5. Mary Soo

Mary Soo was one of the more remarkable individuals whose path crossed mine. She and her crew of mostly women would contract to paint an entire Navy ship while it was anchored at Hong Kong. Hong Kong was always the high point of every WESTPAC cruise, liberty was generously granted. One of the things that made this possible was Mary Soo and her outfit. Typically, we would stop in Hong Kong for a full week of rest and recreation (R&R).

Here is a panorama of Hong Kong harbor showing Navy ships anchored out in the bay —there were no port facilities:

Hong KongHarbor

Hong Kong Harbor

Upon arrival Mary Soo or one of her lieutenants would come aboard and work out a deal to paint the ship. Sometimes she would do the job just for the right to the garbage from the ship’s messes. Because Hong Kong was a liberty port, and a good portion of the crew was ashore at any one time, much of the food prepared aboard ship went unconsumed. This was carefully packaged and turned over to Mary Soo who sold it here and there in the city. It was sometimes wryly observed by seasoned salts that food purchased by sailors ashore might have been had for free aboard ship.

Because Navy regulations prohibited paying foreign nationals in cash for work accomplished on the ship, other means of compensation had to be found. Garbage was one solution, but the PICTOR was quite experienced in these matters, and we would usually load up with war surplus scrap metal in the Phillipines before proceeding to Hong Kong. Mary Soo was always delighted to see all of that stuff, especially if there was brass invovled.

After the deal was completed, a small fleet of sampans would arrive and an army of mostly women would file aboard to start painting. We provided the paint and they did the work. One reason that most of them were women was because Mary Soo also ran an orphange. She would “buy” unwanted female children and raise them in her orphnage. She probably saved the lives of many girl babies in this way. When the chilren were old enough to work they would join the ship painting effort. As workers they were paid a small wage, but this was put into an account for them which they would receive in full upon reaching adulthood. After that they could stay with Mary Soo or make their own way in the world. Sometimes some of the small children would accompany their older counterparts out to the ship. They didn’t actually come aboard but would stay on the sampans alongside. I remember on one occasion looking over the side and watching several girls of about age five or six playing on the stern of one of the boats. One of the girls was blond and fair. Needless to say that was highly unusual. I wasn’t close enough to see her facial features, but she was speaking fluent Chinese. I assume she was one of Mary Soo’s orphans.

The workers were always dressed in ragged, paint-covered clothes and they all wore the conical coolie hat as protection from the Sun. It was almost impossible to tell what they looked like. Instead of brushes, they used rags or textile waste to spread the paint. The few men there were used long poles to paint the sides of the ship from sampans moored alongside. They were a good natured bunch and there was much laughing and joking between the girls and the PICTOR’s deck force.

Because the PICTOR was such a good paying ship, May Soo always threw a big party for us at the end of the week. It was at this party that I first saw Mary Soo in person. She looked to be about eighty years old at the time (1963), yet she was obviously a very shrewd business person. The big surprise at the party, however, was the girls — they were gorgeous! They all wore their best party dresses, had their hair done and their makeup on. Our first reaction was these can’t be the same girls that painted the ship, but they were.

Several years after I left active duty I read in the newspaper that Mary Soo had died.  It made the news all over the world.

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Saturday, February 6th, 2010 U.S. Navy

8 Comments to 5. Mary Soo

  1. That account of the side cleaner – painter Mary Soo was quite accurate. I was navigator on USS Vega AF-59 from September 1956 through August 1958 during which time we visited Hong Kong at least three times and had the hull painted and cleaned each visit. I will try to insert a picture for you of me and CWO Casey atop the tramway overlooking the harbor. Couldn’t get it to insert. Tom Lytle

  2. Tom Lytle on March 2nd, 2012
  3. I too was in Hong Kong in 1958. I remember the water line being painted, but can’t recall if it was in Hong kong or in Yokosuka, Japan, and it had someting to do with an orphanage. The old mind is fading away. U.S.S. Cabildo LSD- 16K

  4. Wade Combs on March 4th, 2012
  5. went to hong kong on uss ute, atf-76 3 times. the ships botswains, gave the ladies ,canvas, rope ( old hawsers) and garbage to paint the ship. went back on the hector ar-7 and it was mostly garbage. from @ ’59 to ’63.
    still have my hong kong suit…
    fair winds…..

  6. reejay on March 5th, 2012
  7. From 1957 to ’59 I was aboard the USS Henrico, APA 45. We went into Hong Kong twice during that time and had Mary Soo’s side cleaners paint the ship both times for the garbage. One of the workers stood by the scullery during meal times and took our tin trays. She would put the meat in one garbage can, the potatoes in another, etc. Being a fireman and duty boat engineer we had to go to the sampan village early in the mornings and tow Mary Soo’s sampans and workers out to the ship and tow them back at night.
    Around that time in my life I saw the movie “The World of Suzy Wong.” The harbor, the Queens landing, the Kowloon ferry, the tramway, the streets and every thing about that movie seemed to be right out of my experiences there in Hong Kong. Even the sampan village was a part of the movie. Every sailor from the Pacific fleet of those days should see that movie.

  8. Dave Russett on March 6th, 2012
  9. This was very informative information about Hong Kong Mary.

    I think that I can add a small amount to it.

    I was a young Ensign aboard the USS Washburn, AKA 108 in 1961 and 62.

    We were the station ship Hong Kong for six weeks. During that time, Marys team completely repainted the USS Washburn, inside and outside.

    One evening while I was on Quarterdeck watch, Mary came aboard to check on the work that had been done on the Washburn. We had a few minutes to chat.

    I remember her as a short “stout” lady, quite, but friendly.

    I noticed that she was wearing a very interesting braclet. It was partially transparent, but had swirls of yellow running thru it as well. I complemented her on it, and she told me that it was Jade. I stated that I did not know that Jade came in any colors except green. She laughed and told me quite a bit about Jade. She said that it comes in Clear, Yellow, Green and I think, Pink. She told me that the mixed version on her bracelet was the dearest. Her escort soon showed up and that was the last that I saw of her.

    Many years later, while waiting in a Doctor’s office, I picked up a Readers Digest, and found an article in on on Hong Kong Mary. I think that it wan one of the “Most Unforgetable Persons” articles. It pretty much outlined her life and accomplishments.

    She had made a good impression on me. I had my college classs ring set in Jade while I was still in Hong Kong.

    Sept 2014

  10. Ens. Robert Lynn Harvey on September 1st, 2014
  11. I served in the Navy In Sasebo Japan 1956 to 1959 aboard many shops passed thru Hong Kong many times to witness Mart Soo and Her side Cleaners. This is a good example that many do not have to live off the government welfare programs.

  12. HAROLD Wright on March 17th, 2017
  13. The Mary Soo I knew in 1960 and 61 was the great granddaughter, and very sweet. I asked her to dinner, and learned she personally made $1500 American dollars a month (I made $118) and was supporting a brother in colllege in America. USS Ponchatoula, oiler. I couldn’t belive when I started to Google her, and the finished name and place came up!

  14. Mike Kitsko on May 31st, 2018
  15. The Mary Soo I knew in 1960 and 61 was the great granddaughter, and very sweet. I asked her to dinner, and learned she personally made $1500 American dollars a month (I made $118) and was supporting a brother in colllege in America. USS Ponchatoula, oiler. I couldn’t belive when I started to Google her, and the finished name and place came up! We chipped in $5 each to have our work done for us. The best deal, ever!

  16. Mike Kitsko on May 31st, 2018

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