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)
The beauty of Victoria, as of all Hong Kong, lies also perhaps in its furious vitality, the sense of life being defiantly lived under the unpromising of conditions. The narrow streets are jammed with people. The houses seem to be tottering and bending under the weight of human life within them. The air is full of cries and voices and laughter, the sound of the clop of wooden pattens, the strange trailing lilt of the Cantonese language. It is full of spicy cooking, stuffy smells, rotten and excremental. It is full of chance glances, fleeting smiles and curious, shrewd and calculating stares.
At night the shabby, drab appearance of the streets is transformed. They become rivers of coloured light. From the top of the Peak you can see them laid out below you in geometrical patterns of rivers of light. The city glows at your feet as a long irregular band of fire for as far as the eye can see on either hand. Across the strait which separates it from Kowloon the ships lie glowing and the ferries shuttle to and fro like golden bugs. On the other side another glittering lake of light fills the space between the dark water and the almost invisible shadowy mountains. It marks Kowloon and outlines in fire every nook and cranny of the coast far into the distance, where remote villages add their quota of twinkling fixed stars. (pp. 23)
Nathan Road is a great chasm of light and noise, a river of human life. Huge red London-type buses charge up and down it. Yellow and red taxis race in and out hooting indignantly. Traffic-lights wink in succession along the shifting perspectives: red, amber, green. Little Chinese policemen, smart, efficient and splendidly trained, stand calm and controlled, semaphoring with their white-gloved hands under metal canopies at intersections. These canopies, incidentally, must certainly not be left out of any account of the Hong Kong scene, because they are such an ornament to it. From a circular raised platform about three feet high, on which the policeman stands, four outwardly inclined iron supports hold over his head a conical roof with its edges gently scalloped between them. The roof may be painted yellow, white, red or blue. These, I believe, were dreamed up in a flash of inspiration by a nameless genius in the Public Works Department. Their design is so good that it is a pleasure to be held up by them and one wishes that the same genius could turn his attention in other directions: to street lighting. for instance, or bus shelters. (pp.35-36)
Above the resettlement blocks and the shacks the green hills climb up, covered with stunted Chinese pines, to the slopes of Tai Mo Shan, the Big Hat Mountain. From them you can see spread out below the whole great smoky, glittering wen, the blue harbour full of ships and the high dark ridge of Hong Kong Island beyond, with its peaks and its sister city and the lights that run zig-zag up to the great blocks perched on the very tops. It is always moving and troubling to look down on any great human ant-heap. There you stand like God with only the music of the wind in the pine trees and the clouds rolling up from the north-east. Below, tiny and far off, behold the human race, its toil, its misery, its riches, its vulgarity, its many acts of charity. If you listen carefully, inclining your ear, you hear a little distant murmur, a thin continuous cry. Perhaps this is what God hears, or Kwan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, when she ‘looks down and hears the cries of the world’. (pp.39-40)
The streets are full of colour and pageantry and the past survives alongside the present. At the kerb a huge American sedan with fish-tails sets down the business man in his mohair suit. His flat gold wristwatch cost $2000; his platinum-and-pearl cuff-links cost more. A nude female figure decorates his tin silk tie. The old coolie swatting at the kerbside smokes his long bamboo pipe between his knees. He does not move or look up when the great sedan stops near him. The rich business man is just another Chinese to him. Tomorrow he too may be squatting by the kerbside, as he probably was yesterday. And he, the old coolie, may be the owner of the big sedan. Who knows? It is all written in the stars and we the playthings of Fate. A smart little girl in a yellow cheong-sam tap-taps along the pavement in her pin-heels. She touches the back of her smooth pompadour with long, elegant, carmine-tipped fingers on which there is a diamond ring. In the opposite direction two coolies bear with loping strides a sedan chair in which sits a tiny, frail old lady. She is paper-thin and her weight means nothing to her bearers. They bear her up the hill to the hospital and bring her back again every day. They will not do so much longer. Two old women in black suits carry through the jostling crowd at a half-trot two huge blue-paper lanterns on poles, part of a funeral procession. At the entrance to a shop a woman and several children set fire to a paper house in the gutter. They add a paper motor-car and several bundles of symbolic paper money. They are providing for a soul’s journey through the shades. The tiny baby on its mother’s back sleeps soundly, its head nodding, and it does not heed the radios which shout in all directions, for noise and yet more noise keeps away the devils of thought and ill-fortune. (p. 51)
- “New Territories”
It is a distance of about twenty-five miles from Kowloon to the Chinese border, through a lovely, small, but already desecrated land centred about the mountain massif of Tai Mo Shan, over 3,000 feet high. The central portion is a grassy, windy upland; the lower slopes threaded with boulder-strewn streams and covered sparsely with Chinese pines. Enormous views of mountains, sea and sky unfold in all directions . . . To the east is a country of drowned valleys, steep hills and long fjords. The rice fields make shelves of emerald green upon the hillsides and villages of old grey houses with upturned eaves nestle among the shade trees. To the west is a flat alluvial countryside of rice and mangroves bordering the Pearl River estuary across which are seen the bare mountains of the mainland. In spite of the buildings and the factories and the terrible evidences of progress everywhere, it all still seems to be utterly Chinese, and the people in their wide straw hats driving their water buffaloes and winnowing their rice by the roadside seem to step straight out of a Chinese painting done many centuries ago . . . (p.121)
All the farms and villages, like those of pastoral England before the Industrial Revolution, are beautifully and appropriately sited upon the landscape with the same regard to wind and water (Fung-shui) and to yang and yin as is shown in the siting of graves. So all the houses and villages nestle among the hills with a stream near them and great overshadowing shade trees, and yang and yin flow through them. (p.122)
- “Eating Out”
Whenever I go into a Chinese restaurant I seem to have a remarkable effect on the company. Everybody stares of course, but that may be merely because a European is a strange sight in Chinese eating-places that do not cater for tourists. But I found it at first a little disconcerting that so many people should be so obviously diverted and moved to irreverent, unashamed laughter by my appearance. For, not to put too fine a point upon it, quite a number of them roared with mirth. Surely, I used to think, although I am no oil-painting, I do not look quite as ludicrous as all that. Then I discovered that there is a comic figure, named General Kung, in the Chinese traditional drama. He is a large, loud-mouthed, red-faced chap who roars and laughs a lot and hands out benefactions. His appearance on the stage is greeted with laughter and applause. I was held to resemble this figure and my appearance through the door of the restaurant was always an agreeable surprise, like the appearance of Kung on stage. I was an excellent omen for all present. When I discovered this curious fact I was no longer embarrassed by my reception in public, and indeed felt rather aggrieved if I did not receive the applause I considered to be my right. I hope indeed I brought the luck I was credited with bringing. (p.142)
- “The Sea and the Sun”
But the one that touched my heart most, for in him I recognized myself forty years ago, was the little one who couldn’t quite keep up, and could not quite manage or do what the others did. He was the youngest and smallest but he was a much pluckier and gamer little boy than I had been when I occupied his humble position. He was a round-faced, bullet-headed little chap who always sat in the middle of the driving-seat of the car, leaning forward with his hands on his knees, gazing intently at the road ahead and singing an endless little crooning song to himself. He was far away in the private world that little boys inhabit and when you spoke to him you had to recall him from a great way off. I remembered, too, those jolts backward from my distant kingdom into the real world. Directly he had answered your question his little spirit fled and was off again on its wings. (p.166)
Somewhere about the Central Market the Queen’s Road West undergoes a change. The huge skyscraper office blocks with department stores on the ground floor give place to the usual three-storeyed tenement rows characteristic of Hong Kong with shopfronts open upon the arcaded pavements. The road narrows under the vertical signboards in Chinese characters and the town takes on a wholly oriental flavour. There is a smell of dried fish, which hang in flattened festoons in every second shop, and of spices. Every third shop is a brilliantly illuminated cavern selling gold rings. The assistants sit waiting like spiders behind their banked-up glittering array. Every fourth is a coffin shop, with coffins in every stage of manufacture from the raw planks to the finished article. Shops full of knives, arranged like the radiating spokes of a wheel, in rows and in patterns; shops full of nothing but tea in all its many fragrancies and those strange Chinese drug shops full of bizarre medicines but never the one you want; shops full of rubber boots or rubber mackintoshes and ivory shops with men bending tirelessly over their intricate work. (p. 169-170)
- “A Trip to Macao”
There is a pleasant air of melancholy decay in Macao, as though time were standing still. It is a fine place to go in order to sink into a state of mental abstraction. You can drink Portuguese wine in the Posada de Macao and then sit and snooze in the courtyard, hearing only the drone of insects and the clop of pattens in the street outside. There are beautiful baroque Portuguese houses and terraces, lovely churches, one decorated inside in blue and white like Wedgwood, and a charming eighteenth-century theatre. Many of the houses are in a bad state of repair and many of the terraces have ugly gaps where rich Chinese have rebuilt and modernized their houses with disastrous results. (p.180)
But to Linda, who came from a desperately overcrowded tenement flat in Wanchai, I seemed to be extraordinarily over-housed. I seemed to have far too much room. She walked about round-eyed and looked admiringly in drawers and hanging cupboards, fingering the curtains, and sat down on the bed, gently patting the coverlet.
It struck me that she was not envious but admiring. Her cupidity, if she ever experienced that base emotion, did not seem to be aroused. For the fatalism of the Chinese seems to have taught them that life is a game of chance and nobody has anything for long. (p.209)
For a week or two Hong Kong looked as though an enormous toothcomb had been through it, but it had experienced all this before and at once set about putting itself to rights. Voluntary subscriptions produced a quarter of a million dollars in a few days and the Government made a grant for relief work. Emergency centres and hostels were set up to care for the homeless. Food and clothing were doled out. Compensation was paid to the owners of sampans and junks which had been destroyed. In a couple of months hardly a sign of the damage remained ⸺ except that there were fewer trees in the Botanical Gardens and in the University compound. Many of those which were damaged died and many more were uprooted altogether, including most of the sweet-scented bauhinias beneath my window. (p.217)
+ Biographical note on F. D. Ommanney: ommanney.blogspot.com