16. A Language Adventure. Intensity, Hong Kong 1968 “
I had visions of Hong Kong as a romantic city with curved Chinese roofs and weeping willow trees. I was looking forward to immersing myself in this exotic environment. It was in June 1968 at the age of twenty two that I headed out to Asia for the first time. I took holidays on my way to Hong Kong and I was able to experience parts of the world that I had previously visited only in my imagination: in Italy, the magnificence of Rome and its disorderly traffic; in Israel, the timelessness of a starlit summer night over the ancient city of Jerusalem and the tension of a country after a recent war; in Iran, the exoticism of the Teheran bazaar and its reckless taxis bedecked with Christmas lights in June; in India, the splendour of the Taj Mahal and the turmoil of life in New Delhi; and in Thailand, the bright colours of Bangkok and the elegance of its people and culture. My excitement about my new assignment in Hong Kong was building throughout my trip.
Finally I touched down in Hong Kong, where I was met by the official car of the Canadian High Commission. As we drove through congested Kowloon with its forest of drab, gray, high-rise apartment buildings, I was suddenly brought back to reality. Hong Kong was no Shangri-la. However, as our car got onto the vehicular ferry to cross over from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island, I was suddenly treated to a waterborne kaleidoscope of ocean freighters, barges, war ships, Chinese junks and pleasure craft against a backdrop of modern skyscrapers and stately colonial buildings, all overlooked by Victoria Peak on the Hong Kong side.
Living in the Crown Colony of Hong Kong, as it was called in those days, I always felt a little hemmed in. Before you could go anywhere you had to fly out or take a boat. China was essentially closed, and this could be depressing. However, the least expensive way to cheer myself up was to pay ten or fifteen Hong Kong cents to cross
the harbour on the Star Ferry. I never got tired of studying the skyline and the traffic on the water during this fifteen minute crossing.
For the first months I lived on the Hong Kong side near Stanley and Repulse Bay. I had an unobstructed view of a romantic little bay where I could satisfy my desire for the exotic by studying the Chinese transport junks plying up and down the sparkling turquoise waters of the South China Sea. This relatively sparsely populated part of the Crown Colony had beaches, leafy semi-tropical vegetation and a large European population. It was like a resort. I was expected to live there and attend the Hong Kong University where all previous diplomatic language students had studied. But after a few months I chose to live and study on the more densely populated Kowloon side, and I enrolled at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Just as I had wanted to immerse myself in French culture in order to learn French, I took the same attitude into my Chinese learning.
Hong Kong is Cantonese speaking, and therefore does not offer immersion in Mandarin. However, it is Chinese and did offer an intense exposure to Chinese culture. I was taken out of my comfortable Western cocoon and exposed daily to the sounds and smells of the busy streets and markets, the shops selling Chinese medicine and other exotic products, the energy of so many people bustling in street-side workshops or peddling products they often carried balanced on a pole.