My Dad was a chef, a great chef! (part 2)

My activities map
My activities map
One of my many audacious jumps
One of my many audacious jumps

Government House – my playground

My favorite past times were playing in the garden, spending hours chasing butterflies, catching grasshoppers and crying my heart out while watching some old black and white movies. With the hours and hours I spent under the sun, I was nicknamed either “darkie” or “big eyes” by the neighbours. I would go home every evening with cuts and bruises. As a young boy, I especially enjoyed watching the Scottish guards marching to hoist the flag at 8:00am and lower the flag at 6:30 in the evening. I remembered asking Dad why those soldiers were wearing skirts! I also learnt a few rituals of Government House. When the Governor was in Government House the Governor’s flag would be hoisted. The Governor’s flag was slightly different from the flag of British Hong Kong. It had the coat of arms in the centre of the Union Jack whereas the Hong Kong flag had its on the left bottom. I could also tell who were on the limousine by listening to the horns when it approached the main gate – 3 horns would be the Governor, 2 would be the Lady of Government House and 1 would be guests staying at Government House. Another ritual practiced was all emergency vehicles had to switch off their sirens when passing by Government House. Another daily routine that I looked forward to everyday was when the Housekeeper, Ms. Nancy Wilson, brought her beloved cockatoo – “Cocky” for a walk. I would go down and play with Cocky. Ms. Wilson would speak to me even though I could hardly understand what she said. For some reason, she started to call me “David”, a name that I dropped when I went to primary school. To me that period of my life was truly without a care in this world. As I watched my brothers and other kids going to school every morning, Mum decided to send me to a neighborhood kindergarten that had two impacts on me. First, the teacher made me change from left to right hand (though I am technically ambidextrous). Second, it was a Chinese kindergarten and as a result I struggled a great deal in my junior primary.

Eddy Lee, a nephew of my Dad’s Sous chef, became my best pal even though he only came to visit during school holidays. We would spend hours talking and catching dragonflies. We did almost everything together; he also became my partner in crime. On one occasion, both of us found out the real meaning of “Out of bounds”. In one of many weekends that we spent together, we wanted to inject our lives with new excitement. We were in an ebullient mood and decided to venture deep into Government House. We sneaked in from the back garden into somewhere that looked like a living room. We were so amazed how beautiful the place was and we decided to relax and sit in a huge armchair and before long we found ourselves jumping and bouncing from one sofa to another. As it was still early in the day, we explored deep into the place. We were practically crawling up the stairs to 1st floor. As we ascended to the top of the stairs, a small red blinking light attracted my attention. I signalled Eddy to follow me as I approached the light. While we were figuring out what the little red light was about, we heard footsteps galloping up the stairs and before we could react to the sound. We saw the Governor’s Aide-de-Camp. We were so frightened that we started to run even though we did not know our way. The ADC who was fluent in Cantonese shouted at us to stop and when he caught up with us, he pulled us by our ears and dragged us out to the garden. He then told us that the Governor would not know about our adventure but our parents would hear from him. I was preparing for the worst when Dad came home that evening. He went to Mum and they sat me down later. He said to me that there were places in Government House that were out of bound and I should abide to those rules and I was not to do that again. A few weeks later, a fence was erected and we were not allowed to cross that boundary. Not a lot of people knew the fence was erected because of our audacious adventure.


The Chef

Dad went on to serve 4 governors, from Sir David Trench to Lord David Wilson. He prepared everything from finger food to dinner parties for the Kings and Queens and many foreign dignitaries in a time span of more than 30 years. There were stressful moments and interesting anecdotes. No, this is not my story; this is a story about my Dad, Siu Kit Wah B.E.M., through the eyes of a boy growing up in Colonial time. I thought it would be nice to tell his stories so that the grandchildren and their progenies would get to know this gentle chef.


Governor Trench meeting staff and family members - Dad was the tallest man standing at the back, my brother, Man, was in the 1st roll wearing a checkered shirt.
Governor Trench meeting staff and family members - Dad was the tallest man standing at the back, my brother, Man, was in the 1st roll wearing a checkered shirt.

Sir David Trench and my first taste of Dad’s cooking

Sir David Trench, the 24th Governor of Hong Kong became Governor from April 1964 to November 1971. He was also the Governor who recruited my Dad as the Head Chef of Government House. My memory of Governor Trench was almost naught apart from him being a large man who gave out red packets during lunar New Year, a Government House tradition which I had no idea when it started but one thing I rather had in the packet was real money than a chocolate coin. All the rest were recollections from my parents. Governor Trench’s era was sometime regarded as the most corrupted period of Hong Kong. Bribery and corruption were rampant even among government services and most public services; for instance, the fire brigade would not put out fires unless they were paid; phone lines would only be installed with extra tea money. The most controversial and talked about event might be the awarding of Cross Harbour Tunnel project to the only bid in a “no tender situation” from Hutchison & Whampoa; a British ‘hong’ chaired by Governor David’s close friend Sir Douglas Clague.

According to Dad, Governor Trench was a typical Colonial administrator who enjoyed life as the representative of Queen Elizabeth II and Commander-in-Chief of Hong Kong. Being a keen golfer, he would spend Wednesday and Saturday in Fanling Lodge playing his favorite game and no issue would be too big to get his attention away from the game. The Governor was a big fan of barbecue and he threw many BBQ parties with his congenial golfer friends at the Fanling Lodge. In order not to have his barbecue parties affected, he would hold all official lunch or dinner on Tuesday and Thursday. Dad also remembers the Governor as a gourmand, he could finish his favourite 1½ pound T-bone steak, lamb chop or half a roasted duck in a meal. Another favourite pastime of the Governor was playing with kids. The Governor adored children and most of the kids in Government House were quite young at the time. The Governor would come to the playground at the staff quarters to play with the children whenever he could hear kids’ laughter. The kids were frightened initially and would run for their lives when they caught the sight of the Governor. However, through the persistence of the Governor, he eventually won the hearts of many children. In fact, it was Governor Trench who constructed the swings and monkey bars in the playground next to the staff quarters. We even had an indoor table tennis room, a rare treat in those days. He also constructed a basketball half court, something that helped me to develop into a sharp shooter in the later part of my teens. Most of the kids in Government House grew up strong and healthy probably because of the rigorous exercise and long hours spent on the monkey bars.


1967 Riot

The British were like royalty in Hong Kong then. The first time I witnessed their supremacy being challenged was during the riot in 1967. It was also my first encounter of human atrocity. The mayhem started with left wing unionists protesting against a 5 cents increase in the Star ferry fare that led to a number of labor unions calling a full-scale strike. Rumors had it that Communist China was behind that, and what started as a peaceful demonstration turned into an attempt to overthrow the “Imperial British” led Hong Kong government. Curfews were in place and staff members’ families were advised to evacuate to different part of the island. Truckloads of people were escorted out of Government House every evening. As each truck started to inch out of the gate, eggs and stones were thrown at the truck and I could hear people shouting “traitors, traitors……..”. Mum held on to me so tight that it eased the fear slightly. This went on for a while until one evening when Dad came home earlier than usual. He told us we were to stay put and stay indoors that evening. Later that evening, I found out that the army and police were to change from their defensive position to an offensive one. (As I understood later, the British had confirmed that the Chinese was not behind the riot and it was merely a domestic unrest.) The main gate opened for the first time after a long while, and then troop after troop of police charged at the demonstrators. I couldn’t see much apart from the sight of a policeman whacking his baton at one of the demonstrators, blood was gushing out of his head. The noise that evening was worse than any thunderstorm I have ever experienced. There was also an incident happened during the riot that Dad still talks about. An anonymous letter was sent to the kitchen and the letter tried to instigate a revolt and suggested the staff to poison the Governor and his family. Dad escalated the matter to the highest authority but no arrest was made after much investigation and it remains as a cold case today.

Towards the end of 1967, with the Governor Trench’s blessing a stern policy towards the local leftists was implemented to restore normal conditions. Given the gradual resumption of political order, the government began to turn its eyes to the economy. Governor Trench said, “At present the principal threat to the Colony appears to be the risk of long-term economic stagnation caused by reluctance to invest. If the policy of reviving trade with Hong Kong is pursued, it will become more difficult subsequently for the Communists to revert to the aim of making the Colony an “economic desert”, and to encourage terrorist activities that might have the same effect.”


Post-riot reform

The government thus appeared to slide back into its customary complacency since the decline of demonstrations no longer made social reforms so critical. However, in the wider society, both the masses and the elites began to advocate reforms.

Popular support for the government hinged on the people’s belief that they had a lot to lose if the leftists were to win. It was therefore crucial for the masses to feel that they were getting their fair share of the fruits of economic growth and that the government was taking adequate measures to meet their aspirations for better living conditions and wider educational opportunities for their children. After the riots were over, it was commonly agreed that the government should launch a social programme that could change the image of the Hong Kong government and to improve its governance in the long term.

For instance, at the end of 1967, the United Nations Association in Hong Kong asked the Hong Kong government “to produce a happy and law abiding population, amenable to reason, self-respecting, and self disciplined”. It demanded the government institute the following programme forthwith:

  • Compulsory free education.
  • Civil rights for residents of Hong Kong be equal to those enjoyed by the residents of the United Kingdom, in particular freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration.
  • Protection against uncompensated rises in the cost of living.
  • More and better social welfare provisions.
  • More and better medical care.
  • More and better housing.
  • Equal facilities to travel and enter neighbouring and other countries.
  • Protection against governmental, commercial and industrial exploitation.

A letter to the “Reader’s Mail” section of China Mail in 1968 also raised serious doubts about the government. A reader, writing under the pseudonym “Awake”, questioned if the government really knew what the vast majority of the people in Hong Kong were thinking about and he queried if the Governor got full, proper, and genuine information from his advisers. He further criticized the government for not investigating the feelings of the general population. In his words, “It is useless asking what the populace wants the government to do. Someone in Choi Hung Estate who has a very sick wife would want more hospitals. Another who has five children but only one attends school because he could not afford the fees for the others would want help in that regard”. In effect, most Hong Kong people did not believe that the government could share their feelings, and that it did not know what the majority of the people needed.

The elites also joined the masses in criticizing the Colonial government for not doing enough. Brook Bernacchi, Urban Councilor and Chairman of the Reform Club, warned:

“More riots “a repeat performance of 1967” will happen as a result of the government’s broken promises. But the people will not rally round next time. In 1967 a whole lot of people elected to back the government because they had come to Hong Kong on their feet. But the Hong Kong-born younger generation living in an atmosphere of frustration will be in the saddle by the time of the next crisis. They will not back the government.”

With the backdrop of all those calls for reform, Governor Trench continued his game of golf on every Wednesday and Saturday with a massive BBQ party to follow. While there were reforms carried out after the riot; Hong Kong people had to wait for the next Governor to see major reforms and social betterment in the Colony.


Come back for more on the story of my Dad

I will release the story bit by bit, be sure you stay tuned!

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