It translates as Fragrant Harbour and has been dubbed the Pearl of the Orient. Recently, various protests and demonstrations place Hong Kong in the news for all the wrong reasons. Yet, sights, sounds and memories from the former British crown colony remain firmly etched in my mind.
It is the spring of 1995. I am appointed to officiate at the Hong Kong rugby tournament. It is the world’s premier Sevens event and I am overjoyed. I want to make a mark on the international referee circuit, and this is an opportunity not to be wasted.
The adrenaline begins pumping right away. Landing at Kai Tak airport is something of an adventure. Clearance for runway 13/31 sees our jet swoop over Victoria Harbour, one of the busiest ports in the world, as well as densely packed Kowloon. Veering right, at some 200 mph, the pilot then squeezes the plane between towering apartment blocks and just above crowded streets. It is sweet relief when the wheels finally touch down on the tarmac.
The tournament itself certainly lives up to expectations. The national stadium, nestled in the So Kon Po hillside in Causeway Bay, seats 45,000 rabid fans. Many, dressed in outlandish costumes, are by mid morning well into the booze. Denizens of the infamous South stand party furiously, screaming and shouting for the underdog. They get their reward in my first game, going bonkers when unfancied Thailand capitalizes on a lucky bounce to take an early lead vs heavily favoured Fiji. The Fijians quickly restore regular service and run out comfortable winners, by 40-7. But it matters nought. The tone has been set for the day.
In the end, New Zealand claim the Cup, beating Fiji 35-17 in a scintillating championship match. A young phenom named Jonah Lomu announces himself on the world stage, a colossus of frightening size, pace and power.
For me personally, it is a satisfying weekend. I perform well, and then am selected as a touch judge for the gripping final. Even better, my father makes the long trek across the Pacific to watch. He loves his rugby. It is the first time he has ever seen me referee outside Canada. He beams with pride.
Father and son then share more time together. We play tourist, riding the Star Ferry. The harbour is a hive of activity. Hundreds of wooden sampans, junks, tugs and container ships criss cross or chug by, somehow managing not to collide. The sun beats down, but the breeze off the water is invigorating. On the return from Kowloon to Central terminal it is impossible to ignore the dense towers of downtown Hong Kong, the green mountains rising behind them.
In the evening we visit Victoria Peak. We wait some time at the station, but the ride makes it worthwhile. The trip may only take five or six minutes, but in places the track gradient is as steep as 27 degrees. The scenes are breathtaking, skyscrapers in the city centre, a busy harbour, inky outlying islands, all visible from the tram or various observation decks.
Still, our last day is by far the most significant. It starts in the city centre at Exchange Square. My father and I sit up top a route #6 double decker. We are headed south. The trip takes an hour, first offering panoramic views of Repulse Bay. The bus then climbs a narrow, twisting road before descending to the Stanley Market.
However, we are not there to shop for arts and crafts.
Rather, we plan to visit the Stanley Military Cemetery. Situated a mile from the market, it is an immaculate, triangular piece of ground rising sharply from the roadside. Negotiating the steep grassy slope, and then a flight of steps leading up to the Cross of Sacrifice, we search for one specific headstone.
My father is understandably subdued. He is now nearing 70. A long time has passed since he was a young boy, aged 11, departing Shanghai in 1937 for boarding school in Britain. Little does that young boy know he will not return to Asia. Little does he know he will also never again see his parents.
World War II looms. Japanese Imperial forces first smash China, then run amok in the Pacific theatre. After a brief, bloody fight, British controlled Hong Kong falls on Christmas Day 1941. My father’s parents are among nearly three thousand non-Chinese nationals held in the Stanley internment camp.
Conditions are horrible. Disease, brutality and lack of food take their toll. But for nearly four years, most of the prisoners somehow evade death, scratching out a meagre existence thanks to courage, wit and invention.
1945. The Americans have already won the Battle of Midway. Now, supported by their allies, they further wrest back control of the Pacific from Japan. But a January 16 attack on Hong Kong goes tragically wrong when a US navy plane, low on fuel, jettisons its bombs. The bombs crash into Bungalow 5 at the Stanley camp. Fourteen internees are killed. Among them are Alexander Hyde-Lay, age 51. And Elizabeth Hyde-Lay, age 41.
And just like that, a family history is indelibly linked to Hong Kong.
We find the headstone. Father and son stand near the rough hewn granite slabs, each immersed in thought. The father deals with memories of parents taken far too soon. The son of grandparents he never had a chance to meet.
The minutes pass.
Then I reach out and take my father’s arm. We turn to leave.