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My life: Arthur van Langenberg

The surgeon and seasoned gardener talks to Jason Wordie about his growing passion

 

LOCAL ROOTS We come from a long-established Macanese family. Except for two years I spent doing post-graduate work in the United Kingdom, where I had a Commonwealth scholarship from 1965-67, and the war years, which we passed as refugees in Macau, I've lived all my life in Hong Kong. I was born here. And my whole working life and career - I'm a surgeon, specialising in colorectal cancer - has been spent here.

THE WAR YEARS I went across with my mother to Macau in 1942 - I was two years old so I remember nothing about that journey - but I do have distinct memories of growing up in Macau during the war. My father was a marine engineer and (spent) most of his career on the China coast run out of Hong Kong to northern China ports. While we were in Macau, he spent the war years with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, mostly in the Indian Ocean, based out of Ceylon. We didn't see him again till after the war ended.

Along with the other Portuguese families who went across as refugees from Hong Kong, my mother, sister and me lived in various refugee reception centres. During those years, we were financially supported (mostly) by the British consulate; Macau wasn't occupied, so some sort of normality prevailed and the consulate continued to function. Some of our time, early on, was spent in the old Club Militar, on the Praia Grande. I still remember exactly where on the floor we slept. Then we moved just around the corner to Rua Formosa, to another refugee centre, where we shared space with six other families for the rest of the war. Little kids get used to anything, and it was a fun time.

AHEAD OF THE PACK When we came home at the end of the war, I started school at Maryknoll girl's school (a lot of Portuguese boys like me went there then - it was far from unusual) then went on to La Salle College in Kowloon Tong. I liked sports and was quite athletic, and ended up a few years ahead of the others academically, too. So I went on to Hong Kong University to study medicine when I was still a teen-ager - I started when I was 17 and qualified on my 22nd birthday - and have been a doctor now for just over 50 years. Medicine has been my whole professional life up till now.

LIFE LESSONS I liked teaching at HKU and think I gave a lot to my students over the years, and got a lot back as well; they still come to see me, and call me Lo Si - teacher - which is a great feeling. It makes me feel I must have done something right, after all. But there is a lot of nastiness and falsehood in academic life - needless back-scratching and back-stabbing - and I am glad I left that world behind. I've been very happy ever since.

INHERITING GREEN FINGERS I've always loved plants and gardens. My mother, Celeste Rosario, was a keen gardener, and some of my love of plants must have come from her. Before the war, her family had a large garden at Ho Man Tin; there were a lot of Portuguese families like ours living around there in those years, and for some time after the war. Their garden was about a quarter of an acre - it's hard to imagine such a size and space nowadays. When we lived on Nathan Road, when I was growing up, we had a very large balcony and that was full of plants as well.

GARDEN VARIETY As a result of that family background, I think, I tried to make a garden around me anywhere I lived, even in university quarters. My tomatoes were famous at HKU; my students would climb over the fence rails to get a few when they could! I'm lucky - I have access to a garden at home in Shouson Hill, and that keeps me where I want to be when I'm not working. Some doctors need a sports car or a set of golf clubs to help them unwind - I've never touched those things in my life! Plants do it for me. And my wife, Nim Yin, shares the enjoyment.

There is so much pleasure we can get from having a garden in Hong Kong, and you don't need to be rich or have a lot of space to enjoy it. My first book, Urban Gardening in Hong Kong, came out in 1983. It gave me a lot of pleasure and satisfaction to write and - judging from responses over the years - it tapped into a real interest, too. I wrote another one ( Urban Gardening: A Hong Kong Gardener's Journal).

THOUGHT FOR FOOD Farmers really do have a hard life. That's part of the reason why I wrote the most recent book - Growing Your Own Food in Hong Kong - which came out late last year. We forget today, when we can easily buy everything we need, just how much effort goes into producing the food we eat. I bring that into my approach to gardening. We waste so much; it's really criminal when you think about it. Food really should cost about 10 times what it actually does, when you consider the amount of work it takes to produce. Vegetables are very much my forte. I've even grown rice, just to see how much effort goes into it. It was the same with sugar cane. I thought it was important for people to know that it was possible to do this, even in densely populated areas. We all have to do what we can. We only have one world to live in.

DOUBLE LIFE I live two lives; my office life is very grim. People come to see me when it is a matter of life and death, and, usually, death is the result. Cancer is a dreadful thing, and it's what I deal with every day. But everything changes for me when I'm in the garden - the world seems a different place; much better altogether.

 

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