Francisco Xavier Soares

If any descendant of Francisco Xavier Soares, the HSBC banker who played such a courageous role during the Japanese occupation, is reading this, I would be grateful if they could contact me about permission to quote from Mr Soares’ archival letters.

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Two letters home immediately after liberation


Undated, but probably September 3rd, when the first air mail service left Hong Kong:

H. K. Hotel
Room 321
Dear Mum and all
Great to be free again Lena & I are fit sorry no time to write any more have only just heard we can send this
Lena & Ooke


Room 321 Hong Kong Hotel

Hong Kong


Dear Mum and All,

How is everybody? my last letter I received from you was August 1944 but in (terms – added above line) Stanley that was a recent one. Lena & I have pulled through alright, lost a bit of weight but still alive & kicking, although the Japs done their best to get us down but they never succeeded. We are hopelessly out of date. We are both longing to get home & if there is any good opportunities to stay home. Am terribly busy at present as I am still O/c {presumably Officer commanding} Bakeries (nothing is ever mentioned about salary & at present I am too busy to ask. hope to see you all as soon as possible


Lena & Ooke

Note: This is transcribed accurately, except that my father had a habit of pepperring his letters with apparently random full stops, and these I have omitted.

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Macanese Roll of Honour: Carlos Henrique de Senna Fernandes Basto

Carlos Henrique Basto was born on March 27th, 1890. He practised as an architect before the war.

During the occupation he became President of the Portuguese Residents Association, which both the Japanese and the British regarded as a centre of support for the Allies.

At some point in 1942 or 1943 Mr. Basto became an active member of the resistance; he used a code based on bridge problems to send messages to the British via Macau.

On October 28th, 1943 he was arrested at the Club Lusitano. In spite of the usual brutal interrogation methods, he admitted nothing – at his trial he called for a pack of cards and a bridge manual so he could demonstrate that the coded messages were in fact problems.

He was executed two days later – August 31st, 1944.

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Macanese Roll of Honour

This is the first post in a series that will constitute a Macanese roll of Honour – the names of the men and women from the Macanese (aka Portuguese) community who were arrested at some point in the occupation for their work in illegal relief or in resistance. Although in many cases it is impossible to establish exactly what they did, it is certain that all or most of them were ‘guilty’ of something.

This Roll contains the names only of civilians. A complete list of Macanese in the Volunteers, indicating those who died in the fighting or in the POW Camps, is available in the private section of the excellent Macanese Families website. This section is open only to Macanese, but there is a public area with some interesting information and articles e.g.

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David Charles Edmondston

I would be grateful if any member of the family of Hong Kong banker David Charles Edmondston who is reading this would care to contact me as I would like to seek permission to use material in the HKSBC archive in a forthcoming article on pre-war Hong Kong:


Mr Edmondston, as well as being active in relief work during the Japanese occupation, was a member of the BAAG, the British-led resistance organisation. Under interrogation he resisted all attempts to make him provide information about others and died of infection, malnutrition and medical neglect while serving a long sentence in Stanley Prison (for more details see

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Bob Tatz: Lost in the Battle of Hong Kong

Bob Tatz’s long-awaited memoir is now available, from Amazon;

I’ve written an introduction that highlights the remarkable way in which Bob’s memoir tells a story that is of interest not only to historians of Hong Kong but also to anyone who wishes to understand the currently much discussed topics of trauma and resilience.

Bob, a ten year old orphan, was in effect abandoned to fend for himself on day one of the Japanese attack. He was initially cared for by the a missionary family, then moved to Stanley Camp, and finally transferred to the Canossian Convent, where the care of the Italian nuns ensured his physical survival until the end of the war. This is remarkable enough, and Bob’s narrative provides invaluable glimpses of the various people and locales he encountered. But what is perhaps even more surprising is that a ten year old boy who had already lost his father, his step-father, his mother and his beloved Chinese amah, should have eventually recovered  enough from all these traumas and the unimaginable burden of his experiences during the Japanese occupation to find fulfilment in career, marriage and parenthood.

It is a moving story that will give any reader plenty to think about. And historians of the Hong Kong war will be in no doubt about their special good luck in finally being able to read this memoir.

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Auden and Isherwood in Shanghai

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Child in Time

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

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

Portsmouth c. 1953

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naafi photos

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The tragic story of Mr A. E. Murphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Father Bourke, Steering Neutral, HKMS100-1-6

WO 235/1007.


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

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

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

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

Mum with her mother

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

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

This time something from the report leapt out at me:

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

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

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

Image result for lahu peopleImage source:

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

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

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

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

Mum with her father


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

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


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