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spikegifted - Snap-shot of a childhood


The passing of my mom, brought back a lot of memory from the past. As with all memory, some are happy, some are sad, yet they are all precious in their own little ways. Here is a little snap shot of my childhood which is rather special to me, from a time when I was young and innocent and my family was together. It was a different time, different era and, back then, Hong Kong was a very different place.

 

Monday, September 5, 1976 was a special day. It was my first day at primary school and was also our family first day at our new apartment. In effect, overnight, my world was completely changed.

My first school...

As a five-year-old turning up for school on the first time, I thought everything was huge! The classroom we were in was huge; the school premises was huge; the school playgrounds were huge; the older pupils were huge; I even found the toilets huge. It was a typical small sized government primary school which meant that there were two classes of forty kids per year. Also (and I think this was uniquely Hong Kong) being a typical government school, there were effectively two different schools being ran from that single premises - one school in the morning and one school in the afternoon. I was in the 'morning school'. This was a feature of Hong Kong - owing to limited available land (remember, this was before land reclamation was considered economical), utilization of every last bit of available space had to be maximized. So one school building, two schools. For those who are interested in performance league tables, it was entirely possible that one of the schools outperforming the other - same location, same demographic and same catchment area, but different staff and different time of the day. 

The school was located in Aberdeen on the Hong Kong Island. Aberdeen, back in those days, still had the feel of a old fashion fishing village. There was a harbor with hundreds of small fishing boats moored semi-permanently. There was a 'new village' up the hill. Don't confuse the term 'new village', it was anything but a village. There were about a dozen or more twenty-odd-storey apartment blocks, with more than a dozen apartments on each floor, packed into a small leveled area between the town center/harbor and the steep hills behind the main road. I've never set foot inside one of these apartment, but from conversations with people who lived there, they were pathetically small - in the space of around 500 sq feet, somehow they managed to squeeze three generations of the same family in there. These were built quickly in the 1960s to house people who were living in even worst conditions than these 'new villages'. For those who managed to get allotted one of these apartments, well, it was like to won the lottery, but it wasn't far off. Many of those folks still had members of their families working in the fishing industry, although a good many of the folks were factory workers, or, like me, off-springs of civil servants.

When you were five years old, your 'world view' wasn't even beginning to form, you pretty much took things as they are. It was only later in life that you reflect on these early days of your life that you suddenly realize how amazing some of these guys were. Or at least that how I feel now. Some of those guys were from some really tough backgrounds. As I said before, some of those were from fishing families and those kids were involved in the family business as soon as they were out of school. Needless to say, they helped out during longer holidays but even long weekends they were involved. For them, school was a nice break from the toil of the family. Most of them were very street smart (for their age) - for many, not only did they had to look after themselves, but often younger siblings or cousins. More impressively, many were extremely intelligent. Looking back, they were not those who'd get straight 'A's because they worked hard, but they'd gotten good grades without working hard at all, because they had so much going on outside school.

Mom was a school teacher and as we knew we were moving from Castle Road where my granddad's apartment was to Mount Davis, she must have put in a request to be assigned to a school closer to our new home some time in the previous academic year. So on my first day at school, which was all new to me, it turned out that it was all new for mom also. Back in those days, Pok Fu Lam Road was not as wide as it is now, it was only two lanes - one for each direction. It was the only route connecting the harbor-side of Hong Kong Island with the southern and south-western sides of the island. Needless to say, it was a busy road first thing in the morning. From where we live in Mount Davis Road, we would join Pok Fu Lam Road (one of the longer roads in Hong Kong Island) to go up to Queen Mary Hospital, which is pretty much as high as the road would go before leveling out and starts descending and eventually going pass Wah Fu Estate (another public housing project dated from the late 1960s). There wasn't much going on between the hospital near the top of the hill and Wah Fu except for a few fairly exclusive housing developments.

There was one thing that was hugely exciting - Dairy Farm. The first time I saw it, I could not believe my eyes! I had no idea that where was a farm in Hong Kong Island, let alone one that I would encounter along my way to school. I didn't see that many cows (I did spot one or two through the years), but there was something far more exciting. As a boy, I loved all kinds of motor vehicles. I dreamt of being a truck driver! So, can you imagine what kind of a spectacle it was for me to have seen this unusual vehicle which had small wheels in the front and massive, massive treaded wheels at the back? Of course, for anyone who had been near farms, that's no big deal, it's just a tractor. But for a city kid like me, it was the main deal! The first time I saw it, it was parked at the end of a long drive going from one of the side roads going up to the farm. It wasn't even moving, but it was thrilling enough - a new vehicle. Over the years, I would pay attention every time we went past that area to see if I could spot more tractors. Sometimes, there would be nothing there, but on occasions, there were more than one parked there. There was one time one was being driven up the drive. For a little city kid, that was exciting.

Our new apartment...

My granddad's apartment was massive and like many old fashion Chinese families, many of his siblings lived there. Mom, dad and I shared one room, with all of our possessions cramped into that little space. In contrast, the apartment in the new development on Mount Davis Road, we had the whole apartment to ourselves. I had my own room to myself for the first time. What a difference it made.

Having spent my first day at my new school, with an exciting journey going to and coming back from Aberdeen, it was further surprises in the new apartment. Being only a little kid at the time, I think I saw the place once before that first day in the place. That time, there was no paint on the walls - it just bare concrete. Also, the floor was previously just concrete, but a parquet floor was laid on top by the time we got there. I never understood the meaning of something “smells new”, but the apartment smelt new. It was big, airy and there was just our little family. There was my parent's bedroom, my room, my dad's study and even a further bedroom which my dad used to keep his tools and stuff. The living area was big enough to be split into a dining area and a sitting area. The kitchen was large by Hong Kong standard. There were a total of three bathrooms (in the American sense). The place was massive!

We didn’t have many pieces of furniture, which was only natural because the room we had in granddad’s apartment could not accommodate any more than we had. And this was where the fun really started - and I don’t mean it in a sarcastic way. My dad, believe it or not, was (and probably still is) a genius! He made our furniture. During the first weekend in the new apartment, he set up a saw bench and a drill table in a bit of space outside our apartment. He shipped in a whole lot of plywood and rolls of fire boards (in different colors) and a load of other stuff. Then, for the next four months, he proceeded to make our furniture - shelving units, floor standing shelves, chests of drawers, desks and cupboards. He even built a bunk bed for me. The design of the furniture was very simple - panels were put together using two pieces fire boards sandwiching a piece of plywood, finished off with wood trim edging. Pieces of panels were brought together with large long bolts and nuts. Most shelves where adjustable - brass threaded sockets were hammered into holes drilled in the panels allowing short brass bolts to be screwed in to act as stands/supports. The finished items were colorful (in the 1970s sense of colorful) and functional.

When dad was building our furniture, I had a great time. To be frank, I didn’t help that much, but I loved watching my dad work. As far as I can recall, he didn’t have any drawings nor had he written down a long list of measurements. All of those were stored in his head and I think he adjusted and adapted to things as the situations required. The simplicity and ingenuity of the design was nothing like anything anyone has seen in Hong Kong, and the precision in the execution was infallible. Ingvar Kamprad would have been proud of my dad. Over twenty years later, when we had to take some of them down to reclaim some space, these furniture were still standing proud in our apartment. That's just to show how well constructed these panels were and how strong this simple concept was.

Rather unusual for Hong Kong, the apartment blocks in our development were very low. How low? Well, our development have five blocks, the first four have three storeys and the fifth has two storeys. That's right. The number of storeys most apartment blocks being built in Hong Kong at the time was already ten times what we had. Unless you go out to the New Territories, you won't find blocks like ours. As a curiosity, and possibly foresight, the planners still only allow low buildings on our side of the road (odd numbers). On the other side (even numbers), you can pretty much build as high as you want. Another thing was that in most apartment blocks in Hong Kong, there are typically four or eight units to each storey. At Mount Davis Road, there are only two units on every floor. What's more, our development was completely surrounded by greenery. That is still the case today. As you can imagine, Mount Davis is like being in the country side while still in Hong Kong. 

We occupied one of the ground floor units of second block. Owing to the fact that the whole development is constructed on the hill side, and the blocks are all below the road level, all but one of the blocks have entrances at top of the building. So while we were on the ground floor, we had the most to travel to get to our apartment from the entrance of the building. It was unusual to say the least, but it added to the charm of the place. Unfortunately, this set up was inconvenient for my mom for by then she was partially paralyzed from a stroke a couple of years previously. Nevertheless, she loved the apartment, particularly the trees on the outside.

To really understand the setup of the place, let me take you on journey from street level down to our apartment. The most obvious feature of our development was the car park. There was a space for each apartment unit, so there were twenty eight spaces. To get the roof, the entrance level, of our block, you needed to walk through the car park, cross a small foot bridge which linked the car park to the roof of the block. After getting off the foot bridge, you would be standing at the back of the apartment. To get to the entrance, you effectively had to walk the depth of an apartment unit (it was not that deep). Once through the entrance, you needed to descend six flights of stairs to the entrance of our apartment. All this meant that we were approximately 40 feet below street level.

Each apartment had a balcony, which, in case of our apartment, was only six feet off the ground level. The balcony had sliding doors which opened and folded back so that the entire balcony was opened to the living area. There was a paved (concrete) path which completely surrounded the block. To the outside of the path there was nature: trees, scrubs, plants, weeds, birds, small animals, stray pets and loads and loads of insects. One of the most curious plants I learnt was something called ‘shyness grass’ (Mimosa pudica): the compound leaves of this plant would fold inward if you touched it. I also saw, for the first time, a banana tree, but it was not producing any bananas.

With all the foliage out there and all the birds and insects, there was a lot of noise! However, as I realize now, that was a ‘good’ noise - sound of nature. Aside from animal and insect noises, there was another noise we had in abundance: wind noise. Our apartment, and whole development, was actually quite exposed. It was located at the western tip of Hong Kong island and our area would be in prime area for high wind if the direction is anywhere from southerly to westerly, which was quite often. Looking out of our balcony, aside from the tree canopy there is nothing between our windows and Cheung Chau (“Long Island”). When the wind picked up, which it did on regular basis during the annual typhoon season, the noise the wind made against our windows was phenomenal. On top of that with driving rain beating down on the windows, there was an impressive range of noise to keep any kid amused.

One of my favorite activities during a typhoon (schools closed as soon as a typhoon got close) was to stand really close to the balcony window and listen to variations of wind noise and felt that air pressure pushed me away from the window when a particularly strong gust hit the window. We used to put adhesive tapes diagonally across all the window pines. Any kinds of tapes would do the job: electrical types, masking tapes, Sellotape, any adhesive tape... The reason we did that was so that if something hit one of those windows, the tapes would hold the glass in place if it is not completely shattered. This would give people a little bit of time to do whatever they can to put a temporary fix on the problem. Of course, if the window shattered, they would be little help, but the tapes should help reducing the shatter radius of the glass. Luckily, we never experienced any broken windows from flying objects.

My new neighborhood...

Even back in 1970’s, the ‘Mid-level’ in Hong Kong is in the middle of island’s urban built-up area. It sits just behind Central, the principal banking and commercial district in Hong Kong. On the other hand, Mount Davis on the western side of the island, between Kennedy Town on the western seafront and Pok Fu Lam (once upon a time, a wooded area, but even now it is relatively sparsely built up).

When we first moved in (and until the late 1990s), you got to feel like you were leaving the city behind you and were entering into a completely different place. Somewhere that was less busy, less chaotic and more tranquil. As you face the entrance of Mount Davis Road, there was a nursery on the right hand side of the entrance and the left hand side was the hill side. There were trees lining both sides of the road which provided ample shades from the sun. In the summer months, we actually felt the temperature dropped from the uncomfortable low to mid thirties Celsius to something more tolerable like the mid to high twenties. The shades of green that defused through the canopy made the whole scenery very easy on the eye, instead of the hash concrete grey that covered most of Hong Kong.

As we progressed further down the road, there were several small workshops. These used to be stonemasons and they worked on headstones and other graveside features. The workmanship was amazing: each worker was effectively an artist. Even at a young age, I recognized how delicate their work was. Then there was the sound of their stone chisels. Those high-pitched, ding-ding-ding-ding sounds that used to fill all the space under the trees. When there were several stonemasons working at the same time, each using a slightly different chisel, all hammering away at a different rhythm, the sounds produced were out of this world. The nearest thing I can describe is like a high-pitch wind charm beating in high wind, but played back at high speed. Of course, depending on the time of the day, the chisel noise also mixed with sounds of birds, singing from high up the trees. It beats the noise of heavy traffic any time.

Once passed the stonemasons, there was a little path that leads up to a Buddhist monastery. Now, I know these Buddhist monks have incredible power of concentration and meditation, but you would not expect Buddhist monasteries located in noisy places. Honestly, our road was quiet enough to have such an establishment! Can you imagine how different it felt from the rest of Hong Kong? Further down the road, but still within earshot of the stonemasons, we were blessed by having another nursery. This one was actually a lot larger than the one at the entrance of the road. This nursery sold everything from small plants to big trees and the variety was astounding (at least for a city kid like me). Our apartment was in a development call Greenville. While it was not the first development on Mount Davis Road, it was one of the bigger ones at the time. Our five blocks were washed in pink, which stood out from the green surroundings. You could see the street level car park of our development once you have passed the second nursery as you approach from the Pok Fu Lam Road entrance of the road.

To add to our sense of isolation from the rest of Hong Kong, there was only one bus serving our road. I don’t mean just one bus route - there was literally just one bus on this route. It was route ‘3A’ and it went from the back end of Mount Davis Road (funny how we always thought that was the ‘back end’...) to Central Bus Terminal. The gentleman who drove that route must have been in his mid to late 60s. When it was announced that he was going to retire, nearly all the residents on our road petitioned to have him reinstated for another 12 months. As there was only one bus running the route, timing was vital. Back in the mid-1970s, the HK government had not started the massive road building program which substantially improved traffic flow in Hong Kong, the first fruits of that project appeared in the late 1980s. So getting to Central could take a lot longer than the available half hour, especially during the morning and evening rush hour. There were times that the bus was running well over 15 minutes late. As there was effectively a single bus per hour, missing it or waiting to catch it meant adapting it to whatever travel plan you might have conceived. Luckily, we were only 600 meters or so from the bus stop just outside Mount Davis Road which had buses going to Central, Causeway Bay and other places, so missing route 3A was not the end of the world.

Mom and I used to like to take bus route 23 to the Porkfield Road terminal, which was a good 20 minute walk up Pok Fu Lam Road to the entrance of Mount Davis Road (Mom didn’t walk fast). One day, around a third of our way back home, we noticed a ‘milestone’ on the side of the road. It read: “City Limit 1912”. Wow! I know that’s nearly 100 years ago, but that added to sense of remoteness of our place. Although there has been large scale residential building projects along the southwest coast of Hong Kong island, even now our area has been largely left untouched. Our road has always been a favorite amongst the Westerners living in Hong Kong. The road had a real colonial feel at the time. When we first moved in, and up until the early 1980s, the street lamps along the road used to be powered by gas. They were not electric lamps put inside old lanterns, they had flames inside them.

The street lamps have been upgraded, the stonemasons have largely moved on, the nurseries have long gone out of business and the entrance of the road have been altered beyond recognition on grounds of safety, but Mount Davis Road still has a special place in my heart.

 

Writing this little piece has been a real emotional journey for me. It reminded me a more innocent time that has been lost. Some of my memory has become fuzzy and distant, but others remain vivid and ever-present. Nevertheless, irrespective of whether the memory was fresh or not, it is still memory of a childhood. It was longer than a ‘snap shot’, but the additional details were useful to make up a fuller picture. While I haven’t mentioned Mom in every other sentence, she was very much part of the live described here. It is impossible to roll-back the years as Mom is no longer with us, but the memory preserved here and elsewhere will help me dealing with the loss. In time, I might be able to celebrate her life rather than mourn her passing.

 



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