Sunday, August 19, 2007

Reminiscing.......(Part 2)

In the 1970s, my life revolved around Central District as I ventured into working life, landing my first job with one of the three famous British “hongs”.

Hong Kong at that time was very much under the influence of British corporate interests, which occupied commercial buildings scattered on Queen’s Road Central, Des Voeux Road Central and Connaught Road Central.

Prince’s Building used to house many shipping and trading companies like World-Wide Shipping, Hutchison, Jebsen Trading etc.; Union House (later named Swire House) carried the Swire Group, Wheelock Marden (which moved to old Lane Crawford House in 1973) and a host of lawyer firms; old Jardine House on Pedder Street had been home to the Jardine/Hongkong Land group before it moved to Connaught Centre, now called Jardine House, in the mid 1970s; while old Lane Crawford House, Gloucester Building and Edinburgh House (now The Landmark) catered to space needs of different types of commercial enterprises and professional practices.

A number of the old buildings had impressive styles of architecture.

My own favorite was the old Lane Crawford House on Des Voeux Road Central, flanked on one side by Bank of East Asia and the other by Gloucester Building. It was a six-storey Victorian style (I think) building clad in greyish granite stones with a mosaic glass-adorned facade and equipped with grand marble staircase. Tasteful window dressing of the Lane Crawford department store on the ground floor made the building even more charming.

Another of them was the old General Post Office building (situated at the junction of Pedder Street and Des Voeux Road Central). It was built in 1911 on the newly reclaimed section of Pedder Street and was a typical Edwardian style construction of granite and red brick. I only have a faint recollection of its interior – it had very high ceilings decorated with ceiling fans. As for the exterior, I found this photo:-

In 1976, the building was torn down to make way for the MTR Central Station and World-Wide House, and the GPO was relocated to Connaught Place on the waterfront.

Another memorable building was the old HSBC building at No. 1, Queen’s Road Central, built in 1935. Its design was of the Chicago school style of architecture. I recall that the bank used to give away to customers red plastic money-saving boxes in the shape of the bank building, with a coin slot at the top and a key-locked flap at the back. The little red box instilled in our generation the good concept of money saving. Here is a photo of the building:-

In place of the old building was built in 1985 the new HSBC building of Norman Foster fame.

Those were days of affluence for the British taipans and corporate executives. The chairmen of the hongs used to own enormous estates in Shek O and Peak mansions. Some of their senior executives used to be nested in luxurious flats on the Peak. The Mandarin Hotel and Hong Kong Club were favorite lunch spots for taipans and expatriates. The stately Peninsula Hotel was often chosen as the venue for company annual staff parties at Christmas.

For most Chinese white-collar staff though, everyday life was light years away from such opulence. But those who had jobs could still have a pretty decent living. Junior office workers at large British firms had opportunities to pursue further studies to get promoted or change jobs. Upward mobility in society was possible if one worked sufficiently hard at it.

It was habitual for local office workers in Central to have occasional dim-sum lunches at the Union Restaurant 於 仁 酒 樓 (on the top floor of Union House) and Gloucester Restaurant 告 羅 士 打 酒 樓 (in Gloucester Building), and to regularly have lunch boxes from On Lok Yuen 安 樂 園 , or rice noodles with succulent barbecued goose at the famous Yung Kee 鏞 記 on Wellington Street. They also had the option of subscribing to home-made lunches delivered to offices.

There was one special afternoon-tea snack that I particularly cherished – it was introduced to me by a Portugese colleague at my first job. The snack was an open face grilled cheese sandwich specially made by Club Lusitano on Ice House Street and it tasted so delicious! That colleague, whose name was Cavalho, was a kind chubby gentleman who treated me and other co-workers to lunch at that Club several times. Sadly, he died when I was in my third year on that job.

As far as I can remember, if there was any envious sentiment amongst the working class towards the British bosses in those days, it was not noticeable, as the latter always tried to be humane and reasonable in their dealings with local staff. Expatriates and local staff on the whole got along reasonably well. From my own experience, I will say that I am forever grateful to two of my former British bosses (one at my first job and the other my second) who threw me a lifeline when I found myself in hot water. Both of them did it out of compassion and genuine concern for a subordinate.

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