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; 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, 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, 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.
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. 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.
Tommy’s attempt to refuse to accept the implications of defeat is the kind of ‘masculine’ response analysed by historians like Bernice Archer: he dreams of growing vegetables so as to be ‘completely self-sufficient…no more kowtowing to the Japs’ 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 https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/01/07/bungalow-d-dwellers/ – 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.
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, 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.
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.
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). Laura Wainwright, in a perceptive review, 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’ 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).
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 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 used to do’.
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, 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’ – 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, 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, 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.
 Domestic servant, but often used specifically for a nanny.
 For some information about the real-life Elsa and Tommy see this thread: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/stanley_camp/message/2848
 Francesca Rhydderch, The Rice Paper Diaries, Seren, 2013, 97. All future references are to this book unless otherwise indicated.
 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: http://gcemerson.com/hong_kong_internment.html
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.
 Part of Hong Kong where she’s taken Tommy and Elsa’s daughter Mari.
 New Quay is imagined as the teats of a sow in a vision of Wales in the shape of a pig – 15.
 196; 202-203.
 Mari’s aunt.