From the Robin Wood Tarot

What an amazing experience since my last entry.

I have been to Hong Kong, home of my childhood, and returned enriched and renewed. I have wandered the streets of so many yesterdays and found in my past much to embrace and celebrate.

I have come home – and yes, it feels like home – with no regrets for what is gone. Instead I feel a sense of peace and gratitude for both past and present.

Southern Cross is about recognising your own personal responsibility and power. It’s the ‘victim’ essence and helps us to an understanding that all our experiences, both good and bad, can be defined by our own choices. It seems a good companion for the lessons of my journey, both the immediate trip to Hong Kong and the unfolding of my life’s journey to date.

While Southern Cross helps me to see my past more clearly, the 8 Pentacles brings me firmly back to the present. It is the ‘down to business’ card which says the path is chosen and it’s time to put your gifts to use and do the hard work.

Before I do that I will write a much longer entry than usual, knowing that some will be interested and the rest can cheerfully move on with their day. So be warned, what follows is a rather detailed account of my trip.

If ever proof were needed that life is a strange and unpredictable thing, this must be it, my return to Hong Kong for the first time in 18 years.

It was a hurriedly arranged trip but any other kind would have given me time to think about how insane it was and say no.

Its primary purpose was to attend a farewell for my late father, organised by his friends who also made it possible for me to attend.

I left Hong Kong 18 years ago, with no thought of returning and had convinced myself over the years that the city I knew would have changed long ago out of all recognition.

Thanks to the brand new airport (well, new to me), out on Lantau Island, that view initially seemed correct.

I took the ferry into town and as it approached the city, the first of many disconcerting moments occurred. There has been a lot of reclamation in the harbour, so that the shape of Kowloon was completely changed. Just as I had adjusted to the absence of the Yaumatei typhoon shelter, I saw the familiar sight of the old Kowloon-Canton Railway clock tower – except that the changed landscape means it now appears to face the wrong direction.

Arriving in Central, I began my pilgrimage with a walk through the skyways and shopping centres and kept going, up to St John’s Cathedral. For the first time, there was something exactly as I remembered it. This is still a tranquil spot, but crowded now by huge new buildings on every side.

I continued, up Garden Road past the Helena May Institute, which still stands. The Helena May was founded in 1916 to provide for the physical and moral safety of women who had washed up for whatever reason in the exotic East.

It was unkindly referred to by my late father-in-law as Menopause Mansions.

When I was a kid, I borrowed The Last of the Mohicans from their library and never returned it. This remained on my conscience for years, so that I always ducked when I went past the Helena May on the bus, as if I would be pursued by a load of irate old ladies, demanding retribution for the loss of this classic of American literature.

Even watching the film years later brought a twinge of guilt, such is the power of a Catholic upbringing, even one as lackadaisical as mine.

Alas for the ladies and their book, my guinea pig munched through a good section of it and I think my young sister finished off the job with some crayons. I fully expect its tattered remains will be waved under my nose at the Last Judgment, as the deciding factor in an otherwise rather evenly balanced life between sin and virtue.

Hurrying past, I turned into the Botanical Gardens, where my sisters and I played throughout our childhood. When we were very small, our Grandma took us to the playground there, but that has all changed, of course. The bird and animal enclosures have been remodelled a bit, but it was still all very familiar.

It was time for the big one – to cross over to Macdonnell Road, where we lived for 20 years. I remember it as quiet, with unprepossessing, older style buildings, many of them quite low for Hong Kong.

The start of the walk did not bode well – the top of Macdonnell Road has been taken over by huge apartment buildings, complete with grand foyers and uniformed security guards. I didn’t recognise anything at all until we came to the section where the Peak Tram cuts under the road and the steps to the station and the hillside itself were just as I remembered them.

There were now some familiar buildings and time and again I cursed my appalling memory, which meant I could only half remember the people who once had lived there.

My father said that all those years ago when we arrived, he walked the length of that road and out of virtually every window was a ‘for rent’ sign. He said he looked at several nice flats, but finally came right to the end and saw that curving driveway up the hill opposite the Hermitage, where the expatriate policemen and other civil servants lived.

For some years there was a Welsh policeman at the Hermitage who used to regularly get drunk and serenade his neighbours in the early hours with a rich selection of hymns and rugby songs.

The Hermitage has gone – replaced, bizarrely, by the Chinese Foreign Affairs building (I think), which is predictably an enormous and intimidating monstrosity. I imagine there is less singing there these days.

But there, across the road, was the long driveway up the hill that welcomed me home so many times in the past, looking just as it ever did. The apartment building looks nothing like its old self – it has a grand new entrance and the old barred windows have been replaced with big modern ones.

But the carpark was just the same and there, behind a rusting old gate, were the steps up the hillside. We used to scrabble up and down that hillside like rats, and looking up at it was to see us, my sisters and our friends, all those years ago. I couldn’t help but cry, especially for my late sister Maryanne, the one person in all the world with whom I would most like to share this tale.

I kept walking up the hill, to the back of the building and the memories flooded over me. There was the spot where the old man would sit when he came to sharpen the knives. All the amahs would clamour round him, in their black trousers and bright white shirts, brandishing their knives and scissors and having a good loud gossip.

Other hawkers would come too, including the dah-foo (tofu) man, and the stench of fried beancurd from him would linger for hours. I still can’t stand that smell, but oh, the memories it carries on the foetid air.

Here at the back of the building was the manager’s office. When I was small it was always crowded with the pak pai drivers. A pak pai was a private car (usually a Mercedes) available for hire. The pak pai enabled our building’s middle class, middle ranking business executive residents to enjoy the benefits and status of a chauffeur-driven car without the upper class expense.

Many actual chauffeurs (and in Hong Kong there were quite a few) would make extra money moonlighting as pak pai drivers. One chauffeur was caught out when the boss saw his car on the road and climbed into the backseat. The driver threw him out, to make way for his private customer. “No!” shouted the ejected passenger. “I’m the owner. This is MY car!”

My sister and I were great friends with the pak pai drivers, who would give us sweets and lifts to school if they weren’t busy. It was suddenly heart-breaking to realise that the pak pai drivers had gone, and I had no idea how long ago.

I was leaving when a man came out of the manager’s office (much grander than the dank little hole it used to be) and walked over to me. I thought he was going to demand to know my business, but instead he remembered me.

He introduced himself as Ah Mun and said he was the last pak pai driver. And he told me that Ah Lung, who often drove us to school, had died about 10 years before. Mr Chan, who was the building’s manager and a lovely gentleman, had also passed away many years ago.

It’s been 18 years since I left, as the young do, without a backward glance. Thanks to Ah Mun I finally said my proper goodbyes.

But I had another goodbye to get to and it was time to head for Wanchai.

When I left Hong Kong, many of the old buildings in this part of the city were being torn down and replaced by gleaming office towers. The bars which had sustained generations of foreign soldiers and sailors were cleaning up and changing their names.

Consequently, I expected to find nothing left of old Wanchai, but I was pleasantly wrong. The little Hung Shing Ye temple still sits on Queens Road, and further along is also the old post office. I wandered the street markets, as crowded and noisy as ever, and then headed down to Lockhart Road.

Now this was interesting. Every time I thought I’d got my bearings here, I lost them again immediately. The reason was that the bar names are all still there, pretty much, but so many of them have moved from their original location. And if they haven’t moved, they have had their frontages ripped off them, so that it’s all streetside drinking these days.

Very nice, I’m sure, but not helpful to a little lost girl looking for something she knows.

But there was no time to investigate further. I had business to attend to. I was headed for the venue of my father’s wake, to go through the following day’s arrangements.

The place was perfect – a bar in the basement of what I would call one of Wanchai’s new gleamers, although in fact the building is probably quite aged.

There was a good-sized area for us and potential to expand out into the pool table area if necessary. There were framed photographs of sports stars lining the entrance stairs and the manager said we could replace them with pictures of my dad, a nice touch.

It seems crazy now, but the next day when I stepped out in my best frock I was overcome by nerves and suddenly worried about how it would go. But of course it went perfectly. It was wonderful to see those old familiar faces again, and to share in some happy memories of a man we all loved.

There was one person whom Dad was very fond of, a contemporary of mine by the name of Floyd. I knew Floyd had visited him in California and a few years ago Dad had been very upset to lose touch with him.

I had tried and failed to track Floyd down since my father’s death. My dad’s friends said they’d also tried to find him to tell him about the do, but without success.

So who should happen to be in that very bar on that very Saturday afternoon having a quiet drink, just around the corner from where we were gathered, but Floyd?

He had heard of Dad’s death, but had no idea we were meeting, so it was pure coincidence, if indeed there is ever really any such thing.

The next day, my last, I made an essential visit to Lamma Island, where John and I made our first home together.

I had heard, not long after we left, that the little pier had been torn down and replaced with a big modern affair to take triple decker ferries and there was even a proper supermarket attached to it.

This was untrue. There is a new terminal on Hong Kong side but the little harbour at Lamma’s Yung Shue Wan village is just the same and the pier too is unchanged.

I remembered the spot about halfway along the pier where I felt my baby Anne move for the first time. I had stopped dead in my tracks, convinced that something was terribly wrong. It wasn’t until I got home that I realised the wonderful truth.

The main village itself, while recognisable, is much more built up and busy than I remembered but the nice thing was it reminded me of Cheung Chau, another outlying island, where we spent a lot of time in my childhood.

Cheung Chau was always a few years ahead of Lamma in development, so I suppose that island must be very different by now.

I headed out of the main village and took the path which runs past our old place and on down to Hung Shing Ye Beach (named for the same sea god as that little temple in Wanchai).

The walk away from Yung Shue Wan was one directly into the past. There are more buildings than there used to be, but the old ones remain and there is still a marvellous sense of tranquillity. Our first home still stands and directly across from it is still the builders’ yard, which used to be filled with the horrendous yapping of countless dogs at a certain point in the year. They would fall ominously silent some weeks later, no doubt as they were despatched to good homes.

That, at least, is the comforting thought I offer to anyone who may be distressed by the more likely scenario.

I kept walking down to the beach and sat there for awhile, reflecting on people and events long gone. Of many special moments during this brief visit, it is this that was the most beautiful.

I felt no sense of regret or sadness, just the warm glow of happy memories from a truly wonderful time in my life.

As I left the beach, I heard music from one of the nearby restaurants. There came a line from a song I don’t really remember. It went, ‘it must have been good, but it’s over now,’ and made a nice note on which to head back into the present.

I took the ferry back into Hong Kong, sitting island-side to catch the view. To me, those blocks on the western end of Hong Kong island always looked as if they were clinging to the rock with their toenails and they still do.

As, I suppose, are all those millions of people who call that wonderful city home. It can be a hard place, but so richly rewarding if you can strike the right mix of hard work and luck. That, I think, will never change.

There was only an hour left before I had to head back to Lantau and the airport and no time for much. But I knew just what to do.

I got on to Queens Road Central and walked down to the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building. Not to see the building itself, the one I loved disappeared long ago, but to see the great bronze lions which guard it.

I greeted them like old friends, as I felt entitled to. After all, my sisters and I clambered all over them when we were small, so we knew them better than anyone.

Their front paws have been rubbed gold by generations of Hong Kong people touching them for luck, so I said goodbye with a little rub of my own and went on my way.

I confess I cried all the way to Lantau as Hong Kong slipped away behind me. But when the ferry docked there were no more tears, just the happy certainty that it was time to go home.

And what a great feeling, after all my wanderings, to call this new place home with such instinctive certainty.

And now, I am back, in beautiful Flower Street.

All is set.

The 8 Pentacles tells me clearly, it’s time to knuckle down and show what I can do.

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