Tag: Hong Kong (page 1 of 4)

The reluctant school volunteer

Dear Karen,

Years ago, I worked in at Glenealy Junior School in Hong Kong.  I didn’t mean to work there.  I didn’t even particularly want to.

But my darling son, aged 6, thought it was a great idea to volunteer me for every school outing, party and in-class event that came down the pike.  I’d helped out in his older sisters’ classes, so I was guilted into helping out in his as well.

To be honest, I’d hoped that by the time my youngest child toddled off to school, I’d be released from School Mum Duty.  No such luck. Continue reading

Around the world in…well, 365 days.

Dear Karen,

Since our epic Week of Family Archiving, I’ve been busy transcribing a packet of rather special letters.

Going through our great-grandmother’s correspondence has been a fascinating way to spend a week. It’s taken me that long to get through her Victorian scrawl and style—the Victorians had a great aversion to full-stops, commas, and the word “and,” preferring to use “+” instead, which can be awfully confusing to someone not used to it.

Like me.


This was taken in 1922, 11 years after their world tour. Their age difference is really clear, though.

To clarify, this is Nana’s mother we’re talking about—Katharine Appleton. From all the photos I’ve seen of her, she was a stern, unsmiling and broomstick-up-the-bum type of woman.

But reading the letters she wrote from on board a 365 days’ journey around the world (all addressed to Dr. Davie, her family physician and confidant), I’ve changed my mind.

Some background:

Katharine was 20 years younger than her husband, Frederick. She was born in Victoria, to an Irish shopkeeper and his Scottish wife. Shortly after her father’s death from stomach cancer, she married Fred.

By the time they married, Fred had already travelled the world—born in Manchester, he’d been to places like Egypt and South Africa, and was quite happy to settle in Victoria, a quiet place where he hoped to spend the rest of his life.

To Katharine, though, Victoria was the “same-old-same-old,” and she was thrilled at the opportunity to escape its confines.

Old Fred knocked his noggin in an accident of the equine variety, and it was recommended by Dr. Davie that the family take a sea journey to fix what ailed him. As one does. I suppose the letters to him were ostensibly to keep the good doctor up to date on Frederick’s condition, as this was mentioned a few times en route.

Otherwise, I think the letters were a diary of sorts for Katherine, a way of pouring out her emotions to a faceless friend.

To put things into perspective, these letters were written in 1911. Katherine mentions it takes over 14 days to sail from Victoria BC to Yokohama. Nowadays that’s about a 9-hour flight. Just saying.

Their ship set sail 28 December, 1910. Katharine wrote her first letter 5 days later. Her final letter (that we know of) was written in July of 1911. At that point, the family was in England and contemplating their homeward journey, which would involve sailing across the Atlantic to Canada, at which point they would have to board a train to Victoria. I assume they didn’t reach their little house in Victoria until September of that year.


After spending some time in Japan, they sailed to Manila.

“Manila was a horrible place, so very warm but while there we saw the volcano Taal  in eruption, a wonderful sight and the sky was full of lightning for hours after the explosion. Everyone wears white in this part of the world, nothing else is possible. We had a week at Manila, the longest stop, so far and we went on shore nearly every day and bought some of the native things, their Panama hats are splendid and we all invested in them.”

It’s interesting that Katharine and her fellow passengers watched the eruption in the same way that we watch fireworks: with awe and a degree of delight. At no point does she mention the suffering the volcano might bring, although she does note in passing that she’s heard the city nearby might be extinct by morning. 1,335 people died because of the eruption.




I can guess she and her mother are standing near the King Edward statue in the gardens, which was about a 10 minute walk from my home on Old Peak Road. The photo quality is terrible, but you get the general idea….

“Hong Kong is such a pretty island, very hilly and picturesque, with lots of barracks and soldiers, and such a tropical growth everywhere, and lovely flowers etc in full bloom in January. Our ship always anchors out in the harbor but the company has a launch at each place we call at and we always get ashore to see the sights. The first day or half day rather, we went on a cable car up the most awful height to the Summit or highest point of the island, and when the car could climb no more, we got into Sedan Chairs with 3 bearers”.

How fun it is that Nana and her family were in Hong Kong 75 years ahead of me. She visited again, in the early 1960s and one final time, for her 90th birthday.


As entertaining as flying fish, volcanic eruptions and Panama hats must be, I’m sure life on board could be a little tedious, which is why Katharine must have been so excited when someone suggested a party. With costumes! Whee!


Frankly, we think Fred looks a bit like a modern-day hipster. Maybe he was further ahead of his time than we suspect?

“Mr and Mrs Davis (related to the Blue Funnel ship owners) are trying to arrange a fancy dress dance on the way through the Indian Ocean and we have no objection as they will supply the costumes. They have spent several thousand dollars on a wonderful collection of old Mandarin robes, they are simply gorgeous and Japanese costumes, all sorts. They are very rich people, I am told, and have no children… The preparations for the fancy dress dance are going on apace and as they are short of ladies some of the men are to be dressed in ladies clothes and are having dancing lessons every evening, some had never danced before and such a thing is unheard of on a ship of this sort.”

The ball was a complete success, as Katharine mentions a few letters later:

We had the ball, it was most funny and the ingenious costumes the officers contrived for themselves, we had a gramophone for music and even got my husband in to a costume, it was all so amusing that we had photos taken the next day in costume.”

After visiting Singapore, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and and sailing through the Suez, they’d reached the halfway point of their journey.

At one point, camels were spotted by Nana and her brother. Katharine observes, “a number of camels with nothing for them to eat for miles around. One of the children asked an officer how they fed and he said “oh they put green goggles on them and they eat the sand” and so they have been crammed with all sorts of rubbish and information of sorts.”

I love this paragraph, it puts a human face on the family, showing the children to be silly and perhaps a little gullible, and Katharine to be good-humoured mother.


Not only did Katharine beat me to Hong Kong, but also to London. It’s a peculiar feeling to think Nana, her brother and her parents were walking through the Wallace Collection 91 years ahead of me. To think I live a mere 10 minute walk from there.

That’s twice now, that she’s been somewhere before me! It’s hard to be an innovative traveller when your grandmother’s been there almost a century before you.

“In London again, we went to see the Wallace Collection of Art – a private house, donated to the nation, and just overflowing with lovely paintings and china and old french furniture and clocks of every age and description. The Sevres China is said to be the best collection in the world…”


The Wallace Collection, about 2 days ago. It’s more or less as it must have looked when Nana and her family were here…without the cars, I think.

At one point, Frederick leaves her in London, and goes up to Manchester to visit his relatives. She has a wonderful time without him.

They behaved as modern-day tourists, visiting Madame Tussaud’s, the Brompton Oratory, Harrods Departmental Store, Tate Art Museum, St Paul’s Cathedral (where Katharine was disappointed in the quality of the singing, commenting that she’d always heard “how beautiful their singing was”), and finally, a night at the theatre. She happened to see the great actor of the day, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree in Henry VIII, playing Cardinal Wolsey.

And lucky thing, she got to see a coronation.


“We had a splendid view of the whole procession and the troops of soldiers were a wonderful sight for me. Lord Kitchener looks a splendid soldier, on horseback and some of the Indian officers looks gorgeous and ride splendidly. Fred would not go to see it, at all and gave his card away, but I took the children, of course all they have seen is a great education for them, but will not help them out in an arithmetic exam at school…
I think I told you I had seen the German Emperor and his wife and daughter and since then, the Crown Prince and his wife, who were here for the coronation. The 17 year old Prince of Wales is a small boy and his 14 year old sister is very tall and looks about 17 or 18.”

Of course she’s talking about Frederick III and his wife Vicky ( eldest child of Queen Victoria) and their son, the future Kaiser Wilhelm. At this time, Europe was at peace, but give it 3 more years and all hell was about to break loose.


There’s some regret and sadness in Katharine’s letters too. I had no idea that she had longed to live in England again, yet Frederick had no interest in moving.

“I don’t think for a moment that we will make a home here. My husband is more of a Canadian now, than I am, and I have to use my best persuasion to prevent him from going right back without a glance at England beyond our first stay in London, which he detested.”

Katharine valiantly tried to persuade him to send their children to school there, and arranged tours of Eton and Harrow, but he would not be swayed.

That must have rankled her terribly.

Poor Katharine. Still a young, healthy woman, she has a sick, aging husband, has already lost one child, and has little say in her own life.

“I find I still have a large capacity for enjoying things but Fred detests London and the people and the life, generally, and just longs to get back to to some old farm in BC, so the sooner we go, the better and the next time I set up traveling I will certainly leave him at home.”

Well. There you have it.

As the letters go by, they cease to be travelogues but instead become words from a private journal.

She lived for another 24 years and to my knowledge, never travelled again.




A box of memories: Things we save to remember who we were

Dear Karen,

I have a treasure chest, full of invaluable objects and beloved trinkets.  To anyone else, they’re old, faded, plastic and worth maybe a buck on the open market.

But to me, they’re priceless.

When I was a young thing, as in under 20, my best friend gave me a cigar box for my birthday.  It was blue with a brilliant rainbow on the lid and she advised me to put my precious trinkets inside.  I did exactly that and 35 years later, I still have that box.  I don’t look inside all that often, but when I do, it’s like opening a time capsule.


Not bad looking, considering it’s been through 11 moves over the years.

Inside are a bundle of “important missives” between Lars and myself.  You don’t get to see those, I’m afraid.

Pawing around inside, I see I’ve saved a hairbrush from the 80s, a time when I believed there was no such thing as a bad perm.

A parrot brooch.

A Valentine’s note from the weird guy who used to sit opposite me at work.  A bizarre note, from the same guy, saying cryptically, “it was nice working with you…”

Shudder.  Maybe I should burn those last two.

Buttons!  I went through a phase of wearing buttons on my jacket, to show my fervour for a particular rock group or to show my political affiliation.  We were a serious bunch, back in the day.


My love for this group has not waned over the years. Far from it.


Although I am a peacenik at heart, I think I wore this to annoy our parents, to be honest.


A rainbow, dove and threatening phallic symbol: this button has it all.

My best friend gave me this next item as well.

I haven’t smoked since last century (that sounds a little weird, right?), but I’ve kept the lighter she gave me when I turned 20.

How can I be so sure when she gave it to me? Easy, she had it engraved with the date.


This lighter screams “made in the 80s”:  it’s sleek, gold and bold.  The only thing missing is super-large shoulder pads.

In 2003, SARS brought Hong Kong to a standstill.


There’s a 4th ticket from this event that’s gone missing: His Purple Majesty, Prince.

It was a very scary time, which I’ve written about before so I won’t bring you down by discussing it here. Struggling to get back on its feet again, the city hosted Harbour Fest, to show the world that we may have been hurting, but we were getting stronger every day.

Finally, a doll that Aunt Paula giving me when I was a small girl.

“This little doll isn’t to be played with”, she told me, “it’s a Lullabye Doll and it will help you fall asleep at night”.

This doll is actually a music box with arms, legs and an adorable head.  When the music box is wound, Brahms’ Lullabye is played and the baby doll turns its head slowly and its body moves.

That sounds incredibly creepy, but honestly, it’s not.  I tried to wind it up just now, but it seems the music has died.  That makes me sad.  I loved my little doll and didn’t listen too carefully to Aunt Paula’s admonitions:  this dolly got played with and often.


My baby doll. She lives in my scarf drawer, cocooned in a world of softness.

Aside from my family, these are the things I’d try to rescue if my house were on fire.  The memories and feelings each of them evoke are immeasurable.  They tell me who I was and who I wanted to be.

Do you have a treasure box as well?  What’s in yours?  Don’t say wool!



Oh Christmas Skunk, Oh Christmas Skunk!

Happy holidays!

Dear Karen,

When our children were small, we had a very traditional, beautiful Christmas tree. Tasteful ornaments, just the right amount of tinsel, glowing fairy lights and best of all, a magnificent golden star on the very top.


Beautiful Danish Christmas tree topper

That star served us well, through many years of gift-giving and eggnog-drinking. It topped all our Christmas trees, except when we celebrated in Whistler.

The first time we were there in December, I thought how easy it would be to get a tree (hey, we were in the Great White North – one thing I was sure of, was that trees were plentiful), so sent the family off skiing one day while I set about trying to find a local place where trees were undoubtedly for sale.

After many hours of searching, both on foot and on the phone, I discovered the unimaginable:  there were no trees to be had anywhere!

Disappointed but undeterred, I went to the shops to buy ornaments, figuring that at least I’d decorate the living room. I’d obviously seen too many episodes of McGyver (he can make anything using only a paper clip, elastic band and a penny), because I have no skill when it comes to making a 6-foot tree out of a TV and cocktail napkins.

Hours later, I came home with just about the tackiest ornaments and strings of red baubles I could find. I think I was going for an “ironic kitsch” look. I was obviously delusional, but by the time I’d finished, I thought I’d done a pretty good job.


Gillian and Lars doing their best to look like a Christmas Lamp is a normal thing to find in their living room.

My children, as young as they were, mocked me, and worse yet, mocked my lamp. I told them that as long as there were presents underneath, they weren’t allowed to judge.

The following year, we were back in Hong Kong and I discovered that our beautiful star, along with all our other ornaments, had gone missing. We never knew how or why, we only know it was there one year and gone the next. I was devastated and definitely not feeling in the mood to go buy another star.

Gillian came to the rescue, probably fearful that I’d make another Christmas Lamp. She ran into her room, searched through her Beanie Babies and found a little skunk. Continuing her search, my creative daughter found an angel dress with golden wings and dressed the skunk, turning it from ordinary Beanie Baby stuffed skunk toy to…Skunkie, Our Christmas Angel.


Isn’t she cute? S’okay, no need to answer. Yes, she is.

I admit to laughing when I saw Skunkie on the tree that first year. She has been with us every year since, either in Whistler or Hong Kong and now, London. I couldn’t imagine Christmas without her, just like I can’t imagine Christmas without my children.


Ugly tree but beautiful angel!

Skunkie has watched over us with her black, beady and loving eyes, high up on her perch, sometimes with a little Blu-Tack up her bum, sometimes with staples through her wings. She’s probably the most photographed skunk in the world, and definitely the best-dressed.

We used Blu-Tack, string and staples to hold her up that year.

We used Blu-Tack, string and staples to hold her up that year.

♪O Christmas Skunk, O Christmas Skunk, how beautiful are your stripe and beady eyes and angel wings!♪

Not what you’d call a traditional Christmas song? That’s okay, I guess we’re not the traditional family either.

Wendy and Skunkie

The world's first ever jet-setting skunk!

A little droopy this year, because Kirsten isn’t here. From this vantage point, though, Skunkie can keep an eye on the marauding cats below.

Nana joins Facebook!

Dear Karen,

You might find this hard to believe, but our dead grandmother is posting photos on Facebook today.

Say what?

You heard me.  She’s posting photos.  Of her life.  On a Hong Kong Facebook page.

She’s actually using me to channel her thoughts and activities, and she’s damned efficient about it, too. Perhaps I’ll get her to teach me a few things about Twitter and Pinterest; she really seems to have the knack.

Let’s go back a bit here. Nana, our sainted grandmother who had a wicked wit and temper to match, died on August 8, 1994, four years short of her 100th birthday.

She had a very interesting life, full of the usual ups and downs you’d expect of an Edwardian woman living in Victoria, BC. In 1911, under doctor’s orders, her family took a world cruise which was supposed to cure her father’s injured skull; he’d had a dreadful accident while riding his horse and as everyone knows, world cruises cure everything. So off they went, sailing to, among other places in the world, Hong Kong.


Here she is, in the Botanical Gardens of HK. We lived a 2-minute walk away from where she was standing.

She grew up as a member of the Silent Generation and lost beloved childhood friends and boyfriends to the Great War.

She married our grandfather, but I wish she’d had a word with his first wife about why that that marriage didn’t last.  If she had, I’d like to think she would have run in the opposite direction as fast as possible, as Edward wasn’t exactly a prince among men.

Sadly, their first daughter died of pneumonia, aged 6 months.  Two years later, Dad came rolling along and Nana dedicated herself to him and his welfare.  She was a good mother, but as her marriage proved at least as rocky as Edward’s first, she found herself alone and in charge of a little boy, with almost no money and certainly no support from his side of the family. That was tough, for both her and for Dad.


Nana wants us to know it was milk in that bottle, not beer.


Nana was a bit of a snob and desperately hoped Dad wouldn’t become a labourer. Reading the bumps on his head seemed to prove he would be an academic when he grew up.

Years go by, Dad meets and marries Mum, they have 3 children and at some point in those years, Nana comes into a lovely little inheritance, courtesy of one of her cousins.  So, what does she do?  Buy government bonds?  Put it away in her pension fund?  Hide it under the mattress?

Nope.  She books a trip to Tokyo and Hong Kong, packs her fur stole, and flies on TWA to Asia, to re-live that wonderful trip she’d had with her family over 50 years earlier.


Nana, resplendent in her red lippy, suit and fur stole, heading out for dinner aboard a sampan.


Handling her chopsticks with great skill, Nana looks perfectly confident and happy to be here.


Photo probably taken at one of the many open-air markets of Hong Kong, 1963.


Her sober comment: US warships in harbour. I suppose they were on leave from duty in Vietnam?

In 1986, through sheer co-incidence, I moved to Hong Kong and 2 years later, on her 90th birthday, Nana came out to visit us.  She had the same enthusiasm and sparkle in her eyes I imagine she had the first two times she’d been there.  We took her to a lot of the places she’d been before and I’ll never forget her standing on a street in Tsim Sha Tsui, pointing at a shop and saying “that’s where I bought all my napkins and table linens in 1963″.  She had a mind as sharp as a tack, Nana did.


Nana has instructed me to say: See James B. Tan amongst the other signs.


2 Hakka women, looking much the same today as they did back in ’63


This looks like Aberdeen to me, but I can’t be sure. Nana is silent on this one, she says she’s getting a martini and can’t talk right now.

I think Nana would have done well in this new age of technology.  Nothing seemed to scare her and she was always surprising us with her willingness to try something new.  That’s why it must come as no surprise to you that I’m channelling her this week.

Also, and I think this will send a chill down your spine, this is the 50th anniversary of her second trip to Hong Kong.  She was 13, then 65, then 90, when she visited.

Nana wasn’t one to let a man, a pastry cart, or an anniversary go by unnoticed. She hopes you like the photos and remember the toys and clothes she brought back with her. She also says to eat lots of butter—apparently,  “margarine sucks”.



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