People make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.
(Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon)
In Memoriam Evelina Marques D’Oliveira/ Lena Edgar (1913-2005)
In the winter of 2007-8 I visited Hong Kong and southern China, flying down from Dalian, where I was teaching.
My time in Hong Kong was both preceded and marked by a number of significant dreams. In one – just before I left Dalian – I was travelling around Hong Kong with my mother (who died three years ago). Everywhere we were moved to tears by what we saw, especially what we saw in Stanley Camp. But in the dream I looked at her coolly and wondered, given the bad relations that we had almost inevitably experienced in the 1960s and afterwards, if I was able to take her in my arms and hug her as she cried. This post is my response to that dream.
My mother was born in the Portuguese enclave of Macao in 1913. This is one of only two childhood photos I have of her (and the only photo of my grand father):
The façade of Sao Paolo cathedral is one of the ‘icons’ of this Catholic colony :
It’s easy to forget that Portugal was the first great Western imperialist country of the modern age. Happily one of the books I had taken with me to the south was Hugh Brogan’s history of the USA, and, reading it in Hong Kong, I found this:
By the end of the fifteenth century the Portuguese were alarming their neighbours by their success as navigators and ocean-travellers. They had powerful motives: slaves, ivory and gold could be got from Africa, and they hoped to gain a share in the lucrative spice trade, monopolized until then by the Venetians and the Turks. They succeeded in finding new routes to the Indies, by way of the Cape of Good Hope.
So, in search of wealth through trade – eventually that included trade in Chinese slaves – the Portuguese came to Asia. By 1500 Portugal and her Iberian rival Spain ‘were dominant in every ocean’. In 1557 they established their first permanent settlement in Macao. For a long time I thought that all of my mother’s life before Hong Kong had been spent in Macao. Then one day she mentioned that she’d lived as a girl in the Chinese city of Fuzhou (then Fuchow). Her father was a Portuguese tea merchant, and Fuzhou is still a centre of the tea trade.
His wife was a Chinese woman who my mother hardly knew. She had TB, and sensing she would die the next day, she told the servants to bring Evelina to her bed. My mother was three years old, and the servants were horrified, thinking she’d catch TB too.
And there’s a mystery here. This is a copy of my parents’ wedding certificate:
Notice her mother’s name: Maria Oliveira. In her later years my mother told me that she didn’t know if my grandmother was Chinese or Portuguese, so when I went to Macao in 1996 and met up with one of the three sisters who had been her closest friends in youth I asked her what my mother’s nationality was. She looked at me as if I were crazy: ‘Eurasian, like us, of course’.
The process of creating my mother’s (purely) European identity had begun before she was born in the renaming of her Chinese mother; her denial of her Chineseness (and her eventual lack of any great interest in her Portugueseness) was not a purely personal attitude. In fact, you might say that her family’s naming somehow tracks the development of European imperialism: first the erasure of her mother’s Chinese name, and then the transformation of the Portuguese woman Evelina Marques d’Oliveira to the English (although slightly exotic) Lena Edgar; in the same way, the English, insignificant in Europe and the wider world in 1500, gradually fought (quite literally and murderously) their way to world dominance, seeing off their final rival France in the blood-soaked Seven Years War (1756-1763).
In the nineteenth century, the British Navy really did rule the waves, and was thus able to add Hong Kong to the list of imperial possessions and force China to open up ports like Amoy (Xiamen) and Canton (Guanzhou) for trade.
Anyway, she didn’t get TB from her dying mother, and when her father remarried and moved to Fuzhou (or the other way round) she survived the pirates who plagued the sea route from Macao, where she was sent to school, and the family’s new home, where she returned in the holidays. Fuzhou itself was a dangerous place. She told me her dad used to keep a gun in the house as protection against robbers.
She never said much about her father. Most often, if she mentioned him, it was to contrast her own liberal child-rearing regime (which, of course, as the fifties gave way to the sixties, I claimed to find neo-fascist, at least ) with his paternal strictness. He held, it seemed, clear and extreme views on all matters pertaining to children, and, I was assured, I would not have liked to have had to put up with his style of discipline. The same kind of conversations were going on in countless British houses, and mine at least had the advantage of a rather exotic flavouring.
Then, soon after the Japanese attack on Hong Kong (December 8th, 1941) she was introduced by her landlord to my father, who, he said, might be able to help her get some food. They quickly fell in love, and, although as the citizen of a neutral country she could have left for the relative safety of Macao, she chose to stay in Hong Kong and be interned alongside my father, and she survived that too.
She never expected to. I asked her once if she ever fantasized in Camp about what she’d do after the war. No, she replied, because the guards told them that the Japanese army was going to shoot all the internees when the Allies landed on the main Japanese islands. In circumstances that remain controversial, any planned massacre never happened. Both my parents believed until the end of their lives that they had been saved by the Atomic bombs.
After the war, they stayed on in Hong Kong. Here they are in 1948:
Evelina won the Hong Kong lottery with her dentist boss. They hired a whole floor of a major hotel (I think the Hong Kong Hotel) to celebrate, while the bulk of the money was saved and eventually used to buy a house in England outright.
In 1951, soon after my birth, the family decided to leave Hong Kong, partly so I could be educated in England. Our destiny henceforward was as British citizens, and insofar as my education was the real issue, interacts with the politics of the post-war period. I was educated until the age of 22 almost entirely without charge – in fact, while at university not only were my tuition fees paid by the state, most of my living expenses were too. My father had won a place at the Boys’ School I eventually attended in the 1920s, but his family couldn’t afford to pay for his uniform and books and in any case needed his income. By 1951 both major political parties were determined to put an end to this shocking waste of talent, so there was something for us to come home to.
We lived first in Windsor, then in Portsmouth, then in Windsor again. This is the house my mother lived in from the mid 1950s until her death in 2005, the one bought with her lottery winnings.
It was designed by my father, who who admired Chinese culture more than she did, and it embodies some of the ideas of Feng Shui that he’d learnt in Hong Kong. But there’s more to it than that. At first, because my father was a baker, they were interned outside Stanley, but eventually the Japanese decided to move all enemy civilians into Stanley, where they were housed, with many others, in a bungalow in the grounds of St. Stephen’s School:
When I first saw a picture of these houses, I was stunned at the resemblance. Of course, there are differences, but you can see that my father hadn’t exactly tried to banish all memory of his experience in Stanley from his post-war life! That’s a story for a future blog.
In 1996 I’d visited Macao as part of my short trip to Hong Kong. On my recent visit I unfortunately didn’t have the time to go again, but after Hong Kong I spent six days in Xiamen looking at the buildings left by the colonialists there (while avoiding travel over Spring Festival) and then took the bus on to Fuzhou.
I knew from Bill Brown’s book on Fujian Province (The Fujian Adventure) that the old European area of Fuzhou was somewhere south of the Min River, but everyone I asked about Nantai Island had either never heard of it or directed me somewhere that wasn’t Nantai.
In the end, two forays south of the Min brought me no closer than this street sign for Nantai Lu (road):
So I would have to use my imagination! I felt most able to sense my mother when I could see the Min River itself:
And on the second day of my search, the mist lifted a bit and I could see the hills more clearly:
I tried to imagine what it would have been like in about 1920; in my mind, I obliterated the high-rises, and tried to see gracious traditional Chinese buildings, the houses of the poor (sometimes wooden in this area) and the elegant European dwellings pictured in Brown’s book. Nothing very European in sight to help me – although I thought I could see the influence in the occasional balcony or other feature – but there were a few Chinese buildings that pointed my mind in the right direction:
Nothing I could be very confident was here in 1920 though.
To get more of a sense of things she might have seen, I had to think back to a district north of the river that I’d been led to by Brown’s book (Lonely Planet is useless on Fuzhou, dismissing it as a ‘pit stop’ on the way to more interesting places like Xiamen). ‘Three Wards, Seven Streets’ is an area (just west of the city centre) that was originally built over 700 years ago, although most of what remains is Ming or Qing Dynasty (i.e from the mid-fourteenth to early twentieth century). This time Brown did give clear directions, and when I got there I found something I’d seen in other Chinese cities: a modern version of an old city street:
But in this case, there were arches leading off to the real thing:
Wuyi Square, about 20 minutes walk from my hotel, was another area which contained old buildings. It’s dominated today by a large statue of the man who played a crucial role in making modern China:
But close by is a Song Dynasty pagoda:
And part of the Ming city wall:
Notice the shoes and socks – there are people living behind the protective barrier.
The years my mother was in Fuzhou were troubled ones for China. The 1911 Revolution led by Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yatsen) overthrew the Qing Dynasty, but did not lead to a prosperous and progressive republic, as Dr. Sun had hoped. Rather, there was a period of warlordism and civil war, constant struggle between different factions as the Republicans did all they could to unify, modernize and stabilize China, while the centrifugal forces of personal ambition and politcial disagreement sought to pull it apart. In 1912 Sun Zhongshan visited Fuzhou, a visit recorded in the Hall of the Great Master, a building that was a temple in my mother’s time but is now mainly given over to commemorating the Republican dead:
This was a troubled time for my mother too: as I’ve said, her father remarried, and, starting a family with his new wife, sent my mother back to Macao to school, where she lived with her grandmother and must have felt all the anguish of a child seemingly rejected and cast out in favour of younger siblings. Her step mother wasn’t unkind, though. Years later, in Windsor, my mother received a letter from her, saying that her son hit her, that she had no money, she needed help….could her step-daughter send money? What followed taught me a lot about maleness and femaleness in 1950s England. My mother tended to make the day to day financial decisions in our household, and, like many husbands at that time, my father would immediately hand over most of his wage packet to her as ‘housekeeping’, but on this occasion she said nothing, just giving the letter to my father and waiting while he read it. Her back slightly bent to express humility, she let him finish and then said no more than, ‘She was good to me’. This was an out of the ordinary, a major, financial matter, and therefore my father’s decision. We didn’t have much money for a middle class English family at that time, but he said we could spare a hundred pounds or so. I took little conscious interest in her life in China at that period – I was an English boy and my horizons were all local – but watching the way she acted in this situation I knew that huge things in my mother’s life had taken place somewhere very different to this well-ordered Berkshire town.
As for my grandfather, he was drinking heavily while they were in Fuzhou. Seeing what this was doing to him, when she was home she diluted his alcohol with water. To no avail – in spite of her efforts he died a relatively early death.
No-one becomes who they are in isolation from the social processes around them. Society is keen to make us male or female, approved members of our class and nationality (or in some cases race). We are never left to our own devices! As a middle class girl in Macao, Evelina was not expected to work – a situation she found again when she lived in England in the 1950s. She responded by going to Hong Kong, where things were obviously easier, or at least easier for her. She sold gloves for a time: one of her customers liked to see her and the other female assistant wear them before he bought them for his wife. Her colleague didn’t like to do this, but my mother assured me that she understood he was just a harmless fetishist, so was happy to act as a model – after all, he always bought the gloves! Later, she sold jewellery, and here the processes of class and race came into play. She was paid less than the European girls she worked alongside – a neat saving for the boss, and a useful reminder of who was in charge in Hong Kong.
‘I’m a quiet person, but I didn’t think it was fair, so I demanded my rights’.
She got them.
And then, after the war and internment, came the move to England, where she lived first with her in-laws then in a flat squeezed between Portsmouth Football Ground and the NAAFI factory where my father worked. (NAAFI = Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes). Once again, she found that society is eager to ‘hail’ (Althusser’s word) men and women with messages about how they should live out their class and gender: ‘Hey, you – you’re a middle class woman, you don’t want to work, do you? You bring up children and make the house into a true home for the breadwinner, that’s right, isn’t it?’. Evelina could speak fluent English by this time (it was only when I rang home from college and heard her on the phone that I realized she had a slight American accent) as well as her first language, Portuguese. She knew something of two dialects of Chinese – the kind of Cantonese spoken in Hong Kong and what she called Fukienese, the language of Fujian Province. To her pre-war experience in sales, she had added work as a dental receptionist during the post-war reconstruction of Hong Kong (one of the most successful enterprises in the whole history of the British Empire). Like all the internees in Stanley, she had been forced to use her whole set of human resources in order to survive. But the mills of class and gender ground exceedingly small in 1950s England, so instead of using these talents and developing new ones, she stayed at home and hoovered and polished, pushed my pram (and eventually my brother’s) through Portsmouth’s still bomb-damaged streets and – surely – wondered why she had ever left the privileged and stimulating life of Westerners in Hong Kong. In the mid 1950s we moved to Windsor, and I think life was somewhat better for her there than on that grim Portsmouth industrial estate.
Windsor’s also part of the London-centred heartland of British imperialism, and it has its own royal castle and statue of the Empress of India:
It was under Victoria’s rule that the second British Empire (the one that was acquired after the collapse of the original Empire brought about by American independence) reached the height of its popular appeal (and more or less of its geographical extent, although it did become a little bigger when the German colonies were taken after WW1). The hub of Hong Kong, the part now known as Central, was originally called Victoria.
I knew she sometimes thought longingly of Hong Kong (I could tell by the way she pronounced place names like ‘Aberdeen’ and ‘Kowloon’) but I now wonder if living by the Thames she had ever thought of that other river, of the Min at Fuzhou, bathed in the matchless light of East Asia, of the hills in the distance and that whole beautiful, dangerous, intensely alive Chinese world. She almost never spoke of it to me, but I couldn’t believe that such scenes could ever leave the mind of one who had once been a child amongst them.
I love the Thames, but it seems gray in contrast (‘gray’ was how that other former internee J. G. Ballard found England on his return there from China in the late 1940s – he fantasized that only a nuclear holocaust could restore the quality of light he’d lost in leaving Shanghai).
My mother was born too early to benefit from the Women’s Movement of the 1970s, and when I think about her life in Windsor it seems to me that I see another interaction between the two social ‘variables’ of race and class. Hong Kong was a racist society, as almost any colonized territory has to be – otherwise what were foreigners doing there ruling ‘the natives’ in the first place? Many British regarded the Chinese as inferior, and that extended to Eurasians. The Eurasian division of the Volunteers suffered heavier casualties than any other in resisting the Japanese, yet some British residents of Stanley were heard to remark how much more of things there’d be for them if only ‘pure’ bloods were allowed to live in the Camp.
She never talked about it, but, given the nature of British society in the 1950s and 1960s, she must have experienced some prejudice and suspicion. I think that was one factor in her attempt to become ‘more English than the English’, to blend in perfectly with the middle class ‘white’ life she found in a quiet cul-de-sac in the most royal town in ‘royal Berkshire’. I was brought up to be middle class, white, polite, male and respectable – the consequences of which I’ll write about later. My guess is that by the end of her life she genuinely didn’t know if she was half-Chinese or not, but she was absolutely certain of the correctness of all the behaviours associated with middle class status.
Ironically, I think it was her childhood immersion in the Chinese world that kept her fit (though not healthy – that’s another story) for so long. Until she was too weak to prepare the food she wanted, she ate mainly fish, white meat, fruit and vegetables – a nutritious diet from the Chinese seaboard, or so I like to think.
In her seventies she surprised me by suddenly saying, ‘I can still squat, you know’, and she did, in the lounge, right down, without coming up on her heels, something most English people can’t do past 20 but which Chinese people take for granted. Almost every day of her life in Windsor she walked into the town, although more and more reliant on her shopping trolley to support her as her eighties wore on. She died at the age of 92.
In a dream about three months ago I walked into a room and she was there.
‘I’m not 92 now,’ she told me – meaning, I knew, she was dead.
‘I know,’ I replied, ‘I wish you were’.
Now, sitting at my desk, I try to imagine what I would say not to the elderly English woman but to the Eurasian girl staring at the Min River and finding inspiration to grapple creatively with the apparently impossible challenges of daily living.
In any case, she lived a long, multi-coloured life, full of the unexpected, both good and bad.
I think of that young girl spiking her father’s booze with water to keep him a little more sober, a little better-tempered that evening, walking a little more slowly the path to an easily foreseeable death.
Of the woman choosing internment and all that it meant, growing vegetables to survive, while never believing that she would ever be allowed to walk free.
A life lived with spirit and resource, although not, of course, without problems and mistakes; as Marx has it, she made her history, although never in circumstances of her own choosing.