Flying into Hong Kong in the 1980’s was always a striking introduction to the colony.
The only airport was Kai Tak whose runway was a narrow strip of concrete built out into Victoria Harbour.
If the wind was from the South or East, the pilot would, quite literally aim the plane at a large orange and white chequerboard painted onto a cliff. The automatic landing system would guide the aeroplane directly towards this rock face until the plane reached an altitude of little more than 500 feet, at which point the pilot had to take manual control, bank sharply to the right and look for the runway. Having located the finger of land jutting out into the sea, the pilot would then have less than 30 seconds to line up with the runway, level the wings and touchdown. Passengers on the right hand side of the plane could, quite literally see people eating rice or noodles or watching television in apartment blocks as the plane banked over.
For my first flight into Hong Kong the wind was blowing the other direction so I was spared this. Landing from the ocean side was not without excitement though, as the only thing passengers could see beneath the plane was sea until the very last second before touchdown, when the runway finally came into view and the wheels hit the concrete. While I was in Hong Kong, one China Airlines plane landed in a squall from this direction and slid off the runway into the harbour. Flying into Hong Kong was regarded as one of the most challenging airports in the world for pilots until it was replaced by a new one in 1998.
It was a warm and sunny winter’s day when I flew into Kai Tak with my luggage and guitar.
Joining Jackie Pullinger’s work at St Stephen’s Society was a great honour, and I knew that there would be challenging times ahead. The most prominent part of their ministry was with heroin addicts in the British colony, of whom there were many thousands but St Stephen’s Society also worked with all the poor of Hong Kong. They fed the street-sleepers and set prostitutes free, providing men and women with a home, food and hope through practical ministry, prayer and a church where everyone was welcome.
When the time came, more than double that number arrived and the kitchen were more than a little worried. There was nothing they could do with the food – they had already prepared everything that they had. So they prayed and started to serve the food to the waiting crowd. In a scene reminiscent of the feeding of the 5,000 everyone was fed and they ended up with plenty left over.
For those who don’t know, Hong Kong was established as a British Colony specifically to support the trade in opium during the Opium Wars of the 19th Century. British trading companies shipped in opium from India to sell in Canton and when the Emperor reacted to the enslaving of their people into drug addiction by banning the trade, Britain went to war to defend it. After winning the 1st Opium War, the treaties which followed ceded Hong Kong Island and then the Kowloon peninsula to Britain in perpetuity as a military base from which we could further our greed and protect our colonial drug dealers. In 1898, the New Territories were added on a 99 year lease, including over 200 islands and expanding the colony to over five times its original size. Not exactly a glorious part of British history.
Introduce heroin addicts to Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit; then pray them off heroin and help them build a new life. Over the years Jackie had seen many heroin addicts come off heroin by concentrated prayer and the healing power of the Holy Spirit without the usual pain or cravings which withdrawal brings.
Their outreach at that time was focused on the Walled City, a lawless anomaly which housed around 50,000 people in a little over 6 acres and was run by various Triad gangs (China’s version of the mafia). Until the treaty was completed between the UK and China for the handing back of Hong Kong to China in 1997, neither side governed the enclave. Diplomatically it was still part of China and so any police action there would have been seen as an act of aggression by China. The ancient walls had long gone, replaced by precarious blocks of flats up to 12 floors high which leaned together at the top like a house of cards. In the legal vacuum, the Triads flourished and it became a mecca for drug dens, brothels and gambling, as well as unregistered doctors, dentists and those fleeing the law. Jackie lived in Walled City and had a small meeting room which provided a place for prayer, worship and hope every Wednesday and Saturday.
Beyond that, there were two ‘Frist Stage Houses’ in more rural areas of Hong Kong where addicts came to withdraw from heroin and lived for several months, growing in their new lives as Christians. When ready, they then went to Hang Fook Camp which housed the main base for the ministry and where the church met for Sunday Services. Here ex-addicts would work out what to do with their lives; find work, return to their families, or join the continuing ministry of St Stephens.
They had big smiles on their faces and made me feel welcome. We put my luggage in the van and they drove me through the busy Hong Kong streets to Hang Fook Camp for my introduction into life and work there.
The camp was a former refugee camp for Vietnamese boat people. It consisted of rows of wooden huts with metal roofs, a makeshift sanitation system, together with a large central kitchen and meeting place. When the mass-migration from Vietnam started to slow, the camp was no longer needed for refugees and the Hong Kong government offered it to Jackie for her work with heroin addicts and the poor. It was located in Cheung Sha Wan, a mixed industrial and residential area in Kowloon and it became a focal point for Jackie’s ministry. Her church met there on Sundays and the kitchens produced food for both residents and street sleepers. In addition to providing accommodation to a community of around 100 people, there was a small T-shirt factory where some of the brothers worked, a vegetable garden, sports area, and the office for St Stephen’s Society.
I don’t know who was more taken aback. For my part, I was in awe of her. For hers, she saw my long hair first, and was worried. Long hair on men was not an acceptable part of Chinese male culture then and as I learned later, could provoke irrational negative reactions among the brothers. After a brief conversation however, she concluded that I would be OK. Apparently, there was something in my eyes.
It was now early evening and I joined the community for food, eaten together around large communal tables with rice and various communal dishes shared and devoured at speed, particularly for a chop-stick novice. I met some of the brothers (ex-addicts) and tried to understand snippets of conversation where I could. Then I spent a while playing guitar with John To (who later married Jackie). John had come off heroin some years ago and was the main worship leader for the camp and church. He wasn’t that impressed with my guitar skills, but then I had a lot to learn and I knew it. Worship songs flowed at Hang Fook Camp in an effortless way which required both spiritual discernment and the musical ability to move from one song to another without written music in front of you to tell you what to do. Although I was ok at playing guitar with music, this was beyond me and I wasn’t at my best after the long journey. Later in the year we would lead worship together every other Sunday but that’s another story.
Around 9pm, I was shown to a bunk bed in the huts and advised to get some sleep for the next day, but I couldn’t sleep. I was far too excited and jet lag hadn’t hit me yet.
Arriving back at Hang Fook Camp about 3am, I finally got some sleep.
I don’t really know what I expected for the following day. Perhaps a gentle introduction to routine life in camp? Perhaps a few days to acclimatise? I certainly didn’t expect to be entrusted with anything significant for a while. I was a novice rookie in a brave new world.
What I didn’t expect was to be thrown in at the deep end.
|Bobby at Hang Fook Camp|
I wasn’t going to stay at Hang Fook Camp. I had been assigned to live and work at Tai Tam – the first stage house on the far side of Hong Kong Island. To get there, I would be going to the Walled City meeting that afternoon where I would meet Deri who was in charge of Tai Tam, and then travel back with her and a new brother.
Now I was amazed. The first stage houses were where new bothers came off heroin with nothing but prayer for support. Along with Walled City, they were the sharp end of the ministry. What were they doing, letting a rookie like me anywhere near this hallowed ground? Bobby just smiled and said “You’ll be fine.”
After going back to Hang Fook Camp to collect my guitar and luggage, Bobby drove me to Walled City for the meeting. I saw the blocks of concrete flats leaning together at the top because they had no foundations. I saw the darkened alleyways which acted as gateways and streets.
Less than 24 hours after landing, I was led into one of the most notorious places on earth. There was no going back now.