“Soon we were in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has a very compact geography with a very high population density, four million people when we lived there (seven and a half million now), with the peninsula of Kowloon opposite Hong Kong Island, forming a large, well-protected harbor for commerce.
There are very few single family houses in Hong Kong. Everybody, rich and poor, lives in high rise buildings. The average when we were there was about 20 stories tall, though the buildings built since are double that and more in height. There were roughly 5,000 US citizens in Hong Kong when I lived there, most of them business people, and many of them wealthy.
We lived in a 24 story apartment tower called Borrett Mansions, in an area of Hong Kong Island called ‘mid-levels’. We were about halfway up the steep slope facing the harbor, allowing for amazing views. We could easily see across the sweep of the harbor, to Kowloon, and the peaks called the Nine Dragons that separate Kowloon from the New Territories. All of the skyscrapers were built into steep rock hillsides, except for those near the water on reclaimed land.
There were excellent transportation options also, so that we would often walk down pedestrian flights of stairs to get downtown, and ride the Peak Tram from downtown back up to the road we lived on. The Peak Tram is a vehicular railway that travels up the side of Hong Kong Island, to a gap near its highest point, Victoria Peak (known as ‘The Peak’). We would often ride it as transportation, and sometimes just for the views, traveling up a 45 degree incline, at least, looking out over the high-rise buildings, down to the harbor sprinkled with ships, and ferries running back and forth, then to Kowloon, with its walls of high-rises too, flanked by the mountains to the west.
We lived in a four bedroom apartment, with wooden floors and a large living/dining area. It was furnished with the furniture that mom had bought in Indonesia, and had followed us from the Philippines. After everyone else went to bed, I used to enjoy sitting out on the balcony around two in the early morning with a bowl of cream of chicken soup and a tube of saltine crackers, and eat my snack watching the quiet neon-lit city and harbor beneath me.
Across the harbor Kai Tak International Airport was located on a strip of land immediately in front of a wall of what were known as resettlement flats (housing refugees from Communist China – the border was not yet open), making for very tricky approaches by the aircraft. I could watch the planes take off and land from our balcony. One time a plane slid off the end of the runway. No one was hurt. The first thing the airline did was cover up its logo on the damaged plane’s tail. The airport has since been relocated.
We attended school on the other side of the island in an area called Repulse Bay. The school was run by the Lutheran Church and called Hong Kong International School, or HKIS. There were 450 students, K through 12, so it was small – mostly kids from the US, some from Europe and Canada, and a few from Hong Kong itself and neighboring Asian countries. Like everyplace else in Hong Kong, the school was multi-story, and built into a hill. Seven floors tall, with the road in curving up around the school into a courtyard flanked by the upper four floors.
Being a religious school, we wore uniforms and attended chapel once a week. Other than that it was like any other school, with smoking in the stairwells (guilty!), and the girls always trying to shorten their uniform dresses. Given that it was the late 1960’s, we even had a protest and abolished the hair length regulations for boys. Such radicals. Many of the students came from wealthy families, and it was not uncommon to see children popping out of stretch limos, with a chauffeur holding the door. My brothers and I took a van to school and back, that carried all the kids on our street. It was about 45 minutes each way.
After we became familiar with the island, we would sometimes stay after school at the beach, and catch a bus home later. The buses were red double-deckers, like those in London (Hong Kong was still a British Colony, until 1997), and we always rode up top. There was a noodle house just down the hill from school and we used to congregate there at lunchtime. The beach was just beyond that, and we would spend a lot of time in the summers on the sand. My parents bought a Sailfish sailboat, which was basically a large surfboard, made of fiberglass, with an aluminum mast, a single nylon sail, with a wooden rudder and dagger-board. It was kept at Repulse Bay Beach, and we had a lot of fun on it.
There was often an offshore breeze from the beach, and I would lie down on the Sailfish, tie down the sail and steer with my feet as I sailed away from the beach into the South China Sea. It was like flying over the water. During severe weather my brother Bill and I would sometimes go out, inevitably capsizing, and a couple of times snapping the rudder and bending the mast as we tried to sail in winds too strong for the small craft.
Other adventures during sailing included going out during jelly fish season. The boat had no well, and capsizing meant getting stung – the water was solid jellies during those times, each with a 6 to 10 inch diameter. I recall on one short sail out near Bear Island which was about two miles off shore, I saw a large fin in the water, some kind of shark. I turned the craft around, and tacked towards the beach.
Being on an island, albeit a very urbanized one, we were often in or on the ocean or harbor. My best friend, Peter K., came from a wealthy family, and we would often go water skiing in a secluded harbor, just north of the main Hong Kong harbor, or sometimes off the island near Repulse Bay. He would pick me up with his driver in a Mercedes sedan, and we would go to a marina near Happy Valley on Hong Kong island. His father’s Chris Craft cabin cruiser was moored there. 36 feet long, with a 14 foot ski boat, with an Evinrude 40 hp outboard on the ski boat – tame by today’s standards.
We would load a lunch, usually macaroni and cheese with ham, enjoyed after a day of skiing. I learned to single ski on Peter’s boat, cutting through the glass-like water, sending up tails of spray. I was strong and light and became a pretty good skier. Another time during jellyfish season, after we were up on our skis in an area clear of the jellies, we had to be careful not to fall, as they were everywhere else. In order to end that session, we had to surf close by the cabin cruiser, toss our towline, and grab the ladder without sinking into the jellies surrounding the boat.
Yet another memorable moment with jellies was the time my dad and the family were hosted aboard the Governor-General’s yacht. We were sailing near Cheung Chau Island, located east of Hong Kong Island, and the kids decided on a swim. We were jumping off the side of the yacht into deep open water, and about my third time in, I jumped into the tentacles of a jellyfish. I quickly clambered aboard. The pain was instantly searing and intense, as if someone was holding a lit flame underneath my upper arm, where I was most badly stung.
I was in a lot of pain, and in the boat’s head, cursing a blue streak. Someone suggested peeing on it, but that was not something I could even conceive of doing. My dad poured some brandy on it, and that may have helped. After an hour or so, we arrived at Cheung Chau island, and I was taken to a dispensary and they gave me some pain killers, which I had several of. Life of the party after that…
Another incident which had to do with sailing was the time I spent the night over at John T’s house. His dad (my father’s boss) also worked at the US Consulate, and lived in one of the few single family homes on the island. John was very popular in school, and class president at least once. So I spent the night, and my girlfriend, Trish, stayed over with John’s sister who was just a year younger.
After his parents went to bed, probably around 2 or 3 AM, we quietly all assembled outside, and pushed his dad’s sports car out of the driveway, and out the gate. John got behind the wheel, none of us had a driver’s license, and off we went, to see the sights of Hong Kong in the very early morning. We were out nearly until sun up, just driving around – I was in the front with John and Trish and his sister rode on top of the back seat. There was no place to really go too fast as the roads were all short and sometimes steep. Not very safe in any case.
We were pushing the car back up the driveway as the light of day began, and John’s dad stepped out of the shadows and confronted us. His punishment was fitting – It was a windy day, during the rainy season, and we hadn’t gotten any sleep. So he took the four of us out sailing in Hong Kong harbor, in the choppiest, windiest, coldest weather, spray coming over the side regularly, this being a lifeboat type of craft with a sail, and no place to shelter. We were all miserable, but learned our lesson, and didn’t go for any more midnight drives…”
P. S. I last visited Hong Kong in June of 2019. I was with my wife and daughter, and our vacation ended the day before the big demonstrations there began.