Reminiscences of Childhood in Hong Kong

I lived in Hong Kong for six years from 1949 to 1955 when I was seven to thirteen.  Since I was too young to remember much about the earlier period before that when I lived in China, the time in Hong Kong was basically my childhood years.  Looking back, I remember fondly some of the interesting events that occurred in that period.

Learning English in Grammar School: In Hong Kong I started in second grade in a grammar school that was once a horse stable for the Japanese military during WWII, since Hong Kong was occupied by Japan beginning on Christmas day 1941.  This school started teaching its students English beginning with second grade.  Even though by the time I finished grammar school, I already had five years of English, I still essentially wasn’t able to speak any complex sentence of English, probably a reflection of both my lack of interest and the quality of my English teachers, although overall the quality of the education at this school was good.

Three Incidents in Grammar School: I remember the first time I had to give a speech in class, probably when I was in third grade.  When it was my turn, I just stood in front of the class, with my mouth opened and my right hand on my heart, but not a single sound came out.  The teacher was nice enough to just excuse me without giving me a reprimand.  However, discipline was not lax in this school, because unlike the standards in American schools today, my teachers would use plastic or wooden rulers to spank the students for misbehaving. 

I vividly remember another incident, again when I was in third grade.  One day I forgot to bring my notebook back to school.  It was on a Saturday when school was half-day from nine to twelve noon.  The punishment was that I had to stay after school to write one thousand times the Chinese word “dig”

one of the most difficult Chinese words to write, with 27 strokes.  It took me a whole hour to do that.  As usual, my older brother Danny came to pick me up after school to take me home.  He was patiently waiting outside.  When he still didn’t see me coming out by 12:30 PM, he went to the school office to inquire, and learned that I had to stay after school for my punishment for forgetting to bring my notebook to school.  The punishment was severe for such a small oversight by an eight year old, but I never forgot to bring my notebook back to school after that.

I owe Danny a lot.  We had to pay tuition to schools.  Since we had to pull up roots when we moved from Guangzhou, China to Hong Kong in 1949, my father had to start his civil engineering business (building houses, offices, and churches) from scratch.  With five children and a family of seven to support, money was tight.  So after Danny finished sixth grade, he sat out of school for one year, and during that year when I was an eight-year-old third grader, he accompanied me to and from school. 

Our mother would give us ten cents each to ride the trolley car back home after school.  But usually Danny and I would just walk home and used our twenty cents to buy from street vendors some snacks, such as peanuts, beef jerky, ginger, or dried squid.  It was such a delicious treat.  Danny was very generous, and he would often give ten cents to a beggar we ran into while walking home.  I even joked that if there were a beggars association, they would vote Danny to be their president.  We also had a lot of fun walking home, often kicking the small rocks we found on the ground as though we were kicking soccer balls.  This probably was the beginning of my interest in soccer, which became an important part of my life later on. 

Twenty-Plus People Living in A One-Bedroom Flat: During the first three years in Hong Kong, our family of seven moved into my uncle (my mother’s older brother)’s flat, the second floor of a two-story house overlooking the Hong Kong race track in Happy Valley.  With my uncle’s family of 10, my maternal grandma, another maternal aunt, and a couple of cousins, there were over 20 people living in this one big-room flat with partitions that went only partially to the ceiling partitioning the one room flat into multiple “rooms.”

It was very crowded and provided little privacy.  The flat had only one bathroom, with a single wash basin and a single toilet that the 20+ people had to share.  It was especially difficult on Sunday morning when my uncle had the habit of reading the Sunday newspaper while sitting on the toilet.

The flat also had no refrigerator.  Often walking by a department store seeing a refrigerator on display, I would imagine how refreshing it would be to get a cool bottle of soda from a refrigerator, but it was a luxury that I did not have an opportunity to enjoy until many years later. 

Compared with our lifestyle today, we couldn’t imagine how we endured and survived that period.  But that was a difficult time a few years after the end of WWII and shortly after the end of the civil war in China.  Many people, like us, had to pull up roots and started life all over again.  But everything is relative; so in a sense we considered ourselves to be fortunate with a roof over our heads, food on the table, and the opportunity to attend schools to get an education. 

We saw that many others were not as fortunate; they had to live in shacks crudely constructed on the sides of various hills in Hong Kong; there were many beggars, and many children could not afford to attend schools.  A lesson one should learn is that one should appreciate what one has, and when one has no other choice, one would find a way to endure and survive.

Since this second-floor flat overlooks the Hong Kong Race Track, on weekends from our balcony we have a front-row view of the horse racing.  During other days, the large inside grass area of the race track was open to the public.[1]  The view I remember the most is that there was this old man (I should say senior citizen, since he was no older than I am now) who rain or shine would always go there every day to practice Taiji for an hour or more.  I was impressed by his commitment and mesmerized by his slow, soft, and fluid movements.  It also did not escape me that he started as an old, frail man who after a year or two of such practices became a healthy-looking man full of vitality.  This was probably the beginning of my interest in Taiji, which also became an important part of my life later on. 

Three Other Incidents in Grammar School: I remembered these incidents as if they had happened only yesterday.  One day I found a hand grenade among the bushes on the school grounds, a left over from the days when this was a Japanese military stable.  Fortunately, it was not live and didn’t explode, and I quickly handed it over to school personnel.

Another incident was when I was in fifth or sixth grade, the school had a recitation contest of the Lord’s Prayer in Chinese (even though the school was not a religious school).  When it was my turn, I recited it, but I did make a few minor errors.  However, when the school announced that I was the winner, they also said that I had a perfect score, which I know was not true.  I guess the school wanted to convey the impression that the winner truly deserved to win.  It was ironic that they chose the Lord’s Prayer for the contest, but they did not follow the guidance in that prayer.

The trolleys in Hong Kong had two decks.  The fare for the lower deck was 10 cents, and the fare for the upper deck was 20 cents.  The entrance/exit for the lower deck was near the rear of the trolley, and the entrance/exit for the upper deck was near the front of the trolley.  We normally rode the lower deck.  One of my older teenage cousins also usually rode the lower deck, but after exiting the trolley, he would always walk to the front of the trolley giving the appearance as though he had gotten off the upper deck in case the friend(s) that he was visiting was observing his arrival.  It taught me the lesson that for some people the image of wealth is so important.  Fortunately it was not something that anyone in our family adopted.

Improving Livelihood in Hong Kong: It took about three years for my father to establish his civil engineering business in Hong Kong, mostly in building housing and church-related buildings for new refugees coming into Hong Kong. After three years, we could afford and moved into a two-bedroom apartment for our family of seven.

We could also afford to eating out once in a while. I still remember fondly those few occasions that my mom took my younger sister and me out for some shopping and stopping for a snack or dessert. It is such a small thing with our current standard of living, but it was almost a luxury at that time.


[1] It was open to the public at that time, although many years later, it was no longer opened to the public at all times.

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One Response to “Reminiscences of Childhood in Hong Kong”

  1. Don,

    This is fascinating and a dfferent view of Dr. Tow. I shared it with a psychologist who has lived there for many years..

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