Heritage Hong Kong – The Helena May

(Originally printed in the September issue of Expat Parent, http://www.expat-parent.com)

By Carolynne Dear

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Club founder Lady Helena May with her husband, HK Governor Sir Francis Henry May, and daughters Stella, Phoebe, Iris and Dione, 1916.

 

There’s a gentle buzz of conversation and the chink of cutlery scraping china as I am whisked through an elegant Edwardian dining room and into the even more glorious confines of the “Blue Room”. It is lunch time at the Helena May, as members and their guests enjoy a cool catch-up over a meal or a drink, on what is a stinking hot day outside.

This is Hong Kong’s “club for women”, a private institution for Hong Kong’s ladies to meet, socialise and network, and I am here to find out more about its remarkable past from current chair of council, Tina Seib.

It was set-up and initially run by Lady Helena May – wife of Hong Kong’s then governor, Sir Francis Henry May – and financed by various wealthy donors of the day, including Ho Kom Tong, the Ho Tung family and Dr Ellis Kadoorie.

Its raison d’etre was as a safe and comfortable refuge for the increasing numbers of single, expatriate women arriving in Hong Kong. As a mother of four daughters, Lady May was no doubt well aware of the lack of facilities in Hong Kong for single women at that time.

The beginning of the twentieth century was a period of increasing independence and social mobility for women. The suffragette movement was in full swing in Britain, while new technology – such as the telephone and the typewriter – was opening up jobs suited to “female characteristics”, namely “nimble fingers” and a “polite manner”.

Many women ventured overseas – in search of employment and adventure – encouraged by advertising from the British Women’s Emigration Association, as well as male migration.

“Of course a certain percentage came on a husband-hunting mission, as was common at the time,” explains current chair of council, Tina Seib. “But many others came to work. Whatever their reasons, these women needed a safe place to stay, a respectable address for job applications, and somewhere they could meet other women.” Modern Hong Kong is a world away from the city of the 1900s where disease and neighbourhoods of ill-repute were widespread.

Over the years, the club has become somewhat synonymous with its matronly 10pm curfew and “no gentlemen upstairs” rule. But this should not detract from the role it played in enabling many single women to live and work comfortably in Hong Kong in what was then a strongly patriarchal society.

The club still boasts accommodation, both for long and short-term stays. “The residents effectively live in a grand mansion house and have the run of the place,” enthuses Esther Morris in her book “Helena May”. “There is nowhere else quite like it.”

One such resident was Joan Campbell, current principal of the Carol Bateman dance school housed within the Helena May building. She arrived in Hong Kong in the 1950s as a young dancer and initially stayed in the Blue Room at the Helena May, the residential area of the club being full at the time. This year, she found herself on the Queen’s 90th birthday honours list and received an MBE for her contribution to dance in Hong Kong.

 

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The Helena May’s current Chair of Council, Tina Seib.

“We are lucky to have an immense pool of talent and skill-sets amongst our membership today,” says Seib. “Whether they are homemakers, mothers, lawyers, journalists, bankers or architects, Hong Kong born-and-bred or here on a fleeting two-year contract, our members all have something positive to contribute to the club. The varied membership also continues the club’s tradition of being an excellent networking base for women.”

Indeed all members are expected to volunteer towards the running of the Helena May in some shape or form, whether it’s manning desk in the library from time to time, advising on building maintenance, or helping to organise charity and social events.

The grand Edwardian building itself is an adaptation of the Renaissance style, designed by architects Denison, Ram & Gibbs, who also worked on the Matilda Hospital and the Repulse Bay Hotel. It originally boasted a recreation ground, a lecture and concert hall, a reading and writing room, bedrooms on the first floor, and a room “for afternoon teas, where members are allowed to bring in their gentlemen friends.”

Seib is keen to impress that the maintenance of the building, the outside of which is listed, is the responsibility of the club’s council. The last three years have seen extensive renovations, including re-wiring, damp-proofing and the opening up and restoration of original ceilings covered over during the 1980s, most notably in the elegant Blue Room.

The Helena May was deliberately positioned close to Central, close to the Peak tram (the Peak was home for most colonial ladies who would have been involved with the club), close to the Governor’s house on Upper Albert Road, and just across the road from St John’s Cathedral. In those days, Garden Road was just that, a leafy enclave. These days the club battles somewhat with the noise from the concrete overpasses that now thread their way through mid-levels.

To non-members, the club is probably best-known for its extensive library, and for its ballet school – The Carol Bateman School of Dancing – which has seen thousands of tutu-bedecked children trip through its doors since it was founded in 1948. Bateman had been interred in Stanley during the war and was anxious to start children’s dancing classes as she had done in Shanghai before the war – she began with four sessions a week, renting a room for 20 pounds.

The library was founded in the 1920s and today holds the largest private collection of English-language books in Hong Kong.

During the second world war, all the books were removed and replaced with Japanese tomes in a propaganda drive to impress Japanese culture onto an unreceptive local Chinese population. The club itself was used for stabling horses and was completely looted by the Japanese.

After the war, members were encouraged to “bring a book” each time they visited the club in an effort to return the library to its former glory. The children’s section now contains over 6,000 books and junior club membership is offered for free so children can use the library (“book borrowing by children is surprisingly on the increase,” notes Seib).

The Helena May is also still very much a charity-driven institution. It supports a different charity each year – this year the Marycove Centre in Aberdeen. There is a student mentoring programme in conjunction with Hong Kong University, and the club also offers two scholarships each year for the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. A former recipient of a Helena May scholarship, Pik-sun Chan, now a professional musician, returned to perform at the club’s centenary launch celebrations in February.

In a rather nice twist, the club shares its centenary with the Hong Kong Girl Guide Association, a group with which it still retains links. Each year, English-speaking members volunteer to test local Guides working towards their English Conversation Badge at an Annual Assessment Day, where the girls and their families are invited into the club.

Its graceful interiors coveted by many a bride-to-be, the club also hosts around 50 weddings a year.

It may not be the hippest club in town, it has no sporting teams to boast of and its facilities are minimal, but in its own way the Helena May has quietly stayed true to its mission of supporting Hong Kong’s women for one hundred – often tumultuous – years.

As I take my leave, Seib points out a golden plaque that has recently been hung in the front porch. It’s engraved with all the women to have taken the chair of the club since 1916. “We’ve never had anything like this,” she says, giving it a quick polish. “The club has  never really boasted about what it has achieved. And then I thought, why not? These women have quietly worked so hard. So we had this little plaque made.”

Indeed, as remarked by the Bishop of Victoria during the opening ceremony: “The management of this Institute… shall not be an easy task. I shall watch your work with an interest.”

It would seem that the ladies have done him proud.

 

Private island paradise is just an hour from Singapore

(published in the September 2016 issue of Expat Parent, http://www.expat-parent.com)

 

 

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Barefoot bliss on Nikoi Island, Indonesia

A few years ago I was corresponding with a “mummy friend” who had recently moved to Singapore with hertoddler.

“Oh, we’re renting a desert island with some of our playgroup friends,” she breezily told me when I asked what she was up to over the summer. At the time, pre-Hong Kong days, my own playgroup get togethers consisted of a dusty community hall, an urn of over-stewed tea and several vegemite-smeared children playing noisily on a plastic climbing frame.

Phew, I thought, what a life! And with nothing much to reply to a statement like that, the conversation swiftly ended.

And yet, several years later, here I am, settling back on the silky sands of said private desert island, while the kids disappear down a leafy jungle path to play, not an i-pad or a pokemon (or a vegemite sandwich) in sight.

Welcome to Nikoi, a modern day shangri-la for weary parents everywhere.

Nikoi Island lies in Indonesian territory approximately 80kms south of Singapore, nestling serenely off Bintan Island, close to where the South China and Java Seas meet.

To reach it, we flew into Singapore and caught one of the regular high-speed ferries from Singapore’s Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal to Bandar Bentan Telani on Bintan Island (an easy journey of approximately one hour). From there, a car met us to whisk us across Bintan to a private launch (a 45-minute journey), and this powered us over to tiny Nikoi in under half an hour.

As we approached the island, the white sandy beaches, swaying palms, and wooden grass thatched beach huts felt a million miles away from our early breakfast in downtown Singapore.

Nikoi was “discovered” by long-term Australian expat Andrew Dixon, and American Peter Timmer (who had been living on Bintan for the past eighteen years). Dixon, disenchanted with what was on offer for holiday-makers in the region, had decided to explore the then undiscovered east coast of Bintan.

Fed up with either flea-ridden beach shacks or grandiose marble and chandelier be-decked resorts, Dixon was looking to create something of good quality but genuinely in tune with the natural environment.

So, the pair hired a tiny fishing boat to take a look at a nearby island that was reputably up for sale. On landing, they were amazed to discover gorgeous beaches, pristine reefs, extraordinary rock formations and verdant rainforest. “It was hard to believe a piece of paradise like this could remain uninhabited and untouched a mere 50 miles from Singapore,” says Dixon.

Significantly, the pair do not describe Nikoi as an “eco-resort”, considering the term to be overused. While creating a quality destination, they just wanted it to respect the natural environment – “as much as possible, we have left Nikoi as we found it – a desert island,” explains Dixon.

“Our plan was to develop a private island, not a resort,” he says. “We wanted guests to enjoy the best of local dishes and appreciate service that is relaxed and genuine – not bound by training manuals and fake smiles.” He likens the island to “luxury Survivor”.

It would appear they have achieved their aim. Entirely constructed of driftwood, with a grass roof and exciting tree-top walkways linking the bedrooms and two bathrooms, our beach hut is what dreams are made of for our seven-year-old boy. There are no doors, no windows, no air conditioning – just gentle sea breezes, ceiling fans, graceful mosquito nets draping the beds (although I have to admit we didn’t have a single problem with biting insects, a welcome change from our own New Territories backyard), simple bathrooms, extremely comfortable beds – and a handy torch for after-dark.

Almost paralysed with excitement, the seven and nine-year olds decide to move their mattresses and sleep in the huge wood-hewn window seats.

And as you would expect of a quality resort, the gentle staff visit every morning to sweep our sandy floorboards and mop the bathrooms.

This is barefoot living at its best, and our days quickly relax into a stunning early morning kayak around the island (even the seven-year-old can manage it by the end of the week), followed by jetty-jumping and snorkelling for the kids while I catch up on my pile of magazines on the beach, and finally an indulgent lunch.

 

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The kids enjoying an afternoon in the resort pool. 

 

The catering on the island is what impresses me most – the dining room consists of a long, polished table – perfect for our large group of friends from Singapore, Australia and Hong Kong – in an open-sided, sandy-floored, dining hut by the beach.

The daily “menu d’hote” is chalked up on a board at breakfast-time, with sensible alternatives for the children (thank god, not a chicken nugget in sight), which mostly consist of local dishes using fresh ingredients – fish and seafood feature regularly. Parents everywhere will appreciate the bliss of not having to navigate an a la carte menu plus fast food-laden kids menu every mealtime.

In the afternoon, the children disappear to do their favourite thing on Nikkoi – Yogi’s kids club. Yogi is amazing, he spends hours with them, carving wooden objects for them, showing them how to mix mocktails behind the little bar, designing complicated adventure games covering the length and breadth of the island – this is about as close as you will get to an Enid Blyton childhood in the age of tech. Rather marvellously, they disappear for hours on end, leaving us parents to retreat to the pool on the other side of the island with books, i-pads and cocktails.

A couple of evenings we did manage to rouse ourselves for a tennis match with the kids (on the immaculate grass court – Wimbledon eat your heart out), as well as enjoy the odd massage (a team of masseurs are happy to stop by your beach hut).

Dinner is served early for the kids, so they can disappear off with Yogi for an evening by the beach bonfire or watching a movie on the huge outdoor screen at the kids club hut. Again, we adults are left alone to linger over our food and wine.

By the end of the week, none of us is ready to go home and the eleven-year-old virtually has us in a headlock promising to come back next year. “Seriously mum, it’s our best ever holiday!” she pleads with us.

To be honest, I’ve never seen our well-travelled, been there, done that children quite so animated about a holiday. We will certainly be back some day…

 

More info…

There are fifteen beach huts on Nikoi, with either two or three bedrooms.

The island can be rented privately, or as individual huts (nikoi.com). We travelled with other other families with similarly aged children, which worked well.

From Hong Kong, we broke our journey with an overnight stay at the Crowne Plaza Changi Airport (crowneplaza.com).

The Bintan Resort Ferries can get busy and should be booked in advance (brf.com.sg), as well as the car pick-up from Bendar Bentan Talani (this should be organised through Nikoi Island, nikoi.com).

The group is launching another, adult-only luxury destination on privately-owned Cempedak Island at the beginning of 2017 (cempedak.com).

Mekong meanderings

 

(As published in the July issue of Expat Parent)

 

Rusty runner Carolynne Dear flies to Laos to complete the most laid-back half-marathon of her career.

 

Seduced by a trip to a country I had never been to before and the promise of some great restaurants, interesting night markets and a massage, I bravely signed up for the Luang Prabang half marathon last summer.

After months of drawing up training schedules, discussing training schedules and occasionally actually getting out and actioning a training schedule, a group of us – all friends from Hong Kong but now living across Asia and Australia – nervously met at Chek Lap Kok one October morning, each clutching a pair of Asics running shoes and a Laos Lonely Planet guide.

First stop was Bangkok. There are no direct flights from Hong Kong to Luang Prabang – the options offered by Cathay were changes in Hanoi or the Thai capital. We opted for Bangkok and spent a night carb-loading and pretending not to drink alcohol (one beer couldn’t hurt, surely?) at the Hotel Novotel Suvarnabhumi Airport.

The next morning we were up bright and early and nervously sipping lattes at the breakfast bar. Too late now to regret not going on that final training run.

We jumped onto a two-hour Bangkok Airways flight to the Laotian capital, which afforded gorgeous views as it jetted over the hills of northern Thailand.

Walking across the baking apron to the airport terminal in the midday heat, I did wonder what I’d signed up for, but as we arrived at our boutique hotel, all fears temporarily evaporated at the site of a sparkling pool, landscaped gardens and a fabulous French colonial-inspired guest room.

Luang Prabang is variously described in the guidebooks as “languid and lovely”, “a unique place where time seems to stands still” and “a Unesco-protected gem… that has gained mythical status as a travellers’ Shangri-La”. It turned out to be all of those things and more.

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The stunning Apsara Rive Droite hotel – don’t leave without tasting their delicious homemade papaya jam.

Our gorgeous hotel, the Apsara Rive Droite, was located on the banks of the fast-flowing Nam Khan – Luang Prabang is at the sacred confluence of the Nam Khan and the mighty Mekong River.

The quickest way into town turned out to be on a tiny little motor-powered boat that spluttered against the current until it reached the opposite bank. It was quite a feat crawling in and out of the tiny vessel (particularly when you’ve just run 21kms), but it was also fun, and only broke down once during our visit.

The run itself is a relatively tiny event, organised by local volunteers, both Laotian and expat. There were just 17 participants registered in my category, five in another, which meant that some of us were guaranteed a podium position before we’d even started – not something we could say about most other running events we’d attended.

This year, monies raised are going towards Friends Without A Border, a non-profit organisation committed to providing free healthcare to children. Last year it built and opened a hospital in Luang Prabang, the Lao Friends Hospital for children, which has so far treated over 15,000 children.

There are three run distance options, as the course cleverly weaves through the town in 7km loops. Some of our group ran just one loop, some did 14km, but I had committed to 21km. We began at 6am after a cool and cloudy night, so conditions weren’t as hot as I had been fearing.

The course took us past crowds of cheering school children, bar owners proffering trays of drinks, beautiful old buildings and the swirling waters of the Nam Khan. It was hugely enjoyable with a really local vibe. It felt as if the whole town had turned out for the event, with middle-aged expat ladies frantically re-directing rickshaws and shop owners touting their wares on the roadside. There were gentle inclines and downward slopes to break the monotony and all in all it was a pleasure to run.

A couple of hours later we crawled back onto our river boat and were met on the other side by our cheery hotel manager. A beautiful al fresco breakfast table had been laid out for us overlooking the pool, with warm Laotian omelettes, baskets of French pastries, and yummy homemade papaya jam.

Later that morning and after a short snooze, the hotel arranged a car to take us up to the dramatic, menthol-coloured waterfalls of Tat Kuang Si.

We enjoyed lunch back in town at the Victoria Hotel overlooking the Mekong River and then it was time for our well deserved massages at the Dhammada spa.

That evening we staggered back across the Nam Khan for a delicious “mod Lao” dinner at chic eatery Tamarind and a wander around the Handicraft Night Market. When you’ve been used to haggling cut-throat discounts on Temple Street, the Laotian stallholders are positively dreamy in comparison – I had to patiently explain to one young girl that she had given me too much change.

But it’s a very gentle, sleepy town overall. Life ambles its way calmly along the dusty streets, the food was fabulous (and amazing value) and the locals very friendly. And the town’s Indochinese architecture is entirely deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status.

There was just time the following morning to quietly regard the monks taking alms at sunrise and then we were back on a flight to Bangkok.

Luang Prabang is one of those unusual places that lives up to expectations and to all that is written about it in guides and brochures. I might have been cursing having to change flights initially, but part of me hopes this stunning town stays off the well-beaten tourist trail a while longer. It is absolutely charming and I shall definitely be back – possibly without my Asics next time though.

 

Run stats

This year’s half marathon takes place on Sunday Oct 23. Sign up at luangprabanghalfmarathon.com.

Monies raised this year will be going towards the Lao Friends Hospital for Children, fwab.org.

The Apsara Rive Droite boutique hotel can be contacted at theapsara.com.

Bangkok Airways flies from Hanoi and Bangkok to Luang Prabang, bangkokair.com.

Laotian restaurant Tamarind can be booked at tamarindlaos.com.

The Victoria XiengThong Palace Hotel can be contacted at xiengthongpalace.com.

The Dhammada is among one of the best massage spas in town, dhammada.com.

 

Run for the hills

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All the fun of the fair. Scarlet enjoys a well-earned full-sugar Coke and a spot of face painting at the end of the run.

We’re well hard, me and Scarlet. So on Saturday we hit the hills and ran a 4km trail run through the Clearwater Bay ranges for HK charity Hard As Nayls.

Not just any old trail run, it was billed as Clearwater Bay’s “toughest running event” no less. It was held across the whole weekend with family races on Saturday afternoon, culminating with a BBQ and drinks.

We’re a small expat community up here in the jungle and it was lovely to see so many friendly faces at the starting line. This is the second year the event has been held and was initially set-up last year as a memorial event for Andy Naylor, a popular local runner who trained along the very trails used in the races. Monies raised go to Andy’s family back in the UK.

We loved it (Scarlet particularly enjoyed the massive bowl of jelly beans on offer at the halfway water stop) and would definitely do it again (but not the 8km, said Scarlet).

The race started at the Tin Hau temple on Tai Miu Wan Pier and headed straight up the vertiginous slopes of High Junk Peak. The views across Clearwater Bay and Po Toi O from the top are fantastic, but we didn’t stop to gaze as Scarlet was off like a rocket, back down, along, up and down a bit more, and then back down onto the road and the jelly bean stop. There was then a couple of kms along Tai O Mun road, skirting around the Bay and back to Tai Miu Pier.

We loved the pork BBQ and the chicken wings – and you don’t often see a cool-box brimming with Tsing Tao on a race finish line, which I thought was a nice touch.

The following day the serious runners hit the trails, racing 10, 16 and 42(eek!)kms. But I was already booked to race in a dragon boat festival at Lamma so had to say no to the more hardcore options. But there’s always next year…

Check out http://www.hardasnayls.org about this time next year and have a go yourself.

 

 

 

 

Brolly brigade

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Doing rainy season in style. Thank you to Scarlet and Grace for modelling my beautiful new umbrella. 

And so we move into rainy season in Hong Kong. From April until about August, Hong Kong drip-dries as rainstorm after rainstorm rolls in – the wettest months with the most sustained rainfall are May and June. Spring in Hong Kong just doesn’t exist. One minute you’re shivering under a duvet, the next you’re sweating it out in a pair of wellies and a cagoule as humidity levels soar and the storm clouds converge.

Unfortunately the mountainous topography of the Territory and prolonged rainfall can quickly disintegrate into a high risk of landslip. In the early 1990s the government introduced a rainfall warning system following a deadly landslide at private residential estate, Baguio Villas, on Hong Kong Island.

After two days of heavy, sustained rain, the steep mountain slopes behind the complex were saturated. With only an old, Victorian masonry wall holding everything in place, the mud suddenly surged down a steep gully before crashing into Lower Baguio Villas at around 2pm on 8 May 1992. Residents reported blocks 43 and 44 physically shaking as tonnes of earth slammed into them, swamping apartments as high as the third floor.

Tragically a seven-year-old boy in one of the ground floor apartments, and a council engineer who had ironically been sent out to check on blocked drains at the complex, both lost their lives when the landslide hit. Hundreds of residents had to be evacuated, some not able to return until several months later.

Extensive work has since been carried out at Baguio to ensure such as incident never occurs again, and is one of the reasons many slopes have been concreted over and are constantly being maintained around the Territory.

It also heralded the introduction of the rainfall warning system. If more than 30mm of rain is falling or expected to fall in the next hour, the Amber signal is hoisted. 50mm means the Red warning goes up, and over 70mm sees a Black warning (the highest) raised, with residents being told to seek shelter or stay indoors. Taxis stop running and private drivers become uninsured. If the Black signal goes up first thing in the morning, the school buses cannot run and schools are subsequently shut. Many a night the kids have gone to bed, fingers crossed and praying for the rain to continue.

These days, HK Observatory runs a great app (MyObservatory) which alerts you to weather warnings, and also boasts an incredibly handy Rainfall Forecast, showing you exactly where rain is expected over the following two hour period. A saviour if you’re hosting an outdoor event at this soggy time of year.

And to finish a serious topic on a totally frivolous note, Kidnapped Bookshop in Sai Kung is selling some gorgeous Hong Kong-inspired brollies this season, designed by local artist Lorette Roberts. If you’re going to get rained on, at least do it in style.

Kidnapped is at 7 Man Nin St, Sai Kung. Lorette’s umbrellas can be viewed at http://www.loretteroberts.com.