Hahn As Source (3): The Art of Vendetta (David Charles Edmondston)

In the next two posts in this series on Emily Hahn’s work as a source for the Hong Kong war I’m going to look at the way in which her apparent desire to take settle scores affects her presentation of events in China To Me, her most important testimony.

David Charles Edmondston, Hong Kong manager of the HKSBC and the man most likely to take over the number one position on the retirement of Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, might be thought a good representative of the stifling British Colonial orthodoxy which Hahn criticises on a number of occasions. In addition, she has three reasons to hold a personal grudge against him: firstly, he barred her way into the HKSBC building during an air raid – although luckily this incident was swiftly brought to a close by the arrival of Gordon King, Hahn’s obstetrician, who led her away in the direction of Queen Mary Hopsital and her wounded lover, Charles Boxer.[1] Secondly, he stopped Vera Armstrong, a mutual friend, taking Hahn’s baby daughter, Carola, into his house to shelter during raids, presumably on the grounds that she was born ‘out of wedlock’ and he disapproved of her parents’ behaviour anyway (see below).[2] Finally, this time after the surrender, he vetoed Hahn’s application for a loan during the hard days and runaway inflation of the occupation. Hahn’s description of this third incident is vivid:

Edmonston[3] was violently opposed to letting me have any money. ‘But why?’ asked Grayburn, mildly puzzled. ‘I admit she is not British, but she is certainly an ally of ours; she has worked hard for our men; she is entitled to aid – ’

‘Because,’ said Edmonston passionately, ‘Boxer treated his wife disgracefully, and I for one do not intend to overlook it.’

Sir Vandeleur grew more puzzled. ‘Is that any reason,’ he asked, ‘why an American woman and her child should starve now, in the streets of occupied Hong Kong?’

Yes,’ snapped Edmonston.[4]

These three incidents are none of them trivial matters. The second and the third show a cold-blooded willingness to let a baby suffer for the actions of its parents. But according to Hahn the banker was ‘shaking’ during that air raid when she met him at the HKSBC entrance, not out of fear of injury but because of his ‘encounter with a Scarlet Woman’ – Hahn seems to be suggesting that Edmondston was afraid of her, as although his shaking might have been from indignation he’s also described as having a ‘scared frown.’ Here, we might think, is a man whose narrow-minded adherence to conventional morality completely over-rides normal human decency and compassion.

As for that attempt to deny Hahn and her baby relief: we don’t have Edmondston’s side of the story, but, as it’s presented here, it’s impossible not to agree with Grayburn, who generously gave her a loan on his personal account.  It seems that the most likely source for these events, though, is Grayburn himself, as Hahn feels confident about his inner states at the meeting, and it would be fair to assume that, whoever was telling the story, would have wanted to point up the contrast between Sir Vandeleur’s slightly ineffectual but thoroughly decent bewilderment and Edmondston’s mean-spirited self-confidence. Nevertheless, this is the only account we have and it’s certainly possible that Edmondston acted – in language, intonation and sentiment – as the perfect symbol of the rebarbative conventional-mindedness of old Hong Kong.

In any case, even if the portrait’s over-drawn, Hahn’s quite justified in noting Edmondston’s behaviour in this case and the two others she mentions and in expecting to excite the reader’s indignation. I repeat: none of her grievances are trivial, all of them were potentially matters of life and death, and in two cases not for her alone.

D. C. Edmondston is the man with the moustache in the front pair. 

 But she does have one problem. On May 24, 1943, David Edmondston was arrested for his role in the Hong Kong resistance. Hahn, who spent four months in Hong Kong after this arrest, must have known about it – indeed, to be fair to her we absolutely must assume she did. The fact that she mentions his illegal activity in her book demands as much: it would be taking score-settling to criminal lengths if she were providing the Japanese with a picture of work on the ‘relief committee’, whose funds were for the most part raised illegally, at a time when he was still at liberty. Hahn is scrupulous about not putting people at risk (the book was first published in 1944) and only names individuals involved in illegal activity when they’re dead, escaped, or already in prison. I don’t believe she’s broken her rule here.

In fact the charges against David Edmondston were far more serious than his role in humanitarian relief. Accounts differ, but they probably involved his helping in the escape of two bankers and the planned escape of an Indian officer.  I don’t know if the Kempeitai found out about his communication with the British Army Aid Group,[5] which is well documented. His high position in the HKSBC seems to have given him some kind of recognized leadership role (under Grayburn, of course) in illegal work: another of the bankers, G. Lyon-Mackenzie, wrote to him urging him to rein in Charles Hyde. Lyon-Mackenzie obviously felt that Hyde’s wide-ranging resistance activities were risking  his own safety and that of the other bankers. Mr. Edmondston did nothing.  Lyon-Mackenzie was himself an extremely brave man, and it’s not my intention to suggest he was wrong (or right) but to add something to the reader’s picture of David Edmondston. (I’ve discussed this incident in a little more detail at https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2012/04/20/charles-hydes-resistance-work/). The man who Hahn suggests was terrified at meeting a ‘Scarlet Woman’ was also a courageous resistance operative who must have spent the last six months or so before his arrest aware that one day he was likely to fall into the hands of the Kempeitai, knowing what that meant, and carrying on anyway.

When the ordeal came, he met it with magnificent spirit.  Although questioned with great brutality, Mr. Edmondston  gave no information to his torturers, about his only work or anyone else’s. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and died of malnutrition and medical neglect on August 29, 1944.[6] The back of his neck had been taken over by a huge carbuncle, he was in some kind of coma, and, although his wife and daughter were allowed to visit him in Stanley Prison, he was not able to regain consciousness and speak to them.

I doubt that Hahn knew anything other than that he’d been arrested and rumours as to why, but that posed enough of a problem for her: how to keep the focus on her own (substantial) wrongs and avoid sympathy for someone facing the horrors of a Japanese prison for their relief and/or resistance work? Her solution is simple: she doesn’t mention Edmondston’s arrest at all. To do so would be to complicate the reader’s feelings: most Americans, in 1944 and today, would feel admiration and sympathy for someone who was facing torture and deprivation for their role in helping others and in the struggle for a free world.

File:David Charles Edmondston Headstone.JPG


The artistic problem is solved by not putting down the full truth. The reader’s feelings, based only on the three incidents that show Edmondston’s prejudice, are likely to be of the kind Hahn wanted, and the man who lost his life as a result of an attempt to free Indian POWs from Japanese imprisonment never comes into focus  But for a more complex example of the way in which Hahn’s score-settling influenced her representation of occupied Hong Kong, I need to turn to her treatment of the Colony’s small group of leftists, and in particular their most prominent figure, Hilda Selwyn-Clarke – ‘Red Hilda of the Peak’.

[1] Emily Hahn, China To Me, 1986 (originally 1944), 272-3.

[2] Hahn, 1986, 273.

[3] Hahn makes this common mistake in giving his name.

[4] Hahn, 1986, 393.

Leave a comment

Filed under British Army Aid Group, Emily Hahn, Hong Kong WW11

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s