Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hong Kong 1965-66

As a pilot in the Air Force, I have flown to many interesting and exotic places, from Beirut to Bangkok. Most of the time I was unable to exploit the opportunity because of flight schedules or the need for crew rest before continuing on a mission. Another factor was, that in a rapidly growing family there was little “extra” money for sight-seeing or shopping. Hong Kong was different.

During the 60s, there were Americans imprisoned behind the “Bamboo Curtain” Twice a year the American Red Cross was allowed to give these prisoners packages. However the protocol was very strict. The packages would be loaded on one specific aircraft at Tachikawa AB (near Tokyo). The aircraft would depart at a specific time and date, and arrive at Kai Tak airport in Koloon (near Hong Kong) at a specific time and date. Exactly two days after arrival, a single Red Cross representative (the same one each trip) would take the packages to the middle of a bridge and hand them over to the Chinese authorities. This was before China had control of Hong Kong.

In 1965, I was attached to the squadron that had the only designated aircraft for that mission. The aircraft was a C-54 (DC-4) and I was to be the aircraft commander. All the seats were removed from one side of the aircraft to make room for the packages. The seats on the other side were available for military and dependents who were winners of a lottery. These passengers normally had a long shopping list from their friend and neighbors, and would be able to bring back their loot in the empty side of the aircraft.
The flight down was uneventful, but the approach to the airport was a little tricky. There was only one short runway. One end extended over the water and the other end was perilous close to a mountain. We were directed to use the latter. It was called the stone-cutters approach, because you had to fly directly at a stone mountain and at the last minute make an abrupt turn and steep descent to line up with the runway. An orange and white checkerboard was painted on the stone to help in judging when to turn.

This later picture shows the checkerboard.

You can see how hard it was to line up and get down to the runway.

Since there was only one runway, crosswinds were frequently a problem, even after the runway was extended further into the water, as can be seen in the following more recent picture.

He just caught an engine and wingtip.

We made it OK. We were always met by a chinaman who called himself "Chan". He was a real hustler, but smart and a nice guy. He would have transportation ready for the crew and take us to a "free" hotel and then treat us to dinner, the first night. He did this because he got a kick- back from the vendors. However, he got us the best prices and if we had tried to shop on our own, some other chinaman would have walked into the stores behind us and claimed the kick-back.
I had a list of purchases for others that I gave to Chan. He wanted to
know what I wanted. I told him I wasn't going to buy anything for myself this trip, but
my wife had thought about an emerald ring. He shook his head and said Hong Kong was not the place to get emeralds and if they could be found they would be very expensive, even if only the size of two rice grains.
The next day while we were shopping we stopped by a clothing store, Lee Kee's.
Some of the crew bought things, but I kept insisting that I wasn't going to buy anything
for myself this trip. They wanted to make me a suit, for free. I said it wouldn't be fair to
accept it, but they said people would admire the suit so much that they would insist on
looking at the label and see that it was made by Lee Kee and then order it from them. I still declined.

One year later, I returned to Hong Kong. Chan rushed up the stairs of our plane
and told me he had my emerald ring. It was very pretty and very inexpensive. It cost $20 and was appraised a few years later at over $200. How he knew I was on that plane is a mystery to me, but a testament to the Chinese intelligence system.

The next day we went to Lee Kee's. They built me a beautiful Thai silk suit and tie, and two hand-made white dress shirts, all for $25. Next we went to a shoe store where a couple of crew members bought some shoes. I didn't need any, but they made molds of all of our feet, and we could order shoes from them for only $10 a pair. We would just need to cut out a picture of any shoe (no matter how fancy) and send it to them. I never did that because they showed us their “sweatshop”. There was one “apprentice” that was only nine years old.

The hotel room were excellent and the food was fantastic and cheap, but the best deal in the world the boat ride across Victoria Harbor in the Hong Kong-Kowloon Ferry.

It cost ten cents Hong Kong (1 cent U.S.) for the 20-30 minute ride. The harbor was very busy in those days and filled with junks and sanpans

The whole experiences of these two trips were wonderful, but this was before the Chinese took control. I often wonder what happened to Chan, and Lee Kee when that happened.

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