The house of Ho

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 May, 2012, 12:00am

'I would call it all second to garbage,' says Robert Ho Hung-ngai, with a self-deprecating laugh, after an hour recollecting his life.

The journalist-cum-philanthropist, who turns 80 this year, belongs to the third generation of the Hotung family, the Eurasian clan that has left its mark many times over in the history of Hong Kong and, for a period, the mainland.

Ho lives in Vancouver, Canada, now, but makes frequent return trips to Hong Kong, the most recent being last month, when he was here on business for his charitable foundation.

HO'S GRANDFATHER, Sir Robert Hotung (1862-1956), born to a Dutch father and a local mother, was more than just the first Chinese person to live on The Peak, as it has often been said. A 1923 South China Morning Post report refers to a modus vivendi he suggested for warring factions on the mainland, which drew a positive response from none other than Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary who had overthrown the Qing dynasty.

'I have repeatedly expressed myself in favour of the peaceful unification of China. I therefore approve your suggestion for roundtable conference of principal leaders in country. [Signed] Sun Yat-sen,' the telegram, dated July 19, 1923, read.

Earlier that year, Sun had visited his alma mater, the University of Hong Kong, and was accompanied by Edward Hotung, Sir Robert's eldest son and the then chairman of the student union. Sir Robert's second son, Robert Ho Shai-lai, Hung-ngai's father, was more directly involved in shaping the destiny of China.

'My father was serving under Marshal Zhang Xueliang in northeast China before the Japanese attack and occupation of Manchuria in 1931. He was in charge of intelligence, and all coded messages went to him. That shows he was well trusted by the young marshal,' Ho says.

General Ho, as his father was to be known for the next 60 years, became entangled in China as the war with Japan escalated and turned full-scale in 1937.

'My father was at the frontline. The battle at Tufeiyuan in central China was the one he was most proud of. Fighting the most-feared Japanese mechanised tank brigade, he won the battle and got a big medal for that.'

The war years bequeathed the general's first-born son a childhood lacking in parental attention. Although the 'grand old man of Hong Kong' was there to give some guidance to the boy.

'I was raised by my grandparents as my father was in China fighting the Japanese and my mother was always with him. I was cared for by my grandmother, Lady Margaret, and supported by my grandfather, who paid for my nanny, school and so forth. I was closer to my grandparents than my parents,' he says.

Ho recalls fondly the weekend drives he took with his grandmother to Dairy Farm, in lower Pok Fu Lam, for fresh ice cream. But it's the meal times he remembers best.

'It was really quite an experience to eat with her because I had to be very proper. She would train me in table manners: how to hold chopsticks, how to reach for food, and you were not allowed to leave the table unless you were excused.'

Ho's grandfather has been in the news recently, regarding Ho Tung Gardens, on The Peak, presently owned by Ho Min-kwan, Ho's younger sister. She wants to redevelop the site against the wishes of those who see it as part of Hong Kong's heritage.

'Grandfather was interested in three properties on The Peak, which in those days was all European, their excuse being that they had low immunity to the epidemics going on down below, especially in Happy Valley, which was then a swamp, so they had to live apart from the populace. So he had to get permission to buy those properties. It was more than just a simple OK. The whole process was referred to the UK and it took some time for approval.

'So he purchased them, and they were all one-storey bungalows. He lived in one of them and the rest of the family lived in the other two.

'Meanwhile, he spotted a property of Mr Wilkinson, of the Wilkinson & Grist law firm. So he bought it and tore down the existing buildings and built what is now Ho Tung Gardens, and that's where Lady Clara, my other grandmother [Sir Robert's second wife], lived.'

The young Ho lived in Idlewild, the family's majestic residence at 8 Seymour Road, Mid-Levels, where Sir Robert played host to British literary legend George Bernard Shaw and where he passed away in his sleep in 1956.

'That's where I stayed with my grandparents, except during the summer months, when we'd go to The Peak residence. It's cooler up there. As you know, there was no air conditioning in those days.

'My impression of my grandfather was that he was always busy. He had a huge office in a three-storey building in Central, where the Standard Chartered Bank is now. But in the 1930s, he was already very old. So he gradually phased that out and worked at home. And he had a huge bedroom. That, in fact, was his office. When people came to see him, they went to his bedroom. Sometimes he would let me sit in on his business dealings, to train me to know something about business. He was very caring, and would spend time with me when he was free. He always asked me, in Cantonese, how I was doing and so on.'

Ho recalls his grandfather's passion for the media and the public's right to information.

'He bought a local Chinese newspaper and named it Kung Sheung Yat Po shortly after the big general strike in 1925 that affected Canton and Hong Kong. There were serious racial [undercurrents] behind the strike and he thought it was his duty to explain the situation and present both sides of the story to all concerned. After that, he founded an evening edition of the paper and then a pre-dawn paper called Tin Kwong Pao, which was hugely popular because it was the only paper that came out at four in the morning.'

The presses came to an abrupt stop with the Japanese invasion in 1941. Earlier that year, the Ho clan had celebrated the 60th wedding anniversary of Sir Robert and Lady Margaret. Everyone was present - except for General Ho.

'My father was then associated with the British intelligence and knew exactly when the Japanese would attack the city. But he chose not to come back and stayed in Liuzhou, Guangxi. Grandfather was extremely angry about his absence, albeit without knowing why. Then came the Japanese invasion and occupation for three years and eight months.'

Ho Tung Gardens suffered two direct artillery hits during the hostilities and Idlewild was turned into a Japanese barracks. Edward Hotung lost both his legs in an air raid. Lady Margaret passed away in 1944. Ho, then nine years old, escaped with his mother and his younger sister - but they very nearly didn't make it.

'The Japanese were hunting for my father, not knowing he wasn't here. They traced my mother, me and my sister. So we got fake IDs, changed our names from Ho to my mother's maiden name, Hung, and hid ourselves, moving from place to place.

'Then about a month after the surrender of Hong Kong the Japanese announced that anyone in Hong Kong who wanted to leave should leave. Why? Because there was not enough rice to feed the population after the sealink to Thailand - the rice supplier - was blocked. We took that chance and proceeded to board a Japanese ship to Guangzhou Bay, then a French colony and named Zhanjiang today. Our plan was to go north to meet my father in Guangxi.

'We got the tickets and took a walla-walla to Kowloon Wharf, where the ship was berthed. But as soon as we landed in Tsim Sha Tsui, a curfew was called and nobody moved anywhere. A systematic search ensued and we were very afraid because we had false IDs and were easily recognisable for our Eurasian look. We thought we had come to the end. Surely we would be arrested.

'As the search was coming our way, suddenly a collaborator working for the Japanese came and said to my mother, 'Mrs Ho, come with me.' We had no choice but to follow him.

'We went through the blockade and ... finally to the ship, and out of Hong Kong. To this day, we have no idea who this guy was except that he was a collaborator. All we could imagine was he or his family must have been assisted by my grandfather and he was returning the goodwill. I can tell you it was very close to the end of us.'

After the war, Ho resumed schooling in Hong Kong.

'That was my grandfather and father's idea. The plan was, I would not go abroad to university because I would go straight to Lingnan University in Guangzhou after secondary education at Pui Ching [Middle School]. But in 1949 the communists came, Lingnan was closed, and so were our plans.'

Given the family's British connections - Sir Robert was knighted by King George V and General Ho attended the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, in London - it seemed natural that Ho Jnr would head to the British Isles for college.

'Pui Ching was US-oriented, and most graduates went to America for further studies. So I would have lost all my friends if I had gone to the UK. But how would I go against the family? A picture in one UK school catalogue gave me an idea. I showed grandfather a picture of boarding students in the UK bathing in cold water and wearing shorts in the winter, and asked, 'Do you want your grandson to get pneumonia?'

''Well, you've got a point there,' was the answer, and off I went to the US.'

It may seem strange that a Hotung family member would be accused of having poor English, but that was what happened at Ho's school interview. To rectify that, he spent two years at a school in Kansas City studying English and American history.

'It was my choice because I wanted to study arts rather than science. Science is easy because two plus two is always four, no matter what the language. But in arts you have to have good English.'

After he graduated from high school for a second time, Ho was accepted to Colgate University in New York State, where he majored in history, specialising in the French revolution, and minored in English. His interest in the arts did not disappoint his grandfather because, Ho says, 'journalism is an arts subject', and that was what he would study in a postgraduate programme at Columbia University.

A prerequisite for the course was two years of work experience, 'So I returned to the Far East and worked for half a year on the English desk in the Central News Agency in Taipei, and then for the Hong Kong Standard as a junior reporter. I was interviewed by Sally Aw [Sian], who had just taken over the Sing Tao group after her brother had been killed in a plane crash.'

The Standard, he says, was new at the time, with a small staff, and he got to write all sorts of stories 'from the high to the low'.

'It was the bamboo curtain then and all the news from China was obtained by interviewing people leaving China via Hong Kong, and the only two [points through which they could enter] were the train station and the airport. I remember I was there with Jimmy Yap of the Post, sitting at the Dairy Farm vendor and enjoying the free treats it offered to reporters, spotting people who could provide information about conditions in China.

'My byline was just Robert Ho, and no one knew who I was,' he says, laughing.

On graduation from Columbia, he applied for a position at The New York Times.

'They told me I could start out as an office boy for US$53 a week and if I was good enough, after a year, they'd make me a reporter. I felt totally humiliated and walked out. In the end I got a job at The Pittsburgh Press, starting off writing obituaries and getting phone calls from sobbing relatives for a weekly salary of US$75.'

After 2? years, Ho joined National Geographic, rewriting manuscripts by scientists and explorers. One day, he tagged along with the editor to a press conference at the White House. A few weeks later, he was made the journal's White House correspondent, serving through the transition from the Eisenhower to the Kennedy administrations.

'Unlike nowadays, when you get searched three times before you enter the White House, all I had was a press pass. I showed it and I got in. I only had my Hong Kong passport at the time, but you've got to understand, in those days nobody got assassinated. The world was very peaceful.'

Later, in 1960, while working as a stringer at the United Nations for a group of newspapers, he witnessed the historic shoe-banging incident of then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at the General Assembly.

'You have enough fun, come home!' Ho quotes his father as saying in 1962. That year, General Ho retired from the Nationalist government and returned to Hong Kong to take charge of the Hotung family businesses, which spanned property, media and stock investments, among other interests. Ho was left with no choice but to cut short his time in the United States. He became the chief reporter for the Kung Sheung Yat Po, with General Ho in full command, an arrangement specified in Sir Robert's will. With 30 years of military service behind him, the old general ran the newspaper like a barracks. The military discipline paid off during the 1967 riots, waged by militant leftists.

'It was one summer day in 1967 when some 5,000 rioters marched towards our office building in Wan Chai. Tipped off by the police, we were prepared. My father was at the front and our loyal staff had sticks in their hands and were ready to fight. As we waited on the rooftop, we saw them coming from the cenotaph. We closed the gate and father calmed everyone, and told us not to fight or else we'd be in big trouble. When the rioters finally came, we got into a stalemate. After some rounds of chanting slogans, they dispersed.'

In the 70s, Ho began to shift from journalism to the family business, going full-time after the paper closed in 1984.

On the advice of his father, he became a board member of Tung Lin Kok Yuen, a Buddhist temple in Happy Valley opened in 1935 and named after the late Sir Robert and Lady Clara.

'When I was very young, Lady Clara always asked me to go with her to the temple. But it was no fun for a child there as all they did was chant and do the rituals, which I found torturous.'

During board meetings, Ho sat next to a monk who impressed him with his 'simple and down-to-earth language of what Buddhism was all about'. Because of the late Venerable Wu Yi, Ho says, his life is now dominated by the four major virtues: diligence, frugality, benevolence and harmony.

In the 80s, the board decided to expand in North America and sent Ho and his mentor to look for a suitable site for an international branch of Tung Lin Kok Yuen. They chose Vancouver for its growing Chinese community and liberal policy when it came to religious institutions. In 1989, Ho decided to retire to the Canadian city.

'While I enjoy living there - the fresh air and quiet - I am not giving up on Hong Kong. I often come here to work.'

General Ho spent his retirement in Hong Kong. He was invited to visit the mainland many times but almost always refused. The only exception was in 1998, when he was 92. He returned to Shenyang to open an academic building at Northeastern University, at the behest of the school's founder: Zhang Xueliang, his old commander. Ho and his sister accompanied their elderly father on the emotionally charged visit, which would be the last for the general. The senior Ho passed away in his sleep just over a month later.

In 2005, Ho launched a charity foundation of his own, The Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation, which is independent of the clan trust that operates under his grandfather's name.

'We are very narrow in our scope, and it is a decision of my own family to promote Chinese arts and culture, and the philosophy of Buddhism. I give money to the institutions I like: for instance, a hospital research centre and the building of a mental hospital in Vancouver, which has nothing to do with the family interest.

'My two sons have their own interests that they support.'

Fifty-somethings Robert Ho Yau-chung and Kevin Ho Yau-kwong are known as the 'Yau' generation of the Ho family, adding to Ho's 'Hung', General Ho's 'Shai' and Sir Robert's 'Kai' generations.

'These Chinese designators for each generation were set up by my great-grandmother. The fifth and sixth generations will be Hoi and Kwong, respectively. There is already the Kwong generation, but not in my branch of the family. In fact, I have been very naughty about this because I named my grandchildren Yen instead of Hoi. The latter means 'open', and I found it inadequate in expressing my gratitude to my family, hence the change to Yen, which means 'gratitude'.'

Names aside, it is the Hotung tradition of giving that Ho hopes will live on in future generations.

'My family motto is 'Before you receive you must learn to give'. It was drilled into me by my grandfather, who raised me. This is what we've been doing, and we have to continue this.'

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