Pete Spurrier

A publisher of locally themed titles at Blacksmith Books in Hong Kong. He is also the author of guidebooks including The Heritage Hiker's Guide to Hong Kong.

Tales of Two Cities

  A flight from Hong Kong to Singapore at the end of May was the ideal time and place for me to open Tales of Two Cities and start reading.

  The 320-page book, published a few months ago, is a joint effort by the Singapore Writers Group and the Hong Kong Writers Circle. It’s a collection of 23 short stories by 23 writers, and their explorations of their native or adopted home towns are loosely arranged into four sections: the changing city, the historic city, the mystical city and the capricious city.

  During my week’s stay in Singapore, gaps between events gave me time to walk around different urban areas of the island state, and I had many causes to stop and compare the streetscapes, ethnic mix, language, politics and lifestyles of the two cities. Hong Kong and Singapore superficially seem rather similar, but on close inspection, they turn out to be very different.

  The writers in this collection have mostly chosen not to directly compare the two, but the storylines, characters and experiences they choose to write about in each place serve to illustrate the differences. Some of the contributors are previously published authors, some are teachers and journalists, and others are graduates of creative writing programmes.

  Change is a constant, perhaps in greater volume in this part of the world than elsewhere. In Angry Ancestors, Spiteful Spirits by Irena Cristalis, we are introduced to Vincent, a young Singaporean who has no time for his mother’s beliefs in fung shui and other things he sees as superstitious. But as he is the only one of his siblings not to move away from the “claustrophobic island, where sweat never left your face from the moment you ventured out of the air-conditioned buildings”, it falls to him to exhume his grandparents’ bones, and perform the appropriate ceremonies, when the overgrown Bukit Brown cemetery is marked to make way for a highway.

  The Concrete People by Carsten John describes a missed love affair against the backdrop of Kowloon’s now-vanished Walled City. Undocumented immigrant Benny spends his days and nights in a flour-filled noodle factory in the bowels of the city, and when he ventures out, he must avoid police patrols. His chances with restaurant waitress Emily seem doomed when all entrances to the Walled City are suddenly blocked by uniformed government staff – the infamous neighbourhood is finally being pulled down.

  Black comedy is provided by Lawrence Gray with Three Fingered Wu & Daisy Chu, a bouncy, rhythmic tale which introduces us to a range of connected people: Fei Fei, a fresh fish delivery man leads us to Taxi Driver Wong, then to celebrated call girl Daisy Chu, Big Fish the world’s richest man, Stupid the Temple Street cook, one-time actress Old Madam Ng and finally lipstick lesbian Single Daughter, whose high-profile lifestyle puts her in danger when her father, Big Fish, gains a new grandson.

  Trevor Hughes also raises smiles with Paradise Cove, a close-to-the-bone story of a real estate developer inking a joint venture with mainland Chinese interests. Set in Hong Kong’s near future, amid heightened unrest over land disputes in the New Territories, Percy Tsang is keen to cash out and the state-owned Red Star group headed by Zhu Daren is his ticket to retirement overseas and the admiration of his clansmen’s association – if only he can conceal the growing problems that surround the development.

  “There was, in fact, a haze of blue-grey smoke lying across the room at chest height. Percy knew he would probably have to throw away his suit, but it hardly mattered now. Winnie had cried when she heard he was selling 40 per cent of the Cove to Red Star. It used to be so nice here, so peaceful, so safe. What’s it going to be like with three times as many people, all from the mainland? Yes, safe. But technically she was a Canadian, so she could retire to her townhouse in Richmond and play mahjong with her mother. Then she’d be safe from all the trouble they’d been having with... who? Mystery men turning up, claiming to be villagers, insisting that they be compensated for rights Paradise Cove had been ‘trampling on for the last twenty years’. This down market was causing so many problems; so many rent-seekers having to seek out new sources of rent.”

  Ambush by Marion Kleinschmidt features some of the most convincing dialogue. Harbour master Artie Lim, angered at having to stay at home due to a workplace injury, mounts a night-time stakeout on Kembangan Drive to find out who has been dropping dog doo-doos in his bins, but his vigil is interrupted by a new Indian neighbour who has locked herself out and needs his help.

  “Shyamala rustled up the ladder. Frangipani flowers and rainwater showered onto Artie’s head and bare arms. In the middle of this new irritation, he heard the hateful flopping and panting sounds from the Drive. The moment had come and he was nowhere near ready! He had no choice but to witness what happened next in front of his own house. His chief suspect, a lanky maid with acne-scarred skin, let her outsized Alsatian relieve himself all over Artie’s recycling bin – leg cocked high, his big brown ding-dongs knocking about. Artie couldn’t desert the ladder, nor could he free a hand to get the camera out. ‘Wah lao eh! You got no shame?’ he shouted in his despair.”

  One of the shortest stories has the greatest punch. The unfolding of Jingwei’s personal tragedy in Bronwyn Sharman’s The Game of Virus, set during Singapore’s encounter with SARS, is carefully told to great impact.

  Two or three stories were a bit too expat-oriented for my taste, perhaps reflecting the frames of reference of newly arrived writers, but not detracting from their storytelling. When the time came for my return flight to Hong Kong, I understood the people and society of Singapore a little better – and those of my home city too.

Tales of Two Cities

▸ Tales of Two Cities

Author:Edited by Alice Clark-Platts, S. Mickey Lin, Edmund Price, Harmony Sin

Publishing House:Ethos Books

Year of Publication:2015

Ian Chaplin 1945-2016

Ian had lived in Macau since 1982 and had taught in the key institutions of higher education. In retirement, he worked as a part-time lecturer at the
University of Macau and the Macau Polytechnic. He held a PhD in cultural tourism from Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia.

Macao in a Time of War

  British nationals seeking refuge and protection through the British Consul in Macao will be disappointed to find their representative can only be contacted through a post office box number or by telephone, and that there is de facto no Embassy in the territory. They will be told: “There is no British Embassy in Macao. Macao is covered by the British Consulate- General in Hong Kong. We offer the same services to people resident in Macao as to people resident in Hong Kong. As we have no permanent office in Macao we can only offer these services remotely by phone or e-mail or by asking a Macao resident to attend our offices in Hong Kong personally”.

  It was fortunate for not only British nationals, but others seeking refuge and protection, that this was not the case during the turmoil of the Second World War when the resident Consul, John Pownall Reeves, was instrumental in providing relief to 9,000 British subjects who had come as refugees mostly from Japanese-occupied Hong Kong. Reeves’ account of this traumatic period in the history of Macau territory, a sanctuary for those managing to escape the tyranny of Japanese conquest, is told in his wartime memoir dated 15 October 1949. However, its posthumous publication is due to the endeavours of editors Colin Day and Richard Garrett but ostensibly to Victor Millard who converted the text to a word-processed file. It was brought to Macao by Wilhelm Snyman, who was introduced to the editors by Professor Glenn Timmermans at the University of Macau. One might ask why there was such a delay in the publication of the memoir and be perhaps surprised to learn that Reeves was denied permission by the British Foreign Office to attest to the remarkable achievement of the British consul and his staff in the tiny enclave surrounded by Japanese-held territory.

  Perhaps the recalcitrant attitude of the Foreign Office is best summed up in Reeves own words about the perception of the role of a Consular Office: “In general Consular Officers only see British Subjects who are in trouble; when they are not they have no need to see a Consul: this state of affairs is enough to make Consular Officers feel that there is no British Subject but a British Subject in trouble.” The Lone Flag, documenting Reeves' role in Macau in the years 1941-1945, is a testament to the vicissitudes that were endured to help those not only in trouble, but marooned and desperate.

  Reeves was eminently qualified to perform the role of Consul in Macao having spent two years in Beijing studying Chinese followed by appointments in Hankow and Mukden. He was somewhat bemused by the presence of a Consulate in the territory: “I have no knowledge of the origins of our own Consular representation in Macao. The Consulate-General at Canton was established in 1843 and was presumably in control and in charge of British Interests in Macao. At some point, I believe in the 1930s, Mr. F.J. Gellion, Managing Director of the Macao Electric Company, the senior British firm in Macao, became Honorary Vice-Consul, under the control of H.M. Consul- General at Canton. In 1940 the post became an independent Consulate in the charge of Mr. H.D. Bryan, a career officer, whom I replaced in June 1941 to, perhaps, Derek Bryan's later relief.” We may equally wonder why the Consulate ceased operations in the territory especially after it had served British nationals so well during the war.

  During the Consulate's war years we are told that refugees from Hong Kong and neighbouring areas increased Macao's population to nearly 500,000 – an unprecedented influx that forced measures never undertaken before. The authorities had to cope with a Japanese sea-blockade forcing the territory to survive on its own food and supplies brought in from Guangdong Province; itself suffering from the ravages of war and occupation. Even though those able to prove they were British nationals received support from the UK Government in the form of an allowance, there was still the problem of procuring staples such as rice and bread. Refugees who were fortunate found succour with families or friends or places in homes, hospitals, schools, clubs and churches. Some however had to live on the streets and depend on charity for survival. The people of Macao were welcoming and provided what aid they could through institutions, lay and religious, Chinese and foreign, doing their best to feed the homeless with soup kitchens and distributions of bread, rice, clothing and blankets. With so many needy cases, Reeves appealed to the Foreign Office and arranged for telegraphic transfers of funds to meet the needs of those who were entitled to support.

  Reeves explains the title of his memoirs‘The Lone Flag’which features on the cover of the publication: “It was to remain the only one constantly floating until the end of the war when it was described by the press as‘The Lone Flag’. It is possible that no other British flag has ever been so alone from the point of view of distance to the next.” The flag remained raised over the British Consulate in Macau until the Japanese surrender when soon after it was damaged by a typhoon that hit just as Reeves was preparing to leave the enclave. Ironically the Lone Flag flew in the company of another flag – that of the Rising Sun on the building next door which served as the Japanese Consulate: “My flag, floating next door to the Japanese Consul's, was the only Allied flag, apart from Chinese, for some distance, west to Yunnan and Chungking over 700 miles, north to Vladivostok 1,800, east into the Pacific some 4,000(?) miles, southeast to Port Moresby over 3,000 and south to Australia 2,700.” The proximity of the Japanese Consul, Mr. Fukui, was obviously fraught with dangers but Reeves describes him as“a fine man”and“The Governor [Gabriel Teixeira] once remarked of him that he ought to be promoted to another nationality.” Reeves would be indebted to Mr. Fukui for his intervention in securing the passage to Macao of his wife, Rhoda Reeves, who had been trapped in Hong Kong when the Japanese attacked. Mr. Fukui was also known to have facilitated the dispatch of food parcels to prisoners in Hongkong and personally brought letters from prisoners to their families in Macao. For these conciliatory gestures he was murdered by an assassin hired by the Japanese Gendarmerie.

  The memoir chronicles the predicament of Macao as it struggled to maintain a semblance of normality despite the formidable task of catering to a burgeoning population. In twelve chapters we are given a picture of how the authorities and the population fared in terms of such issues as morale, organization of relief, and the provision of medical services. For the latter, the Government medical services were under severe constraints to cope with the problems: “What would have happened if a real cholera epidemic had broken out I hesitate to think; in those crowded streets half the population would have been swept away. It was owing to the vigilance of the Macao Medical authorities that this did not happen and they deserve great credit for this fact.” We are told drugs were in short supply particularly anti-epidemic vaccines and inoculations. Reeves was instrumental in setting up a Consulate Clinic although there was some conflict with local Portuguese doctors who did not benefit from the salaries paid through the Consul. Facilities were limited and equipment was “primitive”. Reeve however observes that their doctors and nurses were undaunted: “How well they succeeded was proved by the fact that the refugee death rate was less than that of London before the war and it must be remembered that the refugees neither arrived in a good condition nor had much opportunity of improving it.”

  The chapter on‘Morale’is especially significant as it recounts how the refugees who arrived were acutely depressed; having lost their families or their homes and being faced with conditions that accentuated their desperation. For those who came relatively unscathed, one of the problems was how to pass the time when the need for food and shelter had been met. Centres were established to organize activities that would engage minds that were in danger of succumbing to feelings of futility. Hockey, a game at which Macao has traditionally excelled, was especially popular. Competitive football matches were organized although Reeve was on one occasion embarrassed to find himself“shaking hands with eleven members of the Japanese-employed Canton police all of whom were, at least in theory, my deadly enemies.”

  The book contains twelve Appendices which pay tribute to the Consul and his staff in upholding the best traditions of British resilience and fortitude. We also gain some insight into the diplomacy of the Portuguese Governor, Comd. Gabriel Mauricio Teixeira who, on being invited to celebrate the Allied victory over the Japanese, “stated that from the beginning his heart was always with the Allies (Loud cheers), but his duty was to maintain the neutrality of the Colony at all costs.” To celebrate the cessation of hostilities, the Governor“lifted the ban on rejoicings and similarly that on firecrackers.” Reeve observed that“The noise of 400 thousand Chinese celebrating this way has to be heard to be believed; and we contributed a string [of firecrackers] or two ourselves.” Appendix 3, titled‘Mr. Reeves eulogised by Hongkong Portuguese Community’cites the words of José Pedro Lobo, with a personal tribute on behalf of the Portuguese community on presenting a token of gratitude: “Mr. Reeves: We know how inadequate is this demonstration of our respect and admiration for you. But I assure you that what I cannot interpret in words is deeply felt in each of our hearts; and I ask you to accept this souvenir, not for its intrinsic value, but as a token of sincere appreciation, esteem and gratitude of Hong Kong Portuguese refugees in Macau.”

  The original of the memoir is in the possession of David Calthorpe, who, as a child knew John Reeves and heard his stories first-hand. Colin Day, the editor explains that“Both by inheritance and diligent efforts of recovery, David holds much of the memorabilia of John Reeves.” It is fitting therefore that the final chapter of the book has been written by David Calthorpe and we are told of Reeves’endearment to Macao: “Macao always had a special place in John's heart. He would talk about it in a tone of a lover reminiscing over faded memories.” It is perhaps hard to imagine how this affection could have been sustained given the circumstances of his brief but traumatic sojourn in the territory. However, Calthorpe attests: “Macao was central to John's life and, indeed, the crowning point of a career that was curtailed by circumstances, both personal and otherwise.” Although this book is a testament to the fulfillment of his duty, Calthorpe argues, “His work speaks for itself in the memoir, yet to him it was more than just duty to king and country. It was a deep love for China, and in particular, the city of Macao and its people.” Reeve left for a new appointment in Rome in 1946 and in the same year was awarded the Order of the British Empire in his capacity as consul in Macao.

  The Lone Flag conjures up a final image that commemorates the peaceful transition of Macao and Hong Kong from the dark days of the Second World War up to China's recovery of its territories. We may be reminded of the ceremonious folding of the lone Portuguese and British flags and their final relinquishment during the Handover. Of course the Portuguese flag still flies over the Portuguese consulate and the consul's residence in the former Bela Vista Hotel. It is undoubtedly with pride that the flags of the Macao and Hong Kong Special Administrative regions now fly, not alone, but alongside that of the People's Republic of China.



Author:John Pownall Reeves

Publishing House:Hong Kong University Press

Year of Publication: