March 2017

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The Battle of Kowloon Tong

By Phil Brown

Randy Munoz was the toughest kid in Kowloon Tong. For a start he had a knife. He first produced it on a YMCA camping trip we went on to some small, rugged islands in the Port Shelter group in the waters off Sai Kung in the eastern part of the New Territories.
     We were bunked down in a huge shed on one of the islands because it was raining at the time and late at night contraband items including Scotch whisky (Johnny Walker red label to be precise) and Cuban cigars were produced by some of the older boys who must have been only 13 or 14.  Randy, meanwhile, had his knife and during our weekend, which always reminds me of Lord of the Flies for some strange reason, we practised throwing it – sometimes at tree trunks, sometimes at the ground and sometimes at each other’s feet, nimbly jumping from side to side to avoid the blade.
     Eventually it was confiscated by the Reverend Drury, an aged American missionary who was in charge of the excursion and who shook his head a lot on account of the behaviour of the young Christian boys in his charge.
     Randy had his revenge over the removal of his knife as we sat around the campfire at night toasting marshmallows and singing hymns, under a fair amount of duress. He replaced the lyrics of the songs with his own unholy words, which we all thought was brilliant. 
     When the camp guitarist struck up that old African-American spiritual Kumbaya Randy instead of singing “Kumbaya my lord, Kumbaya” he chanted “Comb my arse my lord, comb my arse”. We thought it was funny but we were only 11 so that explains that.
     Randy was way ahead of me in many ways and already a proficient smoker. He taught me this forbidden art in the laneway behind our house in Devon Road. The blocks of mansions in Kowloon Tong were divided by long, dank lanes that ran like secret arteries behind the prestigious residences.
In the summer months, when the humidity was in the nineties and rain bucketed down for days on end, moss grew unchecked and tiny waterfalls formed on the walls which towered above us, topped with barbed wire and broken glass.
     In these narrow, dark little concrete byways we could hide from the prying eyes of parents undisturbed except occasionally by hawkers playing their trades and selling their wares to the rich households behind big iron gates.
     These lanes were basically tradesmen’s thoroughfares and knife sharpeners, cobblers, mobile green grocers (when I say mobile I mean they pushed small carts or had ancient rickety bicycles stacked with produce) and others traversed them during the daylight hours. They’d announce their approach with plaintive cries that rose and fell in that sing-song Cantonese way. Whatever they were selling, they always sounded infinitely sad to me and their calls were like the lament of some jilted lover in a Chinese opera.
     One day Randy bought a packet of Lucky Strike cigarettes off a street vendor and came to our house ostensibly to call me out to play. I pulled on my blue and white sneakers and told my mother we were going to the nearby park on Cornwall Road but when we got to the top of the street we went in the opposite direction and ducked into the long laneway that ran behind out house.
     Randy stood kicking the wall near our back gate with his sneakers as he lit a smoke and starting puffing away like a real pro. Smoking was considered a mark of sophistication in the 1960s and television ads described one brand of cigarettes as a “passport to international smoking pleasure”. If you smoked you were some sort of instant jet-setter.
     “Can you do the drawback?” Randy asked between puffs, offering me a cigarette.
     “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think so.” I had pigeon-puffed once or twice but that’s as far as my smoking had got.
     “Watch this,” Randy said and he sucked a deep draft of smoke into his lungs, held it a moment and then blew it out of the side of his mouth with a certain amount of adolescent panache.
     “Let me try,” I said. I grabbed the box of matches he was carrying, struck one and gingerly lit my fag. I puffed a few times then sucked in the smoke as I’d seen him do. I felt like I had been hit in the chest with a brick and started coughing immediately while he roared with laughter.
     Hearing the noise the old and particularly fierce Amah from the house beside ours opened her back gate and, seeing us, with the smoke rising from our cigarettes, she began cursing.
     “You no smoke!” she shouted. “Too small, too small!”
     She was always shouting, often at me and my brother and sister, for making too much noise in our front yard. My father had shouted back at her in Cantonese on one occasion impugning the integrity of her ancestors (Chinese curses often target ancestors) which hadn’t exactly endeared us to her.
     Randy who had absolutely no respect for Chinese people, cursed her in Cantonese too. “Hum Gah Chan!” he spat, which isn’t good.
     Enraged, she grabbed a broom and came out into the lane and looked as if she meant to take after us, so we turned and began running. I could have banged on the back door to our place and got our Amah, Ah Lun, to let us in but there wasn’t time for that and we weren’t supposed to be lurking in the lane anyway.
     “Jau jau la,” she shouted. “Faidee jau jau.” We hightailed it back up the lane and across Cornwall Street, retreating to the Munoz’s flat which was in a block on the lower slopes of nearby Beacon Hill.
     I’d been to Randy’s place a few times and to me there always seemed to be a feeling of menace hanging in the air there, which might have explained why he was how he was.
     The first time I went up there Randy, to prove how tough he was, showed me his favourite tipple by drinking the juice straight from a jar of dill pickles in his fridge. He chugged the foul-smelling liquid down then rattled the gherkins against the glass.
     “Have some,” he said passing me the rancid stuff. I shook my head.
     “He’s tough, my boy,” his father said. He was one of those loud Americans although my recollection is that most Americans were loud and pretty full of themselves.
     Randy’s father certainly was, though I can’t quite work out why. He wasn’t a particularly wealthy man by Hong Kong standards and he certainly lacked any sense of style. He had a small moustache which looked like a caterpillar that had curled up and died on his upper lip. He had a large belly and wore one of those white, embroidered Filipino shirts that you don’t have to tuck in. I guess he figured that disguised his obesity but actually it accentuated it. He looked like he was wearing a tablecloth and had hidden a medicine ball under it.
     He was interested in me, apparently because I was Australian.
     “We’ve been Down Under,” he told me and then proceeded to show me the kangaroo pelts to prove it. He had shot them all himself he boasted, turning them over like a merchant in some bazaar showing off his merchandise.
     I was horrified. Kangaroos to me were like a sacred symbol of the homeland I had only a tenuous connection with, a romantic land of boundary riders and precious, exotic marsupials like the ones that were on display now as mere flattened trophy skins. They looked like large pieces of stale unleavened bread that had grown hair.
     It had honestly never occurred to me that anyone would want to kill kangaroos but as well as being loud and loving guns Americans do love to shoot things and are very fond of wildlife, particularly when it’s dead, skinned, mounted or stuffed. I feigned polite interest in his hunting stories but hoped he would leave us alone soon.
     Another thing I had noticed about Randy’s father was that he always spoke disparagingly of Chinese people. Many Europeans in Hong Kong seemed to have little or no regard for the locals which was strange and arrogant since it was really their home. The rest of us were just visiting, uninvited guests. Because my father and his family had lived in Hong Kong on and off since the 1930s and had worked alongside Chinese people since then the attitude in our house was different.
     I couldn’t imagine Randy’s dad ever bothering to befriend any Chinese the way father did and I noticed he spoke to their Amah like she was some sort of slave. There was something gauche and unpleasant about him.
     To Randy and his dad Chinese were “chinks” and “commos” and if not watched closely they would murder you in your bed and wave Mao’s little red book aloft in triumph as they struck the killing blows. In fact there may have been a few who wanted to do just that but most Cantonese people in Hong Kong were a damn site more civilized than Mr Munoz.
     Because of his inherited attitude Randy was often having run-ins with local Chinese boys and he wanted to form a gang to combat them.
     I was, apparently, to be part of this gang and was supposed to help him act out his violent fantasy.
     Randy had already assembled a few local heavies (if you can be a heavy at age 11) for his gang including a Portuguese guy named Marcus who had claimed to have stolen several hand grenades from a British barracks nearby, though he never actually produced them.
     Marcus wore thick glasses held together by tape across the bridge of the nose which didn’t help his street cred.
     Added to the mix were a couple of other rather rough British kids who also lived on Beacon Hill. Compared to these guys I was a rather suspect recruit. I mean how tough could a kid who wore mohair sweaters be? But despite my comparative effeteness Randy insisted I had to be part of his militia.
     This posse was going to take on the gang from the local Chinese village according to Randy, an idea that horrified me. Just beyond the sedate confines of our world was a crowded squatters village situated near the nearby railway line where the Kowloon-Canton train ran.
     There were, without a doubt, a few cadres in the small, squalid settlement and some boys from there had thrown bottles at us one day as we passed by, cursing us and gesticulating in an obscene fashion.
     They looked pretty fierce to me and I didn’t fancy facing off against these urban guerrillas, who probably knew kung fu and could reduce you to a quivering heap in seconds flat.
     But Randy reckoned they had to be dealt with and that white  superiority had to be proven, even though he was actually from Hispanic stock, a mere technicality.
     He was ready for them and armed himself with a stout bamboo staff for protection. He urged us all to do likewise, particularly in light of the coming battle. I swallowed hard at the mere thought of any confrontation with those Chinese toughs.
     But how could I get out of the fight with my pride intact? I had been dragged along in Randy Munoz’s slipstream. I would have rather spent time on my stamp collection than engaging in The Battle of Kowloon Tong.
     The coming confrontation was, Randy soon revealed, to be on a Sunday. On the appointed day we would apparently go down to the village, call the Chinese boys out and give them a damn good hiding.
     Teach them a lesson they’d never forget according to Randy who thrived on the anticipation of the showdown.
     I had the distinct feeling, however, that the fight might not go entirely our way and I was afraid, very afraid.
     As the battle approached my school week was overshadowed by thoughts of the melee which Randy had scheduled for the following Sunday morning. The plan was that we were to meet at Cornwall Park, then march to the perimeter of the Chinese village and call out the Chinese boys for the fight.
     I had half-heartedly taken possession of a length of bamboo pole that Randy had procured for me and had propped it around the side of the house.
     On Saturday Randy and I met up at the YMCA in Tsim Sha Tsui where went to do gymnastics. After the class we had our usual hot dog at the canteen, served as always by the ancient diffident waiter who always seemed to be on duty (he never washed his white waiter’s coat) and after that I went across The Peninsula Hotel to meet my mum and my brother and sister in the lobby.
     My father arrived soon afterwards and then we headed to the Kowloon Cricket Club for lunch and a swim.
     I usually loved going to the club but even it had lost its lustre in light of the looming confrontation.
     But on the way home my father announced the good news – that we would be going on a family outing the following day, which meant I would have to miss Randy’s little war.
     My father had decided that it had been far too long since we had been to the Repulse Bay Hotel for the famous buffet lunch. The hotel, which was straight out of a Somerset Maugham novel, was nestled into a gorgeous bay on the southern side of Hong Kong Island and an excursion there was basically a day trip so we left early, which was good.  Driving back home in the late afternoon I felt bloated (my father always insisted we eat several plates of grub to get out money’s worth) but happy that I had missed the showdown with the Chinese boys.
     At school the next day Randy regaled us with stories about the battle – who had whacked whom with what – but I wondered whether he might not be embellishing the story somewhat.
     He wasn’t overly impressed that I’d missed it and as far as he was concerned I had established my credentials as a card carrying coward, which wasn’t something I was too concerned about.
     The gang was never fully assembled again, thankfully and a few months later Randy and his family moved away. I can’t even recall where they went but we were used to people disappearing from Hong Kong and our lives forever. The European population was always in flux and childhood friendships were mostly temporary affairs because of that.
     I did have a picture of Randy somewhere but I seem to have lost it. In the photo he was in his swimming shorts, standing on a small concrete boat ramp on the small, lush island we camped on with the YMCA all those years ago. A hank of dark hair flopped over his forehead and he had a look on his face that seemed to say “Diu nei”, which is Cantonese for “Fuck you”.