On demobilisation in 1946 it was a bit of an anticlimax when I returned to the
building business established by my great-grandfather in 1853. Then, in
1952, my father died and I became managing director. I enjoyed working on
churches and other ancient buildings but I did not really wish to do that for the rest
of my life. To complement my work in construction I had also 'gone back to school'
as my studies had been disrupted by the War. I later taught building science, part-time,
at Norwich City College.
Early In 1954 I applied for a job in Trinidad and went along to the old Colonial
Office In Great Smith Street. Sir Christopher Cox, who headed the interview
panel, said, "Waters, you would be more suitable teaching building subjects in
Hong Kong than in Trinidad. Go away and think about it!" Hong Kong: where on
earth was that?!
Communist China was beginning to make ripples around the world. Rose,
Rose I Love You was the first song originating in the People's Republic of
China to become popular in Britain. Yet the composers never received royalties.
Communists could not afford to be seen drawing money from a capitalist country.
And as I listened to the refrain in Merry England, it all tied in. Serving in the
Colonial Service in Hong Kong seemed terribly exciting and romantic. It made me
think of 'Camp Coffee', 'Zam Buk' ointment and other similar branded goods with
scenes of Empire on bottles and tins which I grew up with as a child.
"You're going to the Far East?", an acquaintance who had never left East Anglia
exclaimed! "The Communists have just acquired half Korea. There's fighting in
Vietnam and Malaya. Hong Kong will be the next to fall!"
In spite of adverse comments I accepted the offer from the Colonial Office
to join what had just become Her Majesty's Overseas Civil Service. After all, a
considerable area of a map of the world was still coloured red. Hadn't Sir Winston
Churchill proclaimed, "I have not become the King's first minister to preside over
the liquidation of the British Empire?" At the time I could have been posted to
any one of something like 55 different colonies or dependent territories within the
British Commonwealth. For me, 'Go East young man!' was the new watchword.
Nevertheless, some rumoured that the Hong Kong Royal Naval Dockyard was
shortly to be closed.
So, in spite of discouraging remarks, I 'burned my boats', sold the long
established family business as a going concern, and went shopping. I spotted
cabin trunks made of sheet metal. "Oh no", the shop assistant exclaimed, "you
only need those, Sir, If you are going to some humid place like Hong Kong!" "I'll
have two!" I replied. There was little air-conditioning in those days.
Until 1959 most officials travelled to Hong Kong by sea. The Peninsula and
Orient Line had four passenger ships: the Canton, the Chusan, the Carthage and
the Corfu, all Royal Mail Ships. My family and I sailed on the RMS Canton. As a newly recruited Hong Kong government servant I went on half pay as soon as I
stepped on the boat. It took 31 days from Southampton to Hong Kong.
At Port Said gully gully men (Egyptian magicians) were allowed on board to
entertain passengers. Or you could go ashore, visit the Pyramids and elsewhere,
and catch the ship at the other end of the Suez Canal. (People travelled like that,
on the so called 'Overland Route', before the Suez Canal was completed in 1869.)
Aden, with low tax, was a good place for shopping. Or one could visit the museum
to look at a stuffed Manatee with its broad, flattened tail. Fond of sitting on rocks,
these sea creatures were said to have provided the substance for seamen's tales
about mermaids. Other customary ports of call for British passenger ships were
Bombay, Colombo, Penang and Singapore. 'P & O' ships were manned partly by
Lascar seamen, with stewards, who waited at table, from then Portuguese Goa.
There was a splendid array of cuisine with China, Indian and Ceylon teas. The
Indian curry cook could serve a different curry for every one of the 31 lunches
throughout the voyage.
There were sea birds and flying fish to watch out for, and some wonderful
sunsets in the Indian Ocean. Just as the brilliant sun dipped below the horizon
you could occasionally see a green flash. Looking over the ship's rail at night one
could frequently see phosphorescent, microbial animal and plant life in the tropical
waters. Sometimes one could see this when one flushed the toilet in the darkness
of one's cabin.
My family and I arrived in Hong Kong in the winter of 1954-55. Shortly
afterwards there was a 'cold snap' and the temperature went down to ten degrees.
My local colleagues could not understand, although there was beautiful 'winter
sunshine', how we could go swimming. From my hotel in North Point over the
Kowloon Foothills, looking towards Lion Rock, I could scarcely believe how clear
the visibility was with very low humidity. It's very different today with much high
pollution coming from over the border in Mainland China. There were rumours that
a leopard, which was rarer than the South-China Tiger, had been spotted in the
New Territories. It was probably a rumour.
In the mid-nineteen fifties I would never have dreamed that I would still be living
here in Hong Kong, well over half a century later. But as an Old Hong Kong hand
I'm still here, and I'm not alone. Other British retired colonial civil servants who
have made the former British Crown Colony their home include Sir David Akers-
Jones. Sir David acted as Governor for half a year when Sir Edward Youde died 'In
harness', on a visit to Beijing in 1986. Then there is Ian MacPherson whose father
was the 'less-old-fashioned' Governor of Nigeria appointed shortly after World
War Two. A tall Englishman, Peter Lee, a retired Administrative Officer, died aged
93, and we scattered his ashes on the waters off the islands and bays of the Sai
Kung Peninsula which he truly loved.
In a few cases, with Britons still living in Hong Kong, you will find there is a
Chinese lady behind the scenes and my last book: One Couple Two Cultures,
discusses western-Chinese marriage in some detail.
Having been born in 1920, and having lived here since 1954, I'm not sure I
could easily survive an English winter and I plan to have my ashes scattered in
Hong Kong similarly to Peter Lee, although not yet for a while. Having written
all the above, I am still proud to be an Englishman and I truly believe, in spite
of its shortcomings, that in addition to the British Empire giving the world an
international language, it has done much to keep the peace and improve the lot
It was in fact a memorable day when we assembled in Westminster Abbfey on
25 May 1999, together with Her Majesty the Queen. After the timely return of Hong
Kong to China in 1997, the days of Empire were effectively brought to a close. It
was truly the end of a memorable era in history.