Thrilling Cities Redux: Hong Kong

Article by Graham M. Thomas (The author first visited Hong Kong in the 1980s, lived there during the 1990s, and still returns from time to time.)

Ian Fleming’s Thrilling Cities 1964.Almost sixty years ago, Ian Fleming set out on a world tour. Not to promote his books but because he had been asked by his employer The Sunday Times to write a series of thirteen scandalous essays on the world’s most thrilling cities. The year was 1959, and the first to fall under his scrutiny was Hong Kong.

In this occasional series of articles, various writers compare today’s experience with Fleming’s own encounter with these cities.

Fleming’s round-the-world ticket cost £803 19s and 2d. With inflation that sum would be worth around £13,000 today. What class he flew he does not say but it was likely First, and the equivalent ticket today would cost about £7,000. Yes, airfares have decreased in price.

On a rather dank November morning he boarded a BOAC Comet 4 G/ADOK (although either he or the printer made a mistake on the aircraft registration as BOAC Comets all had registrations beginning with AP -) flying from London Airport to Hong Kong, and stopping en-route at various places as in those days, flying non-stop was impossible. In fact, the Comet had first started flying this route some months earlier and it was only a few years later in 1965 that BOAC retired the plane from operational service. Thereafter VC10s followed by 747s were the most common aircraft on the route but today British Airways generally flies an Airbus A380.

For reading, Fleming had brought a proof copy of Eric Ambler’s Passage of Arms as in the Golden Age of Travel there were no inflight magazines nor inflight entertainment – other than seven course meals, limitless alcohol, and no rules regarding smoking including pipes and cigars. The novel is still available from all good bookstores or on-line and is an appropriate read for a trip to Asia.

The flight would last twenty-six hours, whereas today it would take about twelve, and he arrived Tuesday afternoon, landing at Kai Tak airport long known as enjoying one of the most hair-raising approaches in the world, with aircraft appearing to fly inches from the apartment blocks of Kowloon. (And this was not far from the truth.) Unfortunately the airport closed in 1998 and was replaced by a brand spanking new airport on the island of Chep Lap Kok with easy approaches across the South China Sea.

Hong Kong was a booming but densely crowded city in 1959. During the preceding decade Chinese migrants had poured over the border and while many of the squalid shanty towns had been torn down, the apartment blocks that had replaced them were densely built. The most notorious district was the Kowloon Walled City, a largely Triad infested and ungovernable area of 2 hectares with tens of thousands of residents. Fleming however was not staying here nor in a hotel but with Hugh and Rose Marie Barton, two close friends of his brother Peter. Hugh Barton was one of the most powerful men in the territory after the Governor as he headed up Jardine, the omnipresent trading company, and was a director of umpteen other organisations as well as having a seat on the colony’s Executive Council. Rose Marie was the daughter of the industrialist Vilhelm Meyer who had been a driving force behind the modernisation of industrial China in the first part of the twentieth century, and the two had met and married in Shanghai.

The Bartons (along with their daughter Susannah when she was not at school in the UK) lived in a grand villa on the slopes of Shek-O above Big Wave Bay in the south-east corner of Hong Kong Island. [A little bit of geography: Hong Kong was then and still is made of three distinct territories: Kowloon and the New Territories known by Old China Hands as the mainland as it is part of the China landmass; Hong Kong Island a short ferry ride from Kowloon is the seat of Government, the commercial centre, and where most of the ex-pats live; and thirdly the myriad of smaller islands scattered around the South China Sea.]

In the 1950s, the most well-off foreigners usually lived high on The Peak where the temperatures would be cooler, and so the Bartons were unusual in having a house that was in the south of the island. On the other hand, Big Wave Bay is one of the island’s prettiest and most accessible beaches, and Shek-o itself was a small traditional fishing village. It would have been a haven of tranquillity away from the bustle and noise of the city and perhaps this is why the Bartons decided to live there. Today it still retains much of the character that Fleming might well have noticed as he was driven to and fro, and villas owned by Jardine can be found in the area – although all are well set back from the road that passes through what is now a designated country park.

It is clear that Fleming fell in love with Hong Kong immediately, ‘the most vivid and exciting city I have ever seen’ is how he describes it, going on to say, ‘he would recommend it without reserve to anyone who possesses the fare.’ He cited the countryside, golf, horse racing, restaurants, and the cheap but excellent tailoring as all good reasons to come. All this is just as true today as it was then, though the prices are not such a bargain as they once were.

During his short stay in Hong Kong, his companion in crime was not Hugh Barton – who was far too well-mannered to be pounding the streets where Suzie Wong could be found – but Richard Hughes. (And much can be read about the formidable Mr Hughes within Literary 007.) Fleming spent the first night with the Bartons and so it was on the second night that the two men hit the streets of Hong Kong Island, with Fleming being immediately struck by the cacophony of neon light.

They kicked-off their evening in a bar run by an ex- Shanghai policeman called Jack Conder. This could be found 22A Queens Road Central but the place and address have long gone: torn down, the block turned into an office tower but appropriately with the very English Marks and Spencer on the ground floor. (See the separate article on the bar and Alcoholics Synonymous.)

In fact Central (and indeed most of Hong Kong Island) would now not be immediately recognisable to Fleming. Reclamation has pushed the sea front significantly closer to the mainland and Central itself is all but completely rebuilt and dominated by a magnificent grouping of skyscrapers. However, the madness of Hong Kong is still to the fore: the hoards of people rushing to and fro; the unique mix of China and the West; the tram system, the narrow streets filled with vendors, coolies and, sometimes, rickshaw drivers, the smells of cooking food, and that cacophony of neon light. If there were one big difference it would be that then, many of the Chinese would wear traditional dress but nowadays this is rare.

Also rare are English style pubs like Conder’s. Once two a penny, since the 1997 handover they have become less popular. A few can be found here and there but are mainly branded as the ubiquitous Irish bar. Nowadays, people seek flashy cocktails and cool bars not warm beer in old pubs although one or two can be found in Wanchai, the area of town where Fleming and Hughes went next.

Wanchai is within walking distance of Central but my guess is that Barton had supplied a car and driver to shuttle them around. Their destination was the  “American” Peking Restaurant at 20-24 Lockhart Rd. Nowadays this is one of Hong Kong’s oldest restaurants having opened in the 1950s. It had quickly become an institution: a guillo friendly establishment that served northern Chinese food in a way that suited the less than adventurous taste buds of the expat.  The ‘American’ moniker was added in the 1960s to make it more attractive to GIs who were visiting Hong Kong for R&R.

Peking Duck is the house dish but the sizzling prawns, and the minced pigeon with lettuce are also to be recommended. Fleming wrote that he ate, ‘Shark’s fin soup with crab, shrimp balls in oil, bamboo shoots with seaweed, chicken and walnuts, with, as a main dish, roast Peking duckling, washed down with mulled wine. Lotus seeds in syrup added a final gracious touch.’ If Fleming were to return, he would find that all these dishes could still be eaten today.

However, I do not believe he was drinking mulled wine as we know it, but rather Huangjiu a Chinese alcoholic beverage that comes in many forms but can be quite dark and sweet, and can be drunk warm.

Among the things that Richard Hughes brought up in conversation was the grave lack of hotels, something that Hugh Barton would help to alleviate within a few years when he led the plan to build the Mandarin Oriental in Central. Hughes also confided that Japanese mistresses were better than Chinese  – an irony as he would marry many years later Oiying (Ann) Lee, the daughter of a Chinese general who had served in Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army. But by then he had probably forgotten this conversation. He confided too that the latest scandal in Hong Kong was the proliferation of massage parlours and the blue cinemas (with colour and sound!) that flourished in Kowloon. Prostitutes could be found roaming the aisles of these cinemas offering their services before (and most definitely after) porn films were shown. Live sex shows were common and it was said that they were filmed before being reshown on the big screen.

Hughes or Fleming might have been exaggerating that this was a scandal: prostitution has always been legal in Hong Kong, only the way it is carried out is controlled, and blue films were never banned, and no film had a classification so any films could be projected. So the world of Suzie Wong that they visited next was indeed a real world even if Miss Wong herself was something of a myth.

Fleming was an admirer both of Richard Mason’s novel, The World of Suzie Wong, and A Many Splendoured Thing by Han Suyin. He appeared to be attracted to the idea of a Western man falling in love with a Chinese or Eurasian girl possibly because he thought it was, as he described it, ‘an unpopular topic with the great union of British womanhood.’

In order to get a sense of the myth first hand, Fleming and Hughes paid a visit to the Luk Kwok Hotel, renamed in Mason’s book as the Nam Kok House of Pleasure. Mason had stayed in the hotel when writing the novel, building the story around the painter Robert Lomax who befriended and, after much misadventure, finally marries the prostitute Suzie Wong.

Fleming found that the Luk Kwok Hotel was thriving – as it does still to this day. However, the hotel on the Gloucester Road is not the original, which was demolished in 1987 having opened in 1933, but a new boutique hotel.  Fleming’s description is vivid but the hotel today is unrecognisable and seemingly is reluctant to play on its literary heritage.

‘Solitary girls may still not sit unaccompanied in the spacious bar with its great and many-splendoured juke-box. You must still bring them in from outside, as did Lomax, to prevent the hotel becoming, legally, a disorderly house. But the whole place has been redecorated in deep battleship grey (to remind the sailors of home?) and one of Messrs Collins’s posters advertising Richard Mason’s book has a place of honour on the main wall. Other signs of prosperity are a huge and hideous near-Braque on another wall, a smart Anglepoise light over the cash register, and a large bowl of Siamese fighting fish.’

Fleming was asked whether he would like to meet a friend of Suzie’s, as Suzie herself was now a recluse but he turned down the offer, and decided to return to the comfort of the Barton’s villa for the night.

The next day would be spent in the Portuguese territory of Macau before both men flew on to Tokyo.

At the end of the chapter, Fleming noted that in forty years time, the lease on the New Territories would come to an end but he thought that while the British would hand back this land to the Chinese, he said ‘I see no reason why a reduced population should not retreat to the islands and the original territory which we hold in perpetuity.’

His prediction proved incorrect. This was not the deal that Mrs Thatcher struck with the Chinese government in 1985. Instead the British handed over the whole of Hong Kong in 1997 but to be fair this was after long and tense negotiations where the Chinese position since the outset had been that they wanted to take back control of all the territory. In the end the British Government held little negotiating power and had little choice.

Incidental Intelligence

As a postscript to each chapter, the publisher included a section that listed various hotels, restaurants and bars that visitors might like to consider when visiting the city. I have listed these and added a comment or two:

Hotels

The Peninsula. Still thriving and the grande dame of Hong Kong hotels even if now it is not quite at the top of the pile.

Miramar. Long gone in its original form but replaced by the Mira Hotel in the same location.

The Gloucester. At a time when there were few hotels in Hong Kong, this was rated as being just behind the Peninsula in terms of accommodation. Those days are past, and it is now a new small boutique hotel offering mid-priced rooms.

The Repulse Bay Hotel. Sadly the hotel was demolished in 1982 although a part was retained and is now a complex with apartments, retail outlets and some decent restaurants. Few concubines now eat there but the view over Repulse Bay can be equally dazzling.

Eating

For Western food, the Marco Polo in the Peninsula Court is the most expensive restaurant and can sometimes be the best. Gaddi’s, off the Peninsula ground-floor marble lobby, is also recommended. The Peninsula is still renowned for its breadth and quality of restaurants, and remarkably Gaddi’s still exists serving French food albeit in a new location on the 1st Floor rather than off the Lobby.

The Parisian Grill (the ‘P.G.’) is the oldest and best-known restaurant, jam-packed at lunch. This was on Queen’s Road Central and had been opened prior to the Second World War by Emile Landau. When the Japanese occupied Hong Kong, it was a favourite of the officer class.  An American newspaper in 1953 gave the following description, which I like as it sums up eating habits of the time: ‘The most famous restaurant in Hong Kong is the Parisian Grill, known, intriguingly, as the “PG.” Its manager is Harry Paunzen, a Viennese. World travellers claim, it has no peer anywhere. It goes in for international cooking and everybody who lands in Hong Kong rushes there for its many specialties. Its onion soup and steaks are gold medal-winners.

Other specialties include sweetbreads with cream sauce, curries, Viennese sweet kraut, lentils with vinegar and sugar, and Chicken Kiev. The PG’S Russian menu has such items as Beef Stroganoff, steak in cream, Beefsteak Tartare, and Lamb shashlik. A popular soup is Pelmeni, a consomme with small balls of meat encased in light pastry. Eating is on the luxury side but actually inexpensive. For example, a businessman’s lunch reads: “Mulligatawny soup, broiled mackerel and mustard sauce, goulash of veal with buttered noodles, pineapple fritters and coffee.” Cost is $1.

Jimmy’s Kitchen was an institution in the late 1950s having served food since 1928 and is still going strong today. Its menu covers a broad range of international dishes including Chinese, British, French and various other European dishes. Stars of the stage and screen, the noble and the ignoble have graced its tables over the years.

Maxim’s was opened in 1956 by Dr James Tak Wu and was both a French restaurant and, in the evening, a place to dance. The company has expanded significantly over the years but the original Maxim’s is no more.

The best and biggest martinis in the colony are served in the Mexican bar in the Gloucester Hotel – but this bar no longer exists. No worries! Hong Kong has more groovy cocktail bars than you can shake a stick at.

All visitors want to eat on the floating restaurants at Aberdeen. And tourists still flock to them, although they are just that: tourist traps.

Dinner at the Carlton, four miles out of Kowloon on the main road to the New Territories, unfolds one of the world’s most memorable panoramas: the jewelled lights of Kowloon, the harbour and the island. This restaurant is also long gone but there are plenty of restaurants perched on high where the views are stupendous.

Chinese food

The range and quality of Chinese cuisine in Hong Kong are matched only in Taipeh. Beggar’s chicken at the Tien Hong Lau in Kowloon is incomparable; if possible, it should be ordered the day before.  And yes the restaurant is still operating at No.18C Jusixun Road and is renowned for its food from around the Shanghai and Hanzhou region. However, the family who established it in the 1950s are no longer the owners.

Peking duck is the speciality of the Princess Garden in Kowloon in fact in the Princess Theatre Building on Nathan Road. The Beatles played in the theatre in 1965 but the whole building was demolished in 1973. The restaurant was also mentioned in Denis Wheatley’s Bill for a Use of a Body.

The Ivy (on the island) was said to serve exotic Szechuanese-style food but this place is no more. Also gone is the Café de Chine served Cantonese-style dishes in the heart of Victoria and which was once one of Hong Kong’s best known restaurants. Another that has disappeared is the Tai Tung renowned for one dish: roast sucking pig à la Cantonese

Night Life

The prettiest girls and the best bands tend to be in places like the Tonnochy Ballroom on Tonnochy Road in Wanchai. The ballroom (and then club) closed in the early 2000s and a new entertainment tower was built with a new club now known as the Tonno Club.

The Golden Phoenix (on the island) was another place to dance and where, I once read, a young and unknown Bruce Lee was a dance champion. It later moved to a new location on Nathan Road, Kowloon.

The publishers pointed out that there are are scores of brash and noisy bars along Lockhart Street and in Wanchai and North Point (on the island) and throughout the back lanes of Kowloon, some of which, when the navies are in port, are a dim echo of Shanghai’s old Blood Alley. Visiting Navies are less frequent now but these types of bars are still to be found in Wanchai and to a lesser extent on North Point. Blood Alley (officially named Rue Chu Pao San) was a short road just off the Bund.  It was a place full of sailors from across the world looking for the lowest forms of entertainment possible. Blood Alley was so called because of the frequent fights between foreign sailors and soldiers, especially when international tensions were running high.

Although not featured in the prim official tourist handbooks, small sampans at Causeway Bay offer a mild variation of the old Shanghai and Canton flower-boat entertainment as once available in the dear dead days before the coming of Mao Tse-Tung. A curtain gives the passengers privacy from the pilot, and the sampan either drifts with wind and current in seclusion, or moves, as desired, to floating markets and teashops and rafts of singers and musicians. (Tariff: about HK$1 an hour or up to HK$10 for the night.)

Unfortunately such boats are now long gone and only a handful of sampans are left in Causeway Bay whereas once there were over 40,000 living on the boats engaged across a variety of trades. Those left can be hired for short trips out into the harbour but they are definitely not flower boats.

Read more from Graham

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3 thoughts on “Thrilling Cities Redux: Hong Kong

  1. Fabulous article.
    I always stay at ‘The Peninsula ‘ in an island facing room but would dispute that it is no longer ‘top of the pile’ – it is the pile and has more character that the rest put together.
    Fleming was correct. It was and remains a thrilling city !

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