Man Made Disaster

Wong Chi-ning

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 November, 2003, 12:00am

Wong Chi-ning, 79, joined the Fire Services Department nearly 55 years ago as a $150-a-month fireman and when he retired, as an instructor, he was earning $7,000 a month. And during his 35 years in the service he faced danger - and tragedy - on a daily basis.

I came down from my native Guangdong province during the Japanese occupation and lived with relatives. Times were very hard and food was scarce, but somehow we managed. As I was still a teenager, I attended night school whenever I could. I learnt English and Chinese because I wanted to get a good job when the second world war was over. After the Japanese left and the British returned, I got a job as a dockyard boy at HMS Tamar, the Royal Navy base next to the Star Ferry on the Hong Kong side. It was very busy in the years immediately after the war. Ships were always coming and going and there was a lot of work to be done. When peace took a firm hold, I decided it was time to think about the future and became a mechanic. I was always interested in the technical side of things.

I left Hong Kong for four years and spent the time in Borneo working for a British petrol company. I had to pass exams, but I managed to get a job with them as a mechanic. It was interesting at first, because it was possible to visit places like Singapore before it became independent. I came back to Hong Kong because I didn't see any future in remaining with the company.

Soon after I arrived back in Hong Kong, the Fire Services Department advertised for firemen and I applied. After passing the entrance test, I spent several months at fire training school at Pat Heung undergoing rigorous training, before being assigned to the Mongkok fire station.

During training I was paid $150 a month. After graduation, my basic pay was $165 a month, plus $15 because I was a mechanic, another $15 danger money and a further $15 because I could drive a vehicle. So my take-home pay was more than $200. It was good money in the early 1950s.

We worked shifts of 24 hours on and 24 hours off, beginning at 9am. It could be boring at times, especially when we were confined to the station house, just waiting for something to happen. We had several 15-minute tea breaks during the day and an enforced afternoon rest. My main job during fires was to look after the fire engines.

Of course, I didn't only keep an eye on our vehicles while at the scene of fires. The time I was most frightened during a fire was in the late 50s. A ship off Lyemun was burning fiercely and our water jets couldn't reach it to douse the flames. I was ordered to cut holes in the side of the vessel to give the fire an escape route. It was dangerous work and I learnt how essential it was to keep my helmet on, because the flames leapt through the holes, straight at me.

Another time, I was electrocuted. It was a stupid accident. I stepped on a wire, which had fallen in a pool of water near one of our trucks. I was lucky, I was not seriously hurt.

When the Shamsuipo MTR station was under construction in the late 70s, a big fire broke out at the site. There was so much smoke under ground we could not see. We were all wearing breathing apparatus and were attached to each other by ropes. I'll never forget the feeling that gripped me when I felt that rope go slack. We lost a man that day. Normally, firemen don't worry about danger when fighting fires. There was too much to do to think about that, but the loss weighed heavily on us.

I spent 10 years with the department before I was promoted to leading fireman. Fortunately, we had automatic annual increments and by the time I reached the mandatory retirement age of 55, I was earning more than $7,000 a month. It was then that my superiors asked me to stay on to teach recruits. The bosses knew that old firemen could reach the cadets, because we understood the dangers of the job and could always draw on our personal experiences to explain a point. The biggest weakness of young firemen was always their eagerness to get to the fire. They were inclined to throw caution to the wind.

My service was extended a total of three times and I finally left at the age of 60, after almost 35 years with the department.

I courted my wife, Wong Siu-lan, for almost three years and we have been married for 50 years. We have one son and two grandchildren. Siu-lan and I will spend our remaining years at the Helping Hand Jockey Club Self-Care Centre for the Elderly in Tseung Kwan O. It is just like having our own home. We do our own shopping and cooking, and laundry. Married couples have their own rooms.

We have been very lucky. It has been a good marriage and we are still happy. Not too many men can say that as they approach their 80th birthday.

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