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.
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!
I really enjoyed this article by Hong Kong journalist Sarah Lazarus