My mother wanted me to become more sociable so she took me to ballet lessons. I went on to train at Elmhurst, a top school for ballet in the UK, and stayed on as a teacher. When I was nine, I had told my mother I wanted to teach dancing, so I fulfilled what I said.
In 1954, a friend who was in Hong Kong told me about a job here. I was 23 years old and thought going to Hong Kong would be very exciting. My parents weren’t too happy but they let me go. I thought I’d only be here for two years, since that was the length of the contract. Carol Bateman was a dance teacher in Shanghai and then she came to Hong Kong. During the second world war she was in Stanley (internment camp). She started her school of dance at the Helena May (in Central) in 1948.
She taught Greek dancing and Russian-style ballet originally, but she heard about the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) system and decided to switch. So I came out to teach that system. In 1956, because I was a member of the RAD, I was able to invite an examiner to Hong Kong and started having local examinations at the Helena May. There were 120 children in the first exams. Two weeks ago, I was hosting 24 examiners who flew here to examine 35,000 children. That’s how it has grown. There are now 150 registered teachers here. When I first came, there was only me and two other RAD teachers.
AT HOME AT THE HELENA When I first arrived, people in Hong Kong were very friendly. I stayed at the Helena May. My bedroom was in what is now the Blue Room, on the ground floor. All the private rooms upstairs were taken so four of us shared this big room at first. I am still in contact with two of them, in the UK. There used to be a lovely staircase leading down to the basement of the Helena May, where the school is. The club would serve breakfast and dinner there outside teaching hours and we could bring our boyfriends down for dinner. The Helena May has become my second home.
ONE BIG FAMILY I married my husband in 1956. He was with HSBC and he had to leave the bank to marry me. Back then, they had to go on a tour of duty every five years so it would have been very hard for us. Sir Michael Turner was head of the bank and a great friend of my husband’s family because my husband’s father was general manager of HSBC in Shanghai. Still, they couldn’t change the rules, so he left the bank and went into commerce. We were married at St John’s Cathedral. The Helena May made me my wedding cake.
I gave birth to our first child in October 1957, followed by a daughter and our youngest son, David. David speaks fluent Cantonese because we had a wonderful “black-and-white” amah, Ah Chiu. We said to her, “Please don’t teach David pidgin English, just speak Chinese to him.” Lydia Shum had a show teaching Cantonese to gweilos and she had David on as a guest twice.
Ah Chiu was with us 25 years. Ah Ha, the daughter of her brother, came from China to live with us. Ah Chiu couldn’t read or write but she made sure Ah Ha went to school in Aberdeen. Ah Ha got married and her children all went to university. That’s how it was then; real social mobility.
A NOTE IN MY SHOE Carol was married to Hargreaves “Pips” Howell, honorary secretary of the Hong Kong Kennel Club. In 1966, Pips died suddenly. He was taking a dog to the airport and he had a heart attack on the way. After that, Carol decided she didn’t want to stay here anymore and I took over the school in 1967.
During the riots that year, I watched the troops going down Garden Road and we all stood outside the Helena May and handed them Coca-Colas. The Bank of China building was playing communist music so loudly, we could hear it from the Helena May. I didn’t feel any sense of danger. In fact, I’ve never thought of Hong Kong as dangerous. Except perhaps in 1956, when we had the earlier riots. I remember going with Pips to Kowloon and they were throwing things near us and we had to turn back to Hong Kong.
In 1967, I was told by a friend who was deputy chairman of the Bank of China that I’d always be safe as long as I had a red note in my shoe. A hundred dollars was a lot of money then. I was never attacked and never had to use it.
Things went back to normal very quickly after the riots. Then there was the 1972 landslide. We were living next door to the Po Shan Road building that collapsed. I was standing on the balcony and I thought I was moving up. I called 999 and said a building had just collapsed. They didn’t believe me at first.
HOMEWARD BOUND Very early on, we’d decided Hong Kong was home. My husband was born in Shanghai and served in the army in Singapore. He went to the UK and joined the Bank of Scotland for a while but he came back to Asia. We bought the London School of Ballet in Kowloon in the 1970s and then opened the Causeway Bay branch. Some of Hong Kong’s best-known dance teachers came to our school: Jean [M.} Wong, Stephen Kwok, Christine Liao, Rosalind Lee, Pearl Chan.
From 1964, I ran my own nursery school in the morning, when I wasn’t at the dance school. My husband moved back to the UK towards the end of his life but there was nothing for me there. So, after he died, I told my mother I needed to get back to Hong Kong and do some teaching. She was very upset. That was September 1997.
A ROYAL SECRET Earlier this year I received a call from Caroline Wilson, the British consul general. She told me I was on the queen’s 90th birthday honours list and that I would be awarded an MBE. That was just before my 85th birthday and I had to keep it secret. I really wanted to tell someone! They say it’s for the work on dance I’ve done here but I’ve also done a lot of voluntary work, so maybe it all adds up.
Hong Kong has changed a lot. People are more money conscious, more selfish. People have to work harder. Everyone just works for themselves now. There is such uncertainty here now, but I still feel it’s a good place to be and I have many friends here and I hope Hong Kong will continue to give everybody a good life.