Saturday, December 16, 2006

Thirty Years Ago

By Uncle Cheng

An anniversary approaches and I take a glance in my rear view mirror. Thirty years ago I was called to the Bar in Hong Kong. So I hope you will forgive me if I indulge in a bit of nostalgia for times past on this occasion.

The exact day was 20th December 1976. On that Saturday morning Sir Geoffrey Briggs admitted me to be a barrister in the High Court. Apart from being the Chief Justice he was widely well-known for his great fascination in everything possibly associated with frogs. He was in a sense a frog freak. His home and his Chambers were covered with frog collectibles of every description and size.

In those days the Hong Kong bar was a very small world. There were just over 100 barristers and about 500 or 600 solicitors. Surprisingly the ratio between barristers and practising solicitors has always to this day remained in the region of one to six. What was certain was that back in 1976 the Chief Justice had far more frogs in his collection than there lawyers.

The High Court was at that time housed in what is now the Legislative Council building. In fact the building had originally been built as a High Court and it had that old world colonial gravitas — dark wood panelling, low lighting, ineffectual air conditioning, echoing voices, the sound of traffic passing by. It was a big contrast to the courts we barristers must work in today with their bright lights, pale wood decor, microphones, sometimes too chilly air and total noise insulation which cuts off the courtroom from the real world outside.

Over the subsequent years the High Court was shifted from place to place. At one time it even moved to temporary, and very inadequate, dingy colonial quarters in the old Western Magistracy building in Arbuthnot Road in Central. It was in that historical building, now hopefully to be preserved along with the old police station complex, that I vividly remember defending the King Fuk double murder case. The jury in that case was slow to decide its verdict and it was not until 2:30 a.m. that the foreman of the jury said the magic words “not guilty”.

The contrast with today could not be greater. The point is that in those days the jury was actually allowed to continue deliberating until 2:30 a.m. Nowadays, of course, it is considered to be a material irregularity if a jury deliberates beyond 8 p.m..

Another difference was that in those days there was no overnight accommodation for jurors. I also recall that when jurors sat through the evening, swarms of waiting lawyers would descend on the famous, and still much missed, Dragon Boat bar in the Hilton Hotel (now the site of the Cheong Kong Centre). Many members of the Hong Kong Bar spent many happy hours at that particular bar.

Some things of course never change. Hong Kong then and as now was a big construction site with new buildings and road works everywhere. A standard joke was to say “Hong Kong will be a nice place when it is finished”. Traffic congestion was already bad and getting across the harbour by ferry in those days before tunnels and the MTR was a major adventure.

But that does not mean the situation today constitutes much of an improvement. The congestion is worse than ever and the traffic seems to increase much faster than roads can be built. Super skyscrapers dot the horizon. Even thirty years on Hong Kong still is not finished.

The one major change is the pollution we now must endure. In 1976, especially at this autumnal time of year, the climate was idyllic and the British colonialists used to state that Hong Kong in November and December was like a good English summer. Sadly the clear blue skies have become a rarity.

Also, in 1976 life moved at a much slower pace and the Star Ferry took longer to traverse a wider and more beautiful harbour. Telex machines were all the rage, IBM golf-ball typewriters were replacing manual typewriters, and overseas phone calls were frighteningly expensive. Fax machines and computers were blinks on the horizon.

It was a standard joke among those living and working on the island, that we needed a passport to cross to Kowloon because any trip to Kowloon had to imply you were most probably on your way to Kai Tak airport.

1 comment:

Vittal said...

Nice post. Though I have been to Hong Kong airport five to six times, I really never got a chance to visit the city. May be, next time, eh? Yes - once the construction is finished! :)