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'Hong Kong Delight'

When Gertrude Stein, the expatriate novelist and literary critic, famously said, “there’s no there, there,” she was referring to her hometown of Oakland, California; however, because of recent events, this gibe could now apply to the former British colony of Hong Kong, which has just been subsumed by China, swallowed by the dragon, in blatant contradiction of the 50-year time table agreed to in the handover of 1997. Hong Kong is still there physically, of course, but it has lost its identity as the exemplar of the “one country, two systems” form of government that was supposedly guaranteed from the transfer of sovereignty until 2047.

Many years ago, in another lifetime, I taught the “Literature of the Sea” at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Although only an elective and not required for graduation, it filled up every semester with mid-grade military officers from all branches of the armed forces who were seeking respite from the daily grind of constant war gaming and strategic planning for the next global conflict. I remember some of them telling me then, even before the fall of the Soviet Union, that the adversary in every classroom scenario was not Russia, but China. This was at least 10 years before the 1997 British/Chinese handover agreement, but its subsequent collapse would have surprised no one.


Maybe there’s something to the ancient Greek theory of cyclical history, a sociophilosophical concept according to which the periodicity of history is based on the repetition or recurrence of social processes (what goes around comes around) because, just as the NWC students flocked to my class to “escape China,”  in writing about Hong Kong, I’m running away from the virus, the implosion of the economy, the furling of flags, the renaming of streets and the demolition of statues.


If they stay in the Navy long enough, many sailors begin to think of themselves as primarily “east coast” or “west coast,” occidental or oriental, with west coast having the most cachet. After all, in the Pacific, after Honolulu, you crossed the Equator and got initiated into the mysteries of being a Shellback. You crossed the International Date Line and stayed confused about what day it was for a week. Hurricanes became typhoons, and you could count on visiting strange and exotic places. So, I was west coast all the way. Nothing against the Mediterranean or Northern European ports, but it’s hard to beat dropping anchor in places like Manila, Yokosuka, Sasebo, Pusan, Singapore, Taipei, etc. Unfortunately, because of America’s increasing isolationism, shrinking Navy, and flat-out political correctness, the list of acceptable port calls for today’s sailor is growing shorter and shorter. The old sure-fire recruiting slogan of “Join the Navy and see the world” no longer holds water.


Of all the ports in the Far East, Hong Kong, which is now closed to American ships because of our standoff with China, was the overwhelming all-time favorite. Even the harbor seemed spectacular, especially after a month or two at sea: teeming with junks pushed along by lateen sails dragging the water; the colorful ferries passing to and fro between Kowloon or the New Territories; the tram or what I remember they called a “funicular” on Capri, crawling slowly up Victoria Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island and the most expensive real estate, etc.  


As soon as the ship dropped the hook, the money changers and the local merchants who had prior permission would come onboard selling their wares. Especially popular were the tailors who would set up on the fantail, measure you for a new three-piece suit one day and bring it back the next, perfect fit guaranteed. I think I’ve still got one or two hanging around; unfortunately, they’ve shrunk. I do have a pair of custom alligator half boots that a cobbler made up in two days.


Since all ships anchored out in the bay, sailors had to ride liberty launches ashore and were funneled through the British Navy’s famous China Fleet Club on the pier. This facility featured just about every service you could think of including a canteen, laundry, store, rooms for rent, and probably the most famous bar in the Far East. The Limeys kept a pretty tight lid on it, unlike, say, the Bluebird enlisted club in Naples, Italy, where you had to keep your head on a swivel to keep from getting hit with a flying beer bottle, especially when the fleet was in. For me, the best part of the China Fleet Club was the lending library, where I found some first editions of the same classic sea tales that I later taught at the Naval War College.


Sailors loved Hong Kong for the bargains to be had in the multitude of specialty shops throughout the city. Most things were fixed price, so there was not the haggling that you see and expect in places like North Africa and India. You can look around my home today and gauge the progress of my career by the items I brought back from Hong Kong on various trips: giant hand-painted fans when I was enlisted and broke; an ivory chess set when I was a lieutenant junior grade and semi-broke; a rosewood desk when I was a commander and in debt, etc. I particularly remember that desk: rosewood is some of the most dense and heavy wood there is. I had to hire a small boat to bring it out to the ship, and then rig a block and tackle to hoist it onboard. It was a dark, stormy night, and the seas were rough. Both the chess set and the desk would be unavailable for purchase now because of environmental protection laws regarding elephant tusks and the endangered rosewood forests.

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