Images of pre-war life

Thomas Edgar probably arrived in Hong Kong in 1938. Like many ex-pats he sent photos and postcards of his new home back to his family. This post features scans of those images I can date certainly or probably to that period. Unattributed quotations are things he wrote on the backs of the cards or photos.

There are some general views of the famous Hong Kong harbour, one of the main points of the whole imperial enterprise:

He lodged at 82, Morrison Hill Road; this is one of two cards that he sent showing the kind of view of Happy Valley Race Course enjoyed by his lodgings:

He was, quite naturally, struck by the unfamiliar sights of this exotic city.

A  sedan chair, for example (‘ this is how we travel’ he wrote, probably jokingly ):

This  photo was dated 1937; another such picture told his family he owned a two foot model junk.

Like many other Europeans he was fascinated by the life of the crowded, noisy Chinese streets…  (Queen’s Road one of the main roads in Hong Kong’)

…full of exotic sights, like people washing publicly…

…or funerals with bands that make ‘a devil of a noise’…

Two of the postcards below show busy streets (Queen’s Rd. again, and Flower Street) while the third shows the place where the wealthiest Europeans escaped from the heat, noise, and disease (real and imagined) of the Chinese dominated districts below them:

The first of these three cards shows the kind of view enjoyed by the homes of the wealthy on the Peak, the second is another shot of Happy Valley Racecourse, the third of Repulse Bay:

These postcards show more of the ‘sights’ of the colony. Two are of the Supreme Court Building, and one of Emperor’s Sung’s Castle in Kowloon, a place I’ve not been able to find anything more about:

On the back of this photo of the Supreme Court, he’s written ‘I’ve not been inside. Yet’.

The controversial Hong Kong and Shangai Bank building – ‘said to be the best in the Far East’. Not by everyone though: the poet W. H. Auden, in 1938 a guest of Duncan Sloss, the Vice Chancellor of Hong Kong University, called  it ‘A worthy temple to the Comic Muse’:

An outing with friends to Saukiwan:

Repulse Bay Lido, one of the places he went swimming (‘it is open till 1 o’clock’):

Repulse Bay again (‘another bathing beach, there are 5 on the island’):

This photo has on its back the rather mysterious words, ‘Motor! where we usually spend Sunday evening’:

The charming waterside area of Aberdeen:

I don’t know where these ‘public gardens’ are:


A hunting  expedition with Chinese helpers:


On the water with Charles Sloan, a close friend:

  Hong Kong 1938-1941 – how idyllic it looks in these pictures! Of course, like any son half way across the world he was trying to reassure worried  parents about the strange place he’d ended up. And like any older brother he was trying to impress his younger siblings. But it’s hard not to see the charm of the life shown in these images, especially for a man from a working class background who’d left school early and never travelled beyond Britain before. In fact, although he wouldn’t have stressed this in his letters to his family, to an adventurous young man like Thomas, pre-war Hong Kong must have seemed roguishly exciting as well as charming: a place of opium dens and meat-cleaver murders, (see Norman Gunning’s Passage to Hong Kong, 77), louche waterfront hotels and mysterious geomantic knowledge.

But in the first year he arrived there Hong Kong was already under threat, corrupted by racism and inequality within and facing a  determined enemy without.

What right did the British have to be there enjoying the good life  in the first place?

Only the ‘rights’ given by force of arms, and soon another imperial nation was to be strong enough to challenge  the power of the British.

It was in 1937 that the simmering tensions between the Chinese and Japanese in northern China became full-scale war. Many ex-pats thought that they were safe, protected by the might of the British Empire, but it was clear to those who really understood the situation that Hong Kong could not keep out of this murderous conflict forever.  Soon any observer on those once colourful streets would see nothing but armed men and desperate fighting, Repulse Bay would be the scene of battle and massacre, the HKSBC would be the headquarters of the Japanese occupation, and the Supreme Court building would resound with the screams of the tortured.

On December 8, 1941 the battled-hardened armies of Japan attacked Hong Kong. For almost 18 months Thomas’s family heard no more from him (although after almost a year of anxious waiting a repatriated American did let them know he was alive, well and due to be married the day his ship had left Hong Kong). Then a completely different kind of letter came:

Thomas and his family were now playing a tiny part in a huge struggle. On one level it was a clash between rival empires, neither of which had any right to be in China. But at another it was a combat to the death between two views of life, one of which was imperfect but familiar with principles of humanity, freedom and justice that were capable of creating tolerable societies in the present and holding out hope for future improvement. The other was part of an international madness that plunged most of Europe and much of Asia, including Hong Kong, into a nightmare. The whole future of the world, up to and beyond the present, hinged on the outcome of this conflict.

In other posts on this website I discuss Thomas Edgar’s life in this nightmare, and the life of Evelina Marques d’Oliveira, a middle class Eurasian woman  from Macao, who met him when the horrors had just begun and shunned comfort and safety to stay with him until, totally unexpectedly, they came to an end.


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