Friday, June 17, 2005

The Wonders of Wanchai

Many people have told us, why don't you guys do a Wanchai walk? You can talk about all the nightspots! Oh, and erm, the history too.

We've thought of it many times, particularly since Wanchai does indeed have a very fascinating history. Before the division artificially created by the army base and naval station in Admiralty, many initially thought Wanchai would make a fine area for European settlement. Those of you who know Wanchai well may know that near the famous Lee Tung Street, soon to be defunct home for the stores of Wedding Card sellers (check out Mark Greene's new website on Lee Tung Street) there is an innocuous, shabby, run-down street of character called Spring Garden Lane. On that lane was once the first house for the Governor of Hong Kong! Back then of course, there was a spring and a rather nice garden. Hence the name.

But of course, the history most people really want to hear about in Wanchai is that of its reputation as a louche gathering place for servicemen on their R&R breaks, or even for the Japanese troops once garrisoned here. That in itself was a fascinating episode in Hong Kong's history. In the 1920s and 1930s, a number of Japanese-owned and managed brothels and massage parlours sprang into existence in this neighborhood, catering to the tired and weary soldiers of His Majesty's Service. It was discovered later, to the Allied Commanders' horror, that the reason the Japanese were able to break through the gin drinkers' line and the Shing Mun redoubt so quickly, and target the British artillery so well during the invasion, was because of the excellent Japanese spy network in Hong Kong. This, of course, included the Japanese courtesans that worked in these brothels, gathering invaluable intelligence from British servicemen for their compatriots on the other side of the Lo Wu border. So successful, in fact, that the Japanese troops became their customers by the end of 1941.

Let me close today with a short excerpt from the excellent Richard Mason from his World of Suzie Wong, which you must buy and read if you have not already. He arrived in Hong Kong in 1956, during the interregnum between the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. Here he describes his protagonist's search for a cheap boarding house in Wanchai:

"I leant on the sun-warmed stone. A rickshaw went by, the coolie's broad grimy feet making a slapping sound on the road. Then my eyes fell on an illuminated sign amongst the shops. The blue neon tubes were twisted into the complicated, decorative shapes of Chinese characters. I recognised the last two. They meant hotel.

Well, that looks more my cup of tea, I thought. And right on the waterfront. Of course it would be perfect. So perfect that there must be a snag. Still there's no harm in trying.

I got up and crossed the quay, and turned into the entrance under the blue neon. And still not a suspicion passed my mind. Indeed the hall gave the impression of such solid respectability, with the middle-aged clerk behind the reception counter, the old-fashioned rope-operated lift, the potted palms at the foot of the stairs, that I was reminded of some old family hotel in Bloomsbury, and felt discouraged. It was all wrong for the waterfront of Wanchai - and anyhow would probably be too expensive after all.

I approached the desk and asked the clerk, "How much are rooms by the month?"


The clerk's fingers paused over the beads of his abacus: he had been making calculations from figures in his ledger, as though playing some musical instrument from a score. His Chinese gown, like a grey priest's cassock, gave him an old-fashioned appearance in keeping with the potted palm, the antiquated lift. His head was shaven, and he had several silver teeth.

"Month?" he repeated.

"Yes, don't you have monthly terms?"

"How long you want to stay?"

"Well, it would be a month at least..."

He gave me an odd look, then dubiously began a new calculation on the abacus. The beads clicked up and down under his fingertips.

"Two hundred and seventy dollars," he announced at last.

"A month?"

"Yes - month."

The Hong Kong dollar was worth one shilling and three pence, so that was about seventeen pounds - a little dearer than Sunset Lodge, but with cheap meals I could just afford it. I asked to see a room, and the clerk called one of the floorboys on the telephone while I went to the lift....


Madame Chiang said...

I love the opening scenes of that film...when he is crossing the Star Ferry and getting off in Central...some much is the same...and yet so much is different compared to HK today.

Dave and Stefan said...

Dear Madame Chiang,

Apologies for not replying to your message earlier! Indeed, for those of us resident in Hong Kong, being able to watch a film like that is a real treat. If you are also a fan of Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing, you can still find the pavillion where Morrison met with Han Suyin at the Realty Gardens property on Conduit Road...