Posted by: Sam Olsen | August 22, 2011

Cleanliness and Godliness

When we said we were moving to HK many of our friends gave us the details of people we should get in touch with. We have had drinks with a few, but the majority seem to be on holiday. Add to this the fact that babysitters are £18 an hour, and our maid will be starting in a few weeks anyway, and we decided (well, were forced) to have a quiet night in. We watched a DVD and had some pasta, accompanied by some strong German beer that wasn’t the best. Man, Saturday nights like this are why we moved to Asia.

So we awoke fresh and ready to go, and the destination was St John’s Cathedral here in Central. The Church of England has a canny ability to place itself at the centre of political life in many countries, and Hong Kong is a prime example. St John’s lies right at the heart of the Government district, and perhaps because of this, or another political reason, it is notable that the Cathedral is the only freehold land in the whole of Hong Kong.

St John’s is not to the same scale as a British cathedral, although in keeping with the local Chinese architecture it is built in the style of a 13th century English church. Its whitewashed walls sit in a simple square surrounded by enormous skyscrapers and the odd-remaining colonial Government building. A cross commemorating the World Wars lies at the centre of a patch of grass, alongside the grave of a certain Private Ronald Douglas Maxwell (1919 – December 23, 1941), who was killed in the Battle of Hong Kong and hastily buried here. After the War permission was granted to leave his grave undisturbed, so he remains the only person laid to rest in the Cathedral grounds.

What St John’s lacks in size it makes up for in numbers. We arrived as the 8am service was finishing, just in time to see a packed congregation take its leave. Oh well, we thought , they must do church earlier than in the UK. Although 9am is plenty early enough, believe me. But no. Our service started semi-busy, but people kept arriving all the way through, until after about 40 minutes there was standing room only. There must have been 450 people there, easily – and remember that this is just one of 6 services on Sunday – and the curious thing was, 400 of them were Filipinas. Being the traditional day off for the maids, most of them seem to use their Sundays to go to church. But as the Philippines are 80% follow Rome, imagine how many of them were at the Catholic establishments.

There were a few things different about the service. First is that the hymns were sung quietly, perhaps because many of those at the service don’t have English as a first language and “Tell Out My Soul” doesn’t so easily trip off a Tagalog tongue. Second, the congregation was asked to pray for the “President of the People’s Republic and the Chief Executive of Hong Kong” rather than the Queen, which was a little odd but shows remarkable political deftness. Third, at the sign of the peace, the congregation didn’t shake hands, but merely looked at each other and nodded. Howard Hughes, and all fellow mysophobes, would be happy here. And as well they might be, because the whole of Hong Kong is absolutely scared stiff about getting ill. Remember SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome? Thought not. But this respiratory disease killed 299 people in HK in 2003 and has seemingly left a paranoia about germs. (Incidentally, SARS is also the name of the South African Revenue Service, and is no doubt equally as popular.)

So, given the constant desire to de-germ everything – all the call buttons for lifts have a sticker next to them indicating how often they are sanitized – my communion performance caused a little wave of panic. With 450 people to get through, there were numerous little communion stations dotted around the altar, each with a limbering queue of Filipinas and the odd Westerner, including the Englishman wearing Bermuda shorts, black ankle socks, black brogues, with an untucked work shirt and carrying a satchel. I was given the bread with no problems (it is a rather simple procedure to be honest), but to my horror as I was popping it into my mouth I noticed the girl in front dipping her bread into the wine chalice, rather than sipping out of it. I briefly toyed with disgorging the by-this-stage rather soggy flake, but thought this might not be the done thing. All I could manage was “Oh, you do things differently here”. To my relief, and the horror of the 100 people behind me in the queue, the priest took a quick look at me and announced that “Don’t worry, you can drink”. I get the distinct impression that I had better learn this difference for next time.

We finished off the morning with coffee and biscuits in the Li Hall next to the Cathedral, engaging in the normal small talk that happens when complete strangers are forced together over a hot drink. We were though treated to a piano recital by a prodigious 8 year old Chinese girl, turning out perfect tunes without any effort. But then, this is probably the normal standard round these parts. Imagine – all that time sanitizing and still having time to practice the piano.

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