Boris Pasco – ‘one of the nameless ones’

My guess is that few readers of the Hong Kong newspapers of the 1920s and 1930s would have expected Boris Pasco to play any part in the highly dangerous job of providing relief to the Allied prisoners, let alone to have anything to do with the resistance. The news stories don’t suggest a man willing to risk everything to help others, and after the Japanese invasion, as a ‘third national’, he could have stayed away from any activity that could be labelled ‘pro-British’ and thus spared himself the risk of imprisonment, torture and death. But, although the full story of his contribution during the occupation will probably never be known, enough is visible to suggest that when called upon to show his courage and his humanitarian commitment he responded magnificently.

Boris Pasco was a Russian bookseller. He first appears on the Jurors List for 1921. The name of the shop is given as Brewer and Co.[1]  On October 25, 1922 he married Kathleen Josephine Harris at St. Joseph’s Church. After a reception at the Hong Kong Hotel, the couple left for a honeymoon in Canton and Macao.[2]

But according to his own account, his involvement with Brewer and Co. goes back to at least 1920: he claimed in court to have been a partner in that year, buying the business later.[3] In 1924 the company was accused of breaches of copyright by a ‘rival’ bookshop[4] (Kelly and Walsh) and Mr. Brewer, who was then or later became a barrister, represented the company in court and stated that he himself no longer sold books. In 1926 Mr. Brewer took his former company to court in a case that hinged on his continuing liabilities as a ‘retiring partner’, and two statements made at the trial establish that he was involved with the firm until 1925, which was presumably the year Mr. Pasco bought him out:

Mr. Lo {acting for the Company}said the partnership of Brewer & Co. had been dissolved. Mr. Pasco was the sole tenant and he was carrying on the business under the name of Brewer & Co.[5]

And:

Plaintiff ceased to be a partner in the defendant from last year. [6]

This case was not to be the last appearance in court for either party. N. I. Brewer went on to be involved in other litigation,[7] to see the affairs of his Instone Banking Corporation legally probed during liquidation,[8] and to be dramatically arrested in Shanghai and brought back to Hong Kong to face charges of making false statements designed to deceive shareholders and potential shareholders.[9] He was convicted on one of three counts, the Crown dropping but not withdrawing the two others.[10] Boris Pasco, although he avoided criminal prosecution, was to have an equally lively time of it in the courts.

But the next time I’ve been able to find him mentioned in the Hong Kong press is for something very different. In October 1928 Kowloon Football Club presented him with a chiming clock in oak with a silver plate attached to mark his long association with the club, and his services as a player of ‘no mean merit’. The reason for the presentation was that an accident had brought his playing career to an end.[11]

The next month a Chinese ‘public car driver’ accused Mr. Pasco of striking him, something which he admitted, while cross-summoning the driver for behaving in a disorderly manner that might have led to a breach of the peace by abusing and spitting at him. Mr. Lindsell, presiding, adjourned the case for a week, in spite of Mr. Pasco’s pleading that this was the busy season for him and that he’d gathered all his witnesses; Mr. Lindsell made his decision in the hope that the case might be settled out of court. Perhaps it was, as there was no further report in the press.[12]

It seems that in late 1928 the book shop was in Pedder Street, as that’s the address given in the report.[13] In the 1930 Jurors List he’s given as living ‘on premises’, although this was almost certainly a postal address.[14] In 1936 Jurors List he’s given as living at in Causeway Bay. It was on a journey in that part of Hong Kong that the incident that was to lead to his next appearance before Mr. Lindsell took place. This time his attendance in court was at his own instigation.

In July 1938 he sued the Tramway Company on behalf of his daughter, who’d been injured at about 8 p.m. on November 28, 1937 by an ‘emergency stop’ as she preparing to leave the tram with her father and mother. All three were thrown downstairs, Miss Pasco suffering concussion.[15] The driver claimed that Mr. Pasco did not fall down himself, as he’d claimed: rather he shouted at and hit him in the chest and chased him from the first class compartment.[16]

It seems like Mr. Pasco’s attempt to win $10,000 dollars in compensation might have been a last ditch effort to solve his financial problems, but it actually made them worse: the Pascos lost the case, and had to pay costs.[17] Before 1938 had arrived, he was filing for bankruptcy. Two creditors opposed his application and the resulting court case gives us a glimpse of his business affairs in the 1930s.

It seems that in 1931 Mr. Pasco bought exchange to the value of £2,500 and when Britain went off the Gold Standard in May he incurred losses of $15,000. The China Mail report makes this sound like financial speculation, but that in the Daily Press suggests rather that Mr. Pasco chose an unlucky moment to finance a large book order. To pay off his debt to the Chase Bank, he had to borrow money, which was lent on the condition that Brewer’s Bookshop become a limited concern.[18] Pasco was appointed manager but his salary was gradually decreased and he was dismissed on December 31, 1934. He was unemployed for three months and then became manager of Harris’s bookshop which was set up by his wife, using capital obtained from her mother. He was accused of withholding details of debts from John Dickinson and Co, who had lent him the money to pay off the Chase Bank, and even of having taken books from Brewer’s to stock Harris’s, which he denied. Mr. Justice Liddell, who’d tried to get his assault case settled out of court and later found against him in the Tramways suit,  refused to make the bankruptcy order, which had been opposed by Mr. Hong Sling and Mr. Tobias, a former partner of Mr. Pasco.[19] Both these men said they had lost money as a result of guaranteeing loans for the would-be bankrupt, who it was claimed, in 1933 had begged Hong Sling with tears in his eyes to save his business.[20]

The Hong Kong Daily Press put the story on its front page, and led off by detailing the ‘serious allegations’ made against Mr. Pasco – ‘not only of fraud, or of misconduct amounting to fraud, but that he had been guilty of criminal actions in obtaining property and money by false pretences’.[21] Mr. Pasco denied these charges, but did admit in the witness box that he’d concealed liabilities while obtaining the Dickinson loan. The representatives of the two men opposing the grant of bankruptcy attempted to make Mr. Pasco sound thoroughly dishonest and self-serving, a man ‘who had been living in the past five years on creditors’. Living well at that: evidence and debate focused on Mr. Pasco’s cars, his lunching habits, and his enjoyment of the best seats at the cinema. Whatever the truth of the matter, Mr. Lindsell refused his bankruptcy application, although Mr. Pasco could console himself with the fact that although criminal actions had been alleged, no charges were brought.

We must, of course, remember that no-one appears at their best when judged by newspaper accounts of their court appearances alone. Nevertheless, the Hong Kong public might be forgiven for getting an impression of a rather irascible man who put himself first when it came to financial matters – although some might have noted that he was accused of making a loan to a friend even when he was obviously short of money himself. But whatever the truth of thee matter, war has the potential to change everything and everybody, and Mr. Pasco was to be drawn into relief work by one of the greatest figures of the Hong Kong conflict, the Japanese interpreter, Kiyoshi Watanabe.

The Rev. Watanabe – he was a Lutheran pastor who’d trained in the USA – came to Hong Kong to work for the occupation forces in February 1942[22] and was still present at the surrender. He carried out countless acts of highly dangerous humanitarian smuggling and other relief work on behalf of the defeated, without ever for one moment betraying the interests of his country. This was the man who became a regular customer at Mr. Pasco’s ‘small well stocked’ bookshop.[23]

According to Watanabe’s biographer, Liam Nolan, the Japanese took over the Gloucester Hotel during the occupation, so Mr. Pasco was forced to move his business to nearby Ice House Street.[24] In fact Harris’s seems to have been in the Gloucester Arcade[25] in premises first leased from the Hong Kong Hotel in 1935.[26] But there’s no doubt that the wartime (and post-war) location was Ice House Street.

Mr. Pasco, although naturally wary at first, gradually came to trust the Rev. Watanabe (‘Uncle John’) and accept him as a friend.[27] When the interpreter wanted to get help sending parcels to Canadian soldiers in Bowen Road Hospital he turned to the bookseller:

Mr. Pasco listened patiently. Yes, he had heard that parcels were sent to Shamshui Po, and that Hilda Selwyn-Clarke was doing great work in providing comforts for Bowen Road. He would be pleased to help Uncle John in any way he could, but How?[28]

Watanabe asked him to get his friends to send parcels to men on a list he provided:

Pasco was hesitant at first. Could this not be a trick, subtly led up to, to land him and his family and friends into the hands of the Kempeitai? Perhaps this Watanabe was a cunning agent of the secret police.[29]

As should be evident, Nolan’s narrative is presented in semi-fictional form, but it seems to be basically accurate, and I suspect it’s based on contact by letter with Mr. Pasco after he (Nolan) had met the Rev. Watanabe in London in 1960 and decided to write a book. The account continues with Mr. Pasco deciding to trust the Japanese interpreter and arranging for everyone on his list to receive a parcel.[30]

Nolan goes on to mention a Sunday morning visit to the bookshop[31] and describes an important occasion on which the Rev. Watanabe goes to Ice House Street on ‘business’:

While he was in Pasco’s shop, a Chinese girl came in. Pasco called her over and introduced her to Uncle John.

‘This is Miss Helen Ho,’ Pasco said. ‘She is one of the – eh – nameless ones who have been helping.[32]

 I think the two recorded visits, one for ‘business’, suggest that Mr. Pasco continued to help the Rev. Watanabe in his humanitarian activities, and the form of his introduction to Helen Ho leads to the almost inevitable conclusion that he was himself ‘one of the nameless ones’. This meeting took place after the arrest of Dr. Selwyn-Clarke, the organiser of much of the legal and illegal relief activity in occupied Hong Kong, on May 2, 1943. Helen Ho was one of the two ‘Chinese ladies whom I knew that {if arrested} I could trust to carry on {my work} at any sacrifice’.[33] It seems that as well as whatever work he continued to do with the Rev. Watanabe, Mr. Pasco was helping Helen Ho to carry on Selwyn-Clarke’s campaign. Of the three who met in the shop in Ice House Street that morning, only the Rev. Watanabe would avoid arrest (in Helen Ho’s case, on more than one occasion). Mr. Pasco was taken by the Kempeitai in the course of their crackdown on the resistance, which reached its height in the spring of 1943.

According to a report that reached the British Army Aid Group, Mr. Pasco was arrested and taken to the Kempeitai Headquarters at the Supreme Court at about the same time as the Jesuit Fathers Joy and Casey, the Canadian Thomas Monaghan, and the British banker David Edmondston.[34] Giving evidence at a post-war collaboration trial, Mr. Pasco added ‘Kookel’ (probably the man Selwyn-Clarke calls Khorkel) and George Kotwall to the list of his fellow detainees.[35] He was taken in because he was suspected of allowing his bookshop to be used as a meeting place for Charles Hyde, Chester Bennett, Marcus da Silva and other BAAG agents. On preliminary questioning, the Japanese could find nothing to substantiate this charge and he was released about a fortnight after being sent to Stanley Goal. When the BAAG’s informant left Hong Kong in October 1943 he was back at his bookshop.[36] At the 1946 trial of three Supreme Court Gendarmes for war crimes, Mr. Pasco was called on to ‘corroborate and confirm’ the statements of witnesses who did not appear in court. In other words, he gave evidence as to alleged abuses committed against others – the Defence Counsel wanted it dismissed as ‘hearsay’ – not against himself.[37] This might suggest he avoided torture, although he would have been very lucky indeed to have escaped without at least a beating. Unfortunately the online trial records are only available from HKU computers and the online newspaper archive for the period of the trial lacks any English numbers so I am unable to be certain on this point. All we know is that Mr. Pasco did whatever he needed to do to avoid incriminating himself and others. Further, there’s a strong possibility he was ‘guilty’.

This is American journalist Hal Boyle’s account of Marcus da Silva and Chester Bennett at work:

Da Silva would collect the money {raised illegally to provide relief for Stanley Camp} and put it in a small basket swinging from his arm –{figure illegible- perhaps 40,} to 50,000 dollars at a time – and walk boldly past Jap soldiers to a book store around the corner. Bennett would be waiting in the rear of the bookstore. He would take the money to another rendezvous and they’d smuggle it into Stanley by putting it in the bottom of lard cans. This went on for several months. They got hundreds of thousands of yen in to helpless internees – money that was translated into food and kept them going.[38]

During the war Marcus da Silva lived at 11, Ice House Street[39] and he was using that as his professional address in 1941.[40] I strongly suspect that Mr. Pasco’s was the bookshop that is referred to in Boyle’s account, and that the owner, as well as his relief work, gave at least this much help to the resistance.

His last appearance in the Hong Kong press is as a witness in the trial of Mohammed Yusuf Shah, a former policeman charged with collaboration. Mr. Shah had indeed worked for the Kempeitai – like everyone else in occupied Hong Kong he had few choices as to how to earn a living – and been present at the arrest of Dr. Selwyn-Clarke. However, his trial in 1947 provided ample proof that he’d used his position to render great aid to those being held at the Supreme Court. Frederick Tyndall, one of many witnesses in Mr. Shah’s favour, said he saw the accused helping people, including Pasco. Mr. Pasco himself said that Shah had helped many prisoners, including Chinese ones, without thought of reward, by bringing in and out messages and smuggling in food and medicines. He added that he often saw the policeman on the street after his release and was given warnings of impending trouble.[41] In spite of this, and much else to the same effect, Mr. Shah was given the shocking sentence of seven years hard labour.

That’s all I’ve found out so far about Boris Pasco. He died aged 65 on March, 8, 1966 and was buried in the Jewish Cemetery, Happy Valley.[42] Perhaps this lifetime bookseller was able to hold in his hands Liam Nolan’s book on Kiyoshi Watanabe, which was published in the year he died- the only one to give a hint of his own service in the dark world’s fire of occupied Hong Kong.


[2] China Mail, October 26, 1922, page 8.

[3] China Mail, December 8, 1938, page 12.

[4] The headline is Rival Book Shops, but it seems that Kelly and Walsh were a Shanghai-based publishing company at the time – http://gwulo.com/node/9606

[5] Hongkong Daily Press,December 1 4, 1926, page 5.

[6] Hongkong Daily Press, December 14, 1926, page 5.

[7] China Mail, April 27, 1928, page 6.

[8] China Mail, August 6, 1929, page 1.

[9] China Mail, November 21, 1929, page 6.

[10] China Mail, January 28, 1930, page 1.

[11] Hongkong Telegraph, October 13, 1928, page 12.

[12] China Mail, November 21, 1928, page 1.

[13] China Mail, November 28, page 1.

[15] China Mail, July 5, 1938, page 4.

[16] China Mail, July 6, 1938, page 4.

[17] China Mail, July 14, 1938, page 6. A week or so before the accident Miss Pasco had been praised by the Hong Kong Sunday Herald for a  brilliant display in goal on the hockey pitch – November 20, 1938, page 19.

[18] China Mail, December 8, 1938, page 12.

[19] China Mail, December 8, 1938, page 12 (mis-numbered 16 in index).

[20] Hongkong Daily Press, December 9, 1938, page 9.

[21] Hongkong Daily Press, December 9, 1938,page 1.

[22] Liam Nolan, Small Man of Nanataki, , 1966, 21

[23] Nolan, 84; for its ‘very limited’ size see http://gwulo.com/node/8575

[24] Nolan, 84.

[25] China Mail, December 8, 1938, page 12.

[26] Hongkong Daily Press, December 9, 1938, page 9.

[27] Nolan, 84-85

[28] Nolan, 85.

[29] Nolan, 85.

[30]Nolan, 86.

[31] Nolan, 103.

[32] Nolan, 106.

[33] Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, Footprints, 1975, 83. The other was Dr. Po-chuen Lai, and both she and Helen Ho were awarded the OBE after the war.

[34] Ride Papers, KWIZ 41/4.

[35] China Mail, February 26, 1947, page 3.

[36] Ride Papers, KWIZ, 41/4/ continued.

[39] China Mail, March 8, 1946, page 1.

[41] China Mail, February 26,, 1947, page 3.

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