Hey, Anson's in the house
THE Chief Secretary of Hong Kong and the director of the multi-billion dollar company Caltex Oil are extremely busy at this very moment. They are not discussing the ramifications of China's Most Favoured Nation status on Hong Kong's economy, nor Governor Chris Patten's recent victory in the Legislative Council, nor other subjects that weigh heavy on Hong Kong minds, like the summer sale at World Of Joyce. What they are extremely busy doing is hanging out on the sofa in their new den watching a Saturday matinee.
Anson and Archie Chan, arguably the uber-couple of Hong Kong, have downshifted into couch potato mode. Archie, lounging in a plaid shirt, navy trousers and loafers, looks uncannily like Leave It To Beaver's Ward Cleaver. Anson is behaving like one of the robots in Stepford Wives. Intently following the action on the screen, her eyes have glazed over and her trademark dimple darts in and out of her cheek during the funny bits. Andrew, the Chans' 26-year-old chemical engineer son, bounces into the room in his tennis gear. Without so much as taking our eyes off our screen, we automatically scoot over on the couch to make room for him.
I never expected to find myself spending the afternoon chilling with the Chans but I had been invited to Number 15 Barker Road to have a look at the family's new pad, Victoria House. As chief secretary, this is one of Anson's perks. And what a perk. Three thousand square feet near the top of The Peak with a dizzying view of the city that you would kill your mother - or at least colonialism - for. 'It's quite a nice stately house, and yet it's just small enough to make it feel like a real home,' Anson remarks.
For many years, Chinese weren't even allowed to live on The Peak. And until one month ago, no Chinese has ever presided as master - let alone mistress - of Victoria House.
A commercial break jars all of us back into consciousness and the mistress of the house snaps back into her role as chief secretary. 'OK, let's start that interview.' Archie and Andrew flash sympathetic glances. 'We'll tell you how the movie ends,' Archie calls.
Much has been made of fact that Anson was allotted $3 million in taxpayer's money to refurbish Victoria House. And when you think about it, $3 million does buy an impressive number of light bulbs. 'Because this is an official residence,' says Anson as she settles on to a white silk couch in the rather spacious sitting room, 'renovations have to come out of the public purse. I decided not to tear the whole place down and start all over again.' What she did decide to do was replace the air-conditioning system. 'Sir David [Ford, the former chief secretary] said, 'The first thing you must do is change the unit.' And no wonder! It was 11 years old,' she says. And taxpayers can rest assured. It may be 28 degrees Celsius outside with 80 per cent humidity but we were sitting comfortably in Victoria House. No sweat.
Anson has also insisted on changing the kitchen's stove from an electric to a gas system - a home improvement more significant than it would initially seem. 'The old stove was for European cooking,' Anson explains. 'For Chinese cooking you need a higher flame. Otherwise you can't do Chinese cooking. The secret of Chinese cooking is really in the quick frying.
'It's just no good trying to do Chinese cooking on an electric stove. You know, the cook, Ah Ping, has been here a long time [15 years, to be precise]. He's mainly used to serving expatriates, doing European cooking. What I've done is teach him some of my own cooking secrets,' Anson says, cocking her head. The dimple reappears. 'I've taught him to make Shanghainese dumplings, duck with onion, to make some soup with bird's nest. And you know, his cooking has improved. I said to him, cooking is all about practice. You don't get it right, then next time maybe. I know cooking myself so I can teach Ah Ping some of the basic tricks.' Ah Ping is not the only long-serving member of staff; Victoria House's chief steward Ah Wei has been here for 20 years. He has provided loyal service to Sir Philip Haddon-Cave, Sir Jack Cater and Sir David Ford. So what does he thinks of the manor's new lady? 'It is very good. I think that because we are from the same culture,' he answers, nodding. 'We can understand each other better.' A restless Archie wanders into the room. The movie must have finished. 'Did you see my Remington?' he asks, holding up a metal sculpture of a cowboy on a bucking stallion. 'I like cowboys.' 'That's an original,' Anson says. 'I like nice things.' Anson has filled her home with crystal figurines, antique Chinese porcelain and at least a dozen paintings by her renowned artist mother, Fang Zhaoling (Sotheby's recently auctioned one of her paintings for $750,000). 'I like to be surrounded by things I love, photographs of people I love. But basically, a home is not a museum where you show off. I like a house to feel like a home.' 'Yeah, with a husband!' Archie says as he swoops down to wrap his arms around his wife.
'A husband is very important!' Anson says.
She still remembers the first pad she and Archie shared. 'It was a tiny flat in Lockhart Road, in what was then the red-light district. Our next-door neighbour was the Hong Kong Funeral Parlour,' she says, almost wistfully. 'We were jolly lucky to get any flat when we first got married.' Between the two of them, they rustled up $4,000 for renovations. 'The first thing we did was install a proper toilet.' Part of the $3 million she has to spend for renovations this time around was on the colour scheme. 'I don't like garish colours,' she says. So she had the light green fitted carpets and red curtains of the Ford era stripped out and worked with Tai Ping Carpets to create the house's new look. 'I told them I like blue blended with beige. But the thing is to pick the right blue for the carpet. That's not so easy to do. They showed me all shades of blue. And even when you pick it out, you're never exactly sure if it will turn out exactly the way you want it to. But my house turned out exactly the way I wanted it to.' So how does redecorating compare with negotiating with American President Bill Clinton for the renewal of MFN status? 'Well,' Anson says, collapsing into the folds of her new silk couch, 'it is only slightly less hectic than that.' 'THE loveliest part about this house is the enclosed verandah,' she says as she leads me into a sun-filled area lined with rattan furniture. 'It used to be part of the patio but I think Betty Haddon-Cave had it enclosed. Here you can set up tables and play mahjong. I haven't had the time yet. But everyone who comes here asks me to throw a mahjong party.
'Uncle Harry's birthday is coming up and I said, 'Why don't you have your celebration here?' My mother's having a birthday too and we'll definitely have it in the house because home cooking is the best. And Ah Ping's cooking is getting better and better.' Boisterous Fang clan reunions? Mahjong parties on the verandah? Chinese meals every night? This is a home that colonialism built and now, Anson, a female Chinese local is the master of it. Hong Kong historians are sure to reflect on this event in history, some possibly dubbing it 'a changing of the guard'. I prefer to think of it as 'a changing of the stove'.