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Tuesday, 10th December 2013

Somewhere in Time at the Observatory - By Mr. Lau Tin-chi

My childhood was spent in a western-style apartment room at the end of Hillwood Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, a convenient location for my father who worked at the Observatory nearby. In my primary school years around 1953 to 1954, my father took the whole family to visit his workplace at the Observatory. It was a dream playground for kids, with a spacious lawn in front and small woods behind.

Most importantly, Mr. Graham Heywood, the then Director of the Observatory, was a genuinely nice man with amiable characters, showing none of the arrogance often associated with colonial officials towards their Chinese subordinates or colleagues. Mr. Heywood was an urbane English gentleman - a scientist, an astronomer, and a scholar who cared about the environment. His wife, an English lady he married in Hong Kong, was just as caring and generous. The couple openly welcomed children of staff to spend time at the Observatory grounds.

The Hong Kong Observatory was founded in 1883 after the catastrophic typhoon of 1874. Services provided at the time included astronomy, time services, geomagnetic measurements, meteorological observations and the dissemination of typhoon warnings. In 1912, King George V granted it the title "Royal Observatory, Hong Kong". The main building was built in 1883, now with 130 years of history. Quarter No.1 has been the residence of the Director, a cosy villa with living and dining rooms downstairs. In my vague memories, I could still recall the taste of the delicious homemade cakes prepared by Mrs. Heywood at the long dining table. She obviously was an excellent baker. There was also a European art deco style fireplace inside the living room, something not readily found in Hong Kong. The only other such fireplace previously seen was inside the old Stanley Police Station, now rented out as a supermarket.

There was a small room of around 100 square feet located at the ground floor of the main building adjacent to Quarter No.1. In the past, this room was used for afternoon tea break, a British custom duly honoured at 3:15 p.m. sharp every day. Sipping a cup of English tea and having a bit of snacks, all could enjoy a treasured moment of relaxation. The room was also a playroom for children. Of course, as a 5 or 6-year old, I could hardly communicate with the two Heywood girls. The other day, the current Director Mr. Shun took us to the History Room for a tour. It was the tea room some sixty years ago! Vaguely but surely, sounds of small talks and laughter among the adults, the smell of coffee and the taste of the cakes all came flooding back into my memory.

Veronica - a name long forgotten. When Ms. Sandy Song, Senior Scientific Officer of the Observatory, called me and mentioned the name of Mr. Heywood, it immediately brought back memories of the faces of the Heywood couple. Their younger daughter, Veronica, was a little girl in braids when we first met. It turned out she came all the way from Dublin, Ireland, to Hong Kong for the reunion dinner of the Hong Kong Observatory 130th Anniversary. While here, she mentioned a colleague of her father with the surname "Lau" to Director Shun, and asked if anybody knew his whereabouts. Mr. Shun brought this up with ex-Director Mr. Lam Chiu-ying during the celebration dinner. Mr. Lam realized immediately that it had to be my father, as I had told him before my father worked at the Observatory for 33 1/3 years. He had the job title of Special Clerk and was effectively the "chief housekeeper" of the Observatory (Figure 1).

Mr. Shun invited me to attend Veronica's talk and joined the dinner afterwards. Of course, I was eager to meet a childhood friend. I was so grateful that Veronica still remembered a Chinese colleague of her father. The Christmas presents posted by my father and the hand-knitted cushion cover sent by my mother were also the childhood memories of Veronica. And I recalled Mr. Heywood giving us the "Picture Album of the London City", so that I got to know all the landmarks even before I visited London. Exchanging Christmas presents was a long-held tradition followed every year between my father and his boss.

That evening, Veronica and I joined hands and re-visited Quarter No.1 again after all these years (Figure 2). It was just like old time; nothing changed, nothing lost, and the fond affection of friendships from yesteryears still rippled through the air.

TC Lau


Mr. Lau Tin-chi, an experienced radio broadcaster and media personality, is the son of an ex-colleague, Mr. Lau Pak-wa. Mr. Lau started his career at the Observatory before World War II. During the Japanese occupation, the then Director and all expatriate staff were detained at internment camps. Mr. Lau and a group of Chinese colleagues escaped to Macao. After the liberation of Hong Kong, Mr. Lau and three other Chinese colleagues submitted a joint letter to the Director asking for reinstatement (Figure 3). Ms. Veronica Heywood, the younger daughter of the first post-war Director, Mr. Graham Heywood, travelled to Hong Kong from Ireland for a reunion this November. In meeting with colleagues of the Observatory, she asked about a former colleague, Mr. Lau. My initial thought was our ex-Director, Mr. Robert Lau, but when Robert told her that Mr. Heywood had already retired when he joined the Observatory, Veronica appeared to be disappointed. During a subsequent visit to the History Room of the Observatory, the name of "Lau Pak Wa", signed on the request letter for reinstatement on display, caught the eyes of Veronica. She was convinced that it was the "Mr. Lau" she was looking for. I had previously asked ex-Director Mr. Lam Chiu-ying if he knew how to get in touch with the descendants of the signatories on that letter. Mr. Lam recalled that Mr. Lau Tin-chi is the son of Lau Pak-wa who used to come and play in the Observatory's ground. Putting together all the clues, a mission on "Searching for Mr. Lau Tin-chi" was launched. Fortunately, Mr. Lau was at the time in Hong Kong delivering lectures at universities and hosting a popular radio programme on RTHK. The mission was duly completed within one day as we were able to contact Mr. Lau with the help of Mr. Lam Chiu-ying. After learning the reasons for the call, Mr. Lau immediately agreed to return to the Observatory to meet Veronica, his childhood friend 60 years ago. This was a perfect illustration of the Chinese theme for the 130th Anniversary of the Hong Kong Observatory - "Destined to Meet" (有緣相聚 ) !

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Lau Tin-chi for writing this article, adding a colourful touch of warmth and nostalgia to the Observatory's Blog !

CM Shun, Director of the Hong Kong Observatory

Figure 1

Figure 1      Group photo of the Observatory staff after World War II. Ms. Veronica Heywood was the girl in braids sitting on
the ground in the middle. Mr. Lau Tin-chi's father, Mr. Lau Pak-wa, was 7th from the right in the second row.

Figure 2

Figure 2      Ms. Veronica Heywood and Mr. Lau Tin-chi visiting Quarter No.1 hand-in-hand again after sixty years.

Figure 3

Figure 3      Letter requesting reinstatement by Observatory staff written in 1945 after the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong.
The first signature was that of Mr. Lau Pak-wa, father of Mr. Lau Tin-chi.

Last revision date: <16 Apr 2014>