Monthly Archives: June 2013

Francesca Rhydderch’s The Rice Paper Diaries – A Personal Review

Francesca Rhydderch’s The Rice Paper Diaries, a story of the Hong Kong war and its aftermath, is an astonishing work. It’s hard to believe this is her first novel as it’s so stylistically accomplished, ambitious in conception and successful in execution

Anything like a proper account would involve detailing some of the novel’s secrets, and, as Rhydderch has an unfailing sense of what to reveal, half-reveal, hint at or withhold, I’ll do my best to write about it without giving away too much – but those who hate to know anything that’s going to happen should take this as a mini spoiler alert!

One of the reasons I called the book astonishing is that the author is able to create five convincing centres of consciousness through which to tell her story: the main narratives are preceded by a short section set in a hospital in 1996, where a woman is being treated for an unspecified disease – the patient is Elsa, a character presumably based on the author’s great-aunt, whose experiences inspired her interest in wartime Hong Kong;[1] the first long section is set in the period leading up to the Japanese attack and it too is seen though Elsa’s consciousness. She’s newly arrived in the Colony and ‘again’ is in hospital – for a Caesarean which fails to save her first baby. The second long section, which includes the 1941 hostilities, is narrated by Lin, Elsa’s amah,[2] an economic migrant from south China, but one who’s also glad to escape the heavy hand of her father at ‘home’. The third part covers the first few months in Stanley, which are described through the ‘log book’ of Elsa’s naval husband, Tommy Jones,[3] and it ends with him being taken out of the camp charged with a serious offence. The fourth and final long section takes the story into the post-war years; it’s seen from the viewpoint of Mari, the Jones’s daughter, born in March 1941, and growing up in the small Welsh town of New Quay. We end with a short but very important return to Elsa in hospital in 1996.

Elsa young and old, the Cantonese Lin, the resistance-minded Tommy and the child Mari – each one has their own rich consciousness and idiom, and the minor players are superbly rendered too – I found the character of Lin’s ‘man’ Wei, a street writer of letters on behalf of the illiterate, very sensitively handled and moving. Rhydderch’s stylistic command is dazzling and she has an ability to create pictures that are subtle, unexpected yet perfectly appropriate. This is just one example, a description of the British milling around Murray Parade Ground waiting to be registered by their conquerors:

The parade ground was covered with people from end to end. They looked as if they had been bleached of colour overnight. Everything about them seemed unfinished. There were women wearing coats without belts, and men in shirts that didn’t do up. Hair that was normally oiled back sprung away from foreheads, and painted-on lips that usually pouted their way in and out of conversations had faded back into thin pale lines on their owners’ faces.[4]

Those images of ‘bleached’ and ‘unfinished’ people and the women’s disembodied lips register perfectly the devastation that defeat has already brought about, suggest that there’s much more to come, and hint at some of the ways in which life in British Hong Kong distorted women.

Rhydderch makes it clear in the Acknowledgments that she’s written a ‘fiction’ not a ‘reconstruction’ and that the reader shouldn’t expect a historically accurate account of the Hong Kong war. That’s fair enough, and the description of the first six months of Stanley camp is at any rate more accurate than J. G. Ballard’s portrait of Lunghua Civilian Internment Centre in Empire of the Sun, which outraged some former inmates by what they regarded as its sensationalising of their experience. Ballard’s novel and its follow up, The Kindness of Women, are likely to remain the greatest ever works of fiction inspired by the internment of British civilians by the Japanese, but they were written by an experienced novelist at the height of his powers, and it amazes me that Rhydderch’s debut bears comparison with Ballard’s achievement.

However, readers of this history-focused blog should be aware that the hostilities in this novel begin (rather than end) on Christmas Day, 1941 and that Japanese soldiers are rounding up western civilians from the Peak right from the start (in reality this happened at the very end of the fighting after the mainland and most of the island had been conquered). We see the – considerably shortened – hostilities through the eyes of the Cantonese Amah, Lin, and it seems to me that Rhydderch’s main interest in the fighting is as the cause of some of the book’s many disjunctures and displacements.

Although it’s irrelevant from the point of view of the novel’s art, I would be very interested to know if the descriptions of Elsa and Tommy playing bridge with the Japanese camp authorities are adapted from Geoffrey Emerson’s account of Stanley, one of Rhydderch’s acknowledged sources, where the bridge player is ‘leader of the internees’ Franklin Gimson.[5] Whatever the case, Rhydderch has an excellent sense of the real experience of camp life:

It’s a toss-up between hunger and fatigue most nights. If I stay up too long after we’ve had our evening meal I can’t sleep. I end up chewing the bloody blankets to fill my mouth with saliva, in the hope it will make me feel something in my stomach. But if I go to bed straight after supper, there’s not time to see or talk to anyone, even Elsa, especially Elsa, no human interaction to distinguish one day’s hard labour from the next.[6]

Tommy’s attempt to refuse to accept the implications of defeat is the kind of ‘masculine’ response analysed by historians like Bernice Archer:[7] he dreams of growing vegetables so as to be ‘completely self-sufficient…no more kowtowing to the Japs’[8] and smuggles in radio parts to facilitate a family escape.

Although, as I’ve said, issues of historical accuracy are not particularly important, I feel I should say in deference to my own family history that Bungalow D wasn’t open in the first 6 months (when one of the characters is said to be living there) and that there was no camp hierarchy with high status people given superior accommodation in the Bungalows! (For the socially varied nature of Bungalow D dwellers see – Rhydderch’s is a plausible although mistaken assumption, but to discuss the nature of camp (in)egalitarianism would take me too far afield).

If historical verisimilitude is not her intention, what has the author made of the real-life experiences that seem to have been her starting point? What I think she does is portray Hong Kong and West Wales at particular historical ‘moments’ in such a way as to probe two intertwined questions: who are we? how do we relate to the places that form us and which we help to form? The provisional answer suggested in both cases is more complex – and for some people a little more disturbing – than we might expect.

The answer to the first question might almost be that of Shakespeare’s Iago – ‘I am not what I am’. Perhaps that’s always been the case, or perhaps it’s a product of the fluidity of the modern world, but in any case, the Cantonese amah Lin, someone you might expect to be ‘rooted’ in the rural world of southern China, gives us a fine image for the self in the age of forced migrations, the intermingling of peoples and the disruptions of war, an image in which the belief (which might always have been an illusion) that we are one ‘person’ with a clear centre of consciousness at the middle is shown to be no longer tenable:

I looked up at the mirror. There was a hole in the middle of it the size of a coin where the bullet must have hit it. I saw a confused face broken up into shards that ran from the centre to the edges of the kidney-shaped glass: an eye here, a cheekbone there. It took me a moment to recognise it as mine.[9]

There you have it: there is a ‘hole’ in the centre of the ‘me’, the experience of the body is necessarily fragmentary – yet we are still recognisably ourselves, for all that war and other contingencies can do to us. Yet, ironically, to force too much unification on the heterogeneous matter of the self, is to be untrue to its nature:

I sat in my cubicle and surveyed the contents of my life….I thought to myself, even if I wanted to go home now, where would that be – the Pearl River Delta, Sheung Wan,[10] the Peak? There’s a little of me that has been scattered through them all and taken root there, and to try to cut the shoots that have pushed their way out like sweet potato leaves and bring them together in one harvest would make me someone else entirely. Whoever that person would be, she wouldn’t be me.[11]

Times and places all have their effect in the creation of a complex and contradictory ‘person’. War is the best place to study this, as the changes it brings about are so quick and so massive.

And yet, when Elsa (in 1996) greets Lin:

At the sound of her name, Lin smiles, as if willing all that she was and is to come together and crystallise under the parasol of those three letters. She’s forgotten how to mark the character in Chinese, but it is still her name, and the way Elsa throws it at her like a fisherman flinging out his fine white nets, with a blind faith beyond her pockmarked memory, reels Lin in.[12]

In other words, for all the disruptions, migrations, and contradictory experiences that have formed us, we can never abandon the idea of a unity and identity symbolised by our name.

It’s not just wars that make us who we are of course. Elsa’s daughter, Mari, we learn in the concluding 1996 section, opened a fashion shop in the King’s Road –if we’d followed her life, we’d have seen her being moulded by the cultural fashions of the 1960s, a reminder that the different ‘epochs’ of peace time as well as the intensified experience of the war play their role in self-fashioning. Every person – and every place – is a palimpsest bearing marks from many different epochs.

If the self is never just one thing, what of the places that have contributed to form it? It’s no surprise that colonial Hong Kong, famously a colony full of both Chinese and British transients there to make money before going somewhere else, and contemporary London, now seeking to market itself as a ‘global city’, should be places where the ‘authentic’, the ‘local’ and the ‘rooted’ are hard to find, but what of New Quay? The book’s longest – and to me most powerful – section is set in this small West Wales coastal town, whose current population is only about 1200 (it’s sometimes considered one of the inspirations for Dylan Thomas’s Llareggub). Here, in the heartlands of ‘Welsh-speaking Wales’, we might expect to find a place that ‘is what it is’, where authentic and traditional living is possible.

It turns out that even during the war New Quay had a little of the fluidity of Hong Kong: there was an unhappy evacuee there, and a German POW ends up marrying and settling. And at first, far from providing anything in the nature of home, Mari, who was born just before the war, finds it hostile and unsettling after the confined but safely familiar world of Stanley Camp. (Here, by the way, Rhydderch is staying close to the real history, as there are many accounts of the relatively good life of the camp children, at least one of whom expressed a desire for the war to start up again so they could go back to Stanley.)

But ironically this New Quay that had seemed so hostile when she arrived there from Stanley Camp, does eventually enable Mari to find a sense of ‘home’. But this is only in a town that’s experienced even more displacement, with properties falling into the sea, half the houses turned into holiday homes, and the fields full of caravans (useful symbols of temporary and mobile living).[13] Laura Wainwright, in a perceptive review,[14] is illuminating as to aspects of the book’s Welshness, but, perhaps to sabotage any uncritically nationalist readings, Rhydderch has Mari only return after losing most of her Welsh (just as Lin has achieved some sense of identity only after she’s forgotten ‘what she is’ in Chinese). Nevertheless, it turns out that Elsa’s husband Tommy, who is unable to see the traditions of Wales as anything but ‘Gloomy Welsh myths’[15] has lost something valuable. In this book that seems to have its origins in fascination with the endurance of a real woman in Stanley Camp and which celebrates the affection of sisters, aunts, mothers and daughters, we might see this as a sign of Tommy’s ‘male’ inability to be properly nurtured (or nurturing, as the failure of his horticultural enterprise in Stanley suggests).[16]

Rhydderch also shows us that when a place is the locale for a set of overwhelming experiences then it exercises a strange effect on the future, and events from the Hong Kong war seem to shape events in New Quay in ways which don’t always admit to rational understanding: both the commonest Japanese torture and method of execution[17] reappear in transmuted but recognisable forms. And the ‘now’ that we’re so often exhorted to live in turns out to be not only the present and not even entirely ours – Mari is not only drawn back to Stanley, she finds she ‘likes doing the things that Elsa and Nannon[18] used to do’.[19]

So New Quay turns out to be a place where it is in some sense possible to live a life rooted in Welsh and family tradition, just as back in Hong Kong, the letter-writer Wei was able to show Lin the character for her own name and eventually teach her to write, providing her with a genuine and precious link to ‘Chineseness’. But, as I have been seeking to suggest, any relationship to family and cultural tradition is complex and uncertain, and the more we want to make it count in our lives the more we have to be willing to lose it in the fluidity of living. Lin ends up, as we have seen, forgetting even the character for her own name, a real loss, but she finds much else as she creates a role in the ‘global city’.

What’s wrong with the novel? Well, I must confess that, although I recognise the right of an author to do what they want with history, I feel a little uneasy at Rhydderch’s representation of pre-war Hong Kong. I’ve criticised over-done accounts of the racism of old Hong Kong,[20] so I’m glad that she doesn’t fall into that trap, but I can’t help but feel that she lets the colonial system off a little lightly. True, the semi-apartheid system of much of Hong Kong life is hinted at – ‘Chinese sit downstairs’[21] – but discrimination was so wide-ranging that I would have preferred it to have been registered more strongly in the lives of the characters.

There are other things about pre-war Hong Kong that seem underplayed too. Lin goes there from Canton as an economic migrant,[22] seemingly only dimly aware of the murderous conditions created by the Japanese attack (starting in October 1938) on this part of south China and she finds a city pretty much living normally except for the absence of some evacuated women and children. In fact, most of the women and children were in Australia, the ‘Bachelor Husbands’ were conducting a vigorous campaign to get them back (or at least to have something done about the wives of senior officials who’d dodged the evacuation), and the streets were full of Chinese refugees – well over half a million by the time of the attack – most of whom had fled the war in South China. I can’t help thinking that a more accurate picture of this community under the severe strain created by these contradictory movements and the ineluctable threat of war would have strengthened Rhydderch’s presentation of her themes.

Some people, I think, will find the sophistication of Lin’s consciousness unrealistic, but personally I like the way in which the novel grounds some of its most subtle insights in the experience and thinking of a young woman from rural China. Rhydderch has a scholarly background,[23] but the novel is not limited but strengthened by this – it’s not ‘academic’ in any pejorative sense of the word, but it is itself ‘rooted’ in the author’s understanding of some important philosophical debates.

A final point: I’m no horticulturalist, but the way in which Tommy’s Stanley Camp ‘crime’ is uncovered doesn’t sound convincing to me.

I could well be wrong about this, and in any case I’m nit-picking as no reviewer likes to be accused of uncritical admiration. This is simply a magnificent book that anyone who enjoys first-rate literary fiction should consider reading. Personally I cherish the hope that Rhydderch will continue to develop her craft with more novels on different themes and then return to the civilians in the Hong Kong war, perhaps in Ballardian hommage giving us an account of Mari’s experiences growing up in the post-war world. In that case, my long held and almost axiomatic belief that no-one will ever produce better internment-inspired books than Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women might come crashing down.

I certainly hope so, but the development of a writer of this talent has to be unpredictable so I’ll be happy just to be surprised.

I was yet again made aware of the foolishness of a purely historical approach to analysing fiction on a recent trip to the Hong Kong archives. My statement that Bungalow D wasn’t in use in the first six months was based on at least two good sources, but I found a better one which said it was opened at the start of internment, then closed for some reason, then opened again in May 1943 for the group that included my parents! History is just the starting point and a novel that keeps close to the recorded facts (which in this case have just changed) is no better or no worse for that reason than one which shifts things around.



[2] Domestic servant, but often used specifically for a nanny.

[3] For some information about the real-life Elsa and Tommy see this thread:

[4] Francesca Rhydderch, The Rice Paper Diaries, Seren, 2013, 97. All future references are to this book unless otherwise indicated.

[5] Geoffrey Emerson, Hong Kong Internment, 1942-1945, Kindle Edition, Location 555-557. An edition of the original 1973 thesis with important new material is available from Hong Kong University Press:

[6] 121.

[7]Archer’s The Internment of Western Civilians under the Japanese (2002), pioneered the study of issues of gender and age in internment and remains the only substantial comparative account of civilian internment in the Pacific War.

[8] 118.

[9] 84.

[10] Part of Hong Kong where she’s taken Tommy and Elsa’s daughter Mari.

[11] 76-77.

[12] 235.

[13] 233.


[15] 50.

[16] New Quay is imagined as the teats of a sow in a vision of Wales in the shape of a pig – 15.

[17] 196; 202-203.

[18] Mari’s aunt.

[19] 233

[20] and

[21] 42.

[22] 76.


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Cheng Yuet

In this seventieth anniversary year, I am going to post entries on all of the men and women executed for resistance work on October 29, 1943. In some cases, although not copious, the sources available mean that I have had to be selective:

In others, I provide all of the little information I have. This post is one of these cases: it is based solely on a Japanese trial summary that the British Army Aid Group captured soon after the liberation of Hong Kong. It forms part of the Ride Papers (held at the Hong Kong Heritage Project) and was kindly sent to me by Elizabeth Ride. More information on any of the Chinese or Indian people who died on October 29 would be greatly appreciated.

Cheng Yuet was a member of the pre-war Reserve Police Force (for more on the role of the men in this organisation during the war see the fall, he worked as the assistant manager of a wine shop and of the Kyoto Hotel. About the middle of March 1943 he was asked by Loie Fook Wing (David Loie, perhaps the most important operative in Hong Kong) to undertake espionage work on behalf of the BAAG.

He investigated and reported on the import and distribution of food and other supplies. He also reported on such topics as the nature of the personnel employed by the Hong Kong Harbour Department.

The date of his arrest is not known, but it was probably in early May.

He was part of the group of 27 prisoners tried on the morning of October 19. He was sentenced to death and executed alongside 32 other courageous men and women close to Stanley Beach on October 29, 1943.

He was from Trinidad and had been Assistant Manager of the Metropole Hotel before the war. His rank in the Reserve was Sub-Inspector. He was also known as Cleveland Elroy Chang Yit.

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Yeung Sau-tak

Hong Kong fell on Christmas Day 1941. There was little thought of playing a future role in the anti-Japanese struggle amongst the scared and dispirited British. By the end of January the soldiers were in military camps in Kowloon and almost all of the civilians were in Stanley Camp well away from the Island’s centres of power and military activity.

A small force of British soldiers had been left behind Japanese lines to carry out sabotage operations,[1] but the only large resistance organisation in early 1942 was a troop of guerrillas based in the NewTerritories. Although the main stress in the agit-prop through which they sought to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the villagers was on patriotic opposition to the Japanese,[2] they were already dominated by communists who attempted to put into practice Mao Zedong’s teachings on guerrilla warfare, and in December 1943 they were explicitly declared to be ‘under the leadership of the communist party’.[3] The name they’re best known by is the East River Column.

One of the Column’s activities was helping Allied POWs escape, and in January 1942 they assisted in the escape of Lindsay Ride, the head of the HKVDC Field Ambulance, from Shamshuipo Camp – Ride was taken out of the camp by a Chinese student Francis ‘Chicken’ Lee and ‘due more to a stroke of good luck than by design,’ the party arrived at the outskirts of the guerrilla stronghold of Saikung (NT).[4] The ERC helped the escapers through to Free China and thus began a fruitful cc-operation.. Ride was originally motivated by the belief that if someone didn’t get medicine into Shamshuipo then the summer would see the inmates die in droves of epidemic diseases, but the organisation he set up, eventually called the British Army Aid Group, was a wide-ranging resistance network which played an important role in escape, evasion and espionage, functions they carried out in cooperation with the ERC. More than this, just as Ride’s original break-out from Shamshuipo was only possible because of Chinese help, the BAAG itself depended on Chinese agents at every point, as only they could move with any degree of freedom into, around and out of occupied Hong Kong.

One of these Chinese agents was Yeung Sau Tak, who worked before the war as a draughtsman at the Naval Dockyard. He kept his job during the Japanese occupation, successfully convincing the Japanese he was in favour of the New Order, but remaining in fact pro-British.

About October 1942 he was approached by Loie Fook Wing (David Loie) one of the leading Hong Kong agents of the British Army Aid Group and agreed to form part of the espionage network he was establishing. I assume Mr. Loie approached him because they were both in the Hong Kong Police Reserve, Loie an assistant Superintendent, Yeung a Lance-Sergeant. It seems from one source that Chinese members of the Police Reserve formed an underground resistance network even before the BAAG sent agents into Hong Kong in June 1942. [5]

Loie’s group was completed by March 1943 and from then until April Yeung Sau-tak was an active participant, stealing secret military documents from his workplace, the Planning Room of the Shipbuilding Section of 2 Engineering Section, on several occasions. He copied these documents in ‘invisible’ ink and gave them to agents to be taken to Waichow. At the end of March, acting under orders from Loie Fook Wing, he set up a radio set at his dormitory room in Lockhart Road with the intention of communicating with Waichow.[6]

His wife Chan Wai Chi (post forthcoming) was also one of those arrested for spying. They were both tried on the morning of October 19 as part of a group of 27 prisoners. George Wright-Noothde scribes what happened during the lunchtime interval:

(After beating Douglas Waterton, the court orderly Takiyawa) turned on the married couple, Yeung Sau Tak and his distraught and sobbing wife. He subjected them first to a torrent of verbal abuse and ridicule before dragging them out in front of the others. ‘Now I shall show you how I do head chopping. All watch closely.’ Grinning broadly he drew his sword and forced the wretched Mrs Yeung to kneel on the floor. She was close to collapse, while poor Yeung must surely have felt he was about to watch his wife be decapitated. Takiyawa, however, merely swung his sword down stopping just short of the neck. ‘There – you see, very simple, very easy!’[7]

Mrs Yeung received a long prison sentence, but Yeung Sau-tak was one of the 33 courageous men and women executed close to Stanley Beach on October 29, 1943.


[1] See Anne Ozorio’s The Myth of Unpreparedness: The Origins of Anti-Japanese Resistance In Pre-War Hong Kong, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch, 2002, e.g. pages 80-81 and George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 39.

[2] Chan Shui-jeung, East River Column: Hong Kong Guerrillas in the Second World war and After, 2009, Kindle Edition, Location 928.

[3] Chan, 2009, Kindle Edition, Location 917.

[4] Chan, 2009, Location 1186.

[5] Clare Branson Lau, Looking Back With Pride and Glory, Hong Kong Auxiliary Police History Book, 1914-1997, 1997, 12.

[6] Ride Papers, Captured Japanese Trial Document, pages 3-4. This document was kindly sent to me Elizabeth Ride. The Ride Papers are held at the Hong Kong eritage Project. The account in Oliver Lindsay’s At The Going Down of the Sun is also based on this document.

[7] Wright-Nooth, 1994, 183.

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An Indian Company in Occupied Hong Kong: The Abdoolally Ebrahim Group

This post can be read with footnotes at

In my last post I discussed the resistance activities of BAAG agent William White, one of which was listening to the news on a secret radio at the request of Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation banker Luis Souza. Souza himself was given a 15 year sentence (reduced to 10 years some time in 1944) for listening to a radio with fellow HKSBC employee Charles Hyde (for Hyde’s wide-ranging resistance work and eventual execution see

I don’t know how many radios the HKSBC staff had, but I’ve recently learnt that one of them – perhaps the only one – was hidden in the headquarters of the Abdoolally Ephraim company, Abdoollaly House at 20 Stanley Street (Central).

The Abdoollaly Ebrahim group, which deals in textiles and other commodities, is one of the oldest companies in Hong Kong, its origins going back to the year after the Colony’s founding in 1841. It now claims to be the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation’s oldest client.

Involvement with radios was probably the most dangerous thing of all in occupied Hong Kong: it led to the torture and execution of courageous men in the POW camps, in Stanley and in the city itself.

Early in the occupation the administration decreed that all radios in town should be handed in to an authorized technician to have the short wave section removed – ‘castrated’ was the popular word – so that they could not pick up Allied broadcasts from London or Chungking. Some people hid their sets and continued to listen, as they were desperate to get reasonably accurate news of the progress of the war. This doesn’t seem to have been too much of a problem in 1942, but in 1943 and again after the D Day landings in June 1944, possession of such sets were to have dreadful consequences. It seems that Hyde and Souza were amongst those who kept an intact radio and, realising that it was too dangerous to hide it in the bankers’ hotel (the Sun Wah) they asked their clients and perhaps friends at 20, Stanley Street to keep it for them.

The Abddoolally Ebrahim Company also lent money to the bankers for much-needed food and medicine to be sent into Stanley and the POW camps. Hiding the radio meant death if it was discovered, but even making a loan was dangerous – a Turkish restaurant owner and his wife were brutally tortured after incriminating documents were discovered. A quick thinking Abdoolally employee ate a promissory note from HKSBC man Hugo Foy when he realised the Kempeitai were entering the premises. The account book kept by the HKSBC ‘cashier’ S. Perry-Aldworth survived the war – hidden in the roof of the Chinese banker Ho Wing – and settlement was made after liberation on the basis of these records, so hopefully the fact that the original note was no longer available made no difference!

A letter to the company’s Bombay office dated September 25, 1945 implies that a number of staff members experienced ‘life under Gendarmes in a cell’ but singles out ‘Mr Saleh’ as having spent 17 months in Stanley Prison. I believe this to be Saleh C. Ebrahim, who became a BAAG operative in 1944. His code name was Shanghai Taipan (the firm had an office in Shanghai) and his agent number was 130. He joined the resistance network during 1943 at the same time as George Samuel Ladd (‘Fat Boy Next Door’, number 128) who was probably Eurasian, and they formed part of ‘K’ Group alongside Jimmy Kotwall (number 120), who certainly was.

When the three of them agreed to work as a group, Kotwall was the one who was responsible for actual contacts with Waichow. This was in April or May 1943, and the three courageous men were joining the resistance at a time when many of its existing agents were being rounded-up by the Kempeitai. One of those arrested was George Kotwall, Jimmy’s brother, who was executed on October 29, 1943.

Using code, the team sent a wide variety of intelligence to BAAG Field HQ at Waichow, detailing, for example, the movement of ships through Hong Kong harbour, damage caused by American bombing, conditions at Stanley, and the activities of the pro-Japanese Indian Independence League – it seems safe to assume that Mr. Ebrahim gathered the information about the League. Confirmation that they were sending valuable intelligence came in an early reply from Waichow: ‘Good work carry on along same lines’.

All went well until December 1943 when a Chinese agent they’d been working with failed to return to Hong Kong from Waichow. The agent remained missing until February 1944 when he arrived in Hong Kong with an unconvincing explanation of his long absence and it seems that he had betrayed the group to the Japanese, as they were all arrested on March, 26, 1944 and at one point in their interrogation confronted with the message that the agent had been taking to Waichow when he disappeared – he had claimed to have swallowed it when arrested by the Japanese on suspicion. Mr. Ladd’s questioning took place at the Happy Valley Gendarmerie, and it’s likely but not certain that Mr. Ebrahim’s did too. Brutal interrogation put the Japanese in possession of the full details of the group’s work.

After 38 days, the Gendarmes had finished with them, so they were handed over to the military authorities at Stanley Prison on May 3, 1944. They were kept there in great suspense, twice being called for questioning by a military attorney. On August 29 they were tried by a military tribunal, and Jimmy Kotwall was sentenced to death. Mr Ladd and Mr. Ebrahim received sentences of eight years, while a Chinese associate, Lau King Sing, was sent to prison for three. Mr. Kotwall was executed two days later, and Mr Lau died in the prison hospital on September 4, 1944. The two survivors were released on August 23, 1945.

I can find no indication of what happened to Mr. Ebrahim after the war, but George Samuel Ladd remained in Hong Kong and gave evidence at war crimes trials. He’s described as an accountant in the list of witnesses.

I’ve seen a number of references to the activities of Indian men and women in relief and resistance, but far too little is known about them at the moment– the heroism of Captain Mateen Ansari is well-documented, and some material is available relating to the work of the Ruttonjee family, but I suspect that what I have so far managed to uncover about the contribution of the Abdoollaly Ebrahim group is part of a much wider story both in relation to the Group itself and to the community they were part of.

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William John White

A version of this post with footnotes and the image of the names on the cell walls can be read at:

William John White was a Portuguese national who worked as a chauffeur and mechanic for the Public Heath Section of the Japanese administration during the occupation. Mr. White was a member of the ‘M Group’ of the British Army Aid Group, and it seems the members of this section were arrested after the Japanese discovered evidence of communication with John Reeves, the British Consul in Macao.

A Japanese trial document captured by the British Army Aid Group after the 1945 surrender gives us the best picture available of Mr. White’s work.

Some time in 1943 he was approached by Loie Fok Wing (David Loie), one of the most important BAAG agents in Hong Kong, and asked to take part in espionage. He agreed and set up a wireless post in his home in Wanchai Road. Between February and May 1943 he received and passed on a number of messages for Mr. Loie from BAAG Field HQ in Waichow. In May he made a report on the organization of the Public Health Section for him. He was also asked to get in touch with Stanley Camp, and he did this by enlisting the help – through Alexander Sinton, an uninterned British health inspector who was also an ‘M Group’ member – of Leung Hung, the chief driver of the truck that took rations into camp. He was thus able to maintain liaison between Waichow and Stanley, getting in messages to ‘former HONGKONG Government Police Superintendent EVANS’ and ‘Police Chief’ Walter Scott. Scott, who also died on October 29, was in fact Assistant Commissioner and the Commissioner himself John Pennefather-Evans was arrested but later released, so he presumably convinced his interrogators that he had received the message unknowingly and done nothing with it.

The document goes on to state that in December 1942 Mr. White had been asked by his friend Luis Souza, a Portuguese banker, to listen to the London news on a secret radio and pass on what he heard.

The report on the Health Department is not in the Ride Papers, but I suspect that one part has been preserved: brief comments on most of the British inspectors and their leader, Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke. This is what someone (who I think is almost certainly Mr. White) has to say about the Director of Medical Services:

Funny man to deal with. Gives help to ones that do not need it and does not help those that really deserve it. No change from the old wasp.

Of course this is not a full assessment of the heroic doctor, whose selfless activities saved countless lives, but he certainly had a difficult side, as evidenced by the statement of Robin Boris Levkovich:

Mr White was probably arrested in May and he was one of those tried in the first and largest batch of prisoners, 27 in all, on October 19, 1943. He was sentenced to death and executed on Stanley Beach alongside 32 others on October 29, 1943. While awaiting execution, he wrote onto the wall of his cell as many of the names of his fellow condemned as he knew:

I think that the ‘HD’ after his name means Hong Kong Dockyard, but I’m not sure about this. In any case, as he waited to die, Mr. White’s mind turned to the desire to record what was happening, to pass on the names of those who were about to sacrifice everything. We can have no clearer indication of the importance of historical investigation, the endless probing of sources in the attempt, which can never be fully successful, to establish the truth. William White’s list of those facing death – and his fellow condemned James Kim and Douglas Waterton also left a record on the walls of their cell – remains, as we approach the seventieth anniversary of these executions, a powerful call to a certain kind of memory.

The 33 victims were buried in a common grave close to where they died. Their first memorials came after the war, stones erected in the small Victorian cemetery a little way up the hill. Mr White’s reads:

WHITE, Volunteer, WILLIAM JOHN, British Army Aid Group. 29th October 1943. Husband of M. White of Hong Kong.

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‘Savage Christmas’ and the Nature of Racism in Old Hong Kong

I’m switching this blog to Blogger because of such things as the failure to print the footnotes. A properly referenced version of this post can be read at:

Hong Kong historian Tony Banham has pointed to an amusing error in the controversial film ‘Savage Christmas’ and hinted that there are many more in this ‘under-researched’ documentary about the Canadians in the Hong Kong war. The mistake Tony highlights comes soon after the start when the commentary informs us that we’re seeing the main British defence system in the New Territories, the Gin Drinkers Line, but the camera is actually showing us an ordinary road! The line was not in fact a ‘white ribbon of concrete’ but a rather desultory series of mixed defence points, primarily pillboxes and trenches.

I first saw Savage Christmas in the late 1980s, long before I’d done serious research into the Hong Kong war, and what stuck in my mind – alongside of course such things as the terrible Christmas Day massacre of doctors, nurses and patients at St. Stephen’s College – was something that one of the Canadian soldiers said – his role was played by an actor, but his words seem to have been original (the passage in question starts about 14’ 30’’ into the film). This Winnipeg Grenadier tells us that while being ‘prepared’ for life in Hong Kong, the troops were told by a British officer that if while driving they hit and injured a Chinese person they should reverse their vehicle over him because it would be cheaper to pay for his funeral ($5) than his hospital expenses.

As I said, this callous racist disregard for Chinese lives stayed in my mind and coloured my thoughts and feelings about ‘old Hong Kong’. But, as some readers will know, I’ve been engaging with Gerald Horne’s book Race War! on this blog, exhibiting some of the many mistakes and the crippling bias in Horne’s picture of the effects of race on the Hong Kong war. I haven’t, of course, been seeking either to deny the extent of British racism in Hong Kong, or to claim that it doesn’t matter because the Japanese were so much worse – Horne actually encourages such a response by casting a veil over the Japanese crimes against the Chinese they claimed to be liberating, a theme I’ll return to in a future post. But during my research into pre-war British racism, I started to have doubts about the story in ‘Savage Christmas’.

True, the racism of old Hong Kong was extensive and deeply unpleasant. It’s been compared to South African apartheid – you can take the comparison too far, but there’s a good deal of truth in it. Nevertheless, I wasn’t getting the sense of a society that denied its Chinese majority the protection of the law or would have allowed their lives to be snuffed out without taking action.

One of the founding ‘myths’ of British Hong Kong arose out of the case of Zhong (or Cheong) Alum, a Chinese baker. During the Second Opium War the Chinese in Hong Kong were called on by some mainland officials to carry out ‘guerrilla’ actions against the British and Zhong seems to have responded: on the morning of January 15, 1857 the British community was poisoned by the bread at its breakfast tables, while baker Zhong was on his way with his family to Macao! The plot failed: the poisoner had put so much arsenic in the loaves that everyone who ate them was sick before they could ingest a lethal dose.

The Governor’s wife was one of those worst affected, and Zhong was brought back to Macao in circumstances that might have suggested a lynch mob awaited him – Hong Kong at that time was ‘the wild East’, a frontier society based on drug-smuggling, and it would have been reasonable to assume that the baker would have been doing well if he had a trial of some kind and a last meal of his choice before he was hanged by a competent practitioner. Amazingly, he was acquitted because the court was not convinced by the quality of evidence against him – he may actually have been innocent, but even if he was I doubt that, given what one historian has called the ‘anti-Chinese hysteria’ that prevailed, he expected that to have made a huge amount of difference. True he was expelled from the Colony, but quite frankly his bakery didn’t have a golden future before it anyway, so a fresh start and a new business plan anywhere but Hong Kong was his best option.

This story became important in the self-image of the Hong Kong colonialists: they were, they told themselves, a community that guaranteed the Chinese they ruled over the full range of legal protections enjoyed by the ‘whites’. Of course, there wasn’t real equality in the courts- how can there be in a deeply racist society? – and in any case some of the laws were aimed to restrict specifically Chinese activities in the first place, but the fact remains that the colonial authorities held themselves to decent standards in theory, and in practice Chinese people were given far more legal protection than they were in most of China for most of the time span of British Hong Kong.

So I was suspicious of the idea that, more than 80 years later in a Hong Kong that was, albeit slowly, growing more racially ‘inclusive’, you could, in effect, murder a Chinese person and get away without any legal sanction. And I was right to doubt. I don’t deny that the Canadian soldier was reporting correctly what he was told, but I’m now pretty sure that the film’s use of the advice he was given – without comment so that the viewer thinks it accurately reflects conditions in old Hong Kong – is unfair.

On June 24, 1941, a private in the RASC was sentenced to 6 months imprisonment with hard labour by the Colony’s Chief Justice Sir Atholl Macgregor. His crime was to have driven his hired car like a ‘juggernaut’ eventually hitting and killing a 67 year old Chinese woman. It might seem that the sentence was light – on the same day a Chinese man was given 4 months hard labour for snatching a bag – but the private had been able to prove that he had a medical history relevant to the offence: a couple of months before the accident he’d been x-rayed after saying he’d blacked out and fallen down the stairs, and he’d been hospitalised three times that year for an ulcer, the final stint being seventeen days, which had ended just six days before the accident. His defence that he was suffering from ‘dizzy spells’ therefore had a certain plausibility, and could reasonably have been taken into account when passing sentence. Perhaps it still seems light.

In any case, there was not the slightest suggestion that he’d deliberately brought about the woman’s death, so the British officer was giving the Canadians very bad advice indeed on a practical level (and the soldier who reported it was extremely angry at its moral turpitude). If anyone acted on his counsel (I’m pretty sure no-one did) then they’d have been charged with murder. And if any such defendant was thinking, ‘Not to worry, no jury in Hong Kong would have risked sending a ‘white’ man to his death for such a thing’, he would have been in for an unpleasant surprise: judging by names, the jury that convicted the RASC private consisted of three British, one Portuguese and three Chinese. Juries were one of old Hong Kong’s not inconsiderable number of multi-racial institutions.

And another case shows just how wrong that officer was. It involved the Quartermaster of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps, an important man by virtue of this office. In circumstances that once again show that no intent to harm was involved, he ran over and killed a Chinese boy just before Christmas 1940. He appeared in court in February 1941 and the police and legal officer succeeded in defeating the defence’s contention that there was no case to answer, that it was just a tragic accident. The magistrate referred the case for trial, but the prosecution withdrew the charge before this could take place. I have no idea if this was done on sound legal grounds after a careful survey of the quality of the evidence and the likelihood of a conviction, or if the accused’s prominent position came into play. But I do know that it must have been an unpleasant month or two for him and that the legal costs would have been the least of his worries.

So ‘Savage Christmas’ at this point gives a false impression of pre-war Hong Kong. The lives of Chinese and other Asians were, broadly speaking, not as valued as ‘white’ ones by the authorities, but they were given the basic protection of the law and Chinese people could not be seriously harmed by ‘whites’ with impunity. This was perhaps the crucial difference between the British occupation of Hong Kong and the Japanese. Terrible stories of the snuffing out of Chinese lives for the most trivial offences or at the whim of a Japanese soldier are told almost universally by those who lived through the occupation.


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