Girl in the Picture

Following on from my recent history story on Weihaiwei, Jeremy Bird got in touch to recount the story of his mother's time spent growing up on the isle of Liu-kung Tao

Recently I published a story entitled Hong Kong of the North, which recounted the interesting tale of the long forgotten British colony of Weihaiwei, located in northeast China. Subsequently, I received an email from my old friend Jeremy Bird - a graphic designer by trade, we met while both working on Vision KL magazine in Kuala Lumpur (an interesting story in itself). He’s now based in the UK, but wanted to share the story of his mother, who spent several years as a young girl growing up on the Royal Navy base at Liu-kung Tao, until they had to leave due to the threat of Japanese invasion.

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My mum’s father was a Chief Petty Officer in the British Royal Navy, working in the Supply Branch stationed at Liu-kung Tao refitting ships. My mother was 18 months old when she left the UK to join him in 1934, traveling with my grandmother on the ‘Slow Boat to China’, a 6 week journey that went via the Suez Canal, Aden, Singapore (where they visited Raffles), Hong Kong and Shanghai before reaching Weihaiwei.

They lived in one of the expat bungalows located on the side of a hill. Her brother (my uncle) was born during their stay in May 1936 in Tsingtao (Qingdao), where they had a German-built hospital, leaving my grandfather and mother behind on the island. The whole family left together on a ship in 1937 due to the threat of invasion, which the Japanese did on 1 October 1940. My mother always said the Chinese were terrified of the Japanese and that they might invade. My uncle had his first birthday on the ship, and my mother would have been four and a half years-old when she finally left China.

As mentioned, on Liu-kung Tao they lived in one of the British-built bungalows on the side of the hill. It had a verandah, a large garden and even a tennis court, which my grandfather had built for my grandmother upon her return from Tsingtao after giving birth to my uncle. On one occasion on the island’s main beach, my mother picked up a jellyfish which horrified my grandmother. Interestingly, the zoo existed back then as it did during my 2015 visit. My mother distinctly recalls having a Christmas get together with other expat families with young children who gathered around a Christmas tree.

Other memories she recalls are having a small puppy called Bonzo, a Chinese amah, the winters were very cold and they had to dress in thick clothes, and there was a golf course where my grandparents would play, which was still there during my 2015 visit. My mother also remembers a friend, the doctor’s daughter, a girl called Jean, who she spotted in one of the photos I took that was displayed in the golf course museum. She also recalls having a Chinese doll with large almond eyes and prams made of bamboo.

I visited in 2015 because I had never visited that part of China before (only Shenzhen, Guanghou, Zhanjiang, Shanghai and Beijing). I was living in London at the time, had a Chinese girlfriend, and wanted to retrace my mother’s life in China and be able to share the experience whilst she was still around to talk about them. During our trip, we visited Zhanjiang in the south, my girlfriend’s hometown, before flying north. She was also a good translator which helped a great deal. This was particularly of use when she helped to talk our way into entering the local golf club, which was closed that day. After explaining the purpose of my visit, we were allowed entry and to look around.

The only other family history that we have in China is of me living in Hong Kong from 2005 to 2009. An editor I worked with in Dubai always spoke fondly of his life in Hong Kong pre-1997, and this was the catalyst to me moving there to work for Asia Tatler. I was also based in Taiwan for a few months in 2008 launching a magazine title there.

I do remember an interesting story my mother has always told me. Her family once took a trip from Liu-kung Tao to Shanghai, and somehow my mother was with her amah and got lost. She’s not sure where her parents were at the time. The amah and my mother ended going up and down the city’s famous Bund in a rickshaw looking for my grandparents. The amah was distressed as she couldn’t make herself understood in her native tongue. Perhaps Shanghainese was widely spoken then and Mandarin not? My mother was just 3 years-old at the time, so it was 1936. As a result, the first time I visited Shanghai I went to the Bund to imagine my mother’s experience 70 years prior.

Click here to read ‘Hong Kong of the North’.