Nostalgia 2: Remembering Hong Kong

CLAIRE: We welcome the first of Remembering Shanghai’s periodic guest bloggers, Susan Blumberg-Kason, the author of Good Chinese Wife, co-editor of Hong Kong Noir and a regular contributor to the Asian Review of Books. We’ve had some fun here juxtaposing my mother Isabel’s black and white photos—taken in her early years after moving to Hong Kong from Shanghai in 1950—with the color images taken by Susan’s mother on a visit to Hong Kong in 1962. Coincidentally, that was the very year that I was born at Hong Kong’s Canossa Hospital on Old Peak Road.

SUSAN: As Hong Kong’s future seems to unfold before our eyes, I can’t help but think back to past years that have defined Hong Kong’s very unique and special history. I was first drawn to Hong Kong because it seemed so different than any place I’d read about.

My grandparents had just returned from a trip to Hong Kong in the fall of 1982 and drove to my family’s suburban Chicago home, bearing gifts. They also mentioned talks to hand Hong Kong from British rule to Chinese sovereignty. I was only twelve, but somehow knew Hong Kong was a British colony and that this news was a big deal. A couple years later, Britain and China would sign the Joint Declaration, which spelled out the terms for the 1997 Handover.

I would arrive in Hong Kong in 1990 to study and work there on and off until 1998, eight months after Hong Kong returned to China. My main impetus for moving to Hong Kong was to experience it before the Handover and to be there during that historical night.

My grandparents had traveled to Hong Kong seven or eight times from the mid-1960s until that trip in 1982, all thanks to my uncle’s airline passes. But my mom was the first in the family to see Hong Kong—in 1962—during a summer in Asia during college. As it turns out, 1962 was quite a year in Hong Kong. The Great Leap Forward had just ended in China and millions were starving there. The borders opened for a short period to alleviate some of this starvation. Hong Kong, with a history of taking in refugees, sheltered these new arrivals.

My mom landed in Hong Kong after the border was closed again, but before Typhoon Wanda wreaked havoc later that summer. The one thing she couldn’t escape was the water shortage that summer. She tells of the brief amount of time water was available each day.

Some years back, I found her slides from that trip and scanned them. It was fascinating to see the tourist circuit back then.

I marvel at the skyline along Hong Kong Island in this photo (above) and how much it has changed over the last 58 years. The Kowloon harbor front, on the other hand, seemed more or less the same as I remember from living there in the 1990s. Now, of course, it’s hardly recognizable.

As it is now, the Peak was a highlight back then, and not just for tourists. Just a few years before my mother visited the Peak Café (color photos at right), Isabel Sun Chao posed for a photo at the restaurant’s iconic entrance (left).


Isabel at the Peak Café in the 1950s (left); photos of the café taken by my mother in 1962 (right)


This is the view (below) from Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon looking out at Hong Kong Island. It’s so different now, but I recognize the Star Ferry Pier (no longer there) and Old General Post Office, just behind it (also long gone).


Speaking of views, this photo (below) was taken from Tiger Balm Gardens. If you look closely, you can see the shanties along the mountainside. Most refugees arriving in Hong Kong from China moved into less than sturdy homes, but to them it was worth the risk of typhoons and heatstroke.


Aberdeen was a popular tourist destination in the 1960s and even the early 1990s. I lived on a small island off Aberdeen for a summer three years before the Handover, so I knew this area in my daily commute (which involved a bus, not boats).

Aberdeen was known for its floating restaurants, but there was also one in Shatin, and at Castle Peak. I’ve heard that some of these older floating restaurants ended up floating around China and Australia.


Top: Raymond and Isabel Chao inspecting the catch of the day with fascinated and horrified guests at one of Aberdeen’s floating restaurants; below, left: floating restaurant at Castle Peak; below right: Aqua Luna, a restored junk used for dinner cruises.


These days, it’s impossible to find these gorgeous Chinese junks in Hong Kong, apart from the Aqua Luna, a restored junk that’s used for dinner cruises.



Sometimes when I used to walk around Hong Kong in the 1990s, I imagined it had always looked that way. But from these photos I can see how much the city has changed over the years. Perhaps recurrent change will save Hong Kong after all. We can hope!