Giving the Guv a good Christmas

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 December, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 December, 1995, 12:00am

HOW many households in Hong Kong start their Christmas preparations in June? Not many. But for Elspeth Collins-Taylor, housekeeper for the last four years at Government House, this is routine.

In fact, compared to her previous positions in Britain where she worked for large private households including the Duke and Duchess of Kent, June is somewhat late. Some upmarket households there begin to prepare for Christmas in January, one of the quietest times of year for household staff.

But the Christmas rush seemed a million miles away when sitting with Ms Collins-Taylor on a sun-filled verandah overlooking the gardens at Government House.

'In June, we order the Christmas trees, we check the decorations, the Christmas cakes are made and the Christmas card list is checked,' she says.

'We order our Christmas trees from the Agriculture and Fisheries Department in the New Territories. It's a 15-to 16-foot [about 4.5 metres] tree and when it has served its use for one year we recycle it and use it for the following year's yule log.' Does Government House worry about prices? 'I have a budget that is approved and allocated by the Executive Council. Working for Government House I am probably more conscious and feel a greater sense of responsibility as regards expenditure than in the United Kingdom.' In fact it is the directness of running a large private household that originally attracted Ms Collins-Taylor away from hotels.

'It's all much more tangible,' she says. 'In a private house you are directly answerable to a person. Particularly here where even the most junior staff member can go to the Governor and tell him that this or that is not right.' The thirty-something Ms Collins-Taylor was born and raised in the Philippines and educated in Europe. Her family, of Scottish origin, live in Scotland.

Her position as housekeeper at Government House combines what in Britain would be the roles of housekeeper and butler.

Regardless of the political winds that swirl around it, inside Hong Kong's Government House - in its final years of British occupancy - there is a quiet but organised bustle there.

One has the feeling of being in a 'lived-in' house. It is also a much more open house, although of this Ms Collins-Taylor is somewhat circumspect.

For her, it is more a matter of family style. 'I think it has a lot to do with the children and their ages. When the Patten children, all girls, return it is much more lively as friends come and go.' Without discounting family as an influence on the way a house runs, there have been other noticeable changes in the house on Upper Albert Road. There has been a big increase in the number of public and charity events held there.

This was a definite change of style to that of the former governor Sir David Wilson and his wife, and must have seemed quite alien to a woman for whom discretion and respect for the privacy of one's employers were paramount.

Ms Collins-Taylor admits that initially the adjustment was difficult, as nowhere before had she experienced such openness. But she enthuses about her work with the Pattens and admits that she enjoys the benefits of a more open Government House.

In line with the Patten style, there will be a number of events that will be happening at Government House for the first time, such as the Christmas party for disabled children.

Patrick Cheng, the chef at Government House for the last eight years, will have mixed the leftovers from last year's Christmas pudding, which have been frozen for several months, and incorporated them into this year's pud and the traditional Government House Christmas cakes.

Closer than Christmas, however, is the staff party which is attended by all staff, ex-staff and their families, around 400 guests.

'This is one night off for staff,' Ms Collins-Taylor says.

'The choir of St John's Cathedral sing carols and in a reversal of roles the private office staff and their families serve the staff.' If you are imagining that the private office staff of Government House roll their sleeves up for a couple of days and retreat to the kitchen, think again.

Chef Cheng and his staff will have prepared sausage rolls, curry puffs and other finger food. Then the fruit punch. When asked for his opinion of this annual concoction, Patrick chuckled, 'um . . . average'.

British Navy-trained, with a special interest in sugar work and decoration which he studied as part of his City and Guilds, Mr Cheng is non-plussed about numbers.

'It is much the same: I'm cooking for 10, I can cook for 20.' Both Ms Collins-Taylor and Mr Cheng say that Government House cooking has undergone a revolution because of the Governor's heart condition.

'Here was a man who loved to eat but who couldn't eat many of the things he loved. It opened up a whole new world of recipes.' So after all this planning what part does Ms Collins-Taylor play in the Government House festivities? 'I'm going home for a family Christmas in Scotland,' she laughs, 'where I won't have anything to plan. Mum will have done it all.'