The Sailor’s Final Visit to Fragrant Harbor

At one time Hong Kong was always at the top of an Asia Sailor’s list of favorite liberty ports. A Sailor could buy about anything he had his mind set on to buy. The favorite bar district of course was the Wanchai also known as the Wanch. Tailor shops were plentiful and one could have a new set of “tailored gabardine blues” made for a reasonable price. Even a seaman could afford it. Booze was cheap, women were plentiful, and for the day time tourist the scenery was unmatched. The daytime tourist coule take a ride on the Peak Tram to the top of Victoria Peak…what a wonderful view of the harbor from that point. One could take the inexpensive Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor to Kowloon and find plenty to do there as well.One wonders how did the port get its’ name. Hong Kong is a phonetic translation of the city’s Cantonese name, 香港 heung gong, which means “Fragrant Harbor”. It is believed by many historians that “Fragrant Harbor” was a name inspired by the fact that as a major trading post it dealt in fragrant incense. Particularly, agar-wood, which is known as the “king of incense”. It has been said that just two ounces of the precious agar-wood resin can sell for thousands of dollars.

Enough of that boring stuff so let’s continue our story.

“Now set the sea and anchor detail” came the announcement over the 1MC. Another port visit, another adventure, probably another hangover as well. The life of a Sailor…it doesn’t get much better than this the Chief was thinking as he prepared to go on deck to supervise the mooring buoy detail. The Chief enjoyed this particular evolution and had performed it more times than he could remember in his career. He well remembered the first time that he had moored to a buoy. He was a young seaman at the time, it was in 1967 and the ship was scheduled for a port visit to Kaohsiung, Taiwan. The young seaman had been assigned to assist in handling the easing out line. The easing-out line would be secured to the anchor chain with a wire rope strap in order to ease the anchor chain out to the buoy. After the chain was disconnected from the anchor the chain would then slide down a buoy wire that had been secured to a ring on the buoy. The bitter end of the chain would then be shackled to the mooring ring with a mooring shackle. The procedure was a  piece of cake according to the BM3 that had explained the procedure to the young BMSN.

The Chief, coffee cup in hand,  stepped out of the hatchway onto the foc’sle into bright sunlight, not a cloud in the sky he observed, silently thanking some unknown weather God. He realized, as he was getting near the end of his career that he hated sea details in the rain or snow. Sunshine had become his preference. He was becoming a fair weather sailor for sure.

The Boatswain’s Mate Chief strides toward the area where all of the action would be taking place. He noted that all of the sailors assigned to the detail were at their stations and ready for action. “Hello Chief”, the First Class Petty Officer says. Surveying all of the preparations made, the Chief exclaimed “BM1 Taylor, I see you have it all under control up here…good job Boats”, exclaims the Chief. BMC noted that the de-shackling kit was in-place, all lines properly flaked down and ready for use. We’re ready Chief were the next words from BM1…”the motor whale boat and buoy party have already been launched and are standing by Chief”. The ship was making its’ approach and if all went well would arrive with the bow just above the buoy. The small boat with the buoy party on board were already near the buoy where the ship would be securing the anchor chain. The ship was slowly making its’ approach to the buoy, The Chief glanced down at the buoy and noted that the ship’s headway was just barely noticeable. All necessary actions took place in seamanlike fashion and the ship was moored snugly to it’s buoy in a timely manner. “Secure from Sea and Anchor detail and set the Quarterdeck Watch” came over the 1MC next. BM1 Taylor looked at the Chief with the look that said it all…”can we hit the beach now Chief”. “I know what you are about to say Boats”, the Chief exclaimed to the BM1 that as soon as clampdown was held the liberty party could go ashore.

The Chief Boatswain’s Mate headed for the CPO mess for a coffee refill and then to the fantail as he new that “Mary Soo” and her gang would be on the fantail soon already selling cold soft drinks.

All of us Asia Sailors are aware of Mary Soo and her painting crew…for those who are too young to have experienced this extraordinary lady of Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong, a short history lesson follows.

(Mary Soo, real name, Soo Mei was born around 1910, her actual birth date and year are unknown, she passed away in late 1972. In the mid 1960’s there was a large population of over 100,00 known as Tanka and Haklo people who lived on the water in sampans and small Junks. She had relatives who assumed her duties upon her passing. Mary Soo was also known as the “Queen of Garbage. She began her trade in the 1930’s with the sailor’s and ships of Great Britain as well as many civilian merchant vessels. During the 1960’s she began dealing with the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet. She would go to these ships and collect garbage, old scraps of line and canvas or anything else that was being discarded that she thought she could resell. The food of course would go to the poor and needy in Hong Kong as well as feeding her crew.) History lesson finished…back to our story!

By now BMC has made his way back to the fantail. Adjacent to the quarterdeck the Chief sees a plump old lady dressed in baggy clothes with a traditional conical coolie hat perched on her head. Her skin tone shown of many years in the sun and a weather beaten face with character etched in every crease and wrinkle. Her smile displayed several gold teeth and is beaming at the Chief and saying, “Hey Chief, long time no see you…you still to skinny! Wha happen you…nobody feed you? I told you many year ago, “marry one of my girls. She make you good wife, many babies and good cook too!”  The Chief smiles and hugs the old lady saying “Mama Linda, you are still so beautiful…how many girls do you have working for you now”? The friendly banter continues between the BMC and Mama Linda…shortly Linda says to the BMC, “what kind good ting you got for Mama Linda this time? My crew begin paint side of ship soon…you show me Bos’n locker…chop chop heya” Boats is smiling. He has known this lady for twenty some years and she hasn’t changed a lick. What a great experience this is. Civilians just don’t understand how wonderful Asia is and what it has to offer. 

But, in the back of the Chiefs’ mind he is saddened as he knows that this will be his last trip to Hong Kong on a US Navy Ship. He plans on retiring after his next tour which will be shore duty. He will miss all of this. He doesn’t want to tell Mama Linda yet as they’ve been friends for a long time. She gave him his first Boatswain’s Mate Ring, the gold finger ring with crossed anchors engraved on the top surface. He’s thinking, “well we have three days in port, I’ll let her know before we leave port”.

BMC has duty this first day in port so he is glad that he will be able to get everything in order as far as finalizing the side painting efforts by Mama Linda and her crew. The Stew Burner Chief is taking care of Mama Linda’s galley crew and making sure that they are set up…all seems to be going well. 

It seems that Mama Linda is no longer as satisfied with accepting old line and scraps of canvas as she once was. While in the Bos’n Locker she says “Chief, you have extra new nylon line…I make you plenty new gift this time…you help poor Mama Linda”. BMC is hesitant about this request as he knows this is not legal. He’s thinking before replying…he does remember an old coil of two and one-half inch three-strand nylon that was ordered quite some time ago and still not put to use. He has that stowed in another store room rather than in open site. He ponders what to do…”awe what the hell, this is my last trip and I’ll never see these people again” he says to himself. “Let me see what I can do Mama Linda”…her expression immediately changes from a glum pout to a beaming smile, again showing those golden teeth of hers and the crinkles around her eyes!

After all of the bartering is complete one of Mama Linda’s sampans pulls along side the Starboard bow. Everything is lowered down over the side of the ship. Two deck seaman from the days duty section assist in this action. All of this bartering was common practice in those days so no undo notice was taken into account by anyone seeing what was happening. 

BMC catches the 2000 to 2400 Quarterdeck watch. As the Chief comes on deck for Watch, Mama Linda’s girls are just wrapping up the soft drink sales for the day. As these girls were not working on the side painting detail, their clothes are clean as are they. He glances closely at them and takes notice of one of the girls who is shyly smiling at him. Something about her jogs his memory. He sees a sparkle in her eye that seems quite familiar. Recognition maybe? He notices that she doesn’t seem like one of the regular soft drink sales girls. Most of these sales girls are in their late teens or early twenties. This girl is noticeably older…maybe mid to late thirties. As the girls begin to depart the Quarter-deck the Chief smiles and says the only few words of Cantonese that he can recall; “Ting jat gin” – see you tomorrow. The girls smile when they hear this US Sailor speak to them in their mother language. The older of the girls glance and smile seem to linger a split second longer than the other girls. The Chief notices this and his mind goes into overdrive…recognition again? The Chiefs’ quarterdeck watch ends without incident and he heads for the CPO mess and after a cup of coffee he hits the rack.

As the Chief is drifting off to sleep he is thinking of his encounter with Mama Linda’s sales girls. The Chief has a thought…”I wonder if that one girl was Teiho, same sparkle in her eyes”. He had met Teiho fifteen or so years ago on one of his earlier visits. She had still been a teenager when he first met Teiho…BMC had thought back then, wow, that young girl will be a beautiful woman when she grows up, she was so beautiful, even in paint spotted clothes and hair in disarray. “I’ll ask the girl if her name is Teiho when I see her tomorrow”, he is thinking as he drifts off to sleep.

The Chief Boatswain’s Mate wakes when he hears the sound of Reveille, rouses himself out of the rack and goes to the head for his morning routine. He throws on a fresh set of khakis and heads to the CPO Mess for a good breakfast. After breakfast he heads out on deck. The duty Boatswain’s Mate is supervising clampdown on the Foc’sle. The Chief is inwardly smiling, he had been very fortunate to be blessed with such a good crew. He had a really good Leading Petty Officer who he expects to make BMC next year and the other Petty Officers are professional in all respects. His deck crew are hard working sailors, sometimes a bit rough around the edges but they are always eager to learn. He approaches the duty Boatswain’s Mate and asks if he had received a good turn-over from the off-going duty BM. BM2 Jones replies back, “ sure did Chief…no problem, we will have enough to keep us busy today”. Good to hear Boats, as the Chief turns to head back to the CPO mess, Jones says, when are you going ashore Chief. BMC says over his shoulder, “soon Boats, soon”.

The Chief is in his quarters changing into civvies and making preps to go ashore. He’s remembering his thoughts regarding Teiho and wants to find out if the soft drink girl on the fantail is the young teenage girl he remembered from many years ago. 

BMC reaches the Quarterdeck and fantail area expecting to see the girl that he thinks may indeed be Teiho. The three girls are there at their vending area…however, the familiar face of the girl he thinks may be Teiho is not among them. He says hello to the young sales girls, shrugs and heads to the Quarterdeck. Addressing the Officer of the Deck the Chief requests permission to go ashore. “Permission granted Chief, enjoy yourself” replies the OOD. The Chief spends the day shopping and then meets some of his fellow Chief’s over at the China Fleet club where they all eat a good meal and drink several beers. By the time the BMC arrives back aboard, the soft drink sales girls have already departed for the evening.

The next morning arrives and the Chief is thinking, “Underway for home tomorrow. The rest of the day and this evening will be my last time to visit this wonderful place known as Fragrant Harbor”. He will be seeing Mama Linda this morning to make last minute negotiations and say his farewells…he is not looking forward to the farewell part of this drama. BMC is sitting in the CPO Mess drinking his morning coffee when a knock on the door interrupts the conversations. The door opens and the Messenger of the Watch addresses BMC and tells him that Mama Linda is on the quarterdeck and wants to see him. He heads to the Quarterdeck and fantail area to see Mama Linda. “Goo morning Chief” booms Linda with her loud screechy voice. “ You ship leavy soon…heya. Tonight we have big party for you and your Sailor Boys…wha say you? Okay…heya!” The Chief is thinking this is a first. I wonder what prompted her to make these arrangements as the ship is making such a short port visit this time. BMC replies to Mama Linda that he is always ready for a party. He already knows which bar/restaurant the party will be held at as he had been to a few of her parties in the past when the ship was in port for a longer period of time. Due to this short port visit, he felt it strange that Mama Linda would be giving a party. He asks Linda what time and she replies, “eighteen hundred Chief”. Okay, I’ll be there with the rest of my Petty Officers says BMC.

Mama Linda then says “Chief can we talk up in Bos’n Locker…you have time…heya”? The Chief says sure and they head to the Bos’n Locker. BMC is thinking…”damn I can’t give her anything else. I wonder what she wants now”. They reach the Bos’n Locker and she reaches into a large bag and hands several items to the Chief. “this for you and your wife Chief and a little something for you too”, says Mama. The Chief opens the parcels and finds a beautiful hand made lace table cloth with matching napkins. The package also contains two circular wall hangings. Both decorative pieces are made of seashells meticulously placed in a pattern to depict Chinese Junks floating on the sea with the Island of Hong Kong in the back ground. He opens the small box and finds a beautiful gold pinky ring set with a rare blue sapphire. BMC is flabbergasted and lost for words…he hasn’t said anything about this being his last visit and that he will not be coming back to Hong Kong. Before he can speak Mama Linda clasps his hands in hers and gives him a deep heartfelt thank you, (多謝你考慮) “do ze nei haau leoi”. She then says, “I know you no come back Hong Kong Chief, so I want give you this gifts from me to you. I know you long time Sailor…since you deck seaman…I secretly want you to marry one of my sampan girls. I tell you many time…but you no listen me…heya. But I know your heart is good and belong in Japan. You wife maybe lucky lady.” The Chief is in awe at what is taking place. He is unaware of Mama Linda having given so many wonderful gifts to anyone else. He has known many Sailors over the years who have had dealings with Mama Linda and her predecessor Mary Soo. All of this is such a total surprise. Mama Linda then asks the Chief to take her back to the Quarterdeck so she can leave and prepare for the evenings party.

It is now 1700 and the Chief is getting ready for the big party. He dresses nicely this evening, rather than the normal Levi’s and Polo shirt that he wears on liberty. He heads to the Quarterdeck to wait for his LPO. BM1 shows up at the quarterdeck with a couple of the other Petty Officers from First Division. They all head down the gangway for a night on the town, the last night in Hong Kong for the Chief. The Chief is realizing how amazing all of this is and that he will certainly miss Hong Kong. BMC and his entourage head toward the Wanchai and the bar where the party is being held. They arrive just a bit before 1800.

Mama Linda is at the front door to greet and welcome them to the Golden Lion. As history has it, the bar was originally opened by Mary Soo in the late ’50’s and has been passed down to Mama Linda. The Golden Lion is one of the more classy bars in the Wanchai. Although there are hostesses for companionship, one can also go to the back of the establishment for a meal and quiet conversation. Linda escorts all of the Sailors to the back of the room where several tables are set up. “Okay sailor boys…you eat, drink, and have good time” says Mama Linda. She places the Chief at the head of the table in the place of honor. After everyone is seated a bevy of beautiful women come in and take seats next to each Sailor. These young sailors, fleet Boatswain’s Mates, are ecstatic. They are all thinking that the people, civilians, back home don’t have a clue in the world. Most of them have never even been out of the State that they were born in, let alone traveling to a foreign country!

Mama Linda then makes an announcement…”I want all you sailor boy have goo time tonight…don’t do crazy or stupid ting but have goo time”. She continues, “I give this party in honor of your Chief and of course all you too. But, I know this is Chief last night in Hong Kong and maybe never he return. We know each other plenty long time and we good friend. I always like when this Chief Boatswain’s Mate come Hong Kong, he treat Mama Linda and Sampan Girls with many respect. I try make him marry one of my girls many year ago…but he stubborn and don’t do. I tell him Chinese girl make him goo wife and goo cook and give him many babies.” At hearing this last statement from Linda all of the sailor’s start laughing and cheering for the Chief. 

The Chiefs’ emotions are almost to much for him but he keeps his feelings in check. “Mama Linda, you have done me a great honor tonight. I truly thank you from the bottom of my heart for your friendship through the years” the BMC exclaims. He is unaware that another person is approaching him from behind. He then senses there is someone behind him. He immediately turns around and recognizes the soft drink sales girl whom he thought that he had once known many years before. The woman is gorgeous with long beautiful black hair and a figure molded by the Gods. She is wearing the traditional Chinese dress called cheongsam. Mama Linda breaks the spell…”Chief, you remember Teiho…you first meet when she teenage girl. I remember you ask me about her. But, she still little girl to me then…I don’t want to tell you so much ‘bout her. You very young then also…still Sailor Boy.” Mama Linda continues with her memories, “next time you came back Hong Kong, you are BM1 and older. Teiho still single then and I want she marry sailor boy…maybe you be good match for my Teiho I tink. But, not work out like I want, the Gods of love were thinking differently for Teiho and you. She always ask me about young sailor man who speak so loud all time but have plenty big smile and always help her and other girls who paint sides of ship…I know Teiho feeling then…she loved you but know that you have girlfriend in Japan and she can not have you”. Linda then exclaims that the Gods work in strange ways and we on earth can not understand their decisions. Mama Linda explains, “in Cantonese we have a word for English word Destiny, it is 命運 *ming wan* . We understand that fate, or ming wan, is important part of life and we should follow and understand. It was your ming wan to stay with Japanese girl and Teiho’s ming wan to stay here in Hong Kong. When my time finish I will have Teiho continue what I do. She will become the number one “Garbage Queen” of Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong”. Mama Linda smiles broadly with that big toothy golden grin and tells all the sailors to have a good time and that they are always welcomed in the “Golden Lion”. She plants a kiss on the Chiefs’ cheek and departs for home.

So the party continues with the Chief feeling somewhat saddened by Linda’s confession and story of Teiho. He is thinking back over his career and realizes that Mama Linda is correct. Life is made from our decisions and the hand that we are dealt. Destiny is a part of the plan for all of us. He turns and addresses Teiho who is all full of smiles and caring kind words. But, in her eyes he sees something a little bit different…although she seems happy, her eyes betray what she is feeling. She lost the Sailor Man whom she had fallen in love with so many years ago. But Teiho will not disturb the “ming wan” that the Gods have provided for her. The Chief notes a small tear creeping down her face…he brushes the tear away and smiles broadly knowing that Teiho will indeed become the future “Garbage Queen” of Victoria Harbor here in Hong Kong where he has so very many wonderful memories. The party winds down and it is time to depart. The Chief takes Teiho’s hand, leans forward and places a kiss on her forehead saying that he will miss her, Mama Linda, and Hong Kong very much and he will always treasure their friendship.

BM1 Taylor has already gathered up the rest of the sailor’s that attended the party and is herding them back to the ship. Many want to stop for a night cap or two…Taylor won’t have any of that. He tells them all in no uncertain terms that if anyone is unable to perform your duties tomorrow, you guys will be in the hurt locker…with me providing the “hurt”.

“Now set the sea and anchor detail” came the announcement over the 1MC. The Chief hadn’t slept much the night before mulling over the thoughts going through his mind. He arrived on the foc’sle with coffee cup in hand, as usual, and noted that BM1 Taylor seemed to have everything under control. He saw the motor whaleboat with the mooring buoy party on board and standing by for further orders. She ship nudged its’ way forward ever so slightly so the anchor chain could be unshackled from the buoy ring. The evolution went very well without incident.

The Chief looked out over Victoria Harbor and his beloved Hong Kong. A small Chinese sampan was approaching the Port Bow of the ship. He looked down and saw a couple familiar Chinese faces. Mama Linda and Teiho were on the sampan smiling broadly up at the Chief and blowing kisses at him. “Goo-bye Chief…we always remember, love, and respect you” were the words coming from the sampan. BMC waived back, smiling broadly saying “再見, zoi gin” with a lump in his throat, as he was saddened. He is thinking how lucky he has been and wondering what his next adventure will be upon departure from this ship. He knows that he will be going to shore duty and then retirement. The Chief murmurs “so long Hong Kong and all that you have given me”. As is the custom of a sailor, BMC tosses a few Hong Kong coins into the sea as though he was paying a small toll to Neptune, the sea god, for a safe voyage.

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