Marita Ensio and I were married on June 17, 1966, and our honeymoon was our trip to the Far East where I would assume my position as Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Hong Kong. We landed in Kowloon (mainland China) early in September 1966, and proceeded by ferry to the island of Hong Kong . The typhoon that had preceded us had significantly damaged some of the roads we traveled, making this an unsettling introduction to our residence at “mid-levels” (half-way up the mountain) on the HKU campus; nevertheless, we settled in quickly. This was my first teaching job and I had a lot of work to do to keep ahead of the students. Each night I was writing feverishly to prepare the next day’s lectures.
Hong Kong was still very much a British colony when we arrived. Although it was extremely crowded with vast housing estates being put up as fast as humanly possible to take care of the thousands living on boats or on the streets, there was a huge piece of green grass in the Central District devoted to a cricket field. The chief executive in Hong Kong was a governor appointed by the Queen and for all practical purposes he was a dictator – benevolent, perhaps, but still a dictator in terms of the range of his powers.
But times were changing. The Vietnam War was in full swing and American sailors were taking their rest and recreation in Hong Kong. On any given day we could look out our window and see a dozen ships from the U.S. Seventh Fleet. In communist China the Cultural Revolution had taken hold and plunged the country into a virtual reign of terror, with Red Guards rampaging everywhere, and before long the effects were felt in Hong Kong. In May, 1967 pro-communist leftists began demonstrations and rioting in Hong Kong. The leftists planted fake and real bombs throughout the city and murdered some members of the press who expressed their opposition to the violence. The Hong Kong Police responded by raiding suspected terrorist hideouts and arrested thousands. There was even an altercation at the border with communist soldiers killing five Hong Kong policemen in one exchange. The turmoil went on for 18 months and by the end of it more than 50 people had been killed.
This was a fascinating, if sometimes frightening time in which to live and work in Hong Kong. Truthfully, our families back in Canada were more concerned about our safety than we were. Within a few months of our arrival we were living a rich creative life. In addition to my university responsibilities, I was playing double bass in the Hong Kong Philharmonic and Marita was crossing the harbor by ferry to Kowloon at night to dub Shaw Brothers films into English. Before long I got more and more involved in Hong Kong’s musical life. While at university in Toronto I had written a lot of music criticism for the Varsity, so it was not a big leap to start writing occasional reviews for the South China Morning Post. Then I became a regular contributor to the China Mail. For the China Mail I became a regular Saturday columnist. It was also in Hong Kong that I got my first experience in broadcasting. I became a regular contributor on musical subjects to Radio Hong Kong.
Musically, Hong Kong was a somewhat provincial backwater. There were occasional visits by foreign artists and orchestras but the local standard was pretty low. The Hong Kong Philharmonic had been around for many years but was still what we would call a community orchestra. It was a mixture of European and Chinese players and none of the musicians were paid. In my youthful idealistic phase and as a fairly recent arrival in Hong Kong I thought there should be a professional orchestra, and I began to promote the idea in my newspaper columns. Fortunately, there were other musicians in Hong Kong who felt the same way and they were only too willing to get involved. Naturally, we ruffled some feathers in starting a new orchestra – the Victoria Chamber Symphony – but in retrospect I think our bumbling first steps helped to nudge Hong Kong’s musical life to a higher level. Today (2007) Hong Kong has a fully professional orchestra – recruited both from Hong Kong and from abroad – and a very distinguished conductor in Edo De Waart.
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