Hong Kong Harbor

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