When Gertrude Stein, the expatriate novelist and literary critic, famously said, “there’s no there, there,” she was referring to her hometown of Oakland, California; however, because of recent events, this gibe could now apply to the former British colony of Hong Kong, which has just been subsumed by China, swallowed by the dragon, in blatant contradiction of the 50-year time table agreed to in the handover of 1997. Hong Kong is still there physically, of course, but it has lost its identity as the exemplar of the “one country, two systems” form of government that was supposedly guaranteed from the transfer of sovereignty until 2047.
Many years ago, in another lifetime, I taught the “Literature of the Sea” at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Although only an elective and not required for graduation, it filled up every semester with mid-grade military officers from all branches of the armed forces who were seeking respite from the daily grind of constant war gaming and strategic planning for the next global conflict. I remember some of them telling me then, even before the fall of the Soviet Union, that the adversary in every classroom scenario was not Russia, but China. This was at least 10 years before the 1997 British/Chinese handover agreement, but its subsequent collapse would have surprised no one.
Maybe there’s something to the ancient Greek theory of cyclical history, a sociophilosophical concept according to which the periodicity of history is based on the repetition or recurrence of social processes (what goes around comes around) because, just as the NWC students flocked to my class to “escape China,” in writing about Hong Kong, I’m running away from the virus, the implosion of the economy, the furling of flags, the renaming of streets and the demolition of statues.
If they stay in the Navy long enough, many sailors begin to think of themselves as primarily “east coast” or “west coast,” occidental or oriental, with west coast having the most cachet. After all, in the Pacific, after Honolulu, you crossed the Equator and got initiated into the mysteries of being a Shellback. You crossed the International Date Line and stayed confused about what day it was for a week. Hurricanes became typhoons, and you could count on visiting strange and exotic places. So, I was west coast all the way. Nothing against the Mediterranean or Northern European ports, but it’s hard to beat dropping anchor in places like Manila, Yokosuka, Sasebo, Pusan, Singapore, Taipei, etc. Unfortunately, because of America’s increasing isolationism, shrinking Navy, and flat-out political correctness, the list of acceptable port calls for today’s sailor is growing shorter and shorter. The old sure-fire recruiting slogan of “Join the Navy and see the world” no longer holds water.
Of all the ports in the Far East, Hong Kong, which is now closed to American ships because of our standoff with China, was the overwhelming all-time favorite. Even the harbor seemed spectacular, especially after a month or two at sea: teeming with junks pushed along by lateen sails dragging the water; the colorful ferries passing to and fro between Kowloon or the New Territories; the tram or what I remember they called a “funicular” on Capri, crawling slowly up Victoria Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island and the most expensive real estate, etc.
As soon as the ship dropped the hook, the money changers and the local merchants who had prior permission would come onboard selling their wares. Especially popular were the tailors who would set up on the fantail, measure you for a new three-piece suit one day and bring it back the next, perfect fit guaranteed. I think I’ve still got one or two hanging around; unfortunately, they’ve shrunk. I do have a pair of custom alligator half boots that a cobbler made up in two days.
Since all ships anchored out in the bay, sailors had to ride liberty launches ashore and were funneled through the British Navy’s famous China Fleet Club on the pier. This facility featured just about every service you could think of including a canteen, laundry, store, rooms for rent, and probably the most famous bar in the Far East. The Limeys kept a pretty tight lid on it, unlike, say, the Bluebird enlisted club in Naples, Italy, where you had to keep your head on a swivel to keep from getting hit with a flying beer bottle, especially when the fleet was in. For me, the best part of the China Fleet Club was the lending library, where I found some first editions of the same classic sea tales that I later taught at the Naval War College.
Sailors loved Hong Kong for the bargains to be had in the multitude of specialty shops throughout the city. Most things were fixed price, so there was not the haggling that you see and expect in places like North Africa and India. You can look around my home today and gauge the progress of my career by the items I brought back from Hong Kong on various trips: giant hand-painted fans when I was enlisted and broke; an ivory chess set when I was a lieutenant junior grade and semi-broke; a rosewood desk when I was a commander and in debt, etc. I particularly remember that desk: rosewood is some of the most dense and heavy wood there is. I had to hire a small boat to bring it out to the ship, and then rig a block and tackle to hoist it onboard. It was a dark, stormy night, and the seas were rough. Both the chess set and the desk would be unavailable for purchase now because of environmental protection laws regarding elephant tusks and the endangered rosewood forests.
Although the street food in Hong Kong was good, if you didn’t worry about the provenance of the “mystery meat” sold by the vendors, the best place to eat was on one of the many floating dim sum restaurants. “Dim sum” means “small dishes” or “snacks,” and are little, bite-sized portions of food, similar to “tapas” in Spain but served in small bamboo steamer baskets or on a small plate. Although it comes in various forms, dim sum is often a steamed bun stuffed with meat, shrimp, or some other type of filling.
Sometimes you would hear the term, “yum cha,” literally “green tea,” in Cantonese, but also known as “going for dim sum,” referring to the tradition of brunch involving Chinese tea and dim sum. Personally, my favorite restaurant was always “Jimmy’s,” over on the Kowloon side. I would always order the same thing: French onion soup and baked Alaska. It was worth the ferry ride.
What set Hong Kong apart was the resourcefulness and hard work of the people. There are many stories I could tell about Hong Kong, but the one about “Garbage Mary” is indicative of the spirit of the people in the early days. American Navy ships must dispose of all food that has been prepared, but not eaten. Large amounts of leftovers usually cannot be saved and served again, particularly on old ships with limited refrigeration and no air conditioning. Consequently, it is inevitable that some edible food must be disposed of. Although every attempt is made not to cook too much, it’s hard to predict whether several hundred sailors will clean their plates at every meal. Not everyone likes liver and onions. At sea, this food is dumped over the side after each meal to feed the fish. In port, it is loaded onto barges hired to carry it to approved dumping areas.
The woman who became known as “Garbage Mary” was an orphan child living on the streets of Hong Kong who became aware that U.S. Navy ships threw away what was to her a large amount of good food every day. She asked if she could have some of it to eat. Sympathetic sailors saw that she got it. This worked every time she saw an American ship in port. Eventually, she was asked to do some work in return for the food she received. She began working alongside the sailors, chipping rust and repainting the ship, the eternal scourge of sailors since the demise of wooden ships. She became very good at it, taking the extra food she earned ashore and selling it for consumption by the poor.
As she grew older and her entrepreneurial abilities grew, she began to use her new trade to service other ships in the harbor, including ships from other nations. She acquired her own boats to collect the garbage, her own painting equipment, and soon became one of Hong Kong’s most famous boat people, employing dozens of orphans. They were always female, worked in pairs, lived on the work boats, and were instructed to always maintain strict decorum and never associate with sailors ashore.
The quality of their work was legendary. They painted in straight lines; when they repainted the Plimsoll line, a marking on a ship’s side showing the limit of submersion safe under various conditions, the numbers were highly legible. There was no mess or waste of the paint supplied by the ship, etc. Consequently, Garbage Mary and her girls were welcome visitors whenever a ship pulled into port. I always suspected that, on some ships I was on, the Old Man (Commanding Officer) told the Chop (Supply Officer, whose responsibilities included food services) to cook extra portions so that he would have a surplus to trade. Years later, I heard that Mary eventually died as a very rich woman, having cleared tons of “garbage” and fed thousands of the poor.
No one knew it then, but during those port visits of the 1960s and 70s we were experiencing the last gasp of the old British Empire, the end of the Great Game. A favorite stop downtown was the Chinese Communist Department Store, the only visible evidence of the monolithic, totalitarian giant sleeping just to the north in Guangdong Province. Little did we know that, in our lifetime, the old Hong Kong that we knew and loved would be no more.
Hong Kong was the first place I ever saw a soft drink machine that could produce both cold soda and hot soup. I thought to myself, this is innovation. This is progress. These guys have come a long way from primarily producing the gimcrack windup toys that I bought at Hattiesburg’s S. H. Kress five and dime on Main Street when I was a kid. Like its Asian Tiger neighbor, Singapore, where you could once see Japanese bullet holes from December 1941 in the walls of the old Raffles Hotel, and where the last tiger was killed in the mid-1930s, Hong Kong has been cleaned up, wired up, and monied up.
Now it’s a city of 7.5 million people, has more skyscrapers than any other city in the world, and has the highest number of billionaires of any city in Asia. It also has the highest concentration of high net worth individuals of any city in the world. It will be interesting to see, after the total Communist takeover, if small capitalists like Garbage Mary will be allowed to flourish.
Not knowing any better, unlike Gertrude Stein, I always liked Oakland, thinking of it as kind of a right-wing antithesis to the ultra-liberal city of San Francisco, just across the bay bridge.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Hattiesburg is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Send him a note at bennyhornsby.com.