[Review] “Flashback to a Time of Hope: Gill Shaddick’s The Hong Kong Letters” by Susan Blumberg-Kason

{Written by Susan Blumberg-Kason, this review is part of Issue 46 (March/April 2020) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Gill Shaddick, The Hong Kong Letters, Blacksmith Books, 2019. 244 pgs. [Editors’ note: Also read Jennifer Anne Eagleton’s review of the same title HERE.]

The Hong Kong Letters

Hong Kong in 1968 was but a hint of brighter days to come. The riots of the previous year were over, yet still on people’s minds as the Cultural Revolution wreaked havoc north of the border. Talks between London and Beijing to settle the end of the 99-year lease of the New Territories were still years away, but the deadline was nonetheless on people’s minds in the colony. This is the environment that Gill Shaddick experienced when she arrived in Hong Kong to work as a secretary for a public relations firm in Central.

“I’d arrived at an in-between time—the space between shock and spectre.”

Shaddick’s new memoir, The Hong Kong Letters, starts decades later when she meets a woman in Australia who also lived in Hong Kong in the late 1960s. It turned out she had also worked as a temporary secretary at the same PR firm while Shaddick was held by the People’s Liberation Army just over the border in China after her boat had drifted into mainland Chinese waters.

The reader quickly ascertains the severity of this sailing mishap and how Shaddick and her friends were allowed no contact with the outside world while detained. They weren’t even sure if anyone in Hong Kong had realised they’d disappeared.

But the memoir turns out to tell so much more about late 1960s Hong Kong than the ill-fated sailing trip. It’s her stories from her job at the Advertising and Publicity Bureau, or the APB, that makes her story so fascinating and unique.

When she arrived in Hong Kong via the Trans-Siberian Railroad, her boss, Mrs Church was still in the UK on her annual leave. Mrs Church was an old China hand and had been in the advertising business for forty years at that point. She lived in a spacious bungalow in Pok Fu Lam and insisted Shaddick stay there, even though Mrs Church was nowhere near the colony. Her staff included a chauffeur, butler, cook, and others, and they all attended to Shaddick, taking her to the Hong Kong Club and showing her around the city.

Mrs Church soon returned to Hong Kong and treated Shaddick like a close niece, pouring strong cocktails in her bedroom and insisting Shaddick partake with her. Mrs Church enjoyed talking about her background and how she first came to Hong Kong four decades earlier. Born to British parents in China, Mrs Church’s mother died soon after she was born. Her father raised her along the northern railroad and exposed her to a rough and rugged life in early 1900s China. Fluent in Mandarin, Mrs Church felt more comfortable with life in China than in the UK, where her father eventually sent her for schooling. She married, divorced, and remarried, all at a young age. Mrs Church returned to Asia and had four children in total, but only two daughters survived. When Shaddick met Mrs Church in Hong Kong, the daughters had been back in the UK for decades and had a strained relationship with their mother.

A woman as warm and welcoming as Mrs Church couldn’t be difficult as a boss, Shaddick assumed. But that was not to be. No matter what Shaddick did at work, Mrs Church found fault with her. Back at home, Mrs Church slipped into her friendly self, enticing Shaddick to her room for cocktails and conversation. Just when Shaddick thought she couldn’t take another day of work, Mrs Church announced that an old friend was going to invest in half of APB and would soon be arriving in Hong Kong. Patrick O’Neil-Dunne, also known as POD, swept into the office and became a mentor to Shaddick. He increased her salary and arranged for staff training on management and marketing.

One of my favourite passages in the book about POD took place when Shaddick described a glossy new brochure POD put together for APB. It’s eerie to look back on this hope for Hong Kong’s future:

He assured prospective clients that the people of Hong Kong ‘know the Union Jack will always fly over Hong Kong island, and as for the New Territories which are leased from China, well, twenty-nine years is a long, long way away. Who knows what is going to happen in 1998—in the United Kingdom, the United States, Europe, Asia…or Hong Kong? The course of history can well change in twenty-nine years just as events twenty-nine years ago changed the course of world history.’

POD’s background was just as remarkable as Mrs. Church’s. He got his start in advertising in Shanghai, back when Carl Crow ran his famous agency. POD was also a great gambler and enlisted the help of Shaddick and another colleague at APB to travel with him to Macau while he wrote a book about winning at roulette. For weeks on end, she travelled between Hong Kong and Macau, witnessing POD’s downward spiral into delirium from too many nights at the roulette table.

After Shaddick moved out from Mrs Church’s home, she roomed with three Japanese expats. POD did not take well to this and felt her camaraderie with the Japanese roommates was a betrayal to those who suffered in Asia during WWII. But Shaddick didn’t see it that way and became especially close to Takako, the girlfriend and future wife of writer Han Suyin’s ex-husband. When Shaddick left her roommates for the quieter shores of Stanley, she was already a dedicated sailor. Which brings us to the sailing trip that went awry, bringing Shaddick and three male friends (and British soldiers) to captivity in mainland China.

Mrs Church and POD parted ways and would never talk to one another after POD bought her out of APB. Shaddick left Hong Kong for Africa in 1970, a time when China was starting to open just a little even though it was still in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. She experienced this relaxation during her short detention in China. In the past, detentions could have lasted up to a decade; for her sake, she was fortunate it was less than a week.

Gill Shaddick’s memoir brings the reader back to a simpler time, one in which most people in Hong Kong could find hope. For low-income communities, there was hope for upward mobility. For expats and wealthy Chinese, there was hope for everlasting business deals. And for someone like Shaddick, she saw that her “generation was renouncing Empire without a backward glance.”

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Susan Blumberg-Kason.jpg

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone WrongHer writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)

One thought on “[Review] “Flashback to a Time of Hope: Gill Shaddick’s The Hong Kong Letters” by Susan Blumberg-Kason

  1. Pingback: [Review] “The expatriate story: Gill Shaddick’s The Hong Kong Letters” by Jennifer Anne Eagleton | Cha

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