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A life less ordinary: DB memoirist David Tolliday-Wright reflects on 53 years in Hong Kong

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David Tolliday-Wright may have abandoned Hong Kong Island for Discovery Bay, but that’s as far as the memoirist is going. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

It’s a dull autumn day in Discovery Bay when David Tolliday-Wright hops, as quickly as his cane will allow, over to greet me at Pacific Coffee. He graciously springs for a cappuccino, while explaining that he’s arthritic, “not so good on the old pins,” anymore. “There’s a fellow at the church who helps me around, and he’s 91!” he declares with a good-natured eye roll.

Now 75 and as ironic as any millennial, David is feeling reflective. He’s spent 53 years in Hong Kong since arriving in 1965, with the exception of three years a to study law in Wales, and he’s not going anywhere anytime soon. “I’m very pro-Hong Kong. I’ve been here most of my life. I’m more connected to Hong Kong than my ‘own’ country,” he says.

African patrol

Born in Shropshire, near Wales, he and his family moved back to London after the Second World War, and in typical David fashion, he downplays the gumption that brought him to Hong Kong. “I didn’t have much of an education. I was a brewers’ drayman; I was strong as an ox,” he recalls. But to fulfil a boyhood ambition, he joined the Northern Rhodesia Police when he was 18 and shipped off to Africa.

“My mother told a story,” he says with a smile. “She said I got lost once when I was a kid, in Blackpool. They found me eventually at the local police station, surrounded by all these Bobbies, and apparently I screamed the place down when they took me away.”

As a young, post-war Brit, David was inspired by a combination of a desire for colonial public service and an old TV show called African Patrol. Filmed on location in Kenya in 1957, the series relates the adventures of a unit of British police officers based in Nairobi and would, David ruefully admits, “be considered really racist today.”

While with the Northern Rhodesia Police, David helped to keep order in the Copper Belt as decolonization gathered pace around him, and 1962 saw him policing the very ground on which Dag Hammarskjöld’s plane had crashed so mysteriously the previous year. This was only the first time he found himself occupying a ringside seat in the theatre of world politics.

Law and order

After Northern Rhodesia gained independence in 1964, the British police services took David to Hong Kong, where he served with the force until 1980. Along the way he met his wife, Diana (who passed away in 2006) a Hongkonger, and settled down to have a family. In Discovery Bay since 2007, the move suited him at the time, and with his daughter, twin grandsons and granddaughter living next door, it’s just as right now.

David put 19 years into policing, many in the CID, and 30 into work as a criminal advocate. He pounded the beat during the 1967 riots, where he found himself under machine-gun fire from Maoist mobs during the disturbances at Sha Tau Kok, and in the corruption-plagued 1970s, when Hong Kong was peppered by R&R-seeking American GIs over from Vietnam.

A change of career aged 39 saw David, Diana and their young children moving to Wales where he studied law, just as Hong Kong was preparing for the new political reality of ‘one country, two systems.’ Going back to school after a gap year is hard enough, but David was motivated. “I had to make a go of it, I had two children, babies, and a wife to support,” he says. “I was determined to study very hard.”

He eventually graduated, and before he could even worry about being a middle-aged man beginning a law career he met Gordon Hampton (of Hampton Winter and Glynn), who he knew from his old policing days. He offered him a job in his chambers back in Hong Kong and David jumped at the chance. His return to Hong Kong got him a good deal of ribbing from cops he knew who were still around. “A lot of the fellas weren’t too happy,” he says. “I was a proper police.” They got over it.

david tolliday

Grandchild of Empire

Given his colourful life, David sat down to write a memoir in 2014, and wound up with the 500- page Grandchild of Empire. “It was published through… not a proper publisher,” he notes, grasping for the name. Amazon? “Yes, Amazon!” It’s an enlightening and engaging account of the years preceding the final collapse of the British Empire and offers a personal, first-hand recollection of a defining stretch of history – the world’s and Hong Kong’s.

David insists his children (he also has a son living in the US) aren’t terribly interested in his adventures, but his grandkids might be. “I can’t explain why. I was so, so interested in my great uncle George – who fought in the Boer War and the First World War – much more than in my own uncle or my own father,” he says. “The times were just so different.

“[The book is] called Grandchild of Empire because I am. I remember my mother showing me red countries on the globe and saying, ‘That’s ours, that’s ours.’ I’m old-fashioned and I believe we did more good than bad, but we’re supposed to be ashamed of it now. It’s popular to say everything’s terrible.”

Which is not to say David is some kind of apologist. Ask him if there is a downside to colonialism’s legacy and his reply is a quick, “Oh, of course. Absolutely. Whatever the system was that I was working for was the wrong system. But it’s entirely the way the system worked at the time.”

He also recognises the occasionally fraught relationship that has developed between the public and the police lately. “Back in the corrupt old days, there was a distrust. Caution statements are much better now,

and very often corruption came from the top down. The higher-ups wanted results,” he states. “I was always very defensive of the rank and file on the ground. I haven’t noticed an anti-police attitude, but perhaps with the young folks, with this understandable demand for greater freedoms, and the cops siding with the establishment – they have to, they’re the tool of the establishment – things are a little strained.”

He’s still not giving up the SAR, with the exception of the occasional cruise – on a small ship, not a gargantuan ocean liner the size of a small town. “I go on the ones where the average age is 60. It’s all old farts. You know, you waddle off to lunch, you tiffin, you only unpack once,” he quips. His thrilling travel days are behind him; he’s done his share of overlanding through Kenya, Sudan, up the Nile and from Kathmandu to London by bus.

David hauls himself off the bench; it’s time to go pick up the grandkids, like any good, spoiling grandparent. He ponders a moment then adds. “I’ve done few good trips. I got six months every three years when I was in the police. In six months, you can do quite a lot. I can’t complain.” You can do a lot in 53 years too.

Photos by Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.com

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Comment(s) on - A life less ordinary: DB memoirist David Tolliday-Wright reflects on 53 years in Hong Kong

  • Tony Reply

    Enjoyed your memoir Dave, similar sentiments too. Amazing how things change yet remain the same – it all depends on your perspective.
    Hope your keeping well, and clearly enjoying Lantau.

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