Dick Ommanney is a real oddity: a writer who became a scientist and who through science was able to find a way back to his first love: literature.
Born in 1903, he was from the outset an introvert and a natural outsider. As a boy, he wrote poetry, and had dreams of becoming a great literary figure, but his father openly thwarted him in this (the example of Oscar Wilde was very much in his thoughts at the time) and eventually pressured the boy into taking an interest in biology. There was an obvious reason for this: Ommanney’s great-grandfather was Sir Richard Owen, the famous Victorian anatomist and opponent of Charles Darwin’s theories, and of course his family hoped that Dick would follow in Owen’s footsteps. As he recalls in his autobiography The River Bank, science was a real struggle for him, but he persisted in his studies and eventually became an (unlikely) expert on fish. This expertise eventually took him to many parts of the world, including Hong Kong.
He was always fond of “mooning about”, a typical introvert past-time. He describes his boyhood love of wandering around railway stations and spotting trains in the following terms:
The odd thing is that during the hours I spent mooning perfectly innocently about in railway termini no harm ever came to me. No one ever spoke to me or took the slightest notice of me. If anyone had I should have been terrified. The police never questioned me or moved me on. All they saw, perhaps, was the first of the loco-spotters, the shy pioneer of a vast army.
At the end of the Second World War, in August 1945, Ommanney found himself briefly in Hong Kong after its liberation from the Japanese, but it was not until 1957 that he returned there to work for three years as the director of a fisheries research team affiliated with Hong Kong University and as reader in marine biology. Ommanney’s response to Hong Kong is not the usual one: he neither tried to reinvent himself as an Old China Hand, nor did he develop a naturalist’s passion for the countryside of the Territory as you find in the work of contemporaries such as G. A. C. Herklots or G. S. P. Heywood (what an era it was for initials!). Instead, he began mooning about the place, and this mooning ⸺ coupled with his abilities as a writer ⸺ resulted in the unique compilation called Fragrant Harbour: A Private View of Hong Kong.
The subtitle is of vital importance. Ommanney’s book is both idiosyncratic and intensely personal, and there is an unusual freedom in his curiosity, a quality he is capable of focusing on anything of interest to him: the screening of a pornographic movie in 九龍 Kowloon, his attempts to communicate in pidgin English with his servant Ah Yok, his quest through the curio shops of Central to find a replacement teapot-lid, his oyster-breeding experiments in 船灣 Shuen Wan, hours spent hanging around Joe’s Bar in 灣仔 Wanchai, his devotion to Ah Yok’s two small children, his relationship with one of the Joe Bar girls, Linda, frequent visits to a Chinese bath-house, and his growing obsession (reminiscent of the Australian, Ainslie Meares) with the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Kwan Yin.
In other words, the book is a terrific jumble, but you are sure to find something in it to shake you out of any complacency on the score of what a book about Hong Kong should be like . . .
And if you ever happen to visit Shuen Wan in the New Territories, not too far from the butterfly reserve in 鳳園 Fung Yuen, and if you can read Chinese characters, please keep an eye out for the plaque mentioned in the following passage:
A very muddy path led from the village to the high road. It was overgrown with nettles and deep in cowpats. It was the ambition of the village elders to have this pathway paved and they told me through my assistant, since I could not speak their language, that they were making a collection for this purpose. The thin old man in black tunic and trousers, whom I took to be a headman, explained all this and hoped I would help. I gave a donation and in due course I am glad to say, the pathway to the village was paved with square flagstones. On the wall of one of the houses past which the path ran a little plaque in Chinese characters was engraved, recording the gratitude of the villagers to the donors of the path. It gave a list of them and included ‘an Englishman from the University’. So I have a permanent memorial in Shuen Wan, and I pray that it may still be there, and the path may still be in use, long after ‘the Englishman from the University’ is dead and forgotten. (p. 127)
- “Two Cities”
All these lovely things in Hong Kong windows fill one with an indefinable sense of loss, a sense that the civilization that produced them must have had something which we now lack and have forgotten. It must have shown in the daily lives of the people of those times. The same feeling of mourning for a departed spirit comes from contemplating the products of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe. They are as self-confident and self-assured as the products of similar periods in China. But with the Industrial Revolution degeneration sets in. It is as though self-confidence began to ooze out of the toes of people’s boots. Somewhere around the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century in Europe things began to become over elaborate, imitative and bogus. There seemed to be a striving to keep up, as though designers were conscious that what they were designing was not as good as it used to be. [ . . . ] In China much the same sort of degeneration seems to have set in about much the same period. In the big Communist department stores in Victoria or Kowloon you may see the results of the attempts which the People’s Government is making to bring back the lost spirit of Chinese art. About the middle of the nineteenth century Chinese ceramics and paintings likewise became artificially elaborate, self-consciously but not self-confidently, imitative and decadent. It was as though some disease, perhaps that of loss of faith, afflicted both East and West at the same time. Now the Chinese are trying to revive the lost spirit, but in vain. It has fled. The designs of the fabrics, the ceramics, the paintings which you now see in the Communist shops, seem feeble, striving after something which eludes them. What this something is you may still see in the smaller shops in the steep streets higher up the town. (pp. 22-23) Continue reading ““Hong Kong” is My Middle Name: Fragrant Harbour by F. D. Ommanney (1962)”