In the autumn of 1970, I did not have a care in the world. I was an English Bobby in a bustling little Merseyside town called Warrington. I was twenty-two years old, had my own little patrol car and so long as I kept one step ahead of the sergeant, life was sweet. It was not too exciting, but so what, who needs excitement? Then one weekend, I thumbed through the Sunday papers and there it was. I could not take my eyes off it. I read it several times, there was even a picture. It was a pen-and-ink drawing of a British officer leading a group of Hong Kong policemen up a dark staircase. He wore a smart bush shirt and a leather Sam Browne belt. A shoulder strap supported the weight of a pistol on his left hip. He looked like something out of Boys' Own comics. Above the picture, a headline declared: '2am in Kowloon is a fine time for self-discovery.'
I cut the advertisement from the newspaper and carried it around for days. I showed it to one of my section's older constables, a crusty veteran with twenty years service. He held it at arm's length and frowned. 'You're a bit young for an inspector,' he sniffed. 'And what's Hong Kong got that Warrington hasn't?' He thrust the advertisement back at me. 'Waste of time, if you ask me. You'll probably have to learn Japanese.'
I tucked the advertisement back in my pocket and checked my pigeon-hole for messages. The only one was from my sergeant, chasing me for a report on a broken street light. Outside, autumn had set in. There was a light drizzle and the days were getting shorter. I made my way to the station charge office and typed up the broken street light report. The charge office constable was sipping tea and reading a day-old copy of the Daily Mirror. He nodded to me. 'Nice and quiet,' he said. 'Let's hope it stays that way.'
I thought for a moment, then fed a sheet of paper into the typewriter. I checked that nobody was watching and began to type:
In response to your recent advertisement …
On Friday, November 13, 1970, a harassed official from the Crown Agents met me at Heathrow Airport's departure lounge. He checked my paperwork and pointed to a group of young men standing at the bar. 'You're the last,' he said. 'Introduce yourself and make sure you don't miss the bloody plane.' He wished me luck, hunched his shoulders and scurried off.
There were thirteen of us, all young and eager in our charcoal Terylene suits and our drip-dry shirts. There were a few ex-UK policemen but the rest were a mixed lot: a wide-eyed bank clerk, a bright and friendly journalist, an ex-medical student, an impish Irishman and Curly Briggs. Curly was a sunny Tynesider, a stocky boulder of a man with an open face and a laugh like a donkey trapped in a strawberry patch. His neck was as thick as a tree stump and he had a pink shaved head. Curly was not one for suits, and instead he wore patched jeans, a leather jacket over a white T-shirt and the kind of industrial boots favoured by English street brawlers.
'Looking for a change.'
'Weather seems nice.'
'A bit of excitement.'
'Dunno,' said Curly in his musical Tyneside accent. 'Ah was at a bit of a loose end after university, like.' He pronounced it, Yoon-i-vahsity.
That shut us up; back then, university graduates were rare creatures.
Curly grinned. He raised a foot and pointed to his boot. 'What do you reckon to these then? Ah've sorted oot a few troublemakers with these lads.'
The conversation died. As one, we checked the boarding time; still half an hour to go.
'Ah reckon we can get in two or three pints before they call us, like,' Curly said.
And who were we to argue?
Twenty-four hours later, our Boeing 707 crossed the west Kowloon shoreline and made its final turn towards Kai Tak airport. We were so low, I could see people walking along the narrow streets below. The buildings crept closer and the starboard wingtip skimmed the rooftops as we made our final turn. I said a silent prayer as I saw TV screens flickering in the top floor flats. There was a flash of blue water on both sides of the plane then a thump as the wheels touched down. I waited until we came to a stop before opening my eyes, unclenching my teeth and prising my fingers from the seat arms. Minutes later, the door opened and a wall of heat hit us as we stepped onto the airport tarmac. I shielded my eyes against the sun and felt my shirt dampen. Two airport ground staff looked us over. They were cool and relaxed in linen shirts and slacks. Reflective sunglasses hid their eyes. They swapped a few words, laughed and went back to work.
We stepped onto a shuttle bus that took us from the tarmac to the airport terminal. There, we made our way through the arrival gate and into the terminal building. I loosened my tie and unbuttoned the top button of my shirt, luxuriating in my first taste of air-conditioning. We followed signs pointing to immigration control where an impossibly young British police inspector came forward to meet us. He wore a khaki bush shirt, matching shorts and a gleaming Sam Browne belt. The peak of his cap was glossy and all but hid his eyes. I found myself staring at the cross-draw holster hanging at his left hip, the butt of a revolver just visible under the holster's button-down flap. His face was without expression. 'Hong Kong Police?' he asked.
He eyed our crumpled suits and sweaty faces. 'Figures,' he sighed. He held out his hand and snapped: 'Passports.'
We handed over our passports and followed him to a side office where a Chinese immigration official sat behind a metal desk. He called us forward one by one. He glanced at the photographs, stamped the visa pages, then handed us our passports and pointed to a door behind him.
We gathered in the baggage hall and after a short wait, our luggage arrived. Baggage identified and collected, we followed the inspector like a troop of ducklings. He nodded to the customs officers who waved us through.
The heat hit us again as we stepped into an open-air car park. We stared awestruck as a Swissair jetliner skimmed nearby rooftops. Without thinking, I ducked as it roared overhead. It was so low, I felt I could reach up and touch it. The inspector rolled his eyes and pointed to a navy-blue bus with the word, 'POLICE' written on its side in stark white. 'Good luck,' he said then returned to the terminal building.
I turned to the bus where a Chinese constable stood grinning by the door. We clambered aboard and squeezed onto cramped seats upholstered by a blacksmith. The constable climbed into the driver's seat then grinned over his shoulder. 'Police Training School. Very good,' he chuckled and gave us a thumbs up.
The bus rolled out of the car park and past a row of faded tenements. Another jetliner screamed overhead. 'The airport's in the middle of town,' someone gasped. 'It's right in the bloody middle of sodding town.'
Minutes later, we were in a tree-lined boulevard of low-rise apartment blocks with art deco frontages and broad verandas adorned with potted plants. On the sidewalks, the men wore slacks and neat cotton shirts; the women looked serene in patterned frocks. We crossed a busy junction and the road narrowed. We rattled across a pothole and the traffic slowed. Now, the buildings were shabby, their renderings cracked. Paint peeled from their doors and window frames. Open back lorries jammed the road. Hard-faced men sat in the lorries' freight compartments, steadying unsecured cartons and sacks. They wore shorts and grubby singlets. Sinewy muscle covered their arms and shoulders. We stopped behind a lorry with yellow squares painted on the corners of its tailgate. Stuck to the back of the driver's cab was a tattered poster of China's ruler, Mao Tse-tung.
The lorry's crew glared at us.
'Bloody jaw-jai, bloody commies,' our driver growled. He held his nose and flushed an imaginary toilet chain.
The traffic started to move. We turned onto a broad transport basin then rumbled aboard a roll on - roll off ferry that would cross the harbour. As the ferry pulled away from the jetty, we took the chance to wander around the deck. The sun glittered off the water and a cooling breeze came over the forward ramp. The harbour smelled of saltwater and spilled diesel. The ferry blasted its horn as a small sampan cut across its bow. A woman, dressed in pyjama-like britches and tunic, stood at the sampan's prow. She used a single oar to scull the little craft in a jerky, fishtail action. Beside her, a dog barked at us.
Sprawled across the harbour, ships lay anchored to mooring buoys. The ships had names like Asia Conveyor, Santo Maru and California Dawn. Aboard, ropes squealed through pulleys as derricks lowered bulging cargo nets down to lighters clustered around their hulls. A US Navy destroyer, bristling with guns and missile launchers, sat at a mid harbour mooring. Beyond the ships, the upper slopes of Hong Kong Island were green and lush with a sprinkling of white villas. At the mid and lower levels were high-rise apartment blocks that became more tightly clustered the closer they were to the shoreline. Moored to the harbour wall lay a British frigate, a paler grey than its American counterpart. Behind it, Hong Kong Island's business district was a mix of modern high-rise and colonnaded Victorian and Edwardian grace.
The ferry bumped against the jetty and its ramp clanged against concrete. The bus rumbled off the ferry and headed east, past the business district and the Royal Navy dockyard. It slowed to walking pace in the narrow streets of Wanchai. We gawked at the crowded streets, the grubby tenements, the clutter of Chinese signboards, the open fronted shops, the rowdy hawker bazaars, the rattling trams and the unruly traffic. From the sidewalks, people gawked back at our doughy faces and our charcoal Terylene suits.
'Jesus, it's the bloody Orient,' I heard myself say. And it was; it was the mystic east, famed for inscrutable villains, steamy nights and dark-eyed women. It was the stuff of schoolboy fantasy.
We drove past the racecourse then up a winding road leading to a gap between two peaks. Beyond the gap, the road meandered through lush greenery and dropped down to the coast. The air was clear and there were views out to scrub-covered islands. We passed a beach with a lido style cafe and sailboats moored offshore. The driver turned into a narrow side road and within minutes, we came to a drop-arm barrier beside a businesslike guard post. A Chinese constable raised the barrier and waved us through. His face and arms were tanned, his khaki uniform crisp. His boots shone and around his waist was a webbing belt of pure white. The belt's brass fittings dazzled.
Built in the late 1940s, the police training school was a pleasant collection of broad lawns and boxy buildings that gleamed white in the sunshine. There was a drill square, outdoor shooting ranges and a dusty football pitch. The school nestled at the foot of the oddly named Brick Hill and in the coming months, we would learn to hate the winding path leading to the hill's summit.
Two Europeans wearing PT kit ran towards us, a log slung between their shoulders. Another European bellowed commands at them. The epaulettes of his bush shirt bore the three pips of a chief inspector. The rearmost runner tripped and sprawled on the tarmac. The leading runner did not pause but kept running, dragging the log behind him.
The bus staggered to a halt beside a whitewashed barrack block and an officious cadet inspector ordered us out. He was thin and had a sharp little voice. He chivvied us into three ranks and started to screech foot drill orders at us. He seemed to enjoy the authority but after a few minutes, his voice broke and he began to rasp. In a whisper, he marched us through the campus and brought us to a ragged halt next to a sign that read 'Officers' Mess.'
'Right, gentlemen.' A smirk twisted his lips. 'It's time for your induction interviews.'
We stumbled up a path that cut across a lawn bordered by broad-leafed plants. The mess was a single-storeyed building with a flat roof and walls of whitewashed concrete. Beside the main door, a duck bobbed in a small pond. Inside, sunlight streamed through large windows into a comfortable lounge. Air conditioners rattled at the windows and ceiling fans stirred the air. An inspector wearing an armband stamped with the word 'STAFF' stood inside the door. He held a plastic clipboard and had a leather-covered swagger cane thrust under his arm. The peak of his cap shielded his eyes. He had a voice like an angry Doberman. 'You will not look at any member of staff. You will stay silent unless spoken to. When I call your name, you will enter the room to the right.' He pointed his cane at a heavy mahogany door, checked his clipboard and snapped a name. 'Mister Young.'
A dark mood spread among us. The door swung open and Jack Young, an ex-London policeman, went through it. He turned his head, a pleading look on his face as the door slammed behind him. No one spoke. We could hear muffled voices through the closed door but could make out nothing. After what seemed an age, the door banged open and to a roar of 'Leftrightleftrightleftright …' Young bulleted back into the lounge dressed only in his Y-fronts. His eyes were wide and he had the rest of his clothes clasped to his chest.
'Mister Emmett.' Call it instinct or call it telepathy, call it what you like but as I stepped through the door I knew as a crystal certainty someone large and noisy meant to ruin my day. The door slammed behind me. A row of uniformed officers sat behind a table at the far end of the room. There was a clock high on the wall behind the interview panel and as I entered the room, a menacing voice growled at me, 'Look at the clock. Keep your eyes on the clock.'
I had a brief impression of gold braided caps and crowned epaulettes then I stiffened to attention and fixed my eyes on the clock.
'Name, age, previous police experience?'
That seemed easy; I let myself relax. Next: 'sexual orientation; age of first sexual encounter?' Come on, I was as liberal as anyone but that was a bit much.
A musical voice introduced itself as the force padre. I began to believe in the power of prayer, but not for long. 'Can you sing? Know any carols?' The voice was a reassuring purr. 'We're a tad short of time, can you sing during the fitness test?'
Fitness test? What fitness test? I had not slept for two days, I was in no condition for a fitness test. The growling voice at the back of the room demanded twenty press-ups and as I dropped into position, the padre started to sing, 'Aw-ay in a manger, no-o crib for a bed …'
From behind me came the count for the press-ups. 'One … two … two-and-a-half.' As I lowered my chest to the floor I heard myself croaking, 'The-e little Lord Jesus lay-ay down his sweet head …'
I should have told them where to stick their fitness test and their Christmas carols but after a day cooped up in a Boeing 707, I did not have the will. So I did it, we all did. We followed every demeaning order; we sank to unplumbed depths of indignity and throughout it all, not one of us looked any member of staff in the eye. Our ex-journalist fell into a sulk because the panel had referred him to the force psychologist. Our ex-draughtsman found himself scheduled for political re-education. We all have separate memories of that day, none of them pleasant but we finally reached a point beyond caring because we knew it could get no worse.
Then came the commandant's welcoming address.
We sat in the interview room on two rows of straight-backed chairs, shoulders back, heads up and above all, silent. There was no escape from the whispering menace behind us. 'Look at the clock, keep your eyes on the bloody clock.' The training school staff banged to attention as a Chinese officer strode into the room. He threw his cap onto the table and started to harangue us in harsh Cantonese. We could not understand a word but there was no mistaking the distilled poison in his voice. It put me in mind of a grainy newscast of Chairman Mao's red guards waving their little red books and ranting at a defenceless old teacher. A British member of staff supplied a monotone translation. 'The commandant welcomes you to the police training school …' The commandant's voice rose to a crescendo and a fleck of spittle splashed onto my cheek. The translation droned on, '… and he hopes you will be very happy here.'
How quickly we grow accustomed to the bizarre, nothing seemed odd any more. I wanted to see what the others made of all this but I dared not take my eyes from the clock.
'The commandant says we are one big family and his door is always open …'
Biting cold water slammed against my head, neck and back. My shirt and jacket clung to my back. The water stung my eyes and plastered my hair against my scalp. Icy water filled my ears and drowned out all sounds except for - laughter. Someone was having a laugh at my expense. I stood, turned and saw a line of grinning staff members, each clutching an empty bucket. Inside me, frustration, fear and anger merged into hot rage. As water dripped from my charcoal Terylene suit, one thought hammered at me like an old record with a nasty crack. 'Now, someone dies, click …, now, someone dies, click …'
I felt oddly self-possessed but I knew for sure I was going to give someone a good thumping. The staff were very senior, superintendents at least. Good, the bigger they are and all that. Who's first? I balled my fist and walked towards the laughing senior officers. With my eyes no longer fixed on the wall clock, I saw they were all ridiculously young, in fact, they were my age. An arm fell around my shoulder and a superintendent pushed a glass of beer into my hand. He was about twenty years old and his gold braided cap was a size too big.
'I think you could do with something wet and cold,' he chuckled.
I looked at him and then at the glass of beer. It was all perfectly clear, some time during the last twenty-four hours, I had gone crackers. Around the lounge, there was the sound of pennies dropping as young men stripped off their crowned epaulettes and other trappings of high rank. Someone pumped my hand. A white-jacketed steward passed amongst us with a tray loaded with dewed tankards of pilsner. An Ex-UK policemen who, a few minutes earlier had expressed horror at landing the role of Sleeping Beauty in the police Christmas pantomime, was now congratulating himself for having kept a vital secret.
'You really are a dull lot,' he crowed, 'I knew it was a send up, I knew it all along.'
'Sure you did,' I said. 'So now you can take off the wig.'
Hong Kong Policeman (Earnshaw Books), by Chris Emmett, is in bookshops now.