Many hotels give me pleasure to recall. It would be hard to choose a favorite from dozens of lasting impressions -- from breakfasting in bed with the Jungfrau looming just outside the Schweizerhof's window in Zermatt, to soaking in an orchid-strewn public bath in Japan's Ibusuki Hot Springs Resort. But when a reception desk clerk's attentiveness may have helped save your life, the hotel qualifies for "most memorable."
My first visit to Hong Kong -- in 1956 -- coincided with the Double Ten (Oct. 10) celebrations of the colony's Nationalist Chinese community, marking the anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China. Warring gangs had taken advantage of the tension between pro- and anti-Communists to wage their own vendettas, and the rioting between rival Chinese factions had taken an anti-foreign turn -- though this was not widely known at first.
I was staying on the Kowloon side at the first-class Grand Hotel, a seven-or-eight-story brick structure with a dimly lit, nondescript lobby. When I left the hotel on the morning of the 10th, I was unaware of the growing number of incidents, believed at first to be purely political in nature, that had taken place during the night.
(Europeans were being attacked for the first time in the colony's post-war history. A Swiss consul's wife had been dragged from her car and killed, and the governor general had declared martial law and called in the dreaded Gurkhas to defend the tourist area.)
As a student of international law enrolled for a year at Tokyo University and interested in what we then called Communist China, I had arranged to interview several teachers recently arrived from the People's Republic. The meeting was set for the "Chinese" YMCA on Waterloo Road, up the peninsula and apart from touristic Kowloon.
I thought it odd that someone seemed to have thrown a rock at my taxi en route to the Y, but it was not until noon that noises outside the building disrupted our discussions and the participants began to disappear. With one excuse or another, teachers, students and interpreters left the room, and I began to get nervous when I discovered I was alone in the building with an aging janitor. His English wasn't very good, and my Chinese was non-existent, but it was clear he thought the roving mobs would burn down the YMCA if they believed I was inside.
As I tried to decide whether to hide in the basement or address the mob with calm reasoning, the janitor appeared with a rescuer, Wu Shen, a young Anglican convert active in the student movement, who had gone to the Grand Hotel to help me as soon as he heard of the rioting. All hotel staffs in Kowloon had been alerted to round up their European guests and await arrival of British Army trucks, as every visiting foreigner was to be evacuated immediately. The hotel's front desk clerk, from whom I had asked directions to the Chinese YMCA, told Wu where I had gone.
After joining the janitor on the front steps to assure the mob that no white person was inside, Wu disguised me for our walk to safety at the British-barricaded lines of sandbags, tanks and barbed wire at Austin Road, about a mile away. Black shoe polish soaked my brown hair, and my jacket, tie and briefcase went into a shopping bag. Sleeves rolled up, we set forth after most of the crowd had moved on. Picking up a discarded bicycle wheel, Wu Shen handed it to me. "Now you look like a looter, too."
On Wu's instructions, I looked constantly at his face as we made our way through the crowds, past breaking windows and burning automobiles, while he spoke to me loudly, and with much gesticulating, in Cantonese. After many detours and some arguing, we reached the Gurkha lines in about 30 minutes. (I learned then that my friend had several times passed me off as an idiot of mixed Chinese-European parentage.)
Within minutes of arriving at the hotel, I was put on one of the trucks of the army convoy. Guarded by armored cars, we "Europeans" were sped to Kai Tak airport and dumped on several planes, regardless of our intended destinations.
The Grand Hotel was proud that it didn't lose any of its guests to the nearly-forgotten Double Ten Rioting. I have ever since been grateful for reception clerks with good memories.