Ebooks   ➡  Nonfiction  ➡  Travel  ➡  By region

Foreign Devils, Lifting the lid on a wonderland that even Alice would have loved



Alice fell down a rabbit hole into a wonderland. I arrived at mine in a Boeing. She had tea with a Mad Hatter, played croquet against the Queen of Hearts and saved the life of a knave who stole some tarts in the fantasy tale by Lewis Carroll. When I arrived in Hong Kong, I didn’t bump into a white rabbit, a hare, duchess, lizard or turtle like Alice did. However, some of the characters I got to know in the more than 20 years I spent there were almost as colorful. For me, the British colony was a wonderland, too.


It offered a life I had never imagined sitting in an office at the tip of Africa in a country still held in the grimy and iron grip of apartheid. I must admit that at first glance it didn’t look like a wonderland at all after the plane I was on flew just above the rooftops in Mong Kok and landed with a bump on the tarmac in the world’s fifth most populated city. The airport’s reception area was tatty and I saw washing hanging out of windows of dreary buildings on the drive to a hotel. The bath in my hotel room in Yau Ma Tei had a crack in it, the TV set showed Chinese language programs and when I peered out of the window, I saw litter strewn everywhere.


The food in the restaurant appeared dubious, so I opted to buy apples and bananas from a nearby shop instead. I thought I had made a huge mistake by accepting a job on the Hong Kong Standard newspaper. However, I later discovered a city that even Alice would have found dreamy. It offers some of the world’s finest hotels, restaurants, shopping and a fascinating nightlife. If you want a break from busy city life, beautiful hiking trails are not far away. I was paid well. The income tax rate is low. There is little import tax on goods and no V.AT. People find it easy to get a job.


The transport system remains the best on the planet and the low crime rate is the envy of countries in the West. I grinned like a Cheshire Cat. Despite what has been written by political prophets of doom, I suspect soured by the loss of sovereignty to China, Hong Kong remains my favorite city. I did have to put up with a city where apartments are tiny, humidity in summer tiring and traffic jams clogged the roads. Typhoons are an ever-present threat. Westerners are considered “foreign devils” but are treated well by the city of 7 million mostly Chinese people. I could afford to have a meal and sip a cup of Earl Grey tea at the Mandarin Oriental or listen to a string quartette play classical music on a balcony overlooking the lounge at the Peninsula hotel. A pal of nine, David McKirdy, looks after the hotel’s fleet of Rolls-Royces.


Guests at the Peninsula, which boasted celebrities such as Elton John, are ferried around in style. People can choose a fine restaurant or eat down-market at a McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut or a dai pai dong foodstall, where a simple meal costs about US$2. Shopping is a delight. I bought an Armani suit, Bally leather jacket, Gucci slacks, Dolce and Gabbana jeans, a Rolex watch and a Louis Vuitton wallet, which I still have. The items were all bought during the summer and winter sales, where you could get up to 80% off on luxury goods. An expatriate friend of mine, Debbie Lawson, bought a Hermes handbag but refused to say how much she paid for it.


I was proud of my Submariner Rolex and showed it off to a Chinese pal. He was wearing a timepiece I didn’t recognize, so I asked what it was. “Blackie” said it was a Patek Phillippe. “How much did it cost you?” I asked. “About 100,000 American dollars,” he replied. That shut me up.


I later learned that Blackie could afford to buy what he wanted. He drove a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and invested in watches as a hobby. He also went to a school in Australia, Timbertop, which was attended by Prince Charles. Blackie pulled my leg and got away with it when I asked earlier whether he owned the Rolls. “No,” he said. “I’m a driver for the Hilton.” And to back this up, he gave me a lift and dropped me off at the hotel.


Nightlife was stimulating. I went to some of the swanky nightclubs but also took a walk on the wild side in Wan Chai. Across the Fragrant Harbor in Kowloon, I had a drink at a topless bar, Bottom’s Up, which featured in the James Bond movie “The Man With a Golden Gun”. The barmaid there insisted that I pay more for my drink because I had the dubious pleasure of looking at her tits. I demurred. In my opinion, they weren’t worth it. I was shaken and stirred to pay up though when a bouncer at the bar intervened. I pulled out my wallet faster than Bond, aka Roger Moore, could draw his Walther PKK.


Away from the madding crowds, I took to hiking trails that few tourists see. They arrive, stay in smart hotels, shop, eat out, enjoy the nightlife and push off home. Hong Kong devotes 40% of its land to country parks. I lived in one and spent much of my leisure time hiking in it. The MacLehose Trail, started by a former governor, Sir Murray MacLehose, wends its way through country parks for about 60 miles. Debbie Lawson, newspaper colleague Graeme Nicholson and I entered the Trailwalker race one year but didn’t last the distance. Sore feet put Debbie out of the race while cramp in my thighs ended my hopes after 40 miles although Graeme managed to go a little further.


The terrain is tortuous. We started in the afternoon and walked through the night, made more difficult when both Debbie’s and my torches failed. Walking along a dusty trail in hilly territory wasn’t easy. We fell a few times and were relieved when the sun rose.


Newspaper salaries are good. The first newspaper that I worked for as a copy editor paid far more than I earned on the Sunday Times in South Africa. I was chief copy editor of the country’s biggest selling newspaper there, yet better off as a down-table copy editor on the Standard, which also paid for my flight to the colony and two weeks in a hotel while I settled in. The low income tax rated meant I had more expendable income. At home, I had paid more than 40% but in Hong Kong only 12%.


Flat rents were higher than in Johannesburg but I figured that effectively I didn’t pay any rent in Hong Kong because of the money I saved in income tax. Maximum income tax is about 16%, which keeps billionaires happy, too. Because there is no V.A.T. and import taxes on only perfume and hard liquor, most items in shops are attractive. Most journalists I worked with saved about $1,500 a month while enjoying the good life.


Two of my colleagues, Rob Houwing and Deborah Herd, saved enough in two years to put down a deposit on a house in Cape Town when they returned to South Africa. Denise Wales and her husband, Keith, stayed for 10 years and I was told returned to England with close to a million in sterling. Rob, Deborah, Denise and Keith worked on the South China Morning Post newspaper, which has an excellent pension scheme. After just five years on the Post, I came away with a hefty payout. I returned to South Africa to work on a newspaper in Cape Town, the Argus, but missed Hong Kong so much that I hopped on to a plane and went back for another stint on the Standard.


Altogether, I worked for three newspapers: the Standard, Eastern Express and the South China Morning Post on which I stayed for 17 years. The Express was launched as the handover loomed and some critics say it was started to help the new governor, Chris Patten, deal with the change in sovereignty to China. Its first editor, Steve Vines, a noted political commentator, paid top salaries and poached staff from other English-language newspapers. I left the Standard and was joined by many others. The Post couldn’t stop the flow of staff to the Express. The salaries it offered with far higher than other newspapers paid.


A copy editor at the Standard that I remember only as “Pigs” also wanted to join the Express but management insisted he see out his two-year contract. Pigs lived up to his name. In a futile effort to get sacked, he took off his pants and crawled under his desk while screaming like a pig. Staff ignored him, so after a while Pigs put his pants on again and resumed work. Express publisher Ma Ching-kwan had no problem firing people. He soon dismissed Vines and ran through six editors in the newspaper’s two-year existence.


Karl Wilson, who I worked for when he edited the Sunday Standard, was foreign editor on the Express. Before he was sacked, he couldn’t believe how well staff were treated at suppertime. Food from McDonald’s or Pizza Hut was laid on in addition to as many cans of Heineken beer you could drink. Staff could also have a meal in the restaurant downstairs and watch Ma’s young son zip around a nearby indoor track in an electrically powered mini-Porsche. Steve Vines later started a sandwich shop, which proved popular, on a corner in Quarry Bay before moving back to better things.


Editors on the Post didn’t last long either. Management chopped and changed and brought in 10 editors in one spell of 11 years. I enjoyed working for David Armstrong and Johanthan Fenby, nicked-named “Fun Boy”, who collected Bordeaux wines. The Standard was no different. Editors changed frequently as did other staff. Mike Lynch was editor when I first arrived in early 1989 while Mike Simms was night editor. Lynch left to become the Aga Khan’s “right-hand man” in Kenya, so he said, and Simms landed up on the Post.


Alan Armsden, the managing editor, was accused of fiddling the circulation figures before he pushed off to Dubai. It was a merry-go-round. Alistair Langford-Wilson, who started at the Standard as a copy editor, eventually edited the newspaper. He had a thing about Mickey Mouse outfits and banned staff from wearing clothes from Disney stores. A reporter, Brett Free, disregarded the instruction and the next day turned up in a Mickey Mouse hat, shirt, tie and waistcoat. “Freebie” finally left and joined the government where he later wrote speeches for Tung Chee-hwa, who was appointed governor after the handover of sovereignty to China in 1997.


At the Standard, I found that no writer’s copy was sacrosanct. When I asked a new copy editor why he taking so long editing a story on the first Gulf War by P.J. O’Rourke, he said it was badly done and had rewritten it. Why he thought he could do a better job than the American award-winning author is beyond me. I reinstated the original version, pinched the headline in Rolling Stone magazine, for which we had lifting rights, and got the story ready for publication. Years later, when I told colleagues on the Post about the incident, a copy editor suggested it was okay to have rewritten the story. I asked whether she would even give Plato’s Republic a going over. “Yes. If it needed improvement, I would rewrite it,” she insisted.


People are spoiled for choice when getting about. You can take a taxi, minibus, bus, tram, underground railway, train or a ferry. In an attempt to reduce traffic on the roads, a first registration tax was introduced for new vehicles. Anyone buying a new vehicle pays 100% tax on it. That means paying double its initial price. Second-hand cars, or pre-owned as salesmen like to call them, are inexpensive. Most are automatic, which are easier to drive in heavy traffic than gear-shift vehicles. Taxis are everywhere. However, their drivers came up with an amusing strike tactic when unhappy with the introduction of gas-powered cars.


Unless the government gave them increased financial help, they vowed to slow down traffic by refusing to break the speed limit and stop jumping red lights. A taxi license costs about $1 million and the drivers don’t like anything affecting their investment. Pollution from the jam-packed roads gave a pal of mine, Jack Upson, a talented artist and photographer, what he thought was a good excuse to continue smoking cigarettes. “When the cars stop polluting the air, I’ll stop smoking,” he said. One truck driver had a novel way of warning motorists when reversing his vehicle into a road. A recording machine played classical music and Beethoven sounded the warning.


The underground railway, the MTR, operates on Hong Kong Island and Kowloonside and is an effective and quick means of travel. The KCR train also serves people living in the outlying areas. I even took a train from Kowloon station to Beijing in China. I was tired of the time it took to catch a plane. Getting to the airport, standing in a passport queue and waiting for the flight is frustrating. You can expect the same problems in Beijing. The train I took left at 4.30pm and arrived at 7am the next day. I shared a deluxe compartment with a Swiss businessman. I slept on a sizeable and comfortable bunk, had meals in a nearby dining coach and we had our own valet, who brought us drinks. Watching the countryside roll by during the day and later sleeping to the sound of the wheels on the track was a great way to go. I wasn’t tired or irritated when we arrived at the station in Beijing. I got through passport control quickly before a taxi took me to the plush Shangri-La hotel. I later took in the sights of the capital city.


In Hong Kong, well-off people, who live in the Mid-Levels up the hill from Central, have it good, too. They can take a 1.2-mile escalator to work in the city business district in the morning and step back on it that afternoon for the trip home. The Star Ferry takes passengers across the harbor for a few dollars while pensioners travel for free. Other ferries ply routes to many of the islands in the territory and also to nearby Macau. Many expats live at Discovery Bay on Lantau Island. They can rent a kart to get about there and use it to ride up to the golf course. I played a round or two at the course with colleagues David Fox and Richard Simmons. In addition, facilities include a sports club, a yacht harbor, shops, bars and restaurants. The island is popular with hikers.


One trail goes over a couple of very steep hills to Po Lin Monastery, where you can take a look at the 112-foot-high Big Buddha. Hiking pal Debbie Lawson and I made the trip a few times and then took the bus to Mui Wo, where we caught a ferry back to Hong Kong Island. Another trail ends up at Tai O, the oldest fishing village in Hong Kong. Richard Holdcroft, a colleague at the Post, accompanied me on the meandering walk. Richard and his partner, Louise Harris, later joined me in a long hike from The Peak to Big Wave Bay near Shek O village on Hong Kong Island. I battled on the 31-mile Green Power race and finished far behind my pals.


My personal peak of ecstasy came in 100-mile Himalayan Stage Race in India. I entered the five-day event in 2001 at the age of 61 and won the prize for the oldest competitor to complete it. I almost quit after the first stage. “This first stage if tough. It’s up there,” said race director C.S. Pandey, pointing to a mountain that loomed above us in a small village near Darjeeling. The distance was 24 miles on a dusty road the Aga Khan had ordered built so he could see Mt Everest from Sandakphu 6,000 feet above where we set off. I walked the entire stage with Nancy Richter, a Texan as tough as they come, and was in so much pain when we finished in the dark that I couldn’t make it to a nearby dormitory on my own.


Pandey put a rug over my shoulders and helped me there. It was freezing and I sought solace in the warmth of my sleeping bag. However, I had a case of Delhi Belly. Maybe I should have had a cup of tea in Darjeeling instead of a hamburger before the race. My stomach rumbled and every muscle in my body hurt. However, fellow competitors encouraged me to continue. I walked the entire second stage of 20 miles on a diet of bananas and biscuits.


Running at about half the height of Mt Everest was difficult. I had trouble breathing as did others, two of whom quit because of altitude sickness. The next stage was the Mt Everest Marathon over the standard 26 miles. It took the group I was in nearly 12 hours to complete it. One of us sprained an ankle when falling on a muddy path and it slowed us down. “Well, the worst is over. You’ll make it now,” said Pandey as we celebrated at a party in Rimbik village that night. Three other people from Hong Kong completed the race. One was a teacher and the others musicians from the Philharmonic Orchestra, a cellist and a trombonist. We all ran the final two stages over 13 and 17 miles in style and then headed back to Delhi. I checked out the Taj Mahal at Agra and other sights, visited Birla House in Delhi, where Mahatma Gandhi lived and was assassinated, and headed for the airport and home in Hong Kong.


Previously in South Africa, I had completed the 56-mile Comrades, a couple of 35-mile Two Oceans races and more than a dozen standard marathons. They were tough but not as daunting as the Stage Race. When I got back to Hong Kong, newspaper colleague Don “Doc” Holliday gave me a clap on the back at the office. Holliday was also adventurous. When he lived in the United States, he cycled across the country from coast to coast. Later he rode his bicycle long distance in China and elsewhere. There was not stopping “Doc” when he got on to his bike. People still remember Holliday’s feat of swimming across a not-so-Fragrant Harbor. He dived in at Kowloonside, dodging ships, tugs, junks and other craft as he swam to the other side in his underpants.


“Doc”, nicknamed after a Wild West gunslinger, hopped on to a Star Ferry at the Hong Kong Island side and joined curious passengers on his way back to his clothes in Tsim Sha Tsui. When choosing a pet, he didn’t get a dog or a cat like many of his friends. He chose a python. It was a decision that ensured I would never visit him at home, where the snake roamed freely. Apartments are small. I could barely squeeze into the bedroom of the first flat I rented. Air-conditioners are a must. However, things get done chop-chop. I wanted wall-to-wall carpets in my two-roomed flat at City One in Sha Tin, so I took the lift down 32 stories to a shopping mall. It was 10am. By mid-afternoon, the job was done. It was completed in about the time punters emptied their wallets at the Jockey Club’s nearby racecourse.


When I arrived in early 1989, the turnover of horse racing was $1 billion a year. I tried my luck on the horses several times, but lost more cash than I won. Angela Szeto, a colleague at the Standard, invited me to attend as a guest. Her parents were members of the club, so I mixed with the well-groomed folk. I found that I could watch the races while standing in a swimming pool in the members’ section. So there I was sipping a martini as I watched the action. A trio, picking the first three horses in order to finish in a race, once paid out $4 million. When I finally left the city in late 2011, the lottery there, the Mark Six, paid out a $12 million jackpot. I could have bought a Ferrari rather than a Volkswagen with the winnings when I got home to South Africa.


I bought a motorcycle in the first few months in the colony. It made beating the traffic into the city easier. Once, when a typhoon loomed, I had gone for a jog with Derek Alberts, a colleague at the Standard, in a country area near Three Fathoms Cove. We tied out bikes to a tree with ropes in case it caught us napping. However, we finished a 3-mile run in time to avoid calamity and made it back to Sha Tin before the typhoon struck. When it did, so heavy was the rain that I couldn’t see more than one meter out of my flat window. In my leisure time, I played golf, tennis and squash, climbed rocks and jogged along trails in the country park where I lived.


I eventually moved to the idyllic village of Hoi Ha in Sai Kung Country Park, where I spent most of my remaining years in Hong Kong. Many expats live in the Sai Kung district. You can buy anything you needed in the town, especially at a shop called “Harrods”. I used to have breakfast at Ali Oli bakery or Jaspa’s restaurant next door. There are also seafood restaurants, a McDonald’s, Starbucks and a number of bars of which The Duke of York is popular. I spent time swinging a golf club on the fairways of the Gary Player-designed courses on the nearby Kau Sai Chau Island. I used to tee up with a couple of stockbrokers, a Japanese guy Ishikawa, who had worked on the Tokyo stock exchange, and a Chinese friend Ping Wong, who used to work for JP Morgan bank.


I also played a round or two with “Doc” Holliday. He seldom failed to remind me of the time that he eagled a par-four hole and drove his ball far past mine on one of the fairways. I chatted to golfing great Gary Player when he visited Hong Kong, didn’t get to meet Tiger Woods when he swung into town but caddied for Nick Faldo in an event at Hong Kong Golf Club. Nick isn’t an easy-going guy. He hadn’t trusted reporters since being given a grilling by the British press at the start of his career. Some critics called him “Foldo” when he flopped in a tournament. He paid them back after winning the British Open by saying: “I’d like to thank you from the heart of my bottom.” Nick, who was once called a real “brick”, a word open to interpretation, by an American golf professional, was courteous but curt when I caddied for him in a Faldo Series competition.


One way to join the prestigious Hong Kong Golf Club is to put your name on a waiting list. However, the list is so long that some golfers buy a membership, which costs millions of dollars. The last time I saw Faldo was when I attended the 1990 Masters championship at Augusta National in Georgia. Nick beat Raymond Floyd to win his second green jacket. I met up with Gary Player again. He was then in his Fifties and still believed he could still chip the main prize into his trophy cabinet. When I greeted him during the first round, he said: “Sorry, I can’t talk to you now. I am concentrating.” After the round, he apologized and suggested I follow the action with some friends of his. A Baptist church I passed on the way to Augusta National made its view clear. A sign outside it declared, “Behold THE Master”.


My tennis regulars in Hong Kong included Stan James and Rob Houwing. Stan and his wife Leigh named their first two children after the Jesse James gang that terrorized the Wild West. First came a son Jesse and then daughter Frankie. Stan, hindered by a steel brace on one leg, still packed a punch on the tennis court. No wonder. I heard that he fought as a pugilistic pro in South Africa. He also played rock guitar, strung together a competitive game and often ran me off my feet on the court. Rob was a crafty fellow. One day, he insisted on playing on when it started to rain. Up to that stage, I had the better of him. But he had a knack of skidding the ball off the wet surface of the court and won.


At one time, I got involved with an organization called Treats that gave Vietnamese children, locked up in boatpeople camps in the colony, a day of fun in the sun at a holiday resort. The children could roller-skate, play football and other games and take part in a treasure hunt. My job was to take pictures and give them to the children at the prize giving. The prizes included Teddy Bears and other attractive items. Yet one 14-year-old chose a bar of scented soap for her mother. Some of the children had never seen photographs of themselves.


So desperate were some Vietnamese to get out of the dreadful camps that one of the lasses supervising the children offered to marry me. She was 19 years old and I was nearly 50. I had to turn her down. When I reached the age of 70, she would still be in her prime. One of the other helpers, Al Roberts, a mountaineer, took up an offer and they appeared a happy couple when I saw them walking hand-in-hand later in Sai Kung town. He introduced me to rock-climbing, a sport I never thought I would take up as I had a fear of heights. A friend, Teri Hooper, however, was an ace climber. So, too, was Debbie Lawson, who often joined me. Journalist pals of mine also joined in when I arranged a day on the rocks in a country park. Ben Anderson, “Foxy” Foxwell, Anne Marie Roantree, Adam Wright and Angela Szeto didn’t mind the ups and downs of climbing.


I later climbed at Shek O on Hong Kong Island, Tung Lung Island and on Kowloon Peak. I survived a Tyrolean trip on a rope across a gorge at Shek O as the sea raged below. I did it once and that was enough. Teri had no fear and made the trip half-a-dozen times. She eventually returned to the States and got married. She travelled widely before we met and wrote stories about her time working as a teacher in Tokyo and riding a camel in the desert in India at Rajasthan. “I loved sleeping under the stars and I had happy dreams,” she said. “I bought some Mary Jane leaves at a shop in a town and smoked them in the desert. I managed to avoid falling off a camel on a ride the next day.”


Life wasn’t easy for one expat. He started on the Standard, joined a magazine, pushed off to work in Manila in the Philippines and then joined the Post on his return. He was earlier laid off by the Standard for going AWOL, lost his job on the magazine, built a small boat in the Philippines that capsized before he found success at the Post. When out of work, he cheekily vowed to end his life by riding his bicycle into the South China Sea. At the time, he couldn’t pay his rent for his flat or his bar bills and couldn’t see his way out of trouble. We had a chat over a pool table in Sai Kung, where he was trying to take a few dollars off me. Tired of the silly reaction to his plight, I offered to push him and his bike off the dock. However, he recovered financially by selling two pedigreed dogs his girlfriend “Crazy Annie” owned, paid his debts and landed a decent job on the Post from which he never looked back.


Tommy The Scot is the only person I have ever come across who hired a bodyguard to look after him when he went out for a drink. I first came across Tommy on the Sunday Times in South Africa. Later, we worked together on the Standard and Post. Tommy, like most expats, liked a drink. He used to visit the Old China Hand in Wan Chai. It was there one night that I came across him accompanied by his “minder”, or bodyguard, Shotgun Billy Smith. Tommy at times got aggressive and Billy was there to keep him out of trouble. A Scot, he had married a woman in his home country after taking a break from newspapers. She unfortunately died and Tommy, flush with money, returned to Hong Kong with Billy, who he could now afford to employ.


Believe me, my life is Hong Kong wasn’t always a bed of roses either. While on the Post, I landed up in hospital when I broke a leg and finished up in a wheelchair and once got hit on my motorcycle by a hit-and-run motorist. Unfortunately for the motorist, his car’s number plate fell off at the scene and he later paid the price in court. Another regular at the Old China Hand was Julian Thomas. A canny headline writer, he chose in the early hours of one morning to sleep on a sofa left outside a shop when he missed the last ferry home to Disco Bay. Julian woke up that afternoon with an irate shopkeeper standing over him. I occasionally shared a beer with Julian and Tim Hathaway at the “country club”, which turned out to be a food stall near the office. Sport is no big deal in Hong Kong apart from horseracing and the Sevens rugby showpiece. Mind you, some journalists enjoy the sporting life.


Tony Allison paddled a canoe across the sea to the Philippines. Cathy Daltry ran a half-marathon in Macau. Noel Prentice, Hedley Thomas, Johnny Jobson, David Fox, “Doc” Holliday, Colin Kerr and Brett Free played golf and Graeme Nicholson and Steve Pike surfed the waves. David Armstrong, Emma Phillips, Kylie Jane Knott, Terry Pontikos and Allister MacMillan knew the difference between a googly and a “Chinaman” on the cricket pitch. Mike King, Tim Noonan, Jurgen Gregerse, Sean Kennedy, Matty Scott, Paul Buck, Peter Welton, Nazvi Careem and Bob Terpstra were among the avid sports fans.


Guy Haydon, a keen cyclist, was proud of the fact that he knew a South African who had strangled an MPLA soldier in Angola with his bare hands. The sports bars were packed for major international games. Donal Scully, when he wasn’t showing off his skill doing the Twist at a nightclub, used to bite his nails when Celtic played a football match. Niall Donnelly, when Manchester United looking like losing a game, could be found holding his head between his hands in Quarry Bay Park. Mike McGrath, a seasoned rugby and football writer, tried to look unconcerned when Arsenal took the field. Carl Jones, an Aston Villa supporter, and Johnny Jobson, who backed Rangers, didn’t take kindly to any comments about their teams’ efforts.


Donal Scully lauded everything Irish and loved to talk about Gaelic football. When I pointed out that he was born in England, he replied: “Because you are born in a stable, it doesn’t make you a horse.” Phil Kennedy and Noel Prentice, both All Blacks fans, were always confident the New Zealanders would beat the Springboks. John Carney quietly backed Ireland. Mike McGrath, Bonny Schoonakker, Graeme Nicholson, Steve Pike, Stan James and I were among the South African rugby fans while Ewen Campbell, Paul Buck, Peter Welton and Tim Hathaway had to be stopped singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” when England played at Twickenham.


If you liked a beer while you watch the action, Hong Kong is a good place to be. Some bars stay open all night and you can even buy a bottle of beer, wine, brandy, whisky or vodka at any 7-Eleven, which trades 24/7. Terry Moylan, who boasted he had the largest drinking tab at the Press Club, was something of a comic. He told me of the time that he conned Rupert Murdoch, the magnate who once owned the South China Morning Post. Back in Australia, Moylan and some friends went drinking with Murdoch and on the way home in a taxi, one of then vomited over him. Because Murdoch wasn’t sober at the time and couldn’t remember the incident the next day, he bought the story that he had been the one who puked. So he apologized to the delight of Terry and his pals.


Others paid the price for having too much of a good time. Lance Cherry broke a leg when he fell while dancing on a bar counter, an editor at the Standard couldn’t remember where he lived after a night out much to the consternation of a taxi driver who needed instructions and one journalist, who thought he was Mike Tyson, was floored by a punch after a row at a bar in Sai Kung. Despite their occasional walk on the wild side, journalists still managed to produce decent newspapers. If you worked on the Post, minding your P’s and Q’s was essential when Paul Buck checked your copy or Colin Kerr looked at the headlines.


I joined the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in my early days. It was there that I met a guy I called the “Half-baked Alaskan”. He had plenty of ideas of how to make money, some of which fell through. When another member of the FCC complained, he said: “Welcome to the big city.” A few disgruntled people the got together and booked several junks through him for junket trips in the South China Sea. However, the day before, they phoned in and cancelled. When he moaned about landing in a financial mess, they responded with their own “big city welcome” cry. John Mulcahy, who had worked on the Rand Daily Mail in South Africa, was a journalist who succeeded in Hong Kong’s financial world. John, who admits that he once fell face first into a plate of soup during a dinner in South Africa during his drinking days, quit alcohol after arriving in the colony and ended up as managing director of UBS Securities. Mulcahy now owns homes in several countries and I still enjoy chatting with him about the good old days in Hong Kong.


It would be amiss not to thank Sue Bamber, who I worked with on the Standard and the Post, for her vain attempt to stop me buying stuff I really didn’t need. Sue and her partner, Jack Upson, were far more careful and could afford to buy a shack near a beach in Sri Lanka. Anil Attapatu was helpful when I first arrived and, sitting on the pillion of my motorcycle, showed my how to find my way around the city. I appreciated the kindness of Sue Bamber, Mike McGrath, David McKirdy, John Carney, Stan James and the Yung family, from whom I rented a flat, for visiting me when I landed in hospital after breaking my right leg.


At the age of five, I had been run over by a bus on a dusty road in a South African town and spent more than a year in hospital. Doctors didn’t believe I would walk again. Eight operations later, I finished up on crutches but much later in life managed to run marathons and ultra-marathons. So breaking the same leg again, after slipping when rushing down a flight of stairs at my flat in Hoi Ha village, was devastating. I needed another three major operations but the incident ended my running days. Surgeons at the public hospital, Tseung Kwan O, were first class and the cost of my stay was minimal. The operations didn’t cost a cent, medicines and after-care were free and charges for the bed and food amounted to $25 a day. Doctors had to use morphine because of the pain I was in at times.


I suffered nightmares because of its use. I told Sue Bamber that I had been kidnapped and taken to Mong Kok, another time I dreamt that I had driven a London Tube train with British PM Margaret Thatcher as a passenger. When I insisted that I had been kidnapped, doctors had to call a policeman to assure me that I was still in hospital. To this day, I am grateful for the treatment I received at Tseung Kwan O hospital. The food, however, was better in the city.


I still owe newspaper colleague Blaise Hopkinson the cost of an Oliver’s sandwich. Blaise, who had been hired by the Post, lasted only a few days after the editor David Armstrong learned that he was already negotiating for another job. So he was fired and left the office in a hurry. I noticed that he had not taken a tasty sandwich with him, so I ate it. When he later phoned and asked that someone bring the sandwich to the Press Club, I had to admit it would be impossible. Many journalists carved fine careers in Hong Kong, but I enjoy telling tales about some of the lighter moments of their lives.


Alex Price earns praise for standing up to an editor about a story about China he thought was downplayed, but people still remember the time he was found canoodling a female staff member in a stairwell at the Post’s 28th-floor office in Dorset House. Standard reporter Tim Metcalfe gets first prize for his ability to embellish a story about Sir Edmund Hillary, conqueror of Mt Everest. The only meeting that Tim had with Hillary was brief, when he greeted the great man as he walking down some steps, but he still managed to write a long feature article about their encounter. Peter Kammerer amazed me by continuing to write for the Post despite being visually impaired. Colleague Mukul Munish bought a Porsche sports car, which goes to show how well paid staff are.


Solveig “Marina” Bang proved to be an eager hiker when she joined me on the MacLehose trail and was a snappy hand with her camera. Frank Delfino, as stand-in sports editor, showed his love for motorcycle racing and especially the feats of Valentino Rossi. Alvin Sallay, who wrote about any sport from rugby to athletics, filed stories for the Post for a quarter of a century. Keith Addison told me about the Internet when it was just evolving. I thought he was talking nonsense. David Sutton, when he discovered how little I knew about the hi-tech world, showed me how to deal with the finer points of HTML (hyper text mark-up language) coding. Roger Mason, at one time my landlord, took me sailing in his 32-foot yacht. Then there was Colin Kerr, who played so much golf at Blue Canyon in Thailand, that he and Noel Prentice were allowed to play on the courses at reduced rates.


Bonny Schoonakker shared my love of motorcycles and bought a Ducati and played a canny hand at the poker table. Ewen Campbell was a success on the newspapers he worked for after an inauspicious start to his career. The Post hired him as the sports editor, but when Ewen arrived in Hong Kong, he found the job had been given to someone else. Mike Cross, a colleague of mine on the Standard in the early days, thought that waving his British passport or credit card at amahs (Filipino maids) in the city would yield a girlfriend. He eventually met and married one, Tich. The last I heard of Mike was that he had quit newspapers and become a butcher in Yorkshire.


Teresa Murphy was another hiking pal. She applied Murhy’s Law when we disagreed about what direction to take especially in a canoe. Trevor Willison joined me for my first adventure in Vietnam but was later fired by the Post along with Paul Raffini, unfairly in my view, when they were accused of insulting an editor. The British tabloids paid big money for scoops. One photographer, using a long lens from atop a skyscraper on Hong Kong Island, got the first ever pictures of Princess Diana in a bathing suit and made a packet from selling them.


In no particular order, I remember that:

*Susan Ramsay used to bake mouth-watering cakes

*Hari Kumar kept the menu from an Indian restaurant in his top drawer

*Terry Pontikos won an award for his artwork

*Andrew Lynch left the Post to star the iMail newspaper

*Janet Levy loved to dance

*Colleen Thomson proved to be an eagle-eyed copy editor

*Andrew London knew his way around the world capitals

*Niall Fraser had a keen nose for the latest news

*Ian Young, an international editor, did a cartoon of me rock climbing

*Bootah Muhammad diligently checked the newspaper proofs

*Nicola Newberry and her husband David established a wonderful home at Hoi Ha Village

*Ben O’Neill pushed off to Indonesia as managing editor on a newspaper

*Adrian Oosthuizen left for Australia with his Korean wife

*Nury Vittachi remained a canny columnist

*Simon Vallance didn’t give me a ride in his side-car but kept my motorcycle tuned

*Mark Williams married Solveig Bang and set off for India then Britain

*Cliff Buddle carefully checked a story I wrote about Gary Player building a golf course in Myanmar in case he sued the newspaper

*Rachael Barker found her feet in Hong Kong and loved her sports car

*Steve Cray played cool guitar

*Annemarie Evans had a taste for luxury at the Peninsula hotel, and

*Janet Heard and Steve Pike set off for Australia and then returned home to Cape Town


Expats are fortunate to live in a city that has a low crime rate. In the more than 20 years I lived in Hong Kong, I never heard of anyone being mugged. One night, I visited the Temple Street market in Kowloon. I left my haversack on the back of my motorcycle by mistake. Yet, when I returned two hours later, it was still there. The low jobless rate has much to do with it. Unemployment is about 4%. Westerners have come and gone. Some of the dozens of people I knew returned home or got jobs in other Asian countries. However, many stayed. Hong Kong didn’t change much in my life after the handover of sovereignty.


The ceremony in 1997 was a sour affair. Britain was obviously annoyed to have lost its crown jewel in South East Asia. The new Special Administrative Region ran much in the same way except for foreign affairs and defense, which Beijing took charge of. Life for many who stayed in Hong is still better than in their home countries. When I first arrived, I liked to mention that I was a Jardine. However, when I spoke my surname to local shopkeepers, I was met by a blank stare and just asked what I wanted to buy. I later learned that the Jardine building in Central is called the “House of a Thousand Arseholes” by expats. I counted the round windows and there are exactly 1,000. The jury was out on whether I want to be linked with a bunch of former drug smugglers.


The British did a good job developing the territory after it annexed, or grabbed, Hong Kong Island after the Opium wars. They did very well out of it, too, as the city became one of the important financial hubs in the world, providing a lucrative link between the East and West. Western critics continue to criticize Hong Kong’s slow road towards a full democracy. They fail to recall that when Britain ruled, people for the most part didn’t have any democratic rights. It was only as the handover loomed that governor Chris Patten started introducing a semblance of democracy.


China is now the second biggest economy in the world. At one time, its growth rate was about 7.8%, far higher than most Western nations. I travelled to China half a dozen times and visited the Temple of Heaven, Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Great Wall, Ming Tombs and Tiananmen Square, where a massacre of protesters about corruption in government took place. According to Sheryl WuDunn, a New York Times reporter, about 800 people were killed, nowhere near the 20,000 to 30,000 that some Western wire services had reported. My destinations included Beijing, Badaling, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhongshan and Dongguan. I found Beijing far more sophisticated than I imagined.


Traffic caused major pollution and bicycles, which had right of way, clogged the streets. The Shangri-La hotel, where I often stayed, matched the best hotels in the West. The Temple of Heaven is impressive. Not one nail or screw was used in its construction in the 15th century. It was all done by joinery. It was like taking a trip in time machine, too, when I meandered about in the Forbidden City, where emperors once ruled. I also travelled to a section of the 5,500-mile-long Great Wall of China at Badaling. I climbed to the top and got a certificate for doing this. However, I was told that I could have bought one at an office at the bottom of the steps without straining my legs to make the trip.


I stopped off to see the Ming Tombs, the burial places of emperors, on my way back to Beijing. I also spent a day at the Summer Palace set in beautiful grounds. China has an impressive cultural history that puts Western nations in the shade. After years of domination by Japan and Western nations, China has slowly recovered and made great strides. It’s a huge country populated by 1.3 billion people, many living in rural areas. Their lifestyle is a far cry from that of people living in the West, but its economic growth is stunning for a country that mixes communism and capitalism.


One of the benefits of living in Hong Kong is the ease of travel to other countries. Because of competition among airlines, air tickets are relatively inexpensive. Colleagues and I often popped off to Thailand for the weekend.


I now live in Cape Town, South Africa, where my most frequent trip is to my club, the Western Province Cricket Club. I occasionally drive along the stunning Western Cape coast, watch a cricket or rugby Test match at Newlands or just chill out and remember my adventures in the Far East. It’s a far cry from Hong Kong, but like Alice, my “dream” had to end sometime, and at least the memories live on.



Foreign Devils, Lifting the lid on a wonderland that even Alice would have loved

Expats are called Foreign Devils by Chinese people in Hong Kong. A man is a gweilo, a woman a gweipor. The city has attracted hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world because of the lifestyle they enjoy in the City of Light. During the more than 20 years I worked there, I came across some characters that rivalled the ones Alice met in her wonderland in the tale by Lewis Carroll. One pal of mine kept a python as a pet, another hired a bodyguard called Shotgun Billy Smith to keep him out of trouble at his drinking hole in Wan Chai. Life is never boring in Hong Kong.

  • Author: Andrew Jardine
  • Published: 2016-06-27 01:35:09
  • Words: 7850
Foreign Devils, Lifting the lid on a wonderland that even Alice would have loved Foreign Devils, Lifting the lid on a wonderland that even Alice would have loved