Memories of a 10 Year Old Boy
Updated: Mar 22
Memories of a 10 Year Old Boy
I'm 10 years old, breathing in the harbour.
A mix of sea salted air, diesel and body odour.
A crush in the queue for the next Star Ferry.
I look up, surrounded by 6 million people,
All on the move, never still.
I look up into blank faces, jet black hair
And eyes all fixed on the boarding ramp.
A shove from behind and I fall into
A sweat stained armpit, shins smarting
From a busy-business-man's black briefcase.
When you are 10 years old, everyone is taller than you
And no one wants to be your friend
When there's work to do and money to make.
The Star Ferry, 20p to cross the harbour-sea, weathered green and white, ploughing Hong Kong's choppy waters since 1888. Almost as old as the colony, but loved all the same, deftly dodging the liners and tankers, sampans and junks.
Do the Hong Kongers love us? Or like us?
A British colony. I never asked anyone then.
I think they did. Among the ignorance and shuffling and rushing and pushing and chaos and noise and crowding and movement there was kindness and stillness.
The old Hakka woman, baskets full of vegetables for the market in Yuen Long, the yoke straining her shoulders.
Ngi hou mou?
We ask in Hakka
We say in Cantonese
I'm fine, good morning
She smiles in English.
Yāt yih sàam sei nģh luhk chāt baat gáu sahp
We rattle off in mangled Cantonese.
She replies entertaining a new crowd of starers and watchers.
We didn't tell her she missed 8.
We watch her toothless smiles, her lived in creased happy face and vigorous nods of her head.
A laugh, from everyone except my brother.
Sunbleached hair, blonde and obvious, like a new moon over the night harbour, brighter than neon. A Hakka embrace, hair stroked by calloused hands - but there is no callousness, only warmth and the shared language of smiles.
We always thought the Chinese touched blonde hair for luck - or was it because it was other, different, wonderful, beautiful?
I'm a 10 year old boy, eyes wide open, sweat stinging in the humidity, but agape at the daily sights - a first taste of Asia. No one called it culture shock then.
Just new. Different. Unusual. Terrifying. Horrifying.
Back in Yuen Long, away from the bustle, skyscrapers and modernity of Kowloon and the Island, crossing Stinky Bridge, running after Mum, our hands holding our noses, spying the thick shitty gloop flowing slowly below that purports to be a river.
Frogs in baskets skinned alive to order.
Snakes curled in unhappy writhing knots.
Fish flapping in final death throws.
And chickens wrung plucked and strung up while the stall holders hawk and gob great flobs of thick green phlegm.
The shoulders tense as you hear the gutteral
haaaaawwwwwwk from behind...like lightning before thunder. Count the seconds. 1 second, 2 seconds.
Phuuuu-splat. Anything more than 3 seconds, it's a biggy. Trousers stained with street crap and the contents of other people's throaty nasal expulsions.
I was 10 years old. I hated crowds. I hated shopping. I still do. Hong Kong did that to me.Those sights, smells and sounds assault me still 4 decades and more on.
Atrocities, monstrosities, kitchen curiosities.
Street woks on fire, the finest quick fire cuisine.
Chow fan, chow mein, serve it up, wipe down, wok on again. Bowls to mouth, great hearty slurps of soup, click clack of chopstick rhythms, like needles knitting sustenance and belly-smiles. Vibrant spicy red chickens feet, sauce-glossed, held delicately in the chopsticks. Foot in mouth, and bones sucked clean. Bao buns steaming on the pavement opposite the first McDonald's I ever went to.
Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions in a sesame seed bun!
That Big Mac advert,1978, seared like grilled burgers in my brain. Woks and Burger boxes.
Neon and rock, glass and grass, high rises and mountain peaks, an airport runway that protruded into the sea.
Hong Kong. I'm 10 years old. The sea is warm and blue; Impossible. The sea is always grey and cold.
But this isn't England. The mosquitoes remind me. 78 bites in one evening - a new record for feet, ankles and calves. Heat and itching, scratching and Tiger Balm.
Jogging with my Dad under the shadow of Tai Mo Shan, running along the storm canal, a trickle now, but torrents of clay-red turbulence when the typhoons hit.
Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth...keep that song in your head, run to the beat...
My Dad, fit as a butcher's dog, army through and through, eating up miles for lunch. Left, right, left, right, jog on, Hash House Harriers on Saturday...follow the trail. On On!!
What was the song?
If you want my body and you think I'm sexy
Come on, sugar, tell me so...
Watch out for the snake! My Dad yells as Rod the snake Stewart slithers off the side of the road.
Hong Kong. I was 10 years old. Grease and Star Wars, 3 hours a day in the swimming pool, jugs of cooled boiled water from the fridge,
Don't drink the tap water!
The power cut as the typhoon approached, the calm of the eye, before the storm raged again. Annoyed the telly went off, but watching a far more exciting scene as the rain and wind lashed the flats and On Kee, the fruit and veg delivery man still made it round.
But no one was buying that day.
Skateboarding down the hill, walking down the hill to school and the NAAFI, and walking where we were forbidden to go,
The lush greenery behind the flats, domain of snakes and insects and wee beasties, and more curiosities.
The Chinese graves on the hillside.
Lovingly cared for and tended to.
Incense freshly burnt and money left for those in the afterlife...
The excitement of discovery. Look money!
The disappointment. It's yì qián...burial money, imitation, worthless. Except to the deceased - a gift to ensure a more auspicious spiritual destination.
Returning home before darkness crashed around you, a 10 minute curtain closure. Daylight to dark. Dusk an afterthought. Savaged by the mosquitoes once more.
Hong Kong. I was 10 years old.
A life free, carefree, roaming, exploring, creating indelible, inerasable memories.
Free. I was 10. I was free. The 6 million
scurrying, hurrying, buying and selling, but free. As free as the black kites and white bellied sea eagles soaring over Victoria Peak, buzzing the trams and scanning the harbour.
It's 2021. I'm 52, not 10. England.
But, in Hong Kong the Star Ferry still plies its weary trade to and fro. It's 20p. It's not free, but it almost is. Like Hong Kong.
I'm free still. Freedom in Hong Kong? One Party - Two Systems. But for how much longer?
What price freedom for the Hong Kongers now?
È guǐ shí dòufu 呃鬼食豆腐
'Cheating the ghost to eat tofu' - lured into a trap.
I only hope the tofu is tasty in the future.