By Hans Ebert
We didn’t know it at the time, but in our own small way, we were game changers in the makeup of what was growing up to be Hong Kong.
The secondary school that is KGV- King George V School- in Tin Kwong Road, Kowloon was a unique melting pot of nationalities that came together at a very important time in Hong Kong’s then present without even knowing it. In doing so, we were part of creating the heady gumbo mix that was to become so integral to the cosmopolitan personality Hong Kong.
Looking back, perhaps our parents learned much from us- like how kids from very different backgrounds could form a rainbow coalition long before this term became a meaningless hashtag.
As a kid who had arrived from what was then known as Ceylon and spoiled by three servants and living in a bungalow with a garden to be suddenly on a ship for ten days and arriving in this strange place called Hong Kong was a trip in more ways than one. To suddenly be plucked away from the privileged lifestyle of being a Dutch Burgher in still colonial Ceylon and arrive somewhere which offered my parents no present, let alone a future, was lost on a kid who was still thinking all this was some weird adventure.
Having to go from the country comforts and pukka lifestyle of Colombo in Ceylon to my family living in a shoebox in the city together with my father’s eldest sister, her husband, daughter, my grandmother, and the amah, all of whom I was meeting for the first time was, well, different.
My family found ourselves on the 27th floor of Fung Wah Mansion- hardly a “mansion”- in the middle of North Point, an area surrounded by Chinese. Never having been around Chinese and not having taken an elevator added to the ongoing adventure.
Years later, watching the Steven Spielberg directed “Empire Of The Sun” about Jamie Graham, a wealthy young British boy who is separated from his parents in Shanghai during World War 2 and who used his imagination to survive- and even enjoy what he was going through- in a Japanese internment camp somehow reminded me of those early years in Hong Kong. It was being a stranger in a strange land. It was trying to survive and belong, but not knowing what this survival might be.
After three tough years of taking the tram to Shaukiwan and climb up around three hundred steps for the “privilege” to be the only “darkie” in Quarry Bay primary school and turn the other cheek despite being called the “n” word every f***ing lunchtime by an older kid, arriving at KGV was like a prison break. It was similar to having a day off like Bueller. Bueller? Bueller?
KGV was school, but it also was graduating to this strange and inviting and eclectic buffet of burgers, dim sum, curries, salad days and everything else never tasted before.
Sure, it wasn’t all lollipops and roses. There was still a divisiveness where the rich kids were, on the one hand looked up to, but quickly learned about having to “buy” their way to where the “cool kids” hung out. This was usually preening themselves and fighting for the rights to “rework” and “refresh” themselves at lunchtime in front of the one the mirrors at each of the two loos.
It was this or being invited to the “right” parties where, like a Friday night church youth club, one waited to slow dance with any of the pretty maids sitting all in a row while “Surfer Girl” by the Beach Boys played in the background.
There were the school jocks, the pompadour brigade still stuck in “West Side Story” with the Jets, the nerds, the weirdos, the Mean Girls and the school bands.
Of course, there were also the backstories which only surfaced years later- parents dropping acid to “understand” their kids better, the sex, drugs and rock and roll where friends’ parents joined in, the usual school fights to prove insecurities gnawing at some about their sexuality and the darker stories behind the already dark stories.
All this weirdness was travelling hand in hand with a Hong Kong that was hurtling into the restless energy of a future no one saw coming.
Those taipans in the handful of colonial Hong Kong’s noble houses James Clavell wrote about knowingly might have mixed with “the locals”, but some of these “locals” had tired of being “running dogs”. They were very quickly creating their own futures- savvy young Chinese and Macanese entrepreneurs coming together with newcomers to Hong Kong knowing the opportunities that were available. It was virgin territory. Like one day selling encyclopaedias, and the next day managing the first international hotel in the city. Anything and everything was possible. Same at KGV.
Times were changing and there was a huge difference between being in Form 1 and Form 5. The Beatles had happened along with everything else that the Sixties brought with it. We grew up without even knowing it. We had to in order to have even a glimpse of where one might find interesting enough to bother discovering. In what might have been a teenage wasteland for some, a huge teenage paradigm shift was taking place.
At least at KGV, the age of the Eurasian happened long before it made the cover of TIME magazine. We were ahead of the curve before there was a curve. We had gone from Jan and Dean to Vanilla Fudge and Iron Butterfly in one giant leap.
With this changes came some strange walks on very wild sides of life for a few who might have seen the changes taking place in Hong Kong and knowing that life wasn’t only about a big apartment in Repulse Bay or Kadoorie Avenue.
It was being in Form 4 or 5 in school, but getting rid of our school uniforms and hanging with older wheelers and dealers, older girls and women and graduates from the Temple Street School Of Hard Knocks when away from Tin Kwong Road.
KGV prepared us for what lay ahead. What some of us learned there was much more important than what we got out of any algebra, biology or woodwork class.
There was much tough love and different ways of accepting things taking place, especially if coloured and not coming from a privileged family background.
Closed doors had to be kicked open, thick skins grown overnight and acquiring a self-confidence that might have even helped our parents see that we were smack, dab in the middle of a constantly evolving Hong Kong.
Those years at KGV taught us that it’s more than okay to be different. This difference stays with you forever. It’s what makes you the individual you are. How lessons learned are never ever forgotten and knowing about timing and when and where to use them. That’s something else learned from those KGV Years. They’re priceless life lessons.
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