Thomas Edgar: A Baker in Wartime Hong Kong

Note: This is a preliminary sketch of Thomas’s life in the war years. Almost all of the issues it raises are discussed in much greater detail in later posts.

A different kind of summary can be found at:

More about Captain Tanaka:

Thomas and Evelina:

And a good example of the value of the internet as an ‘archive’: Chester Bennett, a heroic member of the Hong Kong resistance and a man almost certainly known to Thomas before and during the war, had almost vanished from history until American local papers began putting their earlier issues online!

Thomas Edgar grew up in a working class area of the small Berkshire town of  Windsor.  Arthur Road is close to the River Thames, and houses there sometimes got flooded.

His mother was a domestic servant,  her husband a soldier and later a driver. Tom was born in 1912, and his father was fighting in France for some of his early childhood. Like most children then, Tom was raised as a Christian, and went through the normal stages of religious socialisation:

Ironically, in view of what was to come later, he received a copy of G. A. Henty’s Tales of Daring And Danger as a Sunday School prize:

 This includes the story A Brush With The Chinese, which begins:

 It was early in December that H. M. S. Perseus was cruising off the mouth of the Canton River. War had been declared with China in consequence of her continued evasions of the treaty she had made with us, and it was expected that a strong naval force would soon gather to bring her to reason.

Hong Kong was filched from the Chinese as one of the spoils of a war whose primary purpose was to force Peking to allow British traders to sell opium on the mainland! The colonisers soon developed and modernised Hong Kong, and it wasn’t long before the colony became a place of economic and political refuge from the poverty and upheavals of late Imperial and early Republican China – by the time of ‘handover’ (1997) many analysts argued that the majority of the Chinese population would have preferred to stay under British rule. But the reconstruction of Hong Kong after WWII, one of the great success stories of the British Empire, was to be based, in part at least, on the realisation, won in the dark world’s fire of the Japanese occupation, that a Henty-style certainty about one’s own rectitude leads only to division, conflict and endless violence.

Britain in Thomas’s youth was a country slowly moving towards the idea of state responsibility for the welfare of its citizens. Balfour’s 1902 Education Act was meant to make schools a ‘ladder’ for the poor to climb higher in society. Tom won a scholarship to the nearby County Boys School, but his parents couldn’t afford the cost of the uniform, the books, and so on. They had five other children, all younger, to support, so Tom was apprenticed to a local baker.

In his teens and twenties he was one of the best amateur boxers in the Windsor area, having over a hundred fights and losing only one. I don’t know if he ever felt there was any contradiction between boxing and baking:

 Tom went to work all over the country to gain experience – Scotland, the east coast of England, Leatherhead….A reference from Bowkett’s of Margate, dated June 8, 1935 notes that he had been employed there since January of that year and was ‘sober, honest and willing and a good craftsman.’  He started a ‘stop me and buy one’ confectionery business, but was cheated by his partner and went bankrupt.

 Tom’s father had served in India, and like many before him, Tom thought of fleeing painful memories by heading out to the Empire. With the help of his mother, he paid off his debts, and then looked around for a job as distant from Britain as possible. He had two offers: one was from South Africa, and, if he had accepted it, someone rather like me would have been born a citizen of the apartheid state: when I describe the racism and other social imperfections of pre-war Hong Kong I do so as a historian, not a judge. My own  youthful attitudes were quite bad enough, even though I grew up in the relative liberalism of post-war Britain., and no doubt I and my bien pensant contemporaries hold beliefs that future generations will find shocking.

Thomas chose the other job because Hong Kong was further away than the Cape, and in 1937 or 38 became bakery manager at Lane Crawford Department store – he lied about his age to seem more experienced than he was. 

Thomas lived at 82, Morrison Hill Road, in Happy Valley:

File:Morrison hill road.JPG

Wikimedia: Morrison Hill Road Today

His first documented appearance in Hong Kong life was in the 1939 Jury Service List (information from the poster Moddsey on the Gwulo website

I have a number of postcards with his writing on the back, and, although they’re undated, I guess they were sent back to Windsor in the three or four years before WWII. They’re the kind of thing that you send home to show your family the exotic sites of your new home.

There’s one of a sedan chair, with the the probably joking comment, ‘this is how we travel’:

These two are of Chinese funerals; and he told his family that there was always a band, and they ‘made a devil of a noise’.

As the situation in the Far East darkened, he began to be drawn into preparations for the war that was to change his life forever.

Tony Banham has drawn my attention to this passage from Footprints, the autobiography of Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke,  Hong Kong’s Chief Medical Officer:

One of my first encounters with helpfulness from a Japanese officer concerned the reserve of four-gallon tins of biscuits, made of soya bean and wheaten flour with the addition of thiamine hydrochloride powder (against beri beri), which I had had baked in the leading department-store of Lane Crawford against the anticipated siege.

I’ll come back to that helpful Japanese officer later. My father was working on this baking project with a Mr. Meredith and Dr. G. A. C. Herklots, as he describes in an article he wrote for The British Baker in 1946.

Interestingly, Tom says that the plan was for the biscuit to be both high in nutritional value and palatable to the Chinese population. By the end of October, 1941, machinery that could produce 1.5 tons of biscuits a day had been installed: ‘by the end of December (sic – presumably November) we had machinery installed enabling us to double this output but manufacture was discontinued on December 15th.’

Selwyn-Clarke tells us what became of these biscuits:

By good fortune the Japanese had put Lane Crawford’s in charge of a certain Lieut. Tanaka, who allowed me to remove all the tins for distribution to the POW and civilian camps and to those Chinese hospitals which had not been closed by the Japanese forces.

 On December 8th, Tom was appointed Deputy Supply Officer Bakeries, which meant that all bakeries on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon were under his supervision. He was based at Lane Crawford’s bakery in Happy Valley, and, after the fall of Kowloon, he and his staff were caught between the rival armies as the defenders tried to hold up the Japanese advance. Before that, they had been producing 16-22 thousand pounds of bread a day.

When it became clear that the fall of Hong Kong was imminent, my father was one of those detailed to pour as much alcohol as possible down the drains to prevent it from further inflaming the victorious Japanese soldiers.

On December 265th., the dayHong Kong surrendered, Lane Crawford’s staff were told to report to the company HQ, Exchange House in Des Voeux Rd. The next day Captain Tanaka, the Japanese officer in charge of communications, took control of the building. Luckily, Tanaka was a humane and decent man – he is not the Tanaka who was sentenced to death by both the Allies and the Guomingdang for war crimes in China and Hong Kong. At some point Tom had torn up his shirt to bind the wounded, and was given permission by Tanaka to return to his lodgings to get another one. The Captain commandeered his high-powered binoculars, but not without giving him a receipt, which, he claimed, would lead to compensation from the Imperial Japanese Army after the war.

 In his British Baker article my father recorded his appreciation of Tanaka’s kindness, and noted that he organised film showings for him and his staff while they were interned in the bakery. 

During this period, Tanaka also gave him permission to resume baking.  As the bakeries in Happy Valley had been taken over by the Japanese, they decided to open Ching Loong (Green Dragon) bakery in Wanchai. They baked 590 pounds of bread a day – later stepped up to 3,000 pounds– then took it to the Hong Kong Hotel, from where it was distributed to the hospitals. Until May 7th. 1942 a little was also sent into Stanley – each internee got about 1 ounce of bread a day. After that date, a regular flour issue was made at the Camp. (In Chapter 2 of his book on the Stanley internment Geoffrey Emerson, citing the Stericker papers, explains that some flour was available in Stanley from the start, and that after April 1942 the ration was increased and the internees began to experiment with ‘ways of producing yeast so that bread could be made’.)

My father was interned in the bakery until February 1942, and then at ‘the French Hospital’ –  St. Paul’s hospital, which serves the Happy Valley–Wanchai area, rather than its Kowloon sister hospital St. Teresa’s, which, Wikipedia claims is sometimes known locally as ‘the French Hospital’. But he wasn’t just baking bread in those early days of the war and occupation.

About a week or so after the Japanese attack, at a time of fear and chaos, Tom was introduced to Evelina d’Oliveira, a Eurasian woman, by a mutual friend who thought that he might be able to help her get some food. They quickly fell in love, and she refused to return to the relative safety of Macao, as her Portuguese (neutral’s) passport entitled her to do.

In pre-war Hong Kong, Eurasians were generally mistrusted, discriminated against and even despised. To marry a Eurasian (or of course a Chinese) woman meant an immediate fall in social status. (See, for example, Gerald Horne’s study Race War! – this book is a good introduction to the race situation in old Hong Kong, but, as I shall show in a later post, it’s extremely selective in its use of sources and withholds from the reader a huge amount of information necessary to making a fair judgement on this controversial issue).  Perhaps it was because the war was already destroying the old world of the Hong Kong English, or perhaps Thomas had learnt how wrong it is to judge people by racial categories, or perhaps he was simply too much in love to care.

They were married on June 29th. 1942 at St. Joseph’s.

 It’s Captain Tanaka who’s the Japanese soldier in their wedding picture:

You can see that he’s trying to be unobtrusive, not to steal the limelight on other peoples’ big day. Sadly, Selwyn-Clarke reports a rumour that suggests Tanaka’s kindness proved his undoing:

Lieut. Tanaka subsequently disappeared, and rumour had it that he had been removed to Canton and there executed for displaying excessive concern for the Hong Kong prisoners. (Footprints, 74)

In a letter dated April 30, but in fact written on about May 8, 1943 Tom tells his family that he and Lena have finally been interned. Everything is well organised, but they don’t yet have jobs. The address on his cards from camp is room 1, Bungalow D, an address he shared with Hilda Selwwyn-Clarke, wife of Selwyn, and an important figure in her own right, and Lady Mary Grayburn, wife of the head of the HKSBC. 

In a card dated the next month, May 1943, he records the arrival of a letter from home dated October (presumably 1942) which he has only just received. The last card is dated 6/8/44. Obviously, he was not allowed to say very much, so all the cards do is assure his family they were both ‘keeping fit’  and ‘Getting enough food’, which is an equivocation – enough to stay alive. (Scans of his cards from Stanley can be read in three locations on the Yahoo Stanley Group Website, in an area accessible only by group members; the complete article in The British Baker can also be read there.)

The British Baker article tells us that he went on baking in Stanley, alongside Sgm Hammond, who along with another RASC baker S/S Sheridan, had assisted him at the Stubbs Rd. bakery before the surrender. Thomas’s article would seem to imply that Sheridan did not bake with him in  Stanley, and Tony Banham has established that this is because he managed to escape from Japanese captivity, winning a medal in the process! (

Some notes made by one of his brothers suggests difficulties in adjusting to the situation in Camp, one in which hierarchies and coalitions had already been formed. Furthermore, because of his relationship with Tanaka there might well have been suspicions that he’d been too friendly with the occupiers.

The earliest document in my possession that relates to his release after liberationion 1945  is a telegram sent on September 13 and received in Windsor the next day:

Arrived safely at Hong Kong Hope Be Home Soon Writing Address Letters Telegrams To Hong Kong Hotel Edgar

 Five days later, an official telegram from the Colonial Office confirmed the release of Evelina – any official notice of Tom’s release has been lost.

Tom and Lena, May 1948

After the war, Tom worked for Lane Crawford again, and then moved to the Garden Company, and the owners, the Cheung family, became life-long friends.  He took up some elements of his old life again, including the Freemasonry that he’d first become involved with in Scotland. The picture below is of a Masonic cocktail party in 1950:

I was born in the early winter of 1950, at the French Hospital in Causeway Bay that had once been the site of their internment.

On December 16th., 1950, I was baptised at St. Margaret’s church by the same priest who had married them more than 8 years earlier, Father Riganti, the rector of St. Joseph’s. What they thought or felt on that occasion I can only imagine. I know my  mother never expected to survive internment.

Early in 1951 Tom, Lena and I sailed for England. As a child I was always told that he wanted me to be educated in Britain, but I think that the outbreak of the Korean War was also a factor. It would have stirred uneasy memories for all former internees from the start (June 1950), but when Chinese troops moved into North Korea (October 25th., 1950) fears must have become much more intense.  A few years before she died my mother added another possibility: a big strike was planned in Hong Kong, and threats were made to the lives of foreign managers. I’ve never been able to find confirmation of this.

In any case, Thomas Edgar’s time in Hong Kong was over. He went back only once, as a guest of the Garden Company when it celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1976. But in some ways ‘my thirteen years in Hong Kong’ dominated the whole of the time that followed, and, as we shall see in due course, there was a strange and powerful return to them as his life drew to a close.


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Filed under Hong Kong, Hong Kong WW11, Stanley Camp

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