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History Revived in Downtown Hong Kong

Sometimes when I'm in Central, climbing up D'Aguilar Street, or when I stroll through the Botanical Gardens, or if I'm passing by Morrison Hill Road in Wanchai, some familiar ghosts float before my eyes. The most familiar one tends to cross my path when I'm on the escalator, passing by Rednaxela Terrace. Strangely, I feel more curious than frightened each time this happens.

The few white faces belong to snooty-looking colonial officials and policemen,
and Western businessmen who look like typical wheeler-dealers.

It's like I'm dreaming—the scene is always misty, nothing to do with the smog or fog. The crowds around me seem to disappear, as do the shops, skyscrapers and trams. There's hardly any traffic, only a few quaint motorcars and many rickshaws pulled by sweating coolies. Of course most of the folks around me are Chinese—many of the men sporting pigtails down their backs and wearing pajama-like garb. The few white faces belong to snooty-looking colonial officials and policemen, and Western businessmen who look like typical wheeler-dealers. There aren't too many women around—the few white ones sport parasols and wear clothes clearly unsuitable for the tropics; they look with pity at the somber Chinese women hawking trinkets, fruit and flowers.

If I look away from the hills, I can see the harbor clearly Kowloon looks quite far away, dotted with small houses here and there. Only a few large ships lie in the harbor that's full of sampans and fishing boats.

It's like I'm living in Hong Kong in l898, not 2002. The ghosts look familiar because I've seen their faces in books many times.

My favorite apparition, the one who floats out of the short lane at Rednaxela Terrace, looks like Jose Rizal—handsome, serious-looking, and always wearing a jacket (even when it's hot). He's a small man who walks purposefully, often carrying books and papers, sometimes a medical bag, under his arm. I stand back and stare, awed by his presence and wishing I could speak to him, but he melts into the mist.

When these men aren't walking about in Central or sitting in small cafes, smoking endlessly during their meetings, they stand along the quayside and gaze out over the water.

The other ghosts I encounter are those of Emilio Aguinaldo, Mariano Ponce, Galicano Apacible, Jose Alejandrino, Isabelo Artacho and some others whose names escape me but who I know were involved in the struggle against the Spanish oppressors back in the home country. When these men aren't walking about in Central or sitting in small cafes, smoking endlessly during their meetings, they stand along the quayside and gaze out over the water. Once or twice, I've tried to get close so I can hear what they're saying, but they too disappear into the mist.

Occasionally, when I'm on Arbuthnot Road and pass by Victoria Prison, I see the ghost of Rizal's old friend, the long-exiled Jose Ma. Basa. He had a house on that road, and Rizal would often visit him to lend him his books and talk about their beloved homeland. How I long to eavesdrop on their conversations.

There are only two women wraiths who sometimes swim across my eyes. The first is Dona Marcela, wife of the first Filipino diplomat, Felipe Agoncillo. She's at a house on Morrison Hill Road, always bent over a large piece of cloth which she's sewing into the Filipino flag. We know that after she and some friends, who helped her plan the design, completed the job in May 1898, the flag was secretly taken to Manila. (I like to speculate that it was a Filipina who wrapped it underneath her long skirt before boarding a ship for Manila.) In June that same year, the flag, lovingly sewn in Hong Kong, was raised in Kawit, Cavite, when Philippine independence was proclaimed.

The other female ghost I often encounter always looks forlorn. It's the Hong Kong-born British-Chinese mestiza who was Rizal's last love, Josephine Bracken. Adopted as a teenager by a shady American businessman named George Taufer, she led an unhappy life. (A Filipino historian believes she was abused by her stepfather.) When Taufer started to go blind, he decided to go to Manila, having heard of the famous Filipino opthalmologist who had practised in Hong Kong some years earlier. Josephine, acting as his eyes, sailed with him to the Philippines. Arriving in Manila, they found that the Spanish authorities had banished Dr. Rizal to Dapitan, so the two boarded a boat for Mindanao.

As the history books tell us, Rizal found Taufer's eyes beyond help. It was a tragic time for the American, not just because his blindness was incurable but because Josephine fell in love with Jose and refused to return to Hong Kong.

...Josephine stayed
a while in the Philippines. Feeling lost and unhappy, she returned to Hong Kong where she married an unsuitable Filipino, had a child and died in 1902 at the age of 25.

Several books have been written, and some films made, about Jose and Josephine's love story that had a such sad ending. After Rizal's trial and subsequent execution at the Luneta, Josephine stayed a while in the Philippines. Feeling lost and unhappy, she returned to Hong Kong where she married an unsuitable Filipino, had a child and died in 1902 at the age of 25. The cause of death was a rare form of TB, but some say it was extreme poverty and a broken heart. Her grave has never been found. A Western historian surmises that she was buried in a pauper's grave.

Whenever I see Josephine's ghost wandering around Central, I often blink my eyes, not just to try and see her more clearly but also to hold back a tear for the tragic young woman.

It was fortunate that the British colonials tolerated the Filipinos who sought refuge in Hong Kong, even when they established the Hong Kong Junta/Comite Central Filipino. The exiles faced many problems, among them the difficulty of communicating with their revolutionary colleagues in Manila and fellow exiles in Europe, the intrigues and squabbles among themselves, and especially the shortage of funds. Today most Filipinos in Hong Kong face the same problem about money except that they're here, not struggling for national independence, but struggling for their financial independence.

My favorite historical photograph is the one taken on the steps of the Botanical Gardens in 1896—the members of the HK Junta, dressed for cold weather, some wearing caps, look gravely into the camera. There was determination and hope in their faces.

There is a plaque on the Century Square building on D'Aguilar Street, indicating the spot where Rizal had his clinic. He was called the "Spanish Doctor" by his patients because he spoke the language beautifully. He was much admired, not just for his medical prowess but also for his cultured ways and earnest patriotism.

The historical marker on Morrison Hill indicates the general area where the Agoncillos lived. A book in Tagalog by the scholar Ronaldo Mactal has an interesting passage, which I translate: "It's hard to imagine how those revolutionaries lived. Crowded into two houses on Morrison Hill, Victoria, which they rented for 50 pesos per month, the members, some of them with families, used these as their residence. One of the houses, Greenmount House, also served as an office for the revolutionaries in Hong Kong. However, those members who wished to live elsewhere were granted P12 as a monthly pension. Consequently, most of Aguinaldo's followers lived in those two houses rented by the Hong Kong Junta because P12 was insufficient for the daily expenses per month of each member."

It all sounds familiar—and sad.

What, I wonder, would our dead patriots say if they appeared in Central today on a Sunday. Would they ask, "Why are there so many Filipinos here, especially women?"

There is still no plaque on Rednaxela Terrace, halfway up the escalator, to mark where Rizal lived briefly with his parents and sisters before he returned home to face execution at the hands of the Spanish. On passing by there sometimes, I think I hear laughter and wonder if the Rizal family is amused by the name of their little lane—because they know that the Chinese street painter (who couldn't read English) mistakenly inverted the name, which should have been Alexander!

What, I wonder, would our dead patriots say if they appeared in Central today on a Sunday. Would they ask, "Why are there so many Filipinos here, especially women?" If I could, I'd reply: "Our country may be independent now, but life for many is still as hard as it was when you were here at the turn of the 20th century—and this time it's mainly daughters, mothers, wives and sisters who bear the brunt of the hardship."

© Isabel Escoda

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