ALL ABOARD I was born in Greenock, Scotland, a shipbuilding town at the mouth of the River Clyde well known, along with Dumbarton on the opposite side of the river, for building the bigger ships for the British empire. Many of the expatriate staff in both Taikoo Dockyard and Hong Kong & Whampoa Dock (where my father worked) were recruited from these two towns. My father was engaged at Kowloon Docks, in Hung Hom, and, after his probationary period was up, the family was sent for. We boarded P&O ship the Carthage and sailed out to Hong Kong in 1960. I was four years old at the time, but I can remember aspects of the journey like it was yesterday. We sailed through the Suez Canal and Egypt made a strong impression, with the Gully Gully man doing magic tricks for a few coins. I can also remember India and Singapore, where we visited the Tiger Balm Gardens. Scotland was a rather bleak, cold and austere place in 1960 but conditions on board and in the Hong Kong I arrived in were so much more comfortable and wondrous for a little boy.
KOWLOON PLAYGROUND In the dockyard quarters, we were accommodated in a massive, three-storey terraced house in a compound housing around 50 families. We had three local amahs: the main amah, Ah Foon, was a formidable woman and punished any misdemeanour with a whack with a feather duster or a wooden clog; the washing amah, Ah May, stayed with the family until my father retired in 1979 and was like a second mother to me; and a young woman new to the job called a “makee learn”. We had very good amenities … and lots of wooded areas where we could build tree houses and play hide and seek with all of the other kids who lived there. We had access to Tai Wai beach, which was just outside the lower gate of the compound, and here we would play with the boys from the squatter village on Dyer Avenue – they were our nearest neighbours and we were forbidden from fraternising with them, supposedly because they were refugees suffering from TB, cholera and other communicable diseases. A friend and I once found the body of a young man washed up on Tai Wai beach. We all attended Kowloon Junior School, in Perth Street, Ho Man Tin and then King George V School. Although we were privileged gwai jais, we lived bang in the middle of a working class Chinese neighbourhood and would roam the streets observing life, including the slaughtering of animals for the dinner table, street scribes reading and writing letters for the mostly illiterate working class folk, apothecaries, snake shops, stationery shops that also sold sports equipment, kites and – most important of all – fireworks. The local people always loved children and were very indulgent with us poking our noses into nooks and crannies, temples and other places we had no business being. We only got chased away when curiosity got the better of us and on a dare we entered the Hung Hom funeral parlour for a look around. We rode our bicycles everywhere and I recall going out to Clear Water Bay when the approaches around what is now Diamond Hill and Choi Hung MTR stations were farm land. We also visited the Kowloon Walled City unaccompanied – after 1968 it was the one place where you could still buy the by-then banned fireworks.
BETWEEN JOBS I left school after my O-levels, to work in a motorcycle garage. Thereafter I tried my hand as a shipping clerk, maintenance engineer in a toy factory in Tsuen Wan and a junior engineer in a building company that supplied concrete additive to the High Island Water project. It was very hard for a young foreigner to get a job in Hong Kong; there was a notion that a local guy needed the job more than you and that you wouldn’t be able to communicate and bond with your local colleagues and would probably leave after a fairly short period of time. The only sure-fire option for a British kid like me with limited academic ability was to join the police. My mother worked in Special Branch as a confidential assistant and there was a bit of pressure on me to take this route, until I wisely left for London at the age of 20 to attempt to become the world motocross champion!
BIKE TYKE I first learned to ride a bike at 12.There was a youth programme run by a guy called Jim Atkinson, who lived at the YMCA. He was supported by the World Council of Churches to set up and run a trade school for local boys, to teach them about vehicle maintenance and repair, but on weekends he organised for expatriate kids to be involved in canoeing, learning to drive cars and motorcycles and go-karting on Sek Kong runway. Both of my elder siblings had participated in this programme so, when I was 10, I enrolled in the car driving course, which took place on some waste land where Pik Uk Prison now stands, mainly with ex-army Land Rovers and Volkswagen vans. At 12, I was old enough to do the motorcycle course, mainly on Honda 90s. I was hooked and thereafter rode a bike any time I got the chance.
My father bought me a dirt bike for my 16th birthday and, when I was old enough to join races at the Motorsports Club, I did so. I was sponsored by the Honda importer one year, the Czechoslovakian trade representative for one year on a CZ – a Czech machine – and, finally, the Yamaha importer. I was Hong Kong champion three times before I left for the UK and two more times after I returned, in 1982. I retired in 1986 after representing Hong Kong in the MX des Nations, in Maggiora, Italy.
FORMULA FUNCTION When I first arrived in the UK, I got a job working with Yamaha, working in the stores department. I used to cycle to work past a new industrial development and one day I noticed a sign that said this was the new headquarters for the Brabham Formula One 1 team. I liked the sound of this so I simply knocked on the door and asked if they had any vacancies. Two weeks later they offered me a job – in stores. I stayed for just over a year, learning everything from fibreglass moulding to alloy fabrication. After this I got a job in a Fiat garage as a car mechanic – the first time I’d ever touched a road car. I stayed in the motor trade, moving to BMW and availing myself of their in-house training scheme. One of my chums from Brabham had stayed in F1 and worked his way up to assistant team manager at McLaren. He pestered me to come and work for McLaren as they needed additional staff. I caved in and, the next weekend, I was working on John Watson’s car at the British Grand Prix, at Brands Hatch. Each car had a team of three mechanics who prepared and serviced the car. We would form one large team for wheel changing during the race and my duty was the left rear wheel removal, securing the nut with an air gun when my colleague had replaced the new wheel. If an engine was running badly or had reached its allotted mileage, we simply took a new one out of the box and changed it. Being an F1 mechanic is the worst job to have done – with repetitive changing of those items specific to your area of responsibilities – but it’s one of the best jobs to put on your CV.
UP STICKS After five years in London I was delighted to return home to Hong Kong. I ran a garage in Ngau Tau Kok for a number of years while I was racing and one of my staff, an ex-Island School boy, played drums in a band. I had played a little as a teenager, having learned from the drummer of a cruise ship we sailed on down to Australia on long leave in 1968. My staff member invited me to one of their rehearsal sessions and asked if I would like to have a bash. I had just retired from motocross and there was a big hole in my life. I engaged the principal percussionist with the Hong Kong Philharmonic to give me tuition and, within a month, I was playing gigs in dodgy bars and having a whale of a time. I became proficient enough that I would get called to fill in for absent members of other bands and was soon playing three or four times a week. I liked this much better than running a garage, so I obtained jobs elsewhere for my staff and closed the business.
VERSE AMONG EQUALS I came to poetry rather late in life. I wrote a journal for a month before and a month after the handover and, when I showed it to the writer Xu Xi, who I knew through musical circles, she said she wanted to publish an excerpt. Thereafter I was invited to come along to local group Outloud and read an excerpt and felt that, as it was predominantly a poetry group, I should at least attempt something in this genre. They were gentle and encouraging with me and have subsequently been unable to shake me off. (McKirdy’s first book of poetry, Accidental Occidental) was a miscellany of work written over a number of years. My most recent collection, Ancestral Worship, is much more rooted in Hong Kong and includes reminiscences from my childhood, the changing relationship between the colonisers and the colonised and observations about present day Hong Kong. When the first Hong Kong International Literary festival was announced, I offered to help. We managed to have our monthly poetry meeting included in the programme and it was a big hit with the visiting writers. In 2003, the festival had lost its title sponsor and Hong Kong had just been hit with Sars. I was asked to join the organising committee and managed to find a new title sponsor who felt that it was an event worth keeping during a difficult year for Hong Kong. I was then invited to be a director. Some memorable vignettes from those days are introducing [Life of Pi author] Yann Martel to “Colin The Cobra”, who lived under a path leading out of Pak Sha O Village, in Sai Kung Country Park; giving [Australian author] Shirley Hazzard tea in the lobby of The Peninsula hotel; and taking [Irish poet] Seamus Heaney on a pub crawl in Wan Chai that included a visit to the Ricky Tattoo studio. I was seriously ill in 2007 and resigned from the festival.
I have been invited to represent Hong Kong in a number of international festivals. I was privileged to read my work at The National Gallery in Singapore, surrounded by Impressionist masters on loan from the Musée d’Orsay, and read at the Temple of Literature, in Hanoi, to 3,000 people. I am on the selection committee for Baptist University’s International Writers’ Workshop, so I use these festival attendances to spot suitable candidates for this worthwhile initiative.
CLASSIC MCKIRDY I currently run a small business maintaining and repairing vintage and classic cars. I have a handful of clients and I am privileged to look after a number of the 1934 Phantom II Rolls-Royces owned by The Peninsula hotel. They have one of these cars at each of their hotels in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo and Paris. I have a soft spot for The Peninsula as our family doctor used to have a surgery there and after the six-monthly cholera shots or a visit for some childhood ailment, my dear mother would treat me to a 7-Up float in the lobby. My hobby is restoring classic motorcycles and I currently own 12, mostly in bits. I haven’t actually bought 12 but the universe seems to provide a constant supply by way of people giving me ancient bits of scrap metal that would otherwise be crushed. I restore mainly British bikes for no other reason than that is what has come my way. Most of them are original Hong Kong bikes and I enjoy bringing something back from the brink and preserving something of our local motoring heritage. They look more beautiful than current machines and represent something I lusted after in my youth.
The things I love most about Hong Kong are the people, their energy, pragmatism, sense of humour and ability to get things done. We are a city of immigrants or offspring of immigrants so, even though I am not Chinese, I have been here longer than most [other] Hongkongers and have a stake in the future of this city. I hope to stay here forever.