Monday, December 24, 2012

Our Christmas Traditions

Every year on the first Sunday of Advent, Andreas & I create a wreath, and then later that day we light the first candle, at supper-time. Over the next three Sundays, we light one more candle to join the first, and then the second, the third, and the fourth. On Christmas Day, the final candle in the middle is also lit. By then, the candle that kicked off the season has usually burnt down to not much more than a stub, but the light in the centre is now the one that burns bright. Not a bad metaphor.

Boughs scavenged from local trees that needed pruning.

 When our children were small, we had a couple of friends, Reg & Ellen, who offered their pottery kiln to us. The children and I would play with clay, and over time we made enough pieces to people a Christmas crèche. We used small, metal, funnel-tips, the kind that go onto the end of the bag used for icing cakes, to create the patterns on the Wise Mens' cloaks. On the first Sunday in Advent, the Wise Men and shepherds would be placed on the other side of the living room from where the crèche was. Over the next four weeks they inched closer. On Christmas morning, the baby Jesus would appear – not before. 

30 years old, and hokey as heck - but it is ours.
 These days, I am bit lazy about all that. The crèche and all gets unpacked and goes up at the same time - which is whenever we can make the time. We seem to need to pace ourselves a bit more than we used to. Maybe we should always have done that, but our bodies back then were the equivalent of jet planes and we could heedlessly cover great distances at ear-popping speeds. Now, we travel through life in the equivalent of Greyhound. All is good.

If you look closely, you might notice that there is a distinct absence of sheep in our crèche. I never could do sheep, except in the form of ginger-port-marinated lamb and such. That I can do. Also you might notice that one of our Wise Men has boobs. The way I see it is that since the Bible doesn’t mention how many Wise Men there were, we may as well riff on gender as well. Our wise woman is modeled after Margaret Laurence, my eldest daughter’s godmother. She died far too young, younger than I am now.

Over the years, some of our crèche people have lost their hands, or had to have their heads glued back on again. Even the angel. The greatest amount of damage happened the year I placed the box of clay figurines on a rocking chair when I was in the midst of packing things away. I added the camel, and that was the tipping point. Literally.

Andreas glued all the broken bits back together, so there they still are today, some of them handless, some with glue marks on their necks, but all still in the crèche that he built just as he built much of the two houses that sheltered us for the past four decades.

I haven’t even touched on our various Xmas food traditions, so I will leave that aspect for other posts, maybe even another year. Pacing myself. There is one more tradition though that does not involve food and is also worth mentioning before I close, mostly because we just did it again a few days ago.

For the past three decades, our celebration of Christmas has included an onslaught of recorder playing. Onslauight  is the operative word. Sometimes the assembled Schroederians and their offspring finish off a particular Mennonite Christmas carol on the same note. Sometimes not. Regardless of the outcome, it is always declared to be an instance of brilliant harmony, or an inspired atonal variant. We always win. In my books, that’s the kind of winning that is a good note to end on. 

So, Merry Christmas. Lashings of abundant good health, love, and joy for all in the year to come.

Chris, on piano, sheepdogged us through it all once again -  in spite of a sudden onset of what turned out to be strep throat. Ah, yes. Tis the Season for flu and such ....
A sign of our nomadic but digitally connected times - one family contingent was Skyped in from Prince George. Occasionally, the baby appeared thunderstruck. Understandable.

Monday, December 10, 2012


The first of three pages of a newsclipping saved in a scrapbook at HSBC London archives.

 Flibbertigibbet is a label that would best describe me when I am in the act of committing much of my research. I often flit from here to there all the while exhibiting a distinct lack of focus. Hopefully I will fare better than the Flibbertigibbet of mythical times who so exasperated his master that he was thrown down a hill. He then rolled into a valley, and was transformed into a stone. Anyway, back to me. As per usual, I set out to do one thing this morning and ended up doing quite another.

My initial plan had been to edit and then to post the second part of my talk to the Hong Kong branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, but I got distracted by a story that was a small part of the talk. Thomas Jackson’ had a routine of doffing a soft hat, and performing a wee dance with his cane as he entertained dignitaries at banquets with his version of The Wearing O’ the Green. I then recalled other musical entertainments in Hong Kong, most particularly the airs played at a banquet held in Jackson’s honour when he prepared to leave in 1902 for England. The banquet was chaired by Ho Tung as a representative of the local Chinese merchants.

An aside: One of my life’s regrets is that I do not touch-type. When I was a student in the early 1960s, the choice was between Physics and Typing. I chose Physics merely because there were three girls in Physics and the rest were all boys, while there were only two boys in Typing. I was fifteen years old, what can I say? The odds in Physics looked good to me.

I mention this only because in spite of being a somewhat flighty sort of researcher, I decided to transcribe nine pages worth of that 1902 news clipping before I finished my next blog piece. Thankfully, there is such a thing as voice recognition software, albeit with warts and all. I mention this because I may have missed some of the decidedly odd errors that such software can be counted on making. For example, Masterman Bank came out as: Masterman spanked.  I did catch that error, although since the bank was soon bankrupted, the voice recognition may have been channeling the sentiments of the creditors.

But enough of all that. The news clipping is now transcribed in its entirety, and is posted to my web site (link beneath). At some point I will take the time to properly annotate it. The dozens of names mentioned are daunting to individually research – even for a professional flibbertigibbet such as The Moi – so they will have to wait. Even without such annotations, the piece is still worth a read.

The early 1900s concerns about currency standards and the balance of trade between China and other nations are still with us today. Plus ça change. I guess Thomas Jackson didn’t fix that one for us. That being said, the sanitation issues mentioned in the speeches were addressed in his lifetime, and in some measure thanks to men like him. Today, Hong Kong is one of the cleanest cities in the world, if not the cleanest. Also, going by the great gushes of water which I recently saw being used to hose down sidewalks in Hong Kong, I would guess that the issue of water shortages constraining trade was also solved, in spite of the fact that the Chinese merchants were fretting that Thomas Jackson with his “good joss” was about to leave the Colony.

In this article, Jackson was referred to as the outspoken member of the Legislative Council. That is a nice little insight into how he conducted himself there, a nicety that is rarely revealed by simply reading the minutes of meetings. Clearly he was not a wilting violet. Also, it is interesting the extent to which acts of personal kindness keep being mentioned by members of a number of communities, in this and other such tributes. I had already documented evidence of this generosity of spirit towards his Irish neighbours and extended family, so it is not surprising to see evidence of it also in Hong Kong.

Another bit that intrigued me was Ho Tung’s take on the legislature’s impact on prosperity:

No one who is even superficially acquainted with the history of Hongkong can ignore the fact that you Thomas Jackson] took over this very responsible office at a time of greatest doubt and uncertainty attending the commercial affairs of the young Colony. Although blame was sought to be saddled on the executive on account of the legislative measures which it enacted for the depressing state of affairs, it cannot be denied that far more potent factors throughout the East were contributing to bring commercial disaster upon Hongkong. The vicissitudes of banking, like all other trades, became apparent in the reports and balance sheets issued by our local bank at this time. The carping criticisms which its detractors leveled at it were unmeasured and unrestrained.

There is also a reference to the Savings Bank in the article, a bank which was started under Thomas Jackson’s watch. It was designed to serve the needs of small depositors, ones who at that time did not have access to the kind of chequing privileges that we take for granted today. It nearly got derailed because Governor Bowen and got into a tiff with the Colonial Office. In the end, the ordinance to set up the bank was passed and seven months later it had already received $50,000 in deposits. Once again, this is another success to chalk up in part to Thomas Jackson and his gift for calming troubled waters.

One phrase in the article that I particularly liked is when Jackson describes the main part of his philanthropic contributions as: beggar-in-chief. Also, he says that if he could choose one word for his feelings upon leaving, it would be thankfulness. Finally, Jackson’s trust in my word is my bond – the handshake style of financial contracts that he had grown up with as a son of an Irish farmer – clearly stood him in good stead with the oral contracts that were the norm in Hongkong at this time. He went so far as to state: I maintain that a Chinaman's word is better than his bond.

As for why I cared about the Irish airs played at the banquet – I will save that aspect of the article for the next post. After all, that was the part of the next post that derailed me into this sideways step. The story of these airs belongs with the story of The Wearing O’ the Green.It may become a separate post.

Here is the link to the transcribed news clipping: 1902 May 19. The Overland China Mail.

Friday, December 7, 2012

500 words

A 24 year old TJ is watching over my shoulder as I natter on.

 I received several emails from people who were unable to attend my talk at the Royal Asiatic Society in Hong Kong in November, so I promised to publish parts of it in future blogs. This is the first installment.

In the late 1840s, a gypsy in Creggan Parish, Co. Armagh prophesied the future of two men: one of them the future Sir Thomas Jackson [aka TJ], the other a Mr. Mauleverer. One of them would die a dastardly death and one of them would be known all over the world. This is one of those instances where truth is stranger than fiction.  For the full story of the murder of Mauleverer and its consequences see the link to my website article: The Murder of Mauleverer.

The parents of TJ and of several other future Hongkong Shanghai Bank employees - employees who emigrated to Hong Kong from Ireland in the mid to late 1800s - were named at the trial for Mauleverer’s murder. None of them were suspects, but they were noted as jurymen, neighbours, farmers, or policemen. As a result of their interconnections, this murder had an echo effect on the future of Hong Kong that bears thinking about.

TJ himself was born in 1841, the same year that another Irishman, Pottinger, signed the deed that made Hong Kong a British colony. Pottinger was the first of eight Hong Kong Governors of Irish ancestry who served in TJ’s lifetime. Every one of these Irishmen was marked in some way by crop failures in their homeland. For many of them, it was the aftermath of the Great Famine that had propelled them to emigrate in the first place.

One interesting sidebar is that most small farmers in Creggan at the time of the Great Famine farmed between an acre and an acre and a half - barely enough to keep body and soul together. This was coincidentally the same kind of acreage that most farmers in Canton farmed. Just as in Ireland, these Cantonese farmers experienced calamitous crop failures combined with unjust and dysfunctional land ownership systems. And if that coincidence is not enough, one of the key crops that failed in Canton was also the potato. I am dying to learn more about this.

I read recently that blog posts should not exceed 500 words. Gadzooks. Now that I have proved to myself that I can actually complete a post that comes in under the 500 word wire – and it isn’t just a Martini recipe - I shall revert to my old evil ways. The next post will definitely exceed this miserly limit.

Also let’s be clear. The only reason that this post is so short is that most of the material has been punted offsite to three links, one to my website and two to previous blogs. This is cheating, I know, but I trust that it works. Less than 500 words. Done. (If you don't count captions & photos.)

Thanks to Bill Greaves who is doing the intro. He did the spade work to make this talk possible.

Friday, November 30, 2012

It takes a village.

It takes a village to raise a child. We all know the truth of this old saw. It is less well known that it also takes a village  - and sometimes even a city - to support the work of someone such as myself. I am just home from my first-ever trip to Hong Kong, and the flood of thanks that keeps surfing inside my jet-lagged head is both overwhelming and unending. Surf on!

Some of these people who deserve thanks are nameless, such as the young toxicology student who I met at the University of Hong Kong. On the day that I showed up there, I had still been unable to locate a campus map and had asked him, hard at work on his laptop, where the Library might be. Which library?  he asked. History and such, I replied. I will walk you there, he said. Are you sure? I asked, It is not out of your way?

We chatted as we walked, mostly about Canada’s record with respect to food inspections. I had a much more negative take than he did. He had not heard of our federal government’s latest cuts to our inspection capacity, and that Canada now has meat-packers doing their own inspections under diminished oversight. He was curious about Canada’s processes, both political and practical, but his questions also challenged me to remember and re-evaluate the little that I did know. We parted at the library, and as I looked back over my shoulder I saw him retracing his steps. I was going that way anyway he had said to me when we started out. Hmm. There was a kindness in how he had offered his gift of being a guide, a way that had made it lighter for me to accept. 

The path through Stanley Market to Annelise's apartment.

My thoughts of undertaking a trip to Hong Kong had started when a perfect stranger, Annelise, offered me a mattress in a corner of her 400 sq. ft. flat in Stanley. We had only known each other through a few posts concerning the history of some houses on The Peak. The next thing I knew was that I had bought a ticket, and was about to meet the best guide possible. Not only did Annelise have connections that opened doors to all sorts of adventures, but she also made sure that I had grasped the rudiments of getting about: how buses and taxis worked, where the public toilet facilities were.

Through her, I met the members of the Royal Asiatic Society. After my presentation to them, I received at least a dozen calling cards, and have been invited to follow up with these members on outstanding questions. Believe me, I will. First, I need to take the time to assemble what I have learned in the various archives during my two week stint. After all, I don’t want to ask any questions that I can actually answer on my own hoof. I also want to refine the questions that are still outstanding so that I can minimize the time it will take to run each to ground.

Over the next couple of weeks, I will post expanded versions of several parts of my presentation. I promised to do this so that those members of the RAS who could not be there will feel included. Together, we will all learn more. I will also post my outstanding questions. 

On other posts later in December, I will update my readers on what one of my heroes in life, Ursula Franklin, would call my ever-expanding domain of ignorance. This is the border between what I do know and what I don’t. If it is growing, then it is because I have been learning more, but this always means that I will continue to have more questions. There is at least that.