Sunday, 8 July 2012

Slow Bloke To China: 6. Honkers - Sam & San Miguels, Sharks & Superstitions

'Have you ever been to Honkers?' someone once asked me at some party. 'Jolly cheap for shirts and suits.'

Well yes it was. The quality was good, too. I am still wearing my Mee Yee cotton shirt and my Kow Hoo Shoe Company brogues and golf shoes. That beats any Jermyn Street shirt and most bespoke English shoes. The cotton shirts were a fiver and £10 for silk and the shoes were HK$225 a pair , roughly £18 - 20 at the exchange rate then. That was cheaper than Marks and Spencers.

There was Sam's Tailor, too, famous in 1979, but in a discreet way and prices were more expensive than other tailors, but still reasonable compared to London prices. That was before it became 'celebrity' following visits from members of the British Royal Family, Bill Clinton, Michael Jackson and then most other world leaders, sportsmen, politicians and rock stars. The prices skyrocketed.

When I went in 1979, I had been forewarned that you could spend a long time in that shop.

'You sit down, have a beer.' An ice cold San Miguel appeared. The first time I thought, how generous of them. But it was the signal that either the suit was not ready or it was with some outworker on the other side of town, or both. It was not unusual to sink four or five beers, before the suit arrived. When it did, you were generally merry, tipsy or pissed and not only did you pay for the suit but ordered three more. It was the most brilliant Marketing strategy I have ever known.

But there was more to Sam's than that. It was the atmosphere, the small shop, the constant chatter, the shouts, the shrieks, the commotions and stream of visitors, yet at the same time maintaining an aura of professionalism and peace. Sam was better than some other tailors I used where the suit jacket arrived with one arm shorter than the other.

I fell in love with Hong Kong from the first time I smelt the air on the runway at Kai Tak. I was lucky, having an uncle living there, who owned a motorbike. He took me as a pillion passenger, weaving through the traffic. Everything seemed like magic.A tram ride to the Peak, an afternoon by the Jockey Club Country Club's pool, amazing food, cocktails at the Mandarin Hotel, a barbecue on the balcony of a flat in the Mid Levels which overlooked the harbour, the racecourses at Sha Tin and Happy Valley, the trams, the markets, the...the...the...

But there was also the other side to Hong Kong. We were taken to the Vietnamese re-settlement area in Kowloon and shown the tiny flats, 12 feet by 12 feet, with iron grills on the windows.  On we went to Castle Peak Bay where I made my first acquaintance with the squat loo and on to the township of Yuen Long.

'Gamblers' town,' said our guide, 'full of casinos and prostitutes. The town was busted once by the FBI and Interpol. Many policemen were hcharged and it was rumoured that even the Governor was sent back to England for smuggling, but that has all been hushed up.' For the rest of the tour we sat bolt upright and hung on his every word.

'Gangster town - over there'


'Deep River Bay - a popular feeding ground!'

'Are we going to have lunch there?' asked one of the group.

'No, no,' said the guide, looking surprised. 'By feeding ground, I meant a lot of Chinese eaten by sharks as they tried to escape from Mainland Red China.'

'Great Ghost Bridge,' he went on. '40 children went for a picnic by this bridge. A typhoon killed them.'

The superstitions kept arising. There were stone pillars by the road to commemorate where someone had died in a car accident. The Chinese believed that someone who cut their life short in a car crash would become a ghost and not be reincarnated. To end their suspended agony, the ghost had to possess someone and make them die early. There fore no one must go near these stones. I did see some people who were walking down the road and crossed to the other side twhen they saw the stone pillars.

I saw so many other superstitious things. People wearing red clothing when their birthday fell in the same year as their animal (rat, ox, snake etc). On the racecourse cleanenrs who had been sent in during the races with brooms to clear some of the rubbish had come back beaten up and with black eyes. They explained that the punters thought they had come to sweep their luck away.

Then we turned a corner and stopped at the Eagle's Nest, a hill on the Chinese border. This was my first view of China. The view was littered with watchtowers and guards and barbed wire and fences. This was forbidden territory. And to think that tomorrow I would be over there.

I couldn't wait.

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