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'My father was facing jail so he went into hiding for two years'

Her mother was a beauty from a wealthy family who ended up feeling disappointed with life while her dad was a proud man who overcame tuberculosis to take a bold stand against his father-in-law... Anna Lo's fascinating insight into her upbringing in Hong Kong.

Unusually, both my parents were born in Hong Kong, in contrast to the majority of the population of the British colony, who came there to seek refuge from communist rule in China in 1949. My father, although small in stature, was sharp in intellect. He received a British education in Hong Kong's first government grammar school, Queen's College, and graduated with flying colours, including colony-wide awards. However, because his family was poor, he had to leave school to join the civil service. He continued to study accountancy at night.

He and two other young civil servants began to court my mother and her two older sisters, who were renowned for their beauty and refined family background. These three civil servants eventually married the Wai sisters. My mother was only 20, 10 years younger than my father, when they married.

Father rose rapidly within the Treasury and was in charge of a small team of officials during the Second World War, when the Hong Kong government retreated to Sichuan in mainland China. The job carried a lot of responsibility and he hoped that by taking it he would advance his career when he returned to the colony. Sichuan is a mountainous area and the cold and damp environment, coupled with a dense population, provided ideal conditions for the spread of tuberculosis. Being from the warm climate of Hong Kong and unused to the cold, my father contracted the deadly disease towards the end of the war in Sichuan. Although he survived, it made a dramatic difference to his life and, later, to the lives of his children.

On their return to Hong Kong in 1945, my parents found themselves faced with a housing shortage - hundreds of thousands of people were leaving mainland China for fear of a looming civil war. Along with their two very young sons and my father's mother, they moved in with my maternal grandparents, the Wai family. The stay was probably envisaged as a temporary measure until they found somewhere else. But demand for housing reached unprecedented levels when Mao Tse-Tung established the People's Republic of China in 1949 and millions more Chinese people fled to Hong Kong to escape communism.

When my father recovered from his bout of tuberculosis, the Treasury offered him a job that would place his former subordinates above him. Being a proud man, he turned down the offer. The civil service also refused to grant him a pension on the grounds that he had been offered a return to work, albeit in a position that he had not found satisfactory.

Being able to read and write English, Father petitioned the then-governor of Hong Kong, Sir Alexander Grantham (1947-57), who intervened and decided that the civil service was breaking the law in denying him his entitlement to a pension. For the governor to take action on behalf of a medically retired civil servant would have been unheard of.

Father then went into business, setting up a small factory making plastic signage. The factory was named Man-Wah, after me (Man-Wah is my Chinese name), but it was not a successful venture. He also got into partnership with others to export goods from Hong Kong to mainland China. This was a lucrative trade but a risky one, as China was under communist rule and had a strict closed-door policy. They were lucky for a while, but eventually the Chinese authorities detected and confiscated their ship and its cargo. My father and his partners got into serious debt. Facing the prospect of jail and out of desperation, he took my eldest brother, David, who was about 10 years of age, and went into hiding for nearly two years in Macau, a Portuguese colony near Hong Kong, until the coast was clear.

When I was born in 1950, the shipping business was at its peak and we were wealthy. My mother was chauffeur driven in our black Austin to Queen Mary Hospital for my birth, a fact that Mother and Ah-Mah mentioned to me more than a few times.

However, the calamity of losing the ship soon after my birth turned our financial circumstances upside down. We faced near-destitution and were probably only saved by handouts from the Wai family. Those older relatives who still believed in Chinese superstition called me the one with the 'bad foot', a bringer of bad feng shui (that is, misfortune) to the family. I had been born not only in the year of the tiger but also in the hour of the dragon. Ah-Mah remarked that this was not auspicious - that particular zodiac alignment was too rough a ride for a girl.

As a baby, I was oblivious to this but I think I did have a sense, somehow, that I was not Ah-Mah's favourite grandchild. One of my aunts told me when I was a bit older that my grandmother had hardly ever held me when I was little because of the superstition.

Eventually the debts were cleared and, returning from Macau, my father got a job in the accounts department of an international shipping company. Father was very interested in local news and international affairs. Every evening after work he would come home with an armful of newspapers and retreat to the bedroom to read the papers all evening after dinner. Although he was a traditional family man of the day - that is, not involved in domestic chores or rearing children, which was, of course, left to the wife - he was modern in his outlook and receptive to western culture. He loved Coca-Cola, which was in vogue in the 1940s, and Hollywood movies, particularly those featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. He excelled at ballroom dancing and, with my beautiful mother as his partner, was a ballroom-dancing champion, waltzing away in glitzy dance halls. He and Mother taught for a few years in a dance school in the front lounge of Grandfather Wai's house, thus continuing their interest in dancing and probably also boosting their income.

Father fell out with his in-laws after we moved to live with them in very crowded conditions in Wan Chai. Perhaps inevitably, given Father's westernised attitudes and lowly background, my grandfather, Wai Kun-Hin, had always looked down on him. He had been allowed to marry Mother because they had thought he had a future in the civil service. The loss of the shipping business and the interlude in Macau had not helped to smooth relations.

Famously in our family, Father made a stand against my grandparents one Chinese New Year. According to an old Chinese custom my grandfather wished to maintain, all of his children and their spouses were to line up to kneel and bow in front of grandfather and grandmother and to wish them good health and prosperity for the year to come. Father accused them of being old-fashioned and refused to kowtow to them at this gathering. That day and, indeed, from then on, my mother went on her own with us children.

It could not have been easy for her and we, as children, felt the tension between Father and the Wai grandparents, particularly when we were living in the same house. Whilst our cousins went in and out of my grandparents' living quarters, we never set foot inside, even though Mother never actually told us not to. We were proud children.

My mother, meanwhile, was a disappointed woman. A beauty from a wealthy family, she would have expected a better life than she got.

Her father had given his daughters a good education, which was not that common for that generation, although my mother and her sisters never completed their schooling. Money grew tight as Wai Kun-Hin's various business ventures failed and the gold market did not yield the gold nuggets he had hoped for - and his daughters were taken out of school. My mother could have attained a teaching qualification had she been able to complete her education.

In those days, though, a married woman with children - especially one from a good family - was not expected to earn a living. Indeed, it would have been considered a massive source of shame for her father or husband if she had to bring in money. If Mother could have worked, it would have saved us from poverty when Father fell ill and when his business went bust.

But she never had the chance to have a career. I think that that was part of the reason why she had no aspiration for me to become anything more than a housewife like her.

My mother was a bit of a dreamer. Unfortunately, her dreams of a good life never fully materialised. Nonetheless, she was a good parent - loving and totally devoted to her children. I wish she had lived long enough to see all her children succeeding in their chosen paths. I know she would have been proud of us.

  • The Place I Call Home by Anna Lo is out on Thursday, £9.99 from Amazon

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