BOOK REVIEW: The Hong Kong Letters

By Gill Shaddick. Blacksmith Books, Hong Kong. Soft cover, 232 pp.

In 1965, a 21-year-old woman who in her own words mooched around London in a miniskirt, lace-up boots and a faux Cossack hat, fed up with her job in London and looking for adventure, caught the Siberian Railway for Asia. When she got to Vladivostok, she climbed aboard a tiny Russian freighter called the MS Baikal for Hong Kong, where she joined an advertising agency as a temp, headed by a redoubtable woman named Betty Church.

Decades later, after a long series of adventures that took her across what was then the British colonial world, she discovered her father had saved the voluminous letters she had written to her family back in the UK, and she chose to turn them in a book both amusing and by turns affecting about her period in Hong Kong. Attractive and naïve, Shaddick might have been described as the archetypal British bird, flitting across the crown colony from party to party to sailing date to lunch.

But in the middle of that Shaddick found herself, to her horror, a junior member of the advertising agency’s staff, looking up at a titanic battle for control as Church entered a partnership with a former World War II flying ace named Patrick O’Neil-Dunne, who bought into the firm and set out to professionalize it. It is a small-scale donnybrook as intense, for all its minute size, as anything that ever happened in the halls of Saachi & Saachi, and every bit as entertaining.

Although a relatively minor member of the team, she found herself in the middle as Church, a veteran Hong Kong doyenne, race-horse owner and confidante of the city’s colonial old guard on one side, and POD on the other, as O’Neil-Dunne was known, attempting to move the firm into the professional world on the other. Sounding-board and confessor to both, she found herself horrified at her position.

The battle for primacy grew astonishingly bitter, with POD discovering as he visited clients that Church had got there first, preempting the business he was trying to do, Church explaining that she “’had been cheated out of her business, diddled by her dearest friend, left penniless,’ she said. Her real concern, the reason for her visit, she had to let them know, was that Mr O’Neil-Dunne simply did not understand China. I, on the other hand, have more than 40 years of experience.”

The battle would devolve into lawsuits and counter lawsuits. Members of the staff suffered nervous breakdowns, one junior ad executive being taken away to the loony bin before being sent back to London.

O’Neil-Dunne finally succeeded in driving her out of the business. But “her departure was never really final. POD took a full-page advertisement in the South China Morning Post announcing his purchase of the business and her retirement. However, everybody soon knew her new mantra, that she would see us all out and sink Paddy O’Neil-Dunne once and for all.”

The virulence of the squabble, with Church pulling out all the stops in her attempt to retain control of the company she had basically ceded to O’Neil-Dunne, would eventually wreck the partnership and the firm itself, and blight Shaddick’s time in Hong Kong.

But that was subplot to the record of her time in the city. She had “arrived at an interim time – the space between shock and specter. The Japanese occupation of the colony from 1941 to 1945 and Mao Zedong’s declaration of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 were still raw, while ahead lay the extraordinary notion that when the lease on the new Territories ran out, Hong Kong would return to China in 1997. These events shape a phenomenal explosion of activity in Hong Kong. Money was the religion and it was a sin not to make it. “

She found a Hong Kong in vivid detail, a city that in 1968 “had an extraordinary energy and buoyancy and I, already smitten, floated on a sea of exhilaration. I dawdled in busy streets magnetized by the sight of women hawkers who dodged around me in black pajamas wearing wide-brimmed hats – often with a baby tied to their backs. Throngs of chattering office girls in Cheongsams – the captivating, tight, sleeveless dress with a Mandarin collar that became fashionable in Shanghai in the 1920s – floated past, cool and elegant, contrasting with the pale European woman permanently sheened in perspiration.”

Much of the book is thus a travelogue to the past, including her coming preoccupation with the sea. Shaddick found time to escape from the maelstrom at the office to become a keen sailor of small boats from Stanley, on the back side of the island, and tomboy chum of a flock of British Army amateur sailors, who at one point managed to get themselves captured by the People’s Liberation Army after having taken a wrong turn in a storm. That made her – and them – an international incident before they were finally freed.

In all, it is an entertaining tale of the city that many of us came to love that she tells in this slender, rather modest but appealing memoir. When she was freed from the Chinese authorities, she said, she found it virtually impossible to concentrate on her work. She “walked down to the harbor. I was feeling on top of the world, peaceful and fortunate and content when a strange happened.

“I stepped into a new dimension, a vibrant wonderful dimension where even the squalid and unlovely aspects of Hong Kong were beautified, the asphalt I walked on extraordinary, the unlit neon light newly radiant. The people were all exquisite, their movements fluid, their clothes yielding in harmony, every color better than technicolor. Although it only lasted a few moments until the newsreel of daily life snapped back, I had experienced something singularly and extraordinary.”

It defied explanation, she wrote. She had no one with whom to share it, to seek to convey the feeling that somehow she had been ambushed by euphoria. She tried to recreate it by walking the same path. She was never able to do so. But there were some of us who can relate to it. As an equally young correspondent in Vietnam who often flew to Hong Kong on R&R to escape the war, walking along what was then the Queen’s Pier, turning to walk down the tunnel to the Star Ferry on its humid, fog beshrouded trip to Kowloon, it was possible to slip into that euphoric new dimension. It is a city that is gone today although the pursuit of money is as feverish as ever.