Today in Chinatown, I taught the seniors the English words for seafood, including abalone and scallops. They really enjoyed discussing which seafood they like best and which they don’t like much at all. Abalone was one of their favorites. I found some cans of squid, oysters, clams, and octopus, as well as a bag of shrimp chips I passed around for them to sample. Food is one of those subjects that everyone can relate to. I loved hearing all the excitement around seafood today.
When I was an exchange student in Hong Kong, a friend of my roommates had a teaching gig on Saturday mornings and was looking for a replacement. Dora had graduated and couldn’t keep up this English tutor job. It sounded like a fun job. I would teach English to Mrs. Yoshizawa and her two children. And after class, we’d all eat lunch together.
Mrs. Yoshizawa was an excellent cook and it was such a treat to eat her homemade lunches. I remember once during lunch, her son said Japanese food was always very healthy. She corrected him and rattled off a bunch of fried dishes that defied his theory. I don’t know why I’ve always remembered that, but I’ve kind of ignored the fact that tempura isn’t really healthy or that tonkatsu is basically schnitzel.
My commute from my university to the Yoshizawas’ flat in Taikoo Shing took a solid 90 minutes by train. I had to change trains twice, but it was so peaceful on a Saturday morning when most people were either at work (many Hong Kong people still worked on Saturday mornings then) or taking it easy before going out for the day.
Halfway into my study abroad year and tutoring the Yoshizawas, I traveled to Japan for a few weeks during winter break. Mrs. Yoshizawa and her family were back in Japan during that time, too, and she met me one day at Ueno Park in Tokyo. It was just the two of us–her kids were back at their family home with her parents–and suddenly I was no longer felt like the American tutor on Saturday mornings, but rather a dear friend.
Back in Hong Kong, the Yoshizawas invited me to their kids’ sports day at school. I remember it being a fun morning watching the kids play different team sports before we took a break for lunch.
When I returned to Hong Kong a few years later, I called Mrs. Yoshizawa soon after I settled into my new apartment. Someone else was using that number.
The Yoshizawas had returned to Japan and I never saw them again.
When I moved to Hong Kong in 1990, the territory was home to 55,000 Vietnamese refugees. The US and other western countries had stopped taking in the numbers of refugees they admitted in the last half of the 1970s and early 80s (even though the US caused the crisis in the first place). So Hong Kong absorbed as many refugees as it could, and settled them in camps around the territory while the mostly ethnic Chinese refugees awaited hearings for their cases.
When I saw a notice on my exchange student office bulletin board to volunteer at a camp, I was determined to sign up and was put in touch with International Social Services. After an informal interview at a basketball court in Wanchai, followed by lunch across the Harbour at a food court in Mongkok, I was hired.
My job was to teach English to adult refugees. They could speak Vietnamese and many spoke Cantonese, but I knew neither. I traveled to Argyle Street in Kowloon Tong every week, walking from the Mongkok KCR station, up Argyle Street, until I reached the overgrown brush that was the refugee camp.
I also attended a Christmas pageant at the camp in December that year. My mom was visiting and we struggled to find an open restaurant after the performance, which ended quite late. (The next day we’d pay for it when we flew separately to Tokyo and came down with either a nasty bout of food poisoning or a severe case of Norovirus. It’s amazing I ever made it to Yokohama in one piece.)
I took many photos from an end of the year party at the camp that spring, just before I left Hong Kong to travel halfway across the world before going home to the US.
Do’An is in the pink and was my best friend in the camp. She worked there and was a refugee herself. We kept in touch after I left Hong Kong and traveled to Vietnam, but sadly lost contact after I returned to the US. I have no idea if she was able to stay in Hong Kong, was repatriated to Vietnam, or was able to settle overseas in the US, Canada, Australia, or elsewhere.
I can’t remember the name of the Swedish volunteer above, but she was super nice. The Vietnamese man and woman below were refugees like Do’An and also staff at the camp because they knew English.
The camp was housed in old British military barracks that were later used as a POW camp when the Japanese took over Hong Kong during WWII. It’s difficult to see here, but these buildings were wooden Quonset huts with round roofs.
I’m not sure who these kids belonged to, but I’m guessing the volunteer or ISS staff who took some of these photos.
This is what the huts looked like inside. They were used for classrooms, offices, and dormitories.
When I moved back to Hong Kong a few years later, the Argyle camp was gone. Most of the Vietnamese refugees were gone from Hong Kong, too, although some stayed and integrated into Hong Kong society. The majority of the refugees in the camps in 1990 were forcibly repatriated to Vietnam in the early 90s. I walked around this area in the mid-to-late 90s when I was living in Hong Kong again, but didn’t pay much attention to where the camp had been.
In late 2015, I tried to find it and walked up and down Argyle Street starting in Kowloon City. The area is so calm and pristine now.
But there’s no mention of the camp anywhere. Not even a sign.
It’s like it never existed.
I have such a large to-read pile that it sometimes feels overwhelming and impossible to get through. But when I recently received a copy of Charles Philipp Martin’s novel, Neon Panic (Vantage Point, 2011), I had to start it right away. As if the cover wasn’t enticing enough, the premise of the book–a police thriller set all over Hong Kong–was the clincher.
Inspector Lok is a fifty-something husband, father of three, and veteran of the Hong Kong Police Force. When he’s given a case involving an unidentified twenty-something female murder victim–found in the waters off of Kowloon–he’s not thrilled about the prospects.
After the Hong Kong Police Department learns the identity of the victim–an upwardly mobile gentleman’s club worker–they still have no clues except that Milkie Tang had had plastic surgery before she was murdered. So Lok and his cohorts talk to plastic surgeons around Hong Kong and eventually find the one who had operated on Milkie. The only other clue the cops uncover is that Milkie’s car was stolen when she went to the surgeon’s office one day before her procedure.
From there, the triads, business leaders, and members of the fictitious Hong Kong Symphony Orchestra come under question. The story is a fast-paced, plotting-twisting thriller that kept me captivated from the very start. I felt like I was back in Hong Kong and found myself nodding my head when I came across a cultural nuance I hadn’t thought about in years. One thing Charles Martin mentions in his author’s note at the beginning is that all the English names he uses in the book are ones he came across in Hong Kong. Milkie, Twinkie, Yorks, and Ambrose are just several examples.
Martin was a member of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1980s and went on to live in Hong Kong for two decades before moving back to the US.
I hope we can read more of Inspector Lok in the near future. If so, I’ll report back here.
I was thinking today of the years I spent in Hong Kong and realized I was only really there for Chinese New Year right before I left the Territory for good. It was 1998, I was pregnant, and unable to travel back to Hubei Province (doctor’s orders!) to visit my in-laws. So I stayed in Hong Kong while my then-husband spent the holiday with his family.
This is my apartment from back then.
I don’t remember the particulars of the holiday that year, other than I was living with a good friend and her boyfriend. They’d moved into my apartment (I had the room on the right; they were in the one to the left) because my husband at the time couldn’t stay in Hong Kong due to visa issues and we were just biding time until late February 1998 when we’d fly to San Francisco and start a new chapter (which would last a couple years until I left in March 2000 to move back home with my parents in Chicago).
This is me in San Francisco some months later, pregnant with Jake.
I was technically in Hong Kong a few years earlier over Chinese New Year, but left soon after the first day of the holiday to fly up to Wuhan and then traveled by car to Hidden River, where I’d meet my future in-laws. So my memories of that Lunar New Year were more about mainland China than Hong Kong, although I remember a magical evening with my college roommates at the flower market in Victoria Park (the night I got the phone call from my fiance, summoning me to Hubei Province).
I suppose it’s only fitting that most of my Chinese New Year memories are from China itself. After all, I spent a week in Nanjing during the Lunar New Year in 1991 and in Hubei Province in 1995, 1996, and 1997.
Happy Year of the Rooster! What are your favorite Lunar New Year memories?