I met the poet Yi Junzi in the Yau ma Tei Typhoon Shelter off the shores of Kowloon. He had been driven from his home in Nanjng and his country by Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. In those days, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, thousands upon thousands of China’s intellectuals, writers and artists were tortured, killed or driven from the country to eliminate any vestiges of traditional Chinese culture. Refugees fleeing Red China flooded into Hong Kong, most by boat, but many swimming, clinging to pieces of wood or bottles strapped beneath their arms. Many made their way to the comparative safety of the Yau ma Tei Typhoon shelter off the coast of Kowloon. Yi Junzi was one of them. It was a perilous journey. If they managed to avoid drowning or sharks, they were likely to be picked up by Chinese patrol boats, or ironically, British patrols would capture them and send them right back to China.
The original Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter was both a magnificent and a terrible thing to see. It was essentially a floating city with some 2,000 boats all rafted together between Kowloon and the lee of a long breakwater. It was filled with all kinds of fascinating vessels, from wonderful old Chinese junks, sampans of every size and description, to small rusting coastal freighters. On dark, moonless nights, gentle swells caused the flotilla to rise and fall as if the shelter was a living, breathing organism. Fish oil lanterns and cook fires on the sampans and junks winked like fireflies. The motion of the boats set up a whisper of hawsers and halyards and the sound of teak hulls straining and moaning with the tide. As we cruised through the labyrinth of boats, we could see families gathered on deck, the women tending clay cook stoves, men smoking, children watching the newcomers, fascinated, wondering who these strange visitors from another world might be. Our oarsman stood in the stern of our sampan, his single oar creaked and sang in its rope harness. From every direction came the answering call of the oars pulled by other timeless mariners. Alien conversations hung close to the water and teak hulls polished by generations of voyages slipped silently by. We passed the hulks of great junks no longer fit for sea, but still the homes of captains too old for voyaging and too sad to do anything but die with their ships. A sampan passed, its crew holding up samples of San Miguel beer and tiny bottles of White Horse scotch they were selling. At the fringes of the shelter other sampans passed slowly by, and through diaphanous curtains we could see young girls posing seductively, prostitutes, I supposed.
At night, as we drifted through the lantern light, the typhoon shelter was a magical place, something out of Conrad. But in daylight, the mythic ambiance was swept aside. As we learned from Yi Junzi and from the evidence of our own eyes, reality was something else again. Here, where people risked so much for freedom, they found themselves in a prison of another kind. They were stranded with thousands of other human beings packed together in appalling poverty. Here was starvation and poor hygiene and improper disposal of waste creating high levels of disease. There was no medical care, only one unlicensed doctor, a wenmi po, who treated his patients with animal body parts and manipulation of the body’s energy flow. Some of the boat people had lived in the typhoon shelter all their lives, their feet never touching shore. Some tried to fish, but the water was so polluted there were no fish to be caught.
Looking up at the magnificent towers of Kowloon and Hong Kong, I wondered why the government didn’t do something. How could they allow such a horrendous assault on the human spirit? Yi Junzi explained that China was reluctant to get involved because it was in Great Britain’s territory. Out of sight, out of mind. Great Britain was reluctant to get involved because its lease to Hong Kong would be up in a few years, so the problem would be dumped on China. So the boat people were caught in the middle.
But what of Yi Junzi? He said although he yearned desperately for Nanjing, he knew he would never go back home. It was then he handed me the poem. For a while it remained among my mementos, then, because of the beauty of its calligraphy, I had it framed and for half a century it has hung on my wall. Only recently have I had it translated.
Green, green, Zijin Mountains. Orange, orange, under sunsets.
Goodbye, goodbye, swallow in palace. Dim, dim, spring court chime rings.
Wintersweets bloom fragrantly on a frozen sole hill.
Battle is about to come, waves beating the empty city wall.
Waving my hands and heading to the east, wistfully.
Moon shines on the drum tower as the horse shouts.
Finally the problem of the boat people was solved. It was solved in the grand manner government often solves its problems – the Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter that I knew was simply wiped off the face of the earth. The boat people were relocated to various housing projects and the typhoon shelter itself was reclaimed from the sea and covered over with expansion projects for the new Hong Kong airport.
I never heard from Yi Junzi again.
If you enjoyed this memory, maybe you’d like reading my new novel, “The Lost Caravan.” It’s available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and on my website.