In an excerpt from his bestselling memoir A Small Band of Men, former Marine Police commander Les Bird looks back to 1978 and recalls his first meeting with the then priest of Tai O, Father Don Giovanni Vigano
In 1978, there was one other Caucasian living on my half of Lantau, the priest of Tai O Father Don Giovanni Vigano. Rob Naylor [my predecessor], briefed me about him before
“The old priest has led quite an amazing life, and is a bit of a character,” he said. “I think you and the father will get along very well. Your challenge will be language. Unfortunately, he can only speak a lick of English, but he can get by in Cantonese, and is fluent in Mandarin.”
After a few days in the job, I decided to pay the father a visit. The chapel was a modest structure, located on the outskirts of the village. I walked up the tree-lined track to the front of the church, pushed open the main door and peered into the darkness.
“Les! Les. Is it Les?” came a lively, accented voice from the darkness.
“Yes,” I said immediately, trying to make out the owner of the voice.
“Come, come,” said the voice again. “I am here.”
As my eyes became accustomed to the change in light, I took a couple of cautious steps, doing my best not to trip over anything, but only succeeding in walking directly into the advancing figure of Father Don Giovanni Vigano as he emerged out of the darkness. I looked down at a small, slender man. He had a bright smile and twinkling green eyes that reflected the sunlight as it washed across his face. He grabbed my right hand between both his and shook enthusiastically.
“Come, come, Les. Please this way,” he said, guiding me through the church and into a back office. “Si, si, a-Rob he tell me, Les will come. He say Les will come, si,” he muttered as he fussed around putting away papers and straightening cushions. “Please, sit,” he said, pointing to a vacant armchair. “Tea,” he announced with a broad smile.
I nodded and he rushed out, returning after a minute with a tray of small porcelain cups and a plate of delicate pastries.
In a mixture of broken English, elementary Cantonese, and some Italian, the latter of which I understood little, I ascertained that Father Giovanni loved three things:
God, altar wine, and football. ‘Inter Milano eez-a-much-a-betta than-a-Leev-a-pool.’
Over the next few months our friendship grew, while our methods of communication remained basic. I discovered that the father’s Cantonese was actually very good so the villagers found it highly comical that their only two foreign residents often communicated in their own tongue.
When the father and I dined together in one of the village restaurants, the locals would pull up their chairs so they could eavesdrop. When I got a little muddled with my Cantonese, there was always advice shouted from the crowd that had gathered at the rear. When one of us got a sentence or phrase spot on it would be accompanied by laughter and applause. Dinner with the father in Tai O was never dull.
A Small Band of Men: An Englishman’s Adventures in Hong Kong’s Marine Police (Earnshaw Books 2019), by Les Bird is available at Bookazine, Kelly & Walsh and Swindon