Thursday, November 23, 2017

A stranger in the house

The writing desk and typewrite use by Sir Solomon Hochoy.


SOMEONE has moved into the home of the late Sir Solomon Hochoy and Lady Thelma Hochoy.

The stranger has made himself comfortable at the former governor general's writing desk and typewriter and is making use of the kitchen, living room, bedrooms and a collection of books.

The “tenant” has a bed in the porch with a view of the Caribbean Sea and access to two private beaches.

He has been at the house for weeks.

But his tenancy is unchallenged and undisturbed although the property on the Paria Road, Blanchisseuse is just down the road from the village police station and the neighbours are some very rich folks.

The multi-million-dollar property is now owned by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Port of Spain, which told the Express six months ago that there were no plans to demolish the residence, as villagers had feared.

Instead, it would be secured, structurally assessed and restored on behalf of the country and the residents who consider Solomon a friend and brother, and the property a priceless heritage site it is a direct link to the village history.

But not much has happened since. The property is now behind a wall of bush. The water lines are broken and gushing. The doors to the building are wide open.

 

Sir Solomon Hochoy and his wife Thelma. 

The Express spoke with officers of Blanchisseuse Police Station last Tuesday. Did anyone in authority ask that the property be patrolled? Were they aware that someone was inside the house? Did they know the history of the Hochoys' home and the value of the possessions it contains? They knew nothing about it.

The Local Government councillor for the area, Candice Allain, was also surprised that the property was not being secured pending plans. She said it was up to the Catholic Church to decide what would become of the place.

“There is a plan but everything has to do with finances,” she said.

Allain said she would be contacting the Church and petitioning the Tunapuna/Piarco Regional Corporation in an effort to secure the possessions at the Hochoy residence.

The Express contacted the Archdiocese last week and shared information on the existing state of the property, and asked for a status report, on behalf of the villagers, on what the Church intended to do with the place.

There was no immediate response, except from the head of the Church's Property, Building and Restoration Unit who said the paperwork regarding the gifting of the property to the Church was not yet complete and, until then, little could be done.

In the meantime, what becomes of the Hochoy property and possessions in Blanchisseuse is up to a squatter.

What we stand to lose

Solomon Hochoy was born in Jamaica 112 years ago, to David and Kuiyin Lue, who had travelled out of China to make a life.

The family would take the boat to Trinidad and find their way to Blanchisseuse to set up shop servicing the people harvesting the hardwood, and working the coconut and cocoa plantations.

Blanchisseuse (French for washerwoman), with its year-round supply of fresh water from the Marianne river, would become important enough for the coastal steamer to make it a port of call.

The settlement that only decades before was described by 19th century traveller Charles Kingsley as “two scattered rows of clay and timber bowers right and left of the trace, each half-buried in fruit trees and vegetables, and fended in with hedges of scarlet hibiscus” would earn two roads when the path through the mountains from Arima was completed in 1931, and later, when the road from Maracas was carved along the coastline.

Even then, Blanchisseuse remained a place apart. The plan to continue the road from Blanchisseuse to Matelot never happened. The village became the end of the road.

But the Hochoys did good business at the grocery overlooking the fishing port and across the road from the present-day police station, and the family growing wealthy was enough to send the children (including Joyce and Noel) off to school in Port of Spain.

St Mary's College-educated Solomon Hochoy would return to his village to begin his first job as a depot keeper in the Government Coastal Steamers' Department, before returning to the capital city to take up a posting with the Trinidad Port and Marine Department.

In 1935, he would meet and marry Thelma Edna Huggins, the daughter of shopkeepers from Ste Madeleine, and rise through the ranks of the public service—labour officer, commissioner of labour, the colony's chief secretary, and in June 13, 1960, Hochoy was appointed Governor.

And when Trinidad and Tobago was granted its independence, Hochoy, with the blessings of then Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams, became its Governor-General, which allowed him to wear that curious feathered headdress that you may have seen in that photograph of him in the atrium of Piarco International Airport.

The bed of a homeless man at the abandoned home of Sir Solomon Hochoy. 

Lady Thelma would give her name to the Lady Hochoy Home she championed since the 1950s, and Solomon Hochoy was immortalised in the highway between Chaguanas and Debe.

And together, the first West Indian and the first of Chinese descent to ever hold a post of Governor or Governor-General, and Thelma, the former post office worker from the sugar cane village, served Trinidad and Tobago home and abroad until Hochoy's retirement in 1972.

 The house

Solomon Hochoy could have stayed in Port of Spain and been the celebrated socialite. But the people of Blanchisseuse will tell you that “Solo's” heart never left the village.

They say he planned his exit from public life to coincide with the completion of his retirement home not a kilometre from where he grew up.

The day Hochoy left office and began the drive “home” his neighbours were waiting.

Among them were Owen Charles, 84, and his 87-year-old wife Loney, custodians of the history of the village, who would befriend the Hochoys and their adopted daughter Joyce Chinasing, who now lives in Valsayn.

Loney recalled: “When he left Port of Spain on his way to Blanchisseuse, the village council got in touch with the schools. It was done at the last moment. A quarter-mile from his home, children lined the streets. He got out of his car and walked the rest of the way as we sang a welcome song for him. He was so impressed and happy. It came as a surprise.”

Owen remembered: “Just before Sir Solomon retired, he started building his house. It was the place where his friends and guests would lime or stay. But he also had the intention of using it as a school to teach the young people of the village carpentry and joinery, which is why he bought the machinery and installed it there.”

Hochoy would also purchase sewing machines so the girls could learn a skill, help people with material to complete their homes, and donate the land on which the community centre was constructed, said Charles.

That building too is still standing on the property now occupied by the squatter.

 

The abandoned home of Sir Solomon Hochoy, located in the village of Blanchisseuse.

Charles, who visited the Hochoy home frequently, remembered the “Lady” as “reserved” and immersed in her work with the Roman Catholic Church, but “Sir Solomon” was curious about the village politics and its people.

Hochoy you might find in the morning bare-backed and hanging out at the fishing port or entertaining his extended family, he said, then that evening consulting with a visiting Dr Williams, or some international dignitary, even former Archbishop Joseph Harris, who spent time there.

When his body began failing, Hochoy would spend more time at the family house in Port of Spain. Then one day, he never returned.

He died on November 15, 1983. Lady Thelma lived long thereafter, driving herself from Port of Spain to the Blanchisseuse house, before she reversed the car off a cliff, escaped unscathed, and was compelled to hire a driver.

And when the Lady's health became frail, the visits ended, beginning the long decline of the Hochoy residence. She passed away at age 99, in April 2010, at her daughter's home.

It was Thelma's wish that the Blanchisseuse property go to her beloved Church.