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City Weekend

Picture of heart-warming farewell at Tsim Sha Tsui wharf captures interracial couple’s 1960s love story

Tony Caller and So Yun-mai were snapped by former Post photographer Chan Kiu in an emotional parting in 1961 as the soldier headed back to his native Britain. Almost 60 years on So and Chan are set to reunite to reflect on love, society and a changing Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 December, 2017, 10:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 December, 2017, 10:01am

It all started with a bet.

“Whoever gets a date with her first is the winner,” Tony Caller, a British soldier, said to his friend as they strolled around a library at an army base in Kowloon, Hong Kong.

The year was 1960, and the two boys were talking about then librarian So Yun-mai. Not long after the conversation, Caller stole So’s heart.

“We would go to dinner at this steak house every week,” So, now 78 years old, says as she reminisces about their romance.

The pair’s relationship was far from ordinary because interracial dating was somewhat frowned upon back then.

“We did not dare to walk down the street hand in hand, it was like we had to keep our romance a secret,” she says.

But they were determined to keep their love alive despite challenges when Caller was forced to go back to England in 1961.

“We had been dating for about a year. I remember I went to send him off at the wharf in Tsim Sha Tsui.”

This sentimental moment would go on to become front-page news in Hong Kong after their parting was captured on camera by Chan Kiu, a photographer for the South China Morning Post. The picture was posted in the newspaper with a caption that stated: “Tony Caller of 32 Medium Regiment RA says his last goodbyes to pretty Miss So Yun-mai just before the UK-bound troopship Nevasa sets sail.”

During their time apart, the couple exchanged letters, and about a year later, So received one that would change her life forever.

Photos by Chan Kiu: documenting Hong Kong for 30 years

“It was a marriage proposal letter enclosed with a one-way ticket to England,” she says.

So’s mother was quite open-minded about the offer, but her father was not thrilled. He did however eventually come to terms with the fact that his daughter was to fly off to another country to start a family.

Fourteen years on, the couple returned to Hong Kong with their four children when Caller secured a job with the city’s government as a civil engineer.

But it was not until 26 years later, in 1987, that the Callers were told that their picture was being shown at the Chan Kiu Press Pictures Exhibition, an event showcasing 30 years of work by the respected veteran photojournalist.

For the first time at the event the couple were given a glimpse into their Hong Kong past when they caught sight of the image showing them beaming at each other on the wharf.

That year Chan took another photo of the couple at the same spot to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. They hoped he could do the same again for their golden anniversary in 2012, but unfortunately that was not to be.

Over the next three decades, the photographer and the couple lost touch after the former retired and moved to Canada and the latter migrated back to Britain.

But through the years they harboured lingering hopes that they would one day meet again.

Enter Hongkonger Paul Yeung Tak-ming. The young photographer last month learned of the couple’s heart-warming story and forged a determination to reunite them with Chan, initiating a search on social media for the Callers on behalf of the retired photojournalist.

“Chan Kiu, 90, would like to find Tony Caller and Mrs Caller (So Yun-mai) for a special kind of reunion. Today (October 10) is Chan’s 90th birthday. It would be a special birthday gift for him if you have any updates on Mr and Mrs Caller,” he wrote on Facebook.

A few days later, the hunt bore fruit.

“I’m very thankful for my good friend Caroline Lau for sharing my message with local groups, and to Koko Mueller, an online friend I have never met, who found the missing information and made a breakthrough in the search with her years of dedicated study on her family tree,” Yeung, a part-time lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, wrote in reply.

But the discovery did not entirely bring good news – Tony Caller had passed away from cancer 22 years prior.

So however was well and was living in Britain.

Yeung passed on a message to Chan that the 78-year-old So still travelled back to her hometown in China every year.

“I must give my most sincere thank you to Paul for all of this,” So says as she looks back at the miraculous encounter and the process of how her and Chan finally got back in touch after so many years.

Chan and So have yet to find a chance to reunite for another photo shoot, but have been in touch.

For Yeung, the episode signifies not only the beauty of romance but also the value of old news photography. The former Agence France-Presse intern, who has worked in the industry for 17 years, says the pictures not only tell a story of love but also one of changing times and the city’s colonial past.

“Even though the Callers faced social struggles as an interracial couple, it still reflected the openness of society at the time,” he says.

“Today’s news is tomorrow’s history and the significance of these archives will resonate with us for years and years to come.”