More Painful Memories of Old Hong Kong
By Suzi Cheung
This being the Year of the Dragon, it seems the perfect time to share with younger users of this site another painful memory from bygone days. The ‘dragon’ cane, as I found to my cost as a young woman in the 1980s, is a famously severe implement, dreaded by recipients and reserved by those who wield it for particularly heinous offences. It is the ultimate sanction and not what might call a day-to-day cane. Dragon canes are made of much denser wood than ordinary ‘koboo’ canes or those swishy little sticks which you can still buy in Hong Kong shops – and to which some parents still occasionally resort. If you caned a child with a dragon cane, you would very quickly end up in court, facing a prison sentence. I was not aware of any of this, I hasten to add, until a traumatic episode that occurred in around 1987, when I was in my early twenties. I have already described, in the first of these reminiscences, how I got to be caned by a Swedish businesswoman called Miss Elsa Svenson when I was a schoolgirl.
That experience left its mark, as the saying goes, in fact six extremely vivid marks on my teenage backside; but I don’t believe in bearing grudges, so when I found myself working in the same bank as Miss Svenson, I was determined to let bygones be bygones. She was in quite a senior position, while I was just a trainee clerk, and I got the shock of my life when I bumped into her in a corridor. Something clicked in my head and I suddenly remembered the whistle of her cane as it approached my bare bottom at high velocity – not a happy memory. But I wasn’t at school any more, I told myself, I wasn’t at risk of corporal punishment, so there was no need to be afraid of a repetition. I made every effort to be friendly to Miss Svenson, she was friendly in return, and we were quickly on Christian name terms. In fact, she asked me round to her apartment once, along with some other colleagues from the bank, and we had drinks on the balcony, overlooking the harbour. Little could I have foreseen the almost surreal turn events were about to take.
Being young and high-spirited, I was a less than model employee, if I am honest, and was always larking about. I am certainly not the first woman to have used the office photocopier to take a picture of her bottom after an office party and I certainly won’t be the last. But in the stuffy surroundings of the Hong Kong Amalgamated Bank, it was not a smart career move. When the matter was brought to the attention of the CEO, Mr Y K Chang, he gave me an almighty telling-off and told me to report to the bank’s Disciplinary Office (Female) – yes, you guessed, Miss Elsa Svenson, wearing one of her many hats. Summoned to her office, on the top floor of the bank, I could hardly believe my ears when she said that, in the case of gross misbehaviour, the bank offered employees a stark choice – instant dismissal or exemplary corporal punishment.
‘Elsa, you are joking?’ I said, rather feebly, far from certain she was joking. ‘No, Suzi, I am not joking,’ she said. ‘This bank takes discipline seriously. Very seriously. Can I take it you accept the option of corporal punishment rather than dismissal?’ I nodded. ‘Then let’s get this unpleasant business over with.’ With which she removed the jacket of her business suit – a very sinister touch, which really put the wind up me, for some reason – and hung it on a coat-hanger.
‘The last time I had occasion to cane you,’ she went on, in frosty tones, ‘you were just a schoolgirl. This time you are a grown woman. You can take more punishment, so rest assured that you will receive more punishment. I believe twelve with the dragon would be appropriate. What do you have to say?’ The honest answer would have been ‘not a lot’. I had never heard of a dragon cane and there was obviously no point in arguing. So I just nodded miserably and abased my eyes in shame. The next thing I knew, Miss Svenson had taken a longish cane made of dark wood out of the cupboard beside her desk. She flexed it menacingly, then told me to remove my shirt and underwear and bend over the desk. I obeyed in a kind of trance. Was this really happening? Between two grown women in an office overlooking Hong Kong harbour? It was as if I had been transported back to my schooldays.
There was a short theatrical pause, then the familiar double sound. ‘SWISHHH… THWACKKK!’ The pain was indescribable. I had resolved to take my punishment stoically, but my hands just shot to my bottom as if someone had set a match to it. Miss Svenson was unmoved. ‘It hurts, doesn’t it?’ she said, a glimpse of the obvious if ever there was one. But there was to be no letting up. My hands flew to my bottom several times in the next five minutes, but it was to no avail. As soon as I had composed myself, and the target area was clear, Miss Svenson brought the dragon lashing down again. ‘SWISHHH.… THWACKKK!… SWISHHH.… THWACKKK!.… SWISHHH…’ I was crying like a baby by the time she had finished. The physical after-effects of the caning were almost as bad as the caning itself. I limped out of Miss Svenson’s office, locked myself in the ladies’ and inspected my bottom in the mirror. What a contrast with the smooth, lily-white bottom captured by the photocopier! There were raised purple weals right across both buttocks and flecks of blood where the weals had crossed. It was several days before I could sit comfortably.
Not surprisingly, every time the Year of the Dragon comes round, there is one middle-aged Hong Kong woman who greets it with very mixed emotions!