When Brexit Secretary David Davis sat down with EU negotiator Michel Barnier last month for a round of talks he was criticised by some in the media for having a completely empty desk while his opposite number came prepared with piles of documents.
Perhaps Davis is modelling his draft Brexit agreement on some of the concise conventions and treaties from Britain’s imperial past.
Take for example the Kowloon Extension Agreement of 1898 in which Britain obtained possession of Hong Kong’s New Territories for a period of 99 years.
This masterpiece of brevity filled just one side of A4 paper and was probably knocked up by MacDonald (the British signatory) and his private secretary one evening over a couple of gins in the Hong Kong Club.
Of course it helped that it was prepared at a time when Britain was strong and the Chinese side was in a weak negotiating position, leading the Communists to later describe it as an ‘unequal treaty’ when they took over China in 1949. But the amazing thing is that this treaty remained in force and was honoured by both sides for 99 years exactly, until Hong Kong was handed back to China on 1st July 1997.* This despite major wars and changes of regime in China.
It is doubtful that any agreement Messrs Davis and Barnier draw up will last for 99 years. It certainly won’t fit on one side of A4.
* Although the treaty was honoured, its ambiguous wording did lead to some problems in implementation, particularly with regard to Kowloon Walled City. You can read a fascinating account of Kowloon Walled City here.
In 1980 my former employer, a well known Hong Kong bank, transferred me from Oman to Hong Kong. The day I landed at Kai Tak airport, a driver met me and deposited me at my new home, a low-rise apartment in an old block in Happy Valley, overlooking the racecourse.
Waiting for me in the flat was Ah Tai who was to be my amah for the next two years. Although I paid her salary, (HK$ 1200 per month if I recall correctly), she was informally engaged by the bank to look after the apartment. In theory, I need not have employed her, but after a 30 second interview she decided I was a suitable employer and she agreed to stay on.
She was a live-in helper and had a tiny room off the back of the kitchen. The kitchen was also her territory and I would seldom venture in there. She kept the flat spotless and the ageing furniturewas still in remarkable condition considering that a string of bachelors had lived in the flat over the years.
Ah Tai did the washing and ironing. I don’t even know if we had a washing machine but my shirts were always hanging back in the cupboard clean and crisply ironed a few hours after taking them off.
She ensured I was never late for work despite my many evenings as a young bachelor carousing in the bars of Hong Kong. One breakfast I had a dreadful hangover and was struggling to finish the eggs and bacon that she laid on the table every morning. She tut-tutted“Master, why you got red eyes?”
She spoke a kind of basic Chinglish. Male employers were always called Master and if there was a female boss she would be Missie. I took Cantonese lessons for a while and though she was amused by my pathetic pronunciation she, in common with most HK Chinese, did not really encourage me to learn her language. The less we gweilos knew what was going on, the better! The British officers in the Royal Hong Kong Police were the only gweilos I knew who really could really get to grips with the language.
Ah Tai could cook Western and Chinese dishes but was better at the latter. Before leaving for work she would ask if I was coming home for dinner. If yes, she would ask for a small sum to buy groceries. She would take the bus down to Wanchai food market and haggle with the vendors for fish, meat, vegetables and fruit.
I was supposed to pay for her food but she was super-frugal and cost next to nothing. If she cooked me fish, she would eat the fish heads with a bowl of rice and a few vegetables. When I ate an orange, she would keep the peel and dry it on the kitchen window ledge for use as a snack or home remedy. She practiced reduce, reuse and recycle long before it became fashionable.
She would give me a ticking-off if I didn’t come home for dinner after saying I would. And it was no use me trying to phone her. I tried it once:
Me: Hello Ah Tai
Me: Ah Tai
Me: It’s me, master.
Her: Master not here! (slams down phone).
We never discussed her background or personal life. She spent her leisure time in the kitchen listening to her transistor radio. On Saturdays she would sometimes go out and return on Sunday evening, exchanging her usual white top and black silk trousers for a more colourful outfit of the same style. Perhaps she went to see a relative or meet up with other amahs to swap funny stories about their bosses or to exchange investment tips. Chinese amahs were famously good at saving every cent they earned and, investing wisely in shares and property, some became quite wealthy.
Hong Kong’s black and white amahs (referring to the colour of their attire) were a superior class of domestic helper with roots in Shunde County of Guangdong Province. Being hard working and reliable they were in great demand in Hong Kong among expatriates and wealthy Chinese. The wealthiest families employed a number of amahs, one for cooking, one for cleaning, one for looking after children and so on. Ah Tai was a yat-keok-tak (one leg kick) meaning that she did everything. Black & white amahs had good prospects for life-long employment, leading to financial independence with no need to rely on a drunken, cheating, gambling, wife-beating husband for support. As a result they never married and took a vow of celibacy.
By 1980, Hong Kong’s amahs were a disappearing breed as younger Chinese girls were unwilling to take up this career, with better paid opportunities available in factories and offices. They were replaced by domestic helpers from the Philippines (and later Indonesia and elsewhere) who were less expensive and, not speaking Chinese, less able to interfere and find out all the family secrets.
I don’t know what became of Ah Tai after I was posted back to the Middle East. The above photo was taken 35 years ago. She would be quite old by now but with her healthy diet and ascetic lifestyle, who knows, she could still be going strong. Wherever she may be, I thank her for looking after me.
These are the photos kindly forwarded by Judy Wilkinson to accompany her comment below:
Though I am not much of a deltiologist, I do have a reasonable collection of vintage and modern picture postcards cluttering up my spare room. Among the older and more attractive postcards are a series of Oilettes which resemble miniature oil paintings and were produced by a firm called Raphael Tuck & Sons during the early 20th century.
Sailing Boat in the Moonlight – Tuck’s Oilette Postcard, Artist Th. Rogge
These mini works of art helped spread art appreciation to the masses:
The president of the Royal Academy, who visited the remotest corners of Scotland each year, expressed his opinion concerning Tuck’s influence on art. He said, “Mr. Tuck’s graphic productions were likely more effective than all of the art galleries in the world.” Tuck postcards decorated drawing rooms in elegant mansions as well as country cottages with their uneven, smoky walls. This art connoisseur observed that the world’s art galleries could only reach a few people while Mr. Tuck’s postcards went to millions of individuals at every level of society. (Source: TuckDB Postcards)
Brief History of Raphael Tuck & Sons
Raphael Tuck migrated to England with his wife and children from his native Prussia and opened a shop in London in 1866 selling pictures and frames but soon expanded into printed graphic art techniques such as lithographs, chromos and oleographs.
Tuck’s were pioneers in many ways. Although Raphael was an Orthodox Jew, it was his firm that popularised, if not invented, the modern Christmas card. His son Adolph launched a competition offering artists prize money of 5,000 Guineas (equivalent to a whopping £440,000 in today’s money) for the best Xmas card designs.
They also did much to bring about the Golden Age of Postcards (1898-1919) by persuading the British Postmaster General to accept a standardised postcard format with a picture on one side and space for a message and address on the other.
A set of oilettes depicting London Railway Stations was released in 1907 while a series of Scottish Clans was issued in 1906.
Competitions with big prize money were staged to encourage people to collect as many postcards as possible from Tuck’s vast range. These promotions had a ‘chain’ element and attracted huge public interest – early forerunners of ‘going viral’!
The company expanded into children’s books, wedding books, baby books, calendars, valentine’s cards, birthday cards and many other product lines made from paper. They expanded geographically too and at various times during their existence they had offices in London, New York, Montreal, Berlin, Bombay, Buenos Aires, Cape Town and, oh yes, Northampton.
Success brought honours and status. Queen Victoria and subsequent monarchs granted the firm the Royal Warrant of Appointment as Art Publishers to the Queen/King while Adolph Tuck was made a baron in 1910.
Their London HQ was bombed during the Blitz destroying all of their original pictures, photographs and records. The company soldiered on after the war but was eventually absorbed into Maxwell Communications Corporation in 1987.
What of the future of picture postcards? I imagine the industry is in sharp decline. As my children remind me, why would anyone of their generation want to send a postcard in this age of Facebook and Instagram?
Hong Kong Oilettes
Scenes from all over the world were reproduced on oilette postcards. Here are some of Hong Kong. Hope you like them.
It would appear that this scene above (and some of the others) was copied from an actual photograph postcard (below) and it is possible that the artist never stepped foot in Hong Kong.
I can’t read the Chinese characters but this looks like Man Mo Temple in Hollywood Road.
In its early days Hong Kong was a fairly unruly place. Pirates haunted the harbour while triads and other criminals made it unsafe to walk out after dark.
The first police were not up to much. The force was prone to corruption, extortion, collusion, alcoholism and incompetence.
In 1845, Charles May (no relation), an Inspector with the (London) Metropolitan Police was sent over to Hong Kong with a brief to establish a proper police force and improve the quality of law enforcement in the territory. This was a relatively novel concept as the Metropolitan Police force itself was still only 12 years old at the time.
It was an uphill task but eventually an atmosphere of normalcy and security prevailed on Hong Kong’s streets. Brutal floggings were an integral part of the penal system. Charles May believed that the conditions in Victoria Gaol were so good, with food, clothing and lodging better than on the outside, that a jail sentence alone was not sufficient deterrent.
The ‘squeeze’ culture in the police took time to eradicate. Indeed May himself was not a saint. This is what Governor Bowring wrote about May in 1858:
I have been generally satisfied with Mr May’s service … one of the exceptions was his ownership of a very notorious nest of brothels very near the police station and which he very unwillingly got rid of after very considerable pressure from the Government. His salary is £575 p.a. with quarters but, by speculation in land and buildings, or from other sources, he has, I am told, realized a large sum of money here.
Speculation in property was of course common practice in Hong Kong (still is) so this controversy did no long term damage to May’s career prospects and he went on to become Chief Magistrate and Colonial Treasurer before finally leaving Hong Kong for England in 1879.
Like many other HK expats of those days he died on the ship on the way home aged 61. He was buried at sea close to Singapore.
One of his successors as police chief was another May, Francis May who eventually served as Governor of Hong Kong.
My favourite street name in Hong Kong has to be Rednaxela Terrace, just off the the Central-Mid Levels Escalator above Caine Road.
The most plausible explanation for this peculiar name is that the street was supposed to have been Alexander Terrace but the Chinese sign-painter placed the letters from right to left, which was how Chinese read at that time. The mistake could easily have been corrected but somehow the name stuck.
José Rizal, the Philippine’s revered national hero, lived at number 2, Rednaxela Terrace together with some family members for about six months from 1891-1892, while he worked as an opthalmologist at 5, D’Aguilar Street. Austin Coates, in his excellent biography on Rizal describes the area as follows:
A small house, which they furnished and decorated themselves, situated some 300 feet above sea level on the steepest part of the Peak in an area occupied mainly by Portuguese families, originally from Macao, who were the backbone of Hong Kong’s middle class.
This area would have looked a lot different from today and this is the type of view which Rizal might have enjoyed.
His next door neighbour was a prominent Portuguese, Dr. Lourenço Pereira Marques. They became good friends. Marques was at the time a prison medical officer at the nearby Victoria Gaol.
(Amazingly (for Hong Kong), this prison remained in service until 2005 and has now been declared a protected monument.)
Marques was over-qualified for this job but there was little prospect of promotion because in those days, Hong Kong Portuguese were unfairly confined to the lower rungs of the civil service even though Marques himself was a British citizen.
From 1894 he was involved in the fight against bubonic plague which killed 8,600 people in Hong Kong over the next seven years with a 95% fatality rate for those infected.
Marques’ mother, Maria Ana Josefa Pereira owned an estate in Macau which included the Jardim Luis de Camòes, one of my favourite spots in the territory.
A street in Macau was named after Rizal’s friend, Rua Do Dr. Lourenço Pereira Marques which runs along the western harbour of the Macau peninsula. By the way the old name for Maputo in Mozambique, Lourenco Marques, is nothing to do with this individual but was named after a much earlier namesake, a Portuguese trader who first explored the area in 1544.
Marques was not particularly happy with his situation in Hong Kong and was interested to migrate. Indeed over the 120 or so years since his time, many of the Portuguese/Macanese population of Hong Kong moved on to new lives in places like Canada, Australia and Portugal.
Perhaps they should have retained their properties in Hong Kong. Number 1, Rednaxela Terrace is now an apartment block and a single compact 1800 sq. ft. flat with 3 small bedrooms is today on the market for a whopping HK$40,000,000 (US$5million).
During Rizal’s short residence in Hong Kong another Asian national hero and revolutionary, Sun Yat-sen, the future first President of China, was also in Hong Kong as a student at the Hong Kong College of Medicine. They do not appear to have met despite the fact that Marques was one of Sun Yat-sen’s lecturers.
When I was last in Hong Kong I visited the Sun Yat Museum which is at Kom Tong Hall, a former grand residence belonging to local businessman, Ho Kom Tong. The location is at the corner of Castle Road and Caine Road and is just a short walk from Rednaxela Terrace. It’s a small world in Hong Kong!
About ten years ago, when I was living in Hong Kong, I consulted a Chinese fortune teller or ‘Astrologer, Geomancy Consultant’ as he preferred to call himself. It was the start of the new millennium and at the time I was thinking about migrating to New Zealand so I thought it would be good to get an opinion on my future from an expert. I am not normally a big believer in fortune telling, but he came highly recommended so I approached the consultation with an open mind. What he told me came as something of a shock.
He said that I am going to die when I am 67. Not just any old death but a rather grizzly one. I will be travelling on a boat which will sink or I will fall overboard and I will be eaten by a shark! I am not making this up, I promise. I still have the tape recording of the consultation as proof. My friends and relatives found it quite amusing and I suppose, since we all have to go somehow, it is an interesting way to die. I started to think about the implications of this prophecy.
Knowing when you are going to die is not such a bad thing. I’m 54 now so I have 13 years left. I need to make sure that I spend the next 13 years fruitfully and don’t waste a single day. If the fortune teller is wrong and I get an extension of years it will be a bonus but I’m planning on the basis that he is correct and I’m going to spend my remaining time doing worthwhile things that I enjoy. I have certainly made a lot of changes since hearing the shark prediction. I quit my well paid but tedious and stressful banking job, and I have pursued various interests and business ideas that I had always been meaning to do one day. I have spent more time with my family and on hobbies such as reading. I enjoy a good book. The problem is, I’m really quite a slow reader, I’m lucky if I finish one book a month. It’s not that I’m incapable of reading faster – it’s just that when I read, the words trigger trains of thought and I allow my mind to wander. It might be several seconds or even minutes before I return to the next sentence in the book. I don’t mind this drifting off – in fact it’s this guided day-dreaming which makes reading such a pleasurable and relaxing experience for me. You can’t do that when you are watching a film.
Anyway, returning to my situation, if I have 13 years left to live and I can only manage one book per month, it means I have time to read about 156 more books before the shark gets me. I want to make sure that these 156 books are great ones. I have no time to waste on reading trashy books or even just average books. So if there is anyone out there reading this blog, I would appreciate your suggestions on which titles I should include in my 156 book reading list. Perhaps something uplifting, inspirational or life-changing would be appropriate, even spiritual given that I will be meeting my Maker before too long (I’m reading ‘The Confessions Of Saint Augustine’ at the moment). I Googled ‘100 best books of all time’ and there are plenty of websites listing great literature. These are are a good place to start for ideas but the pages and pages of comments on the websites show that people feel strongly about the subject and there is a good deal of dispute about what should and what should not be included on the various lists. I ‘ve read quite a number of these classics over the years but I cannot always share the opinions of the critics. James Joyce’s Ulysses for instance is near the top of most critics’ best book lists but I found it virtually unreadable. I suppose that makes an ignorant peasant.
Well that’s enough from me. My time is strictly limited as you know! Any suggestions from you would be most welcome. In the meantime I’ll be consuming as many bowls of shark’s fin soup as possible in the hope that the shark becomes extinct before I do.