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 (http://gwulo.com/node/8673) 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
.'20

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:
http://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/john-alexander-fraser/
http://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/leung-hung/

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 - http://www.hongkongwardiary.com/
4http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Grantham
5http://hkcart.blogspot.co.uk/
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.
37http://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/leung-hung/
38Wright-Nooth, 1994, 155.
39http://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2012/03/31/alexander-christie-sinton/
40Captured Enemy Document, Page 5.
41http://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/06/06/william-john-white/
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.
47http://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/11/04/captain-mateen-ahmed-ansari/
48http://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/11/06/wong-shiu-pun-preston/
49http://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2011/11/16/chester-bennett-the-american-hero-of-hong-kong/
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 http://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/01/07/bungalow-d-dwellers/ - 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.

Note:
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.
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[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zy5aaH_lzrA
[2] Domestic servant, but often used specifically for a nanny.
[3] For some information about the real-life Elsa and Tommy see this thread: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/stanley_camp/message/2848
[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: http://gcemerson.com/hong_kong_internment.html
[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.
[14] http://www.walesartsreview.org/the-rice-paper-diaries-by-francesca-rhydderch/
[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] http://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/06/04/savage-christmas-and-the-nature-of-racism-in-old-hong-kong/ and http://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/gerald-hornes-race-war-1-the-eurasians/
[21] 42.
[22] 76.
[23] http://www.serenbooks.com/author/francesca-rhydderch