British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Clive Caldwell
(Hong Kong Administration 1964-97)
Boeing 707 Landing in Hong Kong, 1966
It was my great good fortune to be successful in my application in 1963 to join the Hong Kong Government as an Executive Officer. This was despite my conviction that I had failed when asked at my interview (by a very charismatic HK Government representative) whether I played cricket. I answered "no" which was met with a dramatic/despairing rolling of eyes! In fact I did go on to play cricket - and rugby, and squash, and tennis, and sailing.... The joys of Hong Kong!

However, the first part of the adventure was getting to Hong Kong. This was by Boeing 707 - at that time the state of the art airliner. State of the art it might have been - but it took the same time as it now takes to fly to Australia! On arrival I was booked into a rather seedy hotel in Happy Valley - the Ascot House - allegedly in cahoots with the then Gov't Quartering Officer. But the upside was I was driven every day to my first posting in the Colonial Secretariat in an air-conditioned Holden Estate car. I had never been in an air-conditioned car before and am not even certain I knew such things existed! But It was mid-July - about the hottest time of the year - and I was quickly advised of the appropriate summer 'uniform'. Open-necked, short-sleeved shirt, shorts (knee length), and socks - also knee length!

Memories of Colonial Hong Kong
Ascot House Hotel
One of my first tasks in the Colonial Secretariat was to take the minutes of a very high level meeting on the subject of the then current water shortage crisis. Discussion centred on water problems in various housing developments of which Sham Shi Po was one of many - to me - incomprehensible Chinese names. Predictably, my minutes were a disaster and had to be rewritten by the (very senior) chairman.

One of the conditions of my employment was to learn the local language - Cantonese. This was a full-time 3 month course and was far from easy. At one stage I thought I was going mad as I seemed to eat, sleep and dream (very poor!) Cantonese. But my chief memory of the course (Cantonese excepted!) was that of our tutor. He was an elderly gentleman who was very patient and habitually wore a traditional cheung sham which was very impressive. (In fact in those days traditional dress was quite common and one of the joys of travelling on the Star Ferry between Hong Kong and Kowloon was to observe the beautiful, lissom Chinese girls in their elegant cheung shams.)
Memories of Colonial Hong Kong
RHKP Landrover

My first departmental job was in the Royal Hong Kong Police HQ where my title was EO Administration. Among other things, I was supposed to keep the Force Filing System up to scratch. The joy of this was that I was able to travel out to far-flung police stations on the Chinese border (either by Landrover or Police launch) where I enjoyed sumptuous lunches of glorious black curries made by the Pakistani PCs. These of course were accompanied by copious amounts of the HK Ale - San Miguel! Life in the Colonies could not get much better.

But in fact it was to get dramatically worse as the Colony was faced with the infamous "67 riots" when Chairman Mao's Red Guards attempted to overcome HK, and almost succeeded. As I was still posted to the Police HQ I was required to help out in the communications centre. I well remember driving in my MGA through eerily deserted streets (there was a curfew) and reporting to the Comms centre. This was in the basement of PHQ where there were also camp beds to stretch out on when things were quiet. On one night things were quiet and I was indeed relaxing on a camp bed when I was aware of two tiny lights shining in the gloom. A radio I thought - but there were no radios there - it was in fact a very large rat calmly observing me....

I then had other departmental postings - and all most interesting. Civil Aviation department, Marine department. Secretary of the Town Planning Board. But possibly the most unusual and entertaining (if that's the word) was my job in the Pay Investigation Unit. This was set up to assist Gov't to set its pay scales in comparison with comparable jobs in the private sector and also within its own internal scales. This provided me with many adventures!

During my study of the Fire Services pay scales I was invited to go up in a snorkel - a mere 90 feet above ground - to 'get the feel of the job'. Quite a thrill. Then as a follow-up to this, I was called out at Sam to witness our courageous firemen dealing with a major fire in Hollywood Road - a very old part of Hong Kong. Happily, my assistance was not needed....

Then I was required to observe the Urban Services Dept's anti-malaria activities. This involved accompanying a team of coolies (aka labourers) up catchment areas which were hillside streams running downhill into reservoirs. The coolies would spray kerosene into what looked like possible mosquito breeding places and hope for the best. Of course all this was on a 90/90 summer day - 90F/90% humidity and blazing sunshine! Happily I survived but I can't vouch for the mosquitos...

P&O Oriana Leaving Hong Kong, 1997
One excursion while I was with the Transport department involved a trip up to the border to meet with Chinese officials there and discuss whether local farmers could be permitted to cross the border into Hong Kong territory with their 3-wheel motorised carts. Of course discussions were very polite and civilised and inevitably no objection was seen - all in the interests of friendly cooperation of course.

My final posting was to the Highways department and could not have come at a more fascinating time. Hong Kong was in the throes of building the new airport on Lantau Island and Highways department was deeply involved with the massive and dramatic structures going up (bridges) and down (tunnels). Never was I more aware of Hong Kong's "can do" attitude with its ability to deliver the most prodigious contracts on time and within budget.

My "Hong Kong connection" ended in March 1997 when I was privileged to sail back to the UK on what was dubbed by the media as the "last boat home". The "boat" was in fact the P&O Oriana and although there was more than a hint of sadness the voyage was a memorable way to end my career as a Colonial Civil Servant. Of course, only three months later Hong Kong was finally handed back to China.

map of British Empire
Map of Hong Kong, 1984
Colony Profile
Hong Kong
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 113 (April, 2017)


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