Monday, 4 March 2013

Growing up expat: 1978-84

The next post is about the six years I spent as a schoolgirl in Hong Kong; a happy time in a magical and extraordinary world. As a young girl I grew up with islands; with jungly undergrowth and creepers; with the salty and sometimes rubbishy smell of Hong Kong harbour; with building sites and mangy dogs and boat trips and bright lights at night.

Hong Kong in 1976

Hong Kong in the late 70s and early 80s was changing rapidly; it sat somewhere on the cusp between being the colonial outpost it had been in the mid 20th century and the international business centre it is today. When we arrived, in 1976, many grand colonial buildings still stood; not only landmarks such as the Hong Kong Club, but beautiful old apartment buildings and houses. However, as each year passed, these were rapidly knocked down and replaced with giant tower blocks; concrete mixer trucks and scaffolding were an everyday sight, and the sound of clanging from a building site was a major source of complaint.

In colonial Hong Kong, most expats led a life of relative wealth and privilege. As a merchant banker (in the days before it became a dirty word), my father was entitled to weekends on the company "junk" (a large wooden motor launch, rather than the traditional boat with a sail).

Together with the other bank families, and various friends, we would set off from Aberdeen Harbour, then teeming with sampans, floating restaurants and the ubiquitous mangy dogs. As the boat cruised to a beach, or to one of Hong Kong's outlying islands, such as Lamma, the adults sat down below tucking into the first beer of the day as we kids would sit on the boat's top deck and play, sing and laugh in the wind.  Then, we'd spend the day swimming, diving off the top of the boat (if you were daring enough), exploring the beaches and coves, and taking exhilarating rides in the speedboat while adults waterskied behind it. We returned in the late afternoon, salty and sunburned, tucking into fruitcake and tea as the sun went down. I don't remember if we went every weekend*, but it seemed like it. Basically, it was an all day party.

Aberdeen Harbour, 1984

As another legacy of colonial culture, every expat in Hong Kong also seemed to belong to a "club" of some kind. There was the Country Club, the Cricket Club, the Jockey Club, the Football Club. We belonged to the Ladies Recreation Club, which by then was a bit of a misnomer, as it was no longer just for "ladies". Instead it was well-known as a family-oriented club, with swimming pools, tennis courts, a playground, gym, library and social activities like Christmas parties and kids' film screenings. I learned to swim there and did a weekly gymnastics lesson; other afternoons, we'd just hang out there after school, us kids running from pool to playground with little parental supervision, only stopping to snack on Maltesers or eat a supper of chicken satay, while our parents sunbathed or chatted on the terrace.

In the 1970s, another perk of my father's job was first class travel airline around the world with his family. Each summer, he had the option to fly back to the UK with a round the world ticket. Before I was 10, I had visited places including Japan, Thailand; Sri Lanka; Kenya; The Seychelles; Taiwan;  Malaysia; the Phillipines; Hawaii, New York; Los Angeles and more. I had no idea how privileged we were, although when we did visit relatives in the UK, I always had a sense that our lives were completely different to theirs.

My sister (right) and I, on holiday in the Seychelles.

As expats, my parents seemed to lead a glamorous life, attending and hosting dinner parties, cocktail parties, and fancy dress parties. Every expat in Hong Kong had a Filipino maid or Chinese "Amah", so childcare was not an issue when going out; watching my mum apply her makeup and perfume for an evening out seemed almost a nightly ritual**.

Meanwhile, I was enjoying school. Our gifted music teacher, Mrs Ryan, had trained at the Guildhall School of Speech and Drama and devoted her life to developing our talents as actors, singers and musicians. I played 'cello (badly) in the orchestra, piano at home (rather better), performed in plays and took Guildhall examinations in speech and drama every year. When I was 10, my class performed the children's chorus in a professional production of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Hong Kong's City Hall; an experience I shall never forget. For years, I yearned to go on the stage (and maybe I will always regret not doing so).

Then, in 1981, we had a brief hiatus. My father was transferred back to the London office; we packed up and left Hong Kong, thinking for good. I was excited about the move. I couldn't remember life in England and my mother always talked nostalgically of "home'. I was sad to say goodbye to my friends, but our first few weeks back in Essex involved snow, winter and Christmas, and this was incredibly exciting. My sister and I donned a new uniform and went to a local private school; where you sat at old fashioned individual desks with inkwells, learned French and ate ghastly tapioca-style school dinners.

However, six months later, either fate intervened or one thing had become clear - we all missed Hong Kong. (Well I assume so - I can't ask my mother what she thought, and I think she must have had mixed feelings). My father took a new job with a large Asian bank, we sold our house in Essex and shipped everything back to the Far East.

Our school building (like so many things in HK) had been demolished while we were away, and the school was now temporarily situated in Victoria Barracks (now a park I believe), old army accommodation right next to the lower terminus of the Peak Tram. We now lived next to May Road station (apparently the world's steepest tram station) in Mid Levels, so my sister, friends and I travelled to school on the tram every day. My mother also taught as a supply teacher at our school, although she never took my class.

The Peak Tram in the 80s - we lived in the building pictured directly to the left down the hill.

So what was I like at this time? I was an enthusiastic child, did well at school and was fairly talented at drama, frequently winning prizes at Speech and Drama festivals where we'd compete with other schools. I was fairly popular, with many good friends, some of whom I keep up with to this day. But I also had a naughty streak at this stage; I know that I was basically turfed out of Brownies for some misdemeanour, although I cannot now remember what it was, and there was the terrible time a friend and I were caught throwing an orange juice carton out of the Peak Tram window. There was a witch-hunt at school about it, and I never owned up, although I was convinced the headmaster knew it was me.

And then suddenly I was almost 11, and taking the Common Entrance for boarding school in England. Again I was excited. I had read all of Enid Blyton's boarding school tales Malory Towers and St. Clare's, and thought boarding school would be all midnight feasts, high jinks and spiffing fun.
Unfortunately, I could not have been more wrong....

*My father tells me it was around every three weeks, depending weather. 
** Again, according to Dad, it was definitely NOT every night...


Nota Bene said...

I've always found that the people who've had enjoyed the opportunity of life abroad in the early years have a much better outlook on life...this all sounds so splendid!

Clare Taylor said...

Sounds wonderful. It will be so interesting in the future to see what our boys remember about their time away too, don't you think?

Kit said...

Very interesting reading about your expat childhood.
I remember setting off for boarding school filled with erroneous ideas of midnight feasts and jolly good sports... Enid Blyton has a lot to answer for!

MsCaroline said...

So much of this sounds familiar to me. I had Amahs too, in both Bangkok and Taipei, and I loved it when my mum would get dressed up to go out to parties. The smells are what get me the most - they're so evocative. I almost cried when I walked outside in Bangkok and smelled all the flowers in the air (mixed in with many other odors, of course.) When we were in HK during Chinese New Year, I had a lot of flashback moments, as so much of the Chinese culture there reminded me of years spent in Taipei.
So much fun to read your memories - they're bringing back many of my own!

PantsWithNames said...

What an amazing time and such amazing memories for you. We lived abroad 1980-1982 and I vividly remember it, so much more clearly than my London childhood. Bet your boys will remember their American time with real affection. x

Michelloui | The American Resident said...

I am seeing an amazing children's story in here--Swallows and Amazons in HK or something. This sounds wonderful--both the experiences you all had as a family and your retelling of it. I love this series.

Circles in the Sand said...

Loving this series A- keep it coming!

Melissa said...

sounds incredible and very glamorous (just catching up now as I've been away in Dubai, speaking of glamour!)

planb said...

Meant to say on the last post - all the best people are Essex girls (or something.

You do make it sound brilliant though, and unimaginable from my Scottish kitchen table...