I had long wanted to go to Hong Kong. Even from afar, it seemed like my sort of town, at least as James Clavell novels Tai Pan and Noble House depicted it. My brother Joel was making pots of money there since 1985, and showed no signs of wanting to leave, except to pursue business opportunities here and there in Asia but increasingly in the California's Silicon Valley.
I was well aware of Canada's role in defending Hong Kong from the Japanese, however unsuccessfully. In the army cadet camp at Farnham we learned about our Quebec regiment, the Royal Rifles of Canada and of the Winnipeg Grenadiers, who were both destroyed defending Hong Kong against the Japanese.
What's more Auntie Joan had worked there for the Hong Kong Tiger Standard after she mustered out of the Royal Canadian Navy in Halifax in 1946. She had joined as a subeditor when the newspaper started in 1948, but by 1950s found herself attracted to radio and returned to Canada to make a life as a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation producer when radio was still king.
Joan really wasn't my aunt, but we were encouraged to regard her as such because she was the closest and most enduring of my mother's friends when Mother was freelancing for the CBC and we were dependent on infrequent paltry cheques through the '50s and '60s.
In 1958, when my mother was too drunk to go to night jobs, after a full afternoon of very dry Martinis at Cafe des Artistes with her mates, she would pass out on couch and offer me $10 to go out to a lecture where I would take notes and come back with an exhaustive report of who said what to whom. From this she would rattle off a 10-minute commentary at about 6am and forget to pay me. But the money was recoverable from regular thefts from her purse.
Auntie Joan had exciting tales from Hong Kong, though I cannot remember what they were except that it seemed like a great place to be and doved-tailed with my love affair with the British Empire. Without knowing it, I had already become familiar with Hong Kong when I got there. It was little different from Montreal's Chinatown in appearance. My father, brother and I were regular visitors there and handled chopsticks as children. One could look down Montreal's La Gauchetière and mistake it for Wing Lok Street in Hong Kong. I say Hong Kong advisedly because I do not mean you could mistake it for Nanjing Lu in Shanghai. Hong Kong street scape looked like Montreal's Chinatown - not any equivalent one might find on the mainland. Of course, I refer to Montreal's Chinatown pre-Frenchification, as English not French signage is interspersed and occasionally dominated the Chinese characters in Hong Kong.
As the weather warmed I began to appreciate Lamma Island as the "international life style centre that no one knew about". It was indeed one of the most idyllic settings for alcoholic fun-seekers in the world. Sandra introduced me to our gang, a congenial bunch of journos, as we called ourselves using the Australian slang for the trade's practitioners. Australia and Australians loomed large in Hong Kong. So did New Zealanders. Americans were plentiful too - as were Brits. We all piled into the pubs that lined Main Street Lamma, which was a pedestrian footpath with bars and restaurants on either side all the way to the ferry pier.
There were Chinese too. The barriers, rather like those in Montreal, were not racial, but linguistic for the most part. The British were the worst offenders in this area, though decreasingly so. I remember an English woman on arrival dismayed that were was a Chinese woman being served at the Capital on Lamma, and then 10 years later I saw them going off together to spend a day together doing a "recce of the dress shops in Central". A lot of habitual prejudice melted like April snow, or disappeared into history like bell bottom trousers. One day it was there; they next day, it wasn't. As the years passed, this was bred out of them in regard to the Chinese.
More often British distain was directed at their own kind, and for good reason in some cases. One of the favourite aphorisms at the time was FILTH - "Failed in London Try Hong Kong". Many did before the 1997 Handover to China when the British built the new Chek Lap Kok Airport and lavished money on the new Mass Transit Railway in the 1980s and '90s.
The British had accumulated a vast financial surplus, when government departments competed with each other over which one could spend the least, and being the top taxpayer was a point of pride, noted in the newspapers as giving that year's Hong Konger bragging rights as the wealthiest man in town, rated as he was by a perfectly hydraulic 15 per cent flat tax for all but the poorly paid who paid nothing.
Having accumulated this vast hoard, the British, with enthusiastic concurrence of the, by now overwhelmingly local Chinese, administration, and would be damned if they were to hand over the money to the Communists to squander after the July 1, 1997 Handover.
So they launched a vast infrastructure upgrade and gave the work out to their own kind. This resulted in a great pre-Handover spending spree that drew many British male labourers to Hong Kong, who apart from doing good work in building and refining first class infrastructure, filled the bars with obstreperous drunks with fist fights galore, augmented by regular contributions by their cousins from US Navy's Pacific Fleet with regular influx of sailors and marines.
So even on idyllic Lamma Island, there was many a Sunday morning with drunks lying in the gutters, some of them female camp followers, demanding more booze from long-closed bars and before moving to alcohol dispensing corner stores. These sights were plentiful years after the Handover, but eventually thinned out over time when all realised the good times had passed and it was time to go home. I thought of it like the passing of American writers in 1920s Paris, going home in 1930s when the good times had come to an end and one had to have a real income to live the life once lived.
If there was anybody at the bottom of the social heap it was the Filipinas, who were the identifiable servant class, not only socially, but officially as they were not entitled to gain permanent residency, coveted PR status, if they entered as a DH, or domestic helper. The rest of us could become "belongers" if we did not burden the near non-existent welfare rolls and stayed out of the hands of the police.
If there was any social division between the gweilos, or European whites as we were called, it was between those who were belongers and those who were not. Then there were expats, or expatriates. Most expats were gweilos, but not all gweilos were expats as a very few, were born in Hong Kong, who were not expats. While all other gweilos were expats, not all expats were gweilos (which in Chinese means "old ghosts", indicating skin colour) Non-European stock residents, such as Filipinas, Africans, Indians and sundry Asians were expats, though there is a large Indian population that is indigenous. And the Hakka, who are for the want of a better description, like Chinese Indians with their own tribal customs, who racially look no different from the rest of the Han Chinese than American Indians differ in from the average run of whites. Having hired a Hakka years later, the only thing I would say that made her different from the Chinese is that she regarded them differently and did not associate with them or them with her. Hakkas also had control of the government gardening work, such a watering grass road medians and various floral arrangements in gardens and parks. You could tell them from the women's black curtains that trim their straw hats when they worked at their government gardening chores.
Simon Twiston Davies, from my old Dublin days, and days of more roistering in Montreal, had come a long way since then. He managed to catapult himself to the stratospheric social heights in Hong Kong where his Raj accent and bearing finally did him some good. He was now the director general of the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (CASBAA), lived on the top of the hill, where he owned two houses. Brother Joel was deeply resentful that he now looked down on our roistering ways after we took care of him in his hard luck days in Dublin and Montreal.
As usual, I was more forgiving, as I was in my Mississippi days in not joining the sneering and jeering of the younger and more radical adherents of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC or "snick") against the more respectable middle class National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). Simon was in a different milieu and he had to separate himself from the Falstaffian life we were still wedded to. So while we saw less of each other than before, I did not share my brother's resentment.
In my brother's absence, he still having business in Silicon Valley with Wired magazine, I was much in the care of Sandra and the generally welcoming gang, most of curious to know what Joel's brother was like.
In grand style, Simon took me to lunch at the FCC, the Foreign Correspondents Club. One could not help but be impressed. It was both a first class restaurant of top Montreal quality and a first class British style club with club rooms, including a large lecture hall, where I would one day give a eulogy on Joel's passing, and frequent the jazz bar in the basement with its live entertainment nightly. The advent of which was always a signal for me to leave.
I never joined the FCC despite several flirtations, partly because one had to get there deliberately, situated as it was high on a hill. Most newspapermen's watering holes were on the way to somewhere one might want to go, but the FCC was not. What's more almost everyone there was a political liberal, as the overwhelming majority of journalists were and are, liberal to points left, so holding my tongue or getting into arguments were the two choices available. If one did all one's drinking and dining there, FCC membership was a good deal as drinks and food were cheap and cushioned the cost of membership. What I would have liked would to have a six-visit annual membership with unused visits transferable from one year to the next. That way I could take visiting firemen there for the length of a typical Hong Kong visit of a week or two, but otherwise grace the place with my absence.
Lunch was most impressive, and so were the sights and sounds. Simon waved greetings to many as many waved greetings back. His office was close by so he found the club convenient, and remarked that Hong Kong was like Montreal in that one ran into people one knew on the street. Even coming to and from the club was impressive. It was also like Montreal in the way that taxis were instantly at hand the moment one wanted one. Getting to the ferry pier was exciting too, with its sights and sounds, whirls and swirls on swooping under and overpasses.
I was now beginning to a parse the shoreline into its various wharfs and piers, the Macau hydrofoil terminal, the battleship gray police boats docked a little way off, the mysterious Green Island, once a prison and now spotted with government buildings with no one in sight, its lee shore defining the Sulphur Channel. So many English names of geographic features had nothing to do with their locality, but were named after ships that were stationed there. Thus, it was HMS Sulphur that charted Hong Kong Island, and HMS Discovery that gave its name to Discovery Bay, aka, for a time "Disco", and HMS Repulse that gave its name to Repulse Bay.
Except for Joel, I knew David Kerr longer than anyone else there, starting as a bistro buddy in the 1960s in Montreal. In those days, David was never without his 35mm camera and constantly took pictures of the bistro scene. Not one in a thousand of its regular patrons in the 1960s and '70s knew its real name, "Chez Loulou les Bacchantes", though it was plain enough, written in large script on the awning trim above the door, which was flanked by four alfresco tables in front on the street. To all, it was simply the bistro. It was a mirror image of a Paris bistro, with a little restaurant in the back where one was served excellent food.
I later learned that "bistro" was a Russian word, meaning "hurry", said to have been uttered by frantic Russian soldiers who were being marched back to barracks after Napoleon's defeat. Returning from sentry duty around Paris, they would break ranks individually and run into grog shops along the way, pleading with publicans to "bistro" so they could quickly drink and rejoin the ranks and not be charged with desertion.
Bistro waiters, who were all mustachioed males from France would only be addressed in French, and the entirety of the English-speaking clientele, that is 99 per cent of the customers, cheerfully obliged. There were famous people who put their heads in from time to time. Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the future Prime Minister and as well as famous troubadour Leonard Cohen went more often, as this film clip shows .https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2dQzXv2jvc&feature=youtu.be
Sadly, all of David's photos had been lost over the years and he had given up serious photography. Instead, he had learned the craft of journalism as a re-write man and subeditor. He was then working at the Hong Kong Standard where I was about to work myself.
David in his early 50s, often could be found reading the International Herald Tribune at one of the outdoor tables at Spicy Island restaurant, the ownership Sandra shared uncomfortably with an Indian called Kumar, with whom I was only on nodding terms, and barely that as hostility grew between the co-owners and the partnership dissolved in bitterness.
Lamma life was rather like life at the bistro in Montreal though rather than being settled in one place was scattered in a dozen bars and restaurants along the waterfront. Some places were dominated by one clique or another. It meant, seeing some fifty of the same people all the time, with individuals remaining in circles of about a dozen, one might dine at three or four waterfront establishments enjoying sundowners at half a dozen bars before distant Guangdong mountains and the sea.
What wasn't at all like the bistro was taking a morning five-minute walk to the Power Station Beach and swimming in the South China Sea, marvelling that I had actually made it there, as Cosco, Joel's big friendly chow-husky mix, cavorted about on the beach. Like my lost, and much lamented dog, Trooper, Cosco liked his water in bowls. From the start, we enjoyed each other's company.
One day, David Kerr suggested we go to the Peak, which involved a ferry to Hong Kong Island and a bus ride to the top, from where panoramic postcard photographs were taken. It struck me that we were seeing a vastly scaled up version of Montreal, where one could look down from the mountain through a forest of high-rise tower blocks to a harbour full of ships to a shore beyond. In Montreal's case, it was the South Shore and in Hong Kong's the north shore of Kowloon. Of course, proportions were completely different. Victoria Peak, or Mount Austin, was three or four times the size of Mount Royal and the harbour was half the size of our mighty St Lawrence River, though with many more ships.
Walking down from the Peak proved to be too tiring that we soon took a bus. It was so much steeper than I thought it would be and there was so much more of it, so even walking downhill was painful after ten minutes.
It finally came time to report in for work accompanied by David Kerr, who I learned for the first time had a famous father too, far more famous than mine as it turned out. He was also named David Kerr, and had make the cover of Time Magazine in 1940, when credited as a goalie of winning his team the New York Rangers the Stanley Cup, I think it was the only time New York had ever won it. Of course, as a Montrealer, one will pardon a sneer, when one considers that Canada was out to war in 1940 and the US would not be in the fight until 1942.
Hockey is one area in which the US counted for little and Canada counted for a lot. Just as Canadian football and baseball teams were filled with Americans, American hockey teams were filled with Canadians. So when the New York Rangers won the cup, Canadians had joined the army and were fighting the Germans and Japanese. Not that I mentioned this at the time, or any time in front of David. While interested in preserving and enhancing his late father's name, assiduously keeping scrap books, he was not at all competitive, and delighted in showing me the things he loved or found remarkable about Hong Kong.
Hong Kong Standard
The big English paper in town was the SCMP, the South China Morning Post, which had a circulation of 80.000. The other English paper was the Hong Kong Standard, which had might have had a circulation of 10,000, but was in a period of great disgrace, having been caught dumping unsold and unsellable papers in the harbour to increase its circulation when sales were measured by its press run. This had been discovered and prosecuted and executives involved did jail time, we were told.
The Standard was located in Kowloon Bay only a 300 yards from the runway of the old, and now abandoned Kai Tak Airport, which had recently been re-opened, but soon closed as a go-cart track. Except for its former use as the world's sixth most dangerous airport, the property was unattractive and therefore cheap.
The Standard was now owned by a Chinese newspaper Sing Tao, fourth or fifth ranked Chinese daily, but held its own as the city's property newspaper, and with Hong Kong consumed with the doings of the property market, it held its own, and even ran a cable television station in Toronto. But rather like the Thomson organisation got rich and stayed rich through frugality.
But there was another dimension to the Hong Kong Standard, its part ownership of a merchant bank, later to become a Bermuda-based financial advisor Lazard Frères. All of this was truly murky and one was not encouraged to ask questions.
Very early on, I began to expect a clone of the Montreal Daily News would emerge, that the managers did not know what they were dealing with, hoping to surf to nirvana on the wave of the current dotcom craze. But the evidence had yet to build to that conclusion.
I was expected in the office even though my boss Sean Kennedy would not be there for another week for reasons I cannot remember. But I took orders from Ken Gangwani, a conscientious Indian. who was the no-nonsense chief sub of the finance section.
I took my place beside fortysomething Carlos Hidalgo, a Filipino, who was one of the finest subs I have ever encountered, smoothly handling everything that came his way with muted aplomb. No fuss, no muss. On my another side was fiftysomething Sharif Beck, or Steve Beck, one of the most interesting and engaging men I have ever met - though thoroughly weird. We were soon to become flat mates. There was a leftist Australised American in his 50s across the way, a severe Baptist preacher in his 30s, the only one other than myself, among the 140-strong staff who supported Bush in the coming election. There was a rolypoly Brit in his 30s with some provincial newspaper experience in the English Midlands, and Zubair Lafit in his 30s from Bangladesh, who became business editor years later.
Much to my surprise, Sandra appeared before me two or three days in, and told me she had been hired as advertising sales director at an astronomical salary. This, she did without having to give up her interest in her PR firm, Pronto Communications, of which my brother was a director.
By this time, thirtysomething Sean Kennedy had re-appeared and we seemed to get on well enough. But it soon transpired that there was bad blood between him and Ken Gangwani, the chief sub, who really ran the show.
In our frequent smoke breaks in the grim dingy stairwell Ken told me how angry he was that Sean had been appointed to head the department given his experience. Sean, when I joined him for smoke breaks in the same dingy stairwell, complained that Ken was undermining his authority by keeping stories from him, and rendering his role irrelevant and increasingly impossible.
Given the animus Ken bore Sean, I had no doubt that this was true. I liked both of them and was determined to stay out of the dispute, only urging Ken to respect his officer as his officer for the good of all. But in vain. Other opportunities would come in time, I told him. And for a man of his skill that seemed obvious. But my dark fears turned out to be true. Having driven Sean out a year later, Ken reaped no benefit. Rather than replacing Sean as department head, another, Karl Wilson, was hired and he ran the place, or Ken did, well enough.
Like the wages in the Montreal Daily News, the wages at the Standard were top of the line, so getting the money monsoon to last for as long as possible, was the only thing staffers cared about.
It reminded me of the old Vietnam film, The Boys of Company C, which I still take to be analogous to the entire Vietnam War fiasco. I was for the cause in Vietnam, but against the war itself because it was incompetently fought. The film, in microcosm, showed how the Americans were defeated. All the soldiers, regardless of rank, cared about was their personal comfort, and if telling superiors one thing rather than another would get a better assignment the next week, then they would say whatever did the trick. So sergeants told captains they had killed masses of Viet Cong, and the captains told the colonels their men had killed many more and colonels told the generals how splendid the kill-ratios were accomplished by their commands and the generals told the Washington war planners how splendidly their armies were doing. Each level was willingly deluded by the one below.
The war planners at the very top, now elderly World War II "whiz kids" led by the Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, made sensible plans based on false and falsified information. After all, the system worked wonders in World War II when the GIs did not know how their field reports affected their immediate futures, whereas in Vietnam, they did know, and tailored reports accordingly. This has been a practice of all ranks in institutional life since - nominally serving a stated objective, but objectively dedicated to feathering one's own nest, trading on one's own account while pretending to be selflessly trading to benefit the greater good.
A number of profound but unrelated things happened swiftly in those early days. My late night shift in finance ended at 2am, which meant I could no longer live on Lamma Island as the last ferry to the island departed at midnight. With Sandra's help, I got a good flat with two bedrooms in a 10-storey walk-up near the Quarry Bay subway station, henceforth known as the MTR, the Mass Transit Railway, a truly magnificent creation rivalling our Metro in Montreal. It was a bit like the London tube's new Victoria Line, though each car was wider by two feet. If I have any criticism of it, it is that the front door of the station is often far away from the train platform itself that it was often an arduous hike from one to the other. I told my fellow subs of my predicament, and Steve Beck, an Englishman, who had recently been hired as a sub, suggested we share the rent. I liked the idea, he was an old Asia hand, a Muslim convert, which was hardly a plus, but he would serve as my comprador, a personal fixer, in a society that was entirely new to me. Sandra was now taken up with her new duties and unable to hold my hand much longer.
The Hong Kong Standard was about to come to an end, to metamorphosise itself into the Hong Kong iMail, hopefully to surf on to glory on the mighty wave of the current "dotcom boom" which had engulfed the world as a dominating intellectual fashion. That's why Lazard Freres was along for the ride, financing the transmogrification of the Standard into the iMail. So all this top-dollar hiring was done in the service of a yet born to be tabloid.
Being a Muslim - though I never saw so much as a prayer rug rolled out in our two years together - Steve, or Sharif, as he occasionally fashioned himself, didn't drink. So it was I who went to the next block into Tong Chong Street to the watering hole of the SCMP, called the East End Brewery where I ran into a slew of journos, and began to learn about the local newspaper scene.
At the time the South China Morning Post looked rather ordinary by yesterday's standards, with a half dozen stories on page one with occasional flashes of wit. I loved one headline that said, "US submarine sinks Japanese cargo ship", giving the mischievous false impression that it was reporting in World War II naval triumph rather than an accidental collision. I also heard that, rather like the Gazette deciding to launch a Sunday edition in response to the expected devastating impact of the Montreal Daily News more than a decade before, the SCMP was to relaunch the paper with an exciting "new design concept", elements of which the journos showed each other over drinks at the East End Brewery. I told Sean about this and it was relayed upwards.
I remember telling him of my idea that we should practice doing layouts the way the SCMP did, also suggesting we re-introduce the word "Tiger" again, calling our new old SCMP lookalike, The Hong Kong Tiger Standard and revert to its original name.
By then I knew that the journos hated the tiger name since the 1940s when the paper started by a Chinese family from Penang. It was only there to promote Tiger Balm ointment in which the owners had an interest. Unappreciated by me until I got there, and looked back at the old issues, was that the Tiger Balm tiger was the cute cartoonish tiger that appeared on the packaged product, cheapening the paper with rank commercialism from top of its front page. This was not as I imagined it, representing an aggressive spirit the newspaper that caught my imagination when Auntie Joan spoke of it when I was a kid.
But with a change of ownership, the Tiger was dropped in the mid-1960s, the instant the new owners had no interest in promoting the product. But among the Chinese there was a lingering affection for they called the "Tiger paper," as they called it. I thought this might be exploited by having picture captions and headlines translated in Chinese in smaller print. There was such a passion among the Chinese to learn English that the tiniest proportional increase in Chinese readership would result in a massive increase to the Standard's miniscule circulation as the Chinese represented 90 per cent of the population.
My idea was to be ready to publish our "new look" - in reality the "old look" of the SCMP, the very day the SCMP made their move to relaunch. I figured our circulation would grow massively as we would look like the familiar SCMP, while the South China Morning Post would look like an alien creature no one had ever seen before. Our circ would shrink back of course, but we would have a net gain for a while and could hold on to what might be a permanent lead if we were properly prepared and well led. If we acted more like the Special Air Service and less like the Boys in Company C.
Sean said it was a good idea, but did nothing with it, and it was clearly apparent, that as a new boy, I would get nowhere with it on my own, not given the mentality of the place. It would also take a play-to-win management, not one that expected to sail effortlessly to triumph, or failing that, to manage failure as long as they could to prolong the money monsoon.
And so after a time, the Hong Kong Standard, died and became something very much like the Montreal Daily News and would have an almost identical fate with all aboard her saying much the same thing.