Posted by: Sam Olsen | April 9, 2013

Hong Kong and Lady Thatcher

Whilst in the UK Lady Thatcher is remembered for her economic policies, in the US and Eastern Europe for her role in defeating communism, and by Arthur Scargill every time he closes his eyes, here in Hong Kong she is recalled as the politician most linked to the then-colony’s handover to China in 1997.

In fact, the media has been highly complementary about the ‘Iron Lady’. The South China Morning Post called here a “Giant of the twentieth century”, and even the China Daily, not one to normally come out in favour of Western politicians, printed flowery tributes and noted that “she was an outstanding woman and is admired by many Chinese girls and women”.

Making the HK news

Making the HK news

For some people here in Hong Kong, the former PM is not the most popular person in history, thanks to her limiting the number of locals that were granted British citizenship in the run up to Handover. This did not go down well, and was considered a betrayal by many – “We should all be allowed to come to Britain when it is they that made us, but now they are washing their hands of us and giving us over to the communists” is how one person put their then-thoughts to me. The cold reality though is that no British politician would ever have given out 7 million passports, no matter how hard-working the Chinese would have been when they arrived.

What is interesting is that she is currently very much in the public conscience here for another reason, linked to the run up to universal suffrage in 2017.

At present the Chief Executive (PM equivalent) and the Legislative Committee (like the Parliament) are not voted for in true democratic style, something that is due to change in the next few years.

Yet there is great anxiety amongst part of the local Establishment that some of ardent Hong Kong pan-democrats, who despise Beijing with great passion, will use the democratic transition to ensure that an anti-Beijing candidate is elected.

Many people here are worried about that because they cannot see how Mainland Chine would stand back and allow someone clashing with the Motherland to stay in power. As one newspaper here points out, Margaret Thatcher tried and failed to prolong British administration in Hong Kong. “If the ‘Iron Lady’ with the backing of a country could not get Beijing to agree to terms that would be closer to the British demands, it’s highly doubtful the pan-democrats here could change that three decades later.”

The message is quite clear: confront Beijing at your peril.

I was actually lucky enough to meet someone who was involved with the negotiations between Mrs Thatcher and the then Chinese supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping. My friend was one of the official translators for Deng, and described the scene thus:

The Lady was turned

The Lady was turned

“Deng sat waiting, chain-smoking as he always did, when Mrs Thatcher came in. He immediately started banging the table, telling her that China was not going to compromise, and that Hong Kong would return to China whether she liked it or not. The only question was how.”

I suggest that it would have been a brave person to have spoken to such a formidable leader as Thatcher, but Deng was a man who had twice managed to survive Mao’s purges, so he was not exactly a wilting flower. There was though very little she could have done, for although Hong Kong Island and Kowloon were British for ever, the New Territories lease was up, and there was no way that the colony could have survived without its hinterland. Besides, hanging on the Hong Kong would have made the arguments with Argentina over the Falklands look like chicken feed in comparison to what would have been a constant thorn in the side of Sino-British relations.

The new generation of Chinese leaders may not be quite in the same mold as Deng (although they are no doubt talented – you don’t reach the top of a 1.3 billion-branch tree without a modicum of ability) but they are still going to play hardball when it comes to China’s interests.

That is what makes a good statesman stand out. Just ask the EU about Margaret Thatcher.

Posted by: Sam Olsen | April 6, 2013

Car shame

“Alistair, I’m having a bit of trouble deciding something. We need to buy a car, but there are soon going to be 5 of us and so we reckon we’re going to need a 7 seater. But here in Hong Kong the car park spaces are so narrow that we’re planning on buying one with sliding doors to make it easier to hoick the kids in and out. So it’s a toss-up between the Mazda 5 and the Hyundai Santa Fe. Which one would you go for?”

“I’d rather die.”

Many a man would feel the same, but such is the horror of an expanding family when it comes to cars. I’m not even a petrolhead yet I still feel the shame of having to drive the automotive equivalent of a tax inspector.

Here is the car in its glory. (I was going to type ”beast in all its glory” but that would be a lie. It has as much roar as a candle-bunt moth.)

At least the powered sliding doors are a bit of a quirk. And it’s Japanese so probably won’t break down. And yes, I am desperate to be positive…





Posted by: Sam Olsen | April 4, 2013

Fake mourning and burnt maids


The Chinese are nothing but inventive. Need to honour the ancestors but just don’t have the time? Simply hire someone to do it for you.
Today is Qing Ming, or Tomb Cleaning Day, the official holiday to allow the Chinese to head to the graves of their forebears to pay their respects. Whereas up in China there is a well-developed market in cash-rich, can’t-be-arsed folks that would rather pay someone to weep at the graves of their parents than rock up themselves (although it does mean that the dead get to see some new faces, as this Youtube clip shows), here in Hong Kong the locals are a bit more straight forward.

When we drove to Wanchai today for dim sum (what a waste of effort – the restaurant was really bad, with the BBQ pork being mainly bone and the chicken noodles resembling the contents of a hospital sewer) we were halted by the police for what seemed an age as hundreds of families crossed the road heading to the neighbourhood cemetery.


I bumped into my Chinese friend Cyrus this afternoon at the Football Club playroom; I abandoned my watch of Lawrence to ask him a bit more detail of the festival. Like, for instance, just how many ancestors do you have to pay homage to?


“We just go to the graves that we know of” he replied, quite logically. “Once you get past your grandparents you’re probably not going to know where they all lie”.


I pointed out that the crowd we saw this morning heading into the graveyard all seemed to be carrying flowers. “That’s what most families do these days, but if you’re really Chinese, especially Daoist, you do things a bit differently. What they do is to take cut-out paper images of all the things that they need in the afterlife, like cars, or helpers.”


“Helpers? You mean, like Filipina maids?”


“Yep. They like make a paper doll, colour it in and take it to the cemetery. Then they burn it. Which is a bit weird because you’d think the ancestors wouldn’t want a burnt helper, but there you go.”


It’s a fair point. Maybe paying a fake mourner does make sense.






Posted by: Sam Olsen | March 15, 2013


We’re moving. After a year and a half in the heart of Blade Runner country we are off out West. Not quite as far as England, but to Pokfulam, at the left-hand tip of Hong Kong Island. More space, less money; more greenery, less pollution; more commute, less night-life temptation.

I’m waiting for the removal men as I type.

In honour of our former pad, here is a rushed rehash of the Brummie bleakness-tinged tune Blackberry Way (Check out the tashes and clunking chords here)

Robinson Road
Absolutely pouring down with rain
All our things are stowed

Up with a lark
Little Larry, don’t think he’s alright
He was stirring all night

So now I’m waiting for the movers
Lost, in the things that I said
What am I supposed to do now-w

Goodbye Robinson Road
I can’t see you
I don’t need you
Goodbye Robinson Road
Sure am going to miss my old abode

Gone to the zoo
All the monkeys and the birds and bears
There’s a memory there

Drinks in the pub
Unattended now, they’re all to drown
I’m incredibly down

Just like myself they are neglected
Turn, from the past to ‘Fulam
What am I supposed to do now-w

Goodbye Robinson Road
I can’t see you
I don’t need you
Goodbye Robinson Road
Sure am going to miss my old abode

Ooo-black, Ooo-black, ooo-ooo
Ooo-black, Ooo-black, ooo-ooo

Head to the West
Look in front of you and see the sea
And many a tree

Robinson Road
See the concrete standing thick and grey
Not a good place to play

So full of optimism moving on
Lost in the words that I said
Know what I’m supposed to do now-w

(Chorus – repeat to fade)

Goodbye Robinson Road
I can’t see you
I don’t need you
Goodbye Robinson Road
Sure am going to miss my old abode

Posted by: Sam Olsen | February 16, 2013

Oh, Samui

The Russian girl was on all fours in the surf, her head cocked at an awkward angle as she looked up at the camera. The waves were slapping uncomfortably against the backs of her thighs and her hands were slipping into the sand, but damn it, she was going to look seductive in those pictures. The squinting grimace and nylon pink bikini may not have been to everyone’s taste, but her boyfriend seemed happy enough to take the photos. At least she had managed to keep her costume on, unlike her bare-chested compatriots who were sitting, ironically, below the sign imploring tourists to be decently clothed.

Our walk down Chaweng Beach, the main drag of Koh Samui, was more than just a bad fashion-shoot and an unwanted display of Slavic flesh. It was also, apparently, a ticket to an international convention for the chronically tattooed. I’m not averse to a bit of inky adornment but this was ridiculous. The girl with a snake drawn all the way up her spine was particularly memorable, not because she was remarkably pretty, nor because she was audibly from Essex, but because the animal looked like it had been drawn by a blind drunkard suffering from a degenerative twitch.

Koh Samui, Thailand‘s famous holiday island and, as some would say, Asia’s Ibiza equivalent, is where we spent the Chinese New Year holiday, together with Aggie’s sister and her boyfriend. Jeremy and Cathryn – or Jummy and Carson, as Lawrence calls them, bringing to mind a kitsch 1970s cop show – flew in to escape the UK’s winter weather and, despite a little rain, we were thoroughly blessed with warm sun and clean air. The days were spent mainly by the beach-side pool, or looking for shells and crabs on the soft yellow sand.

Nelly feet

Nelly feet

We also went roving across the isle. Yet again I had arrived at a resort sans clothes, although this time it was less a case of the airline losing our bags and more me forgetting to pack anything more than some pants, socks and swimming trunks. Our first morning was therefore spent in the pursuit of my wardrobe. Ideally I wanted to buy some local, cheap and thoroughly disposable ware, but this was not as easy as it seemed at first. Yes, there were dozens of road-side stalls selling budget clothing, but the men’s range was limited to wife-beaters or t-shirts advertising beer. As we walked down Chaweng beach and saw the holiday makers there I could understand where the fashion inspiration had come from.

The whole of Koh Samui seemed to be overrun with hard-drinking tourists. The ‘fishing village’ of Bo Phut was one long strip of restaurants serving fish, chips and beer, with, in at least a cursory nod to the locals, the occasional ‘Thai Food’ establishment interspersed. The view of a picturesque Buddhist shrine we saw from the road was slightly spoilt by it having at its base two bars named “Aussie Land” and “Beer World”. And as for Chaweng – the less said the better.

Many of the visitors were Russian, or French, or even Chinese. But the vast majority seem to be from Britain or Australia. It may have been this preponderance of Anglo influence that lead my Japanese colleague to ask whether Thailand was a colony of Britain. Certainly, on the walk up to a semi-pretty waterfall, crossing rickety bamboo bridges and shinning up rock ledges, it felt like we were alternatively in Kent or Brisbane.

Rather than spend a day getting to know some of these tourists we decided one day to rent a boat for ourselves. Lawrence was incredibly excited about this trip, launching into renditions of “Pirate! Ooh-arghh!” when he saw the blue, green and red painted wooden craft that we had hired. The skipper and his mate took us straight to some fishing grounds about 300 yards off shore where we set down the anchor, put some squid strips on our hooks, and cast our lines.

Redneck Lawrence teaching his father how to fish

Redneck Lawrence teaching his father how to fish

It was Lawrence’s first fishing trip and he was a little unsure at first. He sat silent, gripping my shorts, and watching as Jeremy and I tried to land some of the many fish that were nibbling our bait. Eventually we landed a few snapper, which Lawrence helped to reel in, an event that made him feel much more relaxed. He especially liked the lunch on board, with its centre-piece of fried fish, and the chants of “Pirate!” soon returned.

Probably his favourite adventure was the elephant ride. As we did in Koh Chang, we made sure that we chose a stable which treated its beasts well, and they certainly looked in good nick as we trampled into the forest. Cathryn and Jeremy’s ride was lucky enough to find a coconut on the forest floor, which he broke open with his foot and then sucked out the meat with a thoroughly agile trunk-tip. Lawrence would have loved to see that but was so excited that he had fallen asleep. Still, he spoke about the nelly lovingly enough afterwards, much as he did about the snake.

One afternoon he was walking back from our room to the beach, accompanied by Aggie, when he pointed to a slithering thing on the floor a yard or so ahead of them: a small snake chasing after an even smaller frog. It eventually cornered its victim against the path wall and struck. The amphibian was still struggling as it was dragged off, clamped firm in the serpent’s jaws. As soon as the show was over Lawrence sprinted off to tell his uncle and aunt that “Snake eat frog! Snake eat frog!”

Gerald Durrell never had as good an introduction to wildlife as this, and he probably didn’t see any tattoos like it either.

The boat's catch

The boat’s catch

Posted by: Sam Olsen | January 27, 2013

Shopping fun


The Chinese man with a broken front tooth and several unshaven chins cheerily greeted me as I came into his shop. I was after a specific bit of electronica but was absolutely unsure how to say it in Cantonese. I tried my luck.


“Do you have multi HDMI adapters?” I asked, perhaps pushing the linguistic boundaries a touch.


“H…D…M…I?” he replied, slower than a man on his deathbed.


“Yes, that’s right. An adapter, for two cables. One socket, two cables.” I held up two fingers and started pushing them into an imaginary socket before I realised that there was extreme room for misinterpretation. I put my hands quickly down.


“H…D…M…I? Two cable?”


“Yes that’s right, two cables, one socket. Do you have one?”


He looked at me still, his eyes unblinking, his smile unwavering.


“H.D.M.I”. A bit quicker this time.


“HDMI.” Faster yet.


“So you have an HDMI adapter for two cables?” Almost there…


“HDMI adapter? No, no have it. Try somewhere else.”


With that he waved his arm and went back to reading the paper, leaving me to do nothing but walk out, defeated.


The thing is, shopping experiences in Hong Kong are often quite infuriating like this. It’s almost as if they see a Gweilo and look to have some sport, like a particularly cunning cat playing with a small white mouse. On the other hand, sometimes the experience can be rather sweet.


I headed out into Caine Rd, a long sinuous street that caps the Mid-Levels and lies at the bottom of our building, to do some late Saturday afternoon shopping. If you want to know, I was still after an electrical appliance, but this time it was an extension cable., so nice and simple.


Just at the junction of Caine and Peel is the Wing Ying electrical and water store. Given that these two elements are not natural bed – or even bath – fellows, it seemed a strange combination, but it looked a well-stocked enough establishment. As I walked in the shopowner nodded at me, whilst a woman that had been sitting at his side leapt up. I say leapt, but it was actually more of a slow, stick-assisted rise as she was in her 80s. Dressed in a thick orange puffer jacket, with grey hair held in place by a slide,  she tottered over to me, but said not a word.


Knowing that many elderly Chinese, particularly low-end shopkeepers, are not quite on a par with Stephen Fry when it comes to mastery of the English language, I was wondering how I could avoid an HDMI conversation and actually leave with what I needed. I had an advantage as I could actually see what I wanted – a huge eight-plug beast more usually found at the winner of Essex’s largest domestic Christmas lights display – and I made sure I did more pointing than talking.


Sure enough I soon had the plastic bar in my hand and walked over to the cashier counter. As I handed over my money, using both hands of course, I did what I always do with the more senior of Chinese people and gave a sort of gentler nod of respect.


The old woman, who had by this time gingerly made her way back to her husband’s side, pointed at me, gave a little giggle, and cried “Very good! He nice polite boy!” The man thought this funny enough to give the desk a couple of good slaps and give off a snort or two. “Yes, very polite” she continued to mumble as she handed me the change.


I actually felt quite honoured to have made a good impression, although they may just have been actually laughing at me – who knows. They certainly had an animated conversation and pointed several times in my direction as I headed out. If only all shopping could be as cordial as this.


Posted by: Sam Olsen | January 13, 2013

Death of a Landlord

With another child on the way it’s time to move.

We have spent numerous weekends looking around at various properties across Hong Kong, but with no success. The categories of choice – larger, cheaper and with at least a sense of countryside in the neighbourhood – have been rather hard to fulfill.

Then one day our estate agent had some good news. Rita was categoric: “You will like this one for sure”.

The flat was indeed all we could ask for. Apart from looking like it had been decorated by a blind fan of The Seventies Show, it was spacious, with a large balcony and unobstructed views of the sea. The sitting room was 32 feet long, an absolutely unheard of figure for Hong Kong unless you have a few million (pounds, sadly) to spare.

And here lay the problem: it was too cheap, i.e. we could afford it. I pointed this out to Rita as she drove us home, and she was unsure as to why the price was so low: “Sometimes you get lucky”. That sounded good to us.

Yet everything started to unravel when we realised the landlord was in fact dead. Lawrence and I were dispatched by Aggie the next day, whilst she was at work, to have a final check of the place before submitting an offer.

We were met at the door by a woman straight out of Chinese Jerry Springer: high heels, short black shirt, a tight t-shirt asking someone to ‘Love Me’ and with enough make-up on her long, slender face to stock the Revlon warehouse for six years. In her arms was a small dog that looked like a mix between a chihuahua and badger, which was wearing what appeared to be a coat made to resemble a baseball jacket. It was a great combination.

I asked her if she was the landlady. She looked at me and grinned. Rita broke the silence and asked again, this time in Cantonese.  A flurry of conversation and a few raised eyebrows later, and Rita turned to me.

“She does not own the flat.”

“Well who does?”

“Someone who is no longer with us.”

In other words, he was delta echo alpha delta. He was pining for the fjords. He was an ex-landlord.

Back home, and having extricated ourselves from the presence of the walking mannequin, we did some thorough googling. Rather than this being a recent development, it turned out that the landlord – one of Hong Kong’s richest men, and a taxi tycoon to boot – had actually died a decade before. His estate has been in limbo since then, as his children, all sixteen of them, his wife and his three mistresses fought over the legacy. It turned out that one of the mistresses – she with the dog – had decided to go freelance and start renting out some of her erstwhile lover’s property, probably to pay the legal bills which after ten years must have been the equivalent of Peru’s gross domestic product.

This is one fight we don’t want to get involved in, especially if it means we have no legal right to be in the flat. So the search continues, but this time ensuring the landlord is actually alive and kicking first.

Posted by: Sam Olsen | December 8, 2012

Massive Pine Shortage!


Alarums and Excursions, there aren’t enough Christmas Trees in HK! Rest assured, these crafty Olsens have one though. Last night Ma and Pa Olsen headed for Causeway Bay; Times Square, the centre of Asian retail and flashing lights. Ikea was our destination, knowing that the Scandi retailer would be able to supply us a tree as they had done last year.

Only about twelve remained; unfortunately they were all 2 metres tall! Disappointingly they were also pre-wrapped (space being at a premium here in HK of course), and so could have been any lumpy old shape. Sam decided on one, as is his manly wont. Woman couldn’t possibly pick The Right Tree. After parting with over six hundred of our Hong Kong Dollars, we made for the exit. Ah, how to get home? Taxi of course! Hmmm…. gweilos carrying large tree? I think not, was evidently the response of the first three to pass us. I then resorted to waiving a hundred dollar bill at the next chap, who stopped pretty promptly and squashed the tree in the back with Sam.

And it looks pretty smashing up in the window, and smells really real! It is real, but I am surprised that anything plant-like purchased in China is actually vaguely authentic!





Posted by: Sam Olsen | December 1, 2012

Chopper Claus

We’ve just come back from yet another church fete (their hold on our social life is becoming rather noticeable) but this was one with a difference. For Father Christmas paid a visit, flying in by helicopter. Growing up in Leicestershire Santa would pitch up  on our street hitching a ride in a battered Mini Metro, so this was a change to say the least.

Needless to say Lawrence loved it, although not as much as the red fire truck that was there to entertain the kids (and fathers). But the best bit of all was the large muddy puddle that he managed to sniff out and jump into before I could stop him. He now resembles something out of the Somme, so I’m rather fortunate his mother has departed for the weekend…

Santa arriving, Hong Kong style

Santa arriving, Hong Kong style

Posted by: Sam Olsen | November 15, 2012

Hong Kong’s Great War

It was Remembrance Sunday here last weekend, and although we didn’t get a chance to blog about it then, we thought we would share a few observations now.

As you stroll from our house to the Cenotaph, where we were heading for the annual Remembrance Sunday service, you pass through the Hong Kong Botanic Gardens. The cool shade of the trees and the snuffles and cheeps from the caged wildlife makes it a calm, peaceful walk. There is though a reminder on the path of the horrors that once came to this small part of China. A huge paifang-shaped arch sits astride the southern entrance to the park, dedicated to the Chinese who died assisting the Allies during the two World Wars. The inscription on the lintel reads: “In Memory of the Chinese who died loyal to the Allied cause in the Wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945”. Sadly, as the years increase, the knowledge of the sacrifice of Hong Kong in these wars drips away, particularly of the Great War.

We wrote last year about the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during the Second World War. The War certainly still holds a grip on the imagination of many, which is not surprising given the nature of it. The autobiographic memoir Gweilo, by Martin Booth, describes how, when he was a boy, he was taken to the New Territories’ to see the site of a small-scale massacre of six Japanese soldiers by Chinese partisans. They had been buried standing up so as to ensure that their spirits never rested – if they didn’t lie down they couldn’t go to heaven.

The Hong Kongers were working in cooperation with the British Army Aid Group – led by the uniquely named Sir Lindsay Tasman Ride – which continued the Allied struggle after Hong Kong fell to the invaders. During World War I the contribution to the British cause was slightly different.

Although East Asia was not a core part of the struggles of the First World War, Hong Kong certainly made its fair contribution. For a start, 579 out of a total of 2,157 volunteers opted for military service outside the colony. In addition, aside from the normal financial contribution made to the war effort by the Empire’s constituent parts, Hong Kong paid a further HK$10 million, equivalent to total government revenue for 1914. Individual Chinese made significant contributions too, such as fighter aircraft, which the historian Steve Tsang believes to have been a “reflection of the appreciation the better-off Chinese had for the British administration”.

The average Chinese worker had a chance to join the blood and mud of the trenches when, in 1917, Beijing volunteered to send 200,000 non-combatant labourers to the Western Front. The British and French governments were becoming very anxious at their declining manpower – not surprising when they were losing 28,000 men a week, and had been for three years. As Blackadder once said, it would have been easier for the governments to keep everyone at home and machine-gun a set number each week, but they liked to add to the challenge, I suppose.

Chinese Labour Corps: smartly does it

If there is one thing that China has is a lot of people. The Chinese government knew that, and so offered up the Chinese Labour Corps to the British. For them it was a win-win situation. Not only would they be able to get rid of 200,000 under-employed men (a perennial and current problem of China) but would be able to use them as political pawns in their struggle to reclaim the territory that had been hacked away from them over the past half century by numerous foreign powers. The theory was that German possessions (e.g. Tsingtao, home of the beer) would be given back to the Motherland in exchange for its war effort once the Central Powers had been beaten. Unfortunately for them, the Japanese were the lucky post-War recipients of former Teutonic strongholds, a decision that led to probably more political upheaval in China than if they had never bothered trying.

At least the coolies, as the labourers were known, fared better. In return for a generous daily allowance of rice, meat or fish and vegetables, along with half an ounce of tea, the Chinese were asked to work ten hours a day. Admittedly this was in the middle of the deadliest war the world had ever seen, but it was still probably better than toiling in water-clogged paddy fields every waking hour. In fact, so popular was the opportunity to go to Flanders that the logistical system – based in the now forgotten British-Chinese colony of Weihaiwei – could barely cope with the demand. And it probably wasn’t the smart blue uniforms they were given that made them keen.

Despite there being no strategic benefit gained by sending the coolies over, the British Government understood their contribution: the Secretary of State wrote that they had “performed services of great value”. He was also probably minded to thank the other Chinese that helped out, mostly serving as coal stokers in the merchant ships that ferried supplies around the Empire keeping the war fully supplied, but this is not recorded.

So although the majority of minds at the Cenotaph last Sunday would have been thinking of the Second War, it would not have gone amiss to have thought a little prayer for the 2,000 or so Labour Corps members – and countless other Chinese – that died helping the British win a war that will soon be seeing its centenary.

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