home. After reaching home, she retrieved a piece of jewellery hidden inside the cooked chicken.
In 1953, Grandma Yee left Guangzhou and moved to Hong Kong. She rented a room near our Ki Lung Street flat, and changed address several times, every time making sure the flat owner could speak Taishanese the only dialect she spoke. At one time her rental room was on Apliu Street several shops from the Maple Street Playground.
The Maple Street Playground was about two minutes walk from my home. Its playground had a sand surface. Every Chinese Lunar New Year, they set up a temporary stage to present Chinese operas and music.
As a result of the 1953 Shek Kip Mei fire, many refugees from China lost their homes. The local community centre and Hong Kong government set up emergency assistance services at the playground. Tents were set up at the playground to house the refugees. A few tents remained in the summer of 1954, and I think they too left at about the end of the same year.
7.4 Family Outdoor Activities
Watching movies in theatres was a popular outing. Father took us siblings to the theatres in Mong Kok. We went to swim at Lai Chi Kok Beach, and the amusement park's swimming pools. Father was a good swimmer. He walked at the pool bottom like a hippopotomus and let us ride on his back.
One time, my parents and their friends visited Stanley, which was then a small town but with a good sandy beach. We stopped at what is now the southern end of Cape Road, where houses were few and the country-like road was quiet. There, while the adults were talking, this boy kept looking over the sea to the southern part of the Stanley peninsula.
One family activity we children did not want to miss was during the Lunar New Year. The children received new clothes and the family visited relatives and friends. Adult guests gave red pocket money to the visiting children, and adult visitors did likewise to the host's children. The typical amount I received was one dollar, a few in five dollars, and none in ten dollars.
My parents knew early that I was more a playful boy than a book-reading intellectual. Whenever mom heard me playing around home, she would call out from a distance "Pak Foon, finished your school home work?" I replied every time with a "Finished already." The next thing I heard without exception was "Read Books!". That made the whole place quiet!
Primary 1 (1950-1951) 華南小學 Wah Nam Primary School
Like my father, some of his friends in Guangzhou also moved to Hong Kong. Some became teachers and one of them taught at 華南小學 / Wah Nam Primary School - my first school.
The school was on the west side of Wai Ching Street about eight units north of Jordan Road. It had a staircase from ground level and classrooms on Level 2 and up. My class had about 30 students, and the large floor area gave us ample space. No serious events happened so I guess I had a successful year. A few days into our school term, the teacher assigned several students (not including me) to stand and wait in the staircase if and when they were instructed to do so. He did not tell us why, but I knew the reason. It was devised to make the class size not exceeding the maximum allowable, if and when an inspector showed up.
Initially, father travelled with me to and from school. Not long after that, I began to ride the bus alone using Bus Route No. 12 which terminated at Jordan Ferry Pier.
This is the only photo available related to my school. In the background is the start of Wai Ching Street and the school was about 8 shops past that corner. The corner shop's awning was one thing I looked up at every time on my way to and from school. I remember it well, there to keep the hot sun out from their fruits and vegetables.
Primary 2 (1951-1952) 三育小學 Sam Yuk Primary School
In the summer of 1951, my parents learned about a new school near our home. I knew nothing about the school - 三育小學 - until in later years when I learned about its founder and principal Pastor Chung Wai Poh*. In addition to his service at the church, Pastor Chung started a class to teach the youth in the area. So, that summer day mother and I went there for a visit. We stood at their large entrance on Fa Yuen Street and admired their playground. Behind us on the north side of Fa Yuen Street, it was open field. One school staff came out to greet us and showed us the classroom.
Sam Yuk was much closer to home compared to my first school. To cross Nathan Road we needed good eye-and-feet coordination. There were no traffic lights or designated pedestrian crossings, and car and truck drivers never stopped for pedestrians who wanted to cross. You had to time your walk at the right moment between two moving cars.
* The biography I read states that when WWII broke out, Pastor Chung moved to Wai Chow 惠卅 and next to Qujiang 曲江 when the former fell to the Japanese army. About the same time, my parents evacuated inland from Guangzhou to also Qujiang 曲江. So this was likely another school connection.
Primary 3-4 (1952-1954) 德貞小學 Tack Ching Primary School
I changed school again. Since my father had started teaching at Tack Ching Secondary School, my parents decided that I should attend their primary section 德貞小學. It was also a very good school. As with the previous two, class subjects were taught in Chinese. At that time, primary classes were in the building on the north side of Un Chau Street, and secondary classes on the south side.
Like the previous two schools, my two years at Tack Ching were happy time. One unforgettable sight was the metal staircase that ran from ground level straight up to level 3. It had a cover overhead but when there was rain storm, our clothes would still get wet.
Tack Ching Primary was the first school I had to write exams. It was a serious occasion and parents would, instead of having their children come home for lunch, prepare meals for them to bring to school, or gave them lunch money. Two interesting subjects I learned were making soda drinks and weaving wicker baskets.
Primary 5 (1954-1955) Tak Yan College 德仁書院
In 1954, my parents applied for immigration to Canada. They planned to bring with them the two youngest children. They were concerned that if all five children were included, they would not be able to support all five with their expected earnings. I and my two sisters would continue to live with Grandparents Chan in Hong Kong. The second arrangement was for me to attend Tak Yan College德仁書院 on Neilson Street, Mong Kok.
Tak Yan was considered one of the well-known English schools. But it was a big change for me now that I have to listen to all teachings in English, which was completely foreign to me. The class size was much larger, all boys, hence strict discipline. On the teacher's desk, there was a thick wooden ruler, and I saw it used once on a student in front of the class. I had almost no vocabulary in my inventory, when the teacher asked the class "Do you understand?" (she asked half a dozen times), the students answered loudly in unison "Yes". What is the meaning of the word "understand"? I asked myself. Primary 5 was a struggle. I was promoted to Primary 6 barely.
Thanks to Peter for writing down these memories of his childhood, and for sharing them with us. For more from Peter you can also read his earlier chapters, and Chapter 8 which ends "This was the beginning of my sad years." Further chapters to follow as they are posted to Gwulo.
Beginning in early 1955, adult conversations in the family were hinting that my parents would soon be emigrating to Canada. It did not mean much at the time. One day, father packed his belongings into a suitcase. He looked at a pocket knife for a few seconds, then gave it to me. I didn't say anything, and bobbed my head slightly as a sign of thanks.
On the day of my parents departure, the whole family travelled by taxi to Kowloon Wharf. I was assigned to carry father's camera. For my grandparents, this was the last time they saw their son and daughter, a scene duplicated numerous times at home and Kowloon Wharf.
In those days, friends and family members were allowed to tour the ship. It was a crowded place like busy sidewalks on Nathan Road. People were walking around and then at that moment, I realized my parents were really leaving me behind. I started to cry, though for a short duration. This was the beginning of my sad years. Many children in my situation could cope with the change, it took me longer to adjust.
In a previous newsletter, Peter Yee described his childhood in Hong Kong up to the year 1955. That was the year he turned 11, and the year his parents and two younger siblings emigrated to Canada. In this issue he continues the story, taking us up to 1964 when he made his own emigration to rejoin his family in Canada.
9.1 Ki Lung Street, 111, 2nd Floor (Level 3)
My daily routine at first remained unchanged, as I still went to Tak Yan College on class days. The big change is that there are now two elderly persons caring for me, and no more family outings like movies, swim at a beach, and visiting my parents' friends. Adult supervision was minimal and no more reminders to read books. Communications with grandparents were infrequent, and when it happened they were short. There was not much in common that we would talk about, and our age gap did not help. Besides, grandpa often came home late from work.
Grandpa Chan worked six days a week year-round except during holidays. The loading and unloading of goods at junks across the street (Connaught Road West) took place almost year-round, so too was he with his brush pen and abacus. Grandma was home all time except when shopping for grocery and visiting friends. Their friends came over occasionally to play Mahjong but she never went out to play Mahjong.
Whenever friends came to play Mahjong, I would sit close next to grandpa watching his every move. They played for fun and the chips were very little money. Each players monitored how the other three played and responded accordingly. That's how I learned to play Mahjong.
The staircases to level 2 and level 3 our flat were straight up. The lower one had 24 risers on account of the high clearance at the street level flat (factory). Above the lower staircase was a small landing where we turned 180 degrees to climb 18 steps to reach home. Without lights and windows, the upper staircase was always in complete darkness. And the handrails were not in the best of shape. Whenever grandpa took me out late at night to fill his hungry stomach after work, I was in front of him as we walked down the stairs, and behind him on our return trip. I figured I would stop him from falling further if he missed a step.
Grandma made sure my clothes fit as I grew. She took me to street vendors on Yu Chau Street near Maple Street Playground. There, I tried to get the right size while grandma discussed the price with the vendor.
One day grandma took me along on her trip to the landlord in Tsim Sha Tsui. The old lady was polite and friendly. She took out a receipt, filled in the blanks, and handed it to grandma as grandma was giving her $55 HK for one month. The rent rarely increased, grandma told me later, they have been living there for a long time. (My mother told me that when we'd first moved to Sham Shui Po in 1949, I could not pronounce correctly our street number, 111. She said I could only utter "knock-knock-knock"!)
Dental and eye care were my shortcomings when I was young. I ate a lot of candies. A small cavity first appeared about the time my parents left Hong Kong, of all places, between the two upper front teeth. Then the cavity got bigger, and bigger. One adult neighbour and good friend asked me to say 漏風 in Cantonese, meaning "leak air" and pronounced "laou fong". The air came out through the cavity. He laughed, no offence, and I laughed too. As the cavity got bigger, I became more self-conscious, and did not want to talk in school unless I had to. When one teacher talked with me, I answered her with my upper lip closed. A smile did not look like a smile. The cavity was too big to hold a filling. The problem was resolved a few years later when my aunt from Guangzhou took me to the dentist 牙醫馬明德 / Dentist Mah Ming Tak on Nathan Road near the Astor Theatre. The $170 HK fee was too much for the partial upper plate, she paid without me asking. I started to show my smile again.
Eye care was another problem. Like the teeth cavity, I kept it to myself. In early 1958, the teacher's writing on the chalk board began to look blurry. I found out I could correct my vision, though by a small amount, by looking through a plastic ruler held at the correct incline or angle. It would be two years after that I got my first prescription glasses. It cost $15 HK examination (very quick) and glasses in plastic frame (heavy), an amount I could afford.
During my time in Hong Kong, we had several typhoons. Before they arrived, I moved our potted plants off the balcony railing to the ground. The clay pots were heavy, and became more manageable as I grew bigger and taller.
Water shortage was a recurring problem. When water rationing was in effect, our building got running water for about four hours beginning in late afternoon. As ground level was a factory and level-2 had several families, we on level-3 had low water pressure especially during cooking time. Grandma Chan was skilful and diplomatic, she set up with the neighbours a schedule for each level to fit in with the four-hour window.
There was a bank run when people got nervous and tried to withdraw their money only to find out they could not, or could withdraw only a small amount. Grandpa and grandma were not affected, as they had very little money in the bank.
In 1963, we got news that the owner was selling to make way for a new and tall building. Grandpa stayed home to meet with the landlord's representative, an aggressive agent. I listened to their conversation about compensation. Grandpa, as always, was polite and soft-spoken. After the man left, he turned to me and said "I think we did alright."
9.2 Time With Grandma Yee
During her time in Hong Kong (1953-1963), Grandma Yee rented a room near my home, and changed places several times. One of of them was on Apliu Street a few shops from the Maple Street playground. The flat's owner also came from Taishan, a requirement since grandma spoke only Taishanese. I visited grandma often and slept there. After learning how to ride a bicycle, I circled repeatedly around the playground's inner perimeter. The next morning, she told me I was riding bicycle in my sleep.
In 1956, a riot broke out. The following day I walked to Cheung Sha Wan Road between Maple and Poplar streets. There, a shop that sold goods from China had been looted and looters were still there gathering the last few remaining items from the floor.
As a result of the riot, the government imposed a curfew. People were ordered to stay indoor, and streets and sidewalks became totally empty. I was on grandma's balcony tall enough to look down to the street when riot police marched by. Her landlady's son was more curious and leaned over the railing. He ignored the police captain's order to move back inside. Within seconds, the captain pulled out his handgun and pointed in the direction of the young man. He quickly backed off.
The following day, grandma had to visit a new relative - the mother of a young woman who was about to marry her grandson from USA. I doubt that she was aware of the seriousness of the situation. Like a caring grandma, she took me along. When the two of us crossed Tai Po Road, we were all alone and no other people on the street in all directions. Several riot police appeared a block away and I could see their guns and shields. They ignored us - an old woman walking slowly on bound feet accompanied by a boy. After the visit, our return walk was just as lonely, but this time, no riot police.
Grandma found out I loved grass jelly. One day she made grass jelly using natural ingredients. Obviously it was the best grass jelly I have ever had. She passed away in 1963.
9.3 Hobbies and Favourite Pastime
9.3.1 From Marbles to Kites
My earliest street game began in 1952 corresponding to Primary 3 at Tack Ching School. We boys collected discarded empty cigarette packets. We cut out the front cover which had an attractive picture and folded it to form a small triangle. We placed our triangular pieces on a straight line on the ground and took turns trying to knock them off the line from a distance by flicking our fingers on an empty bottle cap. The caps had candle wax inside made to increase its travel distance and accuracy. If succeeded, the boy retrieved the piece that got knocked off. It was a very affordable game. A few years later, I played another game on sandy ground, this time placing marbles in a circle. The rules of the game were essentially the same. And after that, we added coins to the circle.
I could walk from our level-3 flat to the roof top. In fact, all five staircases in our city block provided unimpeded access from street level to the roof. In those days, it was very rare to see a gate at street level in Sham Shui Po. Starting in 1955, kite-flying was my hobby. On the first day, all attempts to keep the kite in the air ended in failure. Then I found out that to keep the kite from falling, the forward release and pull back of the string must be timed at the right moment as the kite turns. Kites came with different colours decorations and two basic structural designs. I learned how to make glass-power coated string for kite-fighting.
9.3.2 Firecrackers and Fireworks
The opportunity of playing firecrackers, we call it 燒炮仗 in Cantonese, came once a year when we celebrated the Lunar New Year. It was very popular for boys and adult men in the 1950s. The street gutters below my home were covered with red burnt papers. New Year Eve, we called it 年三十晚 (Year 30 night), was the peak of the firecracker activity. The popular brands of firecrackers at that time were the Rooster, Elephant, and Swallow. They all made very loud sound.
Fireworks were not as popular as firecrackers. It seems to me that people wanted a bigger sound than a colourful sight. Every New Year, I spent most of my red pocket money on firecrackers.
9.3.3 Children's Pictorial Story Books
While reading school books was not my interest, comic books were. We called them 連還圖 or 公仔書. They contain a short story with hand-drawn pictures on every page, and few words on the outer margin as the story is already partly given by the illustrations. Across from Grandma's room on Apliu Street, there was a book stand operated by a man who I believe came from northeastern China. He was a quiet man. I spent a lot of time there reading his books. When I gave him ten cents, he gave me a tiny piece of cardboard paper with a stamp mark on it, which I used to sign out the books. He supplied several small wooden stools for his young customers.
My aunt (father's older sister) in Guangzhou found out I loved reading these story books. She was a very wise person and well educated. Being concerned that the books would have a bad influence on me, on her next visit to Hong Kong she gifted me a small story book. Like other books, it too had a story and hand-drawn pictures, but there was one difference. It was a condensed and simplified version of Chapter 35 in 三國演義 / Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a historical novel covering the 169-280 AD warring period among the three kingdoms, namely the north led by 曹操 / Cao Cao, in the west 劉備 / Liu Bei, and in the east 孫權 / Sun Quan.
The story was about Liu Bei's first military and political adviser named 單福. Before they first met, Liu was travelling one day when he saw a boy riding an ox and making music with his短笛 / short flute. Liu stopped, and the boy and his music stopped too, and next came their conversations:
Boy: Are you not Liu Bei, the general who defeated 黃巾 / Yellow Turbans (Rebellion)?
Liu: Little village boy, how do you know my name?"
Boy: I don't know, but when people come to visit, my teacher always talks about Liu Bei, who stands seven feet five inches, his hands can reach below the knees while standing, eyes placed such that they can see the ears. One current hero! What are you thinking about now?"
Liu: Who is your teacher?
(The boy answered his question)
Liu: Yes, I am Liu Bei. Take me to your teacher.
When they met, the teacher agreed to serve Liu in his political and more importantly his military campaign. His strategy helped Liu win one battle. Shortly after that, he decided to travel north to join with his mother who, according to a fake letter sent to him, had been taken hostage by Liu's opponent Cao Cao. At the end of their farewell moment, he advised Liu to visit another advisor, later known as諸葛亮 / Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei's brilliant military and political strategist and a character admired by readers of the novel.
Rural and palace settings, political and military strategies, field battles, master-and-servant interaction, mother-and-son relationships and their belief, all put together to make one romantic read! I loved reading it, and next Chapter 35 in the original novel, and after that, the entire novel. There were words for places and names that I didn't learn, so I looked at the word as a picture, and assigned it a sound that best matched it.
The chapter recounting the debate between Zhuge Liang and Sun Quan's advisors was part of the Chinese literature taught in my Form 2 at St. Francis Xavier's College.
I have very few regrets in my life, and one was related to the novel. One day Grandpa Chan found out I had been reading the novel. He smiled and said "That's good. Have you read 諸葛亮火燒新野?". It was about one of Zhuge Liang's early battles where he directed soldiers to burn a place as part of his strategy to distract the opposing army. I knocked my head several times, but said nothing to grandpa. Here, we have something in common and I miss the opportunity to extend our conversation.
9.3.4 From Radio to Records
In the early 1950s, radio stations in Hong Kong played Chinese and Western music. I listened to both. In my early years, we listened to Chinese Cantonese operatic songs, solo and duets some of them my favourite - 長片粵曲 and 時代曲 / Long Cantonese and contemporary songs. To receive a good broadcast signal, some people ran their antenna to the top of the roof. There were posts and wires making some rooftops not an ideal place to fly kites.
Our radio was placed about five feet above the floor. So when the grandma played Mahjong with visitors and I did not want to miss the program, I stood on a wooden stool to have my ears close to the radio. One time, my classmate made me a crystal radio receiver. It used only the power of the received radio signal to produce sound. It did not need battery. I was thrilled when he demonstrated it in his home. When I got home, it did not work. I kept buying replacement crystal thinking they were defective, but still no sound. Then I realized there were too much obstructions and concrete walls between our flat and the radio stations.
It was popular for people to call in to radio stations asking them to play a song "to dedicate to" someone. One time I heard some George dedicated to Peter "Broken Hearted Melody" sung by SarahVaughan. I don't think it was a coincidence since I told George two days earlier I liked the song. When radio stations played Pat Boone's "April Love", I knew it was spring time. Besides the vocal music, our generation liked instrumental music from Henry Mancini, Lawrence Welk and Billy Vaughn "... And His Orchestra." I liked Mantovani and collected several of his LP's, and an Acker Bilk Long Play containing his famous song "Stranger on the Shore". Bilk's LP cover had a beautiful drawing of an English countryside with a quiet little creek.
I followed one radio story-reading program. Once a week Chan Po Wai read out a part of the Chinese novel 七俠五義 / Seven Heroes and Five Gallants. His program started with a short music note sung by a rooster. It took him about a year to read the entire novel.
We also listened to Western music in tea rooms. They had jukeboxes for you to insert your money and make your choice. Those played often were The Ventures, The Shadows, North to Alaska, Telstar, and other popular songs of the 1950s. My father had a 78 record theme song from the movie "High Noon".
9.3.5 Bird Companions
At the service lane on the west side of Shek Kip Mei Street between Yu Chau and Apliu streets, there was a man in his 40s operating a small bird shop. His set up consisted of a few long bamboo sticks fastened to a wall, and about 1~2 dozen birds and their cages, most of them green singing finches which I heard were bred in farms in South Africa. Another kind he was selling was 相思 / Japanese White-Eyes. Later on, more exotic birds showed up. I often stopped and talked with him, as he was friendly. I don't think he had a family. He slept at night with his birds. By 1962, he managed to close in his shop with wooden panels making it more home-like and out of the cold winter. His was a very small cramped place.
My grandparents did not object to me keeping birds. They thought a bird companion would do me good. I once also kept a Myna bird. Some times, I let the birds out of their cages. This required first closing all the windows. They liked perching on our peach tree during the Lunar New Year.
9.3.6 Hiking And Exploring
The first time I hiked to Lion Rock and Amah Rock was in 1957, then a few more times after that. In 1957, the approach trail to Amah Rock was fairly barren with low vegetation. One time, my classmate and I descended Amah Rock on her left side - the side facing Shatin. There, the slope was very steep and covered with many small rocks. It was so steep that standing still on them was almost impossible.
To hike from Kowloon Tong to Shatin, one needed proper shoes. For me, there was no such need. I stayed with my Japanese outdoor slippers which were amazingly tough. They never failed. On the north slope of Lion Rock, my classmate showed me where to find an interesting plant with furry roots. We pulled out a few and took them home. It was believed that they would stop bleeding from a cut. Harvesting the plants was likely not allowed, and such regulations, if existed, never entered our mind.
Streams and water always interested me. On the north side of Cornwall Road and just west of the Canton-Kowloon train tunnel, there was a small reservoir, likely some kind of storm catchment basin. It actually had two basins in series. I swam there several times with guppies by my side. Sadly, child drowning occurred occasionally. Less dangerous places were the stream under Boundary Street that flowed to the nullah, and the one beneath Clear Water Bay Road just below Good Hope School.
9.3.7 Martial Arts
In 1962, I started taking Martial Arts lessons taught by Wong Hon Fun 黃漢勛, after being introduced to him by my bird friend Ho Ying Gwai who was already his student. In Cantonese dialect, we addressed him 師傅 / Sifu a title for a skilful person or a master. Sifu taught Praying Mantis, a style of Martial Arts which has its origin in China. The lessons I took were not designed purely for fighting purposes, for some body, hand, and feet movements act as connector or transition between offensive and defensive movements. It was a pleasure to watch someone who displays a lesson he has perfected, similar to reciting a poem you have memorized and you also put your best effort and feeling into it. The lessons took place in the early evening once a week, and the fee was $15 HK a month.
Because the students started their training at different times, they were at different levels (or progress). This required Sifu to teach us on a one-to-one basis. On my first day, he showed me a short series of body, hand and feet movements. He would call out gently the name of each movement. He wanted me to remember their names because some of them would appear in subsequent lessons.
At the beginning, I thought one movement was odd. It required you to stand with knees bent, your back straight, and imagining you are sitting on a chair. He also taught me how to pose using my five fingers, a pose identical to the arm of a praying mantis about to strike. He would then ask me to repeat what he had demonstrated, and corrected me when needed. I would then repeat the short series I just learned, over and over again.
The second week, while I was watching other students practising, Sifu tapped on my shoulder and continued to teach me where we left off the previous week. I did not need to remind him, he knew, by memory or by pen I could not confirm which. After a month or so, I completed learning one lesson. In subsequent weeks, I would practise all lessons learned, and waited for Sifu to tap on my shoulder. He was a dedicated teacher, kind and treated all his students with respect. His students ranged in age from mid-teens to late 40s.
9.4 Street and Playground Bullies
I never encountered a bully in my schooling. However, I had the misfortune of running into, or rather them coming at me. The events took place in three consecutive years.
In late 1955, I was playing goalie and my Tak Yan College Primary 6 classmate the shooter at MacPherson Playground in Mong Kok. Behind me was Shantung Street and a chain-link fence. Two boys about my age walked by and they started to taunt me, saying that I was lucky to attend school and play. I turned my head and got a glimpse of them. As I turned to focus on the ball, I heard someone behind spitting and next something landed on my neck. The smell was bad. I was shock, too afraid to look at them a second time.
In 1956, I was playing with sand at Maple Street Playground when three boys walked up to me. One boy tried to destroy what I had built so I tried to stop him. By this time, a second boy was already behind me and he hit me on the back with a stick. With two boys my age and size, and their leader older and taller, fighting back never entered my mind. This was a more frightening situation than the first. I hurriedly ran back to my grandma's place and did not say anything. For a while after the incident, I dreaded using Maple Street to visit her.
In the summer of 1957, I attended an evening English class at the St. Francis of Assisi's Primary School. The school and the church were located on Shek Kip Mei Street next to the former shanty town which subsequently became 7-storey resettlement area following the 1953 fire. One evening my classmates and I were talking at the entrance when three boys about my age showed up. One boy wanted to start a fight with me. It was one shocking surprise, and I ignored him. When he persisted, one of my classmates stepped in and said "I will fight you." The aggressors backed down and left. I never forget that Gan Wei Ho came to my defence. After the incident, I carried a pocket knife (given by father) when I went to attend class there. It was likely of no use because I would never think of taking it out. When children bring knives to school, I would suggest they are more likely a victim than a bully.
Primary 6 (1955-1956), Tak Yan College 德仁書院 (Incomplete)
In September 1955, I started Primary 6 at Tak Yan College. It did not turn out well. The class subjects were getting more difficult, and I could not get help with my homework. After my parents left Hong Kong, I felt lonely and helpless. After the bullying incident, I dreaded going to school every morning. One cold and damp morning in late 1955, I decided to stay in bed and not to go to school anymore.
I began to play in the streets, some times alone and other times with street friends. By this time, our roof top was occupied by refugees from the mainland. It was like a small shanty town. Flying kites was no longer possible, but I managed to befriend the children my age up there.
The level 4 above my flat was a shoe factory with workers from the mainland, and we became friends too. They were men in their 20s and remarkably well-mannered. Like the welder below me at street level, they spoke a dialect somewhere between Taishanese and Cantonese but closer to the former. They called me 小個 / The Little One. For leisure after work, they set up a ping-pong table on the roof and I was one of their regular visitors. The retail shop, called 九龍鞋廠/ Kowloon Shoes was on Boundary Street across from my home.
In a recount told by my sister years later, it took grandma several weeks to find out I had dropped out of school. Grandma decided not to inform grandpa for fear that the news would upset him. As grandpa was fully occupied with his work, he did not notice the change.
Primary 6 (1957) School Name Unknown (Incomplete)
In early 1957, grandma placed me in one of the roof-top schools in Shek Kip Mei. All subjects were taught in Chinese, and the class size was small. I quit that school after attending it for several weeks. There was no compelling reason to drop out except for lack of interest and self-discipline.
English Night Class (summer 1957) at St. Francis of Assisi Church 玫瑰夜校
華姐 (Big Sister Wah) was one of Grandma Chan's congregation friends at the St. Francis of Assisi Church. At the request of grandma, she enrolled me in Good Hope Anglo-Chinese School the same school she was attending. Since it would be all-English, to prepare for it, she also placed me in a night English class held twice a week at the Church.
The class was designed to teach students to speak and write English at a basic level so we could converse with friends and in workplace. Grammar was important, but the school wanted a proper balance between speaking and grammar.
I made friends with classmates during recess. The workers were friendly and they organized a hiking trip to Shatin - my first of several trips.
Primary 5 - Primary 6 (1957-1959), Good Hope Anglo-Chinese School德望學校
In September 1957, I resumed full-time schooling. In 2016, the school invited her past students including me to write about our memories of the school on the occasion of "Anchor of the World II for the Diamond Jubilee" celebration. My memories of the school are best expressed in the submission I gave the school, repeated below with some minor edits:
"Sixty-one years ago (1955), this boy dropped out of school and started to play in the streets. Life was fun at first then gradually became aimless. A year and a half later, a family friend enrolled me in Good Hope.
The school was built a few years earlier on the side of a hill facing Kai Tak Airport. The scenery and tranquility were unmatched. There were no other buildings nearby. Much of Clear Water Bay Road was still undeveloped and wooden houses on large lots dotted along a short stretch of the road close to the airport. Traffic on the road was very light then, and I saw only a few cars during my walk to school. From the school, I could see the airport and planes taking off, and was awed by the sight of Kowloon Peak.
Good Hope provided me an excellent environment to learn. I noticed the class size, the quality text books, and soon her dedicated teachers. My teacher Miss Chan* (1957) was kind and patient with me noting that I needed help to catch up. I didn’t have an English first name and neither my grandma nor I could think of one. So during class, Miss Chan asked if I would like to be called Peter to which I promptly agreed. With the help from teachers and my extra effort, I managed to catch up.
The playful nature in me remained strong. After school, we boys sometimes walked downhill to the airport where we switched to city bus. The walk uphill was just as enjoying and George Leung and I arrived very early at the foothill to start our walk. So quiet and free, the whole country side was there for us to explore. The walk through 維記牛奶 / Kowloon Dairy pasture was unforgettable.
After P5, most of the boys went to other schools. Henry Butt and I missed the opportunity to change so we were the only two boys in P6. Being out-numbered by girls, one can feel lonely at times. In those days and at our age, girls and boys seldom talked with each other and I was too shy to start a conversation. Looking back, the extra year with Good Hope enabled me to stay another year with the finest school I have ever attended.
In my P6 final report card, it reads “Promoted to Form 1 on condition leaving”. The message was expected. It was a moment of pride but also a sense of sadness. One teacher worried about Henry and me so she wrote a letter of recommendation to St. Francis Xavier’s College.
After leaving Good Hope, one night I took a city bus to the foothill to see my beloved school one more time. From the bus, I could see her lit up cross. Since then, whenever I think of that sight, these words come to mind - "The school that has given me more than hope."
* Two weeks after class started, Miss Chan noticed one problem I had. So during a recess on a Monday, she came to me asking if I knew the word "remind". I replied "No". She asked me to look up its meaning in a dictionary, which I did and reported back to her later that day. She said to me with a soft voice - "Peter, can you remind me this coming Wednesday to make an announcement to the class? "Yes, Miss Chan!" That was the first one-on-one assistance I have ever had in all my primary schools. Came Wednesday morning, I reminded her and got a "Thank you!" that came with a smile. One word, she has restored my confidence!
Seven different schools to complete six primary grades, if not a record in Hong Kong, I think I am close. They were part of my story, no regret, no shame. Sometimes, one needs failure to achieve success. I think there is a saying for this in every language.
In 1957 when I entered Primary 5, the surroundings looked very similar to this photo including the erosion along the edge of the road.
From the school, we could see airplanes taking off from the airport. From Clear Water Bay Road (name in that period of time) we could see the school, and at night its lit up cross.
From left: Henry Butt, Paul Wu, Peter Yee, George Leung, Michael Chau, Henry Tong, David Wong. Not in photo is Ronald Tam.
This creek flows under Clear Water Bay Road, about 2 minutes walk downhill from school. It is about mid way between the current Po Leung Kuk Centenary School and Fung Chak House.
Form 1 - Form 5 (1959-1964) St. Francis Xavier's College / 聖芳濟書院
The building housing St. Francis Xavier's College was four years old when I entered Form 1 in 1959. The classrooms were on the first three levels and the Catholic Brothers lived in Level-4. Connected to the building was a covered area with a canteen operated by a Chinese family, and several ping-pong tables. There was a small open area on the southeast corner enough to park two cars and few Vespa mopeds. Along the south wall there was a covered area for bicycles.
The college had five Form 1 classes each about 45 students. By the time I reached Form 5, there were three classes. Along the way, some including my friends left. One Form 1 friend surname Lum was good at playing soccer. His parents operated a roadside stall selling fruits two blocks west of the school. When I reached Form 2, he did not show up. I went to their stall where he, standing beside his mother, told me that he forgot to register to continue his schooling. I always suspect the reason was about tuition fees.
We had very good and dedicated teachers both Brothers and hired teachers. They were approachable in class and during recess. The subjects were taught in English except one for Chinese literature at lower forms. Mr. Wong our physical education teacher came from Tack Ching Primary School where he was also my teacher. In his Form 1 session, he led us on a run around, and next stretch. After that, he threw out a few soccer balls for us to play. Starting in Form 2, it was only stretch and run and no fun. I guess the sight and noise were too distracting to the classes in process.
While in Form 5, some classmates were talking about final general exams. In early 1964, I saw two students studying and holding notes in their hand, of all places and times, in the playground during recess. That got me nervous!
My five years at SFX was the longest span of all the schools I attended. It was a period where I transitioned from boy to teen. I left holding dear the memories of the Brothers, teachers, and classmates.
Thanks again to Peter for his open and honest sharing of his memories of his early years. To find out what happened next, please continue reading:
In late 1963, the applications of my two sisters and me to emigrate to Canada were near completion. Grandpa Chan received words from parents that I learn a trade to become independent someday. Regina, Saskatchewan had no Chinese BBQ shops and minimal Chinese grocery stores. They thought it would be a good for me to become a BBQ cook. Instead of learning from an expert in Hong Kong, I bought a book. I spent more time looking at pictures of the poor duck before and after roasting than reading the instructions. I roasted several ducks, but I don't think the results would have passed the test.
At the Canadian Consulate in Hong Kong during my interview, an officer asked me questions while his young Hong Kong assistant typed my answers with terrific speed. At the conclusion of the interview, the man placed a bunch of papers into a large envelop, sealed it with glue, and signed his signature over all the joints of the envelop.
10.2 Last Walk in Hong Kong
The date of my travel was decided when Grandpa Chan took me to the office of the American President Lines Ltd in Central, Hong Kong. Flying was expensive so grandpa decided that we travel by ship like our parents did nine years earlier. The company occupied the entire ground level of the St. George's Building. The left (east) half was their office, and the right side had two ticket counters.
My sisters would share a cabin with a Hong Kong couple, and I in a dorm with 29 other male passengers. My ticket to San Francisco cost $341 USD, it included 3 meals a day, a bed in a dorm and train fare and meals to Vancouver, Canada.
Three weeks before departure, I went to my St. Francis Xavier's principal's office and informed Brother Vincent that I would soon be leaving school for Canada. He was delighted to hear the news, pulled out a big book from the book case, and read about Canada - big country, English and French speaking people, very nice place, and wished me a pleasant journey. I would miss our Form 5 final exams, a relief, but also a price for me to pay. I completed high school in Canada.
Two weeks before departure day, my street friend Ah-Ming and I walked to Kowloon Tong. He took a photo of me standing on Lincoln Road my usual starting point for hiking to Lion Rock.
I gave my birds to the bird vendor on Shek Kip Mei Street - a singing green finch, Japanese White-Eye, the talking Mynah, and their cages. He had been very friendly with me.
I took a ferry to Hong Kong island, first grandpa's office on Connaught Road West, then a tram ride to the peak, and Happy Valley Racecource. It was a week day and there were no horse races. At the entrance, I asked a worker if I could go inside to look around. To my surprise, he let me in. The whole place was quiet except for a few men working. I walked in the middle of the track full circle, thanks to that man's accommodation.
10.3 Departure Day (March 28, 1964)
The day started early for me and my sisters. After loading our luggage into a taxi, I walked up to my home one last time. There, grandpa was standing at the door but not grandma. She could not bear the sight of me leaving. I went to her bedroom to say good-bye - "Grandma, thank you very much for raising me. I am now going to Canada". She did not reply except bobbing her head a few times. I went back to the door and as I walked past grandpa, he said "小心, 一帆風順" (Be careful, have a smooth sailing.) I waved good-bye and by this time tears were streaming down my face. In Taishanese, I cried out "我會寫信給你, 如果沒有，你就罵我" / (I will write to you, if I don't, you scold me). All these years, we spoke to each other so far in between, and so brief each time.
Grandpa and grandma cared for me after my parents left Hong Kong. They never raised their voice, showed anger or frustration. They have fulfilled their promise to my mother. Our nine years together are a part of my most cherished memories.
Grandpa passed away in 1966. Eight years later, grandma moved to Canada to live with my parents in Regina, Saskatchewan. She passed away in 1978.
The taxi dropped us off at the entrance to Kowloon Wharf. The scene around me was similar to this photo taken by the famous photographer in 1940 - the railway tracks, Customs Office building, and the large gates which were already opened when we arrived.
We walked to the Number 1 Pier where our ship President Wilson was docked. A worker took over our luggage. To enter the ship, we walked up some steps and next a gangplank. After showing my ticket to a ship crew, I looked for my sleeping bed.
The dormitory was one large open place at the rear of the ship. About 30 passengers, all male, would sleep here on 2-level bunk beds for the journey. I was one of the very few teens, the others young to middle age men travelling to USA the first time or returning after their home visit. My sisters shared a private cabin with a young Hong Kong couple. For the rest of the day, families and friends toured the ship making the deck like a crowded street in Hong Kong.
While this photo was taken decades earlier, its view is very similar to that from my ship.
By about 6 p.m., most of the visitors had left, and there were public announcements that it's time for visitors to leave before the ship sails. Next, the crew let off streamers. I saw a girl about my age standing on the pier holding a streamer and the other end tied to the railing. I untied it and showed her that I had it. She was standing on the same spot on this side of the 4-wheel trolley. We held the streamer with care for fear of breaking it, and periodically, we looked at each other. She was the last person I held onto before leaving Hong Kong.
While sailing out of Kowloon Wharf, I saw the city lights at Central and Causeway Bay. I was still in Hong Kong but this time it was different. No street and car noises except the noise from the ship's engine!
After the ship sailed past North Point, the city lights began to thin out, and the ridge line became barely visible. It was a moment of self-reflection. Many things crossed my mind. I am leaving the place where I grew up, my friends, classmates and neighbours, and more sadly my grandparents. I know where I am going, but have no idea how the rest of my life would turn out. My education is so so, secondary school yet to complete, and no marketable skills. I returned to the dorm with a heavy heart but also a sense of hope and excitement.
10.4 Ship and Trains
The staff with their wheel-carts served 3 meals a day six passengers per table. The portions were sufficient and of good quality, but the western style needed several days to get used to. There was a bar, but it didn't do me any good. They showed several movies during the voyage, and I watched "Seventy-Six Trombones". The coin-free automatic washing machine fascinated me. One time, I ventured to the mid-section of the ship where I felt like walking on land.
Our ship made half-day stops at Kobe, Yokohama and Honolulu during which time passengers toured the shore. In Honolulu, I had a $1.5 US haircut. After landing in San Francisco, we collected our luggage and walked to the train station. After several hours of wait, our train departed for Canada. We spent three days at a relative's home in Vancouver.
The train ride from Vancouver to Calgary offered beautiful scenery with majestic mountains and clear rushing water, and large evergreen trees some with snow on them. When we reached Calgary, father was waiting at the train station. He was teaching at a Chinese school in Calgary. Since classes were not in session, we spent two nights in the school building. On the upper level rear walkout, there was the last remaining snow from winter.
This photo was taken in 1975 when I returned for a visit. The building was estimated to have been built sometime in the 1940s, and its size is an indication of the city's Chinese-Canadian population at that time. Today, a much larger and taller school building stands on the same site. The church next door is still there.
On the third day, the four of us - father, my two sisters and I - travelled in father's car to Regina, Saskatchewan to join with the rest of our family. He had just resigned from his teaching job.
The Trans-Canada Highway between Calgary and Regina gave us a different scenery - few rolling hills and no high mountains. The land was flat with wheat field after wheat field, and the occasional small towns our car was passing through. Some road information needed two successive signs spaced a distance apart to give drivers sufficient time to read.
Final destination for many early settlers in Saskatchewan.
When people ask where I am from, I always treat it as a friendly gesture, and that they are interested to know more about me. I respond positively, and gauge how much more they want to hear. I would also ask them the same question with the hope that we share our memories especially someone from Hong Kong. I have had the fortune to live in a place where East Meets West, and learned from both. We are never too old to meet new friends.
I love my old Hong Kong, her land and people who were part of my early life. My Guangzhou and Maba too albeit the latter too short and early! Although these places have seen many changes since I left, they are always in my mind.
One day my cousin was playing on our Ki Lung Street balcony. I became annoyed when he started to intrude into my area, I tried to push him away. Grandma Chan saw what was happening. I know she loved all her grandchildren. She looked at us but mainly me, saying in Taishanese "你們兩個不應該打架. 你們萍水相 逢." There are various meanings of this Chinese phrase, and I think hers is the most fitting - "You two should not fight. Calm water has brought you (floating plants) together."
Several days before my mother passed away, I was by her side in her hospital room. It was late at night and the place was completely silent. She recalled one night many years ago when we were also together. In her Cantonese dialect, she said "當您出生在馬壩時，我能聽到河水的聲音，那一刻非常安靜與和平" (When you were born in Maba, I could hear only the sound of water from a nearby river. That moment was very calm and peaceful).
My sincere thanks to Andrew Suddaby whose encouragement enabled me to write this autobiography. The background in the photo reminds me of my time walking along the same Central water front.