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.
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.
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.
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.