The expat Hong Kong history expert is a harmless and quiet member of our species: full of obscure facts about eccentric colonial governors, opium-peddling taipans and the exact locations of long-redeveloped and forgotten mansions, bordellos and military fixtures. One such is Rick Chad-Billingham. At least, I presume he is; Hong Kong History’s Last Hidden Byways is a bit scanty on his background other than saying he first worked here many years ago as a reporter for the Standard, before progressing to English teaching. He has a beard.
How can I put it kindly? Let’s say that the book is a must-read for anyone left alive alone after a plane crash high in the mountains, abandoned on a desert island or perhaps recovering in hospital from a serious operation that has rendered them totally immobile. As the blurb on the back cover explains, it is a collection of the last remaining anecdotes and curiosities about the Big Lychee’s British past that we have not yet heard. The good news is that, these being the last new stories of their kind, we will never again have to listen to any more (though the healthy existing stock of Olde Hong Kong yarns, especially the bread-poisoning thing, will no doubt be re-told for many generations to come). The bad news, for those thinking of buying the 220-page volume to get it over with, is that there are precisely 74 to plough through.
A brief example:
Lysander W Droad was the colony’s assistant inspector of drainage from some time in the late 1850s to 1872. He was an artisan rather than a gentleman, so, for example, he wasn’t allowed into the Hong Kong Club; however, unlike senior officials, he could mix with local women without damaging his career. Sometime around 1864 he happened to meet a charming young lady called Woo Ho-mei. Soon after, she took the English name Holly, and within a few years they wed.
Lysander asked a friend in the planning department to name some part of the city after his wife, and thus it was decreed that a thoroughfare above Central would be given the delighted woman’s full married name – Holly Woo Droad.
At this point in the story, as is often the case, the dreaded Hong Kong sign writer makes his appearance. This one looked at the name on the government requisition form and assumed it was a mistake, so took it upon himself to rearrange it into Hollywood Road, a popular tourist area to this day. And no-one ever heard of the Droads again.
Just another 73 to go. And that’s it – for ever.