Chinese civilians burdened with household goods flee from the advancing Japanese troops in Eastern China in 1944. Photo: Getty Images
Then & Now
by Jason Wordie
Then & Now
by Jason Wordie

Gold teeth, Parker pens, a Rolex watch: escape kits for when you have to flee for your life, and the things you’d leave behind

  • Hurried escape from the aftermath of war and revolution – both in China and in Southeast Asia – is an inherent part of many families’ relatively recent past
  • What to take with you has always been a conundrum – something to pawn for money, perhaps? It’s best to remember what is essential and what isn’t

Many Hong Kong people have experienced traumatic upheaval in their own families’ relatively recent past; vivid stories of hurried escape from the aftermath of war and revolution – both in China and in Southeast Asia, in times of rising anti-Chinese sentiment – are an inherent part of the fabric of too many lives.

Traumatic, handed-down experiences of sudden dislocation continue to influence how many still live today – especially in their approach to personal possessions.

What would one suddenly grab to take away, if the local security situation rapidly deteriorated and the only realistic option was to do a runner, and as quickly as possible? This awful conundrum has confronted people faced with uncertain political circumstances since the dawn of human history, and tragically still does, on a daily basis, for thousands of refugees all over the world.

The gap between the objects each individual needs emotionally – the “these and thems and those” that signify past, present, home and belonging – and their practical value in times of chaos, yawns into a gaping chasm at these times.

Portability, concealability and redeemability were key considerations. For personal safety, a stash of valuables had to look like anything other than what it was. In times of civil unrest and instability, a certain amount of gold, carried on one’s person at all times, was vital insurance against unforeseen catastrophe.

Part of the reason for the popularity of gold teeth in earlier generations was that potentially life-saving stores of precious metal lay permanently embedded in one’s mouth. Effective concealment rested – literally – on keeping one’s trap firmly shut.

The Eurasians who ‘passed’ as white to access the associated privilege

In pre-liberation China, for those exposed to Western consumer goods, two small items were essential purchases as soon as personal finances allowed. These were at least one Parker 51 fountain pen – ideally a brace of them – and a gold Rolex watch. Whatever their respective corporate propaganda campaigns might proclaim to the contrary, the ultimate desirability of these items was linked to portability – the pen would be in a shirt pocket, and the watch on the owner’s wrist, always, and therefore did not need to be retrieved from a safe hiding place before taking flight.

And best of all, these two brands – unlike others – were always redeemable at a pawnbroker, which meant their convertibility in an eventual safe haven was guaranteed.

Going through the papers of a local Portuguese friend recently, one document jumped vividly to life; a detailed list – compiled at the height of the 1967 Hong Kong riots – of what to pack and keep ready at home in case there was the sudden need to flee.

This harrowing experience had happened before, during the evacuation of Kowloon in the early days of the Japanese invasion, in December 1941, and she once described the experience to me, quickly grabbing her silver-backed dressing table set – “quite useless, during a battle” – and a beautifully strung jade necklace that suddenly broke and pinged all over the floor, just as the Repulse Bay Hotel, where she was sheltering with many others, came under enemy fire. “And can you imagine picking them all up again,” she chuckled, “with that pandemonium going on!”

While later able to return home – which was fortunately intact and un-looted – the experience clearly hammered home what was essential in such circumstances, and what was not.

Typed and hand-annotated, this document reflected the lessons learned from that earlier dash to safety. And what was listed down? Several changes of sensible garments for both seasons; blanket, small pillow, umbrella and waterproof cape; needles, thread, scissors, a penknife; essential medications, painkillers and disinfectant; spare toothbrushes, carbolic soap, insect repellent; water bottles, flashlight and rope; essential keys, identity documents and passport.

Silver-backed hair brushes and that jade necklace didn’t appear anywhere.