Monthly Archives: July 2013

Mildred Elizabeth Constance Dibden

Mildred Dibden, was one of nine missionaries on the British Army Aid Group list of ‘Free Europeans’ (people, mainly British, who were not interned at Stanley) drawn up in late 1942.[1]

Miss Dibden was born to George Dibden and Mary Elizabeth Payne in 1905, one of nine children, although one of her sisters was the child of her mother’s previous marriage.[2] The family house near Birmingham burnt down,[3] and she was brought up by a family friend,[4] and attended a boarding school in Ramsgate.[5] Her father emigrated to Canada, and eventually her mother joined him with five of the children, leaving Mildred and three others behind.[6] I’m not a fan of psychoanalytic explanations in historical writing, but it’s very hard indeed not to see the origins of her later devoted commitment to providing a family for abandoned children in these early experiences of loss, disruption and abandonment.

She was an artistic young woman, and planned to be an art teacher, but she seems to have undergone a religious experience while listening to an evangelical preacher,[7] and decided to become a missionary instead. In 1929 she began two years of missionary training at the Bible Churchmen’s Missionary Society Bristol college. The Society was an Anglican organization, had been set up in 1922 after the Church Missionary Society split, and it represented the ‘evangelical’ grouping that believed the parent organization was drifting towards ‘theological liberalism’.[8]

The BCMS sent her to Hong Kong in 1931, but she was forced to return home after contracting malaria, which almost killed her.[9] Nevertheless, this first visit to the Colony was important, as Miss Dibden was struck by the plight of the hundreds of abandoned babies, and she decided to return to care for them. In the 1920s the Hong Kong Government, after much debate, banned the system of ‘mui tsai’, whereby, for a small fee, middle class and wealthy families acquired young girls as domestic servants.[10] Hong Kong from the start was committed to interfering as little as possible with Chinese customs, and the supporters of mui tsai claimed that it was a good way to make sure that young female children from impoverished families were guaranteed food and the possibility of later marriage, but its opponents, who claimed it was selling girls into slavery, prevailed. Whatever the merits of the ban, it meant that even more female babies were abandoned, and Miss Dibden’s work was all the more desperately needed.[11]

She returned to Hong Kong in 1936 and was given encouragement and initial financial support by Dr. Harry Lechmere Clift and his wife Winifred, who operated a medical mission in Kowloon. She started to take in abandoned babies, sheltering them in a number of different locations, including Kowloon’s Nathan Road and the small island of Cheung Chau, 10 km to the southwest of Hong Kong. On November 11, 1936, without organization or guaranteed income, she established her first major operation, the Fanling Babies Home. Most of her income came from charitable donations from Hong Kong evangelicals and supporters abroad, mainly in England and Canada.[12]

The official website of the (now defunct) Fanling Babies Home gives a picture of the Estate they moved to in 1940:

The estate, on Main Street in Fanling, was originally rented from an elderly Chinese landlord who had built {it} to accommodate his family and relatives. Thus in addition to the main house, there were two other smaller houses. Each small house had eight rooms and a kitchen. Lovely gardens surrounded the estate which also had a large yard that the kids could play in as well as many fruit trees.
The ground floor on the main house consisted of five large rooms and three smaller rooms. The upstairs contained seven bedrooms, adjoining dressing rooms and several verandas with a view of the lights of Hong Kong.
Miss Dibden moved 49 children under the age of three from Cheun{g} Chau to Fanling Babies Home in the NewTerritories. Toddlers were housed downstairs while infants were upstairs. The size of the main house easily accommodated a nursery school, dispensary, bedrooms, etc.[13]

We get a glimpse of life at the home in a memoir written by American missionary, Beth Nance:

The staff rescued abandoned babies, primarily baby girls who had been left outside somewhere to die. The organization had not been going very long, so there were no children older than four or five years old. The home was associated with our Evangelical Fraternity Mission and we sometimes visited there. (I remember going on the bus after Ancil was born. Winifred was walking by that time and she was as large as some of the three-year-olds. Winifred was always eager to have new experiences so she was a great explorer. She aroused the astonishment of these rescued little girls, who were so well-disciplined. There were some places where they did not dare to go, and some things they did not touch; but Winifred went anywhere with those little girls behind her. It reminded me of a chicken yard, where one chicken has found something and all the rest of them follow after, squawking loudly. It was fun to watch.)[14]

It seems that some of the Nance family’s congregation helped at the home:

For the young people who were newly saved, and those who were renewing their Christian experience, including the British servicemen, my husband and I wanted to have an outreach program. The young people took an interest in this place for abandoned children. In fact, at our first Christmas in China, that was one of the places we visited. Instead of having a gift-giving party for each other, the youth group gave gifts to the children. I remember a gallon jar of cod liver oil they purchased.
Mrs. Koeppen[15] helped me prepare a meal for the young people. It was a happy Christmas.[16]

They were also helped by non-religious organizations: at Christmas 1940 the St. Andrews Society of exiled Scots threw a party, ‘complete with decorated tree and Santa Claus’, for the babies.[17]

There are a number of photos of Miss Dibden that can be viewed online.[18] My favourite is one showing her with one of the girls she cared for; taken at Christmas, 1939; it speaks volumes for the quality of the relationship between her and her charges.

In the summer of 1940, Miss Dibden decided she needed help to run the Home, perhaps because of the move to the Fanling Estate. Unfortunately the Evacuation Order of June, 1940 not only decreed that ‘white’ women and children should be sent to Australia, but also forbade ‘new’ women to take up residence in the Colony. Miss Dibden applied to be allowed to bring in a young helper, Ruth Little. Perhaps this was because of that move to the Estate on Main Street, rented by the China Children’s Fund.[19]

At her tribunal, Miss Dibden explained that the Home cared for about 65 orphans or abandoned children between the ages of two days and four years. There was no committee, no council, no board and all funds were provided by sympathetic friends within the Colony. She had to take all the decisions. If war came, it would bring an increase in abandoned children. There was nobody to take her place if she fell ill, so Miss Little’s assistance was urgently needed.

The Chairman, E. H. Williams, replied that Miss Dibden should not assume her case had not been considered carefully. She had admitted Miss Little had never been resident in Hong Kong. Miss Dibden came back with:

If you think it is not advisable for Miss Little to come to Hong Kong, would you find someone for me?

Not surprisingly Mr Williams told her she shouldn’t ask such questions, and after consulting other committee members, turned down her application, saying she should be able to find someone locally to carry out the duties she’d described.[20] We need to be fair to both sides: Miss Dibden would have been well aware that the Evacuation Order was widely flouted, and that the wives of some influential men were walking around Hong Kong having got themselves registered as ‘essential’ personnel, sometimes after taking a short nursing course. On the other hand, Mr. Williams and his panel were tasked with judging on the basis of the theory and not the practice of the legislation, and could hardly say, ‘The whole thing’s a farce, do what you want’. But it’s an interesting fact that the same tribunal also turned down Helen Kennedy-Skipton’s request to be allowed to stay in Hong Kong, probably because although she claimed to be American she admitted travelling on a British passport. She stayed anyway, just as Miss Little later entered – a sympathetic official at the Colonial Secretariat allowed her in (she was a partly-trained nurse) and disposed of any talk of Miss Dibden’s own evacuation.[21]

The war began in nightmare fashion for Mildred Dibden and her staff. The Fanling Babies Home was closer than most ‘European’ institutions to the border, and Miss Dibden received an early telephone call on December 8, 1941, the day of the Japanese attack. It was another missionary, Iris Critchell who ran a girls’ home next door. The police had told her that war had broken out and that they were to be ready for evacuation to Hong Kong Island.[22] She got the 35 older children and a nurse into a lorry that was sent for them,[23] but the lorry hadn’t returned for the remaining 54 infants when Japanese soldiers arrived. They were told they’d be shot if they left the premises, precious stores of milk were looted, but at first the women were unharmed. eventually groups bent on rape arrived. Miss Dibden courageously saved Ruth Little from molestation, but she was unable to do the same for the Chinese nurses and amahs. Not for want of trying. A Japanese soldier struck her across the face with a rifle butt when she tried to stop the rape of a young amah. Cots were overturned and a baby was trampled to death. [24]

Happily, the horrors of the first day were never repeated, which is not to say there was not much looting and some brutality. At one point Misses Dibden and Little and an American sent to help them (Lula Bell Hough) were tied up, led away and expected execution. At another Miss Dibden and some of the Chinese staff were brutally beaten by a Japanese sergeant, whose men had just shot the Home’s dog. Everyone, English and Chinese, child, adult and baby, must have lived in constant fear, even on the relatively ‘quiet’ days when they weren’t subjected to insult or injury.

But just before the Christmas Day surrender they found a protector in Colonel Kanamuru, who’d been put in charge of Fanling, who asked to be informed of bad behaviour by his soldiers and sent the Home rice, vegetables and cod liver oil.[25] Later he gave the women some of his own money – it turned out that his sister had received help from a missionary in Japan. Unfortunately he was transferred to the front on January 15, 1942.[26]

Miss Dibden and Miss Little were not interned and managed to keep the orphanage open throughout the war. It’s fair to point out that the Japanese usually respected the work of both protestant and catholic religious personnel, especially when they were providing material aid to the poor. But occupied Hong Kong was a dreadful place, and for Miss Dibden and her staff this meant almost four years of violence, starvation, dysentery and recurrent malaria. They refused to abandon the babies in their care, but it must have occurred to both of the Englishwomen that their lives would be easier and safer inside Stanley Camp. That Miss Dibden and Miss Little should have stayed at their post after the initial violence and continuing hardship of Japanese rule speaks unequivocally of their personal qualities; it seems they only thought about going into Stanley when it seemed it would have been in the interests of the babies for them to do so.[27]

Eventually, after a period in which she herself endured a severe beating and it seemed as if the babies in her care might starve, Miss Dibden was given a food allocation for the Home by the new Japanese civilian administration. But to get it Miss Dibden had to go once a month in person to the government offices in the old Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Building – she couldn’t send a delegate as that would have been disrespectful.[28]

The journey was about twenty miles each way; every month she walked to the Star Ferry in Kowloon and once across the Harbour, on to the Bank, Iris Critchell and Ruth Little taking turns to accompany her, as the only alternative was lorry transport, and that was too unreliable. They return journey was mentally less anxious – they had supplies for another month – but physically more demanding as those supplies had to be carried. Eventually Miss Dibden fixed an old pram and lubricated it with peanut oil so they’d have something to bear the loads.[29]

All this took a toll on the health of the three women in charge. On July 11, 1942 they were admitted to the English ward of the French Hospital in Causeway Bay. Mildred Dibden has to be carried out of the Home on a stretcher. At the Hospital she met great kindness and the ‘reassurance of being with {her} own people’:

To add to the pleasure of that first night in hospital, came a tea tray from {Dr. Selwyn-Clarke}. With his wife and daughter, he was interned in the French hospital on the floor above. Tea with toast and butter. What could be more delicious? was it possible that within six short months such luxury would bring tears to the eyes?[30]

Iris returned to Fanling after about two months, Ruth in the middle of September, Mildred not until November 1.

Later in the war, at a time when once again the babies faced starvation, they were helped by Dr. Arthur Woo, who gave them rice and a letter of introduction to Aw boon-haw, who’d made a fortune from the Tiger balm salve. He gave them the money to start a pig-rearing business which kept them in funds until the end of the war.[31]

After liberation in August 1945, Miss Dibden sailed to England for repatriation leave, and then returned to continue her mission in Hong Kong. However, things started to go wrong. The Estate was bought in 1946 by the Children’s Christian Fund, which took over full sponsorship and operation in 1951.[32] This gave financial stability, but it meant working in a committee structure, with some decisions taken out of her hands – she’d been used to doing everything her way. In 1952, after a trip back to England and an attempt to work things out, weakened by recurrent illness and distressed in mind, she resigned.[33] Nevertheless, in the same year, after starting again in a small way in a couple of bungalows in Ping Shan,[34] she founded a second home, Shatin Babies’ Home, run on the same principles, including an emphasis on ‘family’:

Miss Dibden ran the Home on a disciplined daily schedule which included prayers, play time and schooling. Miss Dibden maintained Shatin Babies Home through mostly local community contributions and giving from abroad. The Hong Kong government also helped by charging a nominal rent on the property.
At one point, the staff consisted of a cook, gardener, several nurse girls, eight amahs and four women teachers.[35]

In 1966 Miss Dibden decided to bring her work in the Shatin Babies Home to an end; the Cultural Revolution had spread to Hong Kong and there had been rioting against proposed Star Ferry fare increases; she rightly feared that there was worse to come, and dreaded a replay of her hideous experiences of the war if Chinese troops crossed the border.[36] After some 50 children had been adopted abroad, she returned to England on August 23, bringing with her 25 Chinese people with her: 21 girl, two boys and a married woman and her husband who was to be cook and handyman.[37] They went to live in Southsea, close to Portsmouth. She continued to raise funds for Hong Kong’s abandoned children.

The Supplement to the London Gazette for June 14, 1966 announced she’d been awarded the MBE for her services to Hong Kong’s deprived children.

Mildred Dibden retired to Tunbridge Wells in 1975, and she died in a care home there in 1987.[38] There are a number of testimonies on the internet to the continuing value of the work she and her successors carried out.[39]

The work of Christian missionaries in China has always been controversial: there was already a debate about its value in late Victorian Britain,[40] and historian Jason Wordie, in an otherwise valuable article,[41] is wrong to dismiss criticism by the tired manoeuvre of putting it down to ‘political correctness’ or to simplistic anti-religious prejudice. My own view is that the good done by the missionaries, who in the nineteenth century and beyond provided China with much of what was available there in the way of western medicine, far outweighed the harm. At their best, they showed a self-sacrificial commitment to helping the poorest members of a generally impoverished population in practical and important ways.

That best is shown by Mildred Dibden.



[3] Jill Doggett, The Yip Family of Amah Rock, (1969), 1982, 8. This biography was obviously written with Miss Dibden’s help and with access to her diary, which includes the war years.


[5] Doggett, 1982, 10

[6] Doggett, 1982, 18.

[7] Doggett, 1982, 20.



[10] My mother’s tea-merchant father in Macao bought one such girl. ‘We treated her well,’ she told me, not necessarily correctly.





[15] ‘A German refugee from Ukraine, by way of Manchuria and Shanghai’ – She moved to Australia in 1950 –


[17] Hong Kong Daily Press, January 1, 1941, page 6.



[20] Hong Kong Sunday Herald, October 27, 1940, page 4.

[21] Doggett, 1982, 134-135.

[22] Doggett, 1982, 139.

[23] Doggett, 1982, 140.

[24] Doggett, 1982, 143-144.

[25] Doggett, 1982, 159-160.

[26] Doggett, 1982, 165-166.

[27] E.g. Doggett, 1982, 172-173.

[28] Doggett, 1982, 175.

[29] Doggett, 1982, 175-176.

[30] Doggett, 1982, 178.

[31] Doggett, 1982, 182-184.


[33] Doggett, 1982, 209-216.

[34] Doggett, 182, 218.

[35] For more on the Shatin home see

[36] Doggett, 1982, 234.

[37] Doggett, 1982, 236.

[38] London Gazette, March 10, 1988.

[39]; For a touching attempt at reunion, see

[40] See Susan Schoenbauer Thurin’s essay on Alicia Little in Douglas Kerr and Julia Koehn, A Century of Travels In China, 2007, (e.g. Kindle Edition, Location 2788). Christopher Isherwood’s often negative attitude to missionaries in the account he and W. H. Auden wrote of their 1938 visit to China, Journey to a War, takes the debate into the period we’re under discussion, and it’s evident in the sometimes polarised accounts of missionaries and priests in Stanley to be found in the internee memoirs.



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T’so Tsun-on

Before the war Ts’o Tsun-on played a significant role in Hong Kong society. He was the joint Honorary Secretary of the Victoria League, a body which helped Hong Kong students studying in Britain.[1] He served as Honorary Aide de Camp to H. E. Liet-Gen E. F. Norton, relinquishing the post on March 13, 1941, along with many others – I think Norton left the Colony at this point. He was a senior member of the Hong Kong Police Reserve: the Government Gazette of May 23, 1941 records that he was switched from Adjutant to Senior Superintendent and Officer Commanding Chinese Company with effect from April 9.

He might have been related to the Hon. Doc. Ts’o See-wan (1868-1953), an Unofficial Member of the Executive Council with an interest in Police matters,[2] who’d been awarded the CBE in 1935[3] and was possibly the fourth most important Chinese in the Colony in the years leading up to the war,[4] and the representative of the Chinese community at the coronation of George V1 on May 12, 1937.[5]

Mr. T’so was involved in the resistance during the Japanese occupation. A Japanese document captured by the British Army Aid Group[6] summarises his ‘crimes’ thus:

In June 1942 T’SO TSUN ON, the Superintendent of the Police Reserve Force of the former HONGKONG government, in adaptation to consulting with LOOIE FOOK WING (TN[7] Alias David Loie), the assistant Superintendent of the same Force (who committed suicide at the time of his arrest on 31 May 43)[8] was in touch with the British Organisation at SHIU KWAN,[9] had to gather and communicate various intelligence regarding the military situation etc. of the Imperial army in HONGKONG, the conditions being the guarantee of the life of the Reserve Police Chief at WAICHOW. He gained approval for these proposed objects.

The document adds that T’so Tsun-on communicated these objectives to David Loie, who, towards the end of 1942 set up the beginnings of the ‘Hongkong Command Post’, a British espionage group, consisting of ‘a large number’ of ‘police officers’ (presumably reservists). This began to operate about March 1943:

Their operations finally extended to the P.O.W. Camp at HONGKONG and the Internment Camp for enemy aliens.

In April 1942 T’So Tsun-on summoned a meeting of former Reservists – presumably to set up an espionage network – and at some point thereafter he went ‘into the interior’ to consult British officials. His name is not on the document’s list either of those sentenced to death or to 15 years (later reduced to 10). I wonder if he was ever in Japanese hands? The meeting ‘in the interior’ (presumably Kukong) was in April 1942 and his discussions with Loie in June so he might have left Hong Kong later in the year. I think the key to understanding his fate is that mysterious (to me) phrase ‘the conditions being the guarantee of the life of the Reserve Police Chief at WAICHOW’. He was, of course the Reserve Police Chief, and he tell the BAAG at Kukong that he’d work for them from the base at Waichow? In any case, I can find no other source for his activity during the war or any indication of his death or survival. But, according to the Japanese trial summary, he played an important role in the resistance by initiating the movement among the Police Reservists.

[1] Hong Kong Daily Press, January 27, 1937, pages 1 and 7.

[2] See e.g. Hongkong Telegraph, October 12, 1933, page 4; Hongkong Daily Press, July, 10, 1935, page 8.

[3] Hongkong Telegraph, November 6, 1935, page 4.

[4] Henry Lethbridge, in I. C. Jarvie and Joseph Agassi, Hong Kong A Society in Transition, 1969, 82; 85.


[6]Part of the Ride Papers, kindly sent to me by Elizabeth Ride. The complete papers are held at the Hong Kong Heritage Project.

[7] TN = Translator’s note.

[8] David Loie jumped to his death from the roof of the former Supreme CourtBuilding, then the headquarters of the Military Police (Kempeitai) in order to avoid the possibility of betraying others under the torture to which he was being led.

[9] Better known as Kukong.

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A Document of August 1945: Thomas, Ng Yiu-cheung and the Sheridan Escape

Philip Cracknell, working in the Hong Kong archives, has found a document written by my father, one that gives us another glimpse of baking in occupied Hong Kong, throws a little more light on the escape of Staff-Sergeant Sheridan, and pays tribute to the role of a man who was to become his life-long friend Ng Yiu-cheung.. Moreover, it opens up the possibility that Thomas was in one of the earliest batches to leave Stanley Camp after the Japanese surrender. In any case, this document will be a good excuse for an early post describing the chaotic and dangerous conditions that meant the vast majority of internees were told to stay in Stanley for their own safety!

Firstly I’ll give the whole document then go through it bit by bit.

Note Titled: Continuation of Report by T H Edgar June 20th 1943

On March 31st Staff Sergeant Staff-Sergeant Sheridan Received an Irish Pass. As soon as he received this we made preparation for him to get away. We sold one case of Baking Powder for HKD600 to raise money for him to go. He left early in May 1942, for Kwang-Chow-Wan from there to walk to Chunking. Sergeant Hammond has since heard that he arrived in England safely. Without help of Ching Loong it would have been impossible for us to have carried on. He gave us every assistance and often when we could not get ingredient hops, flour, firewood etc he supplied them without payment. He never asked for nor received any rent, and any repairs to the ovens etc he paid for himself.
Due entirely to his loyalty we were able to produce bread free of charge to Hospitals and the numerous people outside who sadly needed our help.
Signed by T H Edgar

Now for my commentary.

Note Titled: Continuation of Report by T H Edgar June 20th 1943

Thomas and Evelina were sent into Stanley on May 7, 1943. He wrote almost immediately to his family, the first of his cards or letters to have survived, telling them he’d finally been interned and saying he wasn’t yet working. By May 13, he’d been given the obvious job of baking. It seems that he was asked (or decided) to report to the internees’ leader, Franklin Gimson, about his experiences baking in the occupied city; this report has not yet been located. The continuation under discussion dealt with a particular aspect of this period, the contribution of Mr. Ng.

On March 31st Staff-Sergeant Sheridan Received an Irish Pass. As soon as he received this we made preparation for him to get away.

There were three bakers living in the French Hospital alongside Thomas: Serge Peacock, who had worked for Lane, Crawford before the war, James Hammond and Patrick Sheridan. The last two were in fact military bakers (RASC) but had been ordered to pose as civilians by a Japanese officer, Captain Tanaka, in order to prevent his (Tanaka’s) negligence in not sending them to Shamshuipo POW Camp from becoming known to the Kempeitai (Military Police, feared even by the Japanese). Staff-Sergeant Sheridan was introduced to an Irish family by my mother Evelina (who’d started dating Thomas in early January) and he then got the idea of using his background (he’d grown up in County Cork) to claim to be Irish as the first step in organising an escape – the Sullivans told him that the Irish were being treated as neutrals.

The date of March 31 given for the receipt of a neutral’s pass is a little too early; Staff-Sergeant Sheridan probably got the pass in the middle of April, as the previous passes had been extended to April 15. He immediately confided his plan to the other three bakers, who were all supportive, in spite of the risk to themselves, and made suggestions to help him with the planning. It was Thomas who came up with the idea of selling some baking powder to Mr. Ng – tickets to Kwong Chow-Wan were expensive, and money for the long journey onwards through Free China was also needed.

We sold one case of Baking Powder for HKD600 to raise money for him to go.

Staff-Sergeant Sheridan gives the sum raised as both $500 and $560. According to a post-war interview he gave to The Soldier, the transactions were conducted with the Japanese close by, both men facing torture and death if discovered. The same article says the baking powder and some yeast was ‘borrowed’ little by little from Captain Tanaka’s stores ostensibly to make bread. I’m not confident that the bakers were still drawing on stores under Tanaka’s control, but my other sources don’t clarify this point.
In his escape statement Staff-Sergeant Sheridan described the money as a ‘loan’ and there’s a document in the Ride Papers in which it’s stated that the British Army couldn’t pay back the money because Mr. Ng (wisely!) refused to accept a receipt. It seems as if Mr Ng paid over the odds for the baking powder, or at least that Staff-Sergeant Sheridan was so conscious of the value of the money to his escape, and the huge risk of providing it, that he tried to arrange for an additional payment.

He left early in May 1942, for Kwang-Chow-Wan from there to walk to Chunking.

In fact, the escape began on June 4. This is what Staff-Sergeant Sheridan has to say about leaving the French Hospital that day:

On the morning of 4 June 1942 I am up early, not having slept very well, worrying about many things that could go wrong and knowing the consequences are very serious. Josephine Chan ((One of the students at the French Convent School)) comes and says goodbye and gives me a small photograph of herself. Also her home address in Penang. I promise to write after the war. She has a real good heart and is a loyal and true friend.
After a final farewell, Leung Choy and Tam Tong, two of my Chinese bakers carry my kit and accompany me on a tram to the Wing-On pier at West Point. Although it is nearly two hours before the boat sails, there is an enormous crowd of Chinese waiting. I say goodbye to Leung Choy and Tam Tong and join the waiting crowd.

The other bakers must also have been nervous, worried for Staff-Sergeant Sheridan and themselves. They’d all given advice and presents, and must have been aware that, if caught, he’d have been brutally questioned as to those who’d helped him.
More extracts from Staff-Sergeant Sheridan’s post-war description can be read here:

Sergeant Hammond has since heard that he arrived in England safely.

This is new information. For cards in and out of Stanley see

Without help of Ching Loong it would have been impossible for us to have carried on. He gave us every assistance and often when we could not get ingredient hops, flour, firewood etc he supplied them without payment. He never asked for nor received any rent, and any repairs to the ovens etc he paid for himself.

An interesting mistake: Thomas gives the name of the bakery instead of the manager and part-owner! In a post-war article for his trade paper, The British Baker, and he paid tribute to the loyalty of the whole staff of the bakery, and perhaps that came into his mind here. There are a number of accounts suggesting that long-term malnutrition had caused confusion and slowness in the minds of some internees and that’s also a possible explanation.
But the question remains: why was Thomas telling Gimson this at all and why at this time? Unfortunately his original statement of June 20, 1943 has not yet been found, so it’s impossible to know what he was adding and what merely re-iterating in August 1945. My guess is that he was hoping that Gimson would find the time to check on Mr Ng’s welfare and make sure he received any help needed. Mr Ng seems to have been a reasonably wealthy man, but after almost four years of war and a predatory occupation the whole colony was close to starvation.

Due entirely to his loyalty we were able to produce bread free of charge to Hospitals and the numerous people outside who sadly needed our help.

On February 16, 1947, the Hong Kong Sunday Herald reported (page 10) that Ng Yiu-Cheung was to be given a Certificate of Merit by the Governor for his role in Staff-Sergeant Sheridan’s escape. A report of the ceremony suggests he lived in Tai Wai in the New Territories.
That reference to the people ‘outside’ who needed help is intriguing. When the bakers began work on January 9, 1942 their bread went to some of the hospitals and to Stanley Camp. The Camp gradually switched to a flour allowance in lieu of this outside delivery and it seems that from then on the bakers were working mainly for the hospitals – different ones at different times perhaps. But Selwyn-Clarke or his agents are often described as giving people bread, and it seems that the dependants of imprisoned Hong Kong Volunteers (usually Chinese ones and hence uninterned) were given a small allowance. The article in The Soldier cited above states that Staff-Sergeant Sheridan and Sergeant Hammond stole some of the bread they were baking to supplement their meagre rations, and I think it’s a racing certainty that Thomas and Serge Peacock did as well. They would have been crazy not to.

Signed by T H Edgar

I think this makes it possible that Thomas left Stanley between August 21 and 23. Although not impossible, it seems unlikely that he would compose a message about Ng at this time unless either he was certain he could get it delivered to Gimson or he was with him in town (three weeks later we know that he was with other ‘essential workers’ living at the Hong Kong Hotel).
Gimson had left Stanley on August 21, leading a small team tasked with establishing a provisional British administration. Orders had been carried from Macao by three agents of the British Army Aid Group, one of who also contacted Thomas’s old wartime boss, Dr. Selwyn-Clarke, who at this time was leading Ma Tau-Chung Camp.
Perhaps the default assumption should be that Thomas wrote the memo in Stanley and had it sent out to Gimson, but his presence in the Hong Kong during the uncertain and dangerous period between the Japanese surrender and the arrival of Harcourt’s fleet on August 30 can’t be ruled out.

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The Executions of October 29, 1943: Update

I find it rather sad that, as we approach the seventieth anniversary of their death, there is still no definitive list of the 32 men and one woman executed on Stanley Beach on October 29, 1943 for their role in the Hong Kong resistance. But thanks largely to Tony Banham and Phil Cracknell I think we’ve reached the stage where we know the names of all those who died but are not yet certain exactly who they were. In other words, there are more than 33 names given by plausible sources.
Four of the executed were Indian (Ansari, Ahmed, Grewal and Feroj). A fair amount is known about Captain Mateen Ansari, who was the only non-civilian victim, and, although the information that I have about the other three is scanty, there is no doubt that they were among the 33. The ‘westerners’ are not surprisingly reasonably well documented in English language sources – the Canadian Monaghan, the American Bennett, and the British Bradley, Hall, Fraser, Hyde, Rees, Scott, Sinton, and Waterton. A little is also known about the Portuguese agent, William White
The real doubt is as to the Chinese victims – I suspect that in some cases this is simply due to different sources giving their names in different forms. The list below is the best I can come up with so far. – it’s based largely on Tony Banham’s list, which is in turn taken from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In brackets I give the form of the name found by Phil Cracknell in his archival research, where it’s significantly different, and I indicate uncertainty as to identity by question marks).

CHAN PING FAN (Chen Ping Fan)
CHAN SIN CHUEN (Chan Siu Chuen)
GEORGE KOTWALL (Bujar Kotewall)
LAU TAK OI (wife of David Loie) (Lau Tak Hoi)
LEE KUNG HOI (Li Hong Ho?)
LEUNG HUNG (‘Jimmy’) (Leung Hong)
LUK CHUNG KIT (Luk Cheung Kit)
MAJID FEROZ (Majed Feroj)
NARANJAN SINGH GREWAL (Marajan Singh Greywall)
YAN CHEUK MING (Kun James, aka James Kim)
YEUNG SAU TAK (Yeung Sho Te??)

There are two names in Phil’s document that aren’t on that list:

There are two names on the Banham/CWGC list that don’t appear in Phil’s source:

YUNG SHAM CHEUNG – aka Cheung Yuen Sam

Naturally I would be grateful if anybody could throw any further light on this matter. It would be good to have an authoritative list by October 29.

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J. G. Ballard and Lunghua

In my previous post I mentioned that two former internees at the Lunghua Camp (Shanghai) have told me that they (and others they knew) were furious at the representation of the Camp in Ballard’s novel Empire of the Sun. Both felt that Ballard had sensationalised what was a relatively benign experience by inventing horrors that never took place. One had a friend who’d stayed in touch with the Japanese commandant who’d been personally hurt by the novel.
Ballard had always claimed ‘we fictionalize to find the truth’ but I was unable to convince either woman that he’d discovered anything ‘true’ or useful in this recreation of his wartime experiences! In the future I plan to write a proper account of Empire of the Sun (and it’s successor The Kindness of Women) but for the moment, by way of providing a little more light on the issues raised, I’m reprinting below a post I published on another blog soon after hearing news of Ballard’s death on the BBC World Service (I was living in Kunming in SW China at the time). The article in which he says that his childhood in Lunghua was the best time of his life was published in A User’s Guide to the Millennium (1997).
Two years ago I planned a trip to China including a visit to ‘J. G. Ballard’s Shanghai’. The tour never took place but I found this site invaluable in planning it:

Originally at

In Memoriam: J. G. Ballard
Thought for the Day:
The philosopher has to be the bad conscience of his time; for that purpose he must possess its best knowledge.[1]

J. G. Ballard is the second British writer in the last twelve months to have had his death reported on the BBC World Service News (the other was Harold Pinter, and he was a Nobel laureate). He probably owes this honour to Stephen Spielberg, whose film of Ballard’s 1984 book Empire of the Sun jerked someone previously considered a distinguished genre practitioner (he hated being called a ‘science fiction’ writer, but that’s how he was usually described) into the literary mainstream. It also, Ballard himself claimed, made him £500,000 in book sales alone.

I wrote about Ballard’s influence on my own life in my blog of February 3rd, so today I just want to say a few words about his cultural significance.

The obituary in the online Daily Telegraph was excellent,[2] but the sub-editor (I would guess) of this far right British newspaper slipped the description ‘eccentric’ into the headline announcing Ballard’s death from prostate cancer. The Guardian – probably the leading left of centre British newspaper – once allowed a contributor to call him a ‘pervert’, so some such word was to be expected, and ‘eccentric’ is probably the best that could have been hoped for.

Such epithets were the result of Ballard’s ‘obsession’ with things like assassination and car crashes. If Empire of the Sun brought him fame, his 1973 novel Crash brought him notoriety, especially when made into a film by David Cronenberg.

Crash is about a small group of people ‘obsessed’ (Ballard and his novels seem to make almost every writer, including the Telegraph’s obituarist, think of this word) with the eroticism of car accidents.

It’s not a taste I share (to put it mildly), but when you stand back and consider Ballard’s work as a whole in the context of Empire of the Sun’s fictionalization of his childhood in a Japanese internment camp, his real crime becomes clear: Ballard’s novels are structured according to a kind of ‘hidden figure’, a basic proposition that is never made openly but in the light of which his ‘obsession’ (aarrgh!) with characters trapped in various kinds of desolate and threatening world and his penchant for exploring unusual sexual tastes can be seen to make sense.

The proposition is simple: if that happens to you, this is the result –why pretend?

‘That’, in Ballard’s case, is his childhood exposure to the threat of violence and starvation in Lunghua (and in pre-war Shanghai: this is Ballard’s own emphasis – ‘a large part of my fiction has been an attempt to evoke it {Shanghai}by means other than memory’ – Miracles of Life, 7). ‘This’ is his fictional monomania (there – I avoided ‘obsession’ that time) and his, erm, unusual sexual emphases. All through his literary career, Ballard felt impelled to draft scenarios which recreated in strikingly fictionalized forms his childhood confinement and the ever present possibility of pain and death. Somehow aspects of that situation had become sexualized, and it was his honesty in recording some of the forms taken by the traumatized libido that earned him a reputation for eccentricity and perversity.

Unfortunately, Ballard could not remain uninfluenced by the furore surrounding Crash (and the 1970 collection The Atrocity Exhibition). In a preface to a later edition of the novel he claimed it was a warning against the attitudes and concerns of the characters. I don’t believe this, but I can see why he wanted to get people off his back. Not only was Ballard (in my view) externalising with inexorable honesty the workings of his psyche, he was inviting others to agree that, yes, they too found the images that it produced compelling.

Such honesty and such unwelcome resonance is not easily forgiven. One of the most important British ideologies of the immediate post-war years was, ‘Back to normal after the war’. This is part of the reason for the huge success of the otherwise rather undistinguished David Lean film Brief Encounter (1945): the ending of the romance between the two main characters and the woman’s return to her (admittedly boring) husband represents both an acceptance that, under the conditions of war, illicit relationships occurred but that now was time for them to come to an end and be discretely forgotten. This process was seen as both example and symbol of a wider return to a ‘normality’ made possible by deliberate amnesia about what had just taken place.

The dominant sectors of British culture spent the next 30 years and more trying to act as if the horrors of World War 11 had ended with the German and Japanese surrenders, desperately seeking to turn their eyes and minds away from what Anne Karpf has called ‘the war after’. It was this ‘war after’ that Ballard described in the sequel to Empire of the Sun, an equally fine novel called The Kindness of Women (1991), in which ‘Jim’ (the boy protagonist of Empire, and a character that only the most obstinate believer in the ‘death of the author’ would deny was in some ways a surrogate for James Ballard) returns to the apparent security and prosperity of post-war England.

And here is another marker of Ballard’s understanding of human psychology (he studied psychiatry for a couple of years, but I doubt he learnt much from that): it’s easy – and correct as far as it goes – to see his endless attempts to ‘write Lunghua’ as a Freudian ‘return’ to the site of trauma in the hope of finally mastering it. But, as Ballard understood, there’s more to it than that: he tells us that he found England ‘gray’ after China, and the word is obviously meant both literally and metaphorically.Jim welcomes the atomic bomb, as somehow he sees it as a way of recreating the quality of light he saw during his imprisonment close to Shanghai. Ballard understood something I saw (with his help) in the lives of my own parents: the fate of the experience of war in the minds of the traumatised depends on the nature of the succeeding peace, and few of the people who fought ever found anything as challenging or satisfying in the welfare state, full employment England of the fifties and sixties. To put it bluntly, violence, even to the extreme of nuclear annihilation is sought as a relief from the boredom of the long economic boom of the post-war years. The experience of war is clung to because it represents a more humanly satisfying past, and points to a possible future escape. Ballard actually did say, in an article about his return to Lunghua, that those years were the best of his life.

The Holocaust, the POW camps on the death railway, and other places of extreme horror, should not be thought about in the way I’m describing. In such cases, the post-war effects of the trajectory did not depend in the same way on the nature of life in peacetime. I do not feel qualified or worthy to write about such experiences, so I shall leave them to others.

But Lunghua was a relatively benign place: I once interviewed a fellow internee who was so disgusted by Ballard’s fictionalization that she only spoke to me on the condition that I never linked her name and Ballard’s in public, not even to say ‘X completely disagrees with Ballard’s account’. She told me that her own novel of Lunghua life had been rejected by the publishers (who had accepted a previous work on her life in China) because, in their view, nothing happened in it, and she refused to invent the kind of violent incidents they were looking for.

I think Empire of the Sun was meant to be an elegy for all the dead of the war, so Ballard was justified in taking terrible events from other places and locating them in Lunghua, and in focusing on the horrors that did occur in or close to the Camp (see Miracles of Life, 95 and 106-107). But neither my interviewee nor the other ex-internee with whom I’ve discussed this issue agree with me, and I was told that Hyashi, the civilized and humane (by all accounts including Ballard’s) Japanese man who ran the Camp for most of the war, was deeply hurt by the novel.

Ballard never provided formal analyses of the effects of traumatic experience on the consciousness; he wrote fiction (although his penultimate work was an autobiography) and most of this does not deal explicitly with his experiences in WW11 and the way they affected his life in the post-war years. But in my view no-one has shed more light on what happened to some human minds during that war and on the way these psychic events dominated (I don’t think that’s too strong a word) the years that followed. At his best –as in Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women – he was a master of English prose. I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns out to have been the best post-war British novelist. At the very least, he earned the title ‘philosopher’, as defined by Nietzsche in today’s Thought. No wonder the British establishment considers him an eccentric pervert.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner.


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