On trying to blend in

And on being seated strategically out of view in restaurants


When I first got to Hong Kong, I stayed at the Y. That was expensive, so after a week or so I moved to a rented room in the home of an elderly man who always wore pajamas and owned a very noisy parrot. I stayed there until my name came to the top of the waiting list at the Helena May.

The Helena May was a home for ladies, and ladies only. Male visitors were confined to the downstairs lounge, which was so fulsomely decorated with pink and flowers patterns that one male visitor told me it was like being inside a box of tampons. The ladies slept upstairs in single rooms with single beds. They ate breakfast and dinner together, British food, in the communal dining room.


With Scott Hunter at the Helena May

The food was British because the Helena May's origins were British - the squat white building was put up in 1915, in the days when colonial administrators in Hong Kong were presumably bereft of suitable women to marry.

Single ladies past their sell-by date in Britain - age 25 or 30 at the time, I would imagine - would come stay in the Helena May for a couple of months, spend their days doing ladylike things such as sewing, and ultimately hook a husband and start running a houseful of Chinese servants.

I moved there because the rent was cheap and I really didn't know anyone else in Hong Kong. While foreigners were paid a great deal more than Chinese workers doing the same job, their housing expenses were much higher, in part because even well-off Chinese shared one apartment with several generations of family.

We were a mixed group of women at the Helena May, aged 20 to 70, with all types of life stories. There were fashion designers, book publishers, newspaper reporters (me), secretaries, embassy employees, even a few doctors, dentists, and lawyers.

But we were all white - the housemother, a silver-haired British widow in chinz once said that this was "because we don't serve Chinese food, and because we don't have separate showers" - and nobody spoke Chinese, or even seemed to be interested in learning it.

We spent our evenings in the communal television room, watching the two English-language channels then available on Hong Kong TV. There were not many male visitors in the downstairs lounge.

This looks like a great party, but I have absolutely no recollection who any of these people are.

I tried to integrate, though, to the best of my ability. Once I found a job I made friends with my Chinese colleagues, and joined them for lunch at the huge round tables in Chinese restaurants. The restaurants would usually try to seat me strategically out of view of the door, lest potential Chinese customers spy a white face and think the place a tourist trap.

I learned how to tap the edge of table twice lightly to say "thanks" when offered more tea.

I dated Chinese men, whom I found intelligent but rather formal. I went to see Cantonese movies subtitled in English. (Western movies subtitled in Chinese were unwatchable, since the locals would chatter all the way through them, slurping at fried chicken feet and then tossing the bones into the aisles.)

I went to karaoke and tried to sing songs in Cantonese, to the vast amusement of the Chinese around me.

Next: A bad reporter on a bad newspaper

Return to Half-life homepage
Send e-mail to Xander Mellish: xmel _improved @xmel.com
U.S. Copyright Office Registration 1-141735861