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.

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  http://www.kheper.net/topics/Theosophy/root_races.html)

[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] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canton-Hong_Kong_strike. 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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  1. Pingback: Gerald Horne’s Race War! (1) : The Eurasians | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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