Red Rubber Boats in the Sunset

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A Hike in Sheung Shui

(Note: I didn’t actually take part in this hike but I did have a part in organising it. Sorry, there’s no pictures).

I worked for the YMCA for about nine months between 1976 and ’77. One of the interesting things about working at the ‘Y’, which made an otherwise mundane job enjoyable, was the variety of personalities you came across.

The ‘Y’ was then, and is now, very much a commercial enterprise; any resemblance to the original YMCAs that tried to promote Christianity was long gone. The people in the Programme Department however, had other plans. No opportunity was passed up to conduct a non-denominational outreach aimed mostly at young people, but also at anyone else who might be interested. The hierarchy in the form of the General Secretary was not overly impressed with this, but as long as they kept the noise down he let them get on with it.

One of the movers and shakers in the Programme Department was a man called JK. Some years earlier he had gone to one of the outreach programmes with the express intention of causing as much disruption as possible. He made the mistake of actually sitting down and listening to the sermon and ended up becoming a born again Christian. JK now lives in Canada and is an ordained minister. 

Then there was Allan. Allan had come to Hong Kong with the express intention of obtaining a visa to visit the Chinese Mainland in order to convert heathen communist China to Christianity. 

It must be remembered that, in the 70s, unlike today, you couldn’t just walk into China Travel Service and get a visa. Visas were only handed out to legitimate businessmen or tourists travelling on CTS organised tours. The rules were stringently laid down and followed. Therefore when Allan was asked for the reason for his intended visit, they were not too impressed with the answer that the sole purpose of his trip was to convert the country to Christianity. 

Allan tried again and again to get his visa, and eventually his name was posted in every CTS office in the territory. It got to the point where he couldn’t even get in the door. Not surprisingly Allan ran out of money and applied for a job at the YMCA. I don’t recall now what his actual job was, but he could always be found at the Programme Department. 

I know very little of Allan’s background. He was a gentle soul who had trained as a carpenter. He had the habit of speaking to everyone as if English was not their first language. A conversation with Allan could be quite painful, as when he said to a friend of mine, “Alastair……are……you…..a…..Christian?” He was shocked when Alastair told him that he was a Buddhist. 

Allan made no bones about his intention of converting Mainland China to Christianity, and everyone took his promise to ‘leave soon’ with a pinch of salt. It was all a good laugh until one day Allan returned to the YMCA with a second-hand inflatable red rubber boat that had ‘USS Enterprise’ printed in tape across the bow. 

Things went on as usual for a week or so until one day, Allan came to my room and announced that he was leaving for China the following morning. He asked me what I thought would be the best place to jump the border. Not really believing that it would ever actually come to it, I told him that Starling Inlet on the northeastern border would be the safest area as it was shallow and not too wide. Then Allan asked me how to get to Starling Inlet. Again, without taking him seriously I suggested that he get the Kowloon Canton Railway to Sheung Shui, and then walk northeast over the hills. I remember telling him to take a lot of water with him.

Sure enough the following morning – I recall that it was Tuesday – Allan came to my room to bid me farewell. He had his Bible, his red rubber boat and a water bottle. I handed him a tin of Spam that I happened to have under my bed, and off he went. I suppose it doesn’t say much for my imagination that even at that point I didn’t really believe that he was going to attempt it. 

I went about my business and it wasn’t until lunchtime that it suddenly occurred to me that Allan was actually going to try and jump the border. Visions of an international incident rushed into my mind when the Chinese border guards discovered a sun-burnt foreigner in a red rubber boat with USS Enterprise printed across its bow pulling up on their shore. 

I went to see JK, who took me to the Assistant Secretary. At a loss to know what to do, he called the Chairman of the Board of Directors, who at that time happened to be the Acting Chief Justice. This gentleman, also at a loss to know what to do, called the Director of Special Branch, who informed the Royal Navy, (Remember this was the 70s), who dispatched a fast patrol boat to Mirs Bay. In the meantime the Assistant Secretary took both JK and me to his room and told us to stay there, out of trouble.

The next few hours were nerve-wracking. There was no news from the Royal Navy, or anyone else for that matter. Then a phone call came from the front desk. Allan had arrived, red rubber boat in tow. He was immediately escorted to the Tsim Sha Tsui Police Station to make a report. The English officer who took his statement asked him, 

“You’re not actually going to try this again are you?” 

Although I wasn’t there to hear this, in my mind I can hear Allan when he said, “Yes,……I…..am”.

Allan was brought back to the Y and for some strange reason placed in my care. I took him to my room and gave him a cup of tea. Then he told me what had happened.

(And finally, here is the hike)

Following my instructions, he had gone to Sheung Shui and struck out north east over the hills. Very soon he was completely lost and had run out of water. It was at that point that he ran into a Royal Hong Kong Police Force Village Patrol Unit. In his own inimitable fashion Allan asked them for directions to Starling Inlet and these very helpful officers not only pointed him in the right direction but also refilled his canteen for him. Apparently it never occurred to them to ask this red-faced foreigner with a red rubber boat under his arm why he wanted to find Starling Inlet. Allan for once had the sense not to volunteer the information. 

Fortunately for him, the Hong Kong Government and me, in particular, he very soon he became lost again. Out of water, exhausted and sunburnt to a crisp he decided to leave the Christian conquest of China for another day, and made his way to the nearest road where he found transportation back to Sheung Shui and thence to Tsim Sha Tsui. When he arrived he noticed that it was only 12 noon and rather than waste the day he decided to go to Repulse Bay to play with his boat. Less than five minutes’ walk from the YMCA where he had managed to create virtual bedlam, he boarded the Star Ferry, completely oblivious to the trouble he had caused. 

At least we had him back safe and sound. Eventually a report would have to be made to the General Secretary, but as that rather uncompromising gentleman was out of town for at least another week that event could wait. It was decided that Allan should sleep in my room that night (so I could keep an eye on him, and more importantly, his red rubber boat), so I made up a makeshift bed for him. I had put out the light and settled down to sleep when Allan cleared his throat to say something. 

“You know that tin of Spam you gave me?”

“Yes,” I said, quite innocently.

“It was bad!”

Published by stewartgoeswalkies

Happily married man to a wonderful lady. Living in Hong Kong. In my younger days I enjoyed hiking, camping and rock climbing. I've trekked in the Himalayas and climbed Mt. Kinabalu in East Malaysia.

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