On a warm October day in 1987, while standing with my family along the railing of an old, green-and-white Star Ferry chugging over to Kowloon, we took particular notice of the U.S.S. Gridley, one of several U.S. warships moored in Hong Kong harbor that day. (Bobbing serenely amidst the usual swarm of fishing boats, tugboats, and barges, we were unaware that the guided missile cruiser had just returned from the Persian Gulf where it conducted retaliatory strikes against Iranian oil platforms.) Overhearing our conversation, a nearby American naval officer invited us to visit the Gridley. Naturally, we jumped at the chance to board one of the ships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet.
At the time, our family of four was among the 15,000 American expatriates living and working in the British colony. We occasionally saw sailors on shore leave, but it was usually in Wan Chai, the district filled with bars and clubs made famous in the 1957 novel The World of Suzie Wong. On Sunday evenings we often ventured into that part of town for dinner. One of our favorite eating places was SMI (reputed to stand for Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia), a curry house situated directly above Ricky and Pinky’s Tattoo Parlor—an establishment especially favored by members of the British Navy. Despite its seedy elements, the neighborhood was safe, our biggest challenge being to whisk our two young children past the Playboy centerfolds that festooned the stairway leading to the second-floor restaurant; not that any of us had any trouble hurrying along. Like thirst-crazed wildebeests crossing a crocodile-invested river, we bound up the steps, our pace ever-quickening as our noses picked up the scent of various curries wafting down. With names like Ceylon white curry chicken, Peshawari red curry mutton, and Malaccan devil’s curry hantu, ordering dinner at SMI sounded like a recitation of the territories, protectorates, and mandates of the European colonial empires.
Our personal tour of the Gridley reflected the long, friendly relationship between the U.S. Navy and American expatriates living in Hong Kong. Even the name “Gridley” evoked memories of our naval past in Asia Pacific, for it was Captain Charles Gridley who commanded Admiral George Dewey’s flagship Olympia when Dewey issued his famous order “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley,” opening the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War. In the years that followed, the Asiatic Fleet, as it was then named, was charged with defending the Philippines and upholding the U.S. Open Door Policy which allowed other countries access to China, without letting any of them take control.
|Repulse Bay Hotel Terrace View (1920s)|
On October 21, 1920, the American community hosted a banquet in Hong Kong for Vice Admiral Casey Morgan in appreciation of the U.S. Navy for providing safety and security in the Far East during the commercial expansion that followed the First World War. The dinner was held at the new Repulse Bay Hotel, a colonial-style hotel overlooking a small beach on the south side of sub-tropical Hong Kong Island. The menu shown below reflects the mix of English and American fare typically favored by western expats living in Hong Kong at the time. While the dish called “roes on toast” (presumably herring roes) reflects the English influence, the maple nut sundae is a distinctly American touch. Most of the food was sourced locally, as evidenced by the fried Macao sole, a reference to the nearby Portuguese colony, situated forty miles away on the other side of the Pearl River Delta.
The dance program reflects the atmosphere and tone of the event. Following a rotating sequence of waltzes, one steps, and foxtrots, the selection of tunes includes patriotic songs popular during the Great War, such as “General Pershing,” “Over There,” and “America, I Love You.” Others like “Dixie” and “Beautiful Ohio,” a romantic ballad composed in 1918, were sure to stir up nostalgic feelings for home. During such occasions, talk inevitably turned to what was going on back in the states. During this evening in the fall of 1920, the main topic of conversation was surely the upcoming presidential election, now only two weeks away. For one thing, women from every state would be allowed to vote for the first time, following the ratification of the 19th Amendment in August. Moreover, the U.S. Navy had more than a passing interest in the outcome of the race. Before being nominated for vice president at the Democratic convention in San Francisco that summer, Franklin D. Roosevelt had been the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt revered the Navy and could be counted on to support a large and efficient force.
In 1989, less than two years after we toured the Gridley, political protests erupted on the Chinese mainland, first igniting at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and then spreading to other cities such as Chengdu where hundreds of people were also killed. Although the massive demonstrations in Hong Kong were peaceful, the sight of a million people converging in one place was unnerving, especially since we happened to be standing in the area where they were headed. Pausing only long enough to turn around and snap the photograph below, we quickly headed toward Wan Chai. Ironically, the district without squares, public parks, and other civic places to congregate suddenly seemed like the safest place in the city. Although the U.S. Seventh Fleet could not have helped us at that moment, their presence in the region was a great source of comfort.