Auden and Isherwood in Shanghai

Note: I‘ve often wondered what W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood actually DID in Hong Kong, as their stay on the way to the Sino-Japanese War in February 1938 produced remarkably little in the way of commentary or insight. This led me to look carefully at the account of their time in Shanghai….

Rewi Alley, who I suspect they rely on rather heavily, floats in and out of the Hong Kong leftist scene. The way in which the book gives him the last word (literally) is proof of Isherwood’s commitment to communism at this point.


Auden and Isherwood’s Journey to a War (1939; all references in parentheses are to the 1973 edition of this book), a response in prose and poetry, to the visit made by the two writers to a China under Japanese attack, concludes with a description of some of their experiences in Shanghai.

This is how Isherwood’s biographer, Peter Parker, sums up the two writers’ time there:

After the rigours of the Front, they spent much of their time relaxing in the city’s bath-houses, where attractive young attendants performed ablutions and other services.

In the evenings they returned to the ‘considerable and well-deserved luxury’ of their quarters in the British Ambassador’s private villa in the French Concession.

Isherwood himself seeks to leave the reader with a rather different impression of the way he and Auden spent their time in Shanghai: he admits to the luxury, turns it into a rhetorical strength in fact, but establishes a vision of the two writers tirelessly plunging out of their privileged base camp into the grim realities of the Chinese city:

In this city  – conquered, yet unoccupied by its conquerors – the mechanism of the old life is still ticking, but seems doomed to stop, like a watch dropped in the desert. In this city the gulf between society’s two halves is too grossly wide for any bridge. There can be no compromise here. And we ourselves though we wear out our shoes walking the slums, though we take notes, though we are genuinely shocked and indignant, belong, unescapably, to the other world. We return, always, to Number One House for lunch.

It’s a fine peroration, but I have come to wonder whether or not the two writers had found a simple way of economising on shoe leather. 

If you tire of inspecting one kind of misery there are plenty of others. (236)

The misery they have been inspecting to the point of weariness is that of the Chinese factory workers:

Most of these factories are very small-two or three rooms crammed with machinery and operatives. The majority of the operatives are young boys who have been bought from their parents outright for twenty dollars: they work from twelve to fourteen hours a day. Their only wages are their food, and a sleeping-space in a loft above the work-room. There are no precautions whatever against accident or injury to health. In the accumulator factories, half the children have already the blue line in their gums which is a symptom of lead-poisoning. Few of them will survive longer than a year or eighteen months. In scissors factories you can see arms and legs developing chromium-holes. There are silk-winding mills so full of steam that the fingers of the mill-girls are white with fungus growths. If the children slacken in their work the overseers often plunge their elbows into the boiling water as a punishment. There is a cotton mill where the dust in the air makes T.B. almost a certainty. (235-6)

Sharp observation of sometimes unexpected particulars is one of the hallmarks of Isherwood’s style in the rest of the book. He isn’t a camera, in spite of his well-known claim, but he tries to write so as to give that idea some plausibility. Even when he generalises he likes to give us something concrete as a launch pad: consider, for example, the description of the ‘very dirty little boy of four or five years old’, who, ‘very slowly, without ever looking downward’, uses his toe to manoeuvre a coin flung onto the ground by the two playful journeyers into a position where he can safely pocket it, and then ‘rose to his feet and toddled off with an air of extreme unconcern’:

The perfection of his technique – so matter-of-fact that it wasn’t even sly – was one of the most shocking things I have ever seen in my life. It told the whole story of the coolie’s animal struggle for existence. (225)

Isherwood does give us a clearly first-hand account of some aspects of Shanghai life, but when it comes to what he and Auden saw in the factories, he resorts to a strangely generalising style; in fact, his account, quoted above, consists of statements of fact and a vague ‘you can see’ – he carefully avoids claiming that he saw anything! 

The book’s final section (235-243) is largely given over to Rewi Alley, a New Zealand factory inspector who was by that time effectively a communist agent. When Alley came to write his Autobiography in 1986, he highlights some of the same abuses as Isherwood. Although their placing in his book seem to suggest he encountered them in the years before his 1937 return visit to New Zealand, there’s no reason to doubt they were still present in 1938.

It’s possible, of course, that Alley chose some of his examples because he’d been reminded of them by reading Journey to a War at some point, or that he took Isherwood and Auden round to some of the factories on his ‘beat’, but it’s equally possible that Isherwood listened to him talking and took careful notes: Alley could have told them about the ‘chromium holes’, the steam-filled silk mills, and the use of arm scalding in boiling water as a punishment for children’s mistakes, and no doubt everything else that Isherwood describes in that curiously generalising manner.

My guess is that Isherwood and Auden did wear out a lot of shoe leather in Shanghai, visiting scenes of bomb damage, exploring the slums and maybe even taking in a factory or two. They were probably more assiduous than the reader of Parker’s account might assume, but this didn’t stop Isherwood from writing up Alley’s examples in such a way as to suggest he had more first-hand acquaintance with industrial conditions in the city than was really the case.

Who can blame him? Even humble bloggers have been known to do such things, and the two writers had travelled thousands of miles by slow train, watched air raids (always the risk you’ll end up doing more than just watching) and sought out two front lines, at one point escaping less than twelve hours before the Japanese captured the town they were staying in. If Isherwood did cheat a little – and I’m not claiming to have definitely proved he did – this too was a ‘well-deserved luxury’.


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The Child in Time

I’ve been reading Common People, Alison Light’s beautifully written account of her quest for the history of her ‘lost’ ancestors – ‘family history begins with missing persons’ (p. 11), she tells us, and she means ‘missing’ in both senses.

My family moved to Portsmouth about 1953, when my father got a job with the NAAFI; the young Alison Light arrived in the same city a few years later. Like her (p. 1) I was taken on the usual trip to the dockyard to see HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar:

Portsmouth c. 1953

But what fascinates me is the difference between the way the two of us, as we created the foundations of our self, thought about history.

Portsmouth, the city where we lived, was saturated with the past, but the different stories about different times had been plunged into one big wash in my mind, swirling around indiscriminately. (p. 2)

The stories she heard on her trip to the Victory were as ‘recent and remote’ as her mother’s tales about her girlhood, and after the Doctor Who series began in 1963 she had a useful image for her own aspirations: a time-traveller ‘collecting companions by chance from the centuries’ (p. 2). In her view the child’s world, if it exists in time at all, does so in ‘the time of dream and nightmare, of fugue rather than narrative’ (p. 3).

Not for me. From the start my sense of history was organised around the war. Everything I couldn’t remember but my parents told me had happened I thought of as ‘before the war’. 

Our flat was in a grim location: on one side the factory, on the other the squat and ugly NAAFI social club. The only clear view was across an acre or so of plain grass to the gates through which we left the estate for the streets of Portsmouth, still showing signs of heavy wartime bombing. But what dominated the landscape was the high black stand of Fratton Park football ground, separated from the NAAFI buildings by a narrow alley. When I visited the compound after a thirty year absence, that black roof, and the darkness it threw across the whole scene, immediately returned to my memory and I knew at once that two apparently contradictory statements were both true: I had forgotten that scene completely, and it had always been and would always be seared into me.

You could see one half of the football pitch from the roof of our block of flats, and my father told me that when Portsmouth had enjoyed a good run in the FA Cup he had been offered huge sums to let people stand on the roof and watch half the game. I had no memory of that, so of course it must have happened ‘before the war’. In fact, it was probably on February 24th, 1954, when Portsmouth lost 2-1 in a replay to Bolton Wanderers in the fifth round of the Cup. 

My sense of time had a strange consequence: because I couldn’t remember the war, it, must have taken place before the war!

I was, in fact, born five years after it came to an end, and the way in which it dominated my narrative ordering of the past invites an obvious question: when and how did I first learn about my parents’ experiences? Some philosophers like to use the phrase ‘always already’ to signal their distrust  of ‘origins’, to show that, however far back you go, you can’t find anything actually beginning. I’m not keen on the idea in general, but it’s certainly true in this case: I always already knew about my parents’ time in occupied Hong Kong!

My first conscious memory of learning about their wartime experience assumes that knowledge: one day, when I was about 4, I asked my father how long they’d been imprisoned by the Japanese. I pictured them in a cell of the kind I’d somehow learnt existed in British prisons, and I couldn’t imagine anyone living in such confinement for more than about a week, so I offered him that possibility. He was a gentle man, for all he’d once been Windsor’s most feared young boxer, but any thought of the war stirred up a huge fury. He gave me the real figure – three years eight months – and made no attempt to hide his anger at my stupidity. I had failed to understand the length and depth of their suffering.

So the war, the defining fissure in history, was something I should feel guilty about.

Note: My edition of Common People: The History of an English Family was published by Penguin in 2015.

The photo bottom left below shows my parents and the other NAAFI managers and their wives at a dance in 1955 (Source: NAAFI News, Autumn 1955)

Naafi photos

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The tragic story of Mr A. E. Murphy

In this previous post I explained that some time in the immediate post-war period my parents rented an apartment in Wong Nai Chung Road. I pointed out that according to some theories this was strange: they should have been trying to forget the horrors of the occupation, so why choose to live next to a former Gendarmerie, a centre of the injustice, violence and torture that characterised Japanese rule?

It was only while reading evidence at a war crimes trial about the tragic fate of Mr. A. E. Murphy that I realise the full significance of the particular Gendarmerie in WNC Road in my parents’ wartime experience.

Alfred Murphy was an overseer who had been in Hong Kong for many years when the Japanese attacked. He asserted Irishness to avoid internment, or, according to one account, to get released from Stanley. Like most people outside the camps, he found it hard to make a living. He worked as a broker – buying and selling items of use – but he was eventually forced to go the Lassallians for help. They gave him a  battery recharger to sell to buy rice, but tragically the recharger was one that could be used on radio batteries, so when the Japanese came upon it, they arrested Mr Murphy on suspicion of being in wireless communication with British forces outside Hong Kong.

My parents spent most of the early part of the occupation in the compound of St Paul’s Hospital in Causeway Bay.  On May 7, 1943 they were sent to Stanley in the wake of the arrest of Dr Selwyn-Clarke, who was also living at the hospital and who the Japanese (wrongly) believed was the leading British spy in Hong Kong. Mr Murphy entered the same hospital as a patient in May 1944 because he was unable to properly digest food due to colitis. When his gastric problem had been cured by medication and a special diet, he asked the Mother Superior if he could live in the hospital as a boarder because he had no place to stay outside. The request was granted and he moved into a room on the first floor of the hospital itself. In December 1944 he and the hospital’s telephone operator (Jean Chung was his French name) were arrested. There is no single definitive account of the circumstances, but putting accounts together, it seems most probable that Murphy was wrongly named as a spy by an Indian who had broken under interrogation, and Mr Chung was either named by the same man or otherwise incriminated.

In February 1945 they were both released, and Mr Murphy returned to the hospital in a ‘pitiful’ condition, suffering from the effects of his brutal treatment. He was immediately given a lysol bath, as his clothes were covered with lice, and put to bed. He was in an advanced state of malnutrition and craved food. The sisters gave him a lot of milk and some toast, as that was all his stomach could bear. All to no avail: he had arrived at the hospital at 7.30 in the evening, and he died at 2 p.m. the next day.

The Gendarmerie at which Mr Murphy was so badly mistreated was the Eastern headquarters – Le Calvaire. Sister Marie was one of those who tried to save Mr Murphy. In her evidence at the War Crimes trial she describes that Gendarmerie as ‘near’ to St Paul’s, and Google Maps shows that it’s under a mile by road. If my parents had been arrested that’s where they would have been taken, and they must have spent long hours thinking about this place with some degree or other of conscious awareness. It’s nightmare presence must have infused their sleep even when they were dreaming of other things. Yet they chose to live next door. They decided that the best place to deal with their feelings was close to the heart of zdarkness.

And now, more than 70 years after Hong Kong was liberated, Mr Murphy’s story still seems to me to carry an unimaginable load of pathos.


Father Bourke, Steering Neutral, HKMS100-1-6

WO 235/1007.


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Love and Death in Old Foochow OR How my DNA test made an already over-large category larger still

Students of old Hong Kong will be aware that the term ‘Eurasian’ is problematic in the extreme – it’s even been suggested that its real meaning, as applied in the pre-war period, is ‘not Chinese, not European and not Indian or any other single ethnicity’. Sometimes people are referred to as ‘Eurasian’ even without recent European ancestry, and although there were a number of Chinese-British families in Hong Kong, and that’s what most people think of when they read ‘Eurasian’, this ancestry was far from universal even amongst those who would meet the criteria in some reasonable definition of the term. (For some of the debate around ‘Eurasian’ see And if anyone is wondering why historians of old Hong Kong are so interested in ethnicity and ‘race’, it’s because in the society we study it defined your life chances to a degree that’s happily now hard to imagine (and did so even more in the complex and intensified racial politics of the Japanese occupation).

I don’t have anything to add to the terminological debate: most linguists tell us that the meaning of the word is determined by the way it’s understood at any given time, not by the existence of  a ‘correct’ definition somewhere outside contemporary usage. This raises questions (‘are all users equal?) that I’m happy to ignore. But my recent DNA test does enable me to tentatively add a new ethnic mix to the already rich texture of Hong Kong’s Eurasians.

I had my DNA analysed for a specific reason: my mother told me that her mother – who died very young – was Chinese. But in the one photo I have of her she looked rather Eurasian to my eyes at least:

Mum with her mother

I chose Living DNA as the tester most likely to yield a helpful result: to put it simply, I assumed that if I had about 25% ‘East Asian’ genes my grandmother was full-blooded Chinese, if about 12.5% she was Eurasian. Even a scientific dunce like me knows that apparently clear figures of that kind can be misleading, but I reckoned that a result in one range or another would at least give me a default theory. And if she was Eurasian, I was assuming she would have been Chinese-Portuguese, as that was most likely in Foochow (now Fuzhou).

The results came when I was busy with other projects, and what happened shows the danger of set ideas. I noted that 27.8% of my genes were described as  from Asia (East) and a further 1.8% as from Asia (Central). I also noted that the most likely origin of the East Asian part of my genotype was Yunnan Province in China’s south-west. This surprised me, as Fujian Province is a long way to the east of Yunnan.  Macau’s closer, and  Antonio might have met his bride there as his family remained in the Portuguese Colony after he left, and he returned there when his wife was pregnant with my mother, but, as far as I could make out from trade directories, Antonio was firmly based in Foochow from about 1908 until his death in 1939.  In any case, I thought that I now had my answer: my grandmother was clearly Chinese. There I left it until the imminent visit of a Eurasian friend who was also thinking of having the test made me look at the results again.

This time something from the report leapt out at me:

Your motherline is most frequent in the indigenous Lahu populations. They are distributed across Yunnan, China, Burma, Laos and Vietnam, and speak a language that is part of the Loloish group.

Although the testers quite rightly emphasised we are dealing with mere probabilities and that nothing should be seen as certainly proved, it did seem that my grandmother was indeed full-blooded, but perhaps not Chinese (in other words, of Han ethnicity) but one of China’s 55 ‘minority’ peoples. I lived in Yunnan for a year and we visited one of the ‘minority’ areas in the south, close to the Lancang Lahu Autonomous County, but the Lahu still weren’t on my radar. There are only about 600,000 native speakers of the Lahu language, mainly in Yunnan and bordering countries like Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.

But, given, the uncertainty of conclusions drawn from genetic testing, was my grandmother really Lahu? I found some images of Lahu women online that make me think that’s a real possibility:

Image result for lahu peopleImage source:

The facial structure of the woman on the left of the line as you look at it certainly seems similar to me. I’m now trying to track down some documentation from Macau that might (or might not) settle the issue, but in the meantime what else do I know about my grandmother?

Just two things. Firstly, the name given for her on my parents’ marriage certificate – 1942 in occupied Hong Kong – is Maria, which is probably Europeanised rather than what she was given at birth. Secondly, she died of TB when my mother was three. 

Maria could feel the end coming, and told the servants to bring my mother to her bed. They were reluctant, as they feared she would pass on the disease that was killing her, but they had to obey, so my grandmother had her daughter with her during her last night on earth. What a powerful message for my mother, a message of the strength and selfishness of love, of its importance in life and of its intertwining with death.

My grandfather, Antonio Sage Marques d’Oliveira, was born in 1888 to a father who’d come to Macau from Portugal and a mother who was part-American and part-Portuguese. If his wife was indeed Lahu, how did they meet? I can only speculate. When Antonio was 18 or so he went to Foochow to work for tea merchants called Greig & Co (and a firm of brokers called Turner & Co): Yunnan is a tea growing part of China, and, although most of the firm’s business would have involved locally grown crops, perhaps it was the tea trade that somehow brought her to Foochow (or even perhaps Macao). However they met, and whatever her ethnicity, that Antonio truly loved Maria seems clear from the new year’s card he sent out to mark the start of 1917:

Mum with her father


Both he and my mother are clearly devastated, and he’s chosen an empty background to match his mood (compare the potted plant in the photo of my mother and Maria above).

I hope I’ll be able to find a document – a marriage certificate perhaps – that will settle the matter once and for all. But at the moment it looks as if my mother might have been Portuguese-American-Lahu, a form of Eurasian-ness that I believe to be unique even in the great Hong Kong melting pot.


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Two notes of September 1945

I now have two more notes from my parents, sent in the immediate aftermath of the arrival of Harcourt’s fleet on August 30th, 1945. (For other cards and telegrams, see

My father left Stanley on about September 2nd to try to get bread production started. This note was probably sent by air mail on September 3rd and would have been the first definite proof that his family had that Thomas and his new wife had survived. My aunt told me that they knew it was genuine because he used the family nickname ‘Ooke’:

Dad first post-war note

The second is a longer note sent the next day:

Dad 14-9-45

For all the desire to get home quickly, it wasn’t until August 1946 that they left Hong Kong. And not until February 1951 that they came to the UK for good, although even then they considered returning to Hong Kong for some time after that.

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Tin Hats & Rice by Barbara Anslow

It is good to see that Barbara Anslow’s diary, plus other material from Barbara and her family, is now available in book form:

All the Stanley Camp diaries have their particular areas of focus, depending on the personality and interests of the diarist, and, happily for both the historian and the general reader, Barbara has an outgoing character and an endless fascination with people. As an account of what day-to-day life in Stanley was like for ordinary internees, this diary has no equal.

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My ‘Postmemory’ of the Hong Kong Occupation: A talk at Rome Sapienza

At the end of June I attended a conference at Rome Sapienza. The theme was ‘postmemory’ – in my case, that means my relationship to my parents’ experience of the war and the strange way in which their memories intermingled with my own.

Below is a slightly revised text of the talk. PP refers to Power Point slides, which I’m afraid the reader will have to imagine, and Word Press has taken out the footnotes as usual.


In the Dark World’s Fire: a personal-theoretical investigation of postmemory of the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong

PP Empire of the Sun

There’s a scene in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun.

PP Cadillac of the Skies

Jim, a boy prisoner based on James Ballard the author of the original novel, runs outside during a raid on the airfield next to his internment camp shouting a phrase he’s learnt from one of his American ‘protectors’, ‘P51, Cadillac of the skies’. It’s a scene Spielberg himself regarded as central, and it wasn’t the first time the film had brought me to tears, but now I became aware of something strange.

I was crying because of the resonance with my parents’ time as civilian internees in Hong Kong’s Stanley Camp and I realised that I was experiencing their experience with something stronger than empathy. In a way I couldn’t understand, those experiences felt mine as well as theirs and the tears seemed more powerful and more personal than any I’d cried during a catharsis-based psychotherapy in the early 1980s. Many years later this ‘confusion’ went still further.  Another Spielberg film, War Horse, led to crying about a time in my life when I perceived myself as the object of a lot of hatred. But soon I apparently found myself crying my father’s tears at the hatred coming from the Japanese occupiers.

How had such a strange transfer come about? Is it evidence for Cathy Caruth’s claim that trauma is by its nature belated, and that it’s only in future generations that experiencing can take place?

The Japanese attacked Hong Kong on December 8th, 1941 and my father was in charge of the Colony’s bakeries during the eighteen days of resistance. About a month after the Christmas Day surrender most British civilians were packed off to Stanley Internment Camp on a southern peninsula of the island. 

PP Stanley

But Thomas volunteered to stay uninterned, living in the occupied city, to bake bread for the hospitals, and in January 1942 he met my mother, Evelina, a Eurasian with a neutral Portuguese passport. They married in June:

PP Wedding photo

That’s Lieutenant Tanaka, a humane Japanese officer who befriended my parents. In May 1943, after the arrest of my father’s boss on spying charges, they were sent off to join the others in Stanley Camp, where they passed the rest of the war.

It’s crucial that this was very different from an experience of the Holocaust. So much so that the death rate in Stanley Camp was comparable to peace time. 

Now, ‘trauma’ is a tricky concept, but what’s common to most definitions is the idea of an experience so unpleasant and overwhelming that it defies immediate processing and leads to memory traces that make themselves felt later. My parents’ time in occupied Hong Kong was full of ongoing humiliations and deprivations. Stanley was massively over-crowded, the food was always inadequate and sometimes the rice came with weevils and mouse droppings.  There were also the kind of high impact traumas focus on which has given rise to the Bessel van Kolk and Cathy Caruth theorisation of events so overwhelming that they shut off ordinary consciousness and representation and leave an imprint of the experience burnt into the brain. A typical example of that kind of trauma: my father’s journey in quest of baking supplies, speeding through shells and shrapnel with a terrified and incompetent driver. A couple of years into the occupation he was involved in an attempt to keep a woman inside the billet so she wouldn’t see her husband being beheaded for resistance work on the beach below.

 PP Hyde

But worse than anything that happened – and a further complication of the concept ‘trauma’- was the fear of what might happen. In June 1942 my father played a role in the escape of a British soldier. To be interrogated about that would have been an unimaginable experience that he must have spent a lot of time imagining.

My mother had her own mental terrors. This passport photo is one of the few objects that survived internment:

PP passport photo

I think she must have kept her Portuguese credentials close during the period of mass rapes, mainly of Chinese women, that followed the British surrender.

Deprivation, high impact trauma, and terror about what might happen. Nevertheless, they both loved Hong Kong, and even wartime had some positive elements. In many ways activities and personal relations in Stanley Camp were more fulfilling than in pre-war society, and beneath the torpor there were new challenges and a sense that you might at any moment need all your human capacities in order to maximise chances of survival. There’s a certain nostalgia about some of the writings about Stanley that, again, takes us completely outside the world of the Holocaust, and indeed the death railway in Thailand and even other Japanese camps for civilians – significantly Ballard’s Lunghua was also one of the milder camps.

So what emerged in my parents was a complex form of memory in constant engagement with the conditions of their postwar life. They certainly didn’t seek to avoid wartime associations. When I was born in 1950 they were renting a flat next to a notorious Japanese torture chamber. Back in the UK, in 1955 my father designed a bungalow that echoed their billet in Stanley Camp, down to the parquet floor. The conscious stage of my formation of postmemory began in a house that acted as a mnemonic of the Hong Kong war.

PP Bungalow

The Kindness of Women, Ballard’s sequel to Empire of the Sun, makes it clear that in the greyness, literal and symbolic, of English life he came to long for the far eastern light of Shanghai and Lunghua, even to the extent of fantasising a return to the conditions of war through an atomic explosion. My parents remembered the traumas of the occupation in the way they did partly because in all the ennui and limitations of the 1950s they were nostalgic about a time that challenged every faculty just to survive. In the isolation of a nuclear family they were haunted by the camp’s communal living, even when that came as a bunk bed on the floor of a lounge shared with a couple they didn’t like. 

I knew my parents yearned for Hong Kong and in some ways for the life of internment so that acquired a powerful glamour for me. My mother had a music box and the tune it played I came to associate with Stanley. I learnt to turn the constant electrical hum in the air into that music, always playing somewhere above my left ear. I was, of course, seeking my own forms of escape from the greyness.

I’ve begun with that nostalgia, which was probably specific to a small percentage of settings, because of its importance in the most conscious parts of my postmemory. Although the terror, deprivation and horror experienced by British civilians in Hong Kong was not on the scale of other places it was more than enough to dominate post-war memory. I want to examine this through trying to answer the question:

How did their memory become my postmemory? How did that terror and horror come through to me? 

Like most of those who went through the occupation my parents decided not to speak much about it so as not to burden their children. But sometimes, in my father’s case, things forced their way out.  And it was the worst horrors he felt compelled to talk about – contrary to the idea that trauma resists linguistic representation. He told me about being with Mrs Hyde while her husband was executed on the beach below, alongside at least one other man he knew personally. He spoke about the way the Japanese forced the Chinese into junks and sunk them in the harbour for artillery practice. Always when he talked about this violence there was an underlying anger. It covered over his fear and it was directed both at the Japanese and at me, for not being able to understand. The only time he spoke in a different register was when he mentioned Captain Tanaka.

That was verbal transmission. Eva Hoffman tells us that the first transmission to her was not memories expressed in words, but ‘something closer to enactment of experience… the past broke through in the sounds of nightmares, the idiom of sighs and illness, of tears and (the) acute aches…’.

I was a fearful baby who sometimes wouldn’t sleep on his own, so I find that invocation of nightmares particularly resonant.  A key moment in my own understanding of the ‘idiom of illness’ came in about 1960 when I was 10. My mother had a nervous breakdown in which she spent most days lying on the sofa, stricken with headaches and suicidal thoughts. It was seen by the doctors and neurologists as a reaction to the menopause, which was of course part of the truth. But the real content of the experience – the terror of the war – was signalled clearly enough: her years of travail began the day she sat down and couldn’t stop her knees from trembling and it ended the day she sat down and her legs remained still. 

Between 1968 and 1972 I recreated their ordeal in occupied Hong Kong by building my own prison – obsessive reading for almost every waking hour which went on in its extreme form for almost exactly the duration of the occupation, three years and eight months. This was in some ways functional for someone doing a literature degree but the main purpose was to minimise the pressures of life in the late 1960s as I was unable to deal with them. After the degree, I escaped from my own prison through a nervous breakdown modelled on my mother’s, and actually found myself consulting one of the same neurologists.

I’ve described my creation of the music of Stanley and later breakdown as if they were free choices, and as an Existentialist of an extremely heretical kind I’m interested in the way some theorisations of trauma challenge the fundamental tenet of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness: no experience is so overwhelming as to deprive human consciousness of its freedom to choose its response. 

There’s an early but classic critique of Sartre’s theory of freedom by the American philosopher Vivian McGill which praises him for resisting, amongst other things, the use of trauma as cop out – he mentions Otto Rank’s idea that the personality is formed in large part by birth trauma. But McGill goes on to suggest that choices are inevitably made on the basis of our ‘psychobiological nature. Of course, Sartre denies that there’s any such thing as ‘human nature’, but both theory and my own experience put me with McGill on this issue.

I want to try to square the circle and suggest that both the original memory and the subsequent postmemory are created in a dialectic between freedom and determinism.

This is no simple dichotomy in which verbal communications leave consciousness existentially free and the kind of bodily-energetic-emotional messages described by Eva Hoffman compel a particular response. Nevertheless that type of transmission begins much earlier – my own experience suggests it begins in the womb, but in any case body messages begin at a time when the psyche is more open and more vulnerable and they don’t stop when the stories start. 

It’s in this bodily-emotional-energetic transmission that I find the most obvious limits of freedom. Sartre denies the existence of such a thing as human nature, but I believe that human subjectivity is pre-formed by evolution and one thing I’ve found about mine is that I react to the most powerful elements in my consciousness and some experiences are so powerful they leave little choice as to the form of reaction. An example. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, I’m filled with terror which, traced back, always has its origins in Japanese Hong Kong, although of course with way stations in my own life. Very early on my parents’ continuing terror forced its way into my consciousness. But at the same point at which choice was rendered impossible, freedom began. Introspection suggests that the terror is the liveliest state of my bodymind in the circumstances in which it occurs and for that reason I give consent to its reappearance, just as in the early 1970s I gave consent to various elements of unhappiness and turned them into a ‘nervous breakdown’.

So, contrary to much theorising, there are no repetitions, re-enactments or literal returns in the memory or the postmemory of trauma, only recreations, old feelings put to work in new situations in a way that can be called neither free nor determined, or both at the same time. 

In spite of all I’ve said, I do not believe that I experience my parents’ experience, that their belated traumas find their witness in my tears.

PP Stanley 1996

When I first stood in what once had been Stanley Civilian Internment Camp, a stunning location looking out over the South China Sea, I was overwhelmed with the thought that, amidst all this beauty, even if there had been nothing bad in my life except the reflection of the pain caused in this place, I would have been destroyed.

It was a comforting thought because it made so much clear, including the difference between my parents’ experience and my own. When I took on some of their memory, whether voluntarily or through being overwhelmed, it was in both cases knowing, crucially knowing, it was theirs not mine. Those tears while watching Empire of the Sun were of confusion not identification and even when I apparently cried my father’s tears at the dark world’s fire of hatred in Japanese Hong Kong I never lost the knowledge that they were his and that he had experienced the occupation not me. That’s why I could cry them.

As Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer so rightly suggest in their foundational text, we must resist the equation of memory and postmemory, especially when it comes marked with the specious authenticity of tears.

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