The yawl Morasum came hard on the wind to beat through the narrows of Fat Tau Mun, and there lay wonderland. To starboard was a jade-green island with the musical name of Tung Lung; to port loomed the dark rampart of Red China's mainland. Ahead lay islands scattered like the skerries of the Baltic, green and boulder-strewn, with sunshine glinting and birds circling. Dark trees flowed down a valley to frame a miniature temple, Tai Hing in Joss House Bay, where crews of junks anchor to pray for kind winds before quitting the shelter of the land. Sails were silhouetted against the distant horizon, lazy and at peace, and the chart showed, beyond successive headlands, deserted beaches and snug coves, beautiful cruising waters whose existence I had not even suspected.
If Manila is the pearl of the Orient, then Hong Kong is its diamond. It hangs from the dark, featureless mass of modern China like a glowing pendant. Its value to the British Empire is incalculable and it has as many facets as the Koh-i-noor. There are the paddyfields of peasants plowing in the ancient way behind water buffaloes; there are the flourishing factories of modern industry; there are the ships flying the flags of every nation, crowding a harbor rimmed on two sides by skyscrapers; there are the gracious homes and pleasurable playgrounds of the Western citizens.
Thus it has been for more than a century, since 1841, when the British, seeking a base for trade with the interior of south China, were granted sovereignty in perpetuity over an island of 32 square miles lying off the Kowloon Peninsula on the approaches to the Pearl River. This was Hong Kong. In 1860 a band of Kowloon waterfront was deeded, and in 1898 a still deeper buffer strip called the New Territories was acquired on a 99-year lease, bringing the total area of the Crown Colony of Hong Kong to 391 square miles.
Visitors usually are confused by the nomenclature of the colony, as Hong Kong—which means "Fragrant Harbor" in Chinese—is applied interchangeably to the colony as a whole, to the single original island and to the principal city of that island, actually named Victoria, which faces across the harbor its twin city of Kowloon. All traffic between the two cities is by water, and in 1959 a single ferry line shuttled nearly 40 million fares back and forth, part of the ceaseless bustle of the harbor.
February 8, 1960
Politically if not geographically, the entire colony is an island, hemmed in by Red China and her fringing possessions. From the lounge of the leading European hotel in Kowloon the border is a scant 15 miles to the north. A hooked drive, on the links of the golf club at Fanling in the New Territories, could almost land in a Chinese bunker. To the sailor, the "blue islands"—those just far enough offshore to be touched by haze—are constant warning that Communist territory is close at hand.
Yet in Hong Kong there is no hysteria and no feeling of threat. Imposing modern buildings are springing up at a rate to match any booming American city, and long-term capital investments in municipal and industrial projects are flourishing. The reason was summed up for me by an English acquaintance. "The situation," he said, "quite suits everyone concerned." And so it does: the Chinese have left themselves a convenient gateway to the outside world, and the British retain a highly profitable enterprise. Even that nervous, shy bird of passage, the tourist, is not afraid to come to Hong Kong: in the Far East, the Crown Colony is second only to Japan in transient visitors, averaging over 10,000 a month during 1959.
On a detail chart, Hong Kong looks like a bit of lacework. There are some 200 islands and an intricate pattern of waterways, while even the New Territories are deeply indented by bays and sounds. It is little wonder, therefore, that in Hong Kong interest in boating—for business, pleasure, or both—runs high. Formal racing activities center at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, once a fortress and still, from the ancient powder magazines beneath to the crowned blue ensign floating proudly above, a true outpost of empire. Its wide veranda overlooks the harbor, a scene of never-failing fascination. Ships beyond count swing at anchor while native craft cluster alongside to unload cargo, sometimes in rafts a half dozen deep. Sampans and walla-wallas—small water taxis—dart like beetles, weaving intricate traffic patterns among seagoing junks under sail, patrol craft, tugs towing strings of lighters, coasting steamers, crisscrossing ferries and yachts of every type. On race days Dragons, Stars and even a class of 14-foot Royal Naval Sailing Association dinghies thread their way through the maze, for triangular events are sailed wholly within the harbor, and even longer courses for the cruising division start and finish off the clubhouse.
What with a strong tide and the usual fluky wind coming off high land, there is never a dull moment for the fleet, as I found out myself on several sails aboard Morasum and other craft of the hospitable yacht club members. "It's a bit like the Isle of Wight except we have the Pearl River instead of Southampton Water," explained Bill Hancock, rear commodore of the club. "The tide floods in and ebbs out, strong enough for overfalls at Kap Shui Mun." Mun, by the way, means entrance or channel.
Opposite the clubhouse is Causeway Bay, just as intriguing as the outer harbor. One part is reserved for the fleet of member yachts, moored in neat rows; elsewhere the bay is packed with native craft. In Hong Kong an estimated 120,000 people live afloat, quite literally, and Causeway Bay is one of the sampan villages. On vessels less than 30 feet over-all dwell entire families, from grandparents to babies slung papoose fashion on mother's back. Chicken coops are hung over the stern, dogs loll forward and life goes on amidships—baths in buckets, cooking, dressmaking, washing, sleeping. Storage aboard is amazingly concentrated. A section of deck will be lifted, and a sewing machine taken out, or a charcoal brazier and full dining equipment, or mats and bedding, or carpenter's tools and bits of lumber. Floating stores wind through narrow water streets, selling everything from yard goods to fish-hooks, from bread to candy. There are kitchen sampans, which will come alongside and cook anything from a bowl of rice to a meal; and ice sampans, selling cold bottled drinks; and singsong sampans, complete with hanging lanterns, deep cushions and silk-clad musicians.
Close to the moored yachts are the sampans of the boat-boys, that unique Hong Kong marine luxury. Practically every boat down to the Dragon class enjoys a boat-boy, willing to work cheerfully around the clock for about $30 a month (or about $170 in Hong Kong dollars). Most boat-boys are competent sailors, and go along as crew, cooking as well as working on deck; they paint, they varnish, they mend sails; many are even skilled mechanics, riggers or carpenters.
A SPECIAL FLEET OF JUNKS
There is more to the Hong Kong yacht fleet, however, than trim, well-kept little ships with gleaming brass and waving burgees which would grace a harbor anywhere. Based at Causeway Bay and Aberdeen, a fishing village on the opposite side of Hong Kong island, is a special fleet of junks. These are the uniquely Oriental yachts of the enthusiasts who are loosely banded into the Junk Club, admittedly lazy sailors and unabashed putterers. They power to windward and sail downwind, awnings set and the skipper reclining aft on the high wide poop like a sultan on his throne. In the evening they may have a kitchen sampan come alongside, or tie up at one of the elaborate floating restaurants in Aberdeen, or go across East Lamma Channel to anchor for a picnic in Sokku Wan, a deep cove on Lamma Island. Like other fringing islands, Lamma is washed by the clear water of the South China Sea, perfect for swimming and even a bit of skin-diving.
For lazy cruising in restricted waters it would be hard to devise a better type of craft than the Hong Kong sampan or junk. The difference between the two is principally a matter of size. Junks are bigger, and carry the traditional three masts, while sampans can be propelled by a sculling oar, and often have only a single mast. Somewhere around 30 feet seems to be the dividing line in length, although the expert can find other differences, such as the system of planking at the bow, and the underwater lines. But both sampans and junks are blunt forward, at least on the deck, and square aft; this, with their rather extreme beam, gives them a great deal of room. Even those too small for enclosed cabins still enjoy complete shelter through the Chinese system of battened awnings rolling over a curved frame, something like the covered wagons of the American West. A sampan 28 feet over-all can be fully open in good weather, yet have 21 feet of useful cabin area in rain.
Now that sampans and junks are used as yachts, modifications are naturally taking place in the ancient design. Such items as dining tables and bunks, stainless steel galleys, enclosed heads, gas or diesel engines, wheel steering and outside ballast are appearing. Yet craftsmanship and strength have not been slighted. Those I saw building—and there were many, principally destined for export to the United States—were sturdy vessels with yacal frames and teak planking (both very hard woods, as was evident from watching the shipwrights at work, hand-sawing planks from huge logs, fairing off raw lumber with adz and hatchet and drilling holes with long sticks and leather thongs, used like a firebow). The blend between the old and new was perhaps best symbolized on a 40-foot junk recently launched by the Suku Shipyard, on the island of Aplichau, opposite Aberdeen. The junk had the traditional carved green dragon running the full length of the top-sides, but the dragon was adorned with nylon whiskers.
Boats, like almost everything in Hong Kong, are much less expensive than in the U.S. since labor constitutes the bulk of the cost. A 28-foot sampan without engine can be delivered for approximately U.S. $2,000. A 40-foot centerboard yawl to the design of Sparkman & Stephens—a "Finisterretype," as someone put it—of teak, with bronze centerboard and casing and Mercedes Benz diesel, complete except for sails, was quoted by a leading yard at U.S. $25,000.
One firm had scheduled up to 50 lapstrake powerboats per month, size ranging from 16 to 20 feet, inboard and outboard, 23- and 25-foot cabin cruisers, plus small sailboats and a few junks. Another builder was working hard on three Sparkman & Stephens keel yawls, a Bill Shaw midget ocean racer, 12 junks of 30 and 35 feet, three Angleman and Davies-designed Sea Witches and a clutch of miscellaneous craft, including racing and cruising catamarans. The volume worries some of the more reputable Hong Kong boat builders. "We can build so cheaply," said one, "that the tendency is to emphasize price too much, finally lowering quality to get still cheaper. Obviously, there is a limit here. Some have gone beyond it and produced bad boats, especially for export. Tell American yachtsmen not to judge our best by our worst."
The launching of a yacht for a local owner is a festive event. Firecrackers—good luck symbols to the Chinese—exploded along with the Occidental bottle of champagne over the bow of the motor sailer Golden Gain as she started down the ways, and they continued to boom and pop in deafening strings until the keel was safely in the water. Flags waved, more champagne corks popped, nearby vessels saluted with whistles, and yard workmen rang bells. It is characteristic that, as Commander Spencer Cooper, owner of the new vessel, confided to me, the yard had had a preview launching to make sure there would be no mishap which might cause loss of face. There wasn't. Golden Gain would be a credit to any builder, but the gesture showed a desire for perfection and pride in craftsmanship which extends down to Kowloon shoeshine boys, who seem to polish a little harder and a little longer than anywhere else.
Bargain buys go far beyond yachts, too, as I soon found out. On my first night in Hong Kong I was told by an officer on leave from the Royal Navy: "Everything is so cheap you can't afford not to go broke." Nothing truer was ever said, and no place is more fun to shop. Hong Kong is a free port in the fullest sense of the word. There are no currency restrictions and no import duties worthy of mention. The goods of every nation compete solely on the basis of merit and price. And as Hong Kong's principal source of income is trade, rather than manufacture, the variety displayed in the shops is staggering. Watches, cameras, radios, record players, sweaters, pearls, luggage, shoes, yard goods of silk or wool—the list is as endless as the ingenuity of man, and at prices wholly unfamiliar to the ordinary traveler. Americans need be careful of only one thing: they will have to present a certificate of origin by the Hong Kong government to U.S. customs on their return, to prove they are not importing a product of Red China; but otherwise the lid—and the rubber band around the pocketbook—is off.
On such nights as the Moon Festival, the fifteenth day of the Eighth Moon, when Chan-Or, the moon's protégée, dances, and moon cakes are eaten in thanksgiving for a good harvest, Hong Kong becomes wholly Chinese. I had spent the day cruising Port Shelter, a large yet protected body of water near the eastern fringe of the colony, poking in and out of many little coves, all completely deserted, and stopping to swim and explore at will. By air, we were never more than 10 miles from the city, yet we might well have been in the far reaches of the Pacific. In the late afternoon we had returned to Hong Kong, following a parade of fishing junks and sampans, and at sunset were off the section of the city called Sau Ki Wan when the firecrackers began to pop. With my hosts, the Richards, I stopped for a drink on the veranda of the yacht club, feeling almost British, and quite proud of what "colonialism" had accomplished on this little island. Then I said good-by, and drove across the causeway into a different world.
FIRECRACKERS AND MAH-JONGG
A Chinese friend had promised to show me something of her Hong Kong. First we strolled the streets of the Wanchai section, one of the most densely populated areas on earth. According to census, 99% of the colony's population is Chinese, and here almost no European influence was visible. Crowds swept us into ever-narrowing lanes where banners with elaborate characters hung overhead, as alien as the sounds and smells and sights below. Amid exploding firecrackers, children in groups carried paper lanterns, reminiscent of Halloween. Through open doors came the clatter of mah-jongg tiles. Everywhere was laughter and conversation and vivacity, for Chinese among themselves are anything but the silent Orientals of Western concept. Yet curiously, in the unfamiliar bustle, I felt completely at home Neither then nor any other time during my stay was there any sense of hostility in individuals or crowds or a feeling of danger when walking dark streets.
Finally, we took a taxi to Aberdeen, where a fissure of water deep into the land gives perfect shelter for the fishing fleet and the largest sampan village in the colony. On this night of the Moon Festival it was a carnival of light, each sampan carrying at least one colored paper lantern. The three famous floating restaurants—the Sea Palace, Tai Pak and Yue Lee Tai—were ablaze from waterline to upper deck.
Hong Kong is a city one tends to think of in superlatives, and this applies to its cuisine as well. The Chinese school of cookery has always been acknowledged as one of the world's great, and here it is still available to the Western palate in its traditional glory. In exile from the mainland, cooks representing all the noted provincial subdivisions of Chinese cuisine are congregated in Hong Kong. There are restaurants serving the specialties of Canton, Peking, Shanghai, Szechuen, Foochow and Swatow, making the colony one of the true gastronomic capitals of the world.
The Aberdeen sea food restaurants, Cantonese in cuisine, from a distance look like Mississippi River steamboats designed by a Byzantine architect. They are jumbles of carved dragons and gilt, leaping fountains, colored paint, colored lights and reflecting mirror balls. The food is as good as the décor is improbable. Alongside in open pens, dinner awaits the visitor in finny liveliness. We leaned against the rail of the lower deck and looked down into the harbor to make a selection.
Under the brilliant floodlights, the pens were an aquarium. Some fish were familiar. There were grouper and snapper which might have been swimming in the well of a Bahamas smack, and hook-nosed parrotfish of green and blue and red, old Chinese prints come to life. There were small silver fish in schools, and lurking brown monsters shadowy in the depths. In separate floating baskets shrimp hung in dense clouds, while lobsters and crabs crawled the sides of other pens. As chosen, dinner was dipped up with a net and passed directly into the open kitchen, where cooks hovered over steaming kettles.
As a first course we had prawns boiled and served in the shell, pink and delicate. They are usually eaten plain, but for my benefit my hostess crushed slivers of ginger into soy sauce as a dip. Next came lobster with black bean sauce, faintly garlicky, a revelation in taste and texture; then steam-fried grouper with green vegetables (chow choy-yuen pan-kiu); and finally pigeon roasted in lemon sauce.
This meal lingers in memory; and so, too, does jing du kao is, or roast Peking duck, probably the ultimate delicacy among Chinese foods, which I had on another occasion. It is expensive, listing on the menu of the Winner Palace restaurant at HK $40 but it is worth every HK dollar of it. Only the skin is served, backed by the thinnest sliver of meat. The duck is accompanied by wheat pancakes, tiny onion sprigs and a conserve resembling plum jam in color and texture. The Chinese system of eating is to put a pancake on the plate, add with chopsticks a piece of duck from the platter in the center, top with a sprig of onion and dab on a bit of conserve. The whole is then folded and eaten with the fingers, so no juice can escape. Ah! the celestial bells that ring! Before such a regal dish one may have braised superior shark's fin soup, made of the whole fin, which cooks into a gelatinous texture of indescribably subtle flavor, or perhaps shark's fin with shredded chicken, somewhat less expensive; then shrimp and peas, and bamboo shoots and seaweed. It is a dinner for a king—or perhaps I should say mandarin.
A CENTER OF INTRIGUE
Hong Kong, despite a wondrously efficient police force and harbor patrol system, remains a center of intrigue as well as clandestine trade. No longer able to serve as entrep√¥t for the great land mass behind, merchants flourish by their industry and skill as traders. Gold can be openly bought and sold, and smuggling is acknowledged to flourish. Narcotics are transported by every conceivable means: baskets with double bottoms, in pellets under the wings of fowl, even inside melons, carefully resealed. Watches are in such tremendous supply that a secondary Kowloon industry is kept busy just making beautifully handcrafted suitcases with secret compartments to be packed with watches for the homeward voyage. Perhaps one of the greatest recent feats of smuggling was the transportation of an entire railway locomotive, bit by bit, to Canton aboard junks.
Nor is piracy wholly forgotten. The daily ferries to Macao still have wire barriers to prevent a sudden rush for the bridge. Not long ago piracy was even attempted in the air. A plot to capture a wealthy Chinese for ransom failed when the pilot on a local flight refused to relinquish command. He died resisting, and his body jammed the controls. The plane crashed, killing everyone aboard except one pirate, who confessed.
Yet the miracle is that there is not more lawlessness with so many people uprooted, in desperate circumstances, and politically divided. The population of the colony was 600,000 at the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945. Today, due principally to the flood of refugees from Red China, the count has gone to more than 2½ million. Up to 1,000 refugees a month still cross the border. In addition, the birth rate is high, as in all Asian countries, accounting for a further net increase of 80,000 per year. The government has accommodated by public housing alone some 300,000 refugees, but there still remain an unassimilated 300,000 without permanent homes. While there is unquestionably squalor and misery in some sections, the great majority obviously prefer it to Communist rule.
Even the stopover visitor can get an intimate view of Chinese life by a visit to Causeway Bay. At the foot of Yee Wo Street (where the expedition can begin or end on the sublime note of duck at the Peking Restaurant), there is a quay. At this quay are clustered sampans awaiting hire, gay little craft with hanging lanterns and deep cushions. Some are decorated with polished brass rods, mirrors and old prints, true museum pieces. As you come down the steps, the sampan "girls" will smile and chatter invitations to come aboard. Sampans for hire are crewed by women, usually a mother or grandmother aft on the sculling oar, and a small girl forward at the bow oar.
A WHOLLY ORIENTAL WORLD
You board, and settle into the cushions. If you desire, a tiny table will be unfolded and placed across your knees. Slowly you glide into a world that is wholly Oriental. In the evenings Chinese come to Causeway Bay to relax. As naturally as people in other countries might go out in automobiles, here they hire sampans. Whole families dine tied alongside kitchen sampans. Groups of men rattle mah-jongg tiles while the sampan girls doze on their oars. Couples glide by, holding hands, the girls in high-collared Cheung Sam dresses, slit at the sides. You call and motion, and passing sampans will stop to deliver hot tea or iced beer.
You can signal a group of musicians, who will play and sing until you raise your hand in dismissal. And away from the dock you will find the village afloat, tiny craft housing all the needs and aspirations and vices of man; and still beyond, near the causeway leading to the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, the moored yachts, and the sampans of the boat-boys. Those who believe there is nothing more romantic than seeing Venice by gondola should reserve opinion until they have ghosted through Hong Kong waters by sampan, especially on a night when the moon is high.
The best months to visit Hong Kong are from October through May. Then the monsoon blows, bringing clear skies and cooler weather. It is during this season that races are held by the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club and the Junk Club. The former conducts triangular events for smaller classes almost every weekend from November to May, with scattered longer races for the larger division. By a great deal of juggling of courses and markers in the restricted waters, an overnight race of 100 miles is achieved, threading in and out of channels from the clubhouse on the harbor to Mirs Bay, rounding Hong Kong Island, and finishing off the clubhouse again. This course not only is as sporty as a steeplechase, with numerous islands as hurdles, but introduces the navigational problem of staying within friendly waters. An error in pilotage could become an international incident rather than a competitive blooper.
The junk enthusiasts have no such worries. They claim to go neither fast nor far, although one little vessel which I sailed showed a surprising turn of speed in smooth water, even to windward. The race is less the thing than the harbor and victory celebration—no matter whose—at the finish. There is much good-natured argument among the 15 active junk skippers, but in the big annual race they work. Then they talk about it the rest of the year, while cruising. "If you do all the things there are to do in Hong Kong," reflected Fran Dominis, a guiding spirit of the Junk Club, "there isn't enough time ever to go all the places on the chart. You look through glasses and think, 'I must stop there next time,' so you never catch up. There isn't any other place like Hong Kong. This is the life." And it is, unique and wonderful.