A Note on Eric Liddell in Tianjin

In  At the Grave of Eric Liddell I blogged about Liddell in the context of my visit to the Camp (Weihsien) where he died.  This is a brief photo-note about another Liddell inspired visit, to his house in the important northern Chinese city of Tianjin.

He was born here (1902) – so he’s been called the first ever Chinese-born Olympic gold medal winner (Chariots of Fire left out the fact that he won a 200 metres bronze as well). His parents were Christian missionaries, who had sent their son home to be educated in a school for the children of missionaries in Scotland, and it was here (Eltham College) that it became clear he was a possible sprinting world champion. He also played rugby for Scotland.

In 1925, the year after his triumph, he returned to China as a missionary himself. He came back to Tianjin to begin his career, teaching science (he was an Edinburgh University graduate) to children who, it was hoped, would go on to provide an educated class of leaders for the republican China that was struggling to establish itself. He continued to take part in sports events, obviously remaining a world class competitor. In 1941, when the British were advised by their government to leave China because of the danger from the Japanese, Liddell left Tianjin for a missionary station which served the rural poor.

After a morning spent visiting some of Tianjin’s Lonely Planet attractions, we took a taxi to Liddell’s old house, 38, Chongqing Lu:


The plaque that marks this as Liddell’s house calls it an example of ‘modernism’ in architecture:


We wondered through the surrounding streets. This was obviously a European area, but the plaques told us that a number of wealthy Chinese had also lived there. It was pleasant enough, but I didn’t find most of the architecture particularly distinguished. Here are a few examples:



Fans of Jet Li’s martial arts film Fearless might be interested in this photo of a photograph in a Tianjin exhibition centre. It shows the city at the turn of the century, roughly the time of the film’s action:

I think that Fearless gives a caricatured but not necessarily wrong picture of the foreign influence on China.  I’ve read that there’s a film (perhaps two films) in the offing about Liddell’s Chinese years. These will no doubt deal with the missionary thrust into China. I believe that, on the whole, the Christian missionaries represented the best of the imperialist incursion, but it’ll be interesting to see how fairly the film(s) handle (s) the historical context of Liddell’s activities.


Five years later a Liddell film is still in the offing:



If this article is correct and it fails to bring out the importance of Liddell’s Christianity it will be historically almost worthless. Won’t stop me going to see it though.

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At The Grave of Eric Liddell


Inspired by a development in a friend’s search for his own family history, I’m reposting this from a now defunct blog.  It describes a visit made almost 6 years ago to a civilian internment camp in northern China which once held the Olympic champion Eric Liddell. There is also a particular link to my own main research area: George Graham-Cumming, who was held alongside my father in St. Paul’s Hospital (Causeway Bay) in 1942 and early 1943 was a student friend of Liddell’s: https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/dr-george-graham-cumming/


Eric Liddell was born in Tianjin – not far from Beijing – in 1902. His parents were Christian missionaries, and at the age of 6 Liddell was sent back to England to attend a school for the children of missionaries. In 1924 he won the 400 metres gold medal in the Paris Olympics.

He remained committed to Protestant Christianity all his life, and in 1925 he returned to China to work as a missionary and teacher.  Totally dedicated to helping the Chinese people in any way he could, he continued his efforts even after the Japanese invasion. In 1943 he was sent by the Japanese to Weihsien Internment camp in what is now the city of Weifang in Shandong Province. Liddell died of a brain tumour in 1945 not long before what would have been his liberation.

The story of his Olympic triumph was told in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, one of the classics of British cinema. Like all films, this altered the story for dramatic effect: Liddell is shown being told by a journalist as he embarks for France that the heats for the 100 metres, for which he had been selected along with Harold Abrahams, the other subject of the film, were on a Sunday. In response, Liddell, resisting all efforts to make him change his mind, refuses to run (some Christians believe that the Old Testament prohibitions on Sabbath day activity apply to leisure activities on Sundays). His Olympic career is saved only by the generous offer of another British competitor to let him take his place in the 400 metres. In fact, Liddell knew about the athletics schedule months before the Games, and always planned to eschew the 100 and run in the 400 metres.

But the film was completely right about one thing: Liddell was, as portrayed unforgettably by Ian Charleson, a gracious and humane man. In fact, the focus on his early life means that the film doesn’t do justice to Liddell, the full depth of whose human qualities were only revealed after his return to China. Before being sent to Weifang Camp in 1943, Liddell had relieved his brother Rob, who had been providing medical treatment to the rural poor in Hebei Province, becoming sick himself and working to the point of exhaustion. Liddell’s presence, at a time when the British government had told all nationals to leave because of the Japanese threat, enabled Rob to go on furlough.

Many of Liddell’s fellow internees were not from Hebei (or from Tientsin, where Liddell had been instructed to reside after the mission was shut down by the Japanese), but from Yantai, formerly known as Chefoo, about four hours by today’s trains from Weifang, and the site of a large school for the children of  missionaries. The school is now part of a naval training academy, so it wasn’t possible to photograph it.

Yantai was one of the ports China was forced to open to Western trade by the Second Opium War (1856-1860). The missionaries had come as representatives of an expansive nineteenth century European imperialist civilization. Some writers have pointed out how strange their self-confidence was, given that the Convention of Peking, which authorized Christian evangelism in China, also legalized the opium trade and established the right of British ships to carry Chinese ‘coolies’ to the Americas as ‘indentured’ labourers – something not very many degrees above slave-trading: one British ship, appropriately named the John Calvin, saw the death of  half of its human ‘cargo’ en route; American ships routinely lost 40% (William Brown, Discover Gulangyu, 210). 

Although they were part of the imperialist ‘push’ into China, an incursion that did huge damage, most missionaries were unlike their fellow colonialists in that they were not interested in personal gain. Christians are commanded  to ‘teach all nations’ (Matthew, 28:19, a possibly spurious later addition, but crucial in providing some of the rationale for overseas missionary activity) and there’s no doubt that the majority of the missionaries believed that they were helping save their Chinese converts from the hell that the Bible promises to unbelievers – and, of course, they trusted they were securing their own eternal safety in heaven as well.

Many fine people responded to the call to take the ‘good news’ to other countries. The ‘small woman’ Gladys Aylward, for example, who also took on the risky task of working as an inspector enforcing the government’s anti-foot-binding legislation, and after the Japanese attack led 94 Chinese children across the mountains to safety. Or John McGee, George Ashmore and their fellow missionaries who, in December 1937, joined with other foreigners to establish the Nanjing Safety Zone in a brave attempt to save as many Chinese people as they could from the hideous massacre being carried out by Japanese troops. I particularly honour the courage and deep humanity of Minnie Vautrin, who sheltered thousands of women in a Nanjing girls’ college, and, exhausted by her efforts and depressed at her inability to save even more lives, committed suicide in 1940 while on leave in her home city of Indianapolis.

Eric Liddell deserves to stand with the finest of these men and women. He is still remembered with affection in China because, in the years he was there as a missionary, medical worker and teacher, he helped so many people in such an unselfish way.

And in Weihsien Liddell made selfless and unstinting efforts on behalf of his fellow internees.  He was put in charge of a boys’ dorm, and ‘Uncle Eric’, as they called him, organized sports and all kinds of other activities for his charges. When he wanted to mend broken hockey sticks, he made the glue at night, so that the smell of the fish bladders and scales he used as ingredients didn’t offend the other inmates. Reversing his Olympics stand, he refereed a children’s hockey match on a Sunday. There was a Russian prostitute interned in the Camp: some of the inmates of Weihsien shunned her, but Liddell was always kind to this woman and put up a bookshelf for her, leading her to comment that he was the only man who ever did anything for her without wanting something back (reported by David Michell in A Boy’s War, 116).
This is what fellow internee Norman Cliff has to say about him:

In Weihsien Camp Liddell gave his unqualified suppport to every worthy cause, religious and social. If there were a  call to preach, to coach, to help, to advise, he was there, however busy or tired he might be.

Courtyard of the Happy Way, 82.

Some people suspect that his selfless ministrations might have contributed to the brain tumour that took his life on a snowy evening in late February, 1945.

We moderns find it a cliché that ‘all idols have feet of clay’. One of Liddell’s biographers decided to try to find out if this was true of him. Surely careful investigation would reveal that, in such difficult circumstances, even he could be selfish and mean-spirited occasionally? Apparently he couldn’t. No such incidents were found. Liddell’s record was clean. He was as good as everybody said he was.

Having failed to get to his grave on my previous visit to Yantai (Chefoo), I was determined to make a second attempt from Qingdao, where we spent the May holiday visiting friends.

The taxi dropped me off at the gate of the Middle School that now occupies much of the site of what was once Weihsien Camp. I spotted this photo of Liddell hanging from one of a line of posts leading along the school drive, so knew I was at the right place:

I asked to be let in, showing the gatekeeper the brief Chinese account of the Liddell memorial that a friend had kindly written for me. He stared at it for a long time, apparently baffled. A young man came up to the gate, and the gatekeeper opened it to let him through, but he didn’t signal to me to follow. This wasn’t looking good. Not for the first time, I was in the paradoxical position of wondering if I might have to sneak in to a former place of confinement where people once must have endlessly reckoned up their chances of sneaking out. The gatekeeper consulted his colleague in the lodge and eventually emerged with a piece of paper with a few Chinese characters on it. He gestured that I should go further up the road and then make a left so as to enter the school grounds at a different gate. This seemed more hopeful.

I showed the paper to the next gatekeeper, who smiled and pointed out the way I needed to go. Five minutes later I spotted, through some railings, what I thought must be the Liddell monument. Impatiently, I found my way to the entrance and walked passed a large, rather grim looking building and found what I was looking for:

There’s a short account of his life:

And a quotation from the Book of Isaiah, made famous by Chariots of Fire, on the back:

The memorial does not mark the grave itself, as the exact site is unknown. However, the people who erected it were lucky enough to find the man who actually dug the grave, and, guided by him, they chose the closest spot they could.

The building opposite was, in the days of Weihsien Camp, a complex that included the hospital where Liddell died:

According to one source, the hospital was on the second floor:


I spent some time looking at the stone and the hospital building, sitting in the warm spring sunshine and day-dreaming about the lives of the internees here and in my parents’ Camp down in Hong Kong. As always when I visit places rich in a history that I relate to personally, the past seemed more powerful than the present.

Then  I walked round the Garden of Remembrance, which was established by the Weifang authorities in 2005. I soon found some of the (refurbished) buildings that had once housed the internees:


The Garden was a pleasant place to be walking on a fine May morning. As in all places where human beings have suffered greatly, peaceful surroundings seem more peaceful still:

Then I came across the monument to all the Weihsien internees. This also dates to 2005, the sixtieth anniversary of the Camp’s liberation by seven American paratroopers:


I returned to the courtyard where I’d started. One source describes Liddell’s funeral: his coffin was ‘followed, like the Pied Piper, by a hundred children’.

I would like to believe that the Pied Piper effect was still at work, but in reality what brought the children there was the suitability of the courtyard for roller-blading and skateboarding!  I did think that ‘Uncle Eric’ would have loved the way his memorial was put to use as an outdoor changing room.

I was walking around the courtyard looking for anything interesting I might have missed; the two girls were watching me surreptitiously, as I was watching them. I decided to try to get a shot of the interior of the main building. I wiped away a bit of the dirt with my fingers, pointed my camera and hoped for the best…

…which wasn’t very good. But the girls couldn’t resist coming over now.

They went to the next window, and peered through to see what I’d been photographing. They burst out laughing, saying something that ended in ‘WC’. We started talking. They were from a nearby school and had never had a foreign (non-Chinese) teacher. Their English was better than the typical 11 year old’s, which usually gets stuck after a couple of textbook phrases. I threw in some of the little Chinese I know, and we communicated well.

A boy came to join them. The three children skated around happily, occasionally coming across to talk to me. A tour guide also exchanged a few words, welcoming me to his city and giving me a bottle of water.

I asked for a skateboarding lesson, but I was not able to move away from the bench:

I would guess that I was the first foreigner these children had met, and, if they did have any pre-conceived ideas, then watching me take a photo of what they thought was a W.C. might have confirmed them. Yet they had welcomed me with friendliness and a profound and unforced courtesy.

Eric Liddell’s memorial, or so I imagined, had found the right guardian spirits.


Note: Anyone interested might want to compare my account and photos with those of former internee Ray Moore, who visited in 2002:


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Meeting Adorno on the Train: Racism and Murder in Old Hong Kong


German philosopher Theodor Adorno introduced the fifth section of his Minima Moralia (1951) – a classic account of the state of European culture after the Fascist era-  with the resonant claim that ‘Nothing is harmless anymore’. A few lines later he gave an example:

When in the chance conversation with a man on the train, one acquiesces, in order to avoid a quarrel, to a couple of sentences which one knows ultimately certify[1] murder, (it) is already an act of treachery…

It is an unpleasantness few of us have been spared: the invitation to agree with a piece of casual racism which, harmless although it might seem in the railway carriage, in other contexts takes its place in a system of racist thinking of the kind that leads to murder.[2

Adorno’s idea is compelling.


 Source: Jeremy J. Shapiro File:AdornoHorkheimerHabermasbyJeremyJShapiro2.png, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Without the development of a so-called scientific racism – tragically a product of the European Enlightenment [3] – and of  a particular sub-set of ideas relating to the Jewish people nothing like the Holocaust would have been possible. No doubt anti-Jewish pogroms would have continued – although probably not in Germany which had the most ‘assimilated’  Jewish population in Europe – but they would not have taken the unimaginably horrible and systematic form of ‘the Final Solution’.[4] So to promote in racism in inter-war Europe might reasonably be said to have helped bring to birth the Nazi monster, and even reluctant agreement in casual conversations might be said to ‘ultimately certify murder’.

But an important question remains: there is clearly huge variation over place and time in the number of racist murders, and only one society at one period has ever produced a systematic attempt to kill all the members of a large group that posed no military threat on the grounds of their imagined ‘racial’ characteristics. If one accepts that the craven acquiescences of contemporary British people like myself somehow contributed to, for example, the brutal slaying of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence, why aren’t things much worse? Or better – surely it’s possible to imagine a society in which racist ideas never lead to murder?

In previous posts I’ve suggested that British racism in pre-war Hong Kong did not – as one source alleges – allow ‘whites’ to kill Chinese people to avoid paying their hospital expenses after a road accident.[5] I’ve also mentioned  that from about 1937 onwards attitudes were changing: British Hong Kong was significantly less racist on the eve of the Japanese attack than it had been four years earlier.[6] And I’ve compared pre-war Hong Kong with the situation under the Japanese occupation: British racism allowed for the lives of the Chinese to be protected and their rights asserted, although never with as much assiduity as for ‘Europeans’. Japanese racism meant that the Chinese could have their lives snuffed out at any moment for the most trivial offences or at the whim of a soldier.

These are both simplified pictures of course, but I stand by them as forming an important general contrast between British and Japanese Hong Kong. But in this post I want to show that – as Adorno suggests – British racism in Hong Kong in particular circumstances did ‘certify’ murder.

First it’s worth reminding ourselves that ‘racism’ by no means gives us the full picture as regards British views of the Chinese who made up 98% of the pre-war Colony.

British attitudes to the Chinese included admiration, paternalistic benevolence, fascination with their ‘exotic’ ways of life, a genuine desire to see their condition improved – and much more. In any case, British Colonial administrators, like most other people, took pride in a job well done, so, irrespective of their feelings about the Chinese, they sought to keep the Colony running smoothly in ways that benefited everybody. It’s only people who have swallowed the picture of Hong Kong as a dystopia, whose dim-witted expatriate elite only left their luxurious homes on the Peak to make money, play bowls or engage in acts of racist domination who might be surprised to learn that the law offered reasonable protection to Chinese lives. However, a situation in which racist feelings are counter-balanced and kept in check by other attitudes might work well enough in peace – but what happens in the chaos and terror of war?

I want to discuss an incident in which – if we can trust the eye-witness account – racism straightforwardly resulted in murder.

The setting is Kowloon on or about December 11, 1941 and the British are in full retreat. Our eye-witness is William Allister, an educated and idealistic Canadian soldier. Allister was one of a small group of Canadians, most of whom were in defensive positions on the island, sent to the mainland to shore up a cracking defence. He and a few of  his comrades made it back to the Kowloon docks amidst chaotic scenes of looting and panic. This is how he describes what he saw in his 1989 classic Where Life and Death Hold Hands (pp.20-21):

A coolie running with a sack of rice was shot down by a policeman. “Looters,” said a Cockney voice nearby. We craned our necks. “Looting what?” They were rifling the godowns – a row of warehouses beside us, with police at the doors. {Canadian soldier Bob} Demant was astonished. Why don’t they let ’em in? The Japs’ll get it anyway!”

“And start a bleedin’ riot?”

A drunken white policeman was firing bursts from his tommy gun into the air for the hell of it, then he opened a godown door, shouting: “Go to it, mates!” Demant shouted his approval. Then the drunk began shooting down each coolie as he emerged and roaring in delight. “Breakin’ the law, mates!” he hooted as we gaped in horror. More than anarchy – pure lunacy.

When I visited the Canadian War Museum’s research room last May I inspected  a notebook containing an early version of  Where Life and Death Hold Hands.[7] This is how the incident is recounted in this draft:

One drunken sergeant of police was pissed to the eyeballs, and had a Tommy Gun that he used like a candid camera fiend. He shot at everybody(,) leisurely, happily, giggling, looters or no – he just lo-o-oved shooting coolies – – – One Volunteer was standing at a narrow doorway allowing the looters into a storehouse, then he’d shoot them. (p. 52).

When I returned to the published version after reading this passage, I realised that it wasn’t quite as clear as I’d thought: presumably the policeman who shoots a looter at the start is not the drunk with the tommy gun, but whose is the Cockney voice? Is he in fact the Volunteer[8] who works with the drunk to lure the Chinese to their death in the unpublished version? In any case, why such different accounts of the inebriated policeman’s murderous actions? In the unpublished version he’s shooting at everybody, even non-looters, and it’s the Volunteer who marshals people into the godown (warehouse), while in the published version the policeman tells them to enter himself.

If such incidents had been investigated for possible prosecution as war crimes – and that would have avoided the charge of ‘victors’ justice’ – these discrepancies might have led to a decision not to go ahead, as they raise the possibility of ‘reasonable doubt’ as to the events having taken place. Nevertheless, as a historian, using less rigorous criteria, I believe that something like what is described did happen. Allister is not one of those writers – and there are a surprisingly large number in the literature of the Hong Kong war – who simply makes things up to render their narrative more dramatic. Or, if he does, I’ve never caught him at it.

A little support is given by American oilman Norrnan Briggs:

The last act of the British military before they left Kowloon was to mount a machine gun on a truck and drive up and down the streets shooting into the crowds in order to stop the looting. Rumors were rampant, so this may not have been true. It certainly sounded bizarre to me.[9]

Perhaps the murderous acts of the drunken policemen were behind this story?

In any case, I suspect that this wasn’t the only case of the unjust shooting of looters, although hopefully it was the most blatantly criminal one.

The British killed a large number of fifth columnists during the fighting. In doing so they received effective help from Chinese Nationalists under the leadership of Admiral Chan Chak.[10] It seems that these Chinese were particularly eager to kill those they regarded as traitors,[11] and, in any case, it is a well-established right to be able to execute without trial any person not in uniform offering non-humanitarian assistance to the enemy’s military effort. Any army would be mad not to do so. It’s possible that in some cases decisions were taken that would have been made differently if ‘Europeans’ not Chinese had been involved. But this is hard to prove and innocent people die in any armed conflict and to err on the side of protecting your own troops doesn’t necessarily show racism.

Nevertheless, I have a strong sense that the way the martial law right to shoot looters  – whose actions are not in most cases a threat to anyone’s life – was exercised in ways influenced by race.[12] Many of those killed could have expected no mercy. Some of the looting was carried out by those fifth columnists, in order to spread fear and chaos. Some of it was the work of organised gangs of Triads taking  advantage of the situation to engage in large-scale robbery. But ordinary Chinese people looted as well, simply to try to get food and anything else that would help them and their families through what they knew were the desperate days ahead. As Allister suggests, to forbid such people access to food that was about to fall into the hands of the Japanese was a crime in itself and I don’t believe ‘whites’ would have been treated in the same way. Some of them took what they could from abandoned houses both before and after the surrender but none of them were killed for it – neither by the British nor by the Japanese, who, once they’d stopped encouraging Chinese looting, punished it with characteristic brutality.

So I believe the evidence indicates that, in the confusion and terror of war, British racism, in Adorno’s terms, certified murder. What was about to descend on Hong Kong was the infinitely worse racial arrogance of conquerors who, while proclaiming the desire to liberate their fellow-Asians, created an order in which ordinary Chinese could lose their lives for little or nothing even during the period when Japanese power was facing no military challenge.

But throughout this post I’ve been assuming we all know what ‘racism’ is. In future posts I want to probe this concept and try to decide the most useful sense we can give it in discussions of Hong Kong before and after the war.

[1] Or ‘imply’ or ‘result in’ or ‘are tantamount to’ – the original (see bottom of text) has ‘hinauslaufen auf’. I’ve used ‘certify’ from this translation as it enables me to make my point clearly without being untrue to the original:  https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/adorno/1951/mm/ch02.htm

[2] I’ve seen another interpretation of this passage but I don’t find it convincing: answer by Virmaoir at http://philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/26855/why-did-adorno-hate-the-movies

[3] See e.g. Robert Bernasconi”s discussion, in Les Back and John Solomos, Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader, 2009, 83-84.

[4] For the ‘assimilation’ of German Jews see Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred, Kindle Edition 5015.

[5] https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/06/04/savage-christmas-and-the-nature-of-racism-in-old-hong-kong/

[6] https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/09/12/the-european-far-left-in-hong-kong-1938-1941-1-definitions-and-personnel/

[7] CWM Archives: Textual Records 58A 1 284.1.

[8] Member of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps made up from the Colony’s civilians

[9] Taken in Hong Kong, Kindle Edition, Location 935.

[10] See e.g. Tim Luard, Escape From Hong Kong, 2012, 24-25.

[11] Charles Drage, The Life and Times of General Two-Gun Cohen, 195, 286. Cohen led a team of Chinese Nationalists who went around throwing hand grenades through the windows of fifth columnists while they ate.

[12] For an account of the eagerness of a young American driver to kill looters see Wenzell Brown, Hong Kong Aftermath, 1943, 31. But Brown is one of those authors who sometimes makes things up.


Adorno’s German text reads:

Das Zufallsgespräch mit dem Mann in der Eisenbahn, dem man, damit es nicht zu einem Streit kommt, auf ein paar Sätze zustimmt, von denen man weiß, daß sie schließlich auf den Mord hinauslaufen müssen, ist schon ein Stück Verrat…



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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. (https://dspace.wul.waseda.ac.jp/dspace/bitstream/2065/36263/4/Honbun-5518_01.pdf)

[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.; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jallianwala_Bagh_massacre

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

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

(5) http://www.tribuneindia.com/2010/20100801/spectrum/main3.htm

(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.

(13) http://www.tribuneindia.com/2010/20100801/spectrum/main3.htm

(14) Sundaram, in Roy 2006, 141.

(15) Wright-Nooth, 1994, 37.

(16) http://theinclusive.org/%E2%80%9Ca-measure-of-courage%E2%80%9D-towards-a-dispassionate-balanced-and-critical-appraisal-of-the-indian-national-army%E2%80%99s-military-history1

(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 http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1245226/racist-hong-kong-still-fact?page=all) 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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