From 1941 to 1945, Japanese forces occupied Hong Kong. It’s unclear from my painstaking “research” whether that’s why Hongkongers now have a rabid obsession with Hello Kitty, and also Doraemon, who…I’m not actually sure is a train or a cat, or a picture of a cat on a train, or what. It does seem apparent though that both these suppurating calamities on my day-to-day life are as a direct result of the occupation.
Heinous war-time atrocities.
During the occupation, in the New Territories – where I live – a small territorial guerrilla force of about 400 soldiers formed to take on the Japanese. This hardy force of
fishermen fighters notably rescued three or four significant Hong Kong personages who were being held as prisoners-of-war. They were the last men standing, as it were, in the resistance. You wouldn’t believe it if you walked through my town now – a hamlet of locals sleeping on benches and gweilos drunk on junks – but back in the day, this was the last line of defence. We might not have an MTR station or a traffic plan, we still have a herd of wild cattle roaming around the joint, and good luck if you come here looking for a shopping centre – but we are apparently the best if it comes to international war-time skirmishes. And real estate agents. I mean there are like 17 real estate agents on Chan Man Street alone. TAKE THAT, SANRIO!
When the dust settled after the manful struggle and the occupiers withdrew, my town was left with a fortress built by the unlikely rural gladiators.
Shortly afterwards, when it became apparent a huge influx of people were looking to relocate to the area, desperate to live among the heroes of the resistance, the local eggheads were faced with trying to decide where to build a now direly necessary kindergarten. And some early councillor was like, “You guys, forget using the 4th floor of all those squished-together low-rises in the middle of town. Let’s leave them to be used for toddler dance studios and childcare centres in a few decades’ time. If there’s anything people with prams really appreciate, it’s dingy staircases. I really think the answer to this kindergarten conundrum is staring us right in the face. DER, THE GARRISON! We’ll just paint a huge rainbow on the front and no-one will even realise! Stick a big cross on the roof! And remove the turret guns la!”
So it was that my daughter came to attend school in an historical citadel. That was the least of her concerns, since classes are conducted entirely in Cantonese – a language she didn’t speak when we enrolled her. Yet even that was the second-least of her concerns, because her uniform was made out of yellow terry-towelling. And when we picked her up at the end of each day, her pants had been mysteriously pulled up under her armpits. One can imagine the conversation in the staff mess: “When will they learn to dress the baby ah? Pants up to nipples, looks really better wo!”
I had my own difficulties at the parent orientation, where I went in with a sense of confidence in my hard-won Cantonese progression – only to emerge crushed by two hours of speed-talking and cultural misunderstandings, and very little idea what the next two years of my daughter’s life would be like. Luckily, they provided subtitles for myself and the other three Westerners in the crowd.
And then there was a bit at the start where everyone joined together to sing a song of Christian welcome in Chinese and that was before they put the subtitles up, and I was just swaying in my seat clapping and moving my mouth around randomly until the part where they said HALLELUJAH which I really sang with all the gusto of a native speaker. (Even though I think that word is actually Hebraic. AM I ALWAYS DESTINED TO BE A MINORITY?)
After two weeks in
the barracks school, Zadie spoke Cantonese almost on a par with me, used chopsticks better than me, and was doing more homework than her older brother.
And now, after two years, she’s pretty well fluent in Cantonese, appears to do her maths in Chinese and then convert the answer into English, prefers steamed rice and shu mai over any other cuisine, calls me Mummy-ah, and is fully proficient at knowing how to “fold handkerchief and put inside pocket spontaneously after using it”. And also, is Polite Angel.
She’s finishing at the school next week. We’re very proud of our little rebel and what she’s achieved, even though she never won a prize in any of the competitions like, er, “Make a bookmark”. I know I’m not an educationalist or a childhood development…person or a psychologist, but I think it would be nice if everyone could just make a bookmark and use it to mark their place in a book, without it even being a competition! You know, instead of seeing it as a decisive stepping stone on the path to the 2028 Olympics. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong. Maybe some of these award-winning bookmark-making kids will be standing on the podium in 14 years’ time, national kit hoiked up to their nips, singing March of the Volunteers with a patriotic tear on their cheek.
I’ll be in the crowd chucking in a heartfelt HALLELUJAH every now and then.