Rick Brant in Hong Kong

In Pursuit of the Golden Mouse; or, Following Rick and Scotty Through the Streets of Hong Kong

David K. Vaughan

Readers of the Rick Brant series are familiar with the fact that Rick, Scotty, and Hobart Zircon visit one of the fabled cities of the Far East, Hong Kong, in the eighth title in the Rick Brant Science Adventure series, The Caves of Fear.  Although most of the story takes place in the hills and caves of Korse Lenken, deep in China near the Tibetan border, many events occur in Hong Kong, where the Spindrifters initially hope to meet their youthful Indian accomplice, Chahda, who has sent them a mysterious coded message warning them of trouble and requesting them to meet him at an establishment called the Golden Mouse.  Events in Hong Kong constitute five of the twenty chapters in the book, three before they reach Korse Lenken, and two afterwards, covering a total of sixty pages.  The Spindrifters begin and end their China adventure in Hong Kong, so the city serves as their gateway to the orient literally and thematically.

So when my wife, Rosemary, and I had the opportunity to visit Hong Kong, I thought it would be interesting to compare modern Hong Kong to the Hong Kong of Caves of Fear to identify the changes that might have occurred in the fifty years since the book was published (1951) and, if possible, determine the location of the disreputable bar/restaurant Hal Goodwin named The Golden Mouse.  One could expect many changes, for Hong Kong has always been known as a city of international trade and finance and as such would naturally be subject to rapid development and growth, more so than Cairo, the setting of Hal Goodwin’s Egyptian Cat Mystery (1962), which Rosemary and I also visited.

The initial Hong Kong section (chapters 5-8) of the story opens as the Spindrift team begins its descent to Kai Tak airport in a four-engine transport.  The approach to the airport is described as a series of sharp banks and turns:

“The big plane suddenly banked, leveled, then banked again. . . .  The plane banked again, the other way.  Rick realized with a sudden feeling of discomfort that they were actually weaving their way through mountain peaks!  He had heard that the approach to Hong Kong was crooked as a corkscrew; now he knew the reports didn’t exaggerate. . . .  The plane rocked far over in a tight bank, and there was a howl as the flaps were lowered.”  (48-9)

The approach and landing at Kai Tak airport has always been justly famed for its twisting, turning approach, and Hal Goodwin describes it well.  The gyrating approach to Kai Tak was only the first challenge facing pilots landing there; the runway was unusually short, due to the minimum space available on the airport, and the runway extended into the bay only a relatively short distance, so the second challenge for pilots was to stop successfully, which could be a difficult feat on a rainy, blustery day.  Visitors to Hong Kong expecting such an approach these days, however, will be disappointed, for a modern airport was built on a nearby island, Lantau, in 1999. The approaches to the new Hong Kong airport on Lantau Island are direct, easy and uncomplicated; both approaches come in over the open ocean and no islands have to be avoided.

Goodwin does not explain the reason for the twisting approach to Kai Tak airport, which was due only partially to the location of the islands that blocked the approach.  A more normal approach could have been made to Kai Tak, one that did not involve twisting over the island of Hong Kong or Kowloon Peninsula, where Kai Tak was located, but a safer approach path was not available due to the political situation.   Hong Kong was, until very recently, a British colony bordered by Communist China, which did not allow incoming or outgoing air traffic to overfly any of its territory.  Due to the restricted airspace, the primary approach was from the sea (south) as was the departure pattern.  The runway ended abruptly against the rising Kowloon hills, so maneuvering room was practically non-existent.  As one guide book describes it, “the breath-taking descents” over Kowloon allowed the passengers to “actually see into housing estate flats.”  With the transfer of political power from the British to the Chinese in 1997, the problem of overflying restricted airspace disappeared.  But, for a number of good reasons, Goodwin chose not to go into the political situation, as it was not a central factor in his story.

It would have been a short taxi ride, only a few kilometers, from the old Kai Tak airport to the hotel where Rick, Scotty, and Hobart Zircon were staying, the Peninsula Hotel.  The Peninsula Hotel is located in Kowloon, across the bay from Hong Kong island.  Today it is a much longer ride from the airport on Lantau Island, some 35 kilometers (about 20 miles) to Kowloon.  But it is a very pleasant ride along a scenic modern expressway, over two bridges and through one tunnel (two if you are going to Hong Kong island instead of Kowloon), and the trip can be made easily in a half-hour.  And Hobart Zircon would find lots of cars nowadays to fit his massive frame, as there are many luxury cars available, including Mercedes and Toyotas.

The hotel in which the Spindrift team stays in Hong Kong is one of the most famous hotels in the Far East, the Peninsula Hotel, built in 1928.   As Goodwin describes it, “In a short time they pulled up in front of the Peninsular, one of the world’s famous hotels.  It was an imposing structure, the lobby as vast as an auditorium, but broken up by numerous pillars, potted plants, and dusty-looking furniture” (50).  It is puzzling that Hal Goodwin did not use its correct name—he calls it the “Peninsular Hotel,” a strange mistake for him to make.  As far as I can tell, it has always been called the Peninsula Hotel, and it is unlikely that he had any other hotel in mind.

Today, the Peninsula remains a prestigious hotel, though it is now surrounded by large stores and other, more modern hotels.  The commanding view it used to have of Hong Kong Island and the waters separating Hong Kong from Kowloon is now gone, blocked by the recently built Hong Kong Cultural Centre complex, a modernistic hodge-podge of buildings where concerts and exhibitions are held.

The hotel lobby remains impressively large today, and equally if not more appealing visually than Goodwin made it seem.  The pillars are still there (necessary structurally) and so are the potted plants (a tasteful addition to the décor), but there is definitely no “dusty-looking furniture.”  A visit to the lobby of the Peninsula is one of the high spots of a new-comer’s visit to Hong Kong, especially in the afternoon, when a very British “high tea” is served, consisting of finger sandwiches, scones (fresh and warm, with lots of butter and preserves to spread on them), and a variety of dessert snacks to close the meal.  And your favorite tea, of course.  Rosemary and I had to stand in a queue for about 20 minutes for a table, but the wait was well worth it (no wait if you are staying in the hotel).

As it was when Rick and Scotty were there, it is just a short walk from the Peninsula Hotel to the ferry docks where you can catch one of the ferries to the Hong Kong side.  Goodwin says that “the ferry slip was less than a three-minute walk from the hotel.”  C’mon Hal, it’s a short walk, but you can’t even cross a street in three minutes.  The ferry dock is about a ten- to fifteen-minute walk.  No matter how you time it, it’s close and convenient.  Today, however, it is easy to be distracted on your way to the ferry by the large, modern, multi-level shopping mall that is located just to the north of the ferry slip.  It has been built on the foundation of the docks immediately to the north of the ferry docks and is called, not surprisingly, the Harbourside Mall.  It is easy to get lost in this never-ending complex of upscale stores.

Rick, Scotty, and Zircon take the round-trip ferry ride between Hong Kong and Kowloon three times in the first part of the story.  (Actually, they take it two and a half times—one time they decide to return from Hong Kong to Kowloon by “wallah-wallah” or junk boat, due to their water-logged condition after a desperate swim in the bay.)  The ferry line they would have used is the Star Line, every boat carrying the name “star,” like Morning Star, Evening Star, Precious Star, and so on.  Hal Goodwin even tells us what the exchange rate for Hong Kong dollars was at the time: six and a fraction to one American dollar.  Today, surprisingly, the exchange rate is about the same: seven and a fraction to one.  Perhaps it is not so surprising, because the Hong Kong dollar has been tied to the U.S. dollar in a fixed rate since the 1980s.  Even though the Chinese sometimes appear to be unnecessarily in a hurry, especially when you have to navigate through a crowd trying to cross the street with a short pedestrian light, it is true, as Hobart Zircon says, that “they are without a doubt the most polite of all the Eastern peoples” (51).  I was always surprised when store clerks would hand back my credit card to me using both hands accompanied by a bow of the head.

When they board the ferry on their first ride to Hong Kong island, Rick gets his “first look at Hong Kong” and his “mental image of an oriental city” vanished like a “burst bubble.”  Even in 1951, Hong Kong looked surprisingly modern:

“Across the bay, a green mountain stretched like a jagged knife-edge against the sky line.  Here and there, far above the bay, were white blocks, like granite chips, marking houses.  Lower down, the city of Victoria began.  It was like marble slabs piled in an orderly array, thinning out toward the upper side of the mountain.  Down at sea level, the buildings were thickly clustered.  But they were modern buildings, not a trace of the oriental in them.”  (51-2)

Goodwin’s word picture is still essentially true, as modern Hong Kong has hundreds of needle-thin high rise apartments and office buildings starting at water’s edge and climbing up the hills of Hong Kong.  The city of Victoria no longer exists officially, perhaps a victim of the handover of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese in 1997, when many British names gave way to traditional Chinese names.  Instead, there are individually named sections of the business area, including “Central,” “Wan Chai,” “Sheung Wan.”  The words “Hong Kong” now refer to both the business district and the island.

“Between the ferry and Hong Kong, the bay was crowded with water traffic.  Junks with gay sails sped noiselessly between puffing little tugs.  Great deep-water freighters were anchored, lighters at their sides taking off cargo.  Slightly to one side, the sleek line of a British cruiser was visible, and beyond it a trio of lean, wolfish destroyers.” (52)

It is true that the stretch of water between Kowloon and Hong Kong is busy with water traffic.  But there are no more junks with “gay sails” speeding around; they were long ago replaced by powered vessels, many of them built in the old junk style, however.  There are also no British warships, as they disappeared prior to the 1997 handover.  And the off-loading operations are now carried out farther west, on the Kowloon side, away from the busy and scenic Kowloon-Hong Kong isthmus.

After they arrive in Hong Kong, Scotty comments on the “three-storey trolleys,” calling them “skycrapers on wheels.”  If Hong Kong ever had three-story trolleys, they have long since disappeared.  But there are plenty of double-decker buses of the type seen in London.  (The British influence in Hong Kong is profound, of course, given the fact that England governed the island for almost a hundred years.)  The trio then discusses visiting the American consulate, “only a block away.”  The American consulate is in this area, but is located several blocks from the waterfront, not far from the tram car that takes visitors up Victoria Peak, the highest point of land on Hong Kong island.  I’m surprised Goodwin didn’t mention that fact, as the tram line to the Peak has been in Hong Kong even longer than the Peninsula Hotel and is one of the major tourist attractions.

The Spindrift team decides to split up and meet later at a local department store, Whiteaway-Laidlaw’s Department Store.  Like the Hong Kong junks, the Whiteaway-Laidlaw Store has long since disappeared, but Rick and Scotty wouldn’t need to worry about finding sufficient shopping places, for Hong Kong shares with Singapore the reputation of being a shopper’s paradise.  There are stores and malls everywhere.  It’s not surprising that Scotty sees a “bank across the street”; Hong Kong was then and is now the financial center of the Far East.

While Hobart Zircon heads off to the American Consulate, Rick and Scotty try to find out the location of the “Golden Mouse,” where they hope to meet Chahda.  They first ask a “bobby,” a U.K.-style policeman, who tells them only that they should “keep away from the Golden Mouse.”  Rick and Scotty wouldn’t find any “bobbys” today, as they have disappeared, their places admirably taken by the Hong Kong police force.  They then meet Old Bert, a cockney sailor who tells them that it is a “kind ‘o restaurant, you might say, . . . a fair popular place.”  To find it, he says, “just get a couple rickshaws, and you say to the coolies to take you to Canton Charlie’s place.”  Well, a visitor today is doubly out of luck: no more rickshaws, and no “coolies” to pull them.  But even if you asked a cab driver to take you to the Golden Mouse, you would be out of luck again—there is no such place.

I looked through the yellow pages of the Hong Kong telephone directory, where I found a Golden Crown restaurant and several Golden Dragon restaurants, but no Golden Mouse.  I looked in other sections of the phone book as well, looking for less reputable categories, including massage parlors and escort services (hard to miss these sections, really—they have such appealing visual displays).  But no Golden Mouse.  Nor was there any such establishment as “Canton Charlie’s,” either.  There are many restaurants specializing in Cantonese food, but no Canton Charlie’s.

I’m not sure why Goodwin chose the name “Golden Mouse,” as the mouse is not especially important in Chinese culture.  There is no year of the mouse, for example, in their calendar, although there is a year of the rat.  It would have been much more appropriate—from the point of view of Chinese culture—to have chosen a name like dragon, or lion, or water buffalo, but he didn’t.  However, he must have seen somewhere a pattern similar to that he describes in the décor scheme of the Golden Mouse: “the walls were covered with a grimy paper of faded yellow on which unskilled drawings of mice at play were clustered” (61).  Possibly Goodwin was influenced by some art he saw in Hong Kong, for even in 1950, Hong Kong had developed a reputation as a center for the arts, which it still holds.

Given Old Bert’s dire warning—that Rick and Scotty would end up in a ditch with their throats cut if they visited the Golden Mouse, I was just as happy not to find it.  But I wanted to see if I couldn’t get some idea of its location, and I turned back to the book to see what information Goodwin provided about the location of the Golden Mouse.  He doesn’t give much helpful information (at least in comparison with the specific details he provides in the Egyptian Cat Mystery).

Hobart Zircon says that from the description Old Bert gave Rick and Scotty, “I’d say it is typical of a certain kind of place where toughs hang out.  Each city in the Orient has several.”  After returning to their hotel to change clothes they return to Hong Kong and hail three rickshaws, telling the men pulling the rickshaws to take them to Canton Charlie’s.  The men start off immediately:

“The rickshaw boys started off at a trot.  The way led along the bay shore, past wharves and piers, until they were out of the central part of the city and moving into a section that was more as Rick had imagined an oriental city to be.  The streets were wide but lined with board-front buildings.  The signs were all in Chinese, and usually painted in gaudy colors. . . .  It was a long way.  They had left their hotel in full daylight, but dusk had settled before the coolies finally turned off the main road.  They went into a narrow street, then turned down another and still another.”  (60)

Finally they stop in an “alleyway,” in front of a “low wooden building with windows that hadn’t been cleaned in years.”

Goodwin fails to provide one very important piece of information: the direction of their travel.  From the Hong Kong ferry dock you can travel along the shoreline west or east.  It’s not clear (probably intentionally) in which direction they travel.  However, my investigations revealed that most of the industrial harbor areas historically were located along the shoreline to the east of the central area.  Most of today’s heavy shipping activity occurs in western Kowloon; there is very little industrial shipping activity on the Hong Kong shoreline these days.  One clue Goodwin gives us is that Canton Charlie’s was “a long way” from the ferry dock.  But this is a “long way” by coolie-drawn rickshaw, not by taxi.  So I’m guessing that a “long way” in this case would be about four or five kilometers, maximum.  That distance would place the destination in what is today a very upscale area of Hong Kong, the Causeway Bay area.  Most of the old warehouses and harbor shipping facilities in that area have been replaced by parks and yacht basins (similar, for instance, to the change that has occurred in Baltimore’s inner harbor).  Sea side real estate in Hong Kong is much too valuable these days to be wasted on shipping docks, especially now that the new relationship with China has allowed the commercial areas of Hong Kong to expand into Kowloon and the New Territories (which border on mainland China).

When Rick, Scotty, and Hobart Zircon enter Canton Charlie’s/The Golden Mouse, they notice a variety of disreputable sailor types, many of which are Portuguese; one Portuguese sailor brandishes an especially nasty-looking knife.  Hobart Zircon reminds the boys that Portuguese sailors can be found in Hong Kong because “the Portuguese colony of Macau was only half an afternoon’s boat trip south of Hong Kong” (64).  These days Macau is only an hour’s trip by jet ferry, and ferries go to Macau about every fifteen minutes.  Macau is an especially popular destination, because it offers legal gambling casinos, several built by Las Vegas companies, including the Sands; two new casinos were under construction while Rosemary and I were there.  Macau itself is an interesting town with many European-style structures due to the presence of the Portuguese, who established the colony in the 1500s.  Like Hong Kong, Macau was transferred to Chinese control in 1999.  At the time there was some concern that China would make these two colonies socialist states like the mainland, but China has adopted a policy of “one country, two systems” and has kept the capitalist systems of the colonies intact—for the moment, anyhow.  Macau and Hong Kong are both termed “special administrative regions” (or SARs—not to be confused with the ailment SARS) of China.  (And Macau is actually west of Hong Kong, not south.  It sits on the west side of the estuary of the Pearl River, one of China’s major rivers, while Hong Kong sits on the east side.)

While they are sitting in the Golden Mouse drinking their cokes, Zircon is handed a note which informs them to go to the street called the Three Blind Fishermen (I couldn’t find such a street on my map) and then board the junk with purple sails.  The junk sails out in the darkness and they are attacked.  Just as they are about to be overpowered they hear a voice urging them to jump off the boat and swim for shore, which they do.  The voice is that of Ronald Keaton-Yeats, an English bank clerk whom they had met earlier (but in fact he is a British intelligence agent).  Keaton-Yeats gives us a little clue about their location when he says that he arrived “just in time to hear the most infernal commotion out in the bay” (75).  The “bay” might well refer to Quarry Bay, located at the east end of Hong Kong Island; if the Spindrifters had gone west instead of east, they would have ended up in Victoria Harbour, and a local would have said “harbour” (British spelling of course), not “bay.”

One more adventure awaits the Spindrift team before they leave Hong Kong—the fight in their hotel room.  Just when they think nothing else unpleasant can happen to them, they enter their hotel room in the Peninsula Hotel and are attacked by a man with a gun, a Schmeisser machine pistol, or “burp” gun, the name referring to the noise it makes when it fires.  The attacker (the infamous “Long Shadow,” who continues to interfere with their progress throughout the story) escapes when, in the darkness, Rick hits the wrong man (JANIG agent Carl Bradley) on the head with his flashlight.  When the hotel staff arrive to investigate the disturbance, Hobart Zircon adopts a tone of indignant outrage about the kind of treatment they have received in the hotel: “The day we pay damages for the privilege of being shot at in this disreputable dive you fatuously call a hotel will be the day Hong Kong sinks beneath the sea like Atlantis” (84).  Although Zircon’s truly impressive outburst effectively chases away the hotel staff without answering their questions, I find it hard to believe that anyone could have gotten away with that kind of behavior in the Peninsula Hotel at any time during its seventy-five years of doing business.  If something like that were to happen today, I’m sure that Rick, Scotty and Zircon would have been promptly invited to leave the hotel and would probably have become guests of the Kowloon police.

Even though they leave Hong Kong without contacting Chahda as they had hoped, they manage to avoid physical harm on more than one occasion, and they have seen quite a bit of the most scenic portions of Hong Kong.  When they return to Hong Kong after their adventures at Korse Lenken, they visit Canton Charlie’s one more time, where they find out that he really was trying to help them when they first arrived, but that they left the restaurant before he could give them the information they needed.  As if in celebration of the successful conclusion to their trip to China, they engage in a free-for-all bar fight in a scene straight out of a John Wayne movie.  In this fight no one is seriously hurt and everyone treats it as if it were nothing more than a rough-and-tumble game.  But they do not visit any new sights in Hong Kong, and we never obtain any more information about the exact location of Canton Charlie’s Golden Mouse.