After the War in Hong Kong
|The war in the Pacific ended on August 15, 1945. The Japanese had surrendered after the dropping of two atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Peace in Hong Kong meant no more air raids and lots of food to eat. During the war we survived on starvation rations and I still remember the physical pain in the stomach from lack of food.
When the British Fleet sailed into Hong Kong harbour, they brought back the rule of law. We no longer had to fear the arbritrary and savage behaviour of the Japanese army. To this day, the Chinese have not entirely forgiven the Japanese for the many atrocities committed during the long war and the occupation of much of China. This second Sino-Japanese War began officially in 1937 and ended in 1945.
My brother and I were enrolled in the Central British School when it reopened soon after the war. The school was later renamed the King George V school (KGV). It was a pretty good school at the time, but I was a lousy student. I think that was mainly due to the fact that I was, and still am, a lazy person. Mind you, I was about two years younger than most of my fellow students in my class and that could have been a problem. Two years difference in age at that stage of life was critical. When most of my coed fellow students were experimenting in the bushes, I was still reading "Biggles".
Some of our teachers were brilliant. I remember with great pleasure our English teacher, Conrad Watson; our French teacher, Mrs. Crosier; and our Math teacher, Gamble. I can only hope that I did not cause them too many heartaches with my poor behavior. I played hooky regularly, and was often in the art room, drawing and painting, when I should have been in geography or chemistry lessons. It was my last art teacher who put the apparently ridiculous idea into my head that I could study to become an artist, and for that I'm truly grateful. He told me that he could have arranged a place for me at the Central School of Art in London, but I explained to him then that our family was headed for Australia (see below).
What I enjoyed most at that stage of my life was the Boy Scouts. I spent a great deal of time on hikes and camping trips with my fellow Scouts. We learned to be remarkably independent, and were also taught to take responsibility for the younger Scouts. Scouting was a healthy activity and it kept me reasonably fit. There was quite a bit of danger involved as well, as we were often caught out on Lan Tau island in tents, with a typhoon bearing down upon us.
We also learnt a bit about self-defense by practicing on each other in friendly combat. I suspect this helped me at school because I cannot remember a single instance when I had been bullied, even though I was pretty short at the time. Being a Scout was like being a member of a gang. Anyone who picked on one Boy Scout would quickly find himself surrounded by three or four other Scouts.
There was one instance when those defensive skills learned at the Scouts came in handy. I was walking to school one day, taking a path through the hills at the back of KGV, when two boys from a rival school confronted me. One boy was fat and the other thin. Fat boy was the aggressive one and he came at me in a rush. I quickly put him into a headlock and then raised my left foot to ward off Skinny. Luckily for me, Skinny wasn't too keen on the fight and he backed off. After a while, having put on increasing pressure on fat boy's neck, he started squealing. I made him promise to p... off and then I let him go. The two quickly ran off. Scout training had paid off. A few weeks later, I met Fat Boy at a local market and we just smiled at each other as if we had been old friends.
I always found my fellow students at KGV to be friendly and helpful. The girls would patiently teach me how to pronounce the "th" sound, as it does not exist in either the Russian or Chinese languages.
Alas, my Cantonese (my very first language) has now been entirely forgotten... perhaps because I never learned to read or write in that language. My Russian is fairly rusty, although I manage to understand about a half of what is being said in a Russian movie. Thanks to Mrs Crozier, my high school French still comes in handy when I am travelling in Europe. She used to make us bring little mirrors to class so that we could see how to form the correct French sounds with our lips and tongues. She was so successful that I have often been congratulated by the French on my accent! My grasp of French vocbulary is another thing.
Although my father was quite generous, he refused to give my brother and me any pocket money. If we wanted to go to the cinema, we had to beg for the dollars. I hated this and decided that I needed my own source of funds. Since I was fluent in Cantonese at the time, I turned this to my advantage. There was a famous thieves market in Cat Street. Cat Street was actually a narrow lane, with steps, running up the lower slopes of Mount Victoria. It was deemed to be so dangerous that the local police would often walk there in groups of four.
I would venture up Cat Street on my own looking for bargains for my fellow Scouts. The prices I paid were dirt cheap because the goods had all been stolen from Army depots by enterprising thieves. Items such as haversacks, jungle knives, and cooking kits were easily resold with a 100% markup. To make sure I paid the lowest possible prices, I would bargain ferociously, using every Cantonese swearword I could muster. This made me a great favorite with the local fences who smilingly called me Gwai Jai (little white devil). The entrepreneurial spirit was alive and well in Hong Kong.
From the age of about 11, my father had groomed me to be the family secretary. Both my parents spoke English fairly well, but they were not proficient in writing in that language. Papa worked in the mining and construction industries and he was frequently required to write reports. I soon became proficient in this activity. I also acted as an interpreter for them on many occasions.
My father was a great admirer of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator. In 1952, Papa decided that we should all go to the Soviet Union to help Stalin rebuild that country. Although I dearly loved my father, I strongly disagreed with him politically. At that time, I was slightly to the right of Lord Baden Powell, the founder of the British Boy Scouts.
I had a quiet word with my mother and brother and discovered that they too were horrified at the prospect of going to the Soviet Union. As I had mentioned in a previous passage, I was the only Catholic in the family. I went to a Catholic refugee organization and explained to them that I had a family of heathens who wanted to emigrate to the USA. If they could arrange the emigration, I would endeavour to convert my heathens to the Catholic Faith. They laughed at that but were still keen to help.
They could not oblige us with passage to the USA (something to do with the Migration Act of 1912 as I recall), nor could they help us with Canada, my second choice; but they did suggest emigrating to Australia. I went home and explained to my father that we were not keen on his idea, and that, instead, we wanted to go to the land down under. As a good father, he acquiesced and meekly signed all the relevant documents enabling us to migrate to Australia.
Being the family secretary since the age of 11 had given me a strange kind of authority which, at the age of 14, allowed me to organize our departure for Australia. The Scouts has also taught me to take command of situations and to solve administrative problems, so I had no qualms about taking control of the family's future. I don't know how Papa felt about this, but the others were most grateful for my initiative. Australia has been very good to us.
Since my brother had just enrolled in first-year architecture at Hong Kong University, it was decided that my father and I would leave for Australia first and that the rest of the family (my mother, brother and my little sister, Mara) would leave a year later. Thus, Papa and I boarded a converted liberty ship, the SS Nellore, and set sail for Australia.
We arrived in Sydney in April 1953. Coming in through the Heads and steaming under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, I fell in love with Sydney and it's magnificent harbour. That stretch of water was to become an inspiration for many of my paintings in the years to come.