Threads of Hong Kong's past renewed

 Neon Light - Courtesy of the artist Wattana Wattanapun. www.wattana-art.com.  On display in the Wattana Gallery, Chiang Mai, Thailand.  I found this portrait of a girl in neon quite haunting. It reminded me of a side of Hong Kong that I am glad is past, but it seems perhaps although the neon lights of the girlie-bars in Hong Kong have gone, the exploitation of young women continues relentlessly on.

Neon Light - Courtesy of the artist Wattana Wattanapun. www.wattana-art.com.  On display in the Wattana Gallery, Chiang Mai, Thailand.  I found this portrait of a girl in neon quite haunting. It reminded me of a side of Hong Kong that I am glad is past, but it seems perhaps although the neon lights of the girlie-bars in Hong Kong have gone, the exploitation of young women continues relentlessly on.

I just been visiting Hong Kong with my daughter, Dale...

I lived in Hong Kong in the 1960s. The Vietnam War was at its height and droves of American servicemen on R&R - Rest and Recreation - visited Hong Kong on furloughs of a few days. Snatched from the battlefield, hours later they were high on hormones, booze and pills in hedonistic Hong Kong.  As one patron explained to me, it wasn't that there was not sex-for-sale in Saigon, but the choice was much broader in Hong Kong; White Russians, Americans and Brits joined girls-on-the-game from all over South East Asia. There was no curfew either and no war to wake up to.

That clientele has long disappeared. The demand will always be there, but now the sex industry is heavily regulated and operates so discreetly I thought it really had disappeared. But of course it hasn't.

Nevertheless, another wave of exploitation followed after Vietnam. And again, the exploited were young women.

Uncomfortable meeting places...

In a pedestrian underpass in Central, Hong Kong’s CBD, Dale and I came across hundreds of women, sitting on sheets of cardboard, lining both sides of the long tunnel. We thought that there must be some kind of protest underway, but the groups were obviously social, centred around thermos flasks of tea and snacks. Nearby young women were handing out evangelical pamphlets.  

Further on, under a flyover, we found groups of young Muslim girls intent on studying religious scripts.  I was very surprised at the number of hijabs and headscarves I had seen around.  I just didn’t remember Hong Kong having a noticeable Muslim population. 

 Original trams, KFC and a young girl on the streets of Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

Original trams, KFC and a young girl on the streets of Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

A friend gave us the simple explanation...

The girls were imported domestic workers with no-where to go on their day off. 

In the late 1960s, a good Chinese amah was highly sought after. Competition from factories that paid higher wages was depleting the pool of domestic workers while the demand was rising as more well-paid women entered the workforce. My friend said that in the 1970s, the situation became critical and Hong Kong started recruiting young girls from far away as household maids. The first wave was from the Philippines - many were evangelical Christians. The second wave was from Indonesia. The ripples continue on with new generations of girls arriving. All are on short-term contracts and are not subject to Hong Kong’s labour laws. Stories of exploitation and abuse are rife.

The girls come to Hong Kong, full of hope and optimism - with expectations that are seldom met. They need to work for a couple of years just to pay off the debts they incur getting the job. And often they are kicked out before they have a chance to reap any benefit at all. In any case, any savings are remitted to their families.

No home to go to...

I felt saddened. The Chinese amahs I knew were part of the fabric of the family. Tough old birds who to a certain extent ruled the roost and certainly joined in the gossip. They had homes to go to – family members strung out over the Colony and the mainland.

For these new girls, it is very different.  They have no family, no homes to go to, nowhere to spend time off and they don't have enough disposable income to meet friends in comfort in a cafe. 

So they gather in the gloomy concrete underworld of an inhospitable city. 

They have a dream...

My friend told us it is said the girls dream of falling in love and being spirited out of their predicament. It virtually never happens yet folklore fuels the hope that a wealthy foreigner – unlike Hongkongers who give the girls a wide-berth - will fall for them.           

“It can happen, a young amah from the house of my great-grandmother married the son of a French diplomat,” my friend said. Anecdotes like that keep the flame alive.

Connections to The World of Suzie Wong...

A book published in the 1950s - The World of Suzie Wong, told of an improbable fifties romance between a penniless English artist and a Wanchai bar girl.  It became an iconic, though twisted, representation of Hong Kong's girlie bar culture.

In the 21 Century, religious house-maids imported into in a grown-up and rather prim Hong Kong share the same dreams.

Synchronicity...

I started writing this blog once I reached Chiang Mai, Thailand where I am staying for a couple of weeks.  Without any idea of the collection on view, I visited the Wattana Art Gallery, built especially to house the collection of Wattana Wattanapun, a Thai artist with an international reputation. I went, on a hot day, simply because it was around the corner from where I was staying, it would be air-conditioned and it was en route to a cafe. I was entranced from the moment I entered the door; no more than that: I was blown away - cool marble floors, natural light and a building that the artist himself designed to house his work certainly showcased it perfectly. 

Much of Wattana's art explores the beauty of women and the inherent vulnerability that goes with the appeal. I found it almost impossible to look at the images without also a fear that they were too exquisite to survive.

Wattana wraps the female form in traditional textiles. Somehow this heightens the tension. The textiles so perfectly compliment the beauty of these young girls yet we know that they are not enough to protect them from the ravages of modern greed and gratification. It is as if once stripped of these gorgeous textiles, they will be stripped of traditional values, skills and artisan-ship, youth and community and laid bare and wasted. 

I felt deeply moved by Wattana's work. I felt a sense of loss and a sense of joy. He contrasts painstakingly painted textile patterns with free bold brush-strokes for gorgeous sensual bodies. Both under threat and yet both offering some kind of redemption. The fragile culture of dress and textile diversity is hanging on by threads and the exploitation of women engulfs us all. Both need our help.  His work is a call to arms. 

I have used Neon Light by Wattana Wattanapun at the start of my blog. It is acrylic on paper. The image was unlike his other work and it seemed to encapsulate the waves of exploitation that are the sad side of all the other positive aspects of the legacy of Hong Kong.

www.wattana-art.com

Hong Kong Revisited

 Hard to get my bearings in Hong Kong! The Law Courts and iconic Bank of China building look like toy-town nestled in the middle of all the skyscrapers.

Hard to get my bearings in Hong Kong! The Law Courts and iconic Bank of China building look like toy-town nestled in the middle of all the skyscrapers.

I landed in Hong Kong last week, to take a trip down memory lane

I’d lived there half-a-century ago.  It wasn't that I wasn't prepared for change but I was travelling with Dale, my daughter, and initially there was nothing I could show her, it was all bloody gone.

The years had wrought havoc. Like a botched facelift, Hong Kong was stretched and shiny with a touch of zombie. For a start, they’d shrunk the harbour! 

I couldn’t work it out until someone explained The Star Ferry Wharf had moved, rebuilt on the edge of reclaimed land.  Dale asked me how land could be reclaimed if it wasn’t there before.  I said I didn’t know, but I thought it made everybody feel better to call it that, as if it really was theirs in the first place.

In another fifty years it is doubtful whether there will be a harbour at all… 

I remembered chickening out of the annual cross-harbour swim in 1969 as it looked a bloody long way, but the way things are going, I’ll be able to come back and swim it when I’m a hundred years old and I’ll smash it. 

Who needs a harbour anyway these days?

Why bother... tunnels burrow under it, bridges connect islands to the mainland, flyovers do their thing. The harbour, my quintessential Hong Kong, has become emasculated. The last of the old junks have long gone along with the lighters, water taxis, sampans and all the other craft that constantly plied back and forward between the island and mainland; the waterway reduced to a bland irrelevance.

I took a deep breath...

Actually Dale told me to take a deep breath.  She could see I felt overwhelmed and it was all new to Dale so she felt a magic that still lingered on. And I mused that was the real change, you could take a deep breath - no Hong Kong pong, although like an idiot, I put my nose in the air trying to scent that awful smell as if I was missing some elixir from my youth!

We took the Peak Tram. That was familiar and so too was the restaurant at the top. We stopped for lunch and my old love affair with Hong Kong rekindled - it is still stunning.

 Lunch on the Peak

Lunch on the Peak

 

A friend took us out to Sham Shiu Po by the MTR - a rapid-transit underground system that was new to me.  He also said Sham Shiu Po was one of Hong Kong's poorest areas although there were more Westerners than any other area we visited because of a new art college. So that put my nostalgia in its place - the poverty and the foreigners making it familiar!

I started to feel more at home

On the second day, I spotted the iconic Bank of China building, albeit now dwarfed by skyscrapers and bereft of its spooky Red China cloak and dagger atmospheric. And I found other familiars: in Causeway Bay where we stayed, air conditioners lodged in high-rise windows above, still dripped onto the pavements and onto our heads, Chinese girls still loved to wear pink and I still wondered why. Hong Kong still wakes up late - I always liked that - a lull before the frenetic activity of the day. It's a grotty bleary time of half-shuttered doors; sudden sloshing water- buckets; hawking, horrible spit and absolutely no polish. If it's all too much, look up and still there is one of Hong Kong's wonders - bamboo scaffolding.

 Dale and I watched these guys for ages...

Dale and I watched these guys for ages...

And on the far side...

We took off for the other side of the island.  The bus twisted past Deep Bay and Repulse Bay on narrow roads that I drove so often in my beat-up cream-coloured mini – a car that would be very out of place in present day affluent Hong Kong - and at last we reached St Stephen’s Beach at Stanley and most of it remained steadfast to my memory.

I walked out along the old pier looking over the bay where I learned to swim, water ski and sail in quick succession. All the capsizes, all the immersions, weekend races and even a half-hearted attempt to train for that damned cross-harbour swim.

The clock is ticking for Hong Kong again

In thirty years the agreement that maintains Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region will end and finally, it will be integrated into China. The Hongkongers I spoke to were resigned to that. The clock cannot be turned back they said. When I lived there it was thirty years until the British left the Crown Colony of Hong Kong. We could not believe that the clock would move forward.

And in thirty years, I’ll be back for my cross-harbour swim!

 

A hundred years on from Hong Kong’s most calamitous typhoon ever

typhoon 1906 2.PNG

A hundred years ago...

One hundred years ago on the 18th September, 1906, Hong Kong was hit by a typhoon: “…the most appallingly destructive visitation of the kind that the Colony has ever experienced.”

The 1906

By the time I arrived in Hong Kong in 1968, that typhoon was almost forgotten.  I would never have heard about it except for a lie.  My boss lied about her age.  The idea that she was born on board a ship mid-typhoon, appealed to her compulsion for melodrama.  And any old typhoon was not good enough – she told me she was born in The 1906 - the most calamitous typhoon ever.  

When I came to write my memoir about Hong Kong, I found she had been born in 1904, a year not notable for any severe tropical storms.  I laughed - the 1906 suited her much better.

Typhoon warning systems were well established

By 1906 Hong Kong had a good early warning system for typhoons. During the season, several would pass the Colony.  A signal was hoisted in the harbour when one was in the five hundred mile range.  Often it was lowered as the storm blew itself out over the China Sea.  But if the typhoon did close in, a second signal went up indicating that it had moved to within three hundred miles.  Then everyone prepared for the worst.  The final signal was the typhoon gun which was sounded when the storm was about to hit.   

At the signals, the Colony swung into action.  Steam launches towed chains of big flat-bottomed lighters into shelters, while smaller sampans scudded off to find safe havens.  Sails and awnings were reefed and everything was battened down.  Ships at anchor prepared to get up steam and either made for the open sea or paid out more cable to safely ride out the storm in the harbour. 

What made the 1906 so deadly was not just its intensity, it was its speed.  There was only half-an-hour between the first signal and the final gun.  Nothing like it had ever happened before.  Usually there were several hours between each signal.

Never before had one hit with such speed

Captains who’d spent the night ashore were astonished to be woken by the sound of the typhoon gun.  They tried desperately to get back aboard their ships, paying motor-launch skippers enormous amounts to take them out on the harbour.  Even then it was too rough to go alongside and crewmen had to throw lifelines into the water and drag their officers aboard. 

Noise exploded around the Colony.  The wind blew at a hundred-and-fifty miles an hour howling along the shore, shrieking through the streets and roaring up mountainsides.  The roofs of godowns – huge storage sheds – flew off and their walls collapsed. Everywhere signs were falling, shutters banging, glass shattering, rickshaws overturned and sedan chairs were thrown about “like feathers”. 

The harbour was obliterated in a terrible fog of driving rain fused with scud and spindrift whipped from the wave tops.  All along the seawall, sampans and lighters were dashed to pieces. Piers and wharfs started to collapse one after another… “like a house of cards.” 

Eyewitness Account

An extraordinary eyewitness account was written by Captain Outerbridge of the China Naviagation Company’s steamer Taming, which came safely through the ordeal.  He crouched behind steel plates in the bow of his ship with two other officers.  They peered through blinding rifts of mist, desperate to gauge if their mooring was holding. 

“Every now and then a ship dragging her anchors as if they were of wood, slid past us, fortunately clear.  Until they were right upon us we had no warning and they passed in a flash…

But the worst feature of all was seeing the small boats go flying past bound for what we knew was destruction.  There was nothing we could do.  Our own fate was in the balance that trembled with every squall that came down heavier than the one before...  In the sampans, where entire families of Chinese live their whole lives, women would hold out their children to us begging in mad appeals that we could not even hear, only guess at from the expression of their faces, as they were whirled along the side of our ship, in much the same way that a piece of sea weed is hurled by the crest of the sea.  We could only look at them and pity them, and there we crouched for more than an hour and most of the time the tears were streaming down the faces of the three of us as we looked at the poor creatures going to death and could not lift a hand to save them.”

And then it was gone

The typhoon left almost as quickly as it had come.  Within three hours it was over.

It was calculated that half of all the Chinese craft in the waters of the colony were lost.

Ships entering the harbour over the next days brought in survivors plucked off floating pieces of wreckage but mainly it was the dead that the sea gave back.

The number of people who perished was never established, but it was in the thousands and may have been as many as ten thousand.

Tales of gallantry, extraordinary rescue and random luck were rife afterwards, but most never had the chance
to tell the tale.   

 

 

The full account – The calamitous typhoon at Hongkong 18th September, 1906, published by the Hong Kong Daily Press, 1906:  http://ebook.lib.hku.hk/HKG/B36228084.pdf

Ma Wan Then and Now - a Hong Kong memory

 The pier where I landed at Ma Wan is deserted today and junks like the one I photographed live on only in replica for the tourists. 

The pier where I landed at Ma Wan is deserted today and junks like the one I photographed live on only in replica for the tourists. 

Shards of Glass Industry

Reading an article in the South China Morning Post that traced the decline of neon factories in Hong Kong,  made me think of another little glass industry I once visited there which has totally disappeared.

All aboard the Deri-Vica

It was November 1969 when I boarded a swish motor launch at Queen’s Pier for my first jaunt on Hong Kong Harbour. 

We drank Pimm’s as the Deri-Vica, polished wood and gleaming brass, hustled with tankers, lighters and ferries along an ugly industrialised foreshore.  But once we cleared Stonecutters Island, the change was swift; a green and pleasant coastline and a seascape shared with great old wooden junks, still under sail.  These were ‘out of China’ and it was a thrill to glimpse anything from the mainland, then in the grip of the Cultural Revolution.   

Thermos Flasks on Ma Wan Island

Our destination was the little island of Ma Wan where our host, Mickey Mok, Hong Kong’s premier stockbroker, took us to visit the local thermos flask factory which kept the island going together with shrimp fishing, some farming and handicraft.

The blowing of the glass was mechanised, but each one had to be twisted off and finished by hand.  It was a family concern with the children happily engaged in the packaging shed and running errands.  

The inner and outer flasks were separated by small asbestos disks and outside sat a very old lady straddling her workbench; a huge tree stump.  She had a round punch and a hammer and moved a sheet of asbestos around cutting out each disk one by one. 

 

Shrimp paste, fish, baskets and rice paddies

Mickey Mok walked us on from the factory; there were no cars or even bicycles, just an undercurrent of dogs, cats, chickens and kids. Outside each small house was a rack of fish hanging up to dry. 

Mickey beckoned me to look in one doorway to where a grandmother was making a basket, her hands busy while her feet rested on a flexible bamboo foot pedal that joined a pole suspended between two rafters where a basket hung and rocked her grandson gently as she worked.


On the edge of the village were homes made out of old sampans raised up on stilts, mended and extended with planks from wooden packing crates disporting foreign brand names and logos.


We carried on past rice paddies and vegetable gardens to a sandy beach and then back through the second village on the Island which Mickey claimed was the oldest one left in Hong Kong.  He also said the large TV set mounted in the village square was the Government’s idea of birth control!

And Now?

It's hard to comprehend the change.  The slate is not quite wiped clean, a deserted village by the pier and some old timers attest to that but the thermos factory is long gone. Ma Wan now houses thousands and thousands of families.

The island became a pylon stop in the mid-1990s for the Tsing Ma suspension bridge to the new international airport on Lantau.  It sports a Noah’s Ark theme park and Park Island - a huge gated apartment complex. 

 Noah's Ark Theme Park, Ma Wan from the air, the Tsing Ma Bridge by night and by day from the island.      Photo credits include Ming Hong and HK Arun

Noah's Ark Theme Park, Ma Wan from the air, the Tsing Ma Bridge by night and by day from the island.      Photo credits include Ming Hong and HK Arun

A kindly host

I was only 21; Mickey Mok was a generous host, keen to show visitors around.  It was much more fun on the Deri-Vica than on the boats of foreign Taipans because of his local knowledge.  I admired his immediacy; he engaged villagers and boat dwellers with genuine curiosity, affection and respect - they would have known from the boat that he was a wealthy man, but just how wealthy, I doubt!

A Hong Kong character; Horace Kadoorie, looked-up in the Jewish Cemetery

 Letters, Shanghai, sign at the Jewish Ghetto in Shanghai, the Jewish Cemetery in Hong Kong where the Kadoorie brothers reside and the best hotel east of Suez.

Letters, Shanghai, sign at the Jewish Ghetto in Shanghai, the Jewish Cemetery in Hong Kong where the Kadoorie brothers reside and the best hotel east of Suez.

Before Networking

Once upon a time you were given letters of introduction when you travelled; to someone older or wiser who would smooth the way.  Quality notepaper, a signature in ink, silver salvers, kowtows and honourable obligations. 


Of course that was all bullshit by the time I set off for Hong Kong in the 1960s; instead I was given some names to ‘look-up’.  It was never going to happen.  Without the formality of a letter and before networking was a known mantra, I was in limbo without the confidence or courage to go cold turkey.

 

It's never too late!

I’ve been thinking about some people I never ‘looked-up’.


For my first night in the Hong Kong, I’d booked myself into The Peninsula Hotel.  It was 1968 and it was the hotel in Hong Kong.  Still is!

I didn’t just have delusions of grandeur, I’d been working at the Grosvenor House in London - it was terribly infra-dig to add the word 'hotel' - if someone needed to be told Grosvenor House was a hotel, they didn’t belong there.  I worked for the manager, Mr Merryweather, and he suggested I stay at The Peninsula and told me to lookup Horace Kadoorie - whose family owed it and a lot more besides. 

 

My new employer vetoed a night of luxury

It was not to be, my new Hong Kong employer, Mrs Church, vetoed it, making it quite plain that on the pittance she was going to pay me, I couldn’t afford it.  She cancelled my hotel booking and telegrammed me that I would stay at her house.


“Why on earth did you book a room at The Peninsula?” she said.


I told her about the connection.


“Oh Horace? I go to him every New Year at The Peninsula, I will ring him on Monday.”


I heard no more about it and by the time Mrs Church marched me to The Peninsula Hotel for eggnog on New Year’s Day, I knew it unlikely that any friend of hers would be a friend of mine, but in any case Horace Kadoorie didn’t join us, just a wave across the room.  In retrospect,  he gave us a wide berth.

 

It's never too later for an introduction

So it has taken me until now to look-up Horace Kadoorie who died in 1995.  I really missed out more than a free meal and a chat. By all accounts he was a fascinating, compassionate and generous man.

From the grave he took me back to the Spanish Inquisition and on a journey with the Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula to Constantinople and Baghdad, India and Shanghai where the Kadoorie family eventually settled in the 1800s.

 

Wartime Shanghai and a clever rabbi

The Kadoorie family was well established in Shanghai when an influx of European Jews arrived fleeing the Nazi horror - mostly by Italian ship but some via the Trans-Siberian Railway. 

With twenty thousand Jews in Shanghai, Germany put pressure on Japan to hand them over.  The Japanese Military Governor of the city sent for the Jewish community leaders and asked why the Germans hated them. 

The rabbi was nobody’s fool.  He said it was because the Germans regarded Jews as oriental, short and dark. 

The Jews stayed put and the Kadoorie family were able to help the new arrivals survive the war, albeit in the Shanghai Ghetto, and when refugees were funnelled through Hong Kong for resettlement, Horace and his brother threw open the doors of The Peninsula Hotel and turned the ballroom into dormitories.

And you?

Have you anyone you could have met but didn’t? 

Why didn’t you look them up?  Do you regret not looking them up?

Can you look them up now?  Do the Chinese thing - talk to them in the grave!

 

Further Reading:

I really enjoyed this article by Hong Kong journalist Sarah Lazarus

http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/1661441/role-jews-making-hong-kong

Fabergé’s Very Unusual Egg

 The Fabergé Trans-Siberian Egg   Easter 1900

The Fabergé Trans-Siberian Egg   Easter 1900

It's nearly Easter for some of us

I live in Sydney and it's nearly Easter.  In Orthodox Russia, it'll be another month before they celebrate and exchange their eggs.  It was the same gap in the calendar in 1894 when young Nicholas, destined to be the last Russian Tsar, was visiting Germany, and couldn't join the earlier festivities.  He wrote in his diary:  "It is not very convenient to keep Lent abroad and I had to refuse many things." 

A short-lived tradition

The most famous Easter eggs of all time were those first ordered by Nicholas's father, Tsar Alexander III, from the court jeweller, Carl Fabergé.  The first order, in 1885, established an imperial tradition that lasted only thirty-two years, yet, a century on,  Fabergé’s eggs still captivate our imagination with their decadence, extravagant charm and ingenuity.

The Imperial Eggs

When Nicholas succeeded his father, he continued to order eggs each year from Fabergé, one for his wife and one for his mother.  Each told a story revealed by a surprise nested within.

A secret ...

Fabergé conceived and developed his designs in secret, not even disclosing his patterns to the Tsar.

Perhaps not ...

But perhaps in the year 1900, Tsar Nicholas II had had an inkling of what Fabergé had in store for his wife, Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna, when he took delivery of the Trans-Siberian Railway Egg. 

Easter fell on the 9th April and a week later, came the opening of the Paris Exposition Universelle with countries from around the world displaying their art and inventions.  The Russian Pavillion’s pièce de résistance was a display of carriages from the new Trans-Siberian Railway line, inaugurating an era of luxury passenger service that would revolutionise travel from Europe to the Far East and symbolised the growing industrial power of Russia. 

  Poster from the Paris Exposition Universelle promoting the Trans-Siberian                                             

Poster from the Paris Exposition Universelle promoting the Trans-Siberian                                             

 
A present for the Tsarina, but was it really to impress the Tsar?

Fabergé’s Trans-Siberian Egg was crowned with the Romanov eagle asserting the Tsar’s special connection with the railway project he had grown up with.  His first official position was as President of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and as a young man returning from a grand world tour, he had laid the foundation stone of the track’s eastern terminus
in Vladivostock.

 The miniature locomotive and its golden carriages

The miniature locomotive and its golden carriages

The egg was a masterpiece. 

Engraved on the silver shell was a route map of the track, each station marked with a jewel. The enameled lid opened to reveal a miniature train.  Its locomotive, made of platinum, had diamond headlights and a ruby lantern and pulled five golden coaches. Each coach unique, ‘mail’, ‘for ladies only’, ‘smoking, ‘non-smoking’, and a chapel with miniature bells.  And if that were not surprise enough, the tiny model was clockwork, wound-up with a gold key.

  The Trans-Siberian Egg                                                       Photo Credit: Kremlin Museum

The Trans-Siberian Egg                                                       Photo Credit: Kremlin Museum

Why, to me, the Trans-Siberian Egg stands out from all the rest

I'll admit bias right now.   I have been writing a book that describes my own journey on the Trans-Siberian Express.  That journey was nearly fifty years ago and sixty years after the last imperial egg, but the heavy velvet curtains, polished wood and green lamp shades of the First Class carriage suggested imperial Russia was not so far away.

Threads run through all our lives and sometimes it is left to a biographer to see them.  The Trans-Siberian ran relentlessly through the Tsar's life right to his untimely death.   

The design of the Trans-Siberian Egg epitomises an era where technology and art flourished hand in hand and it signified a period of Russian hope and prosperity. 

And it also smacks of a bizarre excess of questionable taste and a wanton squandering on baubles!  A Russian court completely out of touch with reality.

Ultimately of course...

Tsar Nicholas II missed the brief window of opportunity for constitutional change. Delusion, denial and dreadful decisions made revolution inevitable.  As Easter 1917 approached, the Tsar was forced to abdicate.  Work on that year’s egg had already been abandoned. Carl Fabergé fled Russia and escaped to Switzerland but nothing could save the Tsar.
 

 

 

 

 

More Information:

The Trans-Siberian Egg is displayed in the Kremlin Armoury, Moscow

I highly recommend a fascinating book - Fabergé’s Eggs by Toby Faber published by PAN

The Fabergé Museum in St Petersburg, Russia was set up by Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian businessman, who is the single largest owner of Fabergé eggs.  
http://www.faberge.com/news/142_fabergest-petersburg-museum.aspx

There is also a Fabergé Museum in Baden-Baden, Germany  
http://www.faberge-museum.de/index.php?lang=en


 

A Detour to the Amazing Paris Expo of 1900

To write waylaid by curiosity is a better thing than
closing the chapter

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “… to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”.  Now that I write, I’ve found a parallel; settled at my desk, curiosity drives me deeper than my story requires.  It’s seductive; the manuscript makes slow progress, but the quest uncovers destinations and kindred spirits that make it all worthwhile.

Paris Spring in 1900

Last week I paused in April 1900 for the Paris Exposition Universelle - a grand celebration of the achievements of the closing century where art and design showcased seamlessly with the mechanisms of the future; diesel engines, talking films, escalators, and the telegraphone - the first form of magnetic recording, forerunner to video, audio tape and computer hard drives, to name a few.  Fifty million people visited the exhibition.  Fifty million!

Flamboyant Stage-Set under the Eiffel Tower

Under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, National pavilions sprung up, flaunting cultural myth, art and innovation.  Art Nouveau in vogue, the hard mechanics of new-age infrastructure were softened with flowing natural forms.  Moving sidewalks carried visitors past mock castles and pagodas and a square rigged caravel.  The Belgians recreated their Gothic Oudenaarde Town Hall.  Flamboyance and optimism heralded the new millennium.

Paris to Peking, via Moscow

In truth I never got past the Kremlin-styled Russian Pavilion, for here was exhibited the Trans-Siberian express - Moscow to Peking.  A journey time of months by sea and overland, reduced to days.  An extraordinary achievement.  To court the business traveller and wealthy voyageur, real carriages were rolled into the Pavilion. 

 

"... one was decorated with white lacquered limewood mirrored walls, ceiling frescoed with figures from mythology and embroidered curtains, another was in the style of Louis XVI with bulging furniture of gold embellished oak and a third as French Empire and a fourth imperial Chinese".  

 

The world's longest railway line and
the world's longest painting

Visitors could eat in the train’s restaurant car while canvas scenery scrolled past the carriage windows.   All the atmosphere of travelling from the Volga River east across Siberia evoked by the painted panels of pastoral life complete with changing weather.  

The young Tsar, Nicholas II, patron of the Trans-Siberian Railway, had commissioned the Russian artist, Dr Pavel Pyasetsky, to paint the panorama.  Pyasetsky travelled by train, cart and bicycle, sketching bridges and fords, hamlets and villages, railway stations and halts, working teams and depots.  He condensed the 10,000 kilometer journey onto three rolls 850 meters long.*  

Train Connections with Russian Dolls

The Trans-Siberian held me in thrall but at the Russian Pavilion was another product launch right at the opposite end of the scale.  It was the first time babushka dolls were exhibited. The designer, Sergey Malyutin, a folk artist, inspired by Japanese nesting dolls, characterised them with Russian fairytales.

Finding both the Trans-Siberian Express and the babushka dolls at the Russian Pavillion, took my writer’s dream-time to a physical shiver. 

My fascination with the Trans-Siberian began when I travelled the line in 1968 on my way out to a job in Hong Kong and the souvenir that I have of that journey is a babushka doll given to me by a Russian passenger on the train.  He bought it at a wayside station and I gave him Nivea Creme for his wife - a simple exchange of gifts - after a week of shared laughter laced with copious amounts of vodka as we rolled across the Siberian steppes.  

The carriages, Hard Class, were not quite as elaborate as the Tsar envisaged, but then a lot had happened in sixty-eight years.

 


* After a hundred years of being rolled up, the canvas scrolls have been restored and are now at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

 

Google the Paris Expo of 1900 - it is a lot of fun!  http://www.expomuseum.com/1900/

Sophia's Easter Treat

 Ilya Repin's 19th C portrait of Princess Sophia in Novodevichy Convent- Look out that window!  She lived from 1657 to 1704

Ilya Repin's 19th C portrait of Princess Sophia in Novodevichy Convent- Look out that window!  She lived from 1657 to 1704

The fortified convent of Novodevichy

I was in Moscow in 1968 to catch the Trans-Siberian Express on my way to Hong Kong.  Although I visited Red Square - I missed Lenin - he was on holiday to see his embalmers - but from the walls of the Kremlin, we rattled off to the Moskva River and the 16th Century fortified convent of Novodevichy.

It was a visit I never forgot...

For there lingered the smoldering wrath of the incarcerated Sophia, half-sister to Peter the Great.  Her last succession plot had failed and she was compelled to take the veil and kept in seclusion at the convent; there was no other way to keep her from scheming.  

Her Royal blood saved her from the fate of her fellow conspirators who were hung.  To make the point, their bodies were strung up outside her bedroom…


“Where they hung, blackened and rigid,
turning idly in the wind,
all winter long,
their frozen boots tapping
against the windows…”


Quote from Lesley Blanch in Journey into the Mind’s Eye 


Sophia was immured in the convent for the rest of her life.  Only once a year, at Easter, was she allowed to join the other nuns in worship at Smolensky Cathedral.  This brief interlude offered little consolation to the large and formidable figure, once a patron of the convent and the first woman to rule Russia, who found herself hostage to the church that her brother, Peter, controlled and derided.   

All the magic of a Russian Easter

Sophia joined the congregation on Easter night when the cathedral’s dark interior was lit by guttering candles and a choral litany reverberated over row upon row of nuns prostrated in prayer before one miraculous icon after another.  Chill draughts wrestled with wafts of warm incense and anticipation built hour after hour, as the time for the resurrection
drew near.  

Before the midnight bell tolled

Tapers were lit and fresh incense set to smoulder on burning charcoal.  At midnight, crosses and icons were borne aloft and from the Cathedral's inner sanctuary emerged the bearded priests in ivory-white vestments heavy with gold embroidery.  As clouds of holy smoke billowed from swinging censers, the solemn procession began down the aisle of the Cathedral and led the congregation out into the starlit night.

Thrice round the cathedral under a frosted moon

Three times, the procession circled the Cathedral.  Its magnificent golden cupola gleamed above, while a river of reflected candlelight traced a path along the stone walls.   The Priest halted at the open door and waited to hush his mustered flock.  They held their breath as he walked forward, craning his neck to look inside the empty cavern of the darkened cathedral and symbolically discovered anew Christ’s empty tomb,

“Khristos Voskres!” his cry resounded out the triumphant chord. “Christ is risen!” 

A wave of adulation and celebration
swept through the throng
and condemned
Sophia to another year of solitude.

 Novodevichy Convent on the banks of the Moskva Ruver

Novodevichy Convent on the banks of the Moskva Ruver

I threw the Russian chapter to the wolves

I wanted to write

I enrolled for Travel Memoir at the Australian Writers’ Centre with Claire Scobie.   She focused me and she cut to the chase.  She told me I was already a writer.  All I had to do was to write

I walked on air, and then, for long weary months through fog, snowstorms and mud. 

There is a children's book called The Bear Hunt.  Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, got to go through it

Every budding author should read The Bear Hunt.  Because for many of us, the start is like the bear hunt... got to go through it.    Five starts and I was heartily sick of being a writer.  Never could I get further than the Russian chapter.  I got completely bogged down in Russia.   Of course, I knew my history, Russia did that.  

My book was about Hong Kong - I'd travelled there on the Trans-Siberian railway and I needed a Russian chapter

I got off the track altogether when I started to read about magical shaman who wore deer antlers and, at a whim, shapeshifted to travel the sky like geese or ride on airborne goats and rams.   When their bums got sore from all that flock-flying, they slid along rainbows to visit the spirit world and grazed magic mushrooms. 

Maybe I was easily diverted by spirited Russia, but Russia can serve an enormous range of distraction; the largest military battle in history, one of the largest museums in the world, the deepest lake on earth and of course the longest railway line.  It is impossible to pick up any book on Russia and not be sidetracked.  Siberian brown bears, man-eating wolves and reindeer migrations.  See?  Quite impossible and we haven't even started on the Tsars, Tolstoy or Laika, the first dog in space.  Notice too the Reds have not yet had a mention.

I put it all into my back-pack

I was still working on the chapter when Dale and I went to Europe in late 2013.   I spun her interminable tales of Russia.  I moved from mystics to statistics about the Trans-Siberian, from Imperial Russia to revolution.  A bleak and bloody tale. 

Her eyes glazed and eventually she said, “Mum, enough of Russia.  Stop researching.  You are doing my head in.” 

I knew she was right!

I put my books and notebook away.  I couldn't complain.  We were in Tuscany to visit Dale’s friends.  Their company arranged wine tours by Fiat 500.  Each tiny car identical except for the paintwork; blue, red, green, cream and yellow.  We drove the countryside in single file and paused at a glorious renaissance villa for lunch. 

The next day, Dale and I went to Florence.  Walking by the Palazzo Strozzi we stopped in our tracks.  The current exhibition was The Russian Avant-garde, Siberia and the East.  Dale rolled her eyes with a laugh, while mine twinkled.  Fait accompli.  

Wolves by Night

An 1912 oil painting by Alexei Stapanov, Wolves by Night, greeted us in the first exhibition room.    A century ago this dude was troubled by the spread of urbanisation.  He warned against man’s intrusion into Russia’s fabled and primitive wilderness.  His wolves are bewildered by marks in the snow; parallel tracks like those of the iron road of the Trans-Siberian.  

No escape from the Russian Chapter

The wolves were right to be nervous, Alexei Stapanov was right to be troubled.

Dale was troubled too.  Was there no escaping the Russian chapter?    

Wolves by Night was like a talisman for me.  I didn't have to hunt the bears, just to throw ninety percent of what I had written to the wolves.

 

 Fun in Florence with Fiats and the Russian chapter

Fun in Florence with Fiats and the Russian chapter

Gong Hey Fat Choy - the year of the Monkey is almost here!

 My daughter Emily's interpretation of the Year of the Fire Monkey.      Gong Hey Fat Choy!

My daughter Emily's interpretation of the Year of the Fire Monkey.      Gong Hey Fat Choy!

Chinese New Year - Monday 8 February 2016

Welcome the Year of the Fire Monkey!    I feel an auspicious year ahead.  1908 was a Monkey year when my Glaswegian grandfather enjoyed the celebrations in Hong Kong on his world tour.  And I landed in Hong Kong myself, sixty years later, in another Monkey year.

Anything can happen!

Chinese pundits say anything can happen in a Monkey year.  Breathe deep for a hugely lively time of opportunity.  Leap in and embrace innovation and creativity!   With breathless speed, a dollop of humour and quick wit, it’s a time to dare to be different, be flamboyant, shake up your life and take a risk.  But don’t be gullible or you’ll get peanuts!

So mercurial and quirky are the ways of the Monkey, one horoscope warns iron-fisted bosses may go belly up, pitched out in the melee.

That’s just what happened to my Hong Kong boss in 1968 – my quintessential Monkey year.

Celebration Central

Chinese New Year in Hong Kong swept out the turgidity of Christmas celebrated by Europeans on a monsoon island far from home.  Down came soggy Santa and up went red and gold banners heralding exuberant celebration - an unrestrained eruption of discordant noise and colour, indulgence and togetherness. 

A Resilient Festival

Successive revolutions on the Chinese mainland, Sun Yat-sen in 1911, the Communists in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, tried to extinguish everything old and interesting and especially riotous festivals.  So the spirits channelled Hong Kong – or that’s what it felt like to me when I was there.

A month of double pay.  A time to eat, drink and embrace.  New clothes, new starts, new possibilities.  Dragon dancers wound the streets with cymbals and gongs, cheered by onlookers, ignoring the drippy, oozy weather that heralds Spring in the South China sea.

Markets, massed with flowers, opened until the wee small hours.  Row upon row of pink cherry blossom branches signified, beauty, prosperity and growth.  Potted white narcissi marched shelves of bamboo scaffolding.  Miniature kumquat trees were sold in pairs. Put at my doorway, their golden fruit jostled glossy green leaves, assuring a year of joy, abundance and wealth. 

Chinese New Year on the Water

Businesses were shut-up, bedecked with flamboyant red paper notices wishing their patrons happiness and riches.  And in particular, the huge fishing fleet that set out daily from Aberdeen, a village in the South of Hong Kong Island, stayed home.  All the junks were arrayed with red flags.  In the dawn they flapped wettish in the muggy chill, until the fires on board got going to roast whole suckling pigs, and the warm, greasy smoke wafted up, stirring the bunting.  Whole families prepared a feast together, joyous with raucous noise, Incense and drumbeats. Grinning pansy-faced children jettisoned red envelopes to float enlivening the harbour swill while they clutched their lucky money.

Going Crackers

Firecrackers made the old men start and smirk and the children squeal with delight.  Illegal after the riots the year before in 1967- the prohibition made the explosions all the more exciting.  The noise heralded good luck and prosperity, frightening away evil, shaking the ground, acrid spitting smoulder drifting into smoke and misty weather.

Gong Hey Fat Choy!

 Chinese New Year 1969 Aberdeen and Victoria Park Market

Chinese New Year 1969 Aberdeen and Victoria Park Market




Crazymakers’ Central

  Emily's collage illustrates how I constantly swept up after crazymakers.

Emily's collage illustrates how I constantly swept up after crazymakers.

The Artist’s Way.  Unlock your creativity in 12 weeks, said the flyer.

The course was by Ros BurtonShe credited Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, with her success as a writer.  That’s what I wanted to be.  It was January 2013.

I was so excited.  I enrolled immediately.  So excited, I completely forgot I was deaf. 

You’d be surprised how long it takes to get used to being deaf.  When no-one is talking to you it is not a consideration and when they do, well, it’s the way they speak.   I can hear my daughter Emily clearly, but not so easily Dale’s modulated tones.  Alice talks like a fast undercurrent, impossible.  Kim, talks rapidly too but in shot-gun staccato and I can hear that. 

On the first day of the course lively chatter bounced off walls around me that I couldn’t catch.  No context, a dozen unfamiliar voices.  Babel.

I tried to focus on what Ros was saying.  Everyone was years younger than me. I sat tight, a bit like a bobblehead doll, nodding and smiling like an imbecile. 

I might have cut and run, but the second week was on CRAZYMAKERS.  I didn't care that I couldn't hear that session, I was mesmerised by the words on the page.

CRAZYMAKERS! 

All my life I’d worked for crazymakers.  But I’d never categorised them.  Now I could count them off on my fingers.  I'm a good 2i/c, a Jack-of-all-trades, hardworking; I make things happen.  Crazymakers give free reign, an endless supply of things to fix, revamp and restore.  I thrived on drama.  Crazymakers are charismatic, charming, inventive and persuasive. 

“To fixer-uppers, they are irresistible…” wrote Julia Cameron

Damn right they are.  Endless chaos for me to FIX! 

I read and reread the pages.  How had I not recognised it before?  Ye Gods, I choose them and they chose me.  Cultist.  Footlights, please.  Ladies and Gentlemen, let the circus begin.  The show must go on.  The most destructive show on earth, the paranoia, the politics and the Herculean effort.  And I’d enabled that, no problem too ridiculous, too personal or too outrageous.

The solution was to recant

I read on.   You have to BE crazy to keep working for a crazymaker; a self-destructive delusion averting any chance of nurturing individual creativity.

I walked out into the cool air of an Autumn evening and along the Manly shoreline promenade.  I made some decisions.  I was going to cast adrift the last crazymaker and restore my equilibrium by putting them all where they belonged, on the pages I would write.

And, I was going to get hearing aids.

Do you know any crazymakers?

Or did Julia and I hog them all?  It feels a bit like I did and I’d hate to be selfish, so I make a promise, they are now all yours. 

PS - a really good start to 2016

Ros is running another Artist's Way Course at Desire Books, 3/3 Whistler Street, Manly 2095 commencing Monday 1st February Email desire@desirebooks.com.au or phone 02 9977 0888.