Cantonese was the only language Hugh Grew, son of a colonial civil servant, could speak in his early childhood – thanks to a Chinese maid who was with him all the time.
That apparently laid the foundation for Lee Yuet-ying’s unannounced exit from his life in the late 1950s, when he was about 10.
His parents told him that she had left for another employer, but he never believed it, suspecting they had “got rid of her” to break the overly close bond between maid and child.
And all these years, the maid’s name Ah Yuet has stuck in his mind. He wants to find her.
Watch: Hong Kong born British man searches for his long lost nanny
“I think of her as a mother as well,” Grew, now 65, says.
“[My birth mother] was a good mum, but she was doing the expat thing all the time. I didn’t really see a lot of her. I was with [Ah Yuet] all the time. She just looked after me like a mother would.
“She’s never left my mind. She’s always here.”
Grew now lives in the Guangdong coastal city of Jiangmen, after having moved from place to place for the large part of his life, and frequents Hong Kong for work.
Born in Hong Kong to British parents in 1948, Grew first lived along Ventris Road in Happy Valley for two to three years, then briefly at Grampian Road in Kowloon City. The family eventually settled at 25 King’s Park in Yau Ma Tei, one of several civil-service residential blocks at the time, around today’s King’s Park Hill Road.
Ah Yuet, he remembers, was with them all the time. Grew does not think she had a place to call her own.
He was told that she came from a well-to-do family on the mainland, probably in Guangdong, as she taught him Cantonese. Her family was “screwed up” by the “Mao Zedong thing”, with all their possessions taken from them, and wound up in Hong Kong, Grew says.
Ah Yuet sometimes dressed him up in the traditional Chinese changpao, made him a pigtail and took him shopping. One of the long garments, the equivalent of the female cheongsam, was light blue and padded, with animal patterns on it.
“When I used to get a little bit sick, she would feed me chuk, congee in English,” he says. “She just really looked after me really, really well.”
Communication with his parents was clumsy in his first two to three years, as Grew knew no English. They needed his two elder sisters, who understood both English and Cantonese, as translators at every conversation.
But even after English entered his vocabulary, whenever he got angry at his parents, he would resort to Cantonese. Once, he used some “pretty dirty words” on them – though his sisters never translated that part.
In his father’s time, Grew says, all expats working in the civil service would serve three years, then go back to their home country for a year before returning for another three years.
His parents took Ah Yuet with them during one of these periods of home leave, around 1954. They travelled across Geneva in Switzerland and the French coast, crossed the English Channel and returned to their hometown in Cornwall.
He took a photo with Ah Yuet during the trip. With hindsight it was fortunate they did – for when the family got back to Hong Kong around 1959 from another period of home leave, she was gone.
Although he does not know Ah Yuet’s real age, he guessed she was in her mid-20s in the photo, a copy of which he gave to the South China Morning Post.
“My parents saw we were getting very, very close, son-and-mother sort of thing,” Grew says. “That’s when they got rid of her.”
He tried to find out where Ah Yuet was. They said she had got another job and did not want to come back.
“But my feeling is they didn’t want her back. They never contacted her.”
In 1967, his parents retired early and moved the family to New Zealand to escape riots that had spilled over from the mainland at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Grew lived there until 1997, when a friend invited him back to Hong Kong to help out.
In 2000, he took up a job in Jiangmen offered by a Hong Kong company and has lived there ever since.
Many times Grew has thought about searching for Ah Yuet, but had no clue how to. During the recent Lunar New Year, he spent a few days in the city and bought a copy of the Post. An article about an 83-year-old man looking for a long-lost brother caught his eye and he got in touch with the daily.
“At least I could try to see what I can do,” he says. “At least find out where she is, one way or another. The story hasn’t ended yet. I’d like to end it one way or another.”