Posted by: Sam Olsen | January 9, 2012

Old soldiers

I was given a rare honour the other night by being asked along to the Hong Kong Ex-Serviceman’s Association for drinks. Set in a warehouse in deepest Kowloon, the Association’s clubhouse is the closest thing to an old British Naafi remaining in Hong Kong following Handover.

For those of you not so well acquainted with the drinking intricacies of the British squaddie, a Naafi is where the soldiers (and sailors) go to eat and make merry. This is no exception. The walls are festooned with the photos and plaques of Regiments and Ships that served in Hong Kong, many now long disbanded or scrapped. (Sadly there was no plaque from the forebear of my Regiment, the Queen’s Own Hussars, which was stationed here in the 1960s.) A bar, served by an elderly Chinese woman, was free-flowing – all you could drink for $30 (about £2.50). A buffet of tasty local food was spread opposite. I felt immediately at home, even with the Cantonese chat and chink-chink of mahjong.

I began talking to Albert Lam, MBE, the Chairman of the Association and a man whose upright disposition and kindly attitude would make him welcome in any mess. There are, he said, approximately 1300 members today, all coming from the Locally Employed Personnel (LEPs) that the British Armed Forces employed during the Colonial years. With 80% of them Army – the rest being Royal Navy, as the Chinese were not allowed to join the RAF for some reason – there is a distinct soldierly bent to the Association, and indeed 25 members still serve in the Army or the MoD Police. One is even serving in Afghanistan right now.

As you could tell from the moustache, Henry was a (WOII) Sergeant Major, in the Royal Military Police. The average Sergeant Major has more tales than you could count on the fingers of a Regiment, and Henry was no exception. They tended to revolve around the amazing and enduring ability of the British soldier to fight his way around the bars of the world. Did he mind having to break up yet another battle, whether it be with visiting American sailors, local Chinese, or just another Regiment? No, not at all, they were nice boys on the whole, he smiled. He is not alone in having fond memories of the UK and its Armed Forces: “I wish I was still in” was the most common phrase of the night.

Chinese Scottish

It turns out Henry doesn’t live in Hong Kong anymore. He moved abroad after he retired, looking for work because – according to what I hear from the ex-Servicemen – they receive no British Government pension. For many of the retired personnel in their 40s or 50s this is a pain, but not insurmountable. For many of the men in their 70s and 80s this is a very significant blow to their lives.

“Ginger” and “Bob” are two such octogenarian. Both (white) British, they are among a number of expat ex-Servicemen that still live in Hong Kong, having married local women when stationed here. Both still have the squaddie glint in their eye. But life is not easy, as Bob mentioned as we caught the train together. The champagne and club lifestyle of the modern Hong Kong is far beyond them; they live a much more local life.

Which is why the ex-Serviceman’s Association is so important to them. It is a link to the past, and a place to meet friends and do what soldiers do best – chat about the old days. It is not as if you could forget them here in the clubhouse, with the memorabilia such as it is. They even had a local piper play, which had everyone stamping, clapping and cheering along to Highland Cathedral and other such tunes.

Hong Kong may be part of China now, but it is still satisfying to know that there remains still a little corner of the UK here. It would be good for the Ministry of Defence to remember this.

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