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Monday, August 15, 2005

Foreign Children

Thanks to the sumptuous Free Books library and the likes of the Alex catalog, I've been treating myself to innocent skips down Memory Lane.

Not the Memory Lane of disconsolate teenagedom but right  back to those earliest poems one was set to con by rote, even if many of the verses were as a foreign language.

Even if it's more a case of 'here with my bi-focals and a cup of tea', what could be more dead-centre of our comfort zone than meeting such old pals as the Rubaiyat with its,

"Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.



"How sweet is mortal Sovranty!"--think some:
Others--"How blest the Paradise to come!"
Ah, take the Cash in hand and waive the Rest;
Oh, the brave Music of a distant Drum!
"

Remember that? Are the memories flooding back?

Or dipping back into that staple of my childhood, Robert Louis Stevenson's Child's Garden of Verses?

But you know, those were naughty days and I wonder how they got away with it.

I was raised in a post-war Hong Kong that was being built around us: Kennedy Road Junior, Mount Stewart, The Peak School, KGV ...

And my classmates were from all over the world, children of robber baron entrepreneurs, army brats, or like me, sons of impoverished civil servants.

It made for an odd masonic connection. There was an 'incident' one stifling day outside Princes Building when I waved shyly to a certain Dr Victor Fung and was practically manhandled off the pavement by his cohorts for this gross lèse majesté.

It had been 30 years since I'd last exchanged words with Victor, so no big deal and I made to walk on. But was grabbed by my old pal and my hand pumped and a brotherly arm put round my threadbare Harilela suit. Christopher!! How *are* you? My god, so long time. Where was I staying? When did I get back? But this was terrible, why had I not been in touch? Our wives should meet - our *children*, good heavens.

Behind him the cohorts bobbed and smiled cautiously at this gwei-lo being accorded such treatment ....

I went to the Peak School with Victor, and on Saturdays went with my mother to his mid-levels home where our mothers shared tai-chi classes. We're talking 1952. Where were the faddists then?

I recall one day being driven to another part of Hong Kong. What was the matter, I inquired? The apartment block was being pulled down. Why so? Ah, the original fung shui had shown that the residence had good luck for only 10 years. So?

So they were pulling it down and putting it back up again ....

I remember being terribly impressed, more used to hearing my father be grateful for any sort of roof over his head, let alone a disposable one.

The point I'm leading up to is that here was a scion of a distinguished Chinese family, and there were others from other backgrounds, sitting next to me in Mrs Jasper's English class as she - sans batting an Empire builder's eyelid - set us gems to learn such as RLS's Foreign Children.

It's over 50 years since I've come across it but I can recite it almost word perfect - albeit not without a blush.

Some Orwellian instinct warns me off even showing my own children, lest the midnight knock on the door and Bainbridge's own thought police frogmarching me away as Anna collects another merit badge and wags a disapproving finger.

I mean, 'Japonee'? Well OK, my maternal grandpa and a few others from that side of the family were still putting flesh back on their frames after the vitamin-challenged diet of Stanley Camp, but all the same ... I mean, who'd blame the Eskimos for a little chilly hauteur ? While you're reading and gasping in correct indignation, I think I'll just fling a few things in an overnight bag and scarper down the back stairs:

Little Indian, Sioux, or Crow,
Little frosty Eskimo,
Little Turk or Japanee,
Oh! don't you wish that you were me?



You have seen the scarlet trees
And the lions over seas;
You have eaten ostrich eggs,
And turned the turtle off their legs.



Such a life is very fine,
But it's not so nice as mine:
You must often as you trod,
Have wearied NOT to be abroad.



You have curious things to eat,
I am fed on proper meat;
You must dwell upon the foam,
But I am safe and live at home.
Little Indian, Sioux or Crow,
Little frosty Eskimo,
Little Turk or Japanee,
Oh! don't you wish that you were me?

Chuckle link: I *must* send the perma link of this one to the Magister of Ma Wan.


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