Hongkongers used to live comfortably without air cons

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 September, 2012, 12:36am

Electric fans started to replace punkahs in Hong Kong as early as the late 1890s. When my Chinese friend arrived in 1917, so he told me, punkahs could still be seen in offices, schools, barbers' shops and in Saint John's Cathedral.

Electric fans were expensive and cloth, stretched over a large, rectangular timber swinging frame, suspended from the roof or ceiling, and continually pulled by a cord by a coolie, was cheaper.

The Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, completed in 1935, years ahead of its time, was the first air-conditioned building in Hong Kong, and when I arrived in the then British Crown Colony, in the mid-1950s, there were few air-conditioned buildings either in Statue Square or elsewhere. But gradually, during the 1960s, air-conditioning was introduced.

By the end of the 1960s, places like schools and many restaurants and offices and other premises were still not marred by icy draughts and there was still no need for occupants to wear pullovers.

It wasn't until the early 1970s that government servants were each issued with one air-conditioner for installing in a bedroom. In those days, for a cool night's sleep, many Chinese slept on special rattan mats. Indeed I slept on one in the old days.

People knew how to build years ago and colonial-style buildings had balconies, big overhangs, high ceilings and large windows, and a building facing south to catch the southwest monsoon was prized.

There is a Chinese saying, "Even with a thousand taels of gold it is difficult to buy a building facing south."

We knew how to dress too, and, on or about May 1, up through the 1960s, we, as civil servants, would "change into whites".

That meant white shorts, open-necked shirt and knee-socks, together with black shoes. We changed back to winter clothing on or about November 1.

In 1974 the international oil crisis affected Hong Kong, and air-conditioning had to be turned right down. Also, governor Sir Murray MacLehose suggested government servants wear safari suits and he wore one himself.

However, all that has changed. Today, the average Hong Kong businessman leaves his air-conditioned home in a suit, complete with collar and tie. He travels in an air-conditioned car to his air-conditioned office, leaving a carbon footprint. Then he wonders why he never becomes acclimatised to the summer heat. Indeed the world has changed.

Dan Waters, Mid-Levels