Through the past lightly

WALKING around Hollywood Road with Dan Waters, the cars and the pollution seem to disappear for a moment, as he brings into focus an older and more mysterious landscape.

'Up there in the police station compound, there is a mango tree that is supposed to blossom only during a calamity. The last time was during the 1967 riots,' said Waters, who has lived in Hong Kong for 40 of his 74 years, and has just published a book about his impressions, called Faces of Hong Kong.

'There are tunnels all through these rocks,' he observed, as we walked past the Wyndham Street area ('where the taipans used to keep their mistresses - who were known as pensioners, because they used to be supported from the company payrolls').

Some tunnels - which Waters has actually seen - go from the police station to the magistracy, but there are legends of an entire labyrinth, connecting the Governor's residence to the harbour and to the Museum of Tea Ware in Hong Kong Park, the former residence of the Commander of the British Forces, as escape routes in case of an invasion.

'There are also tunnels that were dug by forced labour under the Japanese,' he says.

Several of Waters' anecdotes are very 'James Clavell': water shortages, pretty girls, foreign devils, ghost beliefs and concubines.

But Dan Waters, a member of the Antiquities and Monuments Board, as well as on a Museum of History advisory committee, also knows about the walled villages, basin meals in the New Territories (where all the food is layered in one large bowl which everyone at the table dips into), and many other historical aspects of Hong Kong.

It is the territory's oral history which has fascinated him most, and with which - in an anecdotal and unstructured way - he fills his book.

The work is full of miscellaneous information for people who are new to Hong Kong. Nine courses at a banquet is auspicious: seven dishes are only eaten at funerals.

Waters came to Hong Kong as a civil servant, working in technical education.

'I was a desert rat in the war; I was away for four years in Italy and North Africa.' And when he returned, after being wounded three times, to head the family's construction company in Norfolk, England, he found he had changed too much to stay. A friend suggested he go abroad to teach with the colonial service: he could have gone to any one of 52 dependent territories.

'I applied for a job in Trinidad, but it was for secondary level students, and they suggested that I go to Hong Kong and teach at post-secondary level.' As a government employee, he had to take two exams in Cantonese, which he passed, and then - to the consternation of his immediate boss, a fellow Englishman - he decided to continue with his lessons.

'He asked me what on earth I was doing - only cranks and policemen bothered to learn Cantonese.' 'I think I was one of the cranks,' he said, although during the 1956 riots, he had also spent some time on the beat as an auxiliary policeman.

Hong Kong in the 1950s was very different - not only in terms of the architecture or the wealth of the city, but also in terms of social attitudes, he said.

When Waters and his wife were married, both his expatriate friends and her traditional Hong Kong Chinese family expressed doubts. Last week the couple celebrated 35 years of marriage, and his book is dedicated 'to all cross-cultural marriages and to Eurasians everywhere'.

Since Waters retired, his interests have expanded. At 57 he became a black belt at karate; at 67 he earned his doctorate after returning to university.

Now, at 74, he still runs at least 40 kilometres a week - favouring the steepest gradients up to the Peak - and holds the Hong Kong All-Comers record for middle-distance running in the over-70 class.

And in writing Faces of Hong Kong, he has also fulfilled a long-term ambition to write a book that was not a technical construction manual - a description of building cultural, rather than actual, bridges.

'Hong Kong is my home now. I have every intention of staying here until I die,' Waters says.

'I have asked my wife to strew my ashes on Victoria Peak. But she's against it because then there would be no way to pay respect at Ching Ming.' 'We're still discussing it.' Faces of Hong Kong: An Old Hand's Reflections by Dan Waters is published by Simon & Schuster (Asia), $130