View from the Balcony: Tale of Two Cultures and Two Countries – Part III

When my parents and their five children first moved from Canton, China to Hong Kong in mid 1949, we moved into a second floor of an old, two-story house that was rented by my second maternal uncle whose family had been living in Hong Kong for some time.  There were many people living in this house, with about twenty people after we moved in.  There were eight in my uncle’s family, my maternal grandmother, the widow of my oldest maternal uncle, one or two step-brothers of my uncle, my uncle’s house-helper to help take care of the old, the young, and his large family, plus seven members of my family.

This old house had very high ceilings, and there were really no rooms with enclosed walls.  The house was just partitioned into three or four subparts with panels attached to the floor and extending about six or seven feet high to provide a little bit of privacy. Comparing to the housing that we are now enjoying in the U.S., it was like a shack in a ghetto. However, we should count our blessing that we had such a place to live in, considering that we, together with many tens of thousands, were escaping from China before the Communist Chinese took control of the whole country in 1949.  As a matter of fact, thousands and thousands of people in Hong Kong at that time were literally living in quickly-made shacks off various hillsides away from the established neighborhoods of Hong Kong, Kowloon, and the New Territories.  The more fortunate ones had a roof over their heads and some sort of “walls” to protect them from the cold and the rain.  The less fortunate ones had to survive living on the streets.

This house had one toilet and one wash basin for washing face and brushing teeth.  There was no bathtub or shower; we used a large metal wash basin to take our baths.  There was always a long waiting line for the toilet.  To make matters worse, my uncle liked to read newspaper while he was sitting on the toilet, which was especially a problem on Sundays, due to the thickness of the Sunday newspaper.  To help alleviate the problem of one toilet for 20 people, we, especially the children, used spittoons.  Facing and solving this basic human need was always an adventure each Sunday morning.  Use of spittoons instead of toilets was a common practice in Hong Kong at that time.  As a matter of fact, the small apartment of my paternal aunt’s family of seven did not have any toilet at all.  They used spittoons, and each morning they had to empty the smelly contents of the spittoons into a garbage container to be emptied or hauled away by the garbage company.

We had to give up essentially all our belongings and uprooted ourselves from China to Hong Kong.  Since my father had to re-establish from scratch his civil engineering business, we were poor and life was harsh and routine.  However, the old house we were living in had one feature, a large open balcony on the back of the house, that provided a lot of entertainment for us.  The house was located right behind the large Happy Valley Horse Race Track, the only horse race track in Hong Kong at that time.  Horse racing (and gambling) was (and still is) a very popular sport among Chinese.  Our house was separated from the racetrack by just a fence.  From our second floor balcony in the back side of the house, we had an unobstructed view of the large, oval-shaped racetrack that was over a mile long.   In many ways, we were closer to the action than the grandstand spectators, since the horses literally raced right below us, except that the grandstand spectators had a closer view of the start and the finish of the races than we.

The scenes from about 60 years ago are still almost as vivid as yesterday.  Under a clear, blue sky, the normally almost empty, large horse racetrack would fill up on weekends with thousands of anxious and hopeful gamblers.  You could sense the excitement and hopeful expectations of the gamblers who before and during the races would be talking and rooting loudly for their favorite horses which were usually the horses they bet on.  Even though we couldn’t hear their conversations, we could hear the background noises that were generated.  These background noises were then interrupted periodically by moans of disappointments or loud cheers of joy depending on how well the horses they bet on performed.

Before each race, the horses always trotted around the track to warm up.  The horses’ steps were slow and gentle, a slow trot most of the time, and occasionally changing to a fast gallop but only for a short distance.  The jockeys would be sitting in a relaxed, upright posture on their saddles.  During the races, the jockeys would be leaning low and forward, and partially standing on the stirrups of their saddles, occasionally striking the horses with their whips.  The frequency and the hardness of the strikes would increase as the finished line got closer and closer, as the jockeys tried to squeeze out the last reserved energy of the horses.  The horses were no longer taking slow, gentle steps or a slow trot, but their feet were galloping furiously during the whole race, and increasing their speed even more in the last stretch, Their mouths and nostrils were opened trying to suck in as much oxygen as possible to refill the rapidly consumed fuel in their lungs.  After crossing the finished line, the horses would huff and puff, as they tried to regain their breaths during their cool-down lap around the racetrack.  We could see the disappointments on the losing jockeys’ faces and the exhilaration on the winning jockey’s face.

For the part of the racing season during the usually hot and humid summer months of Hong Kong, a gentle, pleasant breeze would occasionally blow by, and that was so welcome by everyone.  The weather of course was not always sunny.  Sometimes there would be rain, and sometimes there were even low grade typhoons.  Unless the typhoons were high grade, horse racing continued as scheduled.  When there were downpours, the racetrack became a muddy mess.  Under those circumstances, the jockeys had to be especially careful because a stumble by their horse could result in serious injury or even death, and could end their racing career.  On those bad weather days, our open but covered balcony was like a luxury box in modern major league sports stadiums, and definitely provided better seats than the most expensive grandstand seats of that time.

Since there were always more losers than winners, you could see the disappointments on the spectators/gamblers’ faces as they were leaving the racetrack.  The atmosphere was much more subdued and there was no “electricity” in the air as compared to only a few hours earlier when they were entering the racetrack.  Sometimes the effects of the gambling bets during the weekend horse racing carried over into the weekdays of the following week.  In some of our classrooms, usually we could sense the more subdued mood of those regular-gambling teachers who lost during the past weekend, and once in a while we could sense the exhilaration of those teachers who won during the past weekend.

During weekdays, although there was no horse racing, the balcony in our house still provided some entertainment for us.  During the weekdays, the horse racetrack provided a large playground for various other activities.  For many years, there was free access to the horse racetrack.  So people went there to play soccer, walk or jog around the track, play on a giant rock inside the racetrack which was a favorite pastime of the young children, or practice Taiji.  As a matter of fact, my first exposure to Taiji happened during this period.  An old man, in his sixties or seventies, practiced Taiji every day, rain or shine, on the grass field inside the part of the racetrack  that was close to our house.  I didn’t know anything about Taiji at that time, but I saw him every day doing his slow, soft, and rhythmic movements.  That image has remained in my mind so that almost 60 years later, I can still visualize this old man practicing Taiji, even in the rain.  Although he wasn’t frail at first, after practicing on a daily basis for many months, he definitely looked much healthier and more fit.  It was an eye opener to a young child to see the dedication and commitment that one could have toward a particular activity.  That experience could have planted a seed in my mind that later sprouted my interest in Taiji and martial arts, which is now an integral part of my life.

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3 Responses to “View from the Balcony: Tale of Two Cultures and Two Countries – Part III”

  1. Tim Zebo says:

    Great post – it’s written so well we’re instantly transported there in our imagination – thanks for writing this!

  2. It was great!. Thank you!
    I was there, while reading.

  3. Marjorie Collins says:

    I really enjoy reading your story as child living in Hongkong.
    Thank you to write about that!

    Marjorie

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