HK laundrymen washed up

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 1997, 12:00am

AN obscure colonial anachronism is about to change status with the handover: the Royal Navy's practice of allowing each ship to hire its own Hong Kong laundrymen.

The men, usually two to a ship, are civilians taken aboard on discretionary contracts and hired through word-of-mouth in the tight-knit naval community.

They earn no pay from the Navy, instead making a living by charging sailors and officers for washing, starching and ironing.

The Ministry of Defence refused to comment upon the future of the laundrymen, but reports from London said the tradition of allowing each ship's captain to award his own contracts was about to end. Instead, a service-wide contract would make a successful tenderer responsible for shirts, socks and uniforms across the fleet.

Under the new arrangements it is believed there will be a single price list for laundry charges on all ships.

Hong Kong laundrymen have been hired since the days of the China Station earlier this century, when seamen faced the problem of maintaining dress standards in a humid climate.

Each warship has at least two laundrymen and aircraft carriers more than half a dozen.

But, being civilians, they live separate lives from the crew.

Laundrymen often barter for food from the ship's chefs or cook their own dishes in the galley.

On naval exercises, or even in combat, they lock the door of the laundry and carry on work.

Two Hong Kong laundrymen have died in recent conflicts.

Lai Chi-keung was among 21 killed when an Exocet missile sank HMS Sheffield during the Falklands war in May 1982, and Kyo Ben-kuo was among 24 fatalities when HMS Coventry went down in the same conflict.