The yawl Morasum came hard on the wind to beat through the narrows of Fat Tau Mun, and there lay wonderland. To starboard was a jade-green island with the musical name of Tung Lung; to port loomed the dark rampart of Red China's mainland. Ahead lay islands scattered like the skerries of the Baltic, green and boulder-strewn, with sunshine glinting and birds circling. Dark trees flowed down a valley to frame a miniature temple, Tai Hing in Joss House Bay, where crews of junks anchor to pray for kind winds before quitting the shelter of the land. Sails were silhouetted against the distant horizon, lazy and at peace, and the chart showed, beyond successive headlands, deserted beaches and snug coves, beautiful cruising waters whose existence I had not even suspected.
If Manila is the pearl of the Orient, then Hong Kong is its diamond. It hangs from the dark, featureless mass of modern China like a glowing pendant. Its value to the British Empire is incalculable and it has as many facets as the Koh-i-noor. There are the paddyfields of peasants plowing in the ancient way behind water buffaloes; there are the flourishing factories of modern industry; there are the ships flying the flags of every nation, crowding a harbor rimmed on two sides by skyscrapers; there are the gracious homes and pleasurable playgrounds of the Western citizens.
Thus it has been for more than a century, since 1841, when the British, seeking a base for trade with the interior of south China, were granted sovereignty in perpetuity over an island of 32 square miles lying off the Kowloon Peninsula on the approaches to the Pearl River. This was Hong Kong. In 1860 a band of Kowloon waterfront was deeded, and in 1898 a still deeper buffer strip called the New Territories was acquired on a 99-year lease, bringing the total area of the Crown Colony of Hong Kong to 391 square miles.
Visitors usually are confused by the nomenclature of the colony, as Hong Kong—which means "Fragrant Harbor" in Chinese—is applied interchangeably to the colony as a whole, to the single original island and to the principal city of that island, actually named Victoria, which faces across the harbor its twin city of Kowloon. All traffic between the two cities is by water, and in 1959 a single ferry line shuttled nearly 40 million fares back and forth, part of the ceaseless bustle of the harbor.
Politically if not geographically, the entire colony is an island, hemmed in by Red China and her fringing possessions. From the lounge of the leading European hotel in Kowloon the border is a scant 15 miles to the north. A hooked drive, on the links of the golf club at Fanling in the New Territories, could almost land in a Chinese bunker. To the sailor, the "blue islands"—those just far enough offshore to be touched by haze—are constant warning that Communist territory is close at hand.
Yet in Hong Kong there is no hysteria and no feeling of threat. Imposing modern buildings are springing up at a rate to match any booming American city, and long-term capital investments in municipal and industrial projects are flourishing. The reason was summed up for me by an English acquaintance. "The situation," he said, "quite suits everyone concerned." And so it does: the Chinese have left themselves a convenient gateway to the outside world, and the British retain a highly profitable enterprise. Even that nervous, shy bird of passage, the tourist, is not afraid to come to Hong Kong: in the Far East, the Crown Colony is second only to Japan in transient visitors, averaging over 10,000 a month during 1959.
On a detail chart, Hong Kong looks like a bit of lacework. There are some 200 islands and an intricate pattern of waterways, while even the New Territories are deeply indented by bays and sounds. It is little wonder, therefore, that in Hong Kong interest in boating—for business, pleasure, or both—runs high. Formal racing activities center at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, once a fortress and still, from the ancient powder magazines beneath to the crowned blue ensign floating proudly above, a true outpost of empire. Its wide veranda overlooks the harbor, a scene of never-failing fascination. Ships beyond count swing at anchor while native craft cluster alongside to unload cargo, sometimes in rafts a half dozen deep. Sampans and walla-wallas—small water taxis—dart like beetles, weaving intricate traffic patterns among seagoing junks under sail, patrol craft, tugs towing strings of lighters, coasting steamers, crisscrossing ferries and yachts of every type. On race days Dragons, Stars and even a class of 14-foot Royal Naval Sailing Association dinghies thread their way through the maze, for triangular events are sailed wholly within the harbor, and even longer courses for the cruising division start and finish off the clubhouse.
What with a strong tide and the usual fluky wind coming off high land, there is never a dull moment for the fleet, as I found out myself on several sails aboard Morasum and other craft of the hospitable yacht club members. "It's a bit like the Isle of Wight except we have the Pearl River instead of Southampton Water," explained Bill Hancock, rear commodore of the club. "The tide floods in and ebbs out, strong enough for overfalls at Kap Shui Mun." Mun, by the way, means entrance or channel.
Opposite the clubhouse is Causeway Bay, just as intriguing as the outer harbor. One part is reserved for the fleet of member yachts, moored in neat rows; elsewhere the bay is packed with native craft. In Hong Kong an estimated 120,000 people live afloat, quite literally, and Causeway Bay is one of the sampan villages. On vessels less than 30 feet over-all dwell entire families, from grandparents to babies slung papoose fashion on mother's back. Chicken coops are hung over the stern, dogs loll forward and life goes on amidships—baths in buckets, cooking, dressmaking, washing, sleeping. Storage aboard is amazingly concentrated. A section of deck will be lifted, and a sewing machine taken out, or a charcoal brazier and full dining equipment, or mats and bedding, or carpenter's tools and bits of lumber. Floating stores wind through narrow water streets, selling everything from yard goods to fish-hooks, from bread to candy. There are kitchen sampans, which will come alongside and cook anything from a bowl of rice to a meal; and ice sampans, selling cold bottled drinks; and singsong sampans, complete with hanging lanterns, deep cushions and silk-clad musicians.
Close to the moored yachts are the sampans of the boat-boys, that unique Hong Kong marine luxury. Practically every boat down to the Dragon class enjoys a boat-boy, willing to work cheerfully around the clock for about $30 a month (or about $170 in Hong Kong dollars). Most boat-boys are competent sailors, and go along as crew, cooking as well as working on deck; they paint, they varnish, they mend sails; many are even skilled mechanics, riggers or carpenters.