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Floating Staff v Shore Staff

As a result of living for prolonged periods within the confines of a small tin world, it was perhaps understandable that many CNCo officers and their very conservative Chinese crews were suspicious of change, - it's human nature, - for they took a great deal of pride in their ship, her appearance and their ability to handle all but the most unusual situations. Now, of course, the British and Commonwealth officers and their long serving crews are a matter of history, but a history well worth recording.

During those days there existed a bit of a “gap” between what could be quaintly called Swire “shore staff” and “floating staff”. They came from diverse backgrounds and lived in different worlds and there was a suspicion by the latter that they were regarded as second class citizens.

I was fortunate with my time in Swires for I spent ten years at sea with CNCo before many of the rather ominous changes looming on the horizon were implemented, but then spent twenty years ashore helping to implement those same changes, so I could see both sides of the coin. At least in New Zealand I was able to bridge the gap between shore and floating staff, whereas elsewhere it may have persisted. To give an example, when I was first seconded ashore in 1969 my wife, Helen, and I were given a company flat. We flew out to Hong Kong from London and after a night in a hotel to recover our jet lagged wits, we duly presented ourselves to the General Affairs Department in Head Office. The General Affairs Department arranged various vital domestic matters such as the company flat we would occupy and the furnishings thereof. Because I was still technically on “floating staff” there was a very obvious distinction relating to what we could expect, compared with “shore staff“, who no doubt could also have their expectations classified within their own pecking order, depending on how high up the scale their position was regarded. The manager of the General Affairs Department in those days was a stern faced White Russian lady of indeterminate age, and who, it was rumoured, possessed a colourful history in Shanghai during the pre-war days. Without saying so out loud, she left us with the distinct impression that we were definitely on the lower rungs of the ladder in her book. Our flat, which would be in McDonnell Road in the lower “Mid Levels” of Hong Kong Island, would be provided with appropriate furnishings from the company godown that were on the bare necessity scale, - lounge and dining suite, some elementary pots and pans for our amah to cook with, two single beds since doubles were definitely only reserved for shore staff, etc, etc. We plummeted down further in her esteem with the news that Helen had no intention of employing an amah, a DIY attitude that she obviously considered to be plebeian. She went on to inform us through gritted dentures that as the flat would not be air conditioned we would have to choose between a single ceiling fan for the lounge or a portable fan that could be moved from room to room. For the sake of posterity it is worth recording that we chose the latter. Her parting shot was that as floating staff we were not entitled to be issued with a tea trolley but would require a telephone table, - however as she had none of the latter in stock, she would arrange to take the wheels off a tea trolley so that it could be used for our telephone. Helpless mirth had to be held in severe check until we emerged back onto the pavement in the sane world outside Swire House.

It must be said that when we returned to Hong Kong for in 1975 I was on shore staff, - and yes we were given an air conditioned flat and yes it did possess a tea trolley.