Interview with Mrs. Cicely Kotewall Zimmern -
A Recollection of Memories of DGS in the 1930's
It was a warm sunny afternoon as our interview team met and entered the doors of Mrs. Zimmern's apartment. There she stood eagerly awaiting us, all changed and prepared for the occasion of our long-awaited interview. Mrs. Zimmern held in her fragile hands some notes she had written and started to take the lead in talking the moment everyone sat down. To our surprise, she spoke perfect Cantonese throughout in a very lively manner and occasionally broke out in little giggles as some thoughts flashed across her mind.
Early days of Mrs. Zimmern in DGS uniform (1930's)>>
"I am the eighth daughter in the family. After me came my brother, the only son of the family, followed by Patsy (mother of Kim Fenton, and grandmother of Robyn Lamsam, who all attended DGS)."
"At our time, schooling was not as strictly regimented as nowadays. Classes were not divided according to age, but according to academic standard. When I entered DGS, I was placed into Grade 8 as I knew not a single word of English. St. Paul's where I went prior to DGS, was taught totally in Chinese. DGS however was taught wholly in English."
DGS in those days, according to Mrs. Zimmern, was not divided into Junior and Senior School. Students were placed in Grade 10 to 1, with Grade 10 being the lowest. Having graduated from Grade 1 you would then go on to university level. There were about 15 to 20 girls in one class and all the students sat together in one big hall. The clever ones got to sit in the front row closer to the teacher. Some of the ones in the back row may end up sitting there for several years.
"When I first joined DGS, Miss Sawyer was the headmistress. Every morning, she would stand on a high chair and bellow out each girl's name to take the school roll call, and we had to call out 'Present'. I was terrified of her, as I did not understand any English."
However, it did not take Mrs. Zimmern long to learn some English from the friends she made at school. These were the girls who also lived on the Hong Kong Island like she did. They would cross the Star Ferry each morning (at $0.25 per trip) as a school bus awaited them at the Ferry to take them back to 1 Jordan Road in time. The Hong Kong girls became a close and friendly community. Some were Chinese and some were English or Portuguese who could converse in Cantonese which they had learnt from their Chinese amahs. They had good fun on this journey and soon, would make use of the ferry ride to collaborate on their homework together instead of doing them independently at home.
So what was school like in those days? Well, school lasted the whole day. A bell would ring after each session to signal a change of activities. The first bell would ring for the Chapel where students had morning prayers and sang hymns. School hymn at that time was "Blessed are the Pure in Heart" (which was also sung at Joyce Symons' Memorial Service recently). Lessons followed afterwards. Lunch was provided by the School at a cost. Everyone ate together at the dining hall - Western style with knife and fork. The menu consisted of potatoes every meal, served with meat, fish or chicken. As there was no tuck shop during those days, students had to bring their own if they wanted a snack during break.
We then prompted Mrs. Zimmern for a view of sports and recreation at that time. "During break and what remained of the lunch time, we chatted and played games. We liked rope games. We also played netball, rounders, basketball and hockey in school. Outside School, I also played tennis and swam (there was no swimming pool at school in those days). I was tall and quite a good sportswoman and good shooter for basketball. This stood me in good stead every year at the Annual Sports Day. We would form our own teams, because there was no system of having "Houses" as you have now. DGS girls were in general quite athletic and energetic. We were known to be good sportswomen, fair, open and fun to be with."
And what about school uniforms in those days? Quite to our surprise the summer uniform was very much like the one we have now, blue and white, except without the cardigan. Mrs. Zimmern explained with pride that they had to wear white shoes and socks and looked very smart indeed. Selina Chan (the youngest member of our interview team) who will be attending DGJS this year, modestly and respectfully presented Mrs. Zimmern with her brand new summer uniform which Mrs. Zimmern examined carefully with a grin on her face.
Young DGS girl showing our present summer uniform
"In the winter, we wore a tunic of dark blue wool. Inside, we wore a white shirt of "Vyella" material which was quite soft and warm. When it was very cold, we were allowed to wear woollen knee socks. We had no school blazers at that time. We could wear a Western style overcoat of our choice but not Chinese padded jackets.
Mrs. Zimmern later explained that the entire School was run by one Headmistress together with four teachers for each subject - English, Mathematics, Botany and Gymnastics. Only the Botany teacher was Chinese, or at least looked Chinese. There were no male teachers during that time.
Although not a School Prefect Mrs. Zimmern was usually asked by Miss Sawyer to collect all the students' exercise books to be graded and distributed afterwards. The best students were acknowledged at the Annual Speech Day.
One of the most popular events was the Annual Bazaar. Mrs. Zimmern vividly exclaimed that there would be all sorts of things to be bought and sold such as scarves, shoes, dishes. She could not recall what else were sold, except than it was great fun and that it was open to the public. All the proceeds went to charity for children and everyone bought generously.
And what were the characteristics of DGS girls in those days? "Well, we were lively and inquisitive girls. We respected our teachers, but were not terrified of them although they were quite strict. DGS had quite a liberal atmosphere, and we were encouraged to use our brains and express our opinion. We like to talk and argue and would giggle in class and chat about everything under the sun."
Later on, Miss Sawyer was succeeded by Miss Gibbons as headmistress, who was referred fondly by the girls as "Gibby". Eventually, with the good education provided by DGS, Mrs. Zimmern graduated with three A's and entered the University of Hong Kong to study Economics. Joyce Symons (known to Mrs. Zimmern as Joyce) was already in HKU before Mrs. Zimmern. After graduating from university, Mrs. Zimmern became a teacher at St. Paul's School before she worked as a secretary at Watsons. Whilst working, she was dated by Archie Zimmern, who was subsequently appointed as a Queen's Counsel and became the first Supreme Court Judge appointed from the local Bar. The Kotewall family survived the War years under the careful planning of their father, Sir Robert Kotewall who was particularly under great pressure to protect the virtue of his nine daughters against the Japanese soldiers. After the War, Cicely and Archie got married (three of the Kotewall sisters eventually married three of the Zimmern brothers!) They have a daughter Annabel, who is a restauranteur and a son Hugh, who is a partner of an international architect firm in Hong Kong.
Even though Joyce Symons was not in the same class as Mrs. Zimmern, the two got on remarkably well. As Cicely Zimmern portrayed, Joyce was kind, clever and great fun to be with. When they traveled together in England, Joyce would tell people in the train that Mrs. Zimmern was a princess, and the gentlemen would give up their seats for her. Joyce also relished on the tale of how she dropped one of her shoes in a LegCo session, and how Sir Maclehose, the Governor of Hong Kong then, embarrassingly retrieved it for her!
Their friendship lasted more than half a century through life's ups and downs. Whenever Joyce visited Hong Kong after her retirement, Cicely would always take her to the horse races. Joyce also invited Cicely to visit her new home which she had bought about three years ago (because she didn't want to live in a 'home'). The new flat was beautifully renovated by her niece and nephew and overlooked a pond with ducklings. Mrs. Zimmern felt that Joyce was able to enjoy peace in her home in her last days. May she rest in peace.
<<A lovely afternoon of chatting.