• Wed
  • Dec 24, 2014
  • Updated: 2:09pm

Jenny ran a shipshape 'side party'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 April, 2009, 12:00am
 

She was formally known as Ng Muk-kah, but no one ever called her that. With black trousers, white smock and hair in a bun, 'Jenny' was a fixture on the Tamar jetty for decades, where she ran Jenny's 'side party'.

Side parties were groups of women who would clean the vessels, chip off rust and repaint their sides, wash and iron laundry, and take on other ship husbandry tasks. At their height, between the 1930s and 1950s, as many as 70 women were involved in side parties.

Jenny's side party was one of the more famous. Known for her big smile and kind demeanour, Jenny is fondly remembered by generations of sailors. She received countless certificates and some medals for her work over the decades from naval officers, the government and British royalty. She died in February.

'She was an institution,' said Christopher Hammerbeck, a retired brigadier who was deputy commander of the British Forces Hong Kong, and is the current chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce Hong Kong. 'Everyone knew her. She was always there, so much so that she formed part of the background.'

When the ships belonging to the British, Commonwealth and American navies came in to dock, Jenny and the other side party leaders - Mary and Suzie - would each take a team of women and set about cleaning the sides of the ships, chipping off rust and repainting them.

Each side party had its own territory. Mary dealt largely with US Navy ships. It would take her party of women 10 days working 10 hours a day to repaint the sides of an aircraft carrier. Suzie took charge of the boats of the locally enlisted personnel of the Royal Navy alongside the Tamar jetty.

And Jenny's team would go out to the British ships moored at buoys. There they stood on a moving sampan with long poles - attached to either cleaning rags or paint rollers - and worked 10 hours a day. Jenny would also leave flowers, fruit and the daily newspaper in the accommodations of the captain, first mate and lieutenant.

She refused direct payment for these tasks, but in return would take wire, rope, food and the ship's 'gash', or rubbish, and had a contract to sell soft drinks to the ship's personnel.

An institution of Hong Kong loved by many visiting sailors over the years, she is remembered for her wide smile and generosity.

She was born on a sampan, and her birth date was either 1917 or 1920. She was the third generation of women involved in this work. Her mother, known as Jenny One, used to clean the ships before her, and Jenny Two would follow in her footsteps at a young age. She received no formal education.

'I first came to Hong Kong in 1963, wet behind the ears. I was about 20,' said Briton David Watts, who became manager of the China Fleet Club in Hong Kong following his navy career.

'And that is my earliest memory of Jenny's Side Party - seeing this group of women on the jetty at HMS Tamar. They stood with long poles with paint rollers on the end. It was a man's job in those days to paint the ship's sides and yet there was this group of women here. They would do the stuff that we would normally do. It wasn't a very pleasant job - hanging over the side and standing on a pontoon constantly on the move.

'They would be getting rid of rust marks and putting on God knows how many coats.'

Mr Watts remembers 'skylarking about' with Jenny - 'you know, as you do when you're young, and she was always smiling. I have a photo with her. It's of the ship's company of HMS Plymouth all gathered together. Well, you know how you sit the guest of honour in the middle. Well Jenny's there in 1963 in the middle with the lifebelt and stuff.'

While Jenny was known for her smile, it would occasionally slip if there was a territorial dispute with Suzie over who got the cleaning and painting rights on ships, and a public row on the jetty would ensue.

Kwok Tim, now 83, joined the navy as a locally enlisted personnel (LEP) in 1945 and would serve for nearly 36 years, becoming a chief petty officer.

'Yes, there were arguments. If the ship was out on a buoy, then the job clearly belonged to Jenny. But when British ships came alongside [the pier], then there would be arguments about who the job belonged to.'

According to a book written on the history of the British Royal Navy in Hong Kong, Jenny's work was endorsed by so many ships and captains' signatures that, had they been found during the Japanese occupation, her life could have been in danger.

Jenny hid them in the bilge of her sampan, and she hid the faux Long Service and Good Conduct Medal presented to her by HMS Dorsetshire in the heel of a shoe for the duration.

Governor Sir Murray MacLehose presented Jenny with a genuine British Empire Medal in October 1980. She was also presented to both Prince Philip and Prince Charles during their visits in the 1980s and 1990s.

Former sailors also remember how, along with traders who came on the ships, she would make suggestions or bring along items, including pieces of jade, that she felt their loved ones might appreciate.

She would also take last-minute mail from sailors - packets and letters - and post them off to their relatives after the ship had sailed. She also visited sick sailors left onshore after their ship had left.

William Ching Hon-wai, chairman of the Hoi Luen Society of the Royal Navy LEPs, laughingly recalls some of the unofficial bargaining that went on.

'Sometimes we gave them some money, some tins of food, petrol and tins of paint. If a ship needed five tins to paint, then we gave Jenny and the other side-party women 10 tins. It was our job to do the painting, really, but we would just go off drinking and leave them to it. Paint was quite expensive for the fishermen to buy for their boats, so the side party women would sell this paint on to them.'

'Big smile and gold teeth,' said Hong Kong barrister James McGowan, who spent 26 years in the Royal Navy. 'Jenny would be on the jetty when the ship arrived, and she would put flowers in the cabins of the [officers]. She and her side party would also come and serve at cocktail parties, where they would be dressed very smartly and maintain a high professional level.'

Jenny kept albums of photographs of her contact with the navy, which she would proudly show as an elderly woman. As the navy work began diminishing in the two decades leading up to the handover of Hong Kong, it became harder for her to find work.

She died on February 19 and, according to Mr Kwok, left two daughters who live in the United States.

One of the many testaments to Jenny's years of conscientious work on the ships are the service certificates received from the Royal Navy, where under the section 'distinguishing marks' would appear 'always smiling'.

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