Random Hong Kong Memories

by Charlotte Agell, HKIS '77
Brunswick, Maine/March 2007

Here is a poem about Hong Kong
A place I moved to when I was eleven
Wearing a scratchy wool kilt and white gloves
Dressed up for the airplane ride from Sweden to Hong Kong
It was 1971, and people still believed in proper attire
The sixties hadn't reached us yet.
In steamy Bangkok, my father left his hat,
A gentleman's fedora,
On the transit bus, and for all I know, it's still riding around on that sticky seat.
Men don't wear those hats anymore, that was the last one I ever saw
It was the end of an era
Everything changed
And never stopped changing....
When we descended to Kai Tak
I thought we might crash into people hanging their laundry on the rooftops
Just a few feet below
But we landed and
We rode the ferry over choppy grey water
My ears adjusting to the loud radios and people arguing
And Cantonese opera,
And to that flowers and garbage smell
Of Fragrant Harbor
We were all beyond tired when we wound our way
On that sick-makingly steep
green hillside road
to the Repulse Bay Hotel, set back on its colonial lawn
a 150 year old tortoise in its little pool
good luck (except for the tortoise)
A place out of Somerset Maugham novel,
Although I did not know that yet -
The way the ceiling fans rotated on the verandah
And the white-suited waiters brought drinks
While we lived a life of total privilege and boredom,
My sister Anna and I hid Karl, then 3,
Under a rattan table in the bar
Where he played Loud Scary Tiger until the patrons protested
I saw the waiters laughing behind their hands.
We stayed there for four months
What were we, rich?
Yes/No- just expats on a company card.
Even room service - ice cream in silver dishes - got old
The tall-ceilinged room I shared with Anna
Became a badminton court
I took the bus to the Island School,
That former military hospital halfway up the peak
Where I was in Da Vinci house, and the girl selected
to show me around on my first day
grinned and asked, "Do ya want to smoke in the loo?" And
Left me standing, an innocent fool
I felt so much younger than everyone; because I was.
It was there I whispered in French class and was made to stand
With my nose pressed against the chalkboard, trying not to sneeze
And my first friend, Marie, invited me to sleep over at her house
On an island - Hei Ling Chau?- where her father was the minister
Of the leper colony, and Marie pressed wildflowers and tolerated marmite,
That revolting brown stuff I would not eat on sandwiches.
Just when I got used to Island School
I transferred to HKIS: grade 7 with Mr. Anchor
Who had a soft voice and read us Flowers for Algernon
By then we lived way out in Tai Tam,
In Turtle Cove, where there is now a campus
But at the time, not much
Beyond our connected villas and the tall apartments
On the top of lonely Red Hill Rd.,
The next mountain over had the profile
Of a sleeping lady
I remember when the gardener slit open the snake he caught
And ate a steaming little bladder as we kids watched
Making sure we knew it was for men only
And that he would become very virile
All this we understood by sign language
Since my Chinese friends spoke English, and
I didn't know much Cantonese
Except for counting and swearing
And how to pay the pak pai.
Wild dogs were a problem,
I walked my own dog with a baseball bat
She was a crazy half chow
Whom I saved from being dinner on the beach
while my parents were in
Peking, as it was called,
Which reminds me of the day when Chairman Mao died.
I was watching television. I think there was a typhoon.
It was 1976.
By then I was in high school and had one foot out the door
that revolving door of home leave and new postings:
everyone always coming and going
And sometimes coming back again.
But mostly not.

That was over thirty years ago,
Still, everything from back then is so vivid-
How it was such freedom to hike those hills,
With my dog Krissie
and Kim and Kelly and their Lucky and Kasey
That yin/yang pair: one an old stray with a mean streak,
The other a pedigreed miniature collie
We would stumble upon ancient graves,
Fresh hell money blowing in the breeze,
Then never find them again. Ever
Even though we tried.
All the colors come back to me-
The way the pale blue HKIS girls' summer uniforms were so perfect
For swimming (during a bomb scare, or when we just decided that
Lunch at the Drift Wood would be better than in the cafeteria)
The thin material was starched with salt as we sang in chorus,
But we were dry and cold in the air-conditioning,
Having just been so very hot on our run up the hill
Back to campus
And the strange places I ate lunch, like, for example
Under the stairs by the old kindergarten (works best with boyfriend)
Or up the hill, where old ladies would sweep the mountain,
And there were snakes;
Linda and I could see her dad (some kind of herpetologist)
Trying to catch them, but we hid from him
Since we were 17 and drinking Mateuse from a bottle
Celebrating our recent trip to Macao, with its black sands
And good Portuguese bread.
We would talk about everything, our futures, mostly
Although I, rather shy, probably left out my recent adventures
Making out at the Stanley Prison Club with my true love,
Where the searchlight caught us, two gweilo kids kissing,
Then swept away again
We weren't what they were looking for,
And, somehow, thinking back on all this,
The entirety of years becomes illuminated,
And I am now the prison guard,
Stopping at each memory, for a long look,
Then moving on.