Hong Kong - Spinning Back the Decades

Chinese Fishing Junk in Hong Kong Harbour. Copyright Greta Solly 1969

Chinese Fishing Junk in Hong Kong Harbour. Copyright Greta Solly 1969

Finding my way back

I find it hard to get into my memoir-writing zone. I need props to push myself back in time.  I’m lucky that I always have letters and journals to hand when I’m writing about my travels, but sometimes I need more and reach for the photo albums.

When I visited my friend Greta last year, we talked about my recent memoir, The Hong Kong Letters, and looked at photographs that she had taken when we lived in Hong Kong in the 1960s. While I was busy writing home and taking the occasional snap, she was capturing the extraordinary magic of our surroundings in photographs. Greta’s portraits of people and scenes in Hong Kong quite took my breath away and she has kindly allowed me to use them.


I particularly love the way Greta has captured the shimmer of sunlight turning the fishing baskets to gold mesh. The Enterprise sailing dinghies in the background indicate how we did not have to go out looking for such magnificent shots., they were everyday life. Copyright Greta Solly 1969

I particularly love the way Greta has captured the shimmer of sunlight turning the fishing baskets to gold mesh. The Enterprise sailing dinghies in the background indicate how we did not have to go out looking for such magnificent shots., they were everyday life. Copyright Greta Solly 1969

Precious Footage

Films today do a wonderful job of recreating backdrop, bringing ambiance and history to life. The only problem is that the sets acquire a polish that wasn’t there. The streets are too clean, costume a little too fashionable and it is this slick finish that keeps me at arm’s length.  

So when I found that two classic Hong Kong melodramas: Love is a Many Splendored Thing and The World of Suzie Wong were shot on location in the 1950s - unusual for the time - it was like striking gold.

According to Wikipedia, the two stars loathed each other on set. Holden claimed that Jennifer Jones ate garlic before every love scene! The film made a lot of money for Han Suyin who wrote the original memoir.

According to Wikipedia, the two stars loathed each other on set. Holden claimed that Jennifer Jones ate garlic before every love scene! The film made a lot of money for Han Suyin who wrote the original memoir.

Both films starred William Holden – the American big sexy star of the 1950s. To me he was terribly miscast, especially as the poor artist in The World of Suzie Wong, but then I’m taking the blockbusters out of their time and space.

The book title spawned innumerable Suzie Wong bars and it’s one of those titles that never dies!

The book title spawned innumerable Suzie Wong bars and it’s one of those titles that never dies!


Acting and dialogue aside, the backdrop that slides past and the precious footage that anchors both these films in real time, is well worth waiting for. 

I am so pleased that with written accounts, photo and film, I’m able to spin back in time and revisit the Hong Kong I knew.

Captured is that wonderful, Chinese togetherness, fleshpots and sweatshops, teeming, jostling, shouting, floating, squatting, pimping humanity crammed onto a postdated island.

Bright lights in neon and strains of Chinese Opera. London buses and rickshaws, sampans and the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet, typhoon warnings and a Governor who wore plumes in his hat.

Fifty years ago, Hong Kong, was a deliriously wacky place.

A final beautiful shot from Greta’s album. Copyright Greta Solly 1969

A final beautiful shot from Greta’s album. Copyright Greta Solly 1969