Friday, 30 August 2013

Wystan Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Vandeleur Grayburn (3): Grayburn's Story (2): Towards Disaster

The Story So Far
In the previous post I described the way in which HSBC head Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, having lost everything in the 18 day hostilities, remained out of internment after the surrender and threw himself into the work of raising funds for the relief of the Allied community. When agents of the BAAG arrived in town in June 1942 he joined the resistance (code name: Night), later declining offers to arrange his escape, mainly because he felt he was doing essential work in Hong Kong.

In the Autumn of 1942 Sir Vandeleur declined a 'specific offer' of an aided escape, and two fellow bankers were taken out instead, with Grayburn's approval and possibly encouragement.1 At 7.30 p.m. on October 18, 1942 T. J. J. Fenwick and J. A. D. Morrison left the Sun Wah Hotel 'with a Hong Kong basket containing socks, shaving gear, a spare shirt and a quarter of a bottle of whisky and a bottle of Napoleon brandy'. With the help of two skilled Chinese resistance agents and the communist guerillas they arrived at the BAAG advanced headquarters in Waichow on October 22,2 providing there much valuable information on financial developments in occupied Hong Kong.3
These escapes were a triumph for the BAAG, but they left Grayburn having to deal with the tricky situation that resulted. After an initial period of relative leniency, the Japanese reacted strongly to escapes, and one thing that gave pause to those thinking of trying was possible retaliation on the ones who stayed behind.
On November 4 Grayburn sent a message to Arthur Morse, the head of the HSBC in London. I don't know what he said to Morse, but he included a short optimistic message for his daughter: 'All more or less well here ...tell Elizabeth not to worry'.4 That 'more or less' is telling but, on the evidence available to me, it seems that the response to the Fenwick and Moriison escapes wasn't too unpleasant. On November 7 he sent a message to Douglas Clague,5 a major in the BAAG:
'Trouble is brewing' are his first words, and they suggest that either nothing much had yet been done in retaliation for the escapes or that any initial burst of punitive activity had died down. The Kempeitai, he contiued, wanted to pack them all off to Stanley – which would probably have saved the lives of Grayburn and two of his colleagues – but the Foreign Affairs Department and the Finance Department were resisting, because the bankers' help was still needed. Grayburn estimates that the signing would take another three months and stated that the 'liquidation' of the Bank's assets was nowhere near finished. In my previous post I discussed a message Grayburn received from one of the Japanese 'liquidators' on December 10? in the context of the light it throws on the bankers' conditions during their time outside Stanley. My guess is that the tightening of the rules governing their movements that was conveyed to Grayburn in that message was a necessary concession to the Kempeitai on the part of those Japanese who wanted the bankers to continue to live outside Stanley. In any case, Grayburn had to give his word that no future escapes would take place ('Have promised no others will leave') and it seems that each banker was also required to give his personal 'parole', which in at least one instance acted as a deterrent to escaping.6
Interestingly Grayburn mentions something that happened in Stanley Camp only the day before – the young men were sent to sleep in the prison for fear of escapes during the an American air raid. I don't know if he had a system for getting speedy information from Stanley, or if he just learnt about this so quickly through chance. He ends by assuring Clague that 'otherwise all well with us'.
On the day before that message (November 6) Lieutenant-Colonel Lindsay Ride, the BAAG's commander, had been in Chunking, where he was asked by the authorities for details of Grayburn's signing of 'duress notes' (see previous post). The British announced several times during the war that these would not be honoured, an impression that was further strengthened after liberation, so much so that some people had dumped theirs in the garbage before the Bank announced a change of heart!7 The notes are now sought after by collectors. In the same document Ride notes that he'd asked Douglas Clague to find out if Grayburn would be willing to escape 'alone if necessary'.8 This suggests that there were still moves afoot to get Grayburn out, and gives some support to the theory that he was unwilling to leave because this would have left Lady Mary to face Japanese reprisals.
As 1942 slowly gave way to the new year, there wasn't much rejoicing in the Sun Wah. Banker Andrew Leiper was there:
In our community there was little heart to celebrate Christmas and the advent of 1943 was marked only by a party given for the half dozen children in the boarding-house. They were each presented with a small packet of home-made toffee, for which we had all contributed a part of our sugar ration.9

Grayburn continued the job of maintaining communication with the BAAG and with Consul John Reeves in Macao.10T he Waichow Intelligence Summary of February 12, 1943 notes a message had been received from him estimating that the bankers would be out of Stanley for another 6 months as the signing of the duress notes was very slow. Using the light code common in BAAG communications, he reported 'No serious damage to our shop so far' – presumably the Bank building. He notes that the news was good and predicted that Germany would give up before 'many months' were over.11 Two HSBC bankers, Charles Hyde and Luis da Souza, were listening to a short-wave radio hidden on the premises of the Indian company Abdoolally Ebrahim12 and this might have been the source of the over-optimistic news.
Emily Hahn believes the start of the Kempeitai 'strike back' – the so-called 'reign of terror'13 - in February 1943 was connected to Chinese puppet ruler Wang Chi Wei's declaration of war against the Allies.14 In any case, as Philip Snow,15 points out it was systematic, comprehensive and successful, and Grayburn was one of the first trio of British victims.

Grayburn had smuggled funds into Stanley Camp directly twice before: in November 1942 the wife of J. T. Dupuy was sent into Stanley and at some point in 1942 or early 1943 G. H. Cautherley had been allowed to leave camp to be x-rayed at the French Hospital.16 In February 1943 Dr Harry Talbot, a prominent local doctor who's also worked for the Soong family,17 came to the Hospital for the same purpose. Grayburn, his deputy Edward Streatfield, and their colleague Charles Hyde – probably the most active British resistance worker – all gave him money to smuggle back into the camp; in Grayburn's case it was 800 Yen for the former nursing staff of the Matilda Hospital,18 an institution he'd financed and now served as a trustee.

The arrest of Talbot was a disaster for Grayburn, but I've never seen a source that gives the exact date it happened – I think it was probably on or close to February 20.19 Further, every version of what led to the arrest is a little different,20 but what they all have in common is that Talbot was searched on his way back to the camp and the money was found. He refused to name the people who'd given it to him – Frank King claims he was tortured, but other accounts say he wasn't - and, on February 23,21 after a few tense days during which the French Hospital was searched by the Navy, Grayburn and Streatfield went to Mr. Oda, the sympathetic head of the Foreign Affairs Office, and confessed, claiming that all the money had been provided by them (I think they must have been anxious to keep Hyde out of the hands of the Gendarmes). They said the money was for bank staff and nurses in the camp. Streatfield denied all knowledge of the source of the funds, while Grayburn claimed it came from the repatriated Americans22 – it seems like this was a common explanation for surreptitiously acquired funds after June 1942!23
The meeting took place on February 23; Oda lectured them on the seriousness of their offence,24 and then let them return to the Sun Wah. He had no choice but to tell the Kempeitai and Emily Hahn believes that before taking action the Japanese in Hong Kong needed to get advice from Tokyo – it was no small thing to arrest the best-known financier in the Far East, and, when the blow fell on March 19, Hahn records that even Japanese civilians were surprised.25
The pre-war 'King' of Hong Kong, 'the Governor's Governor', had lost almost everything during the hostilities – his house, his possessions and his job. His health, already undermined by overwork, deteriorated still further under the harsh conditions of the occupation. But he still had what seems to have been a strong marriage, and above all he retained the determination of character that had taken him to to the top of his profession. With deeply impressive courage and resourcefulness, he reinvented himself as a raiser of illicit funds for the relief of suffering and an agent of the Hong Kong resistance.
Now he was entering a brutal prison system, and he can have had no illusions as to the consequences if his interrogators ever discovered the identity of 'Night'.

1Frank King, History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Volume 3, 1988, 617.

2King, 1988, 618-621.

3George Wright- Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 153.

4David Tett, Captives in Cathay, 2007, 298.




8L. T. Ride, Memo of 6 November 1942 – Ride Papers, kindly sent me by Elizabeth Ride.

9Leiper, 1982, 164.

10King, 1988, 621.

11WIS 18, 12 February 1943, Ride Papers.



14Emiily Hahn, China To Me, 1986 ed, 386.

15Philip Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, 2003, 185.

16King, 1988, 621.

17 Hahn, 1986 ed, 389.

18King, 1988, 622.


20Recently a Memoir written by Dr Talbot has emerged, so hopefully a definitive account will one day be possible -

21King, 1988, 622.

22King, 1988, 622.

23Hahn, 1986, ed, 390.

24King, 1988, 622.

25Hahn, 1986 ed., 389-390.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Wystan Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Vandeleur Grayburn (2): Grayburn's Story, Part 1 - Loss, Relief and Resistance

Those who called Sir Vandeleur Grayburn 'the King' of Hong Kong weren't far wrong. As well as head of the Colony's most important business, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, he was (or had recently been) a member of the University Court1 The Exchange Fund Advisory committee, 2The Taxation Committee,3 and the War Revenue committee,4 a JP5 and from July 1941 an Unofficial Member of the Executive Council.6 Probably of much else as well.

In spite of his position at the centre of Hong Kong life, Sir Vandeleur showed no particular foresight in the immediate run up to the war. On Sunday, December 7, 1941 the HKVDC (Volunteers) were mobilised along with the rest of the garrison amid compelling evidence that an attack was imminent. When HSBC employee M. G. Carruthers informed his boss he'd been called up, Sir Vandeleur looked at him in horror and told him he couldn't go - 'this is going to blow over'.

He shouldn't be blamed too much for this: at the start of the month Governor Mark Young and the garrison's commanding officer Major-General Maltby had joined forces to convince him that if the Japanese started any trouble a naval force would sail up from Singapore 'and everything would be hunky-dory'.7 On December 2 plans for Grayburn to go with other senior staff to Singapore and set up head office there had been approved, and the Governor appealed to Sir Vandeleur not to leave the Colony as he feared it would have a serious effect on morale.8 He agreed to stay at his post fro a second time - he should really have stepped down in 1940, when it had been planned to replace him with David Charles Edmondston, who’d been appointed Hong Kong Manager in 1936. Because of the serious situation in the Far East, Sir Vandeleur had agreed to stay.9 A minute of the HSBC Board of Directors (meeting in Stanley Camp soon after Grayburn's death) recorded that he could have retired after a successful term as head of the bank 'but he chose to remain at his post and see the war through'.10By the time the Pacific War began, some colleagues considered he was 'rundown with overwork'.11
During the hostilities he was either in the Essential Services Group– someone who was tasked with working at their normal job12 - or perhaps because of his age and eminence simply exempted in order to provide advice and leadership. We know he was at ''the Bank' (as the HSBC was often called) on day one of the attack (December 8) as Colonel Harry Hughes reported that he went there that day and even Sir Vandeleur couldn't get him Chinese currency13 On December 11, focusing on the bank's future in case of defeat, Grayburn requested that the Governor seek an Order in Council to transfer the HSBC head office not to Singapore but London. Governor Young forwarded the request, but pointed out that 'the contingency is not contemplated'. Frank King implies he still had hopes of holding the Colony at this stage.14

Like everyone else whose house was in a place deemed (sometimes wrongly) to be relatively safe, the Grayburns had their house on the Peak ('The Cliffs', no. 355) designated a billet for evacuees from more dangerous or exposed areas. One of his HSBC employees, Doris Woods, alongside her two sisters was amongst them, and Miss Woods tells us that by December 14, in the midst of continuous shelling and regular aerial bombardment, the electricity had failed, they couldn't listen to the world news, food was running short, and the strain on everyone's nerves was leading to frequent quarrels. Lady Grayburn was probably still in the house – I can see no reason for her to have been moved - but her husband was likely to have been sleeping in the bank.15 In any case, on that December 14, another air raid started and Doris and her twin sister (and partner in a popular singing duet) ran to take shelter in the pantry, where they sat for hours repeating the 91st Psalm. When the shelling stopped, they emerged and inspected the effects: the front of the house had been damaged and the Grayburns' private sitting-room was in ruins.16 In a letter dated May 31, 1942 (see below) Sir Vandeleur told his daughter that Cliffs was 'badly damaged' and their 'possessions all gone'.17

The Bank shut at noon on Christmas Day and the staff went up to the mess on the seventh floor for a simple meal; they learnt shortly after of the Colony's surrender18 (which took place at about 3.15 p.m.). On December 26, the Japanese, under the orders of the former manager of the Yokohama Specie Bank, entered the HSBC building and assembled the staff. Grayburn was questioned at length, and all the banks keys were surrendered and the safes and treasuries sealed.19 The Building itself, 'Grayburn's Folly', became the seat of the Japanese administration.

File: Hkhsbc jap.jpg

What happened next is perhaps controversial. Grayburn almost certainly played a leading role in the decision of some bankers, include himself, to stay uninterned and help the Japanese 'liquidate' their banks. It's sometimes said that this decision was made under 'duress' but in fact threats to the bankers and their families came later -in spring1942– to force them to sign unissued HSBC banknotes (see below). The initial agreement to stay out was partly to help the Chinese and other uninterned nationals but I think mainly to look after the interests of the HSBC and the other banks whose staff were involved. In any case, refusal to help wouldn't have stopped the Japanese plundering the banks, and a number of sources testify that, as well as making records of, or at least keeping an eye on, what was happening, the bankers dragged their feet as much as possible.

Both during and after the war, it was Dr Selwyn-Clarke and the team of public health workers he led that bore the brunt of criticism on the grounds of collaboration. This was partly because Selwyn-Clarke, although he did co-operate with the resistance, had an uneasy relationship with it, while, as we shall see, the British Army Aid Group received enthusiastic help from the HSBC staff (although they were disappointed that some of the younger bankers refused to escape and were even unsure about being repatriated because of pressure from 'seniors' to remain in Hong Kong, presumably to re-open the Bank quickly after liberation20). After the war, the deaths of the two most prominent HSBC staff, and of one other, executed for resistance activities, and the imprisonment of another HSBC employee and three members of the Chartered Bank, left the bankers effectively beyond criticism. Nevertheless, George Endacott, a distinguished historian, who is clearly sympathetic to those experiencing the dilemmas of the occupation, has written that these people 'were presumably collaborators and could, and perhaps should, have refused to assist in the handing over of the banks, and gone into Stanley internment earlier than they did'. But he goes on:

But their remaining out enabled them to see that records were preserved and information about accounts and notes in circulation were up-to-date, and this materially assisted the British take-over in 1945.21

We should also note that the Chartered Bank people consulted the Financial Secretary (probably R. R. Todd, who was acting FS on October 9, 194 22) and the bankers of other nationalities (American, Dutch and Belgium) who agreed to stay out did so after consulting their consular staff.23 Our source for this, Chartered Bank employee Andrew Leiper, doesn't tell us what Grayburn did, but there's no reason to believe he wouldn't have got the same advice if he thought it necessary to consult anyone. Accounts both by bankers themselves and those who used their services make it clear how important their work was to the ordinary people of Hong Kong during the chaotic first months of the occupation,24 and, in my opinion, this would have justified the decision even without the contributions made by the bankers to the ongoing relief efforts that will be discussed in the rest of this post. One of the Chinese who benefited from their services noted:

The Japanese cannot do anything in the banks without (British) help. If the British are asked to do something contrary to their sense of justice, honesty and honor, their answer is 'Send us to Stanley Internment Camp'. Since their help is absolutely necessary, the Japanese have to treat them honourably.25

We know from both Chartered Bank and HSBC sources that their staff bent or broke all the rules of banking to help out, for example, unquestioningly paying to spouses from the accounts of those who'd died.

On January 5 the HSBC bankers joined the rest of the Allied civilian community at the Murray Parade Ground. Those destined for Stanley, 126 of them, were marched to the Nam Ping Hotel, those needed for the liquidation to the Sun Wah. At first the two groups were allowed to mingle, but then the Sun Wah people had their movements tightly controlled (until July, when their situation eased – see below)26

Now the scene was set for the drama that was to play itself out 'in town' for the next 18 months. There were under 100 men who met the criteria for internment (healthy 'white' Allied civilians) but who were kept out of Stanley, usually with their families, to do essential work, and these men, in some case their wives and in at least one case their children, were going to provide the spearhead of the non-Chinese relief and resistance movements.
The most important of these in this respect was the former Director of Medical Services, Dr. Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, who was almost the only Briton in the Colony who had a clear vision of his role in the occupation. With the help of a senior Japanese military medical officer who'd been impressed by his racially egalitarian courtesy when he'd visited Hong Kong in the past, he was allowed to stay out and carry on his work – in the short term, the dead bodies scattered around Hong Kong posed serious risks of epidemic disease that would hit the Japanese as hard as any other group, so action was urgently needed. In addition to organising public health measures, Selwyn-Clarke quickly realised that the conditions in Stanley and the POW Camps (primarily Shamshuipo, Argyle Street, Ma Tau-Chung and Bowen Road Military Hospital) were such that a massive relief effort was necessary to prevent large-scale suffering and death.
In the dreadful financial conditions of the occupation, raising the money to pay for food and medicine was a major problem. Some better-off people of all the uninterned nationalities started to give the doctor money directly or to take other personal actions, at great risk to themselves.27 Even sending a food parcel to a friend ran the risk of attracting the attention of the Gendarmes, who were always on the look out for evidence of Allied sympathies. But individual acts of charity were not enough to meet the huge need; what was required was a systematic money-raising campaign, and it was a huge stroke of luck for the beneficiaries that a swathe of Hong Kong's bankers were out in town to organise it. It didn't prove to be lucky for the bankers themselves, though, and this group (at its maximum 80, including women and children) suffered more than any other in terms of members arrested, tortured, died or executed.

Sir Vandeleur was almost certainly the leader in the effort to raise money to give to Selwyn-Clarke to buy desperately needed food and medicines for the camps. Like Selwyn-Clarke, the bankers probably started by receiving spontaneous charity – depositors would come into the bank to make a withdrawal and whisper to the cashier to hold back some of the cash for Stanley – but it doesn't seem to have been long before they started working more systematically to raise funds.
The cashier for these efforts, Samuel Perry-Aldworth28 tells us:
...(David) Edmondston and Grayburn and Hugo Foy....arranged with some of the Indian and Chinese constituents, who were paying in every day to pay off their overdrafts and all that, to divert a bit of it...29
These 'diversions, proved inadequate, but to explain what happened next I need to remind the reader that on January 9, 1942 Lindsay Ride of the HKVDC Ambulance Unit escaped from Shamshuipo POW Camp with the help of his Chinese employee Francis 'Chicken' Lee. Ride and Lee were aided in their escape by communist guerillas. After reaching the war-time Chinese capital Chunking (Chongqing), Ride was able to set up the British Army Aid Group (BAAG), a multi-faceted organisation that carried out a wide variety of resistance tasks in southern China and occupied Hong Kong. The organisation worked closely with the guerillas (who are best known under the name of the East River Column) and depended for the most part on Chinese agents who could move relatively freely in and out of the former colony. In June 1942 the first BAAG agents arrived in Hong Kong. The earliest contacts of which I've seen evidence were with men known to Colonel Ride at the University and the French Hospital, but it wasn't long before agents reached the Sun Wah – the initial contact seems to have been David Edmondston, who also had known Ride pre-war.30

It's hard to know how much of a risk Grayburn thought he was taking in his ongoing relief work. He might have felt that the Japanese would turn a blind eye to the attempts of the most prominent financier in the Far East to raise money for purely humanitarian purposes, and, as we shall see, the Gendarmes did treat him in a relatively lenient way when they found out (the Japanese liquidators had known for a long time, but, like most Japanese civilians in Hong Kong, they were decent people and did no more than warn the bankers they would not be able to help them if the Kempeitai found out31).But when the agents of the Hong Kong resistance made contact with the bankers at the Sun Wah, he can have been in doubt as to the consequences of getting involved. Nevertheless, in his early 60s and not in particularly good health, Sir Vandeleur became a BAAG agent, code named Night. Now he must have understood that all the prestige in Asia wouldn't save him from torture and execution if he was caught. And the conditions they were working under were difficult; Leiper says they identified at least one Chinese as having been sent so spy on them,32 and, although they probably weren't watched as carefully as Selwyn-Clarke's team, there are likely to have been many more clandestine observers.

It wasn't long before Grayburn was deeply involved with the BAAG. It seems messages were soon passing back and forth from the Sun Wah on a routine basis. On July 31, 1942 Grayburn sent a message to a Chunking banker through BAAG agent 36 (Lau Teng Ke) asking, 'Is it possible to draw on you'? Obviously he was hoping to be able to use Chunking funds to supplement those raised locally for the relief work. What seems to have been the same communication asked the British Embassy in that city to ensure the honouring of financial instruments ('Rupee and Sterling drafts on paper dated 23/12/41') that the bankers were selling secretly to raise money. After a period of confusion - the authorities in London were aware that the bankers had been signing 'duress' notes since the spring (see below) so felt that not all their financial transactions should be accepted - the Rupee and Sterling drafts were indeed honoured.33 Interestingly Grayburn added that the scheme had the approval of Colonial Secretary Franklin Gimson, which suggests that he was able to get messages into and out of Stanley, unless the idea went back to the period before March 13 when Gimson had been interned.34

The full story of the bankers' work will probably never be known, as neither Grayburn nor Edmondston survived (Hugo Foy kept a diary but so far this has not been made generally available). One thing that's worth adding, though, is that it wasn't just the bankers who raised money, as we know that two BAAG agents, the American Chester Bennett and the Portuguese Marcus da Silva arranged loans,guaranteed by wealthy citizens interned in Stanley.35 But I think it's clear that it was the bankers, under Grayburn's leadership, who raised most of the cash for Dr Selwyn-Clarke's work. Another thing we'll never have much idea of is how many lives were saved and how much suffering was eased.

File:Sir Vandeleur Grayburn.jpg

Wikimedia Commons

The bankers kept some of the money for their own relief efforts in the city itself. Conditions in occupied Hong Kong were bad enough at the start, but they began to deteriorate as early as June 1942, and soaring prices soon meant that only the very wealthiest had no worries about feeding themselves and their children. With Edmondston and perhaps others, Grayburn administered a fund to provide illegal loans to distressed Allied nationals who'd not been interned: when Edmondston refused to lend money to American writer Emily Hahn, in protest at her adulterous affair with Charles Boxer, Grayburn lent her the money from his private account.36

Wikimedia Commons

While all this was going on, the bankers were liquidating their own banks. In the spring the Japanese discovered a stock of unsigned banknotes, and they set Grayburn and his colleagues to work signing them for their use – 'unbacked, unlawful, distinguishable only by their serial numbers from the genuine ones'.37 According to Oliver Lindsay, who provides no source for the claim, they were made to sign only 500 a day, half an hour's work.38

File: HSBC Notes Jap.jpg

Wikimedia Commons

We have a few glimpses of the conditions in which Sir Vandeleur and Lady Mary were living during the occupation. In late May 1942 Grayburn learnt he'd be able send out a letter through a soon to be repatriated American, and on May 31 he wrote one in which he tried to tell the unadorned truth, or a little of it at least, to his daughter Elizabeth:
(W)eight dropped from 200 to 160 lbs. Mary is somewhat thinner. Our cubicle is tiny, we sleep on a single mattress. Had no proper bath since December.

These words were blacked out by the Japanese censor.

A domestic detail did get through:
Mary cooks every Thursday for whole community of 80. Some soup maker!!39
One of the repatriated American bankers, Theodore Lindabury, wrote to Elizabeth himself:

During that time (the Grayburns) were working every day in the liquidation of the Bank and were able, by various means, to secure a sufficient supply of food, other than the rice given by the Japanese.40
The 'various means' probably meant buying extra food on either the open or the black market, and Lindabury stressed how lucky they were not to be in Stanley. In spite of this understandably upbeat picture, Sir Vandeleur was seen 'looking as gaunt and grey as a timber wolf'.41
Other repatriated bankers gave a general account of conditions at the Hotel to journalist Vaughn Meisling, himself a Stanley repatriate. They described the Sun Wah as ‘a fire trap well-stocked with vermin’ and said that many of their number had needed treatment for dysentery, malnutrition and insect bites. They were marched a mile and a half to and from their work every day – the notorious 'chain gang' - escorted by soldiers, although after the Americans had left the remaining bankers were spared this indignity. They were often slapped and humiliated by their captors, the worst of whom they called ‘Slaphappy Joe’ because he was never happy except when hitting someone. At afternoon roll call he would box their ears until they learnt to answer in Japanese. My guess is that this was the guard who subjected the bankers to 'additional indignities' who Grayburn got transferred by complaining to the Finance Department in March.42 The American bankers often felt they were being sniped at as bullets hit or entered the hotel.43

The Chain Gang (Imperial War Museum)
According to Andrew Leiper, who was in the Sun Wah with two of his colleagues from the Chartered Bank, there was no electricity until March, but when it came it greatly cheered the residents44 - this restoration had been requested by Grayburn at the same time he complained about the guard.45 Before the July easing of conditions, the bankers suffered badly from boredom – it was worse for the women and children who seemed to have been confined to the Sun Wah. The women (all British, Dutch and Belgian as there were no American wives) spent the early weeks cleaning and disinfecting46 what had once been a squalid boarding house which, if it was like most of the hotels used to house Allied nationals before they were sent to Stanley, had doubled as brothel after the pre-war Government had launched a futile drive against prostitution. At first the residents had nothing to read except banking reference books and the Japanese-produced Hong Kong News. The highlights of the week were 'bath night' – 6 inches of hot water, so you can see why Sir Vandeleur complained he'd not had a proper bath and 'rations night' when Leiper and the Dutch banker Hugo Bakkeren handed out weevil-ridden rice and flour, peanut oil, salt and wong tong47 to representatives of each 'mess'.48
Emily Hahn tells us that to get away from the Sun Wah, Sir Vandeleur and his wife sometimes visited French banker Paul de Roux, who had arranged a flat for himself at the top of the Bank d'Indochine building. They were also able to take a bath there.49 De Roux was also (or later became) a resistance agent, and on February 19, 1944, he jumped from that flat in order to escape arrest by the Kempeitai.50
More about the lives of the Sun Wah bankers, and about Grayburn's leadership role, is shown by a development of late 1942. On December 10 he received a note from one of the Japanese Liquidators:

I have to advise you sincerely that all Foreign Officer (sic) of the Bank at present working under the liquidation and their families should refrain from moving about freely on Saturday afternoons, Sundays or any other holidays, especially during the evenings and nights.
Should there be any necessity to go out, permission must first be obtained from the Liquidators.
I wish to emphasize that this is a matter of serious importance and that should one single person get involved in trouble, all the others will suffer the consequences as a result.

The Japanese were often anxious to prevent 'contamination' of the Chinese by Allied nationals, and Leiper and others were once ejected from a cinema, but my guess is that this tightening of the rules was a response to the October escape of two HSBC staff, which I'll discuss in the next post. Grayburn got all the bankers at the Sun Wah to initial the document, having first written on it:
This ruling refers to all times, we are only allowed out for shopping and exercise. French Hospital may only be visited for real necessity not for softball.

The bankers had been allowed very little freedom at first, but in July 1942, as a reward for 'good behaviour – ironically this was about the time that some of them were making contact with the BAAG - they were allowed passes that gave them some right to move about the town, for example, to shop in Central or to go to the French Hospital 'in case of need' or to visit relatives and colleagues there.51 They were also given an allowance of $300 a month for food, probably at this time.52 Weekend 'excursions' to the Hospital to visit or take food to any Sun Wah resident there became popular as they provided the chance to get away from the hotel and enjoy a walk in the fresh air,53 and it would seem from Sir Vandeleur's comment that some bankers also went to take part in the softball games started by one of the American Health Department drivers before his repatriation.
According to postal historian David Tett, whose source was undoubtedly Grayburn's family Sir Vandeleur 'took no heed' of the risk himself, so presumably he ignored his own instructions and continued to visit the French Hospital.54 Andrew Leiper tells us that it was the health workers who kept the bankers 'in touch with what was happening at Stanley',55 and, although he's discussing an earlier period, my guess is that the soft ball and the visits enabled those bankers working for the BAAG to pick up useful information.

Given the hunger and squalor of his daily life and the dangers that he faced, why didn't Grayburn try to escape from the unguarded hotel? Lindsay Ride, indeed, devised plans for a mass escape of the bankers, but these were over-ruled on political grounds: it was felt that it would be embarrassing to get the bankers out while leaving almost everyone else under Japanese rule.56 But what of Grayburn's personal attitude to remaining in Hong Kong? In the message of July 31 previously referred to, he wrote:
Staff requests make every endeavour repatriate self as only person who can clarify present situation.57

That, however, referred to an authorised repatriation, and it seems that Grayburn never wanted to try his luck in an illicit escape. This might have been because, as T. J. J. Fenwick and David Edmondston believed, the chances of a tired, 61 year old with gout and general debility getting out of Hong Kong were low. One source claims that his health was so poor at this time meant he never appeared at the bank unless required.58 However, King suggests that his illness might have been part diplomatic – to keep him out of his office where he could do little and might annoy the Japanese.59 Others have suggested he was afraid of reprisals against Lady Mary, which would have been a perfectly reasonable attitude to have taken – one Portuguese escaper had his ex-wife arrested! But it seems that an important, perhaps the main, reason for his remaining was he believed that it was in Hong Kong that he could do most good. Lady Mary later testified:

(W)hile we were prisoners (Sir Vandeleur Grayburn) was repeatedly asked to make his getaway and all plans were made and organized by people in Free China to this end, but he always refused because his argument was that he was doing more good in Hong Kong than he would do if he were away from it.60
Once again Grayburn – now sick, tired, hungry and facing the gravest dangers imaginable – stayed at his post.

1GA 1939, no.. 320 .

2GA 1938, no. 807.

3Report of the Taxation committee, SP 1939.

4Report of the War Revenue committee, SP1940.

5GA 1941, no. 521.

6GA 1941, no. 885.

7Philip Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, 2003, 47.

8 King, 568.

9King, 1988, 403.

10David Tett, Captives In Cathay, 2007, 302.

11Frank King, History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Volume 3, 1988, 617.

12See Andrew Leiper, A Yen For My Thoughts, 1982, 8.


14King, 1988, 572.

15See King, 1988, 572.

16John Luff, The Hidden Years, 1967, 136-137.

17Tett, 2007, 291.

18King, 1988, 572.

19 King, 1988, 572-573

20Waichow Intelligence Summary, No. 25, 27 March 1943, Ride Papers.

21G. B. Endacott and Alan Birch, Hong Kong Eclipse, 1978, 240.

22Minutes of the Finance committee meeting for that date.

23Leiper, 1982, 102-103.

24Leiper, 1982, passim; Alice Y. Lan and Betty M. Hu, We Flee From Hong Kong, 2000 ed (1944), 48.

25Lan and Hu, 2000 ed (1944), 48.

26King, 1988, 573.

27Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, Footprints, 1975, 73.

28There seems to be a photo of him taken in 1961 in the National Portrait Gallery -

29Cited King, 1988, 612-613.

30King, 1988, 614.

31 King, 1988, 613.

32 Leiper, 1982, 169.

33King, 1988, 613-614.

34Some sources give March 11.


36Emily Hahn, China To Me, 1986 ed, 392-393.

37Snow, 2003, 152.

38Oliver Lindsay, At The Going Down of the Sun, 1982, 112.

39Tett, 2007, 291-292.

40Tett, 2007, 294.

41Snow, 2003, 141.

42King, 1988, 574.

43 Billings Gazette, August 26, 1942, page 2.

44Leiper, 1982, 134.

45King, 1988, 574.

46Leiper, 1982, 117.

47Similar words mean both brown sugar and dumplings. My sense is that in Hong Kong WW11 sources it usually means sugar.

48Leiper, 1982, 141.

49Hahn, 1986 ed, 376.


Another account has him die on February 19 in a Kempeitai prison as a result of mistreatment.

51Leiper, 1982, 147-148.

52King, 1988, 574.

53Leiper, 1982, 150.

54Tett, 2007, 295.

55Leiper, 1982, 143. Leiper says that they heard reports about the Kowloon POW Camps 'from the same source' .

56King, 1988, 616.

57King, 198, 617.

58King, 1988, 613-614.

59King, 1988, 617.

60King, 1988, 616-617.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Wystan Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Vandeleur Grayburn (1): 'Just the natives fighting'

This is the first of a series of posts detailing the remarkable story of HKSBC chief Vandeleur Grayburn, who died in Stanley Prison almost exactly 70 years ago.
Please ignore the random changes in type and spacing imposed by the system - if one passage is corrected another goes wrong!

In January 1938 two of the best-known (and best) British writers were in Hong Kong. Wystan Hugh Auden was the most distinguished poet of the generation that followed on T. S. Eliot's modernist revolution (roughly 1910-1925), while Christopher Isherwood, his friend and intermittent lover, was a talented novelist.

File:Isherwood and Auden by Carl van Vechten, 1939.jpg
Wikimedia Commons
 Auden had already written the poem ('Stop All the Clocks') that was to be so successfully used in Four Weddings and a Funeral (it's far from being one of his best though) and Isherwood had gone through significant experiences in late Weimar Berlin, which he was in the process of turning into novels that would later to be adapted into the Oscar winning film Cabaret (1972).

File:Original movie poster for Cabaret.jpg
Wikimedia Commons

They were, self-consciously, radical intellectuals, and they were looked to for a lead by many members of a generation driven to the left by the mass slaughter of WW1, the apparent promise of better things held out by the Russian Revolution, and the disillusion with capitalist economics brought about by the Wall Street Slump (1929) and the 'great depression' that ensued. 

Auden had started his poetic career in the late 1920s, often writing in traditional forms, or recognisable adaptations of them, but taking full advantage of Eliot's demonstration that a poetry adequate to the complexities of the modern world needed to be difficult. But, like Eliot, he like to spring surprises on his audience, and in the late summer of 1932 he sent a poem to Isherwood called 'A Communist To Others', which offered overt political commitment and an appropriate new style. The poem started with an address to the workers – 'Comrades who when the sirens roar'1- and continued in a way which, although by no means simple throughout, was to give most contemporary readers good reason to believe he was trying to reach a much wider than audience than the tiny elite who'd appreciated his earlier work. His poems thereafter varied in style and register, but some of the best known were written in the same 'accessible' style – for example, the favourite anthology piece 'O What is that sound which so thrills the ear', and the still controversial poem about cancer, 'Miss Gee'). His poem 'Spain 1937' was not only a politically 'committed' work itself, it was also about the inevitability of poetic commitment, arguing that everything but 'the struggle' needed to be put off until the outcome of the battle for Spain had been decided. Auden himself went to help the Spanish Republic, albeit putting in no more than a short spell (leaving London on January 12, 1937 and returning about March 42) as a propagandist.
Isherwood came out of the same privileged middle class social strata as Auden. In 1929 he'd followed Auden to Berlin – his friend had been promised a parental allowance until his twenty third birthday, and had broken with the tradition of taking a 'gap year' a year in Paris. The German capital in the last years of the culturally vigorous Weimar Republic and during the first stage of the Nazi takeover was the perfect place for a writer of Isherwood's particular talents – he had a gift for rendering ordinary events in a lucid prose and for an apparently non-judgemental objectivity, which of course made his actual judgements (which no writer can avoid) seem compelling. In 1935 he had published his first attempt at 'mining' the Berlin experience, a daring novel for the time, Mr Norris Changes Trains, whose engaging anti-hero is a gay masochist, a petty crook, and an eventually treacherous communist. If the book has a real hero, it's the communist leader Bayer, who's tortured and murdered by the Nazis towards the close of the novel.3 The narrator, William Bradshaw, describes his own involvement with the Party, and few readers would have doubted this reflected Isherwood's own experiences, or at least his sympathies; the more perspicacious ones would have noted with what distance his communist activities are described, and perhaps foreseen the coming apostasy.

But that was still in the future in 1938, as was the majority of the second book based on his Berlin life, one that was to earn Isherwood huge post-war fame when it became the film Cabaret in 1972. He'd published one important chunk of this in 1937, a novella called Sally Bowles, which he republished in Goodbye to Berlin (1939), the rest of which was written in the period after his return from China. The material in this fine novel was to wind its way through a complex set of adaptations to the 1972 Oscar triumph – it won eight, and might have got Best Picture and Best Screenplay, for which it was also nominated, if it hadn't also been the year of The Godfather.4

Neither Auden or Isherwood ever joined the British Communist Party, but this probably made it easier for a broad swathe of left wing opinion to see them as leaders, in literature at least. They were in Hong Kong with a contract from Faber and Faber (T. S. Eliot was a director and the poetry editor) to write a book, combining their complementary talents, on the Sino-Japanese War. They boarded the boat-train on January 19, 1938, heading first for Paris, and then south to Marseilles, where they boarded the Aramis for the long sea journey to Hong Kong,5 where they arrived on February 16.6

It's not surprising the two young radicals didn't like Hong Kong. It's easy to exaggerate the racism, the status snobbery and the smugness of what was then a British Crown Colony, but you could go to the other extreme and significantly underplay it all and it would still be appalling. Philip Snow, author of the magnificent The Fall of Hong Kong, quotes an official of the London Colonial Office who called it 'the most self-satisfied of all the colonies, except Malaya' and Snow's own verdict is that 'everyone did their best, seemingly, to look down upon anyone different'.7

At first the two writers lived in a luxurious bathing cabin at fashionable Repulse Bay, and then they moved in with University Vice-Chancellor, Duncan Sloss. Isherwood reported in a letter to his mother of February 25 that he was ‘extraordinarily kind’ and that he’d agreed to acts as a poste restante service for future letters.8 Sloss was a polymathic dinner-table conversationalist,9 and he was the distinguished editor of William Blake one of the radical thinkers who'd influenced Auden, but this amiable and interesting host doesn't seem to have softened their disapproval of the Hong Kong British. Perhaps it's rather strange that rather than living in comfortable surroundings and mixing with 'government officials and millionaire at 'formal dinner parties',10 the two revolutionaries didn't get into the streets and tenements and meet the Chinese, who made up about 98% of the Colony's population. That's what another left-wing writer in Hong Kong at about the same time did; New Zealander Robin Hyde's book The Dragon Rampant (1939) describes some of the scenes of majority life that Auden and Isherwood seem to have ignored.      
In the course of what seems to have been a rather undemanding 12 days in the colony (they left on February 28) they met the third character in this story, someone who might well have seemed to them to sum up British Hong Kong, with its many weaknesses and few strengths.

In his autobiographical memoir, Christopher and His Kind, Isherwood, to illustrate to his readers the narrow-minded and short-sighted racism that permeated the expat community, offered this anecdote (Isherwood refers to himself as Christopher throughout the book):

'Speaking of the Japanese invasion of China, a businessman said to Christopher: 'Of course, from our point of view, both sides are just natives'.11

Who was this 'businessman'? The answer lies in a letter written by another distinguished English writer, William Empson, in Hong Kong for a break from the demanding task of teaching English in a Chinese university on the run from the Japanese.

File:William Empson.jpg
Wikimedia Commons

Empson bumped into Auden and Isherwood by chance, not knowing they were there at the same time. He thought Auden had 'the glamour of Oscar Wilde' and in a letter to his mother of March 15, recounted that the two fledgling war correspondents had told him they'd visited the Governor of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (who, Empson, also a kind of socialist, called 'the Governor of the Governor' of Hong Kong) and that they'd asked him his opinion of the war:
'Well, it's just the natives fighting'.12

The 'Governor', Sir Vandeleur Molyneux Grayburn - in the words of a colleague, ‘A strong, vigorous, I should say reckless personality’13 - was born in England on July 28, 1881 and educated in Jersey and Staffordshire. After an apprenticeship at a bank in Goole (Yorkshire), he joined the HKSBC at the age of twenty, remaining in the London office until December 1904, when he was posted to Shanghai.14 He was sent to Hong Kong in 1920 and appointed head of the Bank in 1930 at the age of 48; he'd been in the East for 26 years, and some felt he lacked the broad geographical experience needed for the job.15 As a result of the events I'll describe in my next post, Grayburn is sometimes cited as an inspiration to today's bankers, who should also note that in his first year, Grayburn declined the full salary package he was offered, accepting payment of £6,000 for the year’s work16 – that's a little short of £300,000 in today's values, which most bankers today would probably consider not quite what the senior financier in the Far East should be expecting.

In 1935 he'd seen opened the end product of one of his favourite projects, the new HKSBC headquarters at 1, Queen's Road Central, the first fully air-conditioned building in the Colony, and controversially modernist in design.  It took some courage to go from this:

Wikimedia Commons

To this:

File:HSBC 1936.jpg
Wikimedia Commons

Later, it was to play an important role in the Japanese occupation, and, as we shall see, before that it had been spotted as a useful symbol by the disapproving eye of W. H. Auden.

He was knighted in 1937 for his assistance to the Hong Kong government during the currency crisis of the mid 1930s. In the same year Grayburn’s position as Chief manager was confirmed, and the hope was expressed he would stay in post for another three years. So there he was in February 1938, available to provide a sound-bite that would suitably shock another radical writer during a chance encounter and would eventually end up standing in for the racism of colonial Hong Kong in a book that would be published almost thirty years later.
It's possible that Grayburn was just trying to wind up the young radicals; I doubt that Auden made much of a secret of his dislike of Hong Kong life in general and bankers in particular, and Grayburn might have just been getting his own back or mockingly living up to the role he realised he'd been cast in. 

But there's no doubt that he could well have meant what he said, as he felt a sense, not uncommon in the Colony before the war, of the deep superiority of 'Europeans' to Asians, and of the English to all other 'white' nationalities. In a 1937 letter about bankers wives he wrote, 'Foreign, native, half caste are definitely taboo'17 and he operated a 'no Chinese wives' policy for his staff – he was hardly unique in doing so, of course, but I've not seen any evidence that it went against the grain. In fact, he's said to have commented that even the Bank's one American employee was 'one too many'18 It's easy to write this off as 'the beliefs' of the time, but not everyone in Hong Kong then was racist. Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, for example, was packing for the journey out at about the time the two writers left the Colony for Canton, as he'd been appointed Director of Medical Services, giving him cachet almost equal to Grayburn's. The doctor was sublimely indifferent to racial judgements, as was his wife, the soon to be notorious 'Red Hilda'. Besides, Grayburn was quite capable of defying convention when he wanted to, and it was said that his third wife enjoyed the dignities of that situation before they were strictly married. His second wife filed for a UK divorce on the grounds of desertion (under then recent legislation) and this was uncontested.19 I doubt that divorce was any less of a stigma in polite society in pre-war Hong Kong than it was in Britain and this doesn't seem to have bothered Sir Vandeleur.

What about his general attitude to China, a nation undergoing financial turmoil and Japanese attack during his tenure of the supreme post at the bank? Well, one contemporary source hinted1988, that Sir Vandeleur and other senior businessmen would have welcomed a Japanese victory as most conducive to the stability required for their operations, and implies he'd been trying to undermine Chinese standing in western opinion.20 I don't think there's any evidence for this (the same source claims that Grayburn was known at the time as 'the King', which is probably more solidly grounded). But the picture painted by the Bank's painstaking historian Frank King is very different. He tells us that Grayburn - and his colleague Henchmann in Shanghai - tended to advocate, against the Bank's committee in London, decisions that were in China’s long-term interests.21 Although the Chinese Government didn’t like the extraterritoriality system, which gave great privileges to foreigners in China, it worked in its favour after the Japanese attack (beginning in December 1937) as far as banking went as it enabled Grayburn and the HKSBC to protect China’s interests and sometimes the security of its bankers, as the Chinese banks in Shanghai came under pressure from the Japanese, from gangsters and sometimes from their own officials.22

In summary, King believes that Grayburn, in spite of his complaints and his doubts about the political situation, remained “committed to ‘Free China’”23 So it seems that it was with some justification at least that Sir Vandeleur claimed in 1940, 'I have done my utmost to do what I consider is the principal duty of the Hongkong Bank – to help Hong Kong and China and the Government of both places – and I think I have done it.'24 Frank King tells us he received the Chinese Republic's Order of the Brilliant Jade for defending the currency of the Republic of China,25 and it would greatly support this claim if this is true, but, if Wikipedia is to trusted, this is a one-rank decoration awarded only to foreign heads of a nation.26 My guess is that he was awarded an honour by the Chinese Republic, but perhaps not this one.

When the product of the visit to Hong Kong and China, Journey To A War, appeared in 1939 Isherwood's prose narrative contained no mention of Hong Kong, but Auden's sequence Sonnets From China did have a sonnet on the Colony,27 and, although he's not mentioned by name, 'Hong Kong' bears rather strongly on the work and symbolism of Sir Vandeleur Grayburn:
The leading characters are wise and witty,
Substantial men of birth and education
With wide experience of administration,

They know the manners of a modern city.28

In spite of the fact that these lines seem to focus on government ('administration'), given that Hong Kong was a society in which senior businessmen ranked at least equal to colonial civil servants (some say they outranked them), and that bankers were the most 'senior' of them all, I have no doubt that Grayburn was one of the stylishly amoral 'leading characters that Auden had in mind. When he came to revise the poem (for the 1966 Collected Shorter Poems), he removed the narrow focus on 'administration' and made it clear he was referring to the whole of Hong Kong's 'white elite:

Their suits well tailored, and they wear them well.

Vandeleur Grayburn, Wikimedia Commons

The revised third and fourth lines characterise Hong Kong and its 'white' elite better than the original draft:

Have many a polished parable to tell
About the mores of a trading city.
In other words: 'the leading British people here are all show, albeit stylish show, and their morality is what you’d expect of capitalists who began by trading in opium and continue to make a fat living by selling the products of others' labour’.
Some later lines, present in substantially the same form in both versions, take us even closer to the banking chief:

Here in the East the bankers have erected
A worthy temple to the Comic Muse.

Throughout the poem, Auden represents Hong Kong life as a comedy - meaning something like 'lacking in seriousness, funny to outsiders and based on the naive assumption that, in spite of the war raging close by, all would end happily' - throughout the poem, and he turned what saw as the rather unprepossessing Bank building into a symbol of that kind of life. The Building, as we've seen, was the product of Grayburn's vision, and locally it was sometimes known as 'Grayburn's Folly'.29

In its original 1938 version the poem ends:     

 We cannot postulate a General Will;
For what we are, we have ourselves to blame.
Some commentators have seen the rejection of Rousseau's idea of a 'General Will', a collective desire that individuals should if necessary be forced to submit to, as a sign that Auden was on his way to the abandonment of Marxism. But in context they are rather a rejection of the capitalist idea that if you live in a 'place like Hong Kong accordingly and not bother about rigorous ethical standards. No-one, in other words, should claim that their actions are the result of the ‘manners of a modern city’ or of some entity like ‘the British in Hong Kong’.

So there you have it: two highly intelligent and principled writers spend a fortnight in a British Colony stuck in the 'Late Victorian'30 age and, their antennae made even more sensitive because of their mission to report a brutal war of aggression going on over the border, they see through the racism, smugness and naiveté of the ex-pat community, and sum up it all up by reference to the words, deeds and lifestyle of one its most prominent representatives, the real ruler of Hong Kong, 'The Governor's Governor'.

What happened next was as remarkable as it was unpredictable and still gives plenty of matter for reflection.

1I'm simplifying but I hope not falsifying a more complex textual history – see Edward Mendelson, The English Auden, 1977, 421-422.

2Humphrey Carpenter, W. H. Auden: A Biography, 1981,209-215.

3Mr Norris Changes Trains, Vintage 1999 (1935), 217.


5Carpenter, 1981, 233.

6Christopher Isherwood, Christopher and His Kind, 1977, 223.

7Philip Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, 2003, 2.


10Isherwood, 1977, 223.

11Isherwood, 1977, 223.

12John Haffenden, William Empson: Among the Mandarins, 2005, 483, 659

13Frank H. H. King, The History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Volume 3, 1998, 228.

14King, 1988, 290.

15King, 1988, 202, 204.

16King, 1988, 204.


18King, 1988, 266.


20Edgar A. Mowrer, The Dragon Wakes, 1939, 20-24, 217.

21 King, 1988, 166.

22 King, 1988, 442.

23 King, 1988, 403.

24King, 1988, 541.

25 King, 1988, 291.


27This poem wasn't part of the manuscript sent to the publisher – Auden and Isherwood planned to write 'Hongkong-Macao: A Dialogue', but then rejected the idea and Auden added a sonnet on each place instead – Mendelson, 1977, 425.

28Text from Mendelson, 1977, 235 – dated December 1938.

29Paul Gillingham, At the Peak, 1983, 162-167 – a good discussion of the whole project.

30See line 10 of Auden's sonnet, Journey to a War, (1939), 1973 ed. page 13.