Monthly Archives: November 2012

Doris Cuthbertson

Note: This post should be read with

All unattributed quotations are from the statement of made by Raoul de Sercey on June 2, 1944 to the British Army Aid Group. This statement is part of the Ride Papers (held at the Hong Kong Heritage Project) and it was kindly sent to me by Elizabeth Ride.

The relief work of Dr. Selwyn-Clarke, financed by money raised by the uninterned bankers under the leadership of Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, is well-known. But less is known about some of the efforts that supplemented this, and which continued after his arrest on May 2, 1943. In today’s post I tell a pleasingly multi-cultural story of humanitarian co-operation involving one Australian woman, two Swiss, a Frenchman, several Portuguese families, a Chinese man and woman and three British. It should be remembered that almost every act described in this post carried the risk of imprisonment, torture or even death, and that no-one  but the three British (assuming they were in fact English) could have been confident they faced no ethnic or national prejudice in pre-war Hong Kong.

Doris Mabel Cuthbertson was born on August 27, 1897 in South Australia.[1] She worked as a secretary until after her mother died in 1930, then took a job in England. From there she moved to Shanghai, working for the shipping company Jardine Mattheson.[2] Ironically she went to Hong Kong seeking refuge from war.

On August 15, 1937 the British Government took the decision to evacuate women and children living in Shanghai to Hong Kong because of the outbreak of hostilities between Japan and China in the previous month. Miss Cuthbertson is documented as one of the trained nurses who helped the doctor in charge at a clinic for the evacuees. [3] She stayed in Hong Kong as private secretary to Jardine’s managing director, J. J. Paterson.

During the hostilities she worked for the Food Control Unit. After the surrender she was held in the Nam King Hotel before being sent to Stanley Camp.[4] Most of what we know about what happened thereafter is contained in a statement made to the British Army Aid Group on June 2, 1944 by the French national Raoul de Sercey, who escaped from Hong Kong on April 23.

Soon after the surrender, Mr. de Sercey managed to send some parcels to his friend J. J. Paterson, Jardine’s managing director and now a POW,  and to Jardine’s staff in Stanley, such as D. L. Newbigging and Doris Cuthbertson herself. In the early months his efforts were focused on Stanley, as ‘the situation was reported as appalling’. The Jardine company history mentions Henry Lo and other Chinese staff as also having taken part in courageous relief efforts.

What seems like harmless humanitarian work was in fact highly dangerous: parcels could only be sent in through the Japanese, and the sender’s name and address had to be supplied.  Any Chinese, Indian or ‘third national’ (European neutral) who sent too many was likely to be suspected of pro-Allied sympathies and questioned by the Kempeitai. This could lead to torture, imprisonment and death.

Mr. de Sercey realised he couldn’t give the required assistance to Jardine Matheson’s former employees: he was already looking after over 40 members of the Chinese Maritime Customs, and others; he did not, moreover, as someone who wasn’t a company member, have the authority to raise funds in its name. To better meet the needs of Jardine’s staff, he decided to ‘guarantee out’ Miss Cuthbertson. ‘Guaranteeing out’[5] was the system whereby people were allowed out of Stanley (and much more rarely Shamshuipo) if a neutral would promise to support them financially and guarantee that they would not act against Japanese interests (but see below).

Mr. de Sercey explained why he’d chosen her:

As Private Secretary to MR PATERSON I had had opportunity to know of her excellent qualities as an organiser, and knew that she had probably the most complete knowledge of the staff in the firm.

Guaranteeing her out wasn’t a smooth process:

The story of MISS CUTHBERTSON’S release was, as usually with the Japanese, a mixture of dramatic and grotesque events…but she finally came out of Stanley on the 12 September, 1942 with the last batch of internees allowed out.

 It seems she was released along with the members of the Maryknoll religious order:

I may point out here that MISS CUTHBERTSON has not had to sign any undertaking towards the Japanese authorities besides signing on her pass which is exactly the same as that delivered to neutrals in HONG KONG. The only difference is that below the stamp indicating her Australian nationality is added in Japanese the rather surprising remark ‘Semi-Enemy’.

As soon as she was out, she began making plans for her work.  Through Charles Hyde[6], who seems never to have been far away when works of relief or resistance were taking place, she got back in touch with Mr. Newbigging in Stanley, and presumably through his authorisation she was given $7,000 in instalments. At the same time, Mr. de Sercey got in touch with Selwyn-Clarke, who agreed to let him send in as many parcels as he wanted under the auspices of the Informal Welfare Committee – as far as de Sercey could work out, this seemed to consist solely of Selwyn-Clarke!

Miss Cuthbertson also carried out relief work for Jardine Mattheson employees in Shamshuipo. She asked the company’s Portuguese staff for help, and every one responded unreservedly, sending in a parcel for a ‘foreigner’ alongside each one they sent to a family member:

The effort was thus made less conspicuous, a very important point, since, the money being obtained through forbidden channels, had the Japanese become wise to it, serious consequences for all concerned would have certainly taken place.

Dr. Selwyn-Clarke was arrested on May 2, 1943. Mr. de Sercey’s statement adds to our knowledge of what happened to relief efforts after that date.

Miss CUTHBERTSON had to stop sending parcels in large number into Stanley but continued with the funds at her disposal to send the SHAMSHUIPO fortnightly ones until September, 1943, when a new wave of terror and the lack of funds forced her to stop temporarily.

My guess is that this new ‘wave’ involved a crackdown on the Portuguese community, possibly in the wake of the discovery of incriminating documents at the Portuguese social centre, the Club Lusitano.

At a time Mr. de Sercey was unable to remember exactly, but was probably in late 1942 or the first part of 1943, funds were sent from Shanghai to the International Red Cross for Jardine employees. After consultations between Miss Cuthbertson and the Red Cross, most of it was delivered in cash to internees and POWs. Miss Cuthbertson at all times acted with Mr. Zindel, the Red Cross representative in Hong Kong and received unreserved support from him.

The situation for Jardine’s staff appeared gloomy in autumn 1943. Funds were exhausted, the man sending the funds from Shanghai had been interned, and the authorities were tightening their control over all activities of any sort. The Japanese, wrote de Sercey, made monetary transactions difficult to increase their control over individuals; their first question in an interrogation was ‘How much money have you got?’ and they always wanted to know where it had come from. Fortunately Miss Cuthbertson got to hear that arrangements had been made in Shanghai for a Swiss firm, presumably  the chemical company CIBA, to supply money to Mr. Newbigging through their Hong Kong representative Walter Naef. She got in touch with Mr. Naef and these two, together with Rudolf Zindel and Newbigging, seem to have negotiated division of the cash, Miss Cuthbertson obtaining funds for the Argyle Street Camp and the Bowen Road Military Hospital.

Thanks to Mr. Naef, who’d provided about 10,000 Military Yuan by the time Raoul de Sercey escaped, and the help of Mr. Zindel, Miss Cuthbertson was able to continue to provide cash regularly to Shamshuipo and Stanley and parcels to Argyle Street and Bowen Road. Mr. de Sercey went on to point out that the arrangement  involving Walter Naef was most dangerous for all parties; it breached Japanese exchange regulations and if found out would have lead to ‘serious if not fatal trouble’. In other words, all those who got involved in this humanitarian activity were risking death.

Mr. de Sercey went on to make some suggestions, arrived at after consultations with Miss Cuthbertson, for further Jardine’s relief efforts. He says that he’d left some money with her for personal needs, but with the sky-rocketing cost of living this wouldn’t be enough and he suggested adding 800 Military Yuan to each remittance for her own use. If this wasn’t possible, he thought that Miss Cuthberston, who was now guaranteed out by another French national, would be allowed to return to Stanley. This is significant. Miss Cuthbertson had already gone through two waves of Kempeitai terror. after the first one – February-July 1943 – there were very few Allied citizens left uninterned in Hong Kong, and one of those helping her, Dr. Selwyn-Clarke, was experiencing months of brutal treatment in a Kempeitai cell. The second (in the final months of 1943) would also have come close to her: it hit the Portuguese community, and we’ve seen that she was working with Portuguese families to get parcels into Shamshuipo, and, as we shall see, her links were even closer than that suggests. Just after Mr. de Sercey’s escaped, another ‘wave’ of arrests began, as the Japanese, who’d previously not cared if people knew about events of Europe, were panicked by the D-Day landings (June 6, 1944) and started hunting for radios. Miss Cuthbertson certainly stayed out of Stanley during the first two periods, in spite of the obvious huge danger she was in. In a moment I’ll present evidence that she stayed out through the third wave of arrests and remained at her post until the end. She was an astonishingly brave woman.

View cuthbertson doris.jpg in slide show

Photo of Miss Cuthbertson courtesy of Christobel Botten

Mr. de Sercey ended with a tribute to Miss Cuthberston’s efforts: some Jardine’s POWs released from Shamshuipo said that company members there were the best cared for in the Camp.

Not long after liberation, Miss Cuthbertson met an Australian reporter, and her story was featured in the Melbourne Argus on November 16, 1945 (page 8). The report identified her as the sister of Mr M. R. Cuthbertson of Malvern.[7] The paper tells us that after leaving Stanley she’d lived with a Portuguese family in their flat and that her ‘parcel service’ went on for three years, which suggests she did remain out of Stanley until the end of the war. The reporter says that Miss Cuthbertson told her she was helped by Helen Ho, who she considered ‘the heroine of Hong Kong’.  Miss Ho was getting parcels into ‘the Military Hospital’ –  Bowen Rd.[8]

Miss Cuthbertson also paid tribute to her house ‘

boy, Ma Ba Sun, who went everywhere with her for three years and slept outside of her door every night. On April 15, 1947 a ceremony was held at Government House to present various forms of honour to a small number of the people who had rendered courageous service to others during the occupation. Ma Ba Sun was awarded the British Empire medal. The citation reads in part  ‘in recognition of your loyal and devoted conduct in the period of the enemy occupation… when you, like many others who had been in domestic service, ran the greatest risks and performed services of incalculable value in aiding  those who had been interned by the enemy’. (China Mail, April 16, 1947, page 2).

I presume that at some point after the war Miss Cuthbertson emigrated to Canada, as she died in 1968 in British Columbia.[9] This must have been after February 13, 1949, as she’s recorded playing in a Fanling Golf tournament on that date (China Mail, February 15, 1949, page 12).


Filed under British Army Aid Group, Charles Hyde, French in Hong Kong, Hong Kong WW11, Portuguese in Hong Kong, Selwyn-Selwyn Clarke, Stanley Camp

The Free French in Hong Kong (3) Jules Alexander Siron

I’ve written before about the Free French in Hong Kong:

These men could have remained neutral – the Japanese classified them as ‘third nationals’, which means that they weren’t treated as enemies – and got on with their lives as best they could in the difficult conditions of occupied Hong Kong, but they chose to help the Allied cause instead. In today’s post I set out what little I know of the life of Jules Siron, a courageous man who undertook the riskiest service of all, choosing to act as an agent for the resistance organisation the British Army Aid Group.

Jules Alexander Siron was aged 32 in 1946 and had been in the Colony for 18 years. Prior to the occupation, he’d worked as a sales representative for the Central Meat and Dairy Supply Company.[1] Perhaps this was what led him into his job during the hostilities, working with Food Control. He was ‘stationed at the Lane Crawford Building, where members of the different services went to get their rations.’[2]

After the surrender, he remained in the Exchange Building, the Lane, Crawford HQ in Des Voeux Rd. He was presumably billeted  on the mezzanine floor, as were the other inhabitants, but as people gradually left – for their own homes, Stanley or Shamshuipo – the few remaining who, included Thomas and his fellow bakers, were moved to less commodious accommodation. One of the bakers, Patrick Sheridan, describes conditions in his post-war Memoir:

We have been moved to a small office on the second floor. It was used as a rice control food Dept. There are hundreds of samples of rice on shelves, and quite a few mice for company. We are a very cosmopolitan crowd here. Myself Irish, Edgar and Hammond English, Randall Eurasian, Bowder Swiss, Peacock is Russian origin, Patara Greek, Almeida is Portuguese from Goa, Siron French, and two Chinese whose names I have forgotten.[3]

After the occupation he was unemployed;[4] he seems to have survived by running a café in Kowloon’s Nathan Road: in evidence to a War Crimes trial he said that the accused, a Chinese man known as Hector Lee who worked for the Japanese Gendarmes, came to this café to drink coffee with him in June 1942.[5] He describes meeting Lee in Nathan Rd. – although perhaps in the street not his café – between January and February 1942,[6] which suggests he left the Exchange building before the end of January. He met Lee again three months later at his (Lee’s) shop in Kowloon, and again in 1943 when Lee asked him for a photo of William Chang. Siron denied having one,[7] for good reason:

I heard of the BAAG in Waichow from a Chinese Jamaican friend of mine, William Chang, who was based there.  This man offered me a job at the AHQ, Waichow, but I decided to stay in Hongkong because I had my family there.[8]

Mr. Chang went to Free China in May 1943 and the Kempeitai raided his home while he was away;[9]  my guess is that he didn’t return (openly at least) to Hong Kong after that, so Mr. Siron’s recruitment took place before that time. Before I describe the work he’s likely to have done, I need to say a few words about the situation of the resistance in 1943-1944.

In the spring of 1943 the Kempeitai broke the BAAG organisation in Hong Kong in a series of arrests and executions, which also destroyed the Nationalist Chinese opposition, leaving only the communist East River Column, which was based safely away from the city in mountainous areas. The BAAG remained an effective force as far as such things as the recue of downed pilots went, but its ability to communicate with and gather information with Hong KongIsland and Kowloon was greatly reduced. However, it wasn’t wiped out completely; by the end of 1943 its original British contacts were either dead (Hyde, Bennett, Grayburn,), in prison (Selwyn-Clarke, Edmonston) or interned in Stanley (all the French Hospital people were sent there in May and the bankers followed in June or early July). This means that it had to rely on ‘third nationals’ (neutrals) like Mr. Siron and those British and Hong Kong citizens who, because of their ethnicity, were allowed to remain uninterned- the Japanese in some ways reversed the pre-war British policy of favouring ‘pure European blood’ and allowed blacks and Eurasians to stay out of Stanley if they wanted. Most agents, of course, continued to be Chinese, and although some were executed in 1943, others remained, and new recruits were forthcoming.

Siron told a 1946 War Crimes trial about his work for Chang:

Mr. Siron told the court he assisted William Chang in his BAAG work, and after Mr. Chang escaped to BAAG Field Headquarters at Waichow he worked for him indirectly.[10]

William Chang/Cheng/Khan (Agent 21) is mentioned at least 50 times in the Ride Papers (the main source of BAAG documents). He was a ‘w/t technician’ (I think that means he worked with radios) who joined the BAAG in July 1942, making him one of its earliest agents in occupied Hong Kong. His main work was in organising the escape of Indian POWs, so it seems likely that Mr. Siron also had something to do with this.[11]

Elizabeth Ride was kind enough to list for me his other BAAG contacts:

His work with the BAAG mentions threads of connection to Lai Chak Po, John Power, Frank Lessen, Narindar Singh amongst others.

Frank Leeson (or Lessan, or Lee) was a black BAAG agent who was sent from Waichow to Hong Kong.[12] He worked as a ‘sub agent’ for William Chang. Lai Chak Po was also arrested and mistreated in 1944. I have no information about Narindar Singh at the moment.

John Power was also a third national although I don’t know which country he was from. He was arrested on June 19 and his wife Violet Mary Power and Gonzalo Sang the day after.[13] It seems that the Japanese believed that these people were operating radio transmitters;[14] it’s possible that they were and that this was also one of Mr. Siron’s activities. However, it wasn’t just transmitting that the Japanese were worried about; more than one source testifies to their initial indifference to news of the war in Europe being circulated amongst the Allied community, but after D-Day (June 6, 1944) they changed their attitude and at least two people were brutally tortured for disseminating news of the Allied landings. It seems Mr. Siron’s name was given under torture, and as he was arrested on June 8, perhaps the unfortunate victim was one of the first victims of the new policy. However, I have no evidence of any arrests happening that soon after D-Day, so this might be a coincidence.

The June 8 arrest was with 15 others; Mr. Siron was beaten ‘about eight times’ in the street because the arresting gendarme was angry.[15] He was interrogated that same afternoon; the gendarme explained that he had to act quickly because permission had to be sought from HQ before arresting a third national and details of the offence had to be reported as soon as possible.[16]

Mr. Siron survived what was presumably a period of imprisonment. His occupation as a witness in the war crimes trials is given as typist or stenographer,[17] which suggests he didn’t resume work as a salesman. He obviously emigrated to Canada at some point, presumably to British Columbia:

Six Chinese Canadians who were subject to the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong attended the Conference {of The Rt. Hon. Sir Winston Spencer Churchill Society of British Columbia}.  Mr. Jules Siron, aged 93, gave the most heartrending address telling of his work in the British Army Aid Group in Hong Kong until he was arrested by the Japanese and tortured in innumerable ways, including the water torture.[18]

This was in 2007. He died four years later:

SIRON, Jules Joseph Alexandre With sadness, Jules passed away June 16, 2011 at the age of 97 in Richmond, BC. Jules is survived by his wife (and) daughter,  predeceased by his first wife Mary Pauline Siron.[19]

[1] China Mail, September 24, 1946, page 2.

[2] Information kindly supplied by Elizabeth Ride from correspondence with Mr. Siron in the 2000s.

[3] Patrick John Sheridan, Hong Kong Memoir, page 87. See

[4] China Mail, September 24, 1946, page 2.

[5] China Mail, December 17, 1946, page 3.

[6] China Mail, September 24, 1946, page 2.

[7] China Mail, September 24, 1946, page 2.

[8] Information supplied by Elizabeth Ride.

[9] Ride Papers, Statement by William Chang, 14/10/45.

[10] China Mail, September 24, 1946, page 2.

[11] Information from Elizabeth ride; see also

[12] China Mail, December 17, 1946, page 3.

[13] China Mail, May 23, 1946, page 8.

[14] China Mail, may 24, 1946, page 35.

[15] China Mail, July 5, 1946, page 5.

[16] China Mail, July 5, 1946, page 5.

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Filed under British Army Aid Group, French in Hong Kong, Hong Kong WW11

Herbert Edward Lanepart (2): Bringing Nudism to Hong Kong

When Sir Robert Ho-Tung – one of most prominent Eurasian residents of Hong Kong and the only ‘non-white’ allowed to live legally on the Peak – arrived in Singapore on his way to London in the spring of 1932 it was natural for him to talk to The Straits Times. What is surprising, though, is that amongst the topics he discussed one was the activities and likely success of a small Hong Kong ‘cult’ that probably had fewer than 30 members. That ‘cult’ – the word was accepted by its leader – was the Hong Kong Nudist Society. Sir Robert assured the people of Singapore that, in his view, Chinese public opinion was ‘very strong against the mixing of the sexes’ advocated by ‘a section of the European population, with a Mr. H. E. Lanepart as their head’. ‘It’s too much ahead of the times’ was his ‘personal opinion’. Asked about the island that Lanepart’s group were currently trying to acquire, he said, with a smile, that this was an excellent idea but it remained to be seen if they would succeed.[1]When The Hongkong Telegraph picked up the story a week later it left out Sir Robert’s opinions on such things as the controversial ‘mu tsai’ system and the weighty matter of the economic effects of the boycott of Japanese goods to report only his views on Nudism and the not unrelated subject of the need for the Chinese girl to balance modernity and tradition.[2] It seems that in the spring of 1932 Lanepart’s ‘nudist cult’ was extremely interesting to people in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the Far East.

In my previous post I sketched Lanepart’s involvement in bringing Theosophy to the Colony. In 1928 he was appointed to what seems to have been an important role in the Far Eastern movement, and the online press records a number of lectures he gave to the local Lodge in that year. I’ve not yet been able to find any record of Theosophical activity after 1928, except for a donation to the movement he made in memory of its deceased leader Annie Besant in 1934. This shows that his two enthusiasms ran alongside each other for a couple of years, but it seems clear that between 1928 and the founding of the Hong Kong Nudist Society in March 1932 his main focus was switching.

My guess is that information about his plans had already reached the Hongkong Daily Press in February when they despatched a reporter eager for ‘knocking copy’ to the YMCA to ask if it was true that male non-members had to bathe there naked while members were permitted to wear a slip. The YMCA had ‘not turned nudist’ and the embattled secretary said the reason was purely hygienic – fluff could contaminate and dyes dirty the water. He admitted that the ‘mythical’ lady with a telescope could see the bathers from the Peninsula Hotel, but didn’t think that was a problem ‘in these advanced days’.[3] He was wrong. An organisation devoted to nudism in a place far distant from Kowloon’s chief hotel would soon be perceived as a problem indeed.

We can be certain that the Daily Press had advanced knowledge five days later when it published a mocking poem (‘Why I’m A Nudist’) and announced ‘rumours’ that the Island would soon be visited by ‘this King of modern cults’. The poet had been assured that his desire to see naked women would soon disappear and then he’d be able to concentrate on sun and ‘general health’,[4] something he obviously didn’t believe. The YMCA article and the satirical poem set the tone for the Colony’s response.

On March 8 the Daily Press ended all doubts as to what was in store by publishing a notice they’d got hold of: they included the words ‘Private and Confidential’ in their report and offered readers the chance to inspect the original. The accompanying text made it clear that the society was real not just ‘mythical’ as some had obviously suspected or hoped. The notice summoned sympathisers who supported ‘MIXED nude culture’ to a meeting at the reserved Meeting Room of the Lane Crawford Restaurant in the Exchange Building. The meeting was at 6 pm. sharp on Thursday, March 10 and its main purpose was to formally set up the Society. Those not in favour of ‘MIXED nude culture’ were not invited; the founders had received 45 written applications all but 2 in favour of mixed nudism and 25 verbal applications all for mixed nudism. Those interested were expected to attend and asked to bring along friends ‘IN FAVOUR OF MIXED NUDISM’ and ladies were especially asked to be present.[5]

The capitalisation is all in the original and, alongside the special invitation to females, the emphasis on ‘mixed’ nakedness must have confirmed the suspicions of some Hong Kong residents about Lanepart’s true motives. My guess is that in fact it related to issues in the ideology of the nudist movement, something I’ll discuss below.

The next day the paper published a letter protesting the publication of private material; Lanepart signed himself ‘for and on behalf of the Founders’ Group, Hong Kong Nude Culture Association (in Formation)’.[6] ‘Nude Culture’ is obviously a translation of Nacktkultur, and it was in Germany that the ideas and organisations of nudism had most strongly taken root.

In the next day’s paper the correspondent ‘Occidental’ took up the issue in a letter opining that nudism, although its supporters touted its ‘hygienic benefits’ had no place in a mixed race colony like Hong Kong, and the Government should deny all facilities to a group whose practices were considered ‘wholly distasteful’ by 99% of the population.[7] He was probably right about that.

Nevertheless it seems that over 40 people including six women attended the meeting on March 10, although only 21 (3 women) joined.[8] But the meeting itself had seen more mockery of the about-to-be-formed group. Two days later The Hongkong Telegraph reported that a well-known rugby player had infiltrated the ‘sacred precincts of the nudists’ meeting’ in drag, getting himself introduced to Lanepart and welcomed as one of the most promising of the female nudists.[9]

On March 14 Lanepart made the first statement I’ve been able to find of the ideological underpinnings of his commitment to nudism. The Hongkong Telegraph reported that the Government had not yet received an application from the society to rent beach space so couldn’t yet state its attitude to ‘the Hongkong Nudist movement’ or to the specific issue of renting them a beach. Lanepart, however, was ‘hopeful’; an official had told him there were many stretches of beach on Lantau, Lama (sic) and Ma Wan islands that were a long way from any dwellings. He even believed that a sympathetic Government might drop the rent to a nominal $10 a year for 40, 000 square feet, and he told the reporter he’d ideally like as much as half  a million square feet; the Society would like to erect matsheds over an area of 500 square feet of the area leased to them. He stressed the society was for the ‘earnest-minded’ only and he had no wish for the ‘foolish and frivolous’ to join. The reporter summarised Lanepart’s general view of the purposes of the Society:

It was their intention to practise the cult as it was being done in Germany and other parts of the world, namely by the playing of athletics, games and gymnastics.

In Germany the cult was very advanced and was part and parcel of the daily lives of the people.

The Society hoped to make it as essential to the people in Honkgkong. Not only had the movement a huge recreation ground of forests, fields and meadows in Berlin, but once a week the members of the Society gave mixed swimming demonstrations in one of the public baths.

When questioned, Lanepart admitted he didn’t plan to bring such mixed swimming displays to Hong Kong, as the people were ‘too frightened’. However, he would have nothing to do with allegations of  prurience as a motivation for mixed nudity:

The objects of the Society were to take serious-minded people away from the turmoil of the city and allow them to get back to a natural state of life.

He felt the Government would be sympathetic because of the ‘progressive and healthy’ objects of the movement.[10]

In other words, to Lanepart nudism was part of a general culture of the body that constituted a key plank in a program of ‘returning to nature’, a program that was expected to restore proper functioning and good health to people whose minds and bodies had been weakened by the urbanisation and industrialisation of the nineteenth century. The origins of this movement lie in European Romanticism, most evidently in Rousseau’s famous dictum that God makes all things good but human meddling turns them to evil, and in the turn towards nature, spontaneity and the virtues of rural living that this and similar ideas engendered in late eighteenth century western European culture. Rousseau did not, as some people believe, have a simple concept of ‘the Noble Savage’, but he did think that the bodies (if not the minds) of those who lived in pre-modern conditions had a strong tendency to be stronger and healthier than those who swarmed in the over-crowded urban ant-heaps and who were softened by the comforts and conveniences of modernity. As we shall see, Lanepart added a distinctively early twentieth century twist to such ideologies.

Interest in the Society continued, even though it did so little that Lanepart had to refute allegations they were running scared. On April 4, 1932 The Telegraph announced that Lanepart dreamt of a nudist island within Hong Kong’s territory with himself as Governor. He denied being in hiding, saying that his group was extremely active behind the scenes and was planning a branch in Macao and eventually ones in Shanghai and Tientsin. Meanwhile they were waiting for the Government’s reply to their application for lease of an island. Perhaps not fully seriously, Lanepart declared that when they’d got their island they’d set up a colony there with a minister for public works, an admiral of the fleet and other positions. He estimated they could get 10,000 people on the one he had in mind. Applications, he said, had made to the Government on March 22 and repeated on April 1. The location of the future island kingdom was a secret.[11] On April 5, 1932 Lanepart wrote to the China Mail from a PO Box address denying a report in another newspaper that the Government had turned down the society’s application.[12] (The Hongkong Daily Press of the same day made such an announcement on page 9). It seems that the Society at some point got their island, although I can find nor reference to this in Lanepart’s time;[13] this development probably didn’t take place until the 1950s when the Society, now rebranded as the less confrontational Hong Kong Sunbathing Association,[14] met on a beach at Ma Wan Island.[15]

On April 18, 1932 the correspondent ‘Matron’ objected to Lanepart’s statement that only the clergy opposed nudism. She had talked to many women and, although everyone was aware of the virtues of sunbathing, they felt ‘loathing’ at the idea of doing it alongside men. Her main objection was aesthetic and based on the rather unattractive impression likely to be made by those no longer young. The editor congratulated her on her ‘excellent’ letter and assured her that anyone caught in the nude would be treated like any other criminal.[16] I haven’t been able to find Lanepart’s original statement, but assuming it’s been accurately quoted, it tells us that part of his ideological commitment to nudism came from a belief that it represented a challenge to the forces of traditional morality represented most strongly by the church. I’ll have more to say about this below.

Part of Lanepart’s pitch was simpler and less embattled: in a letter to the China Mail (which was also picked up by the Straits Times) he described the beauties of the nudists’ site, hinted at ambitious plans for matsheds and tennis courts, and ended by invoking ‘mixed nudism in lovely surroundings, away from dusty crowds and unhealthy, wet clothing’ (China Mail, May 10, 1932, page 6). Nudism here is not presented as the product of a life force that it then goes on to strengthen but as a pleasant activity that promoted health – the reference to ‘wet’ clothing was a reminder that Hong Kong’s humid and unpleasant high summer wasn’t far away.

But whatever the rationale it offered for its activities,  as the year wore on it seemed as if the Society still wasn’t doing very much. On September 2, 1932, The Daily Press published an account by Lanepart of how his movement differed from the Doukhobors – a Russian group that practised religiously-inspired nudism – and gave details of a leaflet Lanepart had sent them. It seemed that members had to be ‘approved’ by the Society and sign a declaration of sympathy with ‘Simultaneous Nude Sun- Water- and Air- bathing of both sexes in special recreation grounds’. They also had to profess a friendly attitude towards the Hong Kong Society, and promise not to leak unauthorised details of its activities to the press.

On September 6, 1932 the China Mail assured its readers on its front page that the Hong Kong Nudist Society existed ‘in reality as well as in name’. It was claimed that there were over 40 members, including women, both European and Chinese. The men were said to be mainly Chinese, Russian and Portuguese, although some Britishers had signed up. The sect had held two meetings since its foundation, and there was obviously particular interest in the fact that women were said to be members and that some had attended the first excursion although, it was reported, definitely not the second. The organisation owed its existence to Lanepart’s ‘enthusiastic belief in the beneficial effect of the sun’s rays upon the human body’ and it was said to be much like those recently founded in Germany, Russia, Britain and elsewhere. Readers were told that the Society had failed to get government building permission or any land grant from the administration. Instead, Lanepart had arranged to rent land from a farmer in Tai Wan – Plot no. 388 at Lock Pick Sheung near Cheung Sheung Fan in the NewTerritories. It seemed that the failure to provide suitable facilities was holding back the many women who had expressed interest.

Parts of the article are an interesting blend of mockery and the idyllic:

The camping place is in a valley bounded by the river Shingmun and almost completely encircled by the rough, barren hills with entrance well-hidden from the main road…. {Those admitted as members are} privileged to strip and dip in the cool stream that runs through the hidden valley of Lock Pick Sheung or to play in Old Sol’s rays.[17]

The idea of escaping the stresses of modernity and the ugliness of cities to frolic in a romantic ‘hidden valley’ obviously had at least a degree of appeal to the reporter.

In any case, the article makes it clear that fears about the deliberate or even accidental offending of public sensibilities were misplaced: you needed a guide to get to the site and the danger even of ‘spies and evil-minded sight-seers’ finding their way there was minimal. And, according to Lanepart, the possibility of infiltration by the ‘Peeping Toms’ correspondents sometimes worried about was also guarded against because you had to answer questions to join: are you an idealist, a sportsman with a well-developed physique, a person of position and respected in the Colony? I doubt that this line of defence was quite as effective though!

The article ends with the assurance that although officialdom frowned, ‘Nudism persists in the Colony’.

So great was public interest even after half a year at rather a low level of activity that even the failure to hold an outing attracted a short notice on the front page: the third planned outing to Lock Pick Sheung didn’t go ahead because no members turned up at Kowloon Railway Station, perhaps realising that the river that had to be crossed to reach the site had been made swollen and impassable by recent rains.[18]

How small the group holding the Colony’s attention was becomes clear from a report of the outing of October 2, 1932 which revealed that the cult (Lanepart’s own word) had shrunk from 8 active members at the September peak to a mere 4, all male. It seems that the founder would attempt to round up the women before the train left but thus far without any success. The only participants, according to this reporter, had been young Chinese males, and one Eurasian who admitted he was only going out of curiosity had dropped out. The members left Kowloon soon after 1 p.m. and returned at 7.30 giving about 5 hours at the site, which remained unimproved in spite of Lanepart’s ambitious plans. The activities were a dip in the pool and sun-bathing. A ‘juvenile gallery’ of locals assembled to watch, but the village elders were unperturbed and haven’t made the expected complaint.[19]

The China Mail interviewed Lanepart on November 9, 1932. In spite of his less than stunning achievements so far, he spoke of nudism’s ‘bright future’ in the Colony and claimed over 100 members, 75% of whom were European – but due to their ‘inherent shyness’ these members, although they arranged private nudist parties, didn’t attend meetings in such numbers as the Chinese, who were every enthusiastic. In fact, Lanepart asserted, it was the Chinese especially young Chinese girls who ‘pushed the movement’. This claim is even harder to believe than the membership figures. Nevertheless, Lanepart envisaged that the Chinese would soon form their own group as part of a centralised China movement, but that depended on the attitude of the Central Government which at the moments seemed ‘very narrow-minded where morality is concerned’. Nudism, he said, depended on each person’s ability to enjoy ‘complete rest’; it was a ’new kind of recreation’. At one point he launched an assault that tells us a lot more about his ideological commitments:

The European girls will never join the society as a mass. They are too selfish. The European girls of the Colony are sick with lifelessness, wrong ideas and social inhibitions. They have little life of their own, they are just puppets, not much good for life’s purposes because they are full of their own narrow-minded and selfish plans, gold-digging and dancing.

If there was some high social advantage to be reaped from nudism, then they would attend our meetings.[20]

Ideas of the ‘life force’ were common in the first half of the twentieth century (similar concepts abound: élan vital, Odic force, vital spark, Orgone Energy, even the Freudian Id…). Perhaps the exponent of such an ideology most familiar to British readers is D. H. Lawrence, who in 1926 published a story called ‘Sun’ in which a sick middle-class woman discovers the power of giving herself naked to the sun (the story actually ends tragically as this power has its limits in a generally diseased society). Lawrence’s last complete work Apocalypse (1929-30) ends with words that are simply a more eloquent expression of the sentiments Lanepart was to offer to the readers of The China Mail a few years later:

What we want is to destroy our false, inorganic connections, especially those related to money, and re-establish the living organic connections, with the cosmos, the sun and earth, with mankind and nation and family. Start with the sun, and the rest will slowly, slowly happen.

The counterpoising of the vital force, warmed into more intense power by the sun, to the anti-life restraints of ‘morality’ – represented in Lanepart’s case by the Chinese Authorities and the Christian clergy of Hong Kong – is a familiar theme of such thinkers. Clothes come to represent social convention and psychic inhibition; they not only promote sickness (by blocking the energy of the sun and perhaps interfering with freedom of movement) but they’re only there in the first place because the wearer is already weak and diseased. Lanepart’s phrase ‘not much good for life’s purposes’ sums up Lawrence’s attitude to many of his characters, most notoriously Lady Chatterley’s crippled husband Clifford. And my guess is that Lanepart’s stress on ‘mixed’ nudism stemmed not from a prurient interest in the unclad female body but from his belief that anything less was a capitulation of ‘life’ to ‘morality’. I’m not, by the way, trying to suggest he was an avid reader of Lawrence’s novels – he more likely got his ideas from German sources – but that nudism was never just about taking off your clothes or the role of the sun in promoting physical health. It linked in to a set of ideas about ‘life’ that were influential in the first half of the twentieth century, and which, like Lanepart’s earlier Theosophical enthusiasm, survives now in much ‘New Age’ thinking.

Majority opinion in the Colony, of course, had a different view: on July 1, 1932 a Chinese man was reported to have gone naked in West Point; he was certified insane, but the headline was ‘Nudist in West Point’.[21] Taking off your clothes in public could be seen as a sign not of psychic freedom and the desire to participate more strongly in an all-pervading life force, but of mental imbalance. Perhaps strangely a Prussian ban on Nudism made the front page of The China Mail in August, but, given the background described in this post, it’s easy to see why the editor wanted to highlight the Reuter’s report:

The Nudist Cult has been described by prominent Germans as a form of modern savagery

The report labelled nudism a sign of ‘savagery’ seen not as noble but as a ‘demoralising’ falling away from civilisation. [22] The story also revealed some of the more concrete anxieties behind Hong Kong’s reaction: servants were said to be insisting on doing their work naked, and nudists were sometimes erupting into public spaces and causing ‘consternation or excitement’.

On September 9, 1932 the same paper published two hostile letters, one from ‘Disgusted’, suggesting that no ‘European worthy of the name’ was involved with Hong Kong nudism, and that no ‘decent European’ ever would get involved. The writer believed that Lanepart should be put under some form of ‘restraint’. He referred to the Society’s ‘lewd, naked exhibitions in the NewTerritories’ and suggested that the average European viewed the society with ‘mild amusement, tinctured with disgust’. A number of points are worth noting; ‘Disgusted’ obviously saw a proper attitude towards clothing as a mark of civilisation, and civilisation as a necessary attribute of proper European-ness. If the report of September 6 was his source, or was accurate and matched the writer’s private information, then Portuguese and Russians were not considered Europeans ‘worthy of the name’. Further, parts of the NewTerritories were still wild in the 1930s, and this area of the Colony clearly featured in the mind of ‘Disgusted’ as the kind of place appropriate to ‘savage’ behaviour like nudism.  It’s worth remembering when we consider Lanepart’s eventual Nazism (discussed below) that both as Theosophist and nudist activist he was working alongside (and in the first case under the leadership of) people who were not, to quote a phrase common at the time, ‘of pure European descent’ and that it probably wasn’t only ‘Disgusted’ who looked down on him for it. One nudist source suggests that the failure of Lanepart’s organisation in its first five years was because it only attracted Continental Europeans and had no ‘British or native Chinese’ supporters;  although undocumented, this claim is plausible (

The other correspondent (‘Anti-Nude’) thought that sexual interest was the main element in leading people to become nudists, and was also vexed by the question of race, forecasting ‘racial and temperamental conflicts’ if Lanepart were to bring about the ‘conditions’ he favoured in a ‘cosmopolitan’ place like Hong Kong.[23] If I’ve understood ‘Anti-Nude’ correctly, he felt that if Europeans took to walking around Victoria in the nude (as we have seen that was far from Lanepart’s plan, at least in the short term) then they would be likely to attack both by introverts and by more conservative ‘races’ like the Chinese. This was another way of playing the inevitable Hong Kong race card: Europeans were an advanced race, and in some cases this had led to moral decay, and it was the job of the responsible authorities to protect more conservative races like the Chinese from these degenerates. The failure of the village elders at Lock Pick Sheung to put in the expected complaint must have been a grave disappointment to some.

It seems that by the winter of 1932 – when presumably the Nudist Society was inactive – public interest had waned. It flared up again briefly in the summer of 1933 when the press took a few final kicks at Lanepart’s organisation.

On July 8, 1933 the Telegraph reported the opposition by a silk-merchant when he heard that the cult was to be imported to Shanghai from Hong Kong by ‘an enterprising foreigner’.[24] At about the same time The China Mail sent a reporter to Lanepart’s ‘paradise’ at Lock Pick Sheung. The article began on the front page and spilled over – ironically it claimed that, in spite of the importance this suggests, Lanepart was the only ‘visible member of the cult in Hong Kong’. The reporter says that the ‘gathering’ began with five people: Lanepart, a man from Canton who was setting up a similar enterprise there, his ‘lady friend’, and the two reporters. At one point a lady and her companion arrived, but left ‘rather hurriedly’, perhaps after seeing a three inch leech attached to Lanepart’s body. It seems she wanted to wear a bathing suit, but Lanepart was ‘adamant’ in wanting her to stick to the rules of the society. There had been reports had earlier visits by Russian and French women, although Lanepart said that was the first visit by a female.[25]

The reporter considered that the retreat grounds were still as ‘bare and stony’ as at the same time last year when the plot was rented from the villagers with the Crown’s permission. The ambitious scheme for a tennis court was shelved but a little work had been done by the swimming pool. Two notice boards warning uninvited visitors that the ground was leased to the nudist society were innovations. ‘A tent, a pair of water-wings and a ball are the only other possessions of the Society,’ concluded the reporter, although he added that Lanepart provided nudist magazines in German and French. Lanepart asked the reporter not to be misled by appearances and claimed nudism was progressing. Several high officials – whom he could not name – were members. The reader would be forgiven for thinking that the Society was effectively dead.

On August 5, 1933 the Daily Press reported with considerable satisfaction that Canton had followed Shanghai in taking measures to ‘suppress’ nudism:

In Hong Kong it {Nudism} is languishing and its life hangs, in appropriately (sic), by a thread.[26]

On May 16, 1934 it was reported that J. P. Braga had asked questions of the authorities about the proposed screening of a nudist film in the Colony with a view to getting it banned.[27] The reply was that no such application had been received and that it would not be screened unless it passed the censorship,[28] which it failed to do next month.[29]  What’s interesting is that the story is reported without any reference to the Hong Kong Society. Similarly, in October 1934 a long report on the first British national nudist conference makes no reference to Lanepart’s group.[30] Nevertheless, an  a report on another subject shows us that he was still a well-known figure in 1934.

In June of that year tKowloon’s Marcel Buffet was sued by Frank Lewiston Adamson, a former employee.[31] The China Mail account of the evidence given on June 27 has a complex set of headlines: at the top is ‘Remarkable Evidence In The Marcel Buffet Case’ and immediately below it we read ‘Mr. Lanepart Wears Long Trousers At The Request Of Court’; the next three headlines refer to the main evidence  The article itself re-iterates this apparently significant point:

Mr. Lanepart, who appeared in long trousers in deference to wishes of the court, was the next witness.

I think this shows that Lanepart usually wore shorts, as I doubt that the Court feared he’d turn up with no clothes at all. It seems that he was eager to have his say:

He had his volubility checked several times by both counsel.

His evidence tells us a little more about his background and his circumstances in 1934:

He stated that he was formerly given free meals and a salary to look after the books of the Marcel Café.

The picture that emerges from Lanepart’s testimony seems to me strongly in his favour. Adamson was suing Nathan Blumethal, the owner of the Marcel Café, for breach of contract, while Blumenthal claimed he’d dismissed his former manager for solid reasons. Lanepart was a strong supporter of Adamson; at one point he’d gone with Blumenthal, then his boss, to see a solicitor and was unable to stop himself bursting out with, ‘The whole trouble is that Mr. Blumenthal wants everything for himself’. He was dismissed soon after – Lanepart suggested that Blumenthal had waited until he’d presented a statement of accounts before sacking him.[32] If this is an accurate account, then Lanepart lost his job because he couldn’t stop himself telling his employer the truth as he saw it and standing up for a man he admired. But it’s significant that the headline singles out his long trousers not his integrity, and that neither the sub-editor nor the reporter felt the need to tell the reader why this was being mentioned. Lanepart seems to have been well-known in the Colony, and thought of as a reasonable subject of (albeit mild) mockery; some of the things I’ve quoted suggest that this was not something he went out of his way to avoid.

I have been able to find few traces of him after 1934 either in Hong Kong or in the wider field.

He wrote an article (‘Hong Kong Nudists Confront Tradition’) in the second volume of Sun and Health, whose first 12 volumes published a cumulative index in Volume 14, 1950; [33] this would suggest Volume 2 came out in 1936/7.

Evidence of the continuing existence of the Hong Kong Society comes in 1936. In May of that year two copies of an American nudist magazine were taken by the police from their owners (one of whom ran a bookstall on the Star Ferry wharf). The copies were returned as not obscene under the Act and the Magistrate objected to Lanepart’s use of the term ‘ban’ in a letter he wrote to the Inspector General of Police.[34]

I’ll conclude by discussing the passage that first told me about Lanepart’s existence:

A few Nazis were in sight. {As the defeated Hong Kong defenders were being taken into captivity.} One in particular, a man named Lanepart who had been founder of the Hongkong Nudist Society, strutted the streets beside us with the swastika band about his arm; in spite of his lofty stride, I had seen the photographs taken at his headquarters before the battle and I knew him to be just a dirty-minded idiot.[35]

I don’t know if ‘headquarters’ means the site at Lock Pick Sheung or if Lanepart had some kind of urban presence too – I would guess the former.

In my first post on Lanepart I dismissed as absurd suggestions that in some way his Theosophy led to his Nazi sympathies (if that’s what they were, a point I discuss below) – but how about his advocacy of nudism?

Strangely enough, nudist activity was politicised from an early stage; I’ll give a very simple account of a complex issue. Some of that Vitalist/Life Force thinking I discussed above, and some of the suspicion of modernity as well, did play into fascistic ideology, and, more directly, some nudists stressed that their work was designed to produce a healthy Aryan race. There were, however, also socialist nudist organisations – and Lanepart’s use of the word ‘progressive’ with regard to nudism might just suggest he supported them. The socialists soon fell into line after the Nazi takeover in January 1933, and, after some initial persecution, nudism was accepted and even to some extent promoted by the Nazi authorities – although nudist organisations continued to be harassed in some places because it was suspected they harboured Marxists! [36] Perhaps Lanepart was influenced by developments in Nazi Germany, perhaps he wasn’t, but in any case, there is no natural or inevitable link between nudism and Nazism.

Proulx’s image of this intriguing figure is a sad one to be left with. He clearly implies Lanepart had come along to gloat over the defeated, and, however much he’d been mocked for activities that now seem completely innocuous, it’s an unattractive picture. And of course support for Nazism at any time, but more particularly during the war, can only receive one kind of judgement. But how much can we deduce from Proulx’s description?

Well, it’s perfectly possible that the former Theosophist and proponent of nudism had become a Nazi, and it’s equally possible he’d come along that day to enjoy the humiliation of the defeated. However, unless Lanepart was actually goose-stepping, his ‘strut’ and ‘lofty stride’ are a matter of perception not of objective fact. And wearing a swastika in the early days of occupied Hong Kong might well have been done for personal safety rather than out of ideological sympathy; it could even have been part of a campaign to keep the wearer out of internment (his true nationality is uncertain, but he doesn’t seem to have been German, which would have guaranteed his freedom, and one possibility is Australian, in which case he’d have needed to make some kind of case for himself if he wanted to be allowed to stay on the streets). Finally, in the sources available to me, which are admittedly extremely meagre, I’ve not come across a single instance of an Axis national (other than a Japanese) doing any harm to an Allied citizen in occupied Hong Kong, and a number of instances of help being extended. Even if Lanepart did end up a Nazi, and indeed came along to gloat, we don’t know what he did thereafter.

Proulx is a reliable observer and his account is all the information I currently have on Lanepart during the war and it must be taken seriously. But, as so often in writing these two posts, I find myself very aware of the importance of not jumping to conclusions.

[2] Hongkong Telegraph, April 21, 1932, page 7.

[3] Hongkong Daily Press, February 19, 1932, page 6.

[4] Hongkong Daily Press, February 24, 1932, page 10.

[5] Hongkong Daily Press, March 8, 1932, page 6.

[6] Hongkong Daily Press, March 9, 1932, page 8

[7] Hongkong Daily Press, March 10, 1932, page 6.

[8] Hongkong Telegraph, March 11, 1932, page 22.

[9] Hongkong Telegraph, March 12, 1932, page 14.

[10] Hongkong Telegraph, March 14, 1932, pages 1 and 7.

[11] Hongkong Telegraph, April 4, 1932, page 1.

[12] China Mail, April 6, 1932, page 6.

[16] Hongkong Daily Press, April 18, 1932, page 5.

[17] China Mail, September 6, 1932, page 1.

[18] China Mail, September 12, 1932, page 1.

[19] China Mail, October 3, 1932, pages 1 and 5.

[20] China Mail, November 10, 1932, pages 1 and 7.

[21] China Mail, July 1, 1932, page 12.

[22] China Mail, August 13, 1932, page 1.

[23] China Mail, September 9, 1932, page 6.

[24] Hongkong Telegraph, July 8, 1933, page 9.

[25] China Mail, July 10, 1933, pages 1 and 7 (mislabelled 8).

[26] Hongkong Daily Press, August 5, 1933, page 7.

[27] China Mail, May 16, 1934, page 9; Hongkong Daily Press, page 7.

[28] Hongkong Daily Press, May 18, 1934, page

[29] Hongkong Daily Press, June 15, 1934, page 5.

[30] Hong Kong Telegraph, October 1, 1934, pages 1 and 7.

[31] Hongkong Telegraph, June 27, 1934, page 11.

[32] Hongkong Telegraph, June 27, 1934, page 11.

[34] Hongkong Telegraph, May 28, 1936, page 5.

[35] Bennie Proulx, Underground From Hong Kong, 1943, 130.

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Herbert Edward Lanepart (1): Theosophy in Old Hong Kong

Note: I have come across some uncertain and contradictory dating with regard to the history of Hong Kong Theosophy 1925-1928. I’ve assigned events to years as accurately as I can and in the text that follows I note one particular problem, but the chronology presented here should be treated with caution.

Update: Lanepart was a Latvian, almost certainly of German origin. He stressed his German-ness during the occupation for obvious reasons, and tried to make a living as a teacher – he seems to have succeeded because unlike other Latvians he does not appear in Red Cross records as needing help. He emerged after the war to restart his nudist activities, which I discuss in another post. My interpretation of the evidence so far is that any Nazi-related behaviour was tactical – to help him survive not to express his belief. An article on him in the SCMP in late 1945 is reasonably sympathetic and shows no awareness on the part of the reporter that he’d done anything to harm Allied people or interests. But this is a tentative conclusion that might change as further sources are found. He remained in Hong Kong and married relatively late in life.

While researching Germans in occupied Hong Kong I came across this striking passage from Benjamin Proulx’s Underground From Hong Kong – the defeated soldiers are shuffling slowly towards Queen’s Pier and the journey to the POW Camp at Shamshuipo:

A few Nazis were in sight. One in particular, a man named Lanepart who had been founder of the Hongkong Nudist Society, strutted the streets beside us with the swastika band about his arm; in spite of his lofty stride, I had seen the photographs taken at his headquarters before the battle and I knew him to be just a dirty-minded idiot.[1]

 I decided to look further and found a fascinating and rather tragic story. First of all, my initial and not very surprising assumption that Lanepart was German was not necessarily true: It seems that different sources claim him as Latvian, Australian of German descent, or Czechoslovakian.[2] In any case, it seems that the Japanese didn’t intern him whatever his origin. It turns out that he played a significant role in bringing two movements to Hong Kong: Theosophy and, indeed, nudism. I’ll devote one post to each. And I should say at the start that, although I don’t doubt what Proulx observed, I don’t think that on its own it provides conclusive evidence that Lanepart was a Nazi (and I’ve not yet found any other sources that cast light on this issue).

Herbert Edward Lanepart first appears on the list of Hong Kong Jurors in 1923 – Jury Service was voluntary, so this represents the latest date for his arrival not the earliest possible. He’s listed as living at the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home and working as a clerk at the Hong Kong Hotel, as he is in 1924. By 1926 he was an assistant at the Dairy Farm Ice and Storage Depot and his address is given as ‘on premises’ – it’s possible that he got the job through the influence of his fellow Theosophist, Company Secretary Malcolm Manuk (see below). In 1929 he had the same job but he’d moved into 10, Bowring Rd., Kowloon. In 1932 he’s described as a merchant with Y. T. King and Co. and living at 11, Nanjing Street; I’ve not been able to find him in any later list.

His first incursion into the public consciousness of the Colony was as a Theosophist, so I need to say a little about this once influential movement.

The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) and two others. Blavatsky, the most important figure in the Society’s early history, was controversial in her time and now. Sadly, a few people today don’t know she was a fraud, while most people know nothing about her except that she was a fraud. To put it simply, she claimed to be receiving messages by occult means from a dead Master called Koot Hoomi, and she wasn’t. In fact, one of her basic propositions – that the Society was communicating truths originating from a ‘hierarchy’ of Hidden Masters based in Tibet – was either a fantasy or a lie (or both). In addition she was a plagiarist and a prose writer of unimaginable tedium.

But there was more to Blavatsky than all this suggests. I can’t think of any woman of the nineteenth century who was more influential, and I believe that her influence did much more good than harm. She was perhaps the single most important figure in the process of bringing Asian philosophical ideas to the West, a process of incalculable significance and one that is still going on.[3] And interestingly Theosophy has also had an effect on the ideological development of the East, especially in Sri Lanka (although this took place largely after Blavatsky’s death).  Nevertheless, I need to make it clear that as well as being a charlatan (and a poor stylist), she was, also a racist[4], although perhaps no more so than many other nineteenth century thinkers as far as theory went, and the opposite of one in the practice of her organisation.

The Theosophical Society, although it’s sometimes considered (by those ignorant of its true nature) to be a source of miscellaneous occult nonsense, is in fact a product of the European Enlightenment and its nineteenth century successor movements: in the climate partly created by Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) it sought to found a scientific religion and create a universal brotherhood above all differences of class, race or gender – and Blavatsky’s fantasising about ‘ the Aryan root race’ and suchlike nonsense needs to be understood in this context. In any case, as some of her defenders have pointed out, racist passages make up a very small part indeed of her huge output.

At first Hong Kong largely ignored the new movement. The first mention I’ve been able to find in the online press is in the China Mail, and it reveals an intriguing ‘local’ connection: The Mail published a rather mocking notice of a proposed new book on Theosophical ideas by Alfred Percy Sinnett, ‘formerly connected with our morning contemporary’[5] – he was an erstwhile editor of the Hongkong Daily Press (1865-1868).  Sinnett, who eventually resigned from the Society,[7] was at one time President of the London Lodge, and his Esoteric Buddhism (1883) is often considered a classic of western ‘occultism’.

The movement itself doesn’t seem to have had a presence in Hong Kong until the work of the remarkable Malcolm Manuk. Manuk was born in India of Armenian parentage; he came to Hong Kong in 1899, and joined the Dairy Farm, rising to Secretary and Director.[8] [9] He established the Lodge on March 18, 1923, in a room in the King Edward Hotel[10] with a membership of 8,[11] one of whom was Herbert Lanepart. In a 1941 meeting held to commemorate Manuk, the then President J. Russell said that of the original members only Lanepart and Manuk’s sister Mary were still in Hong Kong.

On November 7, 1923, Manuk’s lecture on World Religions and Theosophy made the front page of the Hongkong Telegraph.[12] He explained that the Society was founded with the ‘express idea of drawing together men and women of every race and every creed’. This was a rare emphasis in the heavily racist society of pre-war Hong Kong.[13] He went on to say that the only qualification for joining was belief in ‘universal brotherhood’ and spoke of ideals like tolerance, service to humanity and selflessness. Membership (in late 1924) was over 50.[14]

In a February 1925 tribute to Manuk just before he left the Colony for a few months in Australia, Lanepart, at that time the secretary, said he’d worked ‘directly under him’ from the first days of the establishment of the Lodge. He praised Manuk’s ‘wonderful spiritual guidance and influence’.[15] In Manuk’s absence, Lanepart seems to have played the leading role in the Hong Kong Lodge.

On March 24 1925 the Lodge celebrated its second anniversary. The speaker (who might have been Lanepart – see below) told the meeting that over the previous year the Society had held 50 public lectures (in addition to other meetings) with an average attendance of 31. Thanks were given to the well-known philanthropists Mr. and Mrs. H. J. Ruttonjee (repeated at the 1926 AGM) for free use of premises.[16] Looked at in the long perspective, Theosophy was part of a movement to refresh Western thinking by importing ideas from Eastern religions – concepts like karma and reincarnation are important in Theosophical ideology – and it seems that the Hong Kong Lodge owed something (perhaps a lot) to support from the Indian community.

It was, in fact, an Indian who was at the centre of the world Theosophical Movement and the subject of rumours that reached ‘fever pitch’ in 1925.[17] Jiddu Krishnamurti had long been prepared by the Society’s leaders for his role as Maitreya, the future ‘World Teacher’, someone who would bring their message to a planet in sore need of spiritual wisdom. However, as well as huge excitement at the belief that Krishnamurti would soon be declared as the man everyone – whether they knew it or not – was waiting for, the year 1925 also saw the start of developments that would lead to Krishnamurti’s 1929/1930 split with Theosophy and renunciation of the role of ‘World Teacher’.[18] But it was the excitement of those rumours of the imminent arrival of a Messianic figure that is reflected in Lanepart’s contributions to the Hong Kong Lodge in the middle of the 1920s.

On Wednesday 2, December 1925 he delivered a public lecture which gives the clearest picture of how he understood the movement he was promoting.[19] He spoke of Theosophy as something founded by certain Spiritual Teachers to spread the ‘God-Wisdom’ of the East to the West, and praised its followers and their ‘noble aims of service to humanity’. He used terms very similar to that of the March lecture to explain that the first and only binding aim of Theosophy was to create a nucleus of the eventual universal human brotherhood without any distinctions of race, colour or religion. The Society’s second aim, he explained, was the study of comparative religion, which would also contribute to this noble enterprise by breaking down the barriers between East and West – the East was ‘the Mother of religions’, and it would help the West to reconstruct its ‘crumbling faith’ at a time when blind belief had been replaced by enquiry. The third object – to investigate the ‘unexplained laws of nature and hidden powers of man’ – would too play its role by demonstrating the ‘spiritual unity of all beings’. The process would have a number of benefits including ‘the softening of prejudices (and the) liberalizing of minds’. He stressed that the Theosophical Society had no dogmas and took no part in the bitter conflicts dividing societies (in fact the Society’s rules said that anyone who tried to get it involved in political disputes should be immediately expelled[20]). Instead it called for peace at all times and believed that there was no religion higher than truth.

Lanepart also reflected the racist side of Theosophy when he spoke of ‘the Great White Brotherhood, the Occult Hierarchy of the World’, who portioned out truth to ‘the races of Man’ in the measure that they were capable of accepting it. I’ll return to this later. He ended by briefly sketching Theosophical metaphysics – mainly Hindu and Buddhist, but with a little Christian admixture – and spoke of the ‘promise of Divine consciousness’ in everything and the ‘illusion’ of separation between human beings.[21]

At this point he seems to have had no anti-British feelings. In another lecture early in 1926 he spoke of God sending people into the world to create perfection out of imperfection. He expressed the hope that the British Empire (and the League of Nations) could contribute to the coming of a world in which humans were united not divided – ‘a federation of peoples, no longer fighting or domineering’. It was a ‘Divine plan to federate the world’, and each individual could contribute by showing the Divinity in him or her through ‘mutual service’.[22] At the bottom of the article we find the word ‘Contributed’. It seems that sometimes editors were happy to publish the long and rather turgid Lodge press releases in toto to fill up space.

In 1925-26 Lanepart was a regular (probably the most regular) lecturer. [23] [24]At the Annual Meeting in March 1926 he was able to report as secretary an impressive record of success in his review of the year 1925-1926: 107 meetings held, 47, public and a Chinese section formed with meetings in Chinese every week, a membership increase greater than the previous year’s doubling, many additions to the library, and the appointment of the Hong Kong Lodge President Malcolm Manuk as ‘representative for all the eight Theosophical Lodges in China’. And all this was in preparation for the imminent arrival of the World Teacher, an event Lanepart also stressed in the talk on ‘Religion and Its Future’ which formed part of the meeting.[25]

If I’m right in assigning this material to 1925-1926, Lanepart was also Secretary of the Star in the East, a group founded in 1911 to prepare the way for Krishnamurti’s emergence as world teacher, and in an annual report he gave an optimistic picture of some of its work:

The Hongkong Star Group, consisting of 14 regular members and many more sympathisers and friends, met every Sunday evening, under the President or Hon. Secretary. Special attention was given to the information of the public about the Coming of the World Teacher, the World Religion, and the Mission of the Order. Several of our public lectures were delivered especially for this purpose and frequent references were made to this in other lectures. 300 copies of Dr. Besant’s 1911 lecture The Emergence of a World Religion were mailed to all clergymen and the Bishops of Hongkong as well as to missionaries, Lodge Members, friends and public leaders.

Several newspaper articles and letters were published by us in the Press, in reply and correction of misstatements about the “Star” and its Head, and also several hundred reprints of these were mailed out together with the above pamphlet.

He took a rosy view of relationships in Hong Kong Theosophy and of its future prospects:

A spirit of perfect harmony and peace pervades the Lodges and we all look forward to greater work in the future. Many of our Members were seriously affected by the events in South China, and a number of them have left Hongkong on home leave for good, yet the work of the Lodge was steadily and successfully carried on and we are glad to say that Theosophy is well received in China and gives splendid hopes for the future.[38]

Lanepart lectured regularly to the Lodge throughout 1926, often stressing the coming of this World Teacher.[26] [27] Given this Theosophical push, it’s not surprising that the Vicar of St. Andrews, the Rev. G. R. Lindsay, felt obliged to point out that, contrary to some claims, Theosophy was not compatible with Christianity: Christians did not regard Jesus as one vehicle of the World Teacher but as ‘the Lord and Giver of Life’.[28] In fact, the work of the Lodge seems to have created some general interest in Theosophy in the Colony. On July 27, 1926 both the China Mail (page 2) and the Hongkong Telegraph (page 12) reported a Congress in Holland at which Krishnamurti occupied the place of honour on the platform (but did not speak). Two days later Krishnamurti’s reorganisation of the movement was also described.[29]

But in the year 1926-1927, with Lanepart as Librarian, Book Steward and Propaganda Secretary, the Lodge seems to have been going through difficult, although not disastrous times. This is an extract from the report to the President of the Theosophical Society:

During the year under review we gained 11 new members, making the total 44. The continued unsettled conditions in China, with the resulting economic depression, which has compelled many to leave the colony, accounts for the reduction in our numbers….[30]

In other words, the Lodge was still suffering from the economic difficulties caused in Hong Kong by the strike and boycott organised by the Nationalist Authorities in Canton between June 1925 and October 1926.[31] It’s worth quoting the section of the report that lists the officers because it gives a good idea of how multi-ethnic the Lodge was:

Officers. At the Annual Election Meeting in June, the following Officers were elected: President : Bro. Malcolm Manuk. Vice-President : Bro. John  Russell. Hon. Secretary: Mrs. Mabel May. Hon. Treasurer : Bro. Burjor  M. Talati, B.A. Hon. Librarian, Book-steward and Propaganda Secretary : Bro. Herbert E. Lanepart.

Committee : Bro. David Gubbay, Bro. Wei Tat, B.A., Bro. Wong  Man Keung, Bro. Maurice Minney, Bro. Lee Tinsik.

Not many organisations in old Hong Kong had ‘whites’ being led by an Indian of Armenian extraction with other non-Europeans also playing prominent roles! Manuk, by the way, died in 1932 (his death was reported as far away as Australia) and the Lodge was quickly renamed in his honour. A future leader was to be Arthur Fung, a Chinese doctor. All this is relevant to the question of Theosophy and Nazism discused below.

The report (written by Secretary Mabel May) goes on to detail Lanepart’s work as Propaganda Secretary, first as fundraiser:

The untiring efforts of our Hon. Propaganda Secretary has also enabled us to subscribe…to the “80 Years Young Fund” and Rs.45 to “Adyar Day”. [32]

And then as publicist:

 All our public lectures were summarised by the Propaganda Secretary and published in the four principal English newspapers, who were all liberal with their space. From 300 to 700 copies of their reprints weekly were distributed among the general public. Copies were sent to outports and all Far-Eastern Lodges.

In addition, a large number of propaganda leaflets and pamphlets were distributed among the Army and Navy (of which there has been a great influx owing to the trouble) and which may bear fruit on the return of the troops to their homes.

And finally as protagonist in debate:

In answer to attacks on Bishop Leadbeater and Mrs. Besant in a local newspaper,[33] the Propaganda Secretary replied by a number of letters in the “Correspondence” column, and effectively silenced our opponents. The whole controversy lasted about six weeks and thus gave the Society a large amount of publicity and the public a good deal of information.[34]

Leadbetter was a controversial figure who had been expelled from the Theosophical Society after allegations of serious sexual misconduct but then reinstated. He was working in Australia at this time, which might have had something to do with Manuk’s visit mentioned above. In any case, Lanepart’s conduct of his campaign for nudism in 1932 and 1933 was to show how much he enjoyed argument and controversy.

The Lodge’s meetings were taking place at Lane Crawford’s Restaurant – better known by its old name of the Cafe Wiseman and mentioned in many other posts on this blog.[35]

Note: A report in the Hongkong Daily Press on March 19, 1927 (page 7) gives Lanepart as Secretary and the number of ‘active members’ as 98 (22 new). It also mentions the setting up of a ‘new’ Chinese Lodge, which had also been reported in 1926. I’m confused by this, and further research is obviously necessary.

Lanepart’s efforts attracted the notice of circles outside Hong Kong. In The Theosophist Magazine for October-December 1927 Lanepart was praised for his good work in the absence of Malcolm Manuk during that year; it was said he lectured and published articles in the daily papers clearing up misconceptions about Theosophy and the coming of the World Teacher.[39] In August 1928 Lanepart was appointed ‘Chief Brother for China’ of the ‘Theosophical Order of Service’. This was an organisation that sought to help ‘humanity along lines of practical brotherhood in the light of Theosophy’, thus bringing about the visible diminution of ‘misery and pain’. Its motto was ‘a Union of all who Love for the Service of All who Suffer’.[40] Interestingly one of its seven principles was ‘back to nature’, which might provide a link to Lanepart’s next enthusiasm, nudism.

On October 1, 1928 Manuk opened their new premises on the second floor of the Mercantile Bank Building. The day was an auspicious one: it was the eighty first birthday of the leader of the movement, Annie Besant, and also the birthday of Mrs. Ruttonjee, and again it was stressed that Mr. and Mrs. Ruttonjee, the leaders of the Indian community, had provided some of the support that had led to the Society ‘standing where it did’.[41]

Theosophists continued to be active in Hong Kong throughout the 1930s,[42] but I don’t know how involved Lanepart was. In 1932 he founded the Hong Kong Nudist Society and his main efforts obviously went to that, but there is one indication that he remained a supporter of Theosophy even during this period. Membership by 1931 was only 22 (from 34 the previous year), but, as the report said, this didn’t represent the general level of interest in the Colony.[43] On September 21, 1933 the death of Annie Besant was front page news in the Hongkong Telegraph with the story running over to page 7, evidence of the continuing broader interest in the movement.  Lanepart made a donation to Theosophy in her memory.[44] This is the final link with Theosophy I’ve been able to find, but it does prove that his two enthusiasms ran alongside each other for a couple of years at least.

What are we to make of the relationship between Lanepart’s Theosophy and the apparent acceptance of Nazism that we must deduce if we take at face value the incident recorded by Bennie Proulx? (Whether or not we should do so I’ll discuss in my next post.)  I’ve already mentioned Blavatsky’s racism and anti-Semitism, and some people would have us believe that Theosophy could easily have been a training school for Nazi bigotry and irrationalism,[45] but such stigmatisations are typically the product of fundamentalist Christian conspiracy theorists. In fact, as every writer acknowledges, Nazism had many sources, and one of these was Christian persecution of the Jews– even if, as Zygmunt Bauman has argued,[46] Nazi anti-Semitism is significantly different from ‘traditional’ European anti-Semitism it is impossible to imagine it coming in to being and so quickly taking hold of so much of German society without the ‘preparation’ of centuries of religious anti-Semitism (and those who like to point to Hitler’s interest in Blavatsky’s works might remember that Luther’s anti-Semitic ravings were amongst the most quoted ‘authorities’ in Nazi Germany). It would, be obvious nonsense to suggest that someone became a Nazi because they had previously been a Christian.

A more reasonable view of the link between Theosophy and anti-Semitism is taken by James Webb in his excellent book The Occult Establishment:

Theosophy, its doctrine, its foundress, and its adherents, can all be shown to have been involved in racism, conspiracy theories and at least one anti-Semitic tract… Blavatsky was by birth a Russian of the official classes, and it would be surprising if something of the anti-Semitic mythology of the Russian aristocracy had not rubbed off on her. She cannot be accused of any active anti-Semitism, but her attitude was that of her origins.[47]

Theosophy, as I’ve tried to make clear in quoting Herbert Lanepart, was a movement based on peace and brotherhood. It was one of the few organisations in old Hong Kong that not only preached racial equality but practised it. Nothing could be further from Nazism’s glorification of violence and its lunatic racial hierarchies, let alone its organised mass murder. If Lanepart did end up a supporter of Hitler – a point I shall consider in my next post – it was in tragic contradiction to his work for Theosophy, not a continuation of it.

[1] Benjamin A. Proulx, Underground From Hongkong, 1943, 130.

[3] The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, still the most important European figure to  draw on Asian philosophy, hoped that the introduction of Sanskrit literature to the West would lead to a new ‘renaissance’, just as the original Renaissance had been partly brought about by the rediscovery of Greek literature in the fifteenth century– The World As Will and Idea, Volume 1, Preface.

[4] A fair-minded account of the issue is to be found at

[5] China Mail, July 10, 1886, page 2.

[7] Peter Washington, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon, 1993, 125.

[8] China Mail, April 7, 1932, pages 1 and 12.

[10] Hongkong Telegraph, April 8, 1941, page 7.

[11] Hongkong Telegraph, February 17, 1925, page 2.

[12] Hongkong Telegraph, November 8, 1923, page 1.

[13] This racism is one of the main subjects of Gerald Horne’s Race War! (2003). Horne distorts and misrepresents many of his sources, but he is framing a guilty man. A more balanced although much less detailed account is given in Paul Gillingham’s At the Peak: Hong Kong Between the Wars (1983) which suggests that the Colony’s vigorous sporting life was another relatively non-racist area of activity.

[14] Hongkong Daily Press, December 4, 1924, page 6. The figure of 53 is given for early 1925 – Hongkong Telegraph, February 17, 1925, page 2.

[15] Hongkong Telegraph, February 17, 1925, pages 2-3.

[16] China Mail, March 20, 1925, page 8.

[18]Washington, 1993, 270-279.

[19] China Mail, December 5, 1925, page 7.

[21] China Mail, December 5, 1925, page 7.

[22] China Mail, February 26, 1926, page 6.

[23] China Mail, March 6, 1926, page 5.

[24] China Mail, March 13, 1926, page 3.

[25] China Mail, March 20, 1926, page 11; Hongkong Telegraph, March 20, 1936, page 20.

[26] China Mail, March 27, 1926, page3; April 5, 1926, page 7, April 10, 1926, page 3.

[27] China Mail, 1926, May 1, page 3; May 8, 1926, page 3.

[28] Hongkong Daily Press, May 3, 1926, page 6.

[29] China Mail, July 29, 1926, page 12.

[31] This incident is also discussed in Paul Gillingham’s book mentioned above.

[32] A Theosophical magazine.

[33] As I’ve not been able to find these online the dispute probably took place in the columns of the South China Morning Post.

[36] The report appears undated on the internet.

[37] ‘The Star of the East’ was an organisation set up to prepare for the World Teacher and its Head was Krishnamurti, who dissolved it in 1929.

[40] Hongkong Telegraph, August 24, 1928, page 2.

[41] Hongkong Telegraph, October 2, 1928, page 2.

[42] See e.g. Hong Kong Daily Press, July 7, 1938, page 10; January 14, 1939; January 5, 1941;  Hong Kong Telegraph, July26, 1935, page 7.

[46] In his influential Modernity and the Holocaust, 1991 ed., passim.

[47] James Webb, The Occult Establishment, 1986, 226.

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