Towards a Theory of Collaboration and Resistance: Some Preliminary Reflections


As far as I know, only one member of the defeated British community in Hong Kong refused to collaborate with the Japanese:

Marius Livingstone [real name: Lionel Lammert]…was a stiff, proud young fellow….After the surrender, a Jap officer had accosted him in the street and commanded him to bow in passing. Livingstone refused. The officer insisted. A group of Chinese looked on from a safe distance. Livingstone tried to pass by but the Jap held him back with his sword. “You bow. You bow,” the little man shouted, jumping up and down in rage. The pale young Englishman stood still, looking lazily at the Jap. Then he said very slowly, “You go straight to hell. I’ll never bow to a dirty little bugger like you.”

“I give you to count to ten. You no bow, I kill you.” The Jap waved his sword frenziedly. “I chop off your head.”

Livingstone lit a cigarette and leaned against the building looking disdainfully at his antagonist.

The Jap began to count. “One-two-three-” At the count of ten, Livingstone had not moved. He was smiling faintly. The Jap looked about and saw the solemn, averted gaze of the Chinese. He raised his sword and with a single terrific blow brought it down on the Englishman’s neck. The sword completely severed the neck. The head fell off. The body was supported for a few moments against the building, it fell slowly forward. Blood spurted from the neck drenching the Jap. Very slowly the Chinese walked away.[1]

That account was written by repatriated American Wenzell Brown. In his memoir of the war [Hong Kong Aftermath], Brown was already honing the skills that would lead to his transformation from university lecturer to popular novelist – the book is gripping because Brown made much of it up! Nevertheless, other sources confirm that something like this story of defiance and execution did indeed take place.[2]

This case of the courageous Lionel Lammert, who refused a single act of collaboration and sent a signal of resistance to others (the watching Chinese), underlines a simple fact: after a surrender, everyone collaborates. Take one of my heroes as an example –  Charles Hyde, an HSBC banker who remained uninterned in 1942 and 1943. Hyde was a benchmark of resistance: I don’t think I’ve found a single type of illegal relief work, espionage or other covert operation he didn’t have a hand in. But most of the time he collaborated. When he walked around Hong Kong, he bowed to the guards at the many Japanese check-points – we know this because if he hadn’t, sooner or later he’d have ended up like Lammert. Unless his experience was unique, he was sometimes searched, given orders, told to wait – the same reasoning tells us he obeyed.

My intention of course is not to criticise in any way this remarkable man. He was one of the first characters from the Hong Kong war I heard about; my father was changed for life by the experience of being with Hyde’s wife on October 29, 1943 when her husband was executed close to Stanley Internment Camp. The Japanese never discovered all the ‘illegal’ things Hyde had been doing, but they extorted enough through torture to make his execution, from their point of view, imperative. My father rarely spoke about his time in the war, but he did tell me about the death of Charles Hyde.

These days it’s a cliché for historians – both of the European and Pacific wars – to tell us that we must go beyond a simple (and moralistic) opposition between ‘collaborators’ (bad) and ‘resisters’ (good).

In a thesis on the role of the Chinese elites in occupied Hong Kong and Singapore, C. Y. Wong distinguishes ‘unconditional’, ‘tactical’,  ‘conditional’  and ‘passive’ collaboration.[3] Looking at the other term of the binary, one group of historians, writing about the German Occupation of the Channel Islands, has divided things up into the categories of ‘protest’, ‘defiance’ and ‘resistance’ and stressed that it’s wrong to focus excessively on ‘the military value of resistance’.[4] In any case, most people in the Channel Islands and elsewhere in occupied Europe, formed, they believe, a ‘muddled majority’ who didn’t fall neatly into the categories of ‘resisters’ or ‘collaborators’.[5] Others distinguish ‘collaboration’ (necessary to stay alive and avoid punishment) from ‘collaborationism’ (helping the occupier out of ideological sympathy).

All this is welcome and provides plenty of useful ways for looking at the actions of the people (of all nationalities and ethnicities) both inside and outside the camps during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. But the case of Lionel Lammert shows that after the surrender there were in fact three and only three choices: speedy death, collaboration, or collaboration with some resistance as well.

This means that collaboration in occupied Hong Kong requires no special explanation other than the human desire to stay alive in most circumstances- and not everyone who refused to carry out such an elementary act as refusing to bow to a Japanese officer (and thus to signal submission to the new order) would have been certain of a relatively speedy death. Or could have died feeling confident their relatives would remain unmolested.

All the debates about why the Chinese and Eurasian elites, for example, generally chose to work with the Japanese are beside the point: Were they badly treated by the British? Did they fail to develop a ‘patriotic’ Chinese outlook because they were provincially focused on Hong Kong? Did they fall for Japanese ‘Asia for the Asiatics’ propaganda? Or is a Marxist interpretation in order – perhaps they simply acted according to their economic interests?

Such questions can add to our understanding, but only if they’re seen to concern strictly subsidiary issues. They collaborated because if they hadn’t what happened to the courageous and principled Lionel Lammert would have happened to them. No doubt less visible forms of resistance than Lammert’s were possible, and most people in occupied Hong Kong got away with what they could. But, in the final analysis, those who didn’t do what the Japanese wanted them to – whether it was turn up to work at the docks or to play  a part in running Hong Kong – faced starvation even if they avoided imprisonment and death.

But why did some people resist as well? Given the hideous risks? And why, when one lot of European resisters had been arrested in the spring of 1943 did a second ‘cohort’ of Europeans step forward, knowing they were likely to meet the same fate? Why did any Chinese defy the Japanese when they were well aware that, if captured, their treatment would be worse than that meted out to the ‘whites’?

These are the real questions posed by the occupation. While it’s possible to suggest many kinds of social, political and psychological motivations that might have contributed to these decisions, I have come to suspect that such questions are unanswerable.


[1] Wenzell Brown, Hong Kong Aftermath, 1943, 75-76.

[2] George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 94.

[3] Cheuk Yin Wong, The Politics of Collaboration, 2010, 6-10. (

[4] Gilly Carr, Paul Sanders, Louise Wilmot, Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands‘, Kindle Edition, 2014, Location 296.

[5] Carr et. al., Location 383.

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The Steel Helmet Rebellion – A Little-known Episode in Hong Kong’s Pre-war History

In late 1940 Hong Kong was the scene of widespread mutiny amongst Sikh soldiers, and related discontent amongst Sikh police officers and ‘civilians’. This ‘Steel Helmet Mutiny’ was an incident of some importance in the history of pre-war Hong Kong, but as far as I can establish, it was kept out of the contemporary press, and all academic discussions of it draw mainly on one article – as do I! (1)

The British had turned to the Sikhs and the other so-called ‘martial races’ of India after the Uprising/Mutiny of 1857 (also sparked off by religious issues) made them distrust Hindu and Moslem sepoys. But in the early twentieth century the new spirit of Indian nationalism began to inspire some Sikhs, and the community produced a number of anti-British activists.

In 1919 events at Amritsar – site of the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh religious centre – boosted such oppositional feelings. On April 13 Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered his men to shoot for ten minutes into an unarmed crowd of protestors (and religious pilgrims); estimates of the dead start at 329 (the official body count) and rise to over a thousand. To make matters worse, Dyer was regarded as a hero by some, and suffered no worse fate than loss of his commission – and even this required the intervention of the House of Commons. Nobel Laureate Rudyard Kipling was involved in a fund that presented Dyer  with a sum worth about £1,000,000 in today’s terms on his return to England. (2) Although Dyer did succeed in building some bridges, his actions cost the British support all over India and in the Sikh areas in particular.

But all this was happening a long way from Hong Kong, which had been recruiting Indian nationals, including Sikhs, into the police since 1861- it was thought that they would be more likely to take forceful action against, for example, Chinese rioters than police officers drawn from their own community. In accordance with their religious beliefs, they were allowed to wear turbans instead of caps. (3) In fact, this was probably seen by their superiors as an advantage, as they gave them an even greater height advantage over most Chinese! By 1940 about one third of the force were Indian, the majority of these being Sikh. (4)

Sikh soldiers had come to Hong Kong with the British army from almost the start of its imperial history and the crisis began not in the police force but in Sikh army units. In September 1939 the Mark 1 steel helmet was made standard equipment for the British Indian army. The British had made a point of enlisting only those Sikhs who, in orthodox fashion, vowed to keep their heads unshorn, so disquiet grew amongst the soldiers of the Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery as to the implications of the new helmet, wearing which would have meant cutting their hair.

I should interject at this point that there’s something I don’t fully understand: the story as Sundaram tells it, centres on a refusal to cut hair, not to discard the turban in favour of the safer helmet while on duty or under fire. Loyalty to the injunction to wear the turban led Sikh soldiers into conflicts with their British officers in both world wars (5). I presume that in the Hong Kong case the revolt broke out at a preliminary stage so direct orders to take off the turbans and put on the helmets were not involved.

About a year after the introduction of the new helmet matters began to come to a head. In October 1940 HKSRA men jeered the Sikh company of the 2/14 Punjab Regiment as they disembarked carrying steel helmets. At about the same time they started to show reluctance to move crates of army stores in case they contained the helmets. The General Officer Commanding, Arthur Edward Grasset, had headed Indian intelligence (6) so should have known better than to force the matter. Oblivious to the fact that the turban issue had already caused serious trouble in Egypt, he issued an order commanding that all ranks to whom steel helmets were given, ‘whether British, Indian or Chinese’ must carry them. In the usual fashion, the general order was read to the assembled ranks who were then required to sign a register to signify that they had been present and heard the reading. This was done on December 19, but a Sikh havildar-major (roughly equivalent to company sergeant-major) of the HKRSA’s 12th Heavy Regiment refused to sign.(7) The unit’s commanding officer insisted to his Indian subordinates that signing the register meant being aware of the order not agreeing with it, and when the Sikh jawans (all ranks below commissioned officers) were asked to sign on the 20th, the original refusnik complied, but this time the unit’s senior havildar (sergeant) refused. He was arrested and detained under heavy guard in the guardroom. (8)

At the request of an HKRSA officer, the commanding officer of the 2/14th Punjabs addressed the recalcitrant Sikhs on the morning of December 22. He appealed to their martial pride and sense of reputation, but to no avail – only 2 of his 85 listeners came forward to sign. The other 83 followed the havildar to the guardroom, where they promptly went on hunger strike. Any hopes of a quick resolution to the crisis were dashed before the day was out. In fact, the unrest spread. Sikh jawans of the Hong Kong Rifles refused to handle crates containing steel helmets and the Sikhs of  two more batteries of the HKSRA refused food. On December 24 acts of insubordination were rife in all HKRSA units in Hong Kong. Everything so far had been peaceful – very much in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy – but on December 28 Grasset expressed fears that the 800 Sikhs under his command might stage a violent mutiny. (9)

At some point the unrest spread to the large Sikh contingent in the police force. (10) Sikh ‘civilians’ also sympathised with their co-religionists’ grievances. The police took the matter very seriously and three officers were sent from the Indian Intelligence Bureau in Delhi: Major Goring, Superintendent Bill Robinson and a Sikh superintendent. They instigated a covert enquiry, and obviously acted swiftly on what they found. Sundaram isn’t sure how the crisis was brought to an end and wonders if a compromise was reached between the authorities and the discontented soldiers and policemen – this had brought similar conflicts to an end in WW1. Unfortunately that was not the case. One night all the potential mutineers in the army and their likely sympathisers in the police disappeared.(11) They’d been sent back to India with their families where, as George Wright-Nooth, who was a police officer at the time, ominously puts it, ‘the sheep were sorted from the goats’ . (12) According to another source, some of the rebels were sentenced to seven years penal servitude by a 1941 court martial. (13)

Wright-Nooth clearly has little sympathy for the Sikhs and says they were ‘encouraged’ in their mutinous spirit by ‘Japanese propaganda’. That was very likely the case; the Japanese were making a largely  hypocritical attempt to harness anti-British nationalisms to their own imperialist cause and in 1940/1941 had agents all over Asia attempting to exploit grievances real and imaginary. But that hardly seems like the essence of the matter.

According to Sundaram, it had been long standing British policy to restrict army recruitment to ‘keshdari’ (unshorn) Sikh men who had been initiated into the Khelsa (the ‘collective body’ of Sikhs). (14)  He even cites one British military official who boasted that it was the army that was keeping up the traditional standards of Sikhism! And, with regard to the police, Wright-Nooth describes a case in which, when still a greenhorn, he was confronted with the problem of dealing with a Sikh constable who’d asked a Moslem comrade to shave his beard; he was at a loss, as this wasn’t a police offence, until somebody suggested that as it was a religious one – they sent the offender to the Sikh temple, where he received a hefty fine. (15) This anecdote shows that the police too expected their Sikh recruits to obey religious injunctions over and above those of the service.

It seems that the British authorities insisted on the highest standards of Sikh religious observance until the moment they gave the order to flout them. An army report of 1941 seems to have sided with the Sikhs, if only on the grounds that forcing them to carry helmets provided an obvious grievance for Japanese agitators to exploit. (16)

I think it highly likely that the decision of the authorities to send potentially rebellious soldiers and policemen back to India with their families and to punish them there caused huge discontent amongst all groups of Sikhs in Hong Kong and provided fertile ground for Japanese subversion during the occupation. At the start of the battle – just under a year after the events I’ve been describing – the Sikh police were said by their officers to be ‘sullen and uncooperative’, (16) and the chief of police told diplomat Sir Arthur Blackburn they were almost in a state of mutiny by the end. (17) However, as far as I know there was no overt mutiny amongst the soldiers, so the tough line worked to at least that extent.

But things amongst the police could have been still worse. Superintendent Robinson was well aware that the brutal killings at Amritsar had stirred up hatred for the British- he’d been posted there ten years after the massacre and found that feelings were still strong. When, about 6 days into the hostilities, Indian and Chinese families found it hard to get food from the Police Food Control, Robinson took over the supervision of the feeding of Indians and a crisis was averted. (17)

During the occupation, much of the Japanese political effort was directed towards winning the support of the various Indian communities. Their appeal to Indian nationalism was weakened by the obvious brutality of their rule, but, understandably, some Sikhs felt this less keenly when they remembered the ten minutes of gun fire at Amritsar – and the further humiliations and brutalities that followed. However, in Hong Kong the Japanese failed to get anything like the support from either Indian POWs or civilians that they did in Malaya and Singapore. There is strong evidence that the majority of Hong Kong Indians resisted their blandishments outright, or just went along to the extent necessary to avoid persecution and to keep themselves and their families fed. Indians of all communities, including the Sikhs, took risks to alleviate British suffering out of compassion, (20) and some Sikhs even worked for the resistance.(21) The balance of sympathy could have been much more favourable to the British if the Steel Helmet rebellion had been ended by compromise not coercion.

(1)  “Seditious Letters and Steel Helmets: Disaffection among Indian Troops in Hong Kong and Singapore 1940-1, and the Formation of the Indian National Army”, in Kaushik Roy, ed., War and Society in Colonial India, 1807-1945, New Delhi: Oxford University Press. 2006.

(2) John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried, Kindle Edition Location 2061 ff.;

(3) Lawrence K. K. Ho, Policing Hong Kong 1842-1969, Kindle Edition, Location 452.

(4) Tim Luard, Escape from Hong Kong, 2012, 30.


(6) Franco David Macri, Clash of Empires in South China, 2012, 56.

(7) Sundaram, in Roy 2006, 142.

(8) Sundaram, in Roy 2006, 143.

(9) Sundaram, in Roy 2006, 143.

(10) George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 37.

(11) Luard, 2012, 30; Wright-Nooth, 37.

(12) Wright-Nooth, 1994, 37.


(14) Sundaram, in Roy 2006, 141.

(15) Wright-Nooth, 1994, 37.


(17) Sir Arthur Blackburn: ‘Hong Kong, December 1941-July 1942’, Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1989, page 86.

(18) Luard, 2012, 31.

(19) Luard, 2012, 30-31.

(20) Wenzell Brown, Hong Kong Aftermath, 1943, 156-157.

(21) Philip Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, 2003, 320.


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Ghosts of Stanley (5): A Short – But Important – Message From The Ghosts

In 2009 Jane and I decided to return home after spending more than four years teaching in China. We planned a grand final trip: first ten days in Tibet with two fellow teachers…
Samye Temple floor 1 1061015
Temple scene, Samye Monastery, Tibet
…then on to Chengdu for a short rest stop before flying to Xinjiang for another fortnight’s tour of this huge and history-steeped northwestern province.
But while we were in Tibet, we learnt of violent riots, with many dead, in Xinjiang. So in Chengdu, we rested, took our second look at the famous pandas…
…and used the time to talk over possible options. In the end, we chose to spend the time in Hong Kong, from where we’d booked a return flight to the UK, as Jane had never visited and, although I hadn’t planned to return so soon after my last visit, I knew there was plenty more for me to see and do.

 We so most of the time we did ‘tourist’ things and my focus was not, as it had been on my two previous visits, on my parents’ experiences in Stanley Civilian Internment Camp.

But Jane was eager to see the place she’d heard so much about, so on our third day we took the bus southwards and began by looking around Stanley Village:
Then we went to the Victorian Military Cemetery that was opened again for the internees and served both as burial place and recreational area. This is the only part of the former Camp open to the public without special permission; it has beautiful views out to the South China Sea, and, although my mother told me she and my father almost never went there, it is the place at which I feel the presence of the Ghosts most intensely.
But this time I saw it through Jane’s eyes, or imagined I did.
I could see that the cemetery today has a rather scraggy, disordered, flung-together kind of look
Although some spots were still full of emotion for me:
But the full value of this new experience of Stanley wasn’t revealed until my second visit, a brief ‘goodbye’ on our penultimate day in Hong Kong.
I left Jane looking around Stanley Market and made my way laboriously uphill to the Cemetery. It was hot, even though evening was drawing in, and I was sweaty and uncomfortable. Besides, I had a headache and felt bad tempered. Why was I bothering to return, with so much effort, to a now familiar place?
I stared across at views that had formerly seemed magical to me and they left me unmoved:
I felt that these were merely the graves – whether of Victorian soldiers and their families or the internees – of imperialists who had been beaten by the climate or by a rival imperialist gang. Then I turned right towards my favourite seat, and got a surprise…
 …a tree had been blown down and its branches were covering the headstones marking the graves of the 14 internees accidentally killed by an American bomb early in 1945.. There was a ‘Danger – do not cross’ sign and a rope to keep people away from the fallen tree. I stepped over this and went to the seat…
…and sat down to think. This novel element rekindled my interest and I started to feel a little more positive.
But I still had a headache, I still felt sweaty and unpleasant, and I now had to walk back down into the village, find Jane, and catch the bus for what seemed the long journey back to North Point. I got up and walked though the cemetery towards the hopefully still unlocked entrance. Just before I reached the large memorial cross…
…I turned and, not fully conscious of what I was doing, opened up my pituitary gland to the Ghosts.
There was hardly space through so much bad feeling for them to communicate, but one message, weakly received although clear and powerful in its transmission, came through: the Ghosts would only speak again when I could listen with a deep impersonality.
The events in wartime Hong Kong would always be the most important thing in my life, but they also needed to be merely something that had happened, once, to other people. One of the signs that I was ready to listen would be my confidence that I could attain and hold this ‘double consciousness’, this sense of total personal involvement combined with the disengaged (but not unemotional) and austere ‘listening’ of something in me deeper than the merely personal.
Now the meaning of both my visits became clear. The Ghosts – ‘my’ creations but so much wiser than ‘me’ – had been using them to begin the task of creating this deep impersonality. The personal involvement had long been there, and was the reason I had previously been twice to Stanley and learnt so much from these strangely-born revenants. But it was no longer enough.
Feeling no better, but with a renewed amazement at the work of Ghosts, I headed down the hill, into the darkness.

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Ghosts of Stanley, Part 4: Notes from Visits to the Camp Cemetery on January 18 and 21, 2009

January 18th

I got off the bus and started to make my way through the outlying part of Stanley Village towards the cemetery.

This Supermarket was the Kempeitai Headquarters during the Occupation

I walked passed the old Post Office, a building that had also seen the years of the war:

That was it. I knew that part of me was, in some mysterious way, back in the 1940s.

As soon as I climbed the steps to the cemetery, I felt that I had never been away, even though it was more than twelve years since I had first returned to Hong Kong. It had the familiarity of a landscape that had haunted me, or that I had haunted, for the whole of my life.

After a quick preliminary survey of the whole terrain, I sat down on a bench close to the memorial to those who died in the accidental January 1945 bombing of Bungalow ‘C’. The feelings welled up strongly, but I didn’t know what they were and couldn’t express them. After a time, I walked to the other place in which I felt most intensely the power of the Camp, the slope on which is to be found the memorial to the victims of the Christmas Day massacre in the emergency hospital at St. Stephen’s School (which itself became part of the internment camp):

There were a number of visitors to the Cemetery, but none who seemed particularly interested in the tombs and memorials. At some point word seems to have spread amongst young Chinese couples that this was a good place for the woman to pose for photos with a picturesque background. It seemed somehow right to me that today this area should, for most people, mean nothing more than a place for pleasure. In a strange way I found it a proper tribute to the suffering of the internees: I wished I could reach back into the 1940s and say to them,

‘One day people will come here and do the absolutely ordinary. They will enjoy themselves, get upset, argue, chat, smoke…do the countless petty and pointless things that make up a life in peace time. Nothing can take away your suffering, but this will be one of the things that follows it.’

Ordinary enjoyments in a society in which those people down there could be Chinese, English, Israeli, Nigerian….

South China Sea from Stanley Cemetery, January 18, 2009

A society in which, whatever prejudices may still sadly exist (for an update see no-one’s life chances are predetermined by their nationality or their skin colour in the way they were during the British period or during the intensified racism of the Japanese occupation.

But there was more to it than that, and part of my presence amongst those graves related to that ‘more’.

Years ago I was struck  by a passage from Laurence Van Der Post’s Night of the New Moon. Van der Post was a British officer in the Pacific War, and he and his men were captured by the Japanese and imprisoned on Java. As the fourth year of the war drew on, and it became clear that an Allied victory was inevitable, all over Asia men and women oscillated between hope and fear, longing for liberation but knowing that cold blooded butchery was equally likely – my parents were told by their guards that all internees would be shot when the first American soldiers landed on one of the main Japanese islands, while others expected a massacre when Allied troops tried to retake Hong Kong itself.

In different ways the prisoners prepared for the worst. Laurens Van der Post records that the POWs in his Camp hid stones and sticks, so that if they saw the final massacre was imminent, they could fight back – not that they had any illusion that they could defeat soldiers armed with rifles, bayonets and machine guns, but in the hope that someone would be able to slip out in the confusion and tell their story to the world. I was greatly moved that it should have been so important to these starving, suffering men that others should hear the story of their afflictions, their achievements and the manner of their dying.

So standing in the Stanley Cemetery I felt that the ordinary enjoyment I could see around and beneath me needed to be supplemented by acts of remembering. Van der Post had taught me this – it was important enough for dying men to rouse themselves to one last effort in the hope that, against enormous odds, their story would be heard amongst the living. I understood more deeply the importance of the work of historians like Geoffrey Emerson and Bernice Archer, both of whom have written about Stanley in a way that combines scholarly accuracy and thoroughness with an unmistakable empathy for the people whose lives they were seeking to reconstruct.

And on that day, in that place I, in a different way, had also come to remember.

I have no belief in life after death. To remember and to honour the dead does not imply that they are in any way ‘still with us’. But, as I stood there on that bright morning early in 2009, I was still haunted by the Ghosts of Stanley.

January 21

I stood in the Cemetery at dusk waiting for the ghosts to speak.

I knew that these ghosts were my own creation, yet, for some reason, they could not have been brought into being anywhere else but here, in this cemetery and in this light. I had brought the raw materials with me, but it needed the power of what had once been Stanley Camp itself to give them final form.

The message of the Ghosts, I believed, would be about suffering and its role in life, but it would not necessarily be a pessimistic one. There seemed to be something that drew the freed internees back to their wartime experiences. I had come to Stanley literally, but I’m convinced that, metaphorically, my parents came here often

Two days earlier I had spent most of the day in Stanley, under the expert guidance of Geoffrey Emerson. I had been shown round the prison buildings that had once made up part of the Camp, and after lunch we’d gone along the Stanley ‘trail’ set up by St. Stephen’s College, whose buildings had included the actual bungalow where my parents had been interned. One sign of the way in which the Camp had shaped my parents’ post-war lives is that when, in the middle of the 1950s, my father had been in a position to choose the kind of house he wished to buy, he had settled on (and designed) a bungalow that must inevitably have reminded him of the site of his internment. This recreating of the scenes of wartime imprisonment is also present  in the novels of J. G. Ballard, the best known former civilian internee, who was held as a boy in Lunghua Camp, close to Shanghai.


Image: Wikipedia

Even before Ballard wrote about the Camp openly in Empire of the Sun (1984) and to some extent in the sequel about ‘Jim’s’ post-war life The Kindness of Women (1991), almost all his novels had  recreated indirectly his time in Lunghua. At the end of an account of a return to the scenes of his captivity, he stated unambiguously that for him internment had been the best time of his life.

The first thing that happened in the Cemetery was simple: the emotions that had built up but not been expressed during my day in Stanley with Geoffrey Emerson welled up irresistibly,  and I cried. Perhaps surprisingly, it had been helpful that I’d agreed to be interviewed during that day’s visit by journalist Annemarie Evans for the programme Hong Kong Heritage. Annemarie was an amiable and skilled interrogator, and her questions had helped me focus clearly on the past, and answering them, while trying to take in what I was seeing, and catching as much as I could of what Geoffrey was saying, had helped me stay active and engaged at all times. As for the emotions the Camp brought up, I knew I could store them somewhere and find them later.

The time to allow them to emerge was now, back in the Cemetery, at dusk.  But I knew that the emotions were not – as so many of us believed in the sixties and seventies – the most important part of what was happening. It was essential not to deny them, as that would have blocked everything, but they were only the key that unlocked a door, and it was the view of the room I wanted.

I stopped crying and a thought – if this is the right word for something so drenched in emotion – replaced the tears:  it was right, absolutely right, to be standing here in Stanley Cemetery, at dusk. The only thing that wasn’t right was that I hadn’t walked from England to get there! Please don’t misunderstand me: next time I visit, I’ll fly to Hong Kong, check into a comfortable hotel, and arrive at Stanley on the most convenient bus from Central. Feelings are not necessarily guides to action and they don’t always provide accurate knowledge of the world. This one was there to remind me that, for me, coming back to Stanley was the most important thing in life. It was a kind of italicizing or underlining of the whole experience.

It made me realize again how superficial is the idea (held by some therapists) that we children of the camps should seek to leave behind our obsessive concern with the war, to ‘let go’ of the limiting patterns of the past, and make our own lives free of the imperatives of others. Here in Stanley – if anywhere – I was free, and nothing in my ‘own’ life offered me such wide horizons as following these Ghosts wherever they wanted to take me.

I waited for the Ghosts to tell me more. I could sense them in the air all around me, flitting around the darkening graves, unafraid of the murderous blandness of the electric lights from the new apartment block at the back of the Cemetery

So far, these Ghosts had given me tears, and told me – with that strange proviso – I was right to have come back to Stanley. They had two more messages.

The first was that everything I thought I knew about life was wrong. In particular, all my ideas about the transmission to me of my parents’ experience of Camp were beside the point. I simply did not understand how human beings worked. I was right not to be satisfied with all the accounts I’d read of this transmission, but none of my own ideas had got very far in helping me puzzle out the truth. I would have to investigate much more deeply than in the past 12 years the ways in which human beings influence each other.  I was directed to examine particularly my earliest post-womb experience, the three or four months I’d spent in Hong Kong before my parents returned to England.

And the final, precious, message was that it was impossible to tell me more. As I write this now, it seems obvious: how can a man like me hope to be able to comprehend the legacy of people who like John Fraser, for example, had suffered torture and death unwaveringly rather than reveal the names of their fellows in the Camp resistance?

Memorial to Defence Secretary John Fraser, Executed for Resistance Activity, October 29, 1943

Or the missionaries – both Catholic and Protestant – who had turned down the chance of a safe passage home in order to minister to the internees others were leaving behind?

Image: Amazon

Protestant missionaries Beth and Ancil Nance and their family chose to remain in Stanley, as did Catholics Bernard Meyer, Donald Hessler and – until forced home by illness – Charles Murphy

In death, as Mallarmé said, people become what they actually are; in life such people had been beyond me, but as Ghosts they had become something that I couldn’t even imagine. Unlike Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in today’s epigraph, I was not ready.

It was a wonderful message. And I felt and still feel liberated by the clear sense of my own unworthiness. This is not a religious sense, a question of moral judgement, but a simple statement of fact: to learn certain lessons you have to be a certain kind of person.

I would be told no more that evening. The judgements of Ghosts are without appeal, but they are not final because no person is ever a finished creation. It had been twelve years since I first came to that Cemetery, and all that I had done in those years had won me no more than a few tears and the answers to three questions. It was enough, more than enough.

But some day I would return. I knew that I ‘d have other chances, and there was nothing for me now but to prepare to take them.


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The Ghosts of Stanley: Part 3 – First Visit to The Camp (1996)

In 1996, as part of this search, I visited what had once been Stanley Camp for the first time. I was prompted by the imminence of ‘handover’ to China (1997) and the fear (totally ungrounded as it turned out) that getting to Hong Kong might not be so easy in the future.

I arrived at my hotel in Causeway Bay at about 10 in the morning and, after a quick bath, I took a bus into Central and then one on to Stanley. The only part of the former internment camp that is open to the public without special permission is the Military Cemetery, so I climbed the hill behind Stanley Village and walked up the steps, past the memorial cross, to the graves.

I was overwhelmed from the moment of my coming to this place. I wanted to see everything at once. I dashed around, looking for things I knew from photos and guidebooks were there, and gradually built up a mental picture of the cemetery and its contents.

Then I stopped, slowed down, and looked out at the South China Sea.

That beauty was a comfort to the internees, who used the cemetery as a place of meeting and relaxation as well as for the burial of their dead. It was, I thought, a beauty that held the horror of the Hong Kong war and in some mysterious way brought a peace that didn’t deny or in any way protect against those horrors. In fact, never had I been more aware of the suffering of my parents and the other internees than during those moments.

As I looked out at the sea and the hills I realised that, even if my childhood had been in every other way perfect, merely the reflex of my parents experiences in this camp would have been enough to destroy me. This was an immensely comforting insight, not because it excused my failures or licensed any slackening of effort to make what I could of my life, but because it marked the acceptance of what I’d always known but had never before been able to accept as fully and with as sharp a focus.

But I needed to explore the rest of the cemetery, the tombs of nineteenth century soldiers, their wives, and, as often as not, their children, who’d succumbed to the disease-ridden tropical squalor of early Hong Kong, and the granite stones erected by the internees when the cemetery was re-opened during the war.

Gradually two particular places emerged as those that evoked most strongly my feelings about the Camp. The first was a slope with a view of the sea close to a memorial stone for the victims of the St. Stephen’s Massacre. The  main building at St. Stephen’s School (which was to become part of the Camp) had been turned into an improvised hospital. On Christmas Day 1941 Japanese soldiers entered, and what followed is described, in the sober pages of The Journal of Contemporary History, as a ‘bloody rampage of murder and rape’. My father, on one of those rare occasions, when he abandoned his attempts not to talk to me about the war, told me the story of Doctor Black who, attempting to defend the nurses and patients, and for this was brutally bayoneted. What followed was unimaginably horrible, and some of the victims are commemorated on these stones:

The second was the area around the three stones marking the graves of the residents of St. Stephen’s Bungalow ‘C’, who were accidentally killed by an American bomb on January 16, 1945:

After my 1996 visit I wrote a sequence of poems about Stanley Camp, which included a piece inspired by the part of the graveyard close to the St. Stephen’s memorial:

I stood in Stanley

            I stood in Stanley

            Coming on for Christmas 1996.

            I looked from the graveyard to the sea;

            And I thought:

            Did my parents walk here

            Waiting for the terrible Christmas of 1944

            Believing it would  be their last?

            Or did they know that half a century later

            Their son would come to this place

            And look across the South China Sea,

            With such strange eyes?

            I turn, expecting to see them there.

This sense of my parents’ presence, and the presence of all the internees, the living and the dead, was still with me. But in fact, it would not, I’m sure, have crossed my parents’ minds that – even if they did live – their son would feel impelled to come to the place where they had suffered so much and would find there the most powerful of all his experiences. Nevertheless, I felt that I had been summoned to this place and that it was full of clues, full of messages, full of the most intimate and potent hauntings.

In the last post on this subject I mentioned Dina Wardi’s book on the children of the Holocaust. What I experienced on that first visit to Stanley Military Cemetery came back to me later when I read that book.

As I was reading Wardi’s book I thought it was excellent, so I was shocked when, almost without warning, she morphed from a sophisticated, sensitive and perceptive analyst of other people’s psyches to a rather  superficial ‘therapist’. It became clear as the book drew to a close, that the whole point of her efforts in unravelling the patterns of transgenerational transmission – whereby for many of the children of the survivors their parents experiences of the Nazi camps seemed to become their own –  was to enable those children to ‘move on’, to abandon their role of ‘memorial candle’ for the murdered dead and ‘live their own lives’, free of the burden of the past. I was amazed at the assumption – that’s all it was an assumption without supporting argument – that this was obviously what anyone would want to and should do. Ancelin Schutzenberger falls into the same trap, and I think the problem is the limited view of human nature embodied in the traditions of psychotherapy.

In reality, we have no ‘own’ life, free of the concerns and imperatives of others, to get on with.  The past is indeed a burden – as Marx famously said Ein Alp – an incubus and an intolerably heavy weight;[1] but it’s also what makes us who we are and who we might be. It’s like gravity – it holds us down, but without it we’d disappear from the planet.  Standing in Stanley Camp for the first time I felt happier, freer, more fulfilled – and closer to grasping the essence of my life – than at any other time.

I eventually learnt that I didn’t go to Stanley merely to free myself of suffering, to live my life more effectively through escaping debilitating patterns of experiencing and behaving – that’s what I thought during that first visit in 1996, and, of course, it was true to a certain extent. Like everyone else I sometimes suffer and sometimes behave in ways that harm myself and others, and going to the Camp did indeed help me to alleviate such pathologies a little. But there is more to it, much more, than that, a ‘more’ that I could not understand while I was in thrall to the agenda of Western ‘therapy’, with its certainty that it knows how human beings should be and how they should live their lives.

I revisited the Cemetery on my final day at Hong Kong. It was dusk. I went first to the graves of those who died in the January 1945 bombing:

Then I went to the place by the Memorial to the victims of the St. Stephen’s Christmas Massacre and looked down to Stanley Bay.

As I stood staring at the disappearing light on the South China Sea I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I was close to understanding all I would ever understand about human life.

The ghosts were in the air. They were speaking, and I hoped that one day I would understand what they were trying to tell me.


[1] For a discussion of this pun, see Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx, 108.

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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 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’).

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The Ghosts of Stanley Part 2 – Across the Generations

The Ghosts of Stanley: Part 2 – Across the Generations

What the father hath hid cometh out in the son; and oft have I found in the son the father’s revealed secret.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

I was watching a video copy of Steven Spielberg’s film of J. G. Ballard’s novel Empire of the Sun, a book that I hadn’t at that time read. The film was released in 1987, so this was probably a couple of years after that. There’s a scene that I think almost every viewer finds powerful: Jim, the boy whose experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese form the main subject of both the novel and the film, runs out into the open during an American air raid on Lunghua Camp in Shanghai.  By this stage, his wartime experiences have changed him radically, and he’s begun to enter a psychic state that is exalted, crazy, disassociated and deeply insightful all at once.  In response to the planes flying over Lunghua,  he rushes out shouting over and over again a phrase that one of his American ‘protectors’ has taught him, ‘B54, Cadillac of the skies’.  The scene shows us that we are to think of Jim as, amongst other things, almost mad in his excitement and indifference to personal risk.

It was not the first scene in the film that made me cry, but this time as I was crying I became aware of something very strange.

I was thinking about my parents’ time as civilian internees in Stanley Camp and I realized that I was experiencing their experience with something stronger than empathy.

I did not believe that I had, in any sense, been in the Camp with them – I would have been insane if I had thought that, as I was born in 1950.  But nor did I just feel the kind of empathy for their experience that anyone might feel about a suffering they did not share. The truth was I felt it as something in between, as an experience I related to not as if it’d been my own but not as if they had simply been other people’s either. The tears I was crying were, in some incomprehensible way, more powerful and more ‘mine’ than anything I’d felt during the time I’d spent in an emotion-based psychotherapy in the early 1980s. I began a search, which is still continuing, to try to understand how this could be.

I began to investigate the question both practically (by deepening my own experience of my parent’s experience) and theoretically – by finding out what others had had to say on this topic.

In the academic study of the transmission of experience across generations there are four main names: the pioneers were two Hungarian psychoanalysts who worked for most of their lives in Paris, Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, whose work was continued by their editor and expounder, Nicholas Rand, and by the French professor and therapist Anne Ancelin Schützenberger.

These writers believed that the experience of parents could, in different ways, affect the lives of the children. In extreme cases, it could even seem as if the children’s actions were being directed by the parents’ unconscious. Such ‘inheritance’ would typically take place where the parents had had experiences that they were not able to fully process or even acknowledge themselves, the traumas of war being obvious instances.

Nicholas Rand explains the crucial concept of ‘the phantom’:

(which)…postulates that some people unwittingly inherit the secret psychic substance of their ancestors’ lives….(that) symptoms do not spring from the individual’s own life experiences but from someone else’s psychic conflicts, traumas or secrets.[1]

So: one of the core theories of ‘transgenerational psychology’ is that a ‘phantom’ consisting of the secrets and the ‘unfinished business’ of the parents is somehow passed on to the children.

Rand puts it clearly and with deliberate provocativeness:

Yes, viewed from any and every angle, the patient appears possessed not by his own unconscious but by someone else’s.[2]

This is what a Polish Professor of Law, who suddenly developed the ability to paint and to write poetry, had to say about the transmission of his family’s Holocaust past:

I could easily imagine that several ghosts inhabit my body and talk through my mouth.[3]

He felt as if his mysterious creativity was the work of ‘someone else’, of the dead ancestors.

How does this transmission happen? Anne Ancelin Schützenberger is admirably tentative in attempting to explain this. She suggests many possible mechanisms: experiences in the womb, family traditions, role expectations, projections that identify the child with ancestors (‘you’re the image of your father’), overt injunctions (‘Be like your mother’) but also things left unsaid – any and everything that communicates to the child messages – ‘in a weighty and secret unspoken language’ – about  how they are to live their life

All this is, of course, extremely speculative, but I find the ‘transgenerational tradition’ stimulating and suggestive. It doesn’t, however, fully match my experience. I didn’t usually feel that I was acting as or for my father or mother. I could see in my own constant replayings of the experience of internment both choice and creativity, albeit of a doomed and desperate kind. I was haunted by Stanley Camp, not possessed by it. Nobody but me ‘talked through my mouth’, even though what I said might sometimes have seemed to be what might have been said by ex-internees. It was my reconstruction, my fantasy,[4] of my parent’s time in camp that was ‘the phantom’. And what I was doing, when from the age of about 6 I began to live within these fantasies was not in the usual sense of the word ‘unconscious’ – not at least as understood by the four writers under discussion, who are all in some way in the Freudian tradition, nor as understood by Wilhelm Reich and Arthur Janov, two psychologists more influential than Freud on my baby boom generation.

Other writers who had probed the psyches of children whose parents suffered in the war had found similar things to the ‘transgenerational’ theorists. Dina Wardi’s book Memorial Candles is subtitled Children of the Holocaust but I believe that some of her ideas apply to other children of ‘the war after’ (I’ll come back to that phrase later). I am not, by the way, suggesting for one moment that the experience of Stanley Camp or even the far worse POW camp at Shamshuipo was in any way comparable to that of Auschwitz or that those of us who grew up in the wake of the Hong Kong war can ever hope to understand what it was like to grow up in the continuing presence of the Holocaust. My point is simply that much of the study of ‘transmission’ has involved the children of Holocaust survivors and that I have found some of the resulting analyses useful in understanding my own experience.

Dina Wardi found that many such children thought they were repeating patterns from their parents’ experience, because they felt a kind of unspoken command to try to encounter the things that had proved too overwhelming for full consciousness in the minds of the generation that actually suffered in the war.[5]

I found Wardi’s work very useful, although I have one large reservation which I’ll discuss in the next post in this series. Some of the accounts written by the children themselves I found unproblematically helpful. I wish I could put my own early experience half as well as Eva Hoffmann, whose parents survived the Holocaust because they were hidden by Polish neighbours:

But in our small apartment, it was a chaos of emotion that emerged from their words rather than any coherent narration. Or rather, the emotion, direct and tormented, was enacted through the words, the form of their utterances. The memories – no, not memories but emanations – of wartime experiences kept erupting in flashes of imagery; in abrupt, fragmented phrases; in repetitious, broken refrains. They kept manifesting themselves with a frightening immediacy in that most private and potent of family languages – the language of the body. In my home, as in so many others, the past broke through in the sounds of nightmares, the idiom of sighs and illness, of tears and the acute aches that were the legacy of the damp attic and of the conditions my parents endured during their hiding.[6]

A phrase I used above, ‘the war after’ – the way the war continued to affect lives in the post-war years – comes from Anne Karpf, who has written a wonderful book on this subject. Karpf was a respected journalist, and daughter of Holocaust survivors, who gradually came to realize that her parents’ experience was dominating her life:

My life seemed to shape itself inexorably around duress and escape, around imminent catastrophe. Driven by a compulsive need to imprison and then release myself, I made an internal concentration camp of my own, and acted as both commandant and inmate. With an awful involuntary mimetic obsession, I constantly replayed the act of surviving. She discovered that some researchers into Holocaust children found that ‘the children of survivors show symptoms that would be expected if they actually lived through the Holocaust’.[7]

Karpfs’ account of her visit to the scenes of her parents’ suffering is judicious, sensitive and profoundly moving. After her book was published, she received scores of letters that testified to the widespread sense of ‘inheritance’ of war experiences. And its seems to me that sense does not just relate to WW11: Intensive Care, by the great New Zealand writer Janet Frame, has as one of its main themes the effects of the experience of the first World War on the children and grandchildren of the main protagonist.

But in 1996, on that first visit to Stanley Camp, my thinking about the ‘transmission’ of my parents’ experience was changed by a vivid encounter with reality at the site where some of the events had taken place.

To Be Continued

[1] Nicholas T. Rand, editor and translator, 1994 (1987), Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok, The Shell and the Kernel, Volume 1, Editor’s note, 166.

[2] Rand ed., 1994, 173.


[4] I’m using this word in a special sense: nothing to do with sexual fantasies or daydreams. We all construct our image of something or someone out of the ideas and feelings we have about it, never out of complete and objective knowledge of its reality. In this sense, we have a ‘fantasy’ about even our spouse or our best friend. But it’s also the case that although our image of anything is never complete and undistorted by emotion it is not necessarily ‘a fantasy’ in the sense of being fundamentally untrue. Some fantasies (in the sense I’m using the word) are indeed far from reality, while others can be reasonably in accordance with the way things are.

[5] Wardi, 1992, 43.

[6] Eva Hoffman, After Such Knowledge, 2011, 8-9.

[7] Anne Karpf, The War After, 1997,43;  253. For those unfamiliar with the book who would like to get some idea of what it’s about Karpf wrote an excellent short essay in response to a reprinting:

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