Life as a British expat ‘back in the day’

From 40 hour Cathay flights back ‘home’ to London, to roller skating around sleek new mall Pacific Place, one expat family shares its Hong Kong history. As told by Claire Yates, founder of local printing company, Lion Rock Press

Betty (Claire’s grandma) grew up in London and moved to Hong Kong with her Chinese husband in the 1940s.

I can’t remember very much about my childhood Christmases, it was so long ago now. I do remember that we only ever had one toy, and certainly no stockings. It wasn’t like it is these days.

When I had my own family, we always went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve because I had to spend all of Christmas morning cooking. Our amah didn’t know how to cook Western food, so although she could do a lot of the preparation, I would cook the traditional English Christmas lunch for the family.

Hong Kong has changed so much over the years. I’ve been saddened by the demise of so many little stores. Years ago we used to buy everything from different shops – everyone had their speciality and everyone knew one another. I still drive over to Kowloon City to buy my soup ingredients and my fruit as I trust those small proprietors – they’ve known me for years and I know they will give me the best produce at a fair price.

One good thing is the variety of food and cuisines available today – there’s nothing you can’t get hold of. Years ago I used to bring eggs and sausages back from England in my luggage.

It drives me mad when Claire complains about the long-haul flights with her children. When my children were young the flight to London was more than 40 hours with six stops. We’d land in places like Burma, Calcutta, Delhi, Cairo, Jerusalem, Beirut, Frankfurt… One year I flew to England for my sister’s wedding with Claire’s mum, Mary, when she was a toddler and I was heavily pregnant. I flew back a few weeks later with Mary and her newborn baby sister. You just got on with things back then. I always flew alone as my husband was working.

Kai Tak was just a tin hut with a fence alongside it where you could wave to your relatives on the other side as you were getting on or off a plane. The police used to stop the traffic on the road by the airport to let the planes maneuver. The kids would always hope for that to happen as we passed by. This Christmas we have all the UK side of the family flying in.

I wasn’t involved in the family business in the early days, but today I help Claire folding and packing her cards, cutting ribbon and threading gift tags. I’m head of operations! At this time of year, my house looks like a warehouse as we fold and pack more than 40,000 Christmas cards by hand in just a few weeks. Years ago I used to sell charity cards on behalf of the Samaritans – I used to pack all of those cards, too. We would sell them in a lovely shop called Welfare Handicrafts in the basement of Jardine House. The younger generation don’t seem to appreciate hand-crafted items anymore.

Mary (Claire’s mum) was born in the UK and arrived in Hong Kong aged two.

I was born in the UK where my father was training in accountancy. I arrived here by ship – which in those days took about seven weeks via the Cape of Good Hope because of the Suez crisis.

I started at Diocesan Girls’ School when I was four, the school had a kindergarten in a green wooden hut. I stayed there for primary, but after one year in secondary I was sent to a boarding school in the UK.

I remember Christmas as being a happy time. The most exciting bit was when the big Christmas decorations box was retrieved from a high-up cupboard which was not opened at any other time of the year. The lights would be all tangled and and many of the bulbs wouldn’t work and often an electrician had to be called. The tree would be dressed and the paper chains hung around the ceilings.

The adults would dress up in furs and jewellery and go out to functions, but we children would watch our parents get ready and stay home with the amah. There wasn’t the long build-up that you get for Christmas today, no expectations of specific presents, and the day was low-key with just parents and siblings.

When I had my own children, I always gave them stockings (and later sacks) filled with small inexpensive items. As they grew older they were not always appreciative of the “sensible” items – like a new toothbrush, stapler or post-it notes!

As a child in Hong Kong, we were very independent. There were few organised activities outside of school hours, apart from the obligatory Carol Bateman ballet lessons at the Helena May and piano lessons.

I remember playing with my cousins and the family getting together on Sundays for dim sum in favourite hotels, such as Shatin Heights Hotel and Castle Peak Hotel. The Fung family (my grandfather’s family) also had a “bungalow”, which was in fact a country home with a swimming pool in Tsuen Wan, where we all used to congregate. Both myself and my children learnt to swim in that pool. Inevitably it has since been sold and a high rise development now occupies the space.

This year will be a special Christmas as all of the family from the UK will be joining the Hong Kong family. There will be 24 of us – from my youngest grandson who is not yet two, to my father who will have reached 88 on Christmas Eve. We will be eating our Christmas lunch away from my parents’ home for the first time, at Hong Kong Football Club.

Claire Yates runs Lion Rock Press with silent partner, her uncle Simon. She grew up in Stanley.

I was born in England but was back and forth throughout my childhood for long holidays with grandparents and Chinese cousins in Prince Edward. And then my father was posted to Hong Kong in 1990 and we lived in Stanley Mound Road. I went to Bradbury and South Island School before being sent back to England to attend Malvern Girls’ College as a boarder.

Christmas has always been the happiest time for me. My mum always used to take me to the holiday fairs – I remember the Conrad especially vividly. I’ve been a stallholder there for the past four years and it’s a very different animal now!

We’d always take a trip on the family boat to see the Christmas lights on the buildings. Winter solstice is around the 22 December and that’s when all my Chinese family would gather together – up to 60 of us. Each year there would be more and more children to play with. My grandfather has ten siblings, so it’s quite a clan!

I remember Christmas at Nannie’s place in Prince Edward – the huge rosewood table with all the Christmas spread and the enormous tree with an impossible amount of presents underneath. It was as magical a time as you could ever have hoped for as a child.

My own children are still very young, but we try and teach them the essence of Christmas and to remember how lucky they are. We have a big clear-out in the weeks before and I teach my son to give the toys he doesn’t play with to children less fortunate.

We always leave a note for Father Christmas and a carrot for Rudolph. We go to midnight mass at Christ Church in Kowloon Tong – the same service my grandparents have been attending since the early 1950s.

I think my childhood in Hong Kong was fairly similar to what my kids enjoy now – we do pretty much the same things. We enjoyed a lot of freedom – nobody locked their doors and we were always in and out of people’s homes. I remember the typhoons were much more ferocious – we used to have to tape up all our windows which was very exciting.

As children, we used to adore going up to Beas River (Hong Kong Jockey Club) near Fanling, to our “bungalow” in Tsuen Wan and out to the Clearwater Bay Country Club – my grandparents were among the first members before the road was even built. We also used to go out on the family junk and fish off our speedboat. Whatever we caught, if it wasn’t too big, I would take back to my huge fish tank in my bedroom in Stanley (appalling when I think about it now!) where everything lived in harmony – until I caught a tiny squid one trip which must have been attacked in the tank, let off its ink and everything died. I was devastated!

In the ‘90s we used to catch a bus from Stanley to Pacific Place where we would rollerblade (if we didn’t get caught) and hang out in the Food Court (which had McDonalds and KFC) and try on all the perfume in Body Shop. We used to come home reeking of chicken fat and Anais Anais.

I am proud to be continuing the tradition of the family paper business. When I was a child, my grandfather still ran his stationery shop out of Pottinger Street. He originally started the business printing import and export documents for shipping merchants – of course Pottinger Street was on the waterfront then. He was only a handful of people licensed to do this work.

I used to absolutely love going there and choosing bits and pieces for school. I then had to take the basket upstairs and justify why I need every single item – it taught me the value of money and also how to think on my feet. I don’t think I ever had to put anything back.

I loved watching people pay – the money was put in a little bucket which was winched to the ceiling and ran along a rope to the till clerk.

When I moved back to Hong Kong in my thirties I wanted to carry on the tradition of using high quality, responsibly sourced paper, but in a more creative way. The Lion Rock Press is a fusion of my love affair with Hong Kong and a family besotted with paper. My uncle Simon is in the luxury paper business, and his expertise has allowed Lion Rock to keep competitive and up-to-date with all the latest technology.

I usually spend Christmas with a ready-cooked turkey and Christmas pudding from the Hong Kong Club. But this year we are heading to the Hong Kong Football Club with 24 family members. We will go back to my grandparents place in Mid-levels afterwards for an extended gift-opening session, followed by rounds and rounds of Mahjong, Racing Demon and Roulette – basically anything we can bet on!