As an American soldier in the 1960s I was entitled to five days of “R&R” about three-quarters of the way through my one-year tour of duty in Vietnam. R&R stood for rest and recuperation (or rest and relaxation), but I redefined it in my letters as Rambling and Rumination.
I had the choice of going to Singapore, Bangkok or Hong Kong, and I chose Hong Kong because it was the furthest north (22° North Latitude) and I assumed it would have the coolest temperatures.
It really was pleasantly cool in March, and I enjoyed the five days of walking around in civilian clothes without a weapon.
At the time Hong Kong was still a British Crown Colony, since this was thirty-two years before the colony was finally returned to China in 1997.
I don’t recall seeing many British people in Hong Kong, but on the Peak Tram there were groups of Chinese children wearing British-style school uniforms. Also there were lots of tourists speaking German, French and Danish — or maybe Swedish, since I couldn’t and in fact still can’t tell the difference.
Once when I got off the Peak Tram at the top station I ran into a whole family of fatuous red-faced camera-laden tourists babbling away in Swiss German, which made me feel right at home since I had previously spent a year as a student at the University of Bern, Switzerland.
Since Hong Kong was and is one of the most densely populated places in the world, they have to build numerous tall buildings to accommodate everybody. In 1965 I was duly impressed by the Hong Kong skyline, though I am sure my old photos must look quaint to anyone who knows Hong Kong today, since many more and much larger buildings have been built in the meantime.
In one of the letters that I wrote after my return to Phước Vĩnh, Vietnam, I wrote:
Hong Kong was a welcome relief from the idiocy and injustice — and heat — of Vietnam. I had a very fine time; did a lot of walking around the hills of Hong Kong Island.
And in another letter I wrote:
Hong Kong was a good thing: cool, peaceful, clean — well, not really clean, but the accumulated filth doesn’t fester like it does in Vietnam, nor does Hong Kong have the pervasive smell of swamp- and fart-gas that hangs over Saigon.
I stayed at the International Hotel on Cameron Road in Kowloon and travelled over to Hong Kong Island on the Star Ferry.
In 2017 I looked up the Star Ferry and found that the company is still in operation, running two ferry routes and a harbour tour with a fleet of nine ferries. The company was founded in 1898 and has been operating ever since then, except for an interruption during the Second World War when Hong Kong was occupied by the Japanese.
From another letter: Several times I took the Peak Tram up the hill in the late afternoon — it doesn’t actually go to the top of any peak, only to a col at 1300-and-some-odd feet — and sat in the Peak Café to watch the cold side of the sunset and feel the wind come up from around the hills and over the China Sea.
From the top of the Peak Tram I once walked down to the other side of Hong Kong Island.
Down the other side to the South China Sea and along the road to Aberdeen, where tens of thousands of Chinese live in the harbour in junks — a veritable floating slum. And a ways down the road from Aberdeen towards Repulse Bay there’s a stretch of wooded, windblown coast that is completely uninhabited, like the north shore of Lake Superior. And then Repulse Bay itself with its gleaming hotels and sandy beaches.
One morning while I was in Hong Kong I took a tour of the New Territories, including old villages, new factories and a glimpse of the border between Hong Kong and mainland China, which at the time was routinely called “Red China” by the Americans (including me).
On the tour they explained that the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong consisted of three parts: Hong Kong Island, which the Chinese emperor ceded to Britain “in perpetuity” after a war in 1841; Kowloon, which was ceded in 1860; and the New Territories, which were leased to Britain for ninety-nine years starting in 1898.
When I was there everybody was wondering what would happen thirty-two years later in 1997 when the lease expired.
What actually happened was that not only the New Territories but also Hong Kong Island and Kowloon were returned to China. So the former British Colony of Hong Kong is now a “Special Administrative Region” as a part of the People’s Republic of China.
My photos in this post are from 1965. I revised the text in 2017.