Friday, 7 December 2018

Walter Richardson Scott

Before the War

Walter Richardson Scott was born on December 15, 1899.1 His career as a policeman whose career went back to 1920 when he served in Ireland as part of the final desperate British attempt to hold back the independence movement.2

He joined the Hong Kong Police on November 4, 1922 and appointed a Superintendent on May 4, 1933. In the early 1920s he probably spent time in Peking; George Wright-Nooth, a fellow Hong Kong police officer, tells us his wife, an American called June Samson, used to run an antiques shop in that city. Her sister Maurine married Mr Scott's best friend,3 Alexander Grantham, who was posted to Hong Kong in 1922 and returned as a post-war governor,4 but who met his wife in Peking in 1925.5 This meeting was during Mandarin lessons, and as Mr Scott also understood this language (see below), it's possible he was already working in Hong Kong and both men were sent to Peking for study.

He was obviously successful in police work and by the middle of the 1930s he'd achieved high office and a role in the broader life of Hong Kong. In 1933 he was appointed a Superintendent of Police, with effect from May 4.6 In 1934 he's listed as as an Official Justice of the Peace.7 In May of the same year he was appointed a member of the committee to administer the Mercantile Marine Assistance Fund of Hong Kong.8 His salary in 1935 was £930 p.a. In 1938 he was chairman of the Air Raid Precautions Sub-committee until the arrival of Wing Commander A. H. S. Steele-Perkins as Air Raid Precautions-Officer.10 He was first appointed appointed Deputy Commissioner of Police with effect from March 18, 1939,11 again with effect from September 20, 194012 and finally with effect from July 28 1941.13 This means he was acting Deputy when the war broke out. His salary in 1941 had risen from a starting point of £450 to £120014 - that's worth just over £50,000 in today's UK values, and prices in Hong Kong were generally much lower.

What exactly were his responsibilities? Geoffrey Emerson describes him as head of the police 'Intelligence Department',15while according to Wright-Nooth, his 'substantive post was head of Special Branch'.16 This was a small section that worked with Superintendent Frank Shaftain's CID to counter 'internal subversion17 – for example, the efforts of the numerous Chinese fifth columnists who had been infiltrated into Hong Kong by the Japanese under the guise of refugees fleeing the fighting in south China.

Before I describe his wartime service, I'll say a little more about Mr Scott's pre-war life. I strongly suspect that he was the 'Walter' who went hunting with American writer Ernest Hemingway (a future Nobel laureate) on May 3, 1941. Here's a description in Hemingway's unmistakeable style:

This Kowloon is a fine city and you would like it very much. It is clean and well laid-out and the forest comes to the edge of the city and there is very fine wood pigeon shooting just outside the compound of the women's prison. We used to shoot the pigeons, which were large and handsome, with lovely purple shading feathers on their necks, and a strong swift way of flying, when they would come in to roost just at twilight in a huge laurel tree that grew just outside the whitewashed wall of the prison compound. Sometimes I would take a high incomer, coming very fast with the wind behind him, directly overhead and the pigeon would fall inside the compound of the prison and you would hear the women shouting and squealing with delight as they fought over the bird and then squealing and shrieking as the Sikh guard drove them off and retrieved the bird which he then brought dutifully out to us through the sentry's gate of the prison.18

It's certain that many Hong Kong policemen hunted, but the name 'Walter' (given in a letter by Hemingway to his wife), and the fact that Mr Scott is known to have been a hunter make me think of him, while the prison guard's helpfulness strongly suggests an officer of high rank.

On November 16, 1941, Mr Scott was on a hunt close to Junk Bay in the New Territories with Chinese surgeon Li Shu-fan. They heard the sound of a formation of planes and Scott told Li that they were protecting a transport loaded with Canadian troops:

We climbed to the top of the hill in silence, and looked down upon a huge, three- funnel Canadian Pacific transport steaming toward the entrance of Hong Kong harbor. Walter commented that these would probably be the only reinforcements allotted to us

The Deputy Commissioner was apologetic – he'd known about the arrival in advance, but Dr Li, who was prominent in the British-supporting Chinese 'gentry' and might have been expected to be informed, had been kept in the dark. Later that day Mr Scott wrote to his wife, who'd returned to the United States.19 The Scotts are reported to have been living together in Mount Cameron Road in 1938 ( so perhaps she left in summer 1940 as part of the general evacuation.

A Glimpse in the Fighting

Dr Li came across his 'old friend' during the hostilities. He went to the Gloucester Building – police HQ after Central Police Station was bombed - hoping he'd get some 'encouraging news':

When I arrived he was dashing all over the place, giving orders. Just as I was about to give up my attempts to find him, we met on the staircase.
'Any news of reinforcements?' I asked at once.
Walter shook his head. 'Remember the Canadians we saw on that big three-funnel steamer?'
'Of course.'
'Well, they've been putting up a splendid fight, but they can't possibly hold out against such odds.'
I then asked the question which was in everybody's heart, 'Can we hope for a relief force?'
Walter answered honestly, 'There's no hope of that

Life in Stanley Camp

On February 2, 1942, about ten days after most Allied civilians were sent to the improvised internment camp at Stanley, Morris 'Two-Gun' Cohen, a 'general' in the Chinese army who'd been working with Special Branch, was taken from the camp by the Gendarmes and held at a prison in Kowloon for interrogation. He notes that other 'Special Branch' men were there Seymour Major, A. H. Elston, Frank Shaftain and Rex Davis.21 He does not report seeing Mr Scott – it's possible he was interrogated elsewhere or that the Japanese were not aware of his true role so left him alone at this point.

Mr Scott shared a tiny room in the Indian Quarters with ASP Booker and George Wright-Nooth.22 Stanley was an egalitarian place and his high rank almost certainly made no difference to his rations – he would have shared the same deprivations as everyone else. In fact, the Indian Quarters were sometimes called the 'slums' of the camp. Apart from the black marketeers, the best off internees were those who had friends outside Stanley (generally Chinese or neutrals) who could send them food parcels. It's highly likely that Mr Scott was one of the 'close friends' that Dr Li (his hunting companion) sent regular parcels to (some in the name of his secretary who was Swiss by marriage) until this became too dangerous.23 Dr Li also records that when in Stanley Mr Scott sent him a cheque for $500 to be cashed, not realising that the HKSBC had been seized as enemy property24 – or perhaps hoping that his friend's Chinese ethnicity and high status (he had a reputation even in Japan) would enable him to have the rules bent.

It seems that Mr Scott was a considerable linguist: an official listing gives his languages as Cantonese, Urdu, Punjabi (all useful for dealing with Hong Kong's police, most of whom were Chinese or Indian) and Mandarin. But his talents weren't confined to learning Asian languages: in Camp he taught German as part of the lively education programme (about 1 in 3 internees took part at one tie or another). Diarist R. E. Jones notes that he began lessons with Mr Scott on June 3, 1942 and that he 'retrieved' a German grammar book from is room after his arrest.25

Resistance in Stanley and its consequences

Anything like the full story of the courageous men and women who carried on the anti-Japanese struggle in Stanley Camp will probably never be written, but from what is known at the moment Mr Scott played an important part, under the direction of Colonial Secretary Franklin Gimson and Defence Secretary John Fraser:

Scott was a key figure. He knew most of what was going on.26

In particular, he knew about the operation of a secret radio set by Douglas Waterton, Stanley Rees and others, and about a system of messages carried by the truck that brought the camp's daily rations which linked Stanley with the resistance in town. I've described both of these activities in previous posts:

Stanley contained a number of informers and the agents in town were constantly spied on so to have anything to do with the resistance took the highest courage, as no-one doubted what would happen to anyone who was caught.

In March 1943 the Japanese sent a well-known Chinese collaborator into Stanley, presumably to try to extract information about the resistance. This man, variously known as Tse Chi, Howard Tau or Howard Tse spent a lot of time talking to Mr Scott,27 an ominous sign. In February 1943 the Kempeitai had begun to 'strike back' all over Hong Kong against various forms of resistance activity, and they clearly didn't intend to leave Stanley out and had already marked Mr Scott as someone likely to be involved.

The blow fell on June 28, and Mr Scott was the first to be arrested:

At about noon on the 28 June, 1943, I was present when our Chinese supervisor, Yip, arrived at our room and announced to Scott that he was wanted 'up the hill'. Slowly, without any outward sign of the turmoil of doubt and fear that must have seethed within him, he calmly finished his meal of bully beef. Waiting outside was{Gendarme} Yoshimoto.28

Mr Scott was taken by Yoshimoto, two other Japanese and a Chinese interpreter to 'House Number 2', which was occupied by the Chinese Camp Supervisors. There he was brutally interrogated.29 According to George Wright-Nooth there was 'real fear' in Stanley after Mr Scott's arrest: he was a 'key figure', who knew many of the people involved in 'illegal activities' including Wright-Nooth himself.30 The three men who had handled a crucial message from the resistance to Stanley (see below), Messrs Anderson Hall and Bradley, were arrested at about 6 p.m. on the same day.31 William Anderson was also involved with the radio operators, one of whom, Stanley Rees, was arrested. At the end of the day, Scott and the five other prisoners were taken to the Gendarme station in Stanley village. It only remained for the Japanese to extract by torture the names that led to a second round of arrests on July 7. For a number of reasons, it is not believed that Mr Scott was the source of any of this information.

On June 29 he was taken with the others to a cell on the top floor of 'G' Block in Stanley Prison. At one point he was slapped by a Chinese warder for crying out for treatment for his diarrhoea.32 An Indian prisoner who seems to have been offered inducements to inform on the others, asked Mr Scott for favours for his collaborator father after the war; he refused, as did John Fraser and William Anderson, so all three were dropped from the prison cleaning party organised by this man– cleaning was a popular activity as it enabled the prisoners to leave their cells and talk to each other.33
Mr Scott was tried in the first and largest batch of prisoners on the morning of October 19, 1943. This is what a Japanese trial summary, captured by the BAAG after the war, has to say about this 'crimes':
The accused Walter RICHARDSON SCOTT {capitalisation sic} was chief of police HONKONG, before the war, and was interned when HONGKONG fell. In April 43 when the former Assistant Superintendent of Reserve Police Force LOOIE FOOK WING{David Loie, an important resistance agent in town} secretly sent him a document concerning the establishment of Radio communication between the Internment Camp and the British organisation at WAICHOW {The British Army Aid Group, a resistance organisation}, he did his best to achieve this, in cooperation with FRASER.34

The section on John Fraser stipulates that they 'conspired' to have Stanley Rees get in communication with the Waichow organisation – the British Army Aid Group, a resistance group led by Colonel Lindsay Ride, which was hoping to sponsor a mass break-out from Stanley. It seems that Mr Scott had his own plans for escape: Wright-Nooth tells us he planned one with Defence Secretary John Fraser, radio operator Douglas Waterton and Police Sergeant Frank Roberts,35 while Camp Secretary John Stericker claims that 'John Fraser and Scott had made almost foolproof plans to escape. They were asked not to go because of the mass punishments which had been vested on the camp as a result of earlier escapes.'36

But the Japanese knew nothing of this; it was that message from the BAAG that was to prove his downfall, and we have an account of it from another source. George Wright-Nooth tells us that in March 1943 Leung Hung37 ('Jimmy') an assiduous smuggler of messages through his ration truck told William Anderson to expect a highly secret message which he should give to Mr Hall, who would know what to do with it. The message was given to Mr Anderson inside a cigarette and he passed it on as requested. It contained instructions from the BAAG to listen in on the 40 metre band for radio messages.38 The Japanese trial summary tells us what happened next:

In April of that year{1943} he{Frederick Bradley} was asked by the accused HALL to hand the former Police Chief SCOTT a message concerning W. T.{wireless transmission} code from the British organisation in WAICHOW, which LOOIE FOOK WING was getting in through {Alexander} SINTON39.Knowing quite well the import of what he was doing, he agreed to this and some days later handed the message to SCOTT.40

The same document's section on Portuguese agent William White41 tells us more:

He{White}was thus {through the driver of the Stanley ration lorry, Leung Hung} able to maintain liaison between the camp and the British organisation at WAICHOW, getting its messages to the former HONGKONG Government Police Superintendent {Pennefather-} Evans and the Police Chief Scott.42

It's not clear if Mr White was part of the Sinton-Loie network or if he was transmitting messages to Scott independently.

In any case, the crucial message about radio contact was the only thing Mr Scott was question about at his trial, where the prosecutor called it 'the Waichow letter'. He vigorously protest his innocence43 – the prisoners hadn't been asked to enter a plea as it was assumed that this had been established by the Kempeitai investigation. He got a beating with a sword scabbard for his heated denial, which can have been no surprise as the accused were expected to stand stock still throughout the trial except when being personally questioned and they were hit every time they moved. Mr Scott was almost certainly 'guilty' as charged, and of much more in the way of resistance activity, and he can have been under no illusions as to efficacy of his protest. I think it possible that in fact his intervention was a sign to any of his fellow accused who survived the war that, in spite of brutal interrogation, he had incriminated neither himself nor others.

Because Mr Scott's actions involved military resistance – contact with the BAAG – they were more than enough to guarantee the death sentence. In fact, both the verdict and the sentence had been decided beforehand,44 the first being standard Japanese procedure, the second unusual and perhaps brought about by the arrival of new Gendarme officers from Tokyo. Those not sentenced to death got 15 years (later reduced to 10).

The prisoners were sent back to Stanley Prison to serve their sentences or to await execution. Their fellow internees made a courageous, but desperate, effort to save them. Jean Gittins, who could write Chinese, was asked to translate a message which was written on a piece of cigarette paper and pasted on the back of a matchbox tray:

Fraser and Scott sentenced to death. Others in grave danger. Request immediate intervention by British Ambassador in Chunking. Most urgent.45

Mr F. Shaftain, head of CID, was still in touch with the resistance, in which some of his former Chinese detectives were working. He had revived the secret route through the ration lorry workers that had been broken in the spring of 1943, so he was quite right to warn Mrs Gittins that ‘there is considerable risk attached’.

No doubt Mr Scott and the others prepared themselves for death in the ways they thought best. One fragment of information probably relates to this time. While in Stanley he'd had a close friendship – nothing more - with well-known Australian broadcaster Dorothy Jenner – he asked a friend to give her his police uniform, badge and arm-tags after his execution.46 Other condemned men managed to smuggle out messages, and I think this means that Mr Scott probably did too.

At about 2 pm on October 29 the 32 condemned men and one woman were taken out of solitary confinement and assembled inside Stanley Prison. They were refused a visit from a priest, but were allowed five minutes together to compose themselves. Captain Ansari47 gave an impromptu talk, and Preston Wong48 led prayers.

At about 2 p.m. they were driven out of the prison in the official van. Although accounts differ, there is general agreement that as they were leaving the prison either Mr Scott or John Fraser shouted 'Goodbye, boys', or something similar, to a group playing close by. Their last journey was short: to Stanley Beach, at a point close to where the internees had disembarked in January 1942:

The prisoners marched in single file to a small clearing. Ringing the hills around them were scores of Chinese gravestones. Before them in the center of the clearing the prisoners saw two trenches dug by Indian warders and knew how they were to die.49

They were all blindfolded. Mr Scott, Captain Ansari, and John Fraser were led forward first – it looks like the Japanese were allowing precedence to rank even in death. The others followed after, also in goups of three. George Wright-Nooth tells us that Mr Scott faced death 'silently and with dignity'.50 He was obviously a man of great courage who, when his duty demanded he run the most appalling risks, carried it out unflinchingly.

1List of Senior Government Officers Retired or Died During the War, 34 – available to members of the Yahoo Stanley Camp Group.
2George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 35.
3Information supplied by Mr Scot's grandniece to Tony Banham -
6The Hong Kong Government Gazette, October 6, 1933, 671.
7The Hong Kong Government Gazette, June 22, 1934, 456.
8The Hong Kong Government Gazette, May 25, 1934, 396.
9Civil Establishment of Hong Kong, 1935, J47.
10Report On Air Raid Precautions For 1938, 1. Steele-Perkins was to become embroiled in one of the biggest scandals of pre-war Hong Kong.
11The Hong Kong Government Gazette, March 17, 1939, 188.
12The Hong Kong Government Gazette, September 20, 1940.
13The Hong Kong Government Gazette, August 29, 1941.
14List of Senior Government Officers Retired or Died During the War, 34 – available to members of the Yahoo Stanley Camp Group.
15Geoffrey Emerson, Hong Kong Interment, 2008, Kindle Edition, Location, 2885.
16Wright-Nooth, 1994, 35.
17Wright-Nooth, 1994, 47.
18Peter Moreira, Hemingway on the China Front, 2007, 38, 67; Ernest Hemingway, Islands in the Stream, 1970 (posthumous), 280 – this source is a novel, but the part cited is generally agreed to be strongly autobiographical.
19Li Shu-Fan, Hong Kong Surgeon, 1964, 92.
20Li, 1964, 101.
21Charles Drage, The Life and Times of General Two-Gun Cohen, 1954, 291.
22Wright-Nooth, 1994, 101.
23Li, 1964, 141.
24Li, 1964, 141.
25Diary of R. E. Jones, June 3, 1942; July 5, 1943.
26Wright-Nooth, 1994, 160.
27Wright-Nooth, 1994, 156-157.
28Wright-Nooth, 1994, 159.
29Wright-Nooth, 1994,160.
30Wright-Nooth, 1994,160.
31Wright-Nooth, 1994,160.
32Wright-Nooth, 1994, 176.
33Wright-Nooth, 1994, 178-179.
34Captured Enemy Document, Page 6. Part of the Ride Papers, and kindly sent to me by Elizabeth Ride.
35Wright-Nooth, 1994, 156.
36John Stericker, A Tear for the Dragon, 1958, 182-183.
38Wright-Nooth, 1994, 155.
40Captured Enemy Document, Page 5.
42 Capture Enemy Document, Page 4.
43Wright-Nooth, 1994, 181.
44Wright-Nooth, 1994, 184.
45Gittins, 1982, 144.
46Dorothy Jenner and Trish Shepherd, Darlings I've Had A Ball, 1975, 214.
50Wright-Nooth, 1994, 255.

Francesca Rhydderch's The Rice Paper Diaries: A Personal Review

Francesca Rhydderch’s The Rice Paper Diaries, a story of the Hong Kong war and its aftermath, is an astonishing work. It’s hard to believe this is her first novel as it’s so stylistically accomplished, ambitious in conception and successful in execution

Anything like a proper account would involve detailing some of the novel’s secrets, and, as Rhydderch has an unfailing sense of what to reveal, half-reveal, hint at or withhold, I’ll do my best to write about it without giving away too much – but those who hate to know anything that’s going to happen should take this as a mini spoiler alert!

One of the reasons I called the book astonishing is that the author is able to create five convincing centres of consciousness through which to tell her story: the main narratives are preceded by a short section set in a hospital in 1996, where a woman is being treated for an unspecified disease – the patient is Elsa, a character presumably based on the author’s great-aunt, whose experiences inspired her interest in wartime Hong Kong;[1] the first long section is set in the period leading up to the Japanese attack and it too is seen though Elsa’s consciousness. She's newly arrived in the Colony and ‘again’ is in hospital - for a Caesarean which fails to save her first baby. The second long section, which includes the 1941 hostilities, is narrated by Lin, Elsa’s amah,[2] an economic migrant from south China, but one who’s also glad to escape the heavy hand of her father at ‘home’. The third part covers the first few months in Stanley, which are described through the ‘log book’ of Elsa’s naval husband, Tommy Jones,[3] and it ends with him being taken out of the camp charged with a serious offence. The fourth and final long section takes the story into the post-war years; it’s seen from the viewpoint of Mari, the Jones’s daughter, born in March 1941, and growing up in the small Welsh town of New Quay. We end with a short but very important return to Elsa in hospital in 1996.

Elsa young and old, the Cantonese Lin, the resistance-minded Tommy and the child Mari – each one has their own rich consciousness and idiom, and the minor players are superbly rendered too - I found the character of Lin’s ‘man’ Wei, a street writer of letters on behalf of the illiterate, very sensitively handled and moving. Rhydderch’s stylistic command is dazzling and she has an ability to create pictures that are subtle, unexpected yet perfectly appropriate. This is just one example, a description of the British milling around Murray Parade Ground waiting to be registered by their conquerors:
The parade ground was covered with people from end to end. They looked as if they had been bleached of colour overnight. Everything about them seemed unfinished. There were women wearing coats without belts, and men in shirts that didn’t do up. Hair that was normally oiled back sprung away from foreheads, and painted-on lips that usually pouted their way in and out of conversations had faded back into thin pale lines on their owners’ faces.[4]

Those images of ‘bleached’ and ‘unfinished’ people and the women’s disembodied lips register perfectly the devastation that defeat has already brought about, suggest that there’s much more to come, and hint at some of the ways in which life in British Hong Kong distorted women.

Rhydderch makes it clear in the Acknowledgments that she’s written a ‘fiction’ not a ‘reconstruction’ and that the reader shouldn’t expect a historically accurate account of the Hong Kong war. That’s fair enough, and the description of the first six months of Stanley camp is at any rate more accurate than J. G. Ballard’s portrait of Lunghua Civilian Internment Centre in Empire of the Sun, which outraged some former inmates by what they regarded as its sensationalising of their experience. Ballard’s novel and its follow up, The Kindness of Women, are likely to remain the greatest ever works of fiction inspired by the internment of British civilians by the Japanese, but they were written by an experienced novelist at the height of his powers, and it amazes me that Rhydderch’s debut bears comparison with Ballard’s achievement.

However, readers of this history-focused blog should be aware that the hostilities in this novel begin (rather than end) on Christmas Day, 1941 and that Japanese soldiers are rounding up western civilians from the Peak right from the start (in reality this happened at the very end of the fighting after the mainland and most of the island had been conquered). We see the – considerably shortened – hostilities through the eyes of the Cantonese Amah, Lin, and it seems to me that Rhydderch’s main interest in the fighting is as the cause of some of the book’s many disjunctures and displacements.
Although it’s irrelevant from the point of view of the novel’s art, I would be very interested to know if the descriptions of Elsa and Tommy playing bridge with the Japanese camp authorities are adapted from Geoffrey Emerson’s account of Stanley, one of Rhydderch’s acknowledged sources, where the bridge player is ‘leader of the internees’ Franklin Gimson.[5] Whatever the case, Rhydderch has an excellent sense of the real experience of camp life:

It’s a toss-up between hunger and fatigue most nights. If I stay up too long after we’ve had our evening meal I can’t sleep. I end up chewing the bloody blankets to fill my mouth with saliva, in the hope it will make me feel something in my stomach. But if I go to bed straight after supper, there’s not time to see or talk to anyone, even Elsa, especially Elsa, no human interaction to distinguish one day’s hard labour from the next.[6]

Tommy’s attempt to refuse to accept the implications of defeat is the kind of ‘masculine’ response analysed by historians like Bernice Archer:[7] he dreams of growing vegetables so as to be ‘completely self-sufficient…no more kowtowing to the Japs’[8] and smuggles in radio parts to facilitate a family escape.

Although, as I’ve said, issues of historical accuracy are not particularly important, I feel I should say in deference to my own family history that Bungalow D wasn’t open in the first 6 months (when one of the characters is said to be living there) and that there was no camp hierarchy with high status people given superior accommodation in the Bungalows! (For the socially varied nature of Bungalow D dwellers see - Rhydderch’s is a plausible although mistaken assumption, but to discuss the nature of camp (in)egalitarianism would take me too far afield).

If historical verisimilitude is not her intention, what has the author made of the real-life experiences that seem to have been her starting point? What I think she does is portray Hong Kong and West Wales at particular historical ‘moments’ in such a way as to probe two intertwined questions: who are we? how do we relate to the places that form us and which we help to form? The provisional answer suggested in both cases is more complex – and for some people a little more disturbing – than we might expect.

The answer to the first question might almost be that of Shakespeare’s Iago – ‘I am not what I am’. Perhaps that’s always been the case, or perhaps it’s a product of the fluidity of the modern world, but in any case, the Cantonese amah Lin, someone you might expect to be ‘rooted’ in the rural world of southern China, gives us a fine image for the self in the age of forced migrations, the intermingling of peoples and the disruptions of war, an image in which the belief (which might always have been an illusion) that we are one ‘person’ with a clear centre of consciousness at the middle is shown to be no longer tenable:

I looked up at the mirror. There was a hole in the middle of it the size of a coin where the bullet must have hit it. I saw a confused face broken up into shards that ran from the centre to the edges of the kidney-shaped glass: an eye here, a cheekbone there. It took me a moment to recognise it as mine.[9]

There you have it: there is a ‘hole’ in the centre of the ‘me’, the experience of the body is necessarily fragmentary – yet we are still recognisably ourselves, for all that war and other contingencies can do to us. Yet, ironically, to force too much unification on the heterogeneous matter of the self, is to be untrue to its nature:

I sat in my cubicle and surveyed the contents of my life….I thought to myself, even if I wanted to go home now, where would that be – the Pearl River Delta, Sheung Wan,[10] the Peak? There’s a little of me that has been scattered through them all and taken root there, and to try to cut the shoots that have pushed their way out like sweet potato leaves and bring them together in one harvest would make me someone else entirely. Whoever that person would be, she wouldn’t be me.[11]

Times and places all have their effect in the creation of a complex and contradictory ‘person’. War is the best place to study this, as the changes it brings about are so quick and so massive.
And yet, when Elsa (in 1996) greets Lin:

At the sound of her name, Lin smiles, as if willing all that she was and is to come together and crystallise under the parasol of those three letters. She’s forgotten how to mark the character in Chinese, but it is still her name, and the way Elsa throws it at her like a fisherman flinging out his fine white nets, with a blind faith beyond her pockmarked memory, reels Lin in.[12]

In other words, for all the disruptions, migrations, and contradictory experiences that have formed us, we can never abandon the idea of a unity and identity symbolised by our name.

It’s not just wars that make us who we are of course. Elsa’s daughter, Mari, we learn in the concluding 1996 section, opened a fashion shop in the King’s Road –if we’d followed her life, we’d have seen her being moulded by the cultural fashions of the 1960s, a reminder that the different ‘epochs’ of peace time as well as the intensified experience of the war play their role in self-fashioning. Every person – and every place – is a palimpsest bearing marks from many different epochs.

If the self is never just one thing, what of the places that have contributed to form it? It’s no surprise that colonial Hong Kong, famously a colony full of both Chinese and British transients there to make money before going somewhere else, and contemporary London, now seeking to market itself as a ‘global city’, should be places where the ‘authentic’, the ‘local’ and the ‘rooted’ are hard to find, but what of New Quay? The book’s longest – and to me most powerful – section is set in this small West Wales coastal town, whose current population is only about 1200 (it’s sometimes considered one of the inspirations for Dylan Thomas’s Llareggub). Here, in the heartlands of ‘Welsh-speaking Wales’, we might expect to find a place that ‘is what it is’, where authentic and traditional living is possible.

It turns out that even during the war New Quay had a little of the fluidity of Hong Kong: there was an unhappy evacuee there, and a German POW ends up marrying and settling. And at first, far from providing anything in the nature of home, Mari, who was born just before the war, finds it hostile and unsettling after the confined but safely familiar world of Stanley Camp. (Here, by the way, Rhydderch is staying close to the real history, as there are many accounts of the relatively good life of the camp children, at least one of whom expressed a desire for the war to start up again so they could go back to Stanley.)

But ironically this New Quay that had seemed so hostile when she arrived there from Stanley Camp, does eventually enable Mari to find a sense of ‘home’. But this is only in a town that’s experienced even more displacement, with properties falling into the sea, half the houses turned into holiday homes, and the fields full of caravans (useful symbols of temporary and mobile living).[13] Laura Wainwright, in a perceptive review,[14] is illuminating as to aspects of the book’s Welshness, but, perhaps to sabotage any uncritically nationalist readings, Rhydderch has Mari only return after losing most of her Welsh (just as Lin has achieved some sense of identity only after she’s forgotten ‘what she is’ in Chinese). Nevertheless, it turns out that Elsa’s husband Tommy, who is unable to see the traditions of Wales as anything but ‘Gloomy Welsh myths’[15] has lost something valuable. In this book that seems to have its origins in fascination with the endurance of a real woman in Stanley Camp and which celebrates the affection of sisters, aunts, mothers and daughters, we might see this as a sign of Tommy’s ‘male’ inability to be properly nurtured (or nurturing, as the failure of his horticultural enterprise in Stanley suggests).[16]

Rhydderch also shows us that when a place is the locale for a set of overwhelming experiences then it exercises a strange effect on the future, and events from the Hong Kong war seem to shape events in New Quay in ways which don’t always admit to rational understanding: both the commonest Japanese torture and method of execution[17] reappear in transmuted but recognisable forms. And the ‘now’ that we’re so often exhorted to live in turns out to be not only the present and not even entirely ours – Mari is not only drawn back to Stanley, she finds she ‘likes doing the things that Elsa and Nannon[18] used to do’.[19]

So New Quay turns out to be a place where it is in some sense possible to live a life rooted in Welsh and family tradition, just as back in Hong Kong, the letter-writer Wei was able to show Lin the character for her own name and eventually teach her to write, providing her with a genuine and precious link to ‘Chineseness’. But, as I have been seeking to suggest, any relationship to family and cultural tradition is complex and uncertain, and the more we want to make it count in our lives the more we have to be willing to lose it in the fluidity of living. Lin ends up, as we have seen, forgetting even the character for her own name, a real loss, but she finds much else as she creates a role in the ‘global city’.

What’s wrong with the novel? Well, I must confess that, although I recognise the right of an author to do what they want with history, I feel a little uneasy at Rhydderch’s representation of pre-war Hong Kong. I’ve criticised over-done accounts of the racism of old Hong Kong,[20] so I’m glad that she doesn’t fall into that trap, but I can’t help but feel that she lets the colonial system off a little lightly. True, the semi-apartheid system of much of Hong Kong life is hinted at – ‘Chinese sit downstairs’[21] – but discrimination was so wide-ranging that I would have preferred it to have been registered more strongly in the lives of the characters.

There are other things about pre-war Hong Kong that seem underplayed too. Lin goes there from Canton as an economic migrant,[22] seemingly only dimly aware of the murderous conditions created by the Japanese attack (starting in October 1938) on this part of south China and she finds a city pretty much living normally except for the absence of some evacuated women and children. In fact, most of the women and children were in Australia, the ‘Bachelor Husbands’ were conducting a vigorous campaign to get them back (or at least to have something done about the wives of senior officials who’d dodged the evacuation), and the streets were full of Chinese refugees – well over half a million by the time of the attack – most of whom had fled the war in South China. I can’t help thinking that a more accurate picture of this community under the severe strain created by these contradictory movements and the ineluctable threat of war would have strengthened Rhydderch’s presentation of her themes.

Some people, I think, will find the sophistication of Lin’s consciousness unrealistic, but personally I like the way in which the novel grounds some of its most subtle insights in the experience and thinking of a young woman from rural China. Rhydderch has a scholarly background,[23] but the novel is not limited but strengthened by this – it’s not ‘academic’ in any pejorative sense of the word, but it is itself ‘rooted’ in the author’s understanding of some important philosophical debates.
A final point: I’m no horticulturalist, but the way in which Tommy’s Stanley Camp ‘crime’ is uncovered doesn’t sound convincing to me.

I could well be wrong about this, and in any case I’m nit-picking as no reviewer likes to be accused of uncritical admiration. This is simply a magnificent book that anyone who enjoys first-rate literary fiction should consider reading. Personally I cherish the hope that Rhydderch will continue to develop her craft with more novels on different themes and then return to the civilians in the Hong Kong war, perhaps in Ballardian hommage giving us an account of Mari’s experiences growing up in the post-war world. In that case, my long held and almost axiomatic belief that no-one will ever produce better internment-inspired books than Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women might come crashing down.

I certainly hope so, but the development of a writer of this talent has to be unpredictable so I’ll be happy just to be surprised.

I was yet again made aware of the foolishness of a purely historical approach to analysing fiction on a recent trip to the Hong Kong archives. My statement that Bungalow D wasn't in use in the first six months was based on at least two good sources, but I found a better one which said it was opened at the start of internment, then closed for some reason, then opened again in May 1943 for the group that included my parents! History is just the starting point and a novel that keeps close to the recorded facts (which in this case have just changed) is no better or no worse for that reason than one which shifts things around.
[2] Domestic servant, but often used specifically for a nanny.
[3] For some information about the real-life Elsa and Tommy see this thread:
[4] Francesca Rhydderch, The Rice Paper Diaries, Seren, 2013, 97. All future references are to this book unless otherwise indicated.
[5] Geoffrey Emerson, Hong Kong Internment, 1942-1945, Kindle Edition, Location 555-557. An edition of the original 1973 thesis with important new material is available from Hong Kong University Press:
[6] 121.
[7]Archer’s The Internment of Western Civilians under the Japanese (2002), pioneered the study of issues of gender and age in internment and remains the only substantial comparative account of civilian internment in the Pacific War.
[8] 118.
[9] 84.
[10] Part of Hong Kong where she’s taken Tommy and Elsa’s daughter Mari.
[11] 76-77.
[12] 235.
[13] 233.
[15] 50.
[16] New Quay is imagined as the teats of a sow in a vision of Wales in the shape of a pig – 15.
[17] 196; 202-203.
[18] Mari’s aunt.
[19] 233
[20] and
[21] 42.
[22] 76.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Gaston Marie Raoul de Sercey: A Free Frenchman in Occupied Hong Kong

Gaston Marie Raoul de Sercey was born in Beirut on 11 June 1898 to a long-established and prominent French family – ancestors were admirals, marshals and ambassadors, and his father and an older brother were counts.[1]There may have been a link with Asia, as his father was co-author of a late nineteenth century Mongol grammar,[2] and one of Raoul’s brothers died at Peking in 1931. On May 30, 1924 Raoul married Suzanne Louise Marie Bussiere in Peking. They had 2 children, a daughter Anne, born in 1926, and a son Phillipe.[3]

In 1941 he’d been in charge of the Chinese Postal Department in Hong Kong for 22 years.[4] From 1939 he was in charge of the Chinese Overseas Remittances Department;[5] another source says he was in charge of the Banque d ‘Epargne[6] (Savings Bank) run by the Chinese Posts, which probably means the same thing. I think that he had the important job of making sure that the huge number of remittances that were sent by Hong Kong workers to their families in China arrived safely.

After the Fall of France in June 1940, like other French nationals in the Far East he had the option of sitting out the war in a position of relative safety while waiting to see what happened. His actual choice was very different. He responded to de Gaulle’s ‘Appel’  of June 17, and by the time the Japanese attacked on December 8, 1941 he already had a history of commitment to the Allied cause: just before the outbreak of hostilities he’d figured on a ‘blacklist’ drawn up by the Vichy authorities in French Indo-China. He and the others on the list (which included former Hong Kong Consul-General Louis Reynaud[7]) were wanted for urgent questioning about their activities in broadcasting Gaulliste propaganda.[8]

After the surrender, he remained uninterned as a ‘third national’, and threw himself into a campaign of relief for the British POWs and internees. He escaped from Hong Kong sometime not long before April 5, 1944, the day he left Canton, arriving at the British Army Aid Group Advanced Headquarters at Waichow on April 8.[9] He was thoroughly debriefed by the BAAG and most of what follows comes from statements by or about him in The Ride Papers. The Ride Papers are held at the Hong Kong Heritage Project, and the relevant documents were kindly sent to me by Elizabeth Ride.

Mr. de Sercey’s major contribution during the occupation was to provide as much relief as he could to POWs and internees, particularly those who’d worked for the Chinese Maritime Customs and the major Hong Kong firm of Jardine Matheson.

His efforts for the Jardine’s staff sprung from his friendship with J. J. Paterson, and a general desire to help people treated ‘in a most despicable manner by the Japanese authorities’.[10] J. J. Paterson was the taipan (boss) of Jardine’s and he’d been the commander of the group of older men whose defence of North Point Power Station is often described as an ‘epic’ of the brief hostilities in Hong Kong. Paterson was one of the few survivors of that extremely courageous and determined defence, and he spent the war in the Shamshuipo and Argyle Street Camps.

Soon after the surrender, Mr. de Sercey  managed to send some parcels to J. J. Paterson and to other Jardine’s staff like D. L. Newbigging and Doris Cuthbertson (both in Stanley). In the early months his efforts were focused on Stanley, as ‘the situation was reported as appalling’.[11] It’s important to remember that this humanitarian relief work was in fact highly dangerous: parcels could only be sent in through the Japanese, and the sender’s name and address had to be supplied.  Any Chinese, Indian or ‘third national’ (European neutrals) who sent too many was likely to be suspected of pro-Allied sympathies and questioned by the Kempeitai. This could lead to torture, imprisonment and death. The company history mentions Henry Lo and other Chinese staff as also having taken part in these dangerous relief efforts.[12] Mr. Lo, whose role seems to have been of the first importance, sent in some of his parcels through Ezra Abraham, an elderly stockbroker and philanthropist[13] as it would have been too risky for him to send them in under his own name.

Mr. de Sercey realised he couldn’t give the required assistance to Jardine Matheson’s former employees: he was looking after over 40 members of the Chinese Maritime Customs, and others; he did not, moreover, as someone who wasn’t a company member, have the authority to raise funds in its name. He decided to ‘guarantee out’ J. J. Paterson’s secretary, Miss Doris Cuthberston. ‘Guaranteeing out’[14] was the system whereby people were allowed out of Stanley (and much more rarely Shamshuipo) if a neutral would promise to support them financially and guarantee that they would not act against Japanese interests. Miss Cuthberston came out of Stanley in September 1942 and began a vigorous campaign of relief. I’ll devote a future post to her work.

As Mr. de Sercey had guaranteed Doris Cuthbertson out of Stanley, he felt responsible for her safety, so told her to send parcels only to Argyle Street Camp and Bowen Road Hospital, as the numbers involved were small and less likely to attract Japanese suspicion. Stanley and Shamshuipo, he insisted, should be relieved only by money.[15]

In Autumn 1943 things looked grim for Jardine’s staff: Dr. Selwyn-Clarke, the main engine of humanitarian relief in Hong Kong, had been arrested and the bankers who’d funded his work were with him in gaol or interned in Stanley, while Mr. Pollock, who’d been sending down money from Shanghai, had also been interned (Allied nationals in that city were left ‘free’ for about a year before being sent to camps). Japanese regulations made financial transactions both difficult and dangerous. Mr. de Sercey tells us that he knew from his own experience that the first questions asked of those being interrogated were, ‘How much money have you got?’ and ‘Where is your money coming from?’[16]  With what seems like a characteristic underplaying of his own contribution, he makes no direct references to what must have been the terrifying experience of being questioned by the Kempeitai.

The situation was saved by the help of a Swiss businessman, Mr. Walter Naef, and the International Red Cross – I‘ll describe how in a future post.

Mr. de Sercey ends his letter by praising Miss Cuthbertson’s work and making some suggestions for future funding. He apologises for being somewhat vague in places, explaining that his memory has suffered during the 30 months he spent in occupied Hong Kong – my guess is that both malnutrition and the ‘nervous strain’ of constant fear played their part in this.

Another source shows us that humanitarian relief wasn’t Mr. de Sercey’s only contribution. Some time early in 1944 a BAAG agent had a conversation with Doris Cuthbertson. She told him that de Sercey was managing mail for the POWS from his office in the Stock Exchange Building in Ice House Street.[17] De Sercey was having difficulty getting access to 3,00 bags of mail for Shamshuipo and was constantly making representations about them.[18] This interview also confirmed that de Sercey was providing Miss Cuthbertson with living expenses.

On February 2, 1944 Mr. de Sercey received a secret message from his employers to report to Kukong for further orders. He decided that the route from Macao overland was well-known to the Japanese, who would almost certainly arrest any ‘third national’ leaving for Macao with luggage. Instead, he went to Canton, claiming that he was going to fly to north China to visit his wife, something he had done before – he doesn’t make this explicit, but I think that the point was if he’d followed this route he would not be leaving Japanese-held territory. Instead, from Canton he made his way to Waichow, and presented himself at the BAAG HQ, where he was known to a senior member. His final documented service to the POWs and  internees was to provide a long  report on their conditions – the BAAG summary takes up ten typewritten pages,[19] and he’s described as having given ‘much valuable information’. He’d obviously been gathering as much detail as he could about events and conditions in the camps with some such ‘debriefing’ in mind.  He  made it clear that he was eager to help those he’d left behind in Hong Kong, and to do anything he could ‘to further the downfall of the Japs’[20] and it’s possible that after the ‘good rest’ his hosts prescribed, he carried out other work.

After the war, he seems to have become a development banker, working for the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. At the end of 1947 he undertook a three month tour of the Far East as the bank’s ‘field representative’. A report in January 1948 stated that he was impressed by Hong Kong’s economic stability and development.[21] It was probably during this tour that he represented the International Bank at a meeting (or meetings) of the United Nations Economic and Social Council.[22]  Like others who risked their lives in occupied Hong Kong, he seems to have sought no special recognition for what he’d done: I’ve never seen his name in a book, and the only material about him online relates to his family history or to his work with the IBRD.

He died on December 22, 1948 at the age of 50 in Saint-Mandé in the eastern suburbs of Paris.[23] He lived just long enough to see the marriage of his daughter.[24]

[4] Ride Papers, 9/3/58.
[5] Ride Papers, 9/3/58.

[9] Ride Papers, 9/3/58
[10] R Papers, 11/38/41.
[11] Ride Papers, 11/38/41.

[14] See

[15] Ride Papers, 11/38/43.
[16] Ride Papers, 42, 43.
[17] Ride Papers, 10/15/31, KWIZ 38, March 3, 1944,
[18] Ride Papers, 11/38/32.
[19] Ride Papers, 10/13/04-13.
[20] Ride Papers, 9/3/58.

My Mother's Mistake and the memory of Trauma

Soon after Thomas’s death in January, 1985 his brother Wilfred made some notes on his life. He got in touch with Dr. Herklots and other former internees and he naturally interviewed Evelina. The date given in his notes for the couple’s entrance into Stanley can only have come from her: May 7, 1942.

It is, in fact, wrong: cast-iron documentary evidence shows that they stayed in town until spring 1943. The May 7 is almost certainly correct, though, and it couldn’t have been obtained from any public domain source at the time, and none of the former internees would have been likely to have remembered it. The evidence here too is overwhelming: all of the healthy[1] people living in the French Hospital were sent into Stanley after the arrest of Selwyn-Clarke on May 2, and 18 of them arrived there on May 7.

That’s how the memory of trauma works: over the years you lose the objective shape of the experience – and Evelina was never interested in the war as history – while its subjective meaning and the huge emotions that are its legacy distribute themselves around the day, the week, the month and the year.  We remember the anniversaries but not always how many we've had.

I originally became aware that Thomas had powerful ‘memories’ that determined his life when I watched him putting up the first Christmas tree in our new Windsor home – probably in 1956, when I was six years old. (I became aware of my childhood awareness a few years ago.) Among other things, he was experiencing the Christmas Tree at the Café Wiseman on December 25, 1941,[2] when he went there with the other bakers after the surrender. No doubt there was one in the Catholic-run French Hospital too.  Christmas in Stanley was still Christmas, although trees there were for fuel not decoration.

Other ‘anniversaries’ must have mattered too, although I was never aware of them: August 30 (1945), for example, when the internees first saw Admiral Harcourt’s ships sailing to their rescue…. But the only one they ever mentioned was June 29, when they were married in St. Joseph’s. I’ve described in another post the twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations and the role played by the first anniversary plaque they were given by friends in camp.[3]

I’m not saying Thomas was remembering particular trees in the sense that he was consciously comparing the one he was putting up with its 1941 predecessor. It’s a matter of experiencing, and not at the level we usually refer to as ‘conscious’. Anyone on December 25 moves through all the Christmases that have been significant for them, and Thomas had some unusually powerful meanings for that day.

And how can a person who’s spent three years and eight months slowly starving to death not ‘remember’ this whenever they sit down to a full table, as happily most internees did once the war was over? Every time Thomas and Evelina ate a meal, they ‘remembered’ the food at Stanley, and, without saying a word, they told the story to those at the table with them, and in this way and in so many others, their ‘memories’ became mine.

[1] Some British civilians were allowed to stay there as seriously ill patients.
[2] Fr. Thomas F. Ryan. Jesuits Under Fire In The Siege Of Hong Kong, 1944, 168.

Emily Hahn as Source (1): Walking with Frankie Zung

There’s no doubt that American writer Emily Hahn is an excellent source for occupied Hong Kong, perhaps the best there is. There are three works by her in the public domain that give an unrivalled picture of conditions under the Japanese and of the lives of some of the people who experienced them. The most important text is her memoir, China To Me, published in 1944 and re-released in 1986. Also valuable is a collection of articles/stories originally published in The New Yorker, and issued in book form as Hong Kong Holiday in 1946. Finally, there are a couple of chapters in No Hurry To Get Home, first published (under a different name) in 1970.

It would be fair to say that no other individual has given us anything approaching this picture of wartime Hong Kong in the two years from the start of the hostilities in December 1941 to her departure in September 1943. However, Hahn can be misleading unless the nature of her testimony is understood, so in a series of posts I’ll offer some analysis and comment on this issue.

But what was she doing in occupied Hong Kong in the first place? Why wasn’t she tucked away on the StanleyPeninsula in the internment camp alongside her compatriots, and why didn’t she leave with them in the June 29/30 repatriation of 1942?

Hahn kept herself out of Stanley by making a dubious claim to Chinese nationality on the basis of some kind of ‘marriage’ to a former Chinese lover.[1] It’s possible she was helped in her efforts to get the Japanese to accept her as a Chinese national by the fact that her latest lover (and father of her child) Major Charles Boxer had served on secondment with the Japanese military, spoke the language fluently and had influential friends in the occupation forces. I should say at this point that allegations that Major Boxer was in some way a traitor, which have resurfaced in 2012, are nonsense. All the accounts of those who were with him in hospital (he was badly wounded during the fighting), POW camp and prison (where he was sent for his role in operating a radio) show that he was more than usually courageous, altruistic and principled. Hahn declined to take part in the American repatriation to stay in Hong Kong and  do all she could to help her wounded lover, and she accepted a place on the second (Canadian) repatriation of September 1943 because she believed that she could be of no further use.

The text that’s most likely to be misleading is Hong Kong Holiday. I want to discuss several stories from this collection, starting with one called ‘Asia For The Asiatics’[2] - the name comes from one of the anti-imperialist slogans with which the Japanese tried to rally Chinese and Indian support. The story focuses on the narrator’s encounters with a man called Frankie Zung, half Chinese and half black West Indian. Zung is pro-Japanese and a commodity trader friend called Lopez tells Hahn he writes a weekly report for the much-feared Kempeitai (Gendarmes), while Hahn thinks that he also acts as a pimp  for the occupying forces.[3] Zung is sometimes to be found hanging around Lopez’s office, where Hahn herself is a visitor; naturally she’s rather perturbed when Zung seems to threaten her with Gendarme trouble in order to extort money.[4] I’ll come back to this extortion attempt later. It’s not Hahn’s personal anxieties but her broader racial themes that have drawn historians to this story.

Frankie Zung has a ‘white’ American wife and the Japanese are so impressed that she was willing to marry someone of his ethnicity that they allow her to leave Stanley immediately they’re approached.[5] Hahn also brings out the way in which the position of people like Zung – close to the bottom of the brutal racial hierarchies of pre-war Hong Kong – improved so much under the occupiers that she could walk around town with him without exciting notice.[6]

American historian Gerald Horne discusses ‘Asia For The Asiatics’ in his 2004 book Race War!, one of the main themes of which is that the pervasive racism of the British Empire weakened its position vis-à-vis the Japanese in a number of ways.  Zung’s taking up with the conquerors because of their racial policy[7] is just the kind of thing he’s looking for, and although at one point he tries to deny that Japanese attitudes and actions are the subject of the book,[8] he can’t resist also using Hahn’s account of her relations with Zung to point out the overthrow of the old racial order that took place after the defeat of British imperialism.[9] Ironically, in a book that came out too late for him to use, Philip Snow showed that the Japanese, for all their anti-British rhetoric and their studied attempts to humiliate the former masters, manifested a ‘strange respect’ for the British and treated them better in some important ways than they did the Chinese.[10]

Nevertheless, Horne is, of course, absolutely right about the all-pervasive racism of pre-war Hong Kong and he is fair in acknowledging the ways that ‘white’ attitudes changed during the war (although sadly even the shared experience of occupation and resistance didn’t wipe out all sense of superiority). Nevertheless, Horne is so eager to make his case that he often ends up weakening it, and his use of Hahn’s story is a case in point.

Horne points out that Zung’s marriage to a Euro-American would have been potentially a capital offense in North America at the time,[11] and he quotes a number of passages from the story in which Hahn criticizes the Hong Kong British for their racism, including her statement that ‘the Japanese have certainly succeeded in wiping out the color bar’. But, in line with his unfortunate tendency to quote selectively, he leaves out her clear (and obviously correct) statement that the Japanese treated the Chinese worse than the British.[12] He also omits any reference to Zung’s attempt to extort money from Hahn, or to his racial flip-flopping at the end of the story (see below). But the trouble is not just that Horne quotes selectively; he’s misunderstood the nature of the source and he shouldn’t be citing it in a straightforward way at all.

Hong Kong Holiday is written just as much according to literary and journalistic conventions as history-writing ones. Most stories are well-shaped selections from and elaborations of reality that lead up to a clear and sometimes surprising ‘point’ at the end. They straddle a number of genres: factual reportage, historiography, New Yorker writing, and the kind of short story popularised in America by O. Henry  which is sometimes said to end with a ‘sting in the tail’. A good example of this is the chapter ‘It Never Happened’, which builds up to the revelation that the main character’s account of her experiences during the hostilities – which up to then the narrator has encouraged the reader to believe to be true – is in fact a defensive formation created because of her inability to face the terrible things that happened to her. I’ll discuss this fine story in more detail in another post, because fortunately the archives of the British Army Aid Group contain an account of some of the same events told by a different hand, and comparison of the two strikingly illuminates Hahn’s methods. My point for now is that Hong Kong Holiday is very hard for a historian to work with: it is indeed based firmly on Hahn’s own experiences in wartime Hong Kong, but they’re always liable to elaboration, falsification, invention and artistic shaping. Which brings me back to Frankie Zung.

Hahn’s memoir, China To Me, is a very different kind of book: although like any piece of autobiography it needs to be interrogated carefully not trusted absolutely, it does set out at least to tell the truth pretty much as it happened.[13] A passage in this book enables us to decode some aspects of ‘Asia For The Asiatics’: the commodity broker is the well-known pre-war jockey Victor Needa, who expresses himself about the USA in similar terms to ‘Lopez’ and whose office also functions as a refuge to Hahn, and is similarly liable to visits from a man who has ‘”pull” with the gendarmes.”’[14] The trouble is this man isn’t Frankie Zung at all, but Howard Tse, who seems to have been ‘pure’ Chinese with no admixture of Jamaican: China To Me calls him a ‘plump little Chinese fellow’[15] and George Wright-Nooth just calls him ‘Chinese’. [16] He’s the one who Hahn fears might get her arrested. She thinks he’s got incriminating evidence against her and she also believes that Victor Needa is paying him ‘protection money’ to keep her out of the hands of the Kempeitai.[17] It is possible, of course, that Hahn also had a broker friend called Lopez and he too was visited by a non-Japanese man associated with the Kempeitai who posed a threat to Hahn’s freedom, but she doesn’t mention what would have been a striking coincidence in China To Me! And it sounds like the war crimes investigators wouldn’t have found it hard to track down someone like Frankie Zung, but I’ve failed to find any trace of him in the collaboration trials, or indeed any other source that so much as mentions him.

I’ll write more about both Tse and Zung in later posts, because they both feature in complicated evidential tangles, but for the moment it should be clear that no historian should discuss Frankie Zung as if he actually existed in the way Hahn says he did unless they can bring further evidence to the table. Hahn creates him as a character in a story, a story which is designed to exhibit the viciousness of British racism, and the limited success of the Japanese in opposing it, a success that turns out to be hollow even as far as it goes. The ‘twist’ is that as the war draws closer to the Allied victory that was clearly inevitable even before Hahn left Hong Kong in September 1943, Zung begins  to renege on his loyalty to the occupiers, claims to be British and rejoices in the whiteness of his new baby.[18]

Frankie Zung is probably a composite figure. I have a suspicion that his physical appearance and ethnicity are based on that of a man who escaped from Hong Kong in May 1943: if so, she may or may not have known that this man was a courageous and highly effective agent of the British resistance! Perhaps Hahn took his appearance, added Howard Tse’s Kempeitai activity and mixed them with the talk of an otherwise unrecorded pro-Japanese man of mixed ethnicity to create Frankie Zung and to make her points about race before and after the occupation. Perhaps. But at the moment I want to stress that ‘Asia For The Asiatics’ does not provide reliable evidence that anyone like Frankie Zung actually existed – except insofar as people of his ethnic background but completely different in every other way are known to have lived in wartime Hong Kong. Such evidence might emerge in the future but it’s not here yet.

Another writer, Stacilee Ford, also seems a little too accepting of Hahn’s description of her newly unremarkable strolls through the Hong Kong streets with Zung.[19] Nevertheless, she shows a welcome awareness of  the need to be 'cautious' as to the 'truthiness' of Hahn's assertions,  and her use of the story is reasonable, as she cites it as evidence that the American recognized that Japanese Hong Kong had, in some ways at least, become ‘a more open and tolerant society’,  and fits this recognition into a picture of Hahn's developing attitudes to racial issues.[20] I don’t think ‘open’ or ‘tolerant’ quite fits the bill for occupied Hong Kong, but Ford rightly confines herself to commenting on what the story tells us about the writer’s own consciousness. In fact, it probably strengthens her case that Hahn might have been inventing some of the details she provides. If so, her intention was to bring out the rebarbative racism of the old British order and to let her readers know that Japanese Hong Kong was an improvement in at least one respect – although I need to stress once more that all interpretations need to bear in mind the story’s concluding reversals.  Whether or not she came to these positions during real walks with a real individual we can’t at the moment know.

Hahn’s methods in Hong Kong Holiday will become clearer after future posts in which I’ll offer some comparisons between two or three of the stories and texts that follow more closely the conventions of purely historical writing. The trouble is Hahn’s book is such a good source – lively, well-written and packed with seemingly convincing detail – its hard not to give it more credence than it deserves. Readers might like to ponder Brian Edgar’s use of it in relation to his father:

He’s so desperate to get Hahn on board that he accepts the possibility that she might be recording things accurately, even though she contradicts a careful and convincing account by one of the main participants of how the bakers stayed out of Stanley Camp! He even rigs up a ‘composite’ theory of events in order to find a place for her testimony. Stacilee Ford’s right: a ‘troubling American woman’ indeed!

I've found a plausible real-life original for 'Frankie Zung' - a man of African-Caribbean/Chinese heritage who worked for the pre-war Health Department and whose name is not completely dissimilar. I shan't name him, as there is no definite evidence to link him with Hahn's story. However, even if we could be certain (if, for example, a letter from the author making the identification explicit were to turn up) this would not alter the basic point of my post: 'Frankie Zung' is a composite creation and conclusions based on his activities in the story must be drawn with great caution.

[1] In No Hurry To Get Home she says she told US officials she had claimed to be Eurasian. If she did tell them that my guess is it was to avoid questions as to whether she had really married a Chinese man and possible consequent immigration complications.
[2] Published in The New Yorker, June 30, 1945 -
[3] Emily Hahn, Hong Kong Holiday, 1946, 245, 249.
[4] Hahn, 1946, 256.
[5] Hahn, 1946, 248.
[6] Hahn, 1946, 251.
[7] Gerald Horne, Race War! , 2004, Kindle Edition, Location 5019.
[8] Horne, 2004, Location 118.
[9] Horne, 2004, Location 5026.
[10] See Philip Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, 2003, 138; see also e.g. 186, 187.
[11] Horne, 2004, Location 5018
[12] Hahn,1946, 246.
[13] I think that Hahn even believed that her scandalous portrayal of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke was justified by the facts – for a good tempered corrective, see James Bertram, Beneath The Shadow, 1947, 63.
[14] Hahn, 1986, 392.
[15] Hahn, 1986, 391.
[16] Wright-Nooth, 1994, 156.
[17] Hahn, 1986, 393.
[18]Hahn, 1946, 259.

Ford’s work is available in a book called Troubling American Women.

Mildred Elizabeth Constance Dibden

Mildred Dibden, was one of nine missionaries on the British Army Aid Group list of ‘Free Europeans’ (people, mainly British, who were not interned at Stanley) drawn up in late 1942.[1]
Miss Dibden was born to George Dibden and Mary Elizabeth Payne in 1905, one of nine children, although one of her sisters was the child of her mother’s previous marriage.[2] The family house near Birmingham burnt down,[3] and she was brought up by a family friend,[4] and attended a boarding school in Ramsgate.[5] Her father emigrated to Canada, and eventually her mother joined him with five of the children, leaving Mildred and three others behind.[6] I’m not a fan of psychoanalytic explanations in historical writing, but it’s very hard indeed not to see the origins of her later devoted commitment to providing a family for abandoned children in these early experiences of loss, disruption and abandonment.

She was an artistic young woman, and planned to be an art teacher, but she seems to have undergone a religious experience while listening to an evangelical preacher,[7] and decided to become a missionary instead. In 1929 she began two years of missionary training at the Bible Churchmen’s Missionary Society Bristol college. The Society was an Anglican organization, had been set up in 1922 after the Church Missionary Society split, and it represented the ‘evangelical’ grouping that believed the parent organization was drifting towards ‘theological liberalism’.[8]
The BCMS sent her to Hong Kong in 1931, but she was forced to return home after contracting malaria, which almost killed her.[9] Nevertheless, this first visit to the Colony was important, as Miss Dibden was struck by the plight of the hundreds of abandoned babies, and she decided to return to care for them. In the 1920s the Hong Kong Government, after much debate, banned the system of ‘mui tsai’, whereby, for a small fee, middle class and wealthy families acquired young girls as domestic servants.[10] Hong Kong from the start was committed to interfering as little as possible with Chinese customs, and the supporters of mui tsai claimed that it was a good way to make sure that young female children from impoverished families were guaranteed food and the possibility of later marriage, but its opponents, who claimed it was selling girls into slavery, prevailed. Whatever the merits of the ban, it meant that even more female babies were abandoned, and Miss Dibden’s work was all the more desperately needed.[11]

She returned to Hong Kong in 1936 and was given encouragement and initial financial support by Dr. Harry Lechmere Clift and his wife Winifred, who operated a medical mission in Kowloon. She started to take in abandoned babies, sheltering them in a number of different locations, including Kowloon’s Nathan Road and the small island of Cheung Chau, 10 km to the southwest of Hong Kong. On November 11, 1936, without organization or guaranteed income, she established her first major operation, the Fanling Babies Home. Most of her income came from charitable donations from Hong Kong evangelicals and supporters abroad, mainly in England and Canada.[12]

The official website of the (now defunct) Fanling Babies Home gives a picture of the Estate they moved to in 1940:

The estate, on Main Street in Fanling, was originally rented from an elderly Chinese landlord who had built {it} to accommodate his family and relatives. Thus in addition to the main house, there were two other smaller houses. Each small house had eight rooms and a kitchen. Lovely gardens surrounded the estate which also had a large yard that the kids could play in as well as many fruit trees.
The ground floor on the main house consisted of five large rooms and three smaller rooms. The upstairs contained seven bedrooms, adjoining dressing rooms and several verandas with a view of the lights of Hong Kong.
Miss Dibden moved 49 children under the age of three from Cheun{g} Chau to Fanling Babies Home in the NewTerritories. Toddlers were housed downstairs while infants were upstairs. The size of the main house easily accommodated a nursery school, dispensary, bedrooms, etc.[13]

We get a glimpse of life at the home in a memoir written by American missionary, Beth Nance:
The staff rescued abandoned babies, primarily baby girls who had been left outside somewhere to die. The organization had not been going very long, so there were no children older than four or five years old. The home was associated with our Evangelical Fraternity Mission and we sometimes visited there. (I remember going on the bus after Ancil was born. Winifred was walking by that time and she was as large as some of the three-year-olds. Winifred was always eager to have new experiences so she was a great explorer. She aroused the astonishment of these rescued little girls, who were so well-disciplined. There were some places where they did not dare to go, and some things they did not touch; but Winifred went anywhere with those little girls behind her. It reminded me of a chicken yard, where one chicken has found something and all the rest of them follow after, squawking loudly. It was fun to watch.)[14]

It seems that some of the Nance family’s congregation helped at the home:

For the young people who were newly saved, and those who were renewing their Christian experience, including the British servicemen, my husband and I wanted to have an outreach program. The young people took an interest in this place for abandoned children. In fact, at our first Christmas in China, that was one of the places we visited. Instead of having a gift-giving party for each other, the youth group gave gifts to the children. I remember a gallon jar of cod liver oil they purchased.
Mrs. Koeppen[15] helped me prepare a meal for the young people. It was a happy Christmas.[16]

They were also helped by non-religious organizations: at Christmas 1940 the St. Andrews Society of exiled Scots threw a party, ‘complete with decorated tree and Santa Claus’, for the babies.[17]
There are a number of photos of Miss Dibden that can be viewed online.[18] My favourite is one showing her with one of the girls she cared for; taken at Christmas, 1939; it speaks volumes for the quality of the relationship between her and her charges.

In the summer of 1940, Miss Dibden decided she needed help to run the Home, perhaps because of the move to the Fanling Estate. Unfortunately the Evacuation Order of June, 1940 not only decreed that ‘white’ women and children should be sent to Australia, but also forbade ‘new’ women to take up residence in the Colony. Miss Dibden applied to be allowed to bring in a young helper, Ruth Little. Perhaps this was because of that move to the Estate on Main Street, rented by the China Children’s Fund.[19]

At her tribunal, Miss Dibden explained that the Home cared for about 65 orphans or abandoned children between the ages of two days and four years. There was no committee, no council, no board and all funds were provided by sympathetic friends within the Colony. She had to take all the decisions. If war came, it would bring an increase in abandoned children. There was nobody to take her place if she fell ill, so Miss Little’s assistance was urgently needed.

The Chairman, E. H. Williams, replied that Miss Dibden should not assume her case had not been considered carefully. She had admitted Miss Little had never been resident in Hong Kong. Miss Dibden came back with:

If you think it is not advisable for Miss Little to come to Hong Kong, would you find someone for me?

Not surprisingly Mr Williams told her she shouldn’t ask such questions, and after consulting other committee members, turned down her application, saying she should be able to find someone locally to carry out the duties she’d described.[20] We need to be fair to both sides: Miss Dibden would have been well aware that the Evacuation Order was widely flouted, and that the wives of some influential men were walking around Hong Kong having got themselves registered as ‘essential’ personnel, sometimes after taking a short nursing course. On the other hand, Mr. Williams and his panel were tasked with judging on the basis of the theory and not the practice of the legislation, and could hardly say, ‘The whole thing’s a farce, do what you want’. But it’s an interesting fact that the same tribunal also turned down Helen Kennedy-Skipton’s request to be allowed to stay in Hong Kong, probably because although she claimed to be American she admitted travelling on a British passport. She stayed anyway, just as Miss Little later entered – a sympathetic official at the Colonial Secretariat allowed her in (she was a partly-trained nurse) and disposed of any talk of Miss Dibden’s own evacuation.[21]

The war began in nightmare fashion for Mildred Dibden and her staff. The Fanling Babies Home was closer than most ‘European’ institutions to the border, and Miss Dibden received an early telephone call on December 8, 1941, the day of the Japanese attack. It was another missionary, Iris Critchell who ran a girls' home next door. The police had told her that war had broken out and that they were to be ready for evacuation to Hong Kong Island.[22] She got the 35 older children and a nurse into a lorry that was sent for them,[23] but the lorry hadn’t returned for the remaining 54 infants when Japanese soldiers arrived. They were told they’d be shot if they left the premises, precious stores of milk were looted, but at first the women were unharmed. eventually groups bent on rape arrived. Miss Dibden courageously saved Ruth Little from molestation, but she was unable to do the same for the Chinese nurses and amahs. Not for want of trying. A Japanese soldier struck her across the face with a rifle butt when she tried to stop the rape of a young amah. Cots were overturned and a baby was trampled to death. [24]

Happily, the horrors of the first day were never repeated, which is not to say there was not much looting and some brutality. At one point Misses Dibden and Little and an American sent to help them (Lula Bell Hough) were tied up, led away and expected execution. At another Miss Dibden and some of the Chinese staff were brutally beaten by a Japanese sergeant, whose men had just shot the Home's dog. Everyone, English and Chinese, child, adult and baby, must have lived in constant fear, even on the relatively 'quiet' days when they weren't subjected to insult or injury.

But just before the Christmas Day surrender they found a protector in Colonel Kanamuru, who’d been put in charge of Fanling, who asked to be informed of bad behaviour by his soldiers and sent the Home rice, vegetables and cod liver oil.[25] Later he gave the women some of his own money – it turned out that his sister had received help from a missionary in Japan. Unfortunately he was transferred to the front on January 15, 1942.[26]

Miss Dibden and Miss Little were not interned and managed to keep the orphanage open throughout the war. It’s fair to point out that the Japanese usually respected the work of both protestant and catholic religious personnel, especially when they were providing material aid to the poor. But occupied Hong Kong was a dreadful place, and for Miss Dibden and her staff this meant almost four years of violence, starvation, dysentery and recurrent malaria. They refused to abandon the babies in their care, but it must have occurred to both of the Englishwomen that their lives would be easier and safer inside Stanley Camp. That Miss Dibden and Miss Little should have stayed at their post after the initial violence and continuing hardship of Japanese rule speaks unequivocally of their personal qualities; it seems they only thought about going into Stanley when it seemed it would have been in the interests of the babies for them to do so.[27]

Eventually, after a period in which she herself endured a severe beating and it seemed as if the babies in her care might starve, Miss Dibden was given a food allocation for the Home by the new Japanese civilian administration. But to get it Miss Dibden had to go once a month in person to the government offices in the old Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Building – she couldn’t send a delegate as that would have been disrespectful.[28]

The journey was about twenty miles each way; every month she walked to the Star Ferry in Kowloon and once across the Harbour, on to the Bank, Iris Critchell and Ruth Little taking turns to accompany her, as the only alternative was lorry transport, and that was too unreliable. They return journey was mentally less anxious – they had supplies for another month – but physically more demanding as those supplies had to be carried. Eventually Miss Dibden fixed an old pram and lubricated it with peanut oil so they’d have something to bear the loads.[29]

All this took a toll on the health of the three women in charge. On July 11, 1942 they were admitted to the English ward of the French Hospital in Causeway Bay. Mildred Dibden has to be carried out of the Home on a stretcher. At the Hospital she met great kindness and the 'reassurance of being with {her} own people':

To add to the pleasure of that first night in hospital, came a tea tray from {Dr. Selwyn-Clarke}. With his wife and daughter, he was interned in the French hospital on the floor above. Tea with toast and butter. What could be more delicious? was it possible that within six short months such luxury would bring tears to the eyes?[30]

Iris returned to Fanling after about two months, Ruth in the middle of September, Mildred not until November 1.

Later in the war, at a time when once again the babies faced starvation, they were helped by Dr. Arthur Woo, who gave them rice and a letter of introduction to Aw boon-haw, who’d made a fortune from the Tiger balm salve. He gave them the money to start a pig-rearing business which kept them in funds until the end of the war.[31]

After liberation in August 1945, Miss Dibden sailed to England for repatriation leave, and then returned to continue her mission in Hong Kong. However, things started to go wrong. The Estate was bought in 1946 by the Children’s Christian Fund, which took over full sponsorship and operation in 1951.[32] This gave financial stability, but it meant working in a committee structure, with some decisions taken out of her hands - she’d been used to doing everything her way. In 1952, after a trip back to England and an attempt to work things out, weakened by recurrent illness and distressed in mind, she resigned.[33] Nevertheless, in the same year, after starting again in a small way in a couple of bungalows in Ping Shan,[34] she founded a second home, Shatin Babies’ Home, run on the same principles, including an emphasis on ‘family’:

Miss Dibden ran the Home on a disciplined daily schedule which included prayers, play time and schooling. Miss Dibden maintained Shatin Babies Home through mostly local community contributions and giving from abroad. The Hong Kong government also helped by charging a nominal rent on the property.At one point, the staff consisted of a cook, gardener, several nurse girls, eight amahs and four women teachers.[35]

In 1966 Miss Dibden decided to bring her work in the Shatin Babies Home to an end; the Cultural Revolution had spread to Hong Kong and there had been rioting against proposed Star Ferry fare increases; she rightly feared that there was worse to come, and dreaded a replay of her hideous experiences of the war if Chinese troops crossed the border.[36] After some 50 children had been adopted abroad, she returned to England on August 23, bringing with her 25 Chinese people with her: 21 girl, two boys and a married woman and her husband who was to be cook and handyman.[37] They went to live in Southsea, close to Portsmouth. She continued to raise funds for Hong Kong’s abandoned children.

The Supplement to the London Gazette for June 14, 1966 announced she’d been awarded the MBE for her services to Hong Kong’s deprived children.Mildred Dibden retired to Tunbridge Wells in 1975, and she died in a care home there in 1987.[38] There are a number of testimonies on the internet to the continuing value of the work she and her successors carried out.[39]

The work of Christian missionaries in China has always been controversial: there was already a debate about its value in late Victorian Britain,[40] and historian Jason Wordie, in an otherwise valuable article,[41] is wrong to dismiss criticism by the tired manoeuvre of putting it down to ‘political correctness’ or to simplistic anti-religious prejudice. My own view is that the good done by the missionaries, who in the nineteenth century and beyond provided China with much of what was available there in the way of western medicine, far outweighed the harm. At their best, they showed a self-sacrificial commitment to helping the poorest members of a generally impoverished population in practical and important ways.

That best is shown by Mildred Dibden.
[3] Jill Doggett, The Yip Family of Amah Rock, (1969), 1982, 8. This biography was obviously written with Miss Dibden’s help and with access to her diary, which includes the war years.
[5] Doggett, 1982, 10
[6] Doggett, 1982, 18.
[7] Doggett, 1982, 20.
[10] My mother’s tea-merchant father in Macao bought one such girl. ‘We treated her well,’ she told me, not necessarily correctly.
[15] ‘A German refugee from Ukraine, by way of Manchuria and Shanghai’ – She moved to Australia in 1950 –
[17] Hong Kong Daily Press, January 1, 1941, page 6.
[20] Hong Kong Sunday Herald, October 27, 1940, page 4.
[21] Doggett, 1982, 134-135.
[22] Doggett, 1982, 139.
[23] Doggett, 1982, 140.
[24] Doggett, 1982, 143-144.
[25] Doggett, 1982, 159-160.
[26] Doggett, 1982, 165-166.
[27] E.g. Doggett, 1982, 172-173.
[28] Doggett, 1982, 175.
[29] Doggett, 1982, 175-176.
[30] Doggett, 1982, 178.
[31] Doggett, 1982, 182-184.
[33] Doggett, 1982, 209-216.
[34] Doggett, 182, 218.
[36] Doggett, 1982, 234.
[37] Doggett, 1982, 236.
[38] London Gazette, March 10, 1988.
[39]; For a touching attempt at reunion, see
[40] See Susan Schoenbauer Thurin’s essay on Alicia Little in Douglas Kerr and Julia Koehn, A Century of Travels In China, 2007, (e.g. Kindle Edition, Location 2788). Christopher Isherwood’s often negative attitude to missionaries in the account he and W. H. Auden wrote of their 1938 visit to China, Journey to a War, takes the debate into the period we’re under discussion, and it’s evident in the sometimes polarised accounts of missionaries and priests in Stanley to be found in the internee memoirs.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

William Empson in Kunming and some notes on 'Aubade'

I'm republishing a post from a now defunct blog on the poet and critic William Empson. My excuse for this is discovering that on March 4, 1947 my parents and the Empson family departed from Southampton on the same ship (the Strathmore).  My parents were returning to Hong Kong after a much delayed 'long leave' for my father - he hoped to get back home with his new wife in October 1945 but the liberated Colony's need for bread kept him in Hong Kong until August 1946. William Empson, Hester his wife, and their sons William (Jr.) and Jacobus were going all the way to Shanghai - Empson was resuming a career in Chinese universities that had been interrupted by the war and that was to lead to his being one of the few Europeans in China in the early years of communist rule after 1949. 

I wrote this post a few years ago after I'd followed in Empson's footsteps by taking a teaching job in Kunming. Discovering the Strathmore's manifest on (my father's name stands directly before the Empsons) has inspired me to republish it.

William Empson was a fine although usually obscure poet, but he’s probably best known for his literary criticism, particularly the extremely influential Seven Types of Ambiguity.  One of the nice things about being offered a job in Kunming (Yunnan Province, south west China) in 2007 was being able to think of myself as following in his giant footsteps.

Early in 1937 Empson was offered a three year post teaching at the Beijing National University. While he was making the final preparations for his journey, he heard news of the outbreak of war between China and Japan. He decided to go anyway. He took the Trans-Siberian to Beijing, linking up there with his old Cambridge supervisor, the distinguished critic I. A. Richards, and his wife Dorothea.

On 27th November 2007 I was guided around some sights associated with Empson’s stay in Kunming by four graduate students.Empson’s University was forced to flee Beijing because of the Japanese desire to crush any independent intellectual life in China. In August 1938 it ended up in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, where it stayed until 1946.

On its way down the National University amalgamated with the other great Beijing University, Qing Hua (where Richards had been visiting professor) and with Nankai University to form The National South West Associated University (Lianda).

The main campus of Lianda is now used by Yunnan Normal University (a ‘Normal’ University trains teachers.)

The Normal University has preserved this hut as a memorial to the students and teachers of Lianda…

…who, in conditions that British people of my generation can hardly begin to imagine, carried on the intellectual life in China as an act of deliberate defiance of the Japanese invasion and all it stood for:
These people taught and studied with very few books, harassed by Japanese bombs and with almost nothing in the way of material comfort. Empson voluntarily shared their deprivations, teaching English poetry almost entirely from memory, sleeping on first arrival in Kunming on a blackboard stretched between trestles, and voluntarily accepting a big cut in his salary in line with the sacrifices of his Chinese colleagues.

Empson quickly abandoned his blackboard for lodgings at 78, Bei Men Road. Although he was a well-known hater of Christianity, by a nice irony he lodged in buildings owned by a missionary society. Number 78 seems to have been demolished but the similar Number 68 remains.This restaurant’s the part of Number 68 that’s in the best repair.

My guides managed to get me permission to go up to the balcony:

No doubt Empson often stood on a similar balcony looking down on Bei Men Street.

We found a quiet spot near the ghost of Number 78, and I gave a short talk on Empson and Richards in China, followed by a reading of his poem ‘Aubade’. I’ve read many works of literature at places associated with the writer, but this was one of the two occasions I’ve found most moving: the other was reading ‘The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives The Flower’ at the grave of Empson’s friend Dylan Thomas.

‘Aubade’ is a poem about Empson’s early-1930s affair with a Japanese girl called Haru. (Empson taught in Japan between 1931 and 1934.) It touches on the difficulties of cross-cultural relationships (‘the language problem, but you have to try’) and the problems posed by the coming war in Asia, which already seemed unavoidable.

Empson remains – and will almost certainly always remain – the greatest ever foreign teacher of English in China. Those of us who have done the job in unimaginably easier conditions should look back with admiration and sometimes astonishment at this great pioneer.

Note. Those who want the best account of his time in Kunming should consult John Haffenden’s excellent biography, William Empson, Volume 1: Among the Mandarins.

Some notes on ‘Aubade’

This is probably Empson’s best poem – it’s not as difficult as some of his earlier work but is full of his famous ‘ambiguity’. It was written in Tokyo in about 1933, published in a journal in 1937 and then printed in the slightly shorter version given here in his second book of verse The Gathering Storm (1940).

My notes offer some interpretations that are controversial – critics disagree as to many details.
The general sense is clear: Empson and his Japanese lover are woken by an earthquake, and she says she must go back to the house where she is employed as a nanny, as the child might also have been woken up. This raises for Empson the issue as to whether or not his relationship can survive: the earthquake becomes a symbol of the coming war between Britain and Japan, a war that would make his marriage to a Japanese citizen difficult or even dangerous.

I’ll give the complete poem and then the text accompanied by my notes in brackets.


Hours before dawn we were woken by the quake.
My house was on a cliff. The thing could take
Bookloads off shelves, break bottles in a row.
Then the long pause and then the bigger shake.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.
And far too large for my feet to step by.
I hoped that various buildings were brought low.
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

It seemed quite safe till she got up and dressed.
The guarded tourist makes the guide the test.
Then I said The Garden? Laughing she said No.
Taxi for her and for me healthy rest.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.
The language problem but you have to try.
Some solid ground for lying could she show?
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

None of these deaths were her point at all.
The thing was that being woken he would bawl
And finding her not in earshot he would know.
I tried saying Half an Hour to pay this call.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.
I slept, and blank as that I would yet lie.
Till you have seen what a threat holds below,
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

Tell me again about Europe and her pains,
Who’s tortured by the drought, who by the rains.
Glut me with floods where only the swine can row
Who cuts his throat and let him count his gains.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.
A bedshift flight to a Far Eastern sky.
Only the same war on a stronger toe.
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

Tell me more quickly what I lost by this,
Or tell me with less drama what they miss
Who call no die a god for a good throw,
Who say  after two aliens had one kiss
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.
But as to risings, I can tell you why.
It is on contradiction that they grow.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.
Up was the heartening and the strong reply.
The heart of standing is we cannot fly.

Aubade    {= dawn song. In this genre the poet laments the fact that the coming of dawn forces him and his lover to end their night of passion. The most famous example in English is in ‘Romeo and Juliet’.}

Hours before dawn we were woken by the quake. {We = Empson and his lover, a young Japanese woman who worked as a nanny for the German Ambassador in Tokyo. She should have been looking after his child, but had left the house to spend the night with Empson. Behind this line is a hidden joke: lovers in the past are meant to have asked each other, ‘Did the earth move for you, darling’ – in other words, ‘Was sex wonderful?’ The phrase became a half-joking cliché, but in this poem sex is followed by a literal earthquake}

My house was on a cliff. The thing could take
Bookloads off shelves, break bottles in a row.
Then the long pause and then the bigger shake. {Symbolically we could say that the first quake was the Japanese attack on Manchuria, the ‘bigger quake’ that Empson fears is coming is all-out war in the Far East.}

It seemed the best thing to be up and go.  {The first time we meet this refrain it has a simple and obvious meaning: as there’s an earthquake it seems best to get out of the house.}

And far too large for my feet to step by. {The quake seems to large for him to avoid the dangers it creates.}

I hoped that various buildings were brought low. {He hopes that what is bad about the old order will have been destroyed by the quake – perhaps he means specifically the headquarters of Japanese militarism.}

The heart of standing is you cannot fly. {1) This is a sexual pun: it’s hard to move fast when you have an erection! 2) It also means: maybe we should stand our ground and not try to flee the quake.}

It seemed quite safe till she got up and dressed.
The guarded tourist makes the guide the test. {The cautious tourist notices what the guide does in a new situation. Here the guide is Haru, who is much more familiar with earthquakes than Empson.)

Then I said The Garden? Laughing she said No. {Empson believes that the Japanese advice is to go into the garden when there’s a quake – Haru says it isn’t. I’ve been told of an occasion on which Empson made fun of the idea that The Garden was a nightclub – but then why the capitals? Perhaps because it's a formal Japanese garden?}

Taxi for her and for me healthy rest.{Haru says no – she’ll go back to the Ambassador’s and he should go back to bed.}

It seemed the best thing to be up and go. {Haru thinks it’s best she should leave.}

The language problem but you have to try. {Communication between people from different cultures and who speak different languages is difficult, but you have to try to overcome these difficulties – in other words, he doesn’t want her to go and he’ll confront what he suspects is the real issue: that she wants to leave his bed.}

Some solid ground for lying could she show?  {1) can she show him a safe place to lie down to get his ‘healthy rest’, given that the after-shocks of the earthquake will soon be shaking the ground? 2) what lie is she going to tell when she gets back if the Ambassador has discovered she’s missing? 3) Empson suspects she is lying to him – so why? 4) ‘can you show me  a safe place for us to have sex’ – Haffenden’s preferred interpretation.}

The heart of standing is you cannot fly.
{She should stay.}

None of these deaths were her point at all. {People regularly died in Japanese earthquakes, but Haru wasn’t worried about that possibility.}

The thing was that being woken he would bawl
And finding her not in earshot he would know. {She’s worried that the child would also have been woken by the quake and when she didn’t come in response to his tears he would know she had left the house and she’d get into trouble – this is Empson’s own explanation, but some online sources wrongly claim ‘he’ is her husband or father.}

I tried saying Half an Hour to pay this call. {He asks her to come back in half an hour – or maybe to have sex with him quickly.}

It seemed the best thing to be up and go. {But she goes.}

I slept, and blank as that I would yet lie.
Till you have seen what a threat holds below,
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

{Three difficult lines: John Haffenden in his fine edition of Empson’s poems points out that the primary meaning of ‘threat holds below’ is ‘gap created by the earthquake’ (p.321), so the second line is something like ‘until you have assessed  the continuing threat from the earthquake’, but he acknowledges the possibility of sexual meanings too: ‘I slept without dreams and wish I could remain unconscious until you understand the nature of my sexuality which you now feel threatens you’
I think it might also mean ‘until you see if the future is really going to be as bad as you think’ – and this might be the immediate future, as Empson’s house is on a cliff and the Ambassador’s residence is presumably ‘below’ his, so the threat is of discovery and punishment for her right away, or it might mean the general future of Japan.
So ‘below’ might mean: 1) the future which is now hidden; 2) Empson’s genitals 3) the unconscious mind 4) the part of the city below the cliff ; 5) the gap created by the quake).}

Tell me again about Europe and her pains, {He now thinks back to Europe and why he left it.}

Who’s tortured by the drought, who by the rains. {Everyone there suffers some time or another.}

Glut me with floods where only the swine can row {Tell me all about the Depression, in which only those with the worst characters are prospering.}

Who cuts his throat and let him count his gains. {‘The swine’ lose out in real terms even if they make money – they kill themselves spiritually in order to make money.}

It seemed the best thing to be up and go. {It seemed best to leave Europe.}

A bedshift flight to a Far Eastern sky. {So he came to Asia – a new way of life and new lovers.}

Only the same war on a stronger toe. {But found the war he knew was coming in Europe was already present there – the Japanese attack on Manchuria began in 1931 - and 'stronger' because fighting had actually started.}

The heart of standing is you cannot fly. {So it’s a waste of time trying to flee war – you might as well stay where you are.}

Tell me more quickly what I lost by this, {What did I lose by leaving Europe?}

Or tell me with less drama what they miss {‘more quickly…with less drama’ – than in the previous rather rhetorical stanza.}

Who call no die a god for a good throw, {Die = dice; people who refuse to ‘pray’ to the dice to give them the numbers they want. This line either refers to Empson himself in which case it means ‘I have nothing to lose by being honest and accepting that a relationship with a Japanese woman won’t work’ or it refers to the British ex-pats who told Empson and other new arrivals: ‘Don’t marry a Japanese woman as we’ll be at war with Japan in ten years’. If the line refers to Empson, refusing to call the dice a god is positive – it means ‘being honest’; if it refers to the ex-pats it’s more ambiguous: ‘they’re realistic but maybe it’s good to deceive yourself in questions of love’ .
However, Haffenden likes the suggestion of another commentator that ‘die’ means sex – orgasm used to be called ‘the little death’ and ‘a good throw’ means a satisfactory sex act. The line would then mean something like ‘what do we lose if we like sex but don’t make a god out of it?}

Who say after two aliens had one kiss {Empson and Haru – technically Haru was not an ‘alien’, but the line means ‘we were always alien to each other even when kissing – perhaps because of ‘the language problem’ – the difficulty of cross-cultural relationships.}

It seemed the best thing to be up and go. {The refrain now means ‘most people would advise me to leave Haru not to marry her and perhaps they’re right’.}

But as to risings, I can tell you why.
It is on contradiction that they grow.
{Multiple ambiguity!   1) ‘male sexual desire (risings = erections) is stimulated by contradiction = cultural difference’; 2 ‘male sexual desire is stimulated by arguments’ – e.g. Haru ‘contradicting’ him as to what they should do when woken by the quake; 3) ‘In my case a sexual relationship has come out of  ‘contradiction’ of the advice not to have an affair with a Japanese woman’. 4)‘Marx was right – it is social contradictions that lead to revolutions’. The fourth meaning is a general comment on the world political situation that makes their love so precarious.}

It seemed the best thing to be up and go.
{In addition to the previous meanings the line now also means: ‘That’s why I had or at least wanted sex with Haru – ‘up’ means ‘erection’ again and ‘go’ now also suggests ‘begin sexual activity’.}

Up was the heartening and the strong reply.
The heart of standing is we cannot fly.
{Haffenden in his biography of Empson claims that this last line means that Empson decides he has to leave Haru.  This is certainly what happened in real life, but it’s hard to see how not ‘flying’ means ending the affair, so my own interpretation is different: ‘Haru agrees to sex and that means she doesn’t go home and they shouldn’t abandon their relationship’. This would mean that the ‘we’ refers to Empson and Haru. ‘Up’ would mean something like ‘have an erection because I’m ready for sex now’ or ‘her reply made me have an erection’ or even ‘my reply to all this and to Haru was to have an erection’.}