What Uncle Roy Ate Before He Ran For His Life - Tracing China's Past (Part 4)

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(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Tuesday, April 20, 2010)

March 26, 2008
Hong Kong

I wanted a “hearty” breakfast. Fiona Zhu wasn’t familiar with that word, so I said, “I want to eat a meal that will make me feel full and make me strong… so I can walk all day.” She still seemed at a loss, possible because I also said I wanted to eat what locals eat. Finally, I mentioned jook, a rice porridge usually served with bits of meat and vegetables. I’d never eaten it before, but it was something my Uncle Roy had told me he remembered eating when he lived in China. Jook was something Fiona understood.

We found a tiny restaurant with no English-language menus or pictures, so Fiona picked all our dishes. She ordered jook with fish; I ordered mine with beef. We shared a plate of changfen: small, smooth rice-flour rolls with a texture like surimi, served with dipping sauces. We also shared a pyramid-shaped treat called zongzi, made of glutinous rice stuffed with filling and wrapped in bamboo leaves; this one was filled with pork and egg. I found the changfen and zongzi tasty. The jook tasted fairly nondescript, but I was excited to taste a dish from my uncle’s childhood.

When Uncle Roy and his brothers and sisters lived in China, at first they ate jook with meat and vegetables, because they were well-to-do by Chinese standards. When their fortunes waned and World War II reduced Hong Kong Chinese to living on rations, there was less and less meat and vegetables to put in the porridge, and soon, less and less rice, until the jook was mostly water. Although our breakfast was “heartier” than that, it was composed mainly of rice, rice, and rice, and I began to wonder where my nutrition was going to come from in China, how Chinese people survived, and how I was ever going to manage another bowel movement.

I wanted to try to guess the path Uncle Roy took when he was a boy: the day he was caught on the street when he heard the American bombers coming.

After breakfast, we hopped on a bus to the Star Ferry Terminal, so we could walk in the Tsim Sha Tsui district. I wanted to see a few of the old buildings from my uncle’s day, and try to guess the path he ran when he was a boy: the day he was caught on the street when he heard the American bombers flying toward Hong Kong.

The waterfront's old clock tower once marked the terminus of the old Kowloon-Canton Railway.

We wandered along Salisbury Road, starting at the Star Ferry terminal. There, we checked out the waterfront's 1921 clock tower, which once marked the terminus of the Kowloon-Canton Railway. The Greek-revival-style tower of red brick and granite still bore the scars of World War II: obvious patches where multiple holes from multiple bombings and strafings had been filled in with replacement cement, red clay, or putty. I was amazed it had survived.

The tower of red brick and granite still bore the scars of World War II.

Continuing along Salisbury Road, which once faced the water, but now faces the massive buildings along the waterfront, we stopped at the pale silvery-green grandeur of The Peninsula Hotel, once and still the finest hotel in Hong Kong. This hotel stood near Uncle Roy’s boyhood flat on Salisbury Road, and his flat on Nathan Road, two of several places where he and his family lived while trapped on Hong Kong Island during the Japanese occupation.

The Peninsula Hotel stood near Uncle Roy’s boyhood flat on Salisbury Road, one of several places where he and his family lived during the Japanese occupation.

It was in The Peninsula Hotel, in Room 336, that the British officially surrendered to the Japanese on Christmas Day, 1941. And, if I understand Roy’s story correctly, it was this same elegant hotel that my uncle ran past, as he tried desperately to make it home before the bombing raid arrived.

It was in The Peninsula Hotel, in Room 336, that the British officially surrendered to the Japanese on Christmas Day, 1941.

I think it was along Salisbury Road, just before he turned, that he saw the man hiding under a honeysuckle bush. “I loved the smell of those honeysuckle bushes,” Roy told me. But that day, he looked at the man and thought, “Are you crazy? That won’t protect you from a bomb,” as he continued to run for his life. I think he must have been about to turn left onto Nathan Road, when he heard a voice tell him, “No! Not that way! Take the alley.” As he turned down the alley, the bombs began to explode along the path he’d almost taken.

Young Roy made it to the flat, as the bombs continued to fall.

Today, Nathan Road is filled with the roar of double-decker buses, small taxis, and foreign tourists.

Today, Nathan Road is filled with the roar of double-decker buses, small taxis, and foreign tourists. None of the old four-, five-, and six-story residential buildings of my uncle’s era remain. Now there are shops. Now there is the glittering cesspit of the Chungking Mansions, where small flats serve as cramped backpacker hostels. Now there’s an old gray concrete tower of flats, with dripping air conditioner boxes, and pants hanging to dry outside smeared windows.

Uncle Roy’s Hong Kong is mostly gone, destroyed, not so much by the Japanese or Americans, as by time.

But not all of it. We found the old, steep, curving road up to Signal Hill, also known as Blackhead Point, where the 1907 signal tower still stood. The small Edwardian style tower looked like a cousin to the old clock tower below. This was where a metal ball used to drop every day, in sight of the ships, so navigators could check their chronometers. That was before they started using radio signals, before my uncle’s time. But the tower was here in his day, and now gave me a glimpse of the color and texture of his childhood.

This signal tower was where a metal ball used to drop every day, in sight of the ships, so navigators could check their chronometers.

Today, a small park surrounds the tower with pink flowers, scattered trees, and singing birds, a relatively peaceful place from which to view the east opening of Victoria Harbour. The noise of the traffic and tourist hordes is a distant roar. Nearby, a small pagoda-shaped pavilion provides a contrast to the English-style tower, while a distant high-rise dwarfs them both. Much of the city encompasses such visual contradictions.

After our excursion, Fiona and I wandered down a nearby side street, and found a nightclub called CD Bar, where they served Thai food by day. We grinned at each other and nodded. For dinner, I ate chicken satay with peanut sauce and steamed rice. Yet more white rice. Still no "hearty" fare. But if Uncle Roy could run for his life on a bowl of watery rice porridge, surely a few pieces of chicken on a stick would be enough to get me back to the bus stop.

Cara Lopez Lee

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of "They Only Eat Their Husbands: A Memoir of Alaskan Love, World Travel, and the Power of Running Away," and the creator of Girls Trek Too, a blog & workshop dedicated to inspiring women to approach life as an adventure.    

Website: girlstrektoo.com/blog

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