Friday, 25 January 2013

small pleasures

A few days ago, my friend Terence invited me to a buffet lunch at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club today. Terence is my oldest friend in Hong Kong, although I’ve lost contact with him a couple of times over the years, the most recent when we moved to Fanling in 2008. However, back in May, Paula and I were strolling along the bank of our local river early one evening when I saw a tall man with a distinctive mop of white hair.

“Gosh!” I exclaimed. “That looks like Terence.”

And so it was. It turned out that he’d recently moved into the village on the other side of the river from our house. I encountered Terence for the first time when he came to work as an instructor at the Outward Bound School in 1974. Within a few weeks of his arrival, he had sustained a serious leg fracture after skidding on a wet tram rail on Hong Kong island and falling off his motorbike. He was sidelined for eight months, which didn’t go down well with the school’s principal, who had been described in a local newspaper article as ‘a stubby, no-nonsense man with a mind of his own’. I would have been more inclined to describe him as a bombastic bully and bullshit artist.

Terence was eventually (unjustly) fired while I was on leave in the UK in 1976. Had this happened while I’d been in Hong Kong, I’d have walked out immediately, which may be why the principal waited until I wasn’t around. I suspect that the principal thought that Terence wasn’t up to the job, despite a solid background as a climber and mountaineer. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more egregious error of judgement.

Terence is in fact the most remarkable man I’ve ever known. A few years after leaving the school, he set off to sail around the world, single-handed, without telling anyone. And he did too: no wimping out by passing through the Straits of Magellan either. He went the hard way, around Cape Horn!

Anyway, Terence needed to go to Aberdeen, on the south side of Hong Kong island, so he dropped me off near the yacht club to amuse myself for a couple of hours, which I did by taking a few photographs of reflections on the water of the Causeway Bay typhoon shelter. However, there is one famous Hong Kong tradition that, despite living here for so long, I’d never seen: the firing of the noonday gun.

I hadn’t planned to watch the gun being fired, but it is very close to the yacht club, and it would have been remiss of me not to see what happened. As 12 o’clock approached, a small knot of about thirty tourists began to gather around the railings that surround the gun platform. A small man in a commissionaire-style uniform appeared from a cabin, unlocked the gate and entered the enclosure surrounding the gun. This turned out to be quite a performance, one executed with military precision. First, the man checked that the ropes securing the flags at the top of two flagpoles were tight. These flags betray the origins of this ceremony: one is a stylized thistle on a white background, the corporate logo of the so-called ‘princely hong (company)’, Jardines; the other is the Scottish saltire. Next, with exaggerated movements, seemingly to show it to an unseen commanding officer, the man loaded the explosive charge. Then, as noon approached, he rang a large brass ship’s bell. Finally, he fired the gun (see picture).

Then it was off to the yacht club to meet Terence. The club’s main building dates to the nineteenth century; its granite walls, four feet thick, are a reminder that it was originally constructed as an arsenal for the Royal Navy. It was at one time located on a tiny island a couple of hundred metres offshore, but it is now possible to walk there. The club is the only institution in Hong Kong to retain the ‘Royal’ appellation (whether it should was decided by a vote by its members, but only in the English name); the Royal Observatory, the Royal Hong Kong Police and the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club dropped it after the handover in 1997 (I still instinctively refer to the Hong Kong Observatory as the Royal Observatory).

The verandah of the club’s main restaurant, which looks out over the harbour, is an extremely pleasant place to enjoy a relaxing lunch, and there were some unexpected and unplanned distractions. As we enjoyed a cold pint of Stella Artois before checking out the buffet, I couldn’t help but notice a young man who was attempting, with absolutely no success, to extract some ketchup from a bottle. He thumped the bottom of the bottle repeatedly, banged the neck of the bottle on the table and thumped the bottom of the bottle again.

“That chap over there is definitely not a scientist,” I said.

I explained about a property of some viscous fluids called thixotropy. A thixotropic fluid, which ketchup is, is one that shows a time-dependent change in viscosity: the longer it undergoes shear stress, the less viscous it becomes. In simple language, if you shake the ketchup bottle vigorously for about ten seconds, the ketchup will flow easily out of the bottle.

Then I noticed a sparrow hopping across the floor. Not a lot of birdlife around these parts, I thought to myself. But then, is that a heron at the end of the breakwater, and a greater egret? And a black-eared kite swooping in to perch on a white-painted post? I often see kites riding the thermals out in Fanling, but I’ve never seen one perched.

“Look! There’s a kingfisher on the edge of the breakwater,” said Terence.

It is impossible to identify the species (there are seven in Hong Kong) at a distance of 25 metres, a range at which all you appear to see is a little black dot, but even at such a distance the profile is unmistakable.

Finally, a pair of black-collared starlings appeared in a tree no more than five metres away. They were astonishingly quiet. These are the birds that Paula still refers to as ‘noisy buggers’, and they can be relied upon to kick up quite a racket when they appear, as they frequently do, in the tree in front of our house in Fanling.

Now that’s what I call lunch. Thank you Terence.

Not noisy buggers.


  1. What a beautiful photo. The one with the 2 black collard starlings. Even the tree looks luscious and green. You just don't get to see anything like it in London.

    I think you are really fortunate to live in Hong Kong Dennis. Every time I come here, I get so much wonderful information from what you see on a daily basis. There's a lot I don't know about history, culture, wild-life and suchlike but you explain things very well, and have kept my interest up. I enjoy the visit, so thanks.

    Got to say thanks for the ketchup tip. I'm into salad cream, and it's a nightmare to get out onto the plate sometimes. So all I need do after years of fighting with it, is give it a good old shake first. Knowledge is power :)

    1. My son lives in London Rum, and he comes out to Hong Kong every Chinese New Year, which is the best time to be in Hong Kong if you live here (or know someone you can stay with) and the worst time if you’re a casual visitor, because everywhere is closed!

      Hong Kong is a fascinating place, even for someone like me who has lived here, off and on, since 1974. And I do my best to convey that enthusiasm in my posts about the territory. I’m delighted to hear you enjoy them.

      By the way, whatever you do, don’t forget to keep your hand over the cap on the salad cream bottle when you shake it. I forgot once!

  2. I assume there is more to come, regarding Terence? Or, is he just one of the birds in the story?

    1. I’m sure that Terence will be making more appearances in due course Bruce. We’ve had a few adventures together over the years. We used to climb together a lot in the 1970s and 1980s. I’m not short, but he towers over me, and one of the first climbs we pioneered together he led the hard pitch. I found the crucial handholds to be just out of reach, so when I finally managed to grovel my way to the top I insisted that we call the climb Stretch.

  3. :) that is for all the work on your header

    1. Thank you themotherofnine9. I appreciate your taking the time to check it out.

  4. Learnt a new word today: thixotropic

    Cool. :)


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