Friday, February 25, 2011

1898 – Avast the Mast

It cheers me no end to see one of our female ancestors, skirts billowing in the wind,  perched at the nether reaches of the mizzenmast. [NOTE: Since I posted this, a few emails have suggested to me that she was probably on the main mast, possibly on a Chinese junk. In another email, My retired Coast Guard Commander husband says it probably is a junk and the mast is a main mast lanteen sail which means it could be swung fore or aft like a modern day jib. He estimated she is up about 25 feet and possibly to unfurl the sail. 2nd NOTE: Apparently a link beneath was broken. It now works.]

Reading between the lines in various letters and reports, we do have the impression that our Armagh-Hong Kong Jacksons and their cousins were a wild and crazy lot, but these impressions rarely came fleshed out with descriptions or evidence as clear as this. After all, this is not the kind of event that gets mentioned in letters home to dear old Mum, or that ever shows up with any clarity in the dusty staff evaluations in the archives of HSBC.  

Before I saw this photo, the closest I had come to seeing this kind of daring from the women in our family had been in the letters of my great-great grandmother, when she was expressing her fury over her daughter Mary’s affair with a peacock of a man, a man who would later become Mary’s second husband.

My own personal claim to utterly, reckless idiocy – which I can now share with you since my parents are now long dead - was when I was about the same age of this young woman. Not that my kind of risk-taking required any physical prowess. That was never my forte. No, in my case I knocked back a substantial amount of vodka, climbed on the back of Kent Steele’s motorcycle, and after he popped the clutch, the two of us screamed eastwards down King Edward in Vancouver, at speeds that exceeded 100 mph, right through the four way stop at McDonald. Even at the time when we were doing this, I knew that it was way beyond stupid, but I have to say, it was exhilarating.

On the other hand, shinnying up the mast of a ship in full Victorian attire strikes me as a much more laudable expression of daring and exhilaration. This irrepressible zest for life was shared by many of the Irish in Hong Kong in the late 1800s. It probably took something of this kind of risk-taking personality to be able to leave Ireland behind for the unknowns of a life in Hong Kong at that time. 

I have always liked the image of wing-walking, that World War I craze, where people stepped out onto the wing of a bi-plane in flight, and walked out to the furthest possible reach of the wing. In order to grasp the overhead strut for the next step, it was always necessary to let go of the hand furthest back. It was also important to have secured solid footing. It is precisely that kind of alternate letting go, and then reaching out and holding tight, that every immigrant has to be prepared to do.

As a complement to what can be learned from archival letters about the spirit of the times, I have posted two groups of pictures of family members in Hong Kong in the late 1890s. The first, is a collection of Outings I know of little that better illustrates how both business and personal connections overlapped in the small Hong Kong-European community at that time.

The second collection of photos are of a Chess Tournament which was organized in order to raise funds for the Union Church. Two of the children of Thomas Jackson were included as players. The game was held on the grounds of Hon. J.J. Keswick, one of the Keswick family who made their fortune with Jardines and the opium trade. J.J. was also on the board of HSBC, hence his connection with Thomas Jackson – like so many -  was a mix of the social, professional, and philanthropic.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Kinga’s 64th

It seems to me that there are five elements to a successful party: the mix of people, the flow of events, the food, the drink, and the setting. As my dear friend Kinga said of her recent 64th birthday party, How can you improve on perfection?

As Kinga's 64th birthday was approaching, her daughter, Katherine, hit on the idea that it would be wonderful to have her four mothers all together. As one of the four mothers, I can assure you that we are not some hippy-dippy mothering collective – although that would work with the four of us. We are simply the four mothers that Katherine has known since birth, and who have in time become not only significant friends of her mother, but of herself as well. One of us met Kinga at a prenatal class over thirty years ago, and the other two have known her since our late teens – in the mid 1960s. My own great-great-grandmother would have called the four of us: The Connexion.

We decided that often when birthday cake and champagne are served at the end of a party, as is usual, then their full glory is not fully attended to. That's such a loss. With this in mind, we started with champagne and cake. The fireplace had been stacked high, with logs that had been bucked up and stored by son-in-law Peter, and friend Andreas, and possibly other off-stage folk. Once lit, it cast a glow on us, the flames crackled and danced, and we in our ongoing chat did likewise. 

The Four Mothers

Then we moved on to the entertainment. Katherine and Peter had made a 25 minute exercise DVD for Kinga, perfectly attuned to the needs of her bod at this stage of life. With daughterly glances clearly directed at the camera, Katherine repeatedly instructed Kinga: Now, Mum, remember to breathe.  She managed to deliver this line totally deadpan, all the while hoisting a bottle of gin which was a stand-in substitute for a weight. I believe it was a half-full bottle of Tanqueray – the gin that was initially distilled in 1830 by Charles Tanqueray in the Bloomsbury district of London. Obviously, the weight of such a bottle varies - maybe two or three pounds, depending on how much has been left undrunk – but its virtue is that it introduces an added level of complexity, since it sloshes around. Very important to know.

After such a workout, or at least after watching such a workout, it was definitely time to eat - again. As you know, we did start with chocolate cake, but I will leave that for the last since we also had it again.
Appies: home-made whole wheat, pumpkin-seed bread – made with home-ground flour, a Little Qualicum Camembert, and veggies with Green Goddess Sour Cream dip.  
Mains: These were all inspired by recipes developed by the award-winning couple who run Vij’s Restaurant  in Vancouver. If you live on the Sunshine Coast, you can buy their cookbooks at Talewinds, or if you are in Vancouver, then I recommend Barbara Jo’s. Our mains included Vij’s chicken – the recipe is on Barbara Jo’s blog - with fresh asparagus and corn using the same spice combo that is used in Vij’s Summer Vegetables recipe. Both recipes come from Vij's first cookbook:  Vij’s Elegant & Inspired Indian Cuisine. The rice pilaf with cashews, cranberries and saffron – which is stellar as a leftover for breakfast – comes from their more recent cookbook, Vij’s At Home: Relax, Honey. Then because, Kinga had ordered noodles to be part of the meal, egg noodles there were, tossed in finely chopped Italian parsley and a scant of butter. The chicken sauce turned out to be a perfect marriage with the noodles.
Dessert: Since a picture is worth a thousand words, this picture takes the cake – so to speak. The recipe for the cake itself is in an earlier blog of mine. The hearts surrounding the cake are actually medicine, to be taken one per month for optimal good health. They are made from Denman Island Chocolate, and as the site for their chocolate says,  Welcome to Chocolate Nirvana.

4. THE DRINK: Kinga’s mother has a wonderful Hungarian joke, thankfully translated into English. If you ask her what she would like to drink, she often replies, anything that starts with a “T”.... The first time I heard this, my mind went racing down various dead ends, trying to recall what drink might start with the letter “T” - except for tea, which was not the likely answer - but then with perfect timing, she gave me the clue, .... the wine, the beer, the gin .... On this august occasion, the five of us stuck to the wine and had two equally priced bottles of Chateuneuf de Pape which had been specially chosen so they could go head to head with each other. At the end of the evening, we declared that the La Bernadine, Chateuneuf de Pape, 2007 under the imprint of M. Chapoutier was the hands-down winner. According to Parker, Displaying an almost encyclopaedic array of flavours including coffee, cinnamon, liquorice and morello cherry, this Châteauneuf du Pape wine is rich with classic Provençal herbs, black fruits and hints of mint all vying for attention alongside the ripe, silky tannins.  Yeah, right, as if we got all that. There was also a forgettable white wine, which will go unnamed to protect the innocent. On the other hand, the Cordon Bleu Brute Select, de Vanoge proved to be the perfect match for the champagne course. It was distinctive, with additional notes discovered in each succeeding sip, much in the same way that you might notice an instrument playing in the refrain of an orchestral piece that you had missed the first time round. Or at least, that’s what this wine felt like to our assembled amateur palates.

5. THE SETTING: The home of The Kinga. It doesn’t get any better. We all slept over – well, except for Katherine, whose handsome and charming husband emerged from the basement where he had spent the evening building a Lego Castle, and the two of them drove home to Burnaby in the wee hours of the morning. But that’s another story. The Castle is way beyond cool.
What this photo lacks in photographic quality, it makes up for in showing the love.

Green Goddess Dressing

Green Goddess Salad Dressing can be pressed into service as a great dip for crudités – especially when thickened with 10 percent yoghurt, or sour cream. It is also a wonderful dressing for robust lettuces like romaine hearts, and is a great accent when drizzled on freshly boiled asparagus, potatoes or what have you. It is also beyond easy to do, and easy to prepare ahead of time if company is coming.

1 cup parsley leaves
1 cup packed watercress or spinach leaves, stemmed
2 tablespoons tarragon leaves, rinsed
3 tablespoons minced chives
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon good wine vinegar
1/2 cup grape seed oil
1/2 cup light mayonnaise
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

NOTE: An eagle-eyed reader pointed out that I had left off the anchovies. Too true. Kinga doesn't like them, and I didn't have any on hand anyway. For the purists, please add 3 minced anchovy fillets.

1. In a blender, combine the parsley, watercress or spinach, tarragon, chives, garlic, anchovies, lemon juice, vinegar and grape seed oil. Blend until smooth, about two minutes. Add the mayonnaise, and blend again until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

NOTE: Makes a little more than 1 1/2 cups, and it will keep for a couple of days in the refrigerator but tastes best when freshly made.

Rich Chocolate Mousse Cake

4 egg whites
1/2 c (100g) sugar
5 oz (140 g) roasted hazelnuts, finely ground
2 T unsweetened cocoa powder

1.     Preheat oven to 350 deg F (180 deg C)
2.     Line a 9” (23 cm)  bottom of cake tin with greaseproof paper & grease sides of tin.
3.     Whisk the egg whites until stiff and hold peaks, but not dry.
4.     Mix together the chocolate & sugar & gradually add the sugar & whisk with each addition. The fold in the hazelnuts.
5.     Bake at 350 degree for 15 minutes, or until a wooden pick inserted in the centre comes out clean.
6.     Cool on a the cake in the tin.

9 oz (250 g) dark semi or bittersweet chocolate (60-70%)
4 egg yolks
1/3 c. (60 g) sugar
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 ½ T instant coffee
1 more cup whipping cream

  1. Chop the dark chocolate into pieces and melt over hot water
  2. Beat the egg yolks with sugar until white
  3. Heat ½ c whipping cream to the boiling point, add the instant coffee, and whisk in beaten egg yolks.
  4. Fold in melted chocolate. The mixture will immediately thicken. Cool to approximately 100 deg F (38 deg C)
  5. Whisk remaining  c. of whipping cream. Fold into the egg and chocolate mixture, one tablespoon at a time until the filling becomes soft, then add the rest of the cream.
  6. Pour the mixture on top of the cake in the cake tin, and place in the refrigerator for several hours.

  1. Melt a goodly amount of chocolate in a pan over water.
  2. Pour it on a sheet of wax paper and spread around until thin.
  3. Press another sheet of wax paper on top, so the thickness of the chocolate is both fairly thin and even.
  4. Roll up the wax paper with chocolate into a very small roll – 3/4 of an inch in diameter.  Let cool in refrigerator for 2 hours minimum, but can be stored for days. 
  5. Once cool, remove and unroll the chocolate/wax paper and lift off the top layer of wax paper, which should come easily. 
  6. Then use a spatula or other implement (hand) to lift the remaining chocolate off the bottom layer. 
  7. The chocolate will break into pieces – and here your own artistry can take over as you arrange the shards of chocolate attractively on the top of the cake.

NOTE: If the cake is served straight from the fridge, the topping will be more like a truffle and less like a mousse. Both are good. Leave it to get to room temperature if you prefer the mousse texture. Also, if you like a sweeter filling, you can – gasp – use semisweet chocolate (40-45%) instead of the 60-70% chocolate.

SECOND NOTE: Goes well with Champagne. Second helpings are amazing. Of both.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Organic Gardening Advice from 1802.

All you ever need to know, Struan said when we got talking about permaculture and organic gardening, is between the covers of two books. One published in 1802 and one in 1885. They didn’t have chemical fertilizers or pesticides back then. Also – for most people - if they couldn’t grow their own food, they went hungry.

My brother Struan and his wife Sara are experts about this. They grow thousands of pounds of organic produce every year on their farm in Gibsons. Three decades of trial and error will get you there, at least if you have a strong enough back, enough energy, and also the ongoing curiosity and wisdom to learn. Their children and grandchildren enjoy their home-grown food, as do a bunch of the rest of us. Much of the rest of the harvest is sold at their stall at Chaster Creek Farm. The two of them also pickle, can, dehydrate, freeze, and do whatever else it takes to preserve for year round use. Not only that, but they also raise sheep, chickens, turkeys, ducks, you name it – all in the time available after Struan works full time at his paid job, and Sara takes care of this and that at their Chaster Creek Farm and Stables

These days, growing our own food is regarded as a hobby that some take up and most don’t. This luxury may not last. As things start to shift in the global economy with respect to available land, as well as the costs of food production, many of us will shift our behaviour too. The Victory Gardens that sprang up in World War II happened almost overnight. Nothing focuses the mind as much as execution – or in this case, a food shortage.

Struan was kind enough to lend me both of the books he had referred to. The first, published in 1802, Rural Recreations or the Gardener’s Instructor was a present that he had been given by his long-time friend, Mattie.  Although you can find this book on line at Google Books, nothing beats holding it, smelling it, flipping through the pages, or gazing at the watermarked endpapers. I particularly love the phrasing, the style of the language, and how it takes me back in time:

In determining the choice of a place proper for a garden, the most essential points to be considered, are situation, water, soil, exposure, and prospect. The most desirable situation, is a gentle declivity, equally sheltered from the violence of the wind, and the extreme heat of the summer sun: the value of such a situation will be much enhanced, if it abound with springs, which are necessary in forming fountains, canals, cascades, &c.

A proper soil is the next consideration of importance. It ought to be free from stones, and not difficult to labour; neither should it be too dry, light, and sandy, but somewhat moist: strong and clayey land is, however, least of all adapted for this purpose.

The prospect of a fine country; though not so essential as water, yet as it tends to produce a happy effect, ought not to be overlooked, when it is attainable. 

When Struan and his wife Sara first moved to the Sunshine Coast three decades ago, they lived and grew their crops on North Road. The soil there was so rock hard, that even the most robust rototiller couldn’t make a dent. I’ll never forget the sight of seeing Struan approach the problem with the only practical solution - a jackhammer. There are advantages to living in the 20th & 21st centuries. Within a few years, his unorthodox approach paid off, and they were soon surrounded by abundance, some crops growing taller than my head. 

The property that they moved to three years ago has a better climate, but had not been used for veggie growing, so they had to start from scratch again. They tilled the soil, built a 25 foot by 95 foot greenhouse, and started what they call the upper & lower gardens – two beds of about 120 feet long and 60 feet wide, one 60 feet by 60, and a fourth one 50 feet by 50. This amount of land under cultivation is impressive in itself, but it is his carrots that totally knock my socks off.

Last fall, he gave me a bin filled with carrots, covered in peat moss. If you leave them to overwinter in the soil, he explained, they get woody and you lose too many to frost. The ones in the picture above are what was left in my bin by mid-February. Four and a half pounds of them, and not a mark of carrot maggot amongst any of them. I had to know how he had pulled off this feat.

First, you got to till down extra deep. If you don’t, then the top of the root clears the soil and is an open invitation to carrot fly. Also, you have to weed when it is raining, or else turn on a sprinkler hose right afterward. Then if you harvest a carrot or pull a weed, you have to tamp down the soil so the flies can’t get in. After hearing this, I now know why my carrots have never been a patch on his. Last year, some of his were more than a foot long, and as sweet as candy when roasted with chicken.

He isn’t content though to rest on his laurels. Recently, he was at a three day conference on agriculture held out in the Fraser Valley. Some people he met there told him about the cheapest place for buying more irrigation hose and fittings. Rubbing shoulders with other farmers adds to what can be learned from books. But the ideas from books also still hold him in thrall. He was telling me that he wants to try using the old methods of heating greenhouses, digging a deep pit, and filling it with animal manure. The heat generated while it rots is enough to grow pineapples in Ireland. 

We may come from a long line of Irish farmers – but Struan is the only one of us who keeps this gift alive. He also makes and smokes his own fish and sausages, not unlike how our Irish ancestors did The old family farmhouse at Killynure, Co. Armagh was constructed with a smoke chamber leading off the chimney on the third floor, so that hams could be cold-smoked by the residue of smoldering turf. I like the continuity here – especially since Struan wouldn’t let me go home the other night without a link of his home-smoked Ukranian sausage, and a package of his pepperoni. He also showed up the next day with a loaf of his Holy Crap bread, made with a cereal produced right here on the Sunshine Coast. Two slices of that bread, and you are good to go till lunchtime. 

Home grown, home cooked, home everythinged - it all starts to seem like that title from a movie: Back to the Future. Heck, as long as it tastes this good, I am all over it. Time for me to stop writing this though and go and grind a cup or two of flour for tonight's pasta. Yes. Life is good.

PS. There are a range of models of organic farming emerging. In Vancouver, the back yard of my friend Kinga is farmed by a couple of women from the Urban Farm Network. Here on the Coast, Dawn Myers at Bounty Farms grows her produce on other people’s land using nine different sites, and the SPIN farming model. She sells her harvests at local Farmer’s Markets. I often walk up the hill to shop at the Roberts Creek Farmer's Market, when I don’t drive to Gibsons to buy from Struan and Sara’s farm. This spring, Struan & Sara are adding a new feature to their marketing - they will post on their web site a list of what has been harvested, so you can know ahead of time what you are likely to find there – at least, if they haven’t sold out.
 2nd PS. The 1895 book: The Vegetable Garden by M.M. Vilmorin-Andrieux  is also available on line. It can be downloaded on a Kindle, which is handy in case your dog eats your copy. Actually, it was a copy of that very same book that one of Struan’s puppies totally devoured a few years ago, leaving not much more than tell-tale confetti on the carpet. I guess the dog had good taste.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Choosing Rooster Scratches instead of County Louth

When I am in the midst of a research trip, not all my choices work out the way that I have planned. For example, on my last day in Dublin this time round, I arrived at the Valuation Office with a list designed to fill my last three hours before I hopped on a bus, only to find out that the office was closed for renovations. The contractor had decided that it was necessary to close the office to public access only the night before. There was no earthly way I could have known about this in advance. Fair enough.

It is even more galling though, when I choose between two paths, and choose the wrong one. On the Monday of my last week in Belfast last December, the weather was dodgy - snow warnings and such – and I had to choose between spending the day with a microfilm of Drogheda’s St. Peter’s church register – a register which goes well back into the early 1700s - or else busing down to County Louth and enjoying a custom tour under the guidance of Eugene Lynch of Cavananore. I regret to this day that I chose the microfilm.

Why did I choose it? Well, it was easy to get to, and it held great promise for teasing out the roots of some Jacksons who have so far evaporated when it comes to pre-1700s sightings. As I threaded the film into the machine, I could almost taste success. I believed that I would find traces of the Jackson family links in Drogheda, which in turn would mean that I could finally solve the mystery of why our Jacksons had erected their family crest at Drogheda City Hall.

My heart sank when I scrolled past the first few title frames. The register had been filmed with a black background, and white writing – my least favourite kind of microfilm. Page after page reminded me of what I used to do in school when I was bored. I would crayon black all over a sheet of paper and then use the end of a paper clip to etch sketches and words onto it. In this case, there was no trace of artistry or clarity, no sense of a mind with any discernible intent holding the end of a paper clip. Rather, it looked as if two bantam roosters had been tossed onto such a sheet. No amount of staring could transform the results of the scribbling talons into anything resembling names and/or places.

Fortunately, I had not totally missed out on Co. Louth, having made two brief forays there earlier in the trip. The first, I will talk about in a subsequent post, but in the latter, Christine had driven me down, and we had ended up at Eugene’s. He lives in a bungalow just past the old Cavananore house and farm. It had been both inhabited and farmed by his recently deceased brother. The sun was setting as we arrived at the base of the hill of Cavananore, and was slicing through a slit in the clouds. The entire hill was shimmering in gold - a moment that is now filed forever in the snapshots of my mind. Photos don’t do it justice. One of the stabs that people take at decoding the origin and meaning of the name of Cavananore is that it might have meant Round Hill of Gold. Now, I can see why.

After taking a number of photos of what is left of the old house and farm at Cavananore, Christine and I warmed up over tea at Eugene’s, and talked about the view from the house. The old Cavananore house has a perfect 360 degree view of much of County Louth and County Armagh. On a clear day, it is possible to see all the way to Dundalk Bay. Until the train stopped its run to Greenore in 1953, it was possible to see the puff of its steam on the horizon. The walled gardens had been planted with all sorts of fruit trees, many of them espaliered against the brick wall to benefit from the residual warmth from the sun. They bore fruit for successive generations, and fresh greens were also cultivated in heaped beds. Now, only the dying limbs and broken bits of this old  abundance survive.

Entrance to the walled garden at Cavananore

Since photos are sometimes all that we have when it comes to memories of such places, I have created a new page of them which combines both some of the old ones that I transposed from negatives found at Gilford Castle, as well as some new ones.

Next time, believe me, I won’t choose to spend the day with a microfilm. Somehow, I plan to find my way back to County Louth. Perhaps Eugene and I will go for a bite at Darver Castle, where a lunch can be had for 25 Euros for a four course meal. And perhaps, I will also visit Roachdale, which is being renovated and reclaimed, as is Silverbridge. Maybe too, I will have the privilege of being able to pick the brains of a local historian who I have yet to meet who lives at Shortstone, as well as Anne Finn who recently published a local history focused on her family. The beauty of these kinds of trips is that they take place not only in space, but in time -  better than frame after frame of rooster scratches any day.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In Defence of Not Knowing

In the 1960s, Dr. Janet Davison Rowley became curious about the role of chromosomes. This curiosity arose out of her previous clinical work with children with Downs syndrome. At the time, she had small children herself, and could only work part time pursuing this particular curiosity. Since all she really needed was time on a high-end microscope and enough money to pay a babysitter, she teamed up with a researcher, who already had a decently sized grant. With a level of backing that did little more than pay for the babysitter, she then made a major breakthrough, one that affected most of all the future research of the link between leukemia and chromosome translocations. Her discovery showed that chromosomes 8 and 21 had broken and switched ends, which meant all sorts of things went to hell in a hand basket, and people got sick and died.
Dr. Rowley - worth listening to.
I mention this because Rowley was recently quoted in a NYT interview, talking about this experience: I was doing observationally driven research. That’s the kiss of death if you’re looking for funding today. We’re so fixated now on hypothesis-driven research that if you do what I did, it would be called a “fishing expedition,” a bad thing. Well, if you don’t know anything, you can’t have a sensible hypothesis. I keep saying that fishing is good. You’re fishing because you want to know what’s there.

I say, You go girl!  As a result of her observations, Rowley is now regarded as the matriarch of modern cancer genetics. I also mention this because it feels as if it validates some of my own approach to research. Lots of the time, I don’t know what I am looking for; all I can say is that I am paying attention. I am on a fishing expedition. Not that I am about to make any major scientific breakthroughs, let alone find a cure for cancer. Not at all, but that’s okay.

Recently, I was at a home in the southwest of England of a 4th cousin or some such, maybe we are 3rd cousins, I forget. He had a great swat of family archives, so I did what I usually do. I photographed, I listened, and I also transcribed what needed doing right then and there on the spot. I hadn’t a clue where the heck it might all lead. Then I came home, organized the data a bit, and then like any sensible person, I put it all aside to go totally nutbar for the Christmas season.

In the past couple of weeks, one thing has led to another. First, I digitally juiced up the pictures, nothing fancy – just cropping and adding contrast or more light, and then put them in folders with other photographs of like interest. Then I set about finding out what I knew about them. Not much, so I dug deeper. Where were the places in the photos? Who were the people? Why were they there?

As a result, I have just posted several photos of houses built on The Peak in Hong Kong in the late 1800s, as well as five page essay which gives a thumbnail sketch of some of the people who lived there. Lo and behold, great swats of them were not British colonialists – as one might have expected - but Irish. Good thing I was just looking. Good thing I had no theory.

The photos and the essay are now on my web site.

Enjoy, and as always, let me know if you have more to add. There is always more to learn. After all, I’m just fishing.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

TJ and the Story of his Statue

Sir Thomas Jackson never took himself too seriously, not when he was first knighted, nor even later when he became a Baronet. Both of these honours occurred decades after he had arrived in Hong Kong in 1864, at age 23. He had started life as the son of an Irish tenant-farmer, and the family having no money for further education, he was apprenticed as a clerk with the Belfast branch of the Bank of Ireland for a couple of years before he gambled on a career in the Far East.

In 1865, after a brief stint with the Agra Bank, he had started working at HSBC in Hong Kong. This bank had opened for business a year earlier, and by the time Thomas started, there were less than a dozen staff on board. He rose through the ranks, as did the bank  – both of them to international prominence. I can imagine Sir Thomas - or TJ as he was known - in 1906 at the unveiling of his statue, being both bemused and pleased.

Maryon Pearson, the wife of Lester B. Pearson, a Canadian Prime minister (1963-1968) who won the Nobel Peace Prize, once said, Behind every successful man, there stands a surprised woman. Sir Thomas’ mother, had she lived to see this statue, would not have been at all surprised. In her eyes, this was all part and parcel of God’s will, with a little nudge from her ever-humble – or at least, trying to be ever-humble – self. This seemingly ever-patient, Irish-Scots-Presbyterian God was regularly bombarded by Eliza’s prayers on behalf of her son, and also on behalf of the bank that they both called The Old Cow.

In spite of Eliza’s Scots-Irish attempts at humility, it still would have pleased this redoubtable old soul that her son’s statue was created by the famous sculptor, Mario Raggi. After all, this was the same sculptor who had also created a statue of Queen Victoria, as well as one of Gladstone – both of whom ranked high in Eliza’s esteem. True, he had also created a statue of Disraeli, which might have been counted against him, but perhaps that couldn’t be helped. This is an aside, but it was clear that Eliza disliked Disraeli so much that she never actually referred to him by name. She called him Beaconsfield, a name that came from his title Duke of Beaconsfield. But enough of that. Although Raggi died a mere year after this statue was erected, he was still in top form. The quality of the statue speaks for itself.

In honour of
and in grateful recognition of
his eminent services to
the Hongkong and Shanghai
Banking Corporation
whose destiny he guided as
Chief Manager from
1870 to 1902

So, there was our farmer’s son in 1906, Sir Thomas, standing high on his plinth, in Statue Square, in the company of Queen Victoria & the Duke of Connaught, as well as King Edward VII and the Prince of Wales. Not too shabby.

Significantly, none of these other statues ever elicited much interaction from passers-by, other than the odd glance, but Sir Thomas’ always did. The toe of one of his boots was rubbed often enough for good luck that it continued to shine, as the rest of the bronze darkened over time. When he had lived, he had been known as Lucky Jackson, so perhaps the hope was that some of this would rub off. Years later, when he was told that elderly Chinese women had a ritual of surrounding his statue with joss sticks in times of trouble, he laughed so hard, he could barely splutter out, “And me a staunch Ulster Protestant!” . Years after his death, this ritual continued.

The toe rubbing has since been stopped, made impossible by an installation that precludes easy access. Even so, I suspect that if TJ could climb down off his plinth, he would have a wee chat with the Filipino nannies who gather at Statue Square on their day off, and I also suspect that he would wave away the business-types who might believe that they would have something more important to say. TJ was known as that kind of guy.

It is actually a fluke of history that the statue even stands there at all these days. During the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, all the statues were removed and trashed. The statue of Sir Thomas was amongst those that were thought to be lost forever. Then in 1945, an American sailor found it, reasonably intact, in the Kawasaki Dockyard. This discovery came to the attention of General McArthur who ordered it shipped back and reinstalled where it stands today.

There was, however, a slight change made when the statue was reinstalled. Now, instead of facing The Old Cow - aka HSBC, these days Sir Thomas keeps his eye on the Legislative Council. In light of the contributions of some of his later life’s work, this may be appropriate.

It is a curious fact that even though the other statues from Statue Square were also found in the aftermath and rubble of WWII, none of them had enough cachet to be reinstalled there - not even Queen Victoria. Her statue may have been commissioned as a Jubilee Memorial, ensconced in a cupola, and copied and installed in numerous other sites around the world, but when it came to her ongoing prominence in the heart of Hong Kong, she got punted off to Victoria Park, in Causeway Bay. Another curious fact is that there was also a further attack on her glory. In the 1990s, a performance artist trying to make a point – goodness knows what it was – climbed up onto her statue with a hammer in hand, and two buckets of red paint. He then poured the paint over Queen V’s head, and used the hammer to give her a rather nasty nose job. An engineering company has since realigned her nose, removed the paint, and now old Queen Vickie has been reinstalled in such a manner so as to preclude future assaults.

Not only have all the other statues moved on to not-so-greener pastures, but so too have most of the grand old buildings that once surrounded the square – the old Prince’s building, the Queen’s building (replaced by the Mandarin Hotel), the King’s Building, St. George’s building, and the Alexandra building – none of them have survived the assaults of the bulldozers of progress and the introduction of contemporary architecture, even though they had all originally been built to stand the test of time. Their designs had reflected some of the best of Victorian architecture, and the loss of them is a loss to all of us. What has survived along with TJ’s statue is the fact that there is still this bank, The Old Cow, known more commonly as HSBC. This, more than anything else, would have pleased TJ to his core.

I have posted a number of archival photos of the statue and its ceremonial unveiling on my web site, as well as the March 3, 1906 account that was published in the Hong Kong Telegraph.