Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Hong Kong holiday

At 10 o'clock this morning, I walk out of our hotel, Hong Kong's original Mandarin, to get breakfast from the Starbucks a couple of minutes away. This is China's July 4th - National Day - and a major public holiday. Much of mainland China takes the whole week off work, but here in Hong Kong, business is only closed for a day. In the street outside the Mandarin's back entrance, the city's thousands of Filippina domestic helpers are already taking advantage of their well earned day of rest. They are beginning to gather in cheerful groups in every corner of the public spaces in the dense downtown area - Chater Road is closed to traffic for the day (as it is every Sunday and holiday), and I walk by gaggles of women who've set up camp on mats, in the shade of bus shelters, walkways or even on the concrete space under HSBC's Norman Foster tower. The HSBC spread is especially popular because it's shady all day and large enough to house hundreds of helpers. By midday, it'll be packed. Even at this early hour, I see women playing bingo, giving each other pedicures and practicing the tango. Later they will feast on elaborate picnics, chatter on cell phones to relatives back in the Philippines and show off family photos. And tonight there'll be music and fireworks over the harbor - I hope to have a good view of these since we're lucky enough to have a room on the twentieth floor with both water and city outlooks.

Mike is at the office (no rest in the news business), and I'll head out to the South side of the island for a swim and a walk around Stanley. Late afternoon yesterday, I took a ride up the Peak Tram - the island's funicular railway which has operated since 1888 and never ceases to amaze with its near-vertical ascent. Originally built for the British who lived in the colony's fanciest residences on the Peak, it's now so crowded with tourists that it's impractical to use it for a regular commute. At the top we have a favorite walk around the contours of the Peak, but yesterday I decided to follow a path I hadn't taken before - to walk all the way down the mountain to Central. I set off at 6pm down Old Peak Road, whose first stretch is car-free and drops down quickly through dense greenery. I'd forgotten how quickly night falls here, and by 6:30 it was growing dark but at least cooler, and quite a few walkers were out for their daily exercise. I knew I was approaching Mid-Levels because the apartment towers of this popular residential area were getting close. I turned right along Tregunter Path, which follows the contour towards May Road.

I learned from the GPS on my iPhone (there's a first for me!) that I'd soon be at Branksome Towers - an address of special significance because it was where my parents made their first home together after the war. Then it was a few stories high, and now of course it's a completely redeveloped modern tower but the position is unchanged - in a prime spot near the May Road station on the Peak Tram and (on a cool day) within walking distance of Central. I know from photos that Max and Audrey had an unobstructed view from their balcony down to the harbor - that has long since been sacrificed to the thicket of other buildings, but behind the apartments the hill is still green and nearby people still enjoy the pool and tennis courts of my parents' club, the Ladies Recreation Club.

Max was one of the first wave of British administrators to return to Hong Kong after the Japanese occupation ended in August 1945. He arrived in early October, to manage the restoration of civil air service at Kai Tak airport, and found a territory devastated by war and occupation, but one that would get back on its feet remarkably quickly. The very first British men and women to reassert control of the colony were those who'd never been allowed to leave, but had spent nearly four years interned in Stanley camp - sadly today I've learned of the death one of those great survivors, the father of a good friend. I'll be thinking of them as I go by Stanley today.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Tianjin to Hong Kong

Mike and I landed in Hong Kong last night, after a weekend in Tianjin where we attended the summer Davos - the World Economic Forum's get together of corporate leaders in Asia. Tianjin is the ultra modern face of China - a century ago the city was a trading port dominated by foreign concessions of the British, the Italians, the French and other western powers. Today the original port along the Hai River has long been supplanted by massive new docks at Tanggu, stretching out into the Yellow Sea on acres of reclaimed land. It's the closest port serving Beijing, now less than two hours away on a brand new expressway or even less by bullet train. TEDA, or the Tianjin Economic Development Area where the conference was held, couldn't be further from the winter Davos in the Swiss ski resort - this is a totally planned city, built at breakneck speed since 1984, on a scale that is difficult to imagine in Europe - efficient but soulless.

Tianjin is already the world's sixth largest port and has set its sights on overtaking Hong Kong and others in the top five. Right now, it doesn't have the unceasing traffic of the Hong Kong harbor but maybe the container ships are absorbed more quietly in Tianjin's vast expanses. Just as the conference participants seemed subdued in the cavernous new congress center, so different from the crush at Davos.

We were glad to get away, and reach Hong Kong, our home for two years from 2004 until 2006, for a week's stay before beginning a trip to a very different part of the mainland - the western region around Chongqing.

Let me explain what this, my first blog is about. As part of the research for a book I'm writing, I will be retracing a journey taken by my parents, Max and Audrey Oxford during World War II. They were a British couple who met and married in Chungking (as it was then known), the wartime capital of China. Each had reached the remote city, high up Yangtze river, by improbable and dangerous routes. My father, a former fighter pilot and RAF intelligence officer, landed in Chungking in January 1942 after escaping from Hong Kong under fire, on the day of the colony's surrender to Japan (more on this later in the week). My mother, Audrey Watson, who'd been a secretary for the SOE in London, decided in 1943 to accept a job at the British Embassy in Chungking and made a hair-raising eight week journey by sea and by air, skirting battle zones, and flying over the Hump of the Himalayas into free China. There she met my father, by then an air attache at the Embassy and after a whirlwind romance they were married in January 1944. My father was due to be posted back to England and in April 1944 my parents began another daunting journey, leaving Chungking by road to head south to Kunming in Yunnan province and then to fly again over the Hump and on to England. With my husband Mike, I'm revisiting Chongqing and retracing the 700 mile road trip to Kunming.