Monthly Archives: September 2013

Hilda Selwyn Clarke and the Hong Kong Eugenics League: The Early League, Its Supporters and Opponents

In April 1936 the Hong Kong Eugenics League was founded – the League’s second president Gordon King said that Margaret Sanger’s February visit ‘was the main inspiration’.1 and also claimed that the organisation was one of the first of its kind in Asia.2 The League was an unusual ‘joint-enterprise’ between the British elite and the rest of the Colony. Further, women, both ‘white’ and ‘Asian ‘ were involved from the start, although never in a role commensurate either with their numbers or their centrality to the enterprise – although that role did grow over the years. As we shall see, the League was an almost entirely humanitarian enterprise, involved in none of the appalling practices that have given ‘eugenics’ such a bad name.

The League’s position was strengthened in 1938 by the arrival of Selwyn and Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, who were able to defy religious opposition and make it in all but name a branch of the Hong Kong Government. If the war hadn’t intervened, the desire of the Honorary Secretary (Hilda) to have more educated Chinese women involved would have further improved the gender and racial balance – although it would not have taken the latter to anywhere near the 98% Chinese composition that would have reflected the racial mix of the colony. In other words, although itself a fundamentally non-racist organisation, the League worked in a racist social setting, and this was inevitably reflected in its membership.

Although it was small – the 500 plus people who packed into the Hong Kong Hotel to hear the infamous Sanger3 dwindled dramatically, so much so that the 1940 AGM of over 60 was described as the largest ever4 – but it grew significantly in the scope of its operations over the five years of its existence, and its story is worth telling in some detail because such an organisation challenges some historians’ stereotypes of old Hong Kong, and indeed of ‘eugenics’ itself.

I’ll begin by analysing the racial and gender composition of its leading members and the circumstances of their involvement.

Carol Tsang is quite right to emphasise that the League started with the full involvement of Hong Kong’s non-British elites. However, her speculations as to their reasons for supporting its work are demonstrably wrong:

Interest in the Eugenics League and its programme emerged among these sections of Hong Kong’s Chinese upper-middle class at a time when the first massive refugee influx from Mainland China was occurring. 750,000 crowded into Hong Kong in 1937 at the outset of the Sino-Japanese War.5

In fact, the war began in early July 1937 and there’s no way that three quarters of a million refugees had arrived by the end of the year – that total is the Government estimate for 1940, after the October 1938 Japanese attack on southern China had hugely added to the original numbers, taking them up to an estimated half a million by the end of the year.6 More importantly, the League’s high profile Chinese/Eurasian supporters were on board long before the outbreak of war – as I showed in the previous post, the initial invitation to Margaret Sanger came from the Chinese Medical Association, and the Ho-tung family and Eurasian lawyer M. K. Lo were supporters from the start, more than a year before the refugees began to arrive.

Tsang goes on:

In the light of the difficulties presented by rapid population growth, birth control now emerged as a tool that might be manipulated by those with a vested interest in the colony’s stability. These non-British elites clearly identified greater opportunities for the protection and accumulation of wealth and prestige in the maintenance of British control.

If there was no refugee-led ‘rapid population growth’, threatening British rule over Hong Kong, when the non-British elites began to support the League, did they perhaps have reason to worry on account of the birth rate of those Chinese already in Hong Kong? And was this, in any case, the reason for the invitation to Sanger and the founding of the Eugenics League?

Hong Kong’s population in mid-1935 was estimated at 966,341; in mid-1936 it had risen to 988,190 – that’s a hike of roughly 2.25%. If Hong Kong had experienced that growth rate in 2012, it would rank about number 40 (out of 231) on the CIA list of countries by population growth rate.7 That doesn’t sound like a reason to panic, but some population growth rates (e.g. that of the USA) were depressed in the 30s because of the economic slump, so perhaps the British and their elite Chinese/Eurasian supporters were influenced by this factor? It seems not; the 1936 report – the voice of the Hong Kong Government – states:

Variation in population in Hong Kong is more dependent on immigration and emigration than on births and deaths. Movements to and from the Colony are influenced by events in China…

This report – which makes no mention of refugees – would suggest that a worried Government or elite would have been bringing an end to Hong Kong’s traditional ‘open door’ policy (this they did in 1940, when Hong Kong was already trying to cope with about 3 refugees for every 4 residents).

In other words, the refugee situation made no difference to elite support for the League because it didn’t exist when they declared their allegiance, there was no big short term population growth problem to scare them, and birth control would not have been a good way to go about tackling any such difficulty anyway.

Tsang is, however, quite correct when she claims that the ‘upper echelons’ of the League were male-dominated– this is true both of the British and non-British membership. The three ‘patrons’ were all male: Eurasian Robert Ho-tung (said to be the richest man in the colony), Chinese millionaire Eu Tong-Sen and wealthy Jewish businessman Lawrence Kadoorie were named as patrons. At the 1937 AGM it was announced that the League had made amendments to the constitution: now there would be one president, William Nixon, two vice presidents, Dr. Arthur Wu and Mr. M. K. Lo, two honorary secretaries Mr. S. S. Fu and Dr. K. C. Yeo, and two honorary treasurers. Mr. W. A. Zimmern (Eurasian) and R. A. D. Forrest, the British Secretary for Chinese Affairs.8 In other words, the non-British presence is impressive, and could even be called dominant, but the female presence is zero. Other sources give Ellen Li (who was to be instrumental in bringing ‘family planning’ to Hong Kong after the war) as the first Secretary9 and as playing a ‘major part’ in the League’s foundation,10 but, although she heard Sanger speak in 1936 and then worked for the League,11 I’ve not been able to find contemporary evidence for her leadership role.

However, this picture of male-dominance needs to be softened in four ways. Firstly, women were much better represented in the middle ranks of the League. The Executive committee had 17 members, 7 of whom were women – including Lady Clara Ho-tung and her daughter, Dr. Eva Ho-tung, who was also one of three female doctors on the Medical Committee (alongside Louise Hunter and Anne Sydenham). The Finance committee had one female member out of four, while the publicity committee consisted of Dr. Woo (or Wu) and Mrs. G. F. Hole. Secondly, women moved into senior positions as the League developed: Hilda Selwyn-Clarke became Honorary Secretary in 1938, and in 1941 she was joined by Constance Lam as Treasurer. Thirdly, Selwyn-Clarke’s vision was of a committee of educated Chinese women’, working under Lam, to carry out publicity and educational functions, but the Japanese attack put an end to such plans and the League itself. Finally, it should always be borne in mind that the League was based on the vision of two women (Sanger and How-Martyn) and that all those who worked specifically for it, the doctors and nurses at the clinics, were female.

Finally, analysis of the League’s early composition underlines an obvious but crucial point: across British and non-British, male and female, there was a strong representation of doctors. As mentioned above, the original invitation to Margaret Sanger to visit Hong Kong, came for the Chinese Medical Association, and the League owed its existence and its ability to operate to doctors. It’s main aim was the medical one of promoting the health and well-being of its patients; this doesn’t mean that it might not also have had political or ideological aims, but it does mean that, if such existed, they were definitely of secondary importance.

In fact, one such aim does seem to have existed: thanks to Tsang, we know that the League’s first annual report made no bones about one of its purposes:

One of the objectives of the Eugenics League, stated quite baldly, was to ‘establish and maintain British control of Chinese’.’12

Although I’m not sure exactly what this meant in its context, on any conceivable interpretation it shows the League was enmeshed in colonial ideology. Nevertheless, I’ve not yet found a single way in which this affected its functioning.

If such were its supporters, who were its opponents? My guess is that they were primarily Roman Catholics, but with some Protestants among them. To understand this we need to glance at the development of Christian thinking on contraception in Britain.

In 1930 the Lambeth Council, a decennial gathering of bishops that discusses Anglican policy (its decisions are influential although not legally binding) had decided that birth control was allowable in some circumstances. This meant that some Hong Kong Christians – vicars, medical missionaries and no doubt lay people – could support the Eugenics League with a clear conscience. The Catholic Church, however, continued to adhere to the idea that contraception was immoral.

As a result of this the League attracted the support of some Protestants and opposition from some Catholics. (There was probably protestant opposition too, but I’ve not so far been able to locate any examples). Dr. E. W. Kirk, who was a member of the Executive Committee that was announced in 193713 was a New Zealander who’d come to Hong Kong as a Presbyterian medical missionary, although he’d left the missionary ranks when he entered Government service.14 The Reverend G. K. Carpenter was also a committee member; he’d been in Foochow (Fuzhou) or Hong Kong with the Church Missionary Society since 1922.15

In June 1937, a year after the opening of its first clinic, the League enjoyed a further boost from Hong Kong’s protestants. The Andrian, the official organ of St Andrew’s Church in Kowloon, published an article about the importance of the League’s work from the perspective of someone whose daily work brought them into contact with misery, much of it caused by the poverty of the large family:

It is not too much to say that the League is the most intelligent piece of social service in the Colony.

While noting that some of the League’s aims are ‘bitterly opposed’ in some circles, especially religious ones, it claimed that many ‘leading’ people in Hong Kong, some of them ‘professedly Christian’, were taking an interest in the League. It said that the church possessed no ‘prohibitive principle from Jesus’ on the matter. The writer went so far as to say that the League’s principles, if acted on, would solve many of the economic problems of the modern world.16 The article ended by saying that, for the first time, the League’s adverts were being published.17

Given that the writer – my guess is that it was the Rev J. E. Higgs, who later became a member of the League’s Executive Committee18- was so impressed by the work of the League, it’s not surprising that he asked why it was not the Government itself making the means of ‘family limitation’ open to the poorest.19 I don’t know the answer to that question as regards the period up to June 1937, but strangely enough there is evidence that in the next month the Government had to respond to ill-informed meddling from Britain and that this was to force it to keep its distance in the future.

Viscount Fitzalan, President of the Catholic Union of Great Britain, the last Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and a man who’d inherited his religion with his high rank as a member of the Norfolk family, England’s senior Roman Catholics, wrote on July 16, 1937 to Colonial Secretary William Ormsby-Gore that the League’s activities violated Chinese law banning the sale of contraceptives and the ‘public decency’ advocated by the Nationalist ‘New Life’ campaign. He also objected to the fact that the League’s honorary treasurer, R. D. Forrest, was the Government’s Chinese Secretary. Hong Kong officials told the Colonial Office that Forest was acting in a personal capacity, and showed that contraceptives were on sale in south China and that leading hospitals in the south and north had birth control clinics.20

It seems unlikely that Fitzalan lay awake at night worrying that somewhere in the Empire local sensibilities were being offended. It’s probable that he was called into action by Catholics in Hong Kong, who shared their Church’s continuing opposition to contraception. Further, according to Yuehtsen Chung, Fitzalan feared that ‘the League’s birth-control campaigns would impede the spread of Christianity in China’.21

It would be quite wrong to judge Hong Kong Catholics in the 1930s on this incident. The Church ran a large network of schools and orphanages, educating and caring for thousands of the largely Chinese poor.22 Later in the decade, Jesuit Thomas Ryan was to be active, alongside the socialist Anglican Archbishop Hall, in organising desperately needed relief for the hundreds of thousands of people who’d fled the fighting.23

Fitzalan’s intervention assured that the League never became officially linked to the Hong Kong Government, and its advertisements ‘were subjected to assiduous scrutiny’.24 This is amazing, given that he’d not been elected to any office anywhere since 1921, he had no link that I’ve been able to find with Hong Kong, he wrote in his capacity as head of an organisation with no official standing of any kind, and his statements were shown by government officials to be inaccurate or irrelevant. He was obviously too important to be ignored. Nevertheless, his intervention did little practical damage to the League’s work, which was on a very small scale anyway, and when the Selwyn-Clarkes arrived in 1938 they were able to turn it into a branch of the Government in all but name.

It’s time now to look at the League’s operation during its first two years.

On June 26, 1936 Hong Kong’s first birth control clinic was opened.25 It was in the Violet Peel Maternity and Child Welfare Centre;26 most of its ‘patients’ were working class, and the clinic also trained midwives in contraception.27 The only other 1936-1937 activity I’ve been able to locate is a fund raiser: on February 13, 1937 the league held a ‘well-attended’ tea dance at the Hong Kong Hotel. Lady Ho-tung was present, and most of those listed came as couples, with more Chinese and Eurasian names than British.28

Even the Eugenics League itself didn’t claim to have achieved much in the first year (April 1937-April 1938). Its first annual report claimed no more than to have emerged successfully from a first year of trial while expressing the belief that it could shortly be expected to play a noteworthy part in ‘the relief of poverty’ in the colony, and, by example, in China. The report set out the League’s primary objectives: 1) the provision of advice to women, particularly of the poorest class, whose health makes pregnancy medically undesirable; 2) provision of clinics for those for whom ‘public policy and their individual good’ make family limitation advisable.

To some tastes, ‘public policy’ sounds a little sinister and ‘individual good’ a little patronising. However, as the 1938 report was to make clear,29 no-one who objected to contraception was referred to a League clinic, and at all times it operated solely by education and advice. The typical case it had in mind was a woman who had had about 10 pregnancies and was bringing up half a dozen surviving children in conditions of extreme poverty, and it’s hard to see anything wrong in making such a woman aware of contraception, advising her to use it, and, if she agreed, fitting her with a free diaphragm. Further, before anyone was instructed in birth control, a full medical history was taken and they were examined by a doctor,30 so the patients had the benefit of diagnosis and treatment for disease as well.

The main criticism to be made of the League’s work was one they were well aware of themselves: the report stated that the number of women given advice on family limitation was 135.31 The female population of Hong Kong was about 400,000, so it could reasonably be argued that the League reached such a small percentage of the women who needed it that it wasn’t a good use of the time of medical professionals to employ them in the birth control clinics.

The next year’s report (April 1937-April 1938) stated that the League had ‘steadily developed’ in spite of ‘handicaps’ – perhaps it had the opposition of Fitzalan and his Hong Kong supporters in mind, as another passage almost certainly results from that incident:

It cannot be too strongly emphasized for the information of those people who, on religious or ethical grounds, object to contraception that the Hong Kong Eugenics League is sponsoring an entirely voluntary clinic.32

The report claimed that the experience of the second year had shown that the provision of contraceptive information was as necessary in Hong Kong and China as in any part of the world. The League noted approvingly the decision of the British Ministry of Health to urge all Municipal Authorities to make information available to married women on medical grounds.33 Refusal of such information, it claimed, resulted in criminal abortions or unwanted children and this maintained the system of Mui-Tsai (sic) -this is the first mention I’ve been able to find of the role of contraception in bringing to an end the practice of the poor selling their daughters to the rich as domestic servants (slaves, said some) which still continued although banned – the ban had led to an increase in illegal and dangerous abortions and infanticide. (For a slightly fuller discussion see )

The report stated that in the year 1937-38 the number of women given advice on birth control had roughly doubled 284. This was still a very low figure, but also to the League’s credit were a number of patient referrals to the appropriate clinic for treatment for venereal disease, tuberculosis and so on. Most of the women advised had been the mothers of large families – this was very much part of the League’s remit, but the report said that it was equally anxious to give advice to mothers in the early stages of marriage so they could space their children.

The report claimed that the importance of the League’s work was borne out by the large proportion of children dying in infancy of ‘inanition’ (‘the exhausted condition that results from lack of food and water’). It accepted that it was obvious that in a colony of a million the fact that only 284 women had been given advice meant that the work of the League must be enlarged. The main need was seen as publicity, so poor Chinese would know the services are free and more ‘Europeans’ would join the League and give it financial support. Plans for this were listed: to win the support of English and Chinese newspapers, to give out leaflets in hospitals and dispensaries, and to give talks to women’s organisations. The financial position remained sound -34 although this was as much the consequence of the league’s failure to find much to spend its money on as to the generosity of its supporters.

The report noted two major losses: the death of Lady Clara Ho-tung, a staunch supporter, and the departure of Professor Nixon, one of the architects of the organisation, to London to take up consultative work. Further, in March 1938, R. A. D. Forrest, the indefatigable treasurer, left on home leave.

Gordon King succeeded William Nixon as HKU Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in 1938 and with it took over the post of League Chairman,35 and, probably before the report was drawn up, Nixon had secured the agreement of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke to taking on the role of Honorary Secretary. She was already in the Colony when the report was released in late April, and on May 9 she spoke at the AGM.

1 Susan Fan, ‘Hong Kong: Evolution of the Family Planning Program’, in Warren C. Robinson et al., The Global Family Planning Revolution, 193.



4Hong Kong Daily Press, April, 26, page 1.

5Carol Chiu-long Tsang, ‘The limits of fertility’: birth control in Hong Kong, 1945-1992, (HKU Thesis, 2007), 18.

6Population and Vital Statistics, 1940; Public Health Annual Report, 1938.


8Hong Kong Daily Press, 1937, April 27, page 16.

9Fan, 2007, 193

10Anthony Sweeting, Education in Hong Kong 1941 to 2001, 2004, 240.

11Susanna Hoe, The Private Life of Old Hong Kong, 1991, 267. Ellen Li told Hoe that she’d been present at a meeting of ‘fifty or so people, including Chinese doctors’ addressed by Sanger – this sounds like the lunch I described in the previous post.

12Tsang, 2007, 16-17.

13Hong Kong Daily Press, 1937, April 10, page 16.



16Hong Kong Sunday Herald, May 9, page 5.

17Hong Kong Daily Press, June 7, 1937, page 1.

18Hong Kong Daily Press, April 26, 1940, page 12.

19Hong Kong Daily Press, June 7, 1937, page 1.

20Chung, in A. Bashford and P. Levine, The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics, 2010, 268.

21Chung, 2010, 268.

22The best picture of its work I know is in Nicholas Maestrini, My Twenty years With The Chinese, 1990.

23See e.g. Thomas J. Morrisey, Thomas F. Ryan SJ, 2010, 49-51.

24Chung, in Bashford and Levine, 2010.

25Chung, in Bashford and Levine, 2010.

26Susan Fan, Hong Kong: Evolution of the Family planning Program, in Warren C. Robinson et al., The Global Family Planning Revolution, 2007, 193.

27Chung, in Bashford and Levine, 2010.

28Hong Kong Sunday Herald, 1937, February 14, page 9.

29Hong Kong Daily Press, April, 28, 1938, page 1.

30Hong Kong Daily Press, 1937, April 10, page 16.

31Hong Kong Daily Press, 1937, April 10, page 1.

32Hong Kong Daily Press, April 28, 1938, page 3.

33Hong Kong Daily Press, April, 28, 1938, page 1.

34HKDP, April 28, 1938, page 3.


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Hilda Selwyn-Clarke and the Hong Kong Eugenics League (2): Margaret Sanger in Hong Kong

Note: In this post I describe the meeting that gave birth to the Hong Kong Eugenics League. My research into this organisation 1936-1941 has not yet been completed, but I have found out more since writing the three relevant posts on this blog. This is a summary of what I consider the most important points about the League established by my research so far – of course any one of them, or indeed all of them, might turn out to need correction in the light of future research by myself or others.

  1. ‘Eugenics’ has quite rightly got a very bad reputation because of its association with Nazi policies of forced sterilisation and eventually mass murder. I have not been able to find anything remotely resembling this in the activities of the Hong Kong Eugenics League.
  2. The League’s basic purpose was to give contraceptive advice and either cheap or free contraception to poor Chinese women. Sometimes other forms of medical help were offered after the examination by a League doctor. In all cases attendance and any consequent treatment – including the provision of contraceptives – was entirely voluntary.
  3. Margaret Sanger, in the meeting described below, referred to the ‘horrors of abortion’ and suggested that birth control was the best way of avoiding them. I have found no indication that the League deviated from this in the period before the war. If it advised or provided abortions, I have failed to find the evidence.
  4. The League was a remarkable example of the different communities of pre-war Hong Kong working together in a way rare in that racist society. The role of women was not, however, commensurate with their numbers in the colony or their obvious  centrality to the project. However, this was changing under the leadership of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke (1938-1941), a thoroughgoing feminist (and anti-imperialist).

Note ends.


It was one of the most remarkable meetings in inter-war Hong Kong.

On February 20, 1936 a huge racially mixed gathering – more than 500 people, some standing throughout – crowded into the Roof Garden of the Hong Kong Hotel to listen to two female jail birds taking about a topic that would have been seen as ‘advanced’ and extremely controversial in places less conservative than the Crown Colony.

The British speaker, Edith How-Martyn, had been a suffragette, and in an early act of militancy, had been arrested in 1906 for trying to make a speech in the House of Commons – even though she was stopped in the Lobby she was given a two month sentence. The American, the one the crowd had really come to hear, was the internationally notorious Margaret Sanger. As HKU Professor William Nixon told the audience – rather gleefully I suspect – Ms Sanger had gone down no less than eight times before the last war. Most of the arrests I’ve been able to track down were during or after that war, but Professor Nixon was right to suggest that the woman he was introducing had suffered for her birth control activism, which was illegal in America, although thanks in large part to her efforts, this was about to change.1

Sanger had been involved in radical politics as a young woman, taking part in actions organised by the legendary ‘Wobblies’ (The Industrial Workers of the World). Brought up a Catholic – her mother endured 17 pregnancies, 11 of which led to live births –  she’d become an atheist; her 1914 newsletter The Woman Rebel carried the uncompromising slogan ‘No Gods, No Masters.2 She wasn’t the most obvious speaker to draw such a huge audience to Hong Kong’s most prestigious hotel.

The speech they were to hear must have been controversial that evening, and it still raises fascinating and hotly-debated questions.

Sanger explained the basis of her philosophy: she disagreed with those who argued that the earth could provide for everyone and she put forward the Malthusian argument that in the past ‘nature’ had controlled population by flood, famine and pestilence, but in their day control could only be achieved through a decreased birth or an increased death rate, and she of course advocated the former. Leftists used to follow Marx in his contempt for ‘Parson Malthus’, but that was before the earth’s population topped 7 billion,3 credible sources started to warn about the water running short, and climate change made everything look uncertain. So personally I don’t find Sanger’s Malthusian under-pinning problematic in itself, but I do find what came next disturbing:

It was unfair to tax the normal and healthy to keep the ill-equipped and defective ones.

This, she claimed, was what was happening at the moment and the situation demanded ‘some control’ of the latter – ‘control’ seems to be shifting its meaning in rather a nasty way. But this is one of the reasons that eugenics enjoyed such wide popularity between the wars: it had something for everyone, and Sanger’s concern for keeping down the taxes was likely to play well in Hong Kong. In any case, like most people today I find this form of crude applied Darwinism obnoxious even when not linked to tax cuts for the well-off.

Sanger continued with feminist arguments that I find much more acceptable: women, she said, could recover fully between pregnancies and develop any talent they wished and professionals could get back to work. Interestingly she claimed birth control would also avoid the ‘horrors of abortion’.

Frequent pregnancies, she went on to say, impaired the health of the mother and the ‘helplessness’ of the situation had adverse effects on the fathers too. Excess population caused many other social evils, for example child labour, which she assured her hearers still existed in the USA in spite of recent legislation:

As long as parents who could not support two or three children were encouraged to bring 10, 12 or 14 children into the world, there would always be child labour.

Historian Yuehtsen Juliette Chung has claimed, on the basis of a passage in the second annual report of the Eugenics League (1937-38), that the evils created by both the mui tsai system and its 1933 ban were important in the acceptance of eugenics in Hong Kong.4 This passage in Sanger’s speech is the closest thing I’ve found to justification in 1936 for Chung’s position, as her listeners would undoubtedly have thought of ‘mui tsai’ at this point.

Mui tsai ‘(little sister’) was the practise of poor families selling daughters to the better off to act as domestic servants (my mother’s middle-class family had one such ‘servant’ in Macao or Fuzhou). This was stigmatised by reformers as simply a form of slavery, while Chinese (and other) supporters of the system pointed out that it was often the best form of life the impoverished young girls could hope for.5 In 1923 the Hong Kong Government banned mui tsai, but this far from ended the practise. Mui tsa obviously invited the mistreatment of females but the ban led to an increase in illegal abortions and infanticide. Everyone knew that Hong Kong was one of the most densely populated areas in the Empire, and it was easy to see the system as the result of overpopulation in conditions of poverty. However, from the materials available to me, and the fact that Chung’s evidence comes from a document produced two years after Sanger’s visit prompted the establishment of the Eugenics League, I’m inclined to believe that the founders of the League saw ‘birth control’ (a phrase Sanger coined) as a way of addressing Hong Kong’s general problems of over-population rather than of mui tsai in particular.

In the next part of her speech Sanger offered birth control as a solution to the problems of unemployment caused by mechanisation and suggested it would raise the standard of living. She then listed seven main reasons for such control:

Point one: no-one with a transmissible disease should reproduce, and if contraception failed she ‘strongly recommended’ sterilisation.

I’m not sure what diseases Sanger had in mind here, but this a good moment to quote Carol Chiu-long Tsang, who, in her thesis on birth control in Hong Kong tells us that the League emphasised birth control as a means to limit the population but not to protect against venereal disease6 (now generally called STD). I find this surprising as VD had always been a problem in Hong Kong, increasingly so after a misguided attempt to crack down on prostitution which began in 1932 and intensified in 1935. Perhaps the League wanted to ward off moralistic objections by arguing that it only gave contraception to married women with several children and this group shouldn’t need protection from VD!

In any case, there’s plenty more of this appalling concern to get the evolutionary ‘unfit’ sterilised (albeit by ‘harmless and scientific means’ and with a ‘bonus or yearly pension’ as reward). This is from a speech to the genetic elite of Vassar:

There is only one reply to a request for a higher birth rate among the intelligent, and that is to ask the government to first take-off the burdens of the insane and feebleminded from your backs. Sterilization for these is your remedy.7

It seems that sterilisation is the dream ticket: it improves the gene pool and lowers the taxes. It is, of course, important to ask if the Hong Kong Eugenics League had any truck with such ideas; as far as I know it didn’t, and I’ll set out in future posts exactly what it did do.

Point two: women with ‘temporary’ diseases like TB or heart disease should be ‘protected’ from childbirth and pregnancy until cured.

Point three: parents who are healthy but give birth to ‘abnormal’ children (e.g. blind or deaf ones) should be encouraged ‘not to have any more children’

Point four: women, especially low-income working class ones, should have their children spaced by at least three years.

Point five: It was ‘socially immoral’ for parents to have a dozen or so children when they couldn’t afford to take care of two – the responsibility would fall on the eldest child who would have to work all day to provide for his younger siblings.

Point six: While marriage in adolescence might be a good thing, postponement of parenthood is essential.

Point seven: Young people should be encouraged to ‘wait and keep the period of adjustment before marriage’.

Notice again the way in which these points have something for people of all political persuasions: for the left, point 4) offers to help the poorest women and their families, while for the right point 5) denounces the ‘socially immoral’ (and potentially expensive to others) practice of having more children than you can afford to support.

Sanger went on to outline three approaches to the problem of over-population: 1) raising the age of marriage; 2) sterilisation – this didn’t mean ‘de-sexing’ and was the ‘only’ means to be employed in cases of ‘weak mentally and physical disability’ (sic), and was being carried out in 24 American states 3) chemical and mechanical contraception, which was being carried out in 125 clinics in America whose experience showed there were no deleterious side effects whatsoever.8

As her speech approached its end, she stressed that she wanted to see birth control facilities in the hands of public authorities, who would be able to deliver them easily – and cheaply – to those who needed them. This was eventually to be the case in Hong Kong, but only after a struggle with the enemies of contraception. She concluded by saying, ‘We want our young people to think of their bodies as holy temples’,9 perhaps turning back against them the rhetoric of her religious opponents.

Mrs How-Martyn followed, her brief being to talk about the role of the British Government in the birth control movement. She traced the interlinked history of family planning provision and mother and child welfare clinics, and she claimed that the middle and upper classes were already using contraception to space and limit their families, but the poor weren’t, not out of ‘principle…. (but) a lack of knowledge due to their poverty’ (it seems, though, that How-Martyn did acknowledge the possibility that the poor might have inferior genes not just less access to information10). Hilda Selwyn Clarke was later to use the same argument, and my guess is that it was important to her as a socialist-feminist: it suggests that information about ‘birth control’ and the ‘appliances’ necessary to practice were a benefit to the poorest women, delivered in the case of the Hong Kong Eugenics League by private donations from well-wishers with what amounted to government subsidy. It takes away the implication that the women are inferior and simply assumes that the poor would, if they had the same resources as their better-off sisters, make roughly the same decisions.

Ironically, given what was to happen in Hong Kong, How-Martyn went on to point out that the British House of Lords was the first legislative body in the world to pass a motion in favour of government action on contraceptive advice. She said that public authorities were now entitled to spend public money in free birth control ‘services’, and the British movement’s main work was in persuading all authorities to make use of this power. With a logic that the opponents of family planning in Hong Kong would later try to subvert, she pointed out that what was granted in Britain should also be granted in a British colony, and urged the audience to create the kind of public support that had won the day at home.

Prior to the meeting there had been a tea party in Sanger’s honour in the hotel attended by a ‘distinguished gathering’ and a dinner party in the Roof Garden was also well-attended.11 On the same day two women had had lunch at the private residence of Mr and Mrs Ho Kom-tong and the people who gathered there and the speeches they made cast important additional light on the origins of the Hong Kong League. Sanger had come to Hong Kong on the invitation of the Chinese Medical Association,12 something which needs to be borne in mind by those who consider the League a colonialist conspiracy, or at best a benign piece of British paternalism. It’s possible that Mr Ho was a member of that body as he said that, speaking ‘as a medical man’, he thought the two women and their work were worthy of praise. They had come to Hong Kong, he went on, ‘to show us how greater happiness for the home can be achieved by scientific limitation of the size of the family’. Living in one of the most ‘populous’ areas of the world, he felt that poverty and over-population were intimately connected. Many Chinese people couldn’t maintain a family of 6 or 7 children, which, he claimed, was common – mothers weren’t necessarily anxious to have that many, and were driven to ‘part with’ them or resort to self-inflicted abortions. Once again, there is no explicit mention of mui tsai in the newspaper report, but this is obviously close to an invocation of that problem.

Ho Kom-tong ended by saying that because of the huge maternal death rate many Chinese women would welcome cheap, harmless and simple birth control. He hoped the two women would leave behind them a band of ‘converts’ to carry on their work.

Mrs Sanger replied that there was a huge difference between having 3 or 4 spaced children and year in year out pregnancies with 6 or 7 surviving and as many dying. She agreed that their method was simple and harmless and wouldn’t cost more than a dollar a year when dispensed by the appropriate public health authorities. Mrs How-Martyn referred to ‘the great cause of birth control which is fundamental to the happiness of mankind’.13

Sanger later wrote that ‘the richest man in Hong Kong’ gave a lunch for her; the richest man was generally believed to be Sir Robert Ho-tung, but as Ho Kom-tong was his half brother and Sir Robert and Lady Clara were present at the lunch described above, this might be the occasion I’ve discussed – both were to be supporters of the League, Lady Clara, whose wide-ranging philanthropy was inspired by her Buddhism, one of the staunchest.

In any case, the guests enjoyed 20 courses, which may or may not have had anything to do with the fact that while ‘visiting a nice English Professor and his wife’ an attack of a recurrent gall bladder problem came on her in the night and she was taken to the War Memorial Hospital – to die, as she believed. She survived, but the illness considerably reduced her schedule in the colony.14

I’ll have more to say about this occasion in a future post; it establishes that the Chinese/Eurasian elite were crucially involved in the founding of the Hong Kong Eugenics League. In spite of the limitations imposed by Sanger’s illness, this fruit of her work wasn’t long in coming. It’s a cliché to say that Sanger’s ideological position and legacy are ‘complex’, but it’s an unavoidable one. Her online opponents are frequently hysterical and ungrounded in their attacks, ignoring, for example, her hatred of abortion, or calling her a ‘Nazi’ when she in fact joined an anti-Nazi organisation! Nevertheless, she did undoubtedly espouse ideas that ranged from the dubious to the obnoxious, some of which I’ve picked out in my account of her speech in the Hong Kong Hotel. In my view, though, this side to her life is hugely outweighed by the massive good she did through the courageous activism with which she spread the practise of ‘birth control’ on an international stage. Few people can have changed the twentieth century for the better as much as she did, and I’ve come to feel more and more strongly that her work might be crucial in enabling us to survive the twenty-first.

In any case, the organisation she left behind in Hong Kong represents the best of her legacy.




4Yuehtsen Juliette Chung, ‘Eugenics in China And Hong Kong’, in Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine, The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics, 2010.

5For a full discussion, see Susannah Hoe, The Private Life of Old Hong Kong, 1991, 232-246.

6Carol Chiu-long Tsang, ‘The Limits of Fertility’: birth control in Hong Kong, 1945-1997, 2007 (HKU M. Phil.).

7Margaret Sanger, ‘The Function of Sterilization’, speech of August 5, 1926.

8Everything so far is based on the report in the Hong Kong Daily Press, February 21, 1936, page 7.

9Hong Kong Daily Press, February 21, 1936, page 11.


11Hong Kong Daily Press, February 21, 1936, page 11.


13China Mail, February 20, 1936, page 9.



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Hilda Selwyn-Clarke and the Hong Kong Eugenics League (1): Introduction

I planned this as one short post setting out what little I knew about the Hong Kong Eugenics League (Hilda Selwyn-Clarke1 became Honorary Secretary on arrival in the colony in 1938) and briefly explaining that, although ‘eugenics’ quite rightly has a bad name because of its association with Nazi mass murder, the Hong Kong body was concerned with nothing more sinister than ‘family planning’. I still believe this to be the case, but in the course of my research I found out much more about the League and its origins, and this has necessitated a considerably longer discussion, both to do justice to the controversial issues involved and to offer a reasonably comprehensive picture of the history and activities of the League.

And for the first time in over 150 posts I find it necessary to state my own ideological position. All history is written from a set of assumptions, but I haven’t felt it necessary to trouble the reader with my view that, for all the imperfections of the Allies, it was a massively good thing that they won the war and that this victory was achieved through an endless number of acts of self-sacrifice and courage, all of which I admire immensely. But this is obviously a different kind of issue so I think it’s only fair to the reader to state my own views so they can allow for bias.

This post is written from the political left – anti-imperialist, democratic, non-socialist but further from the centre than is suggested by the label ‘liberal’. I was brought up a Catholic – at the time of debate over ‘birth control’ that preceded and followed the 1968 publication of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae – and I’m now an atheist and materialist.
I didn’t think then and I don’t think now there’s any substance to religious objections to ‘birth control’, and I note that in 2010 only 4% of British Catholics agreed with the Church’s position on this issue.
But I do take seriously some political criticisms of the League’s work and I indicate where I agree and where disagree with them.
I think that cheap, or where appropriate free, contraception should be available to everyone who wants it. I see control of fertility as crucial to solving the serious problems that the world will face in the twenty first century and beyond.
Like Margaret Sanger (see below) I regard the avoidance of abortion as one of the benefits of contraception, but accept that legally available and controlled abortion is unavoidable at the moment.
Earlier this year a British court allowed a vasectomy on a man with learning difficulties.3 The case was unusual in that no-one opposed it and the decision was made in the man’s own best interests. I am very suspicious of forced sterilization but agree that in rare cases the courts should have the right to make such decisions.

I would be grateful if the reader would keep these positions in mind.

Hilda Selwyn-Clarke had been persuaded to become Honorary Secretary of the Hong Kong Eugenics League before she’d left London.4 She and her husband had discussed the problem of Hong Kong’s massive overcrowding with W. C. W. Nixon, a former HKU Professor, who’d co-founded the League in 1936 (more of this later).

I’m sure some of my readers will be surprised to learn of the association of a woman as far left politically as Hilda Selwyn-Clarke5 with Eugenics, the idea that societies should seek to improve themselves by bringing about changes in their ‘gene pool’ in favour of ‘good’ genes. Most people think of eugenics as at best a product of misplaced right wing anxieties about the proliferation of the low-quality genes of the less well-off, and at worst an inspiration for Nazi mass murder, for a programme aimed at eliminating those regarded as physically or mentally ‘defective’ that led to about 275,000 killings and 400,000 forced sterilisations. This program began in 1934 and is often seen as a preparation for, or even the first stage of the Holocaust. Further, the racist assumptions of eugenics undoubtedly played a role in the intensified mass murder that began in 1941, although these were, of course, produced by a complex set of ideological currents (including Christian anti-Semitism).

And, terrible to relate, it wasn’t just the Nazi dictatorship that committed foul crimes in the name of eugenics: Hitler was partly inspired by Californian compulsory sterilisation laws, which also existed in Scandinavia, while in Britain Winston Churchill advocated the same hideous practice, happily without success.6

So naturally when we think of ‘Eugenics’ we think of attempts to ‘purify’ the ‘race’ by one form of violence or another, while perhaps allowing that some at least of those who’d been supporters before the 1930s did not foresee that the genetic ‘improvements’ they advocated would come about through murder and the violation of women’s bodies, rather than, say, campaigns to encourage the possessors of ‘good’ genes to have more children and ‘bad’ ones to have fewer. In any case, like many others I’m now deeply suspicious of anything that smacks of eugenics, and am delighted to find that the evidence strongly suggests that most social (and many personal) pathologies are caused by environmental factors not genetic ones.

But eugenics was much more than just the idea that ‘good’ genes should be promoted and ‘bad’ ones, by whatever means, eliminated; Professor Philippa Levine, co-editor of a definitive international history, tells us about some of the non-destructive aspects of the movement:

Positive eugenics includes things such as blood tests before marriage, to ensure that when you go into a marriage at least every party knows if there is hereditary disease or if there is sexually transmissible disease… the tendency to provide both prenatal and postnatal care for mothers, so that mothers and babies (get) the kind of nutrition they need…In some cases it was the eradication of endemic diseases…7

Professor Levine mentions the particular case we’re interested in:

And in places like Hong Kong and India it becomes birth control practice. Because you have places that have very large populations, they want to limit that population so that they have enough to go around.

So what we see is active birth control mechanisms being put into place, not compulsory ones, but just the availability and access to family planning…8

And as for the apparent paradox of a left-winger like Mrs Selwyn-Clarke being part of a movement that’s often seen not only as racist but as opposed to the interests of the poor, where of course most of the ‘bad’ genes were thought to reside, here’s Levine again:

What’s fascinating is that you have supporters and opponents everywhere on the political spectrum… {left-wingers like} George Bernard Shaw and Margaret Sanger were eugenicists….You can’t pigeonhole it. You can’t classify it.9

Left-wing eugenicists don’t always sound any better than right wing ones. Here’s one of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke’s associates, the communist-leaning American journalist Edgar Snow:

I’m almost inclined to think eugenics is perhaps the only thing that will save the next generation from dominantly Negro, low class immigrant, or intelligence quota x or y.10

Even given that ‘negro’ was not necessarily meant as insulting, this is still pretty unpleasant in its apparent assumption that ‘white’ people already in America were the repositories of the best ‘genes for intelligence’. And I’ll have more to say about one of Levine’s examples of leftist eugenicists, Margaret Sanger, although she seems to have abandoned much of her earlier political radicalism by the time she brought the eugenics message to Hong Kong in 1936.

However, it needs to be emphasised that the activities of the Hong Kong Eugenics League, both before and after Mrs Selwyn-Clarke became involved in spring 1938, consisted of one thing only: offering advice and treatment to those women who freely chose to ‘plan’ their families. In the case of the poorest of these women, they provided their services free. There is no indication in the sources I’ve consulted of any interest in sterilisation or euthanasia. In other words what needs explanation, of the kind I’ve been briefly offering, is Hilda Selwyn-Clarke’s willingness to work under the ‘eugenics’ banner, not any involvement in dubious or obnoxious practices, because there’s no evidence of anything of the kind.

4Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, Footprints, 1975, 54.
10Bernard Thomas, Season of High Adventure, 1996, Chapter 6, note 35.


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The Hong Kong Left 1938-1941: Hilda Selwyn-Clarke Before Hong Kong

Hilda Selwyn-Clarke was the best known of the leftists both inside and outside of Hong Kong. In a previous post I’ve discussed her representation in Emily Hahn’s memoir China To Me1 and there’s a lot more to say about her wartime activity and her distinguished post-war political career, but in this post I’ll focus on her life before coming to Hong Kong in 1938. I’ve not been able to find out much, but I think that there’s probably some material in the archives of the Independent Labour Party that someone might use in the future to give a better account.

The post should also be seen as part of two other series: one on the ‘Stanley stay-outs’, people who met the criteria for camp internment, but were allowed to remain in town, and the other on ‘Bungalow D Dwellers’, as she and her daughter Mary lived there alongside my parents after they were all sent into Stanley in May 1943.

Hilda Alice Browning, a ‘country-loving girl from Kent’,2 met her future husband when she organised a trip to Stalin’s USSR for him in 1933. In 1931 she’d stood as candidate for the Independent Labour Party in Clapham, where she polled 7,317 votes (23%)3 coming second to a member of the Mills circus family. She contested the Bethnal Green South West in the London County Council Elections, probably also in 1931. What can we assume about Hilda Browning’s politics from this committed party allegiance?

The ILP was founded in 1893 by Keir Hardie and others and it’s best-known member in the 1930s was Glasgow MP Jimmy Maxton. In 1931 Fenner (later Lord) Brockway became Chairman, a post he held until 1934,4 and at some point Hilda Browning acted or had acted as his secretary.5 The Independent Labour Party tried to position itself as a critical, autonomous but supportive ally of the Labour Party, open to currents of opinion more left-wing than those of the increasingly reformist Parliamentary party. From an early stage the Party had called for the freedom of the colonies, and in 1928 it adopted an eight point domestic programme designed to lead to ‘socialism in our time’. This called for sweeping nationalisation, including of power, transport, land and parts of the banking system, a living wage and increased unemployment benefits.6 I think it would be safe to assume that this reflected Hilda Selwyn-Clarke’s political views at least in general tendency. Some important points of the programme were to be implemented in one form or another by the post-war Labour Party, now with Lady Selwyn-Clarke as a member and representative on the London County Council.

The early history of the ILP need not detain us, but after 1917 the party was pulled in two opposing directions by differing forms of socialist success: on the one hand, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia attracted some members who wanted to affiliate to the Third International and the Comintern, while more locally potent was the appeal of the Labour Party, which formed its first Government in 1924 (albeit a doomed minority affair headed by former ILP Chairman Ramsay Macdonald) less than a quarter of a century after its formation in 1900 as the Labour Representation Committee. Caught between these rival visions, the ILP was never able to build a large working class base, and by the time of Hilda Browning’s candidacy in 1931 it was small in number, and about to become still smaller after it disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 1932. The ILP lost 75% of members in the wake of this disaffiliation but nevertheless retained some influence – sympathisers included George Orwell, who went to fight in Spain under its auspices.

The rump organisation suffered the fate of almost all far left groupings – it became a battleground of competing tendencies, fought over by Labourites, Trotyskyites and those sympathetic to orthodox Soviet communism (by now thoroughly Stalinized).7 And just as it had been split by the question of WW1 it was also divided between pacifists and those who insisted that an armed response to fascism was necessary – Hilda’s former ‘boss’ Fenner Brockway started in the first camp, but was convinced by events in Spain that force had to be met with force (Brockway wrote a letter of recommendation to the ILP representatives in Barcelona for Orwell and helped him get his disillusioned account of the war, Homage to Catalonia, published8).

Where did Hilda Browning stand in these debates? I can’t be sure, but there is one indicator of her position: when she organised her future husband’s Russian visit she was working for the Soviet Intourist Bureau in London.9 This suggests at the very least she didn’t totally deplore the Soviet Union, and more probably indicates that she was on that wing of the party broadly sympathetic to Russian communism (after the war, she was to openly champion the Chinese communists in the civil war with the Nationalists).

The evidence of her ILP involvement combined with her activity once in Hong Kong lead me to offer this speculative summary of the politics of the woman who was to make such a mark on the life of pre-war Hong Kong: she believed in radical state intervention to improve the condition of the working class and in government control of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy. Although not herself an advocate of a revolutionary seizure of power by the British working class in any foreseeable future (or she’d have joined the Communise Party), she was comfortable with the Soviet Union and hoped for a socialist economy (rather than a reformed capitalism) in Britain one day. She was an anti-imperialist and perhaps (speculation within speculation!) a little embarrassed by her role as wife of a senior colonial official, albeit one as interventionist, anti-racist and committed to the welfare of all as Dr. Selwyn-Clarke.

In any case, in autumn 1935 she gave up or at least postponed ‘the makings of a useful political career’ and married him. The wedding took place in Majorca and the couple returned to the Gold Coast (now Ghana) where Selwyn was acting as director of medical services.10 In September 1936 their only child, Mary, was born, Hilda having returned to Britain.11 A C-section was needed, and Dr Selwyn-Clarke, weighing up the risk of more such procedures, decided that there would be no more children – they’d planned four.

By now he’d been promoted to head of the Health Department in Nigeria, and while there he was offered the post of Director of Medical Services in Hong Kong as a personal selection of Governor Sir Geoffrey Northcote. But ‘while packing’ in January 1938 he and his wife both noticed at the same moment a Piccadilly Circus newspaper billboard:


They agreed to go anyway.12





5Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, Footprints, 1975, 52.

6 From an early stage the Party had called for the freedom of the colonies.



9Selwyn-Clarke, 1975, 52.

10Selwyn-Clarke, 1975, 52.

11Selwyn-Clarke, 1975, 53.

12 Selwyn-Clarke, 1975, 53.

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The European Far Left in Hong Kong 1938-1941 (1): Definitions and Personnel

The European far left in Hong Kong in the three years leading up to the Japanese attack was numerically small but disproportionately powerful in its ability to shape events. I think there were five main reasons for this:

the presence in Hong Kong of the left-leaning and hugely influential Madame Soong Ching-ling, the widow of Sun Yatsen;

the fact that this grouping included some remarkable individuals in powerful positions, most notably Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, a woman of huge talent and energy, whose power was further enhanced by her marriage to the Colony’s Director of Medical Services, Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, a man who was too busy with work to play much of a role in politics but whose own views were not far from those of his socialist wife. Further the activist Anglican Bishop of Hong Kong, Ronald Hall, was a leftist, and in 1939 Israel Epstein, a communist, was editor of one of the Colony’s five English-language newspapers, the Hong Kong Daily Press;

the fact that in Hong Kong at this time, although ‘European’ opinion remained broadly-speaking reactionary, there was a strong liberal undercurrent that provided the opportunity for some far left ideas to make headway;

because of their sympathy for China in the war with Japan, some high-status people who were not necessarily on the left politically, were willing to help left-dominated organisations that worked to support the Chinese war effort.

the importance of the Chinese Communist Party, which was represented in Hong Kong, in China itself;

the fact that much of the world had undergone a ‘left turn’ in the wake of the Russian Revolution and the difficulties experienced by the capitalist economies in the years of the post-1929 ‘great depression’.

All of these points will be elucidated in future posts. This one focuses mainly on point 2, and on trying to establish the personnel involved.

By ‘far left’ I mean :

1) active in support of China in its struggle against Japan, and with regard to the split in the Chinese forces fighting the Japanese, either overtly communist or sympathetic to communism (some of the people I discuss would have been called ‘fellow travellers’ at the time). At the very least, they treated both factions with equal favour.

2) committed to interventionism in social policy – Hong Kong’s traditional ‘laissez faire’ policies were under challenge at this time,1 and the group I’m attempting to define can be seen as the ‘far left’ of this challenge, believing in wide-ranging of governmental action to improve the condition of the vast majority of Hong Kong’s population, poor Chinese labourers, street hawkers, rickshaw pullers etc.2 However, I must admit that I don’t know the social politics of everyone in this group, so with regard to Norman France, for example, I’m guessing from his activism and his associates that he at least leaned towards some form of democratic socialism. But in most cases interventionist politics are clearly documented.

3) By ‘European’ I mean primarily British, American, and dominion anyone generally considered ‘white” in what was still a racist society (although one that was experiencing an often under-estimated challenge to supremacist ideas.3) I don’t know of any ‘white’ Portuguese who were in the politically category under discussion; some, like Marcus da Silva, a solicitor, who became a BAAG agent, were on the left,4 but my guess is that the almost universal Catholicism of this ethnic grouping kept them well away from communism. The reason for discussing the Chinese CP only as it bears on the ‘Europeans’ is ignorance – both of the language and even of most of the relevant sources in English.

First, a head count. These are the individuals I know, whether or not by name, I consider as one way or another in the Hong Kong far left. I’ve divided them into categories which will be explained in future posts. These are only very rough guidelines and reflect the current state of my knowledge – I’m sure that there are many names I’ve left out. I could have included my father, Thomas Edgar, who was a Labour Party leftists and at some stage came to support the communists because he regarded the nationalists as corrupt, but the list is meant to be of those who sought to influence events or at the very least identified themselves politically 1938-1941 and I have no evidence he ever did either.

The nationality is British unless otherwise stated (Norman France might have been born in Hong Kong, the rest were ‘immigrants’).

Activists supporting the China Defence League and/or Chinese Industrial Co-operatives/Chinese War Relief Work

Hilda Selwyn-Clarke

James Bertram (NZ)

Israel Epstein (US)

Donald Allen5 (US)

Norman France

Parker Van Ness (US)

Margaret Watson

Elsie Fairfax-Cholmondely

Max Bickerton (NZ)

Bishop Ronald Hall


Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke

Other communists or sympathisers

Two unnamed members of the British Communist Party6

Gunther Stein (German)

Also on the political left or in tune with their ideas

C. M. Faure

Regular or Occasional Far Left Visitors to Hong Kong most or all of whom were active while in the Colony

Agnes Smedley (US)

Rewi Alley (NZ)

Anna Louise Strong (US)

Edgar Snow (US)

Helen Foster Snow (US)

1) Although writer Emily Hahn (US) supported the Chinese war effort and mixed socially with some people on this list I’ve not included her as she was critical of Westerners who she felt had fallen victim to communist propaganda. But my guess is that most of her Hong Kong contemporaries considered her to be part of what Agnes Smedley says was sometimes called ‘the political-literary set’.
2) In a previous version of this post I listed Father Thomas Ryan (Irish) as one of the leftists. However, although a man with a strong social conscience who was active in aiding Hong Kong’s many pre-war refugees, and a thorn in the side of his Jesuit superiors because of his outspokenness about Hitler and Mussolini, he was also a vigorous ant-communist. I’ve removed his name, but he should be mentioned alongside Emily Hahn as, broadly speaking, part of Hong Kong’s ‘anti-communist left’.

1See Leo F. Goodstadt, ”The Rise and fall of social, political and economic reforms in Hong Kong, 1930-1955′, Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Volume 44, 2004.

2Many of these people are called ‘coolies’ in contemporary texts, but I avoid this word as it is now often considered to be derogatory.

3One section of Goodstadt’s article, cited above, is called ‘The Retreat From Racism’. That’s probably putting it a bit strongly.

4In one of his contributions to BAAG discussions he writes that his views might be mistaken for those of a communist. Rather he seems to have been influenced by the soon-to-be renegade socialist James Burnham. For a general account of Marcus da Silva’s work, see

5After the war Allen became well-known as an editor and promoter of the ‘Beat’ poets.

6See Agnes Smedley, Battle Hymn of China, 2003 ed (1944), 454-456.

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Wystan Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Vandeleur Grayburn (5): Grayburn’s Story (4): Death

On August 15, 1943 Sir Vandeleur and Edward Streatfield celebrated the completion of half of their sentence. Grayburn was in good health that day, but on the next he complained about a slight fever and a loss of appetite. His condition deteriorated, and on August 18 he was moved to the Prison hospital.1 Khader Bux,2 an Indian warder who was made to act as ‘medical officer’, applied to the Japanese authorities four times3 for a doctor, but none was sent. On his own initiative, and at risk to himself, he took Dr Harry Talbot (who’d been tried and sentenced alongside the two bankers) to see Sir Vandeleur. Talbot saw him in the evening (probably of August 20) and again the following morning.4 On that first occasion, the patient had a high fever and was slightly delirious, and the doctor advised Mr Bux to get sulphonamide tablets; the courageous warder got some smuggled in, but too late to save Sir Vandeleur, who was comatose when Talbot visited him the next day.5

According to Dr Talbot, there were no medicines in the Prison hospital, and Dr. Saito, who was theoretically responsible for the health of the patients, was rarely to be seen. While the Chinese prisoners were allowed to have vitamins sent in from outside, British prisoners weren’t until the last few days of his sentence (which ended on September 30) when a few boxes of vitamin pills were allowed in from Stanley Camp. Rations in the Prison were so low, that malnutrition and eventual death were inevitable if they weren’t supplemented from outside, but according to Mr Streatfield, hospital portions were set at about 2/3 of the general ration so as to make sure that only those who were really sick entered (Dr. Talbot specifies 8 oz of rice and a little marrow as the daily ration).6 It seems that many prisoners went there just to die, making the atmosphere even grimmer.

On Friday morning (August 20) Grayburn felt better. After the evening meal he talked to fellow patient Police Sergeant Victor Morrison (an escaper who’d been quickly recaptured) about his travels in Norway and his brother’s time as a tea planter in India. He interrupted the conversation to try and urinate into a tin, but failed twice to do so. He dropped the tin and collapsed. Sergeant Morrison, himself weak, helped him to bed as best he could. Grayburn apologised – ‘That was very remiss of me’ – and sank into a coma.7

Sir Vandeleur died at about 7.30 p.m. on Saturday, August 21. He was 62 years old. Edward Streatfield wrote:

At no time had he ever been seen by a Japanese doctor. There was no doubt whatever of the great regret of the bulk of the Indian warders and several of them expressed their resentment at the attitude of the Japanese in not affording him qualified medical aid. The ‘M.O.’, in particular, had done everything his limited power and ability enabled him to do.8

Lady Grayburn was not at any time called to see her husband even though she was in Stanley camp which was next to the prison. It seems that the authorities held onto his body all the next day (August 22) and the morning of August 23, perhaps to make it harder to establish the cause of death. Prison officer R. E. Jones wrote in his diary:

Sir Vandeleur Grayburn died in goal am. 21st. Japs made sure his body decomposed enough to prevent investigation & then let C. S. {Colonial/Camp Secretary Franklin Gimson} know this afternoon. He was buried 6.30 pm.

George Wright-Nooth describes the handover of the corpse in some detail:

The body was to be released at 3 pm. A party of police were detailed to receive it. They brought the dead box {the camp’s constantly re-used coffin} along and waited some while outside the prison gates. The gates were opened and the box taken inside….Chinese convicts brought the naked body in a blanket and placed it face down in the box – all very grim and sad. Our men then placed a sheet over the body and took it to the mortuary, an improvised construction made by us in the camp. The body was in a decomposed state and emaciated; death had obviously occurred about two days ago.9

We learn a little more from a notice Franklin Gimson posted on a camp board sometime on August 23. It also contained the first of what was to become a long line of errors about the circumstances of Grayburn’s death:

It is with the umost (sic) regret that I have to report that the death of Sir Vandeleur Grayburn occurred at 7.30 a.m. on the 22nd instant in the Stanley Prison Hospital. The funeral procession will leave the mortuary at the Tweed Bay Hospital at 6.15 p.m. and the funeral will take place at the Stanley Cemetery at 6.30 p.m.

It seems that Gimson was following misinformation provided, perhaps deliberately, by the Japanese, but he soon found out the truth and posted a second notice on the same day:

From later information received, the death of the late Sir Vandeleur Grayburn occurred at 7.15 p.m. On the 21 instant, and not at 7.30 a.m. on the 22nd instant.10

According to Frank King ‘practically the whole internment camp turned out and followed the cortège from the camp mortuary to the graveyard’.11

So much is, to the best of my belief, fact. The question as to what exactly brought about Sir Vandeleur’s death cannot be answered with any great certainty. On September 15, 1943 the Colonial Office wrote to the HSBC in London with news of the death and, basing itself on Red Cross reports, gave the cause as ‘avitaminosis’.12 Emily Hahn, who presumably heard the news a month or so before she left Hong Kong on the Canadian repatriation ship, said that the Gendarmes said ‘with amazing candor that he had died of beriberi’13 (a disease of malnutrition). According to Geoffrey Emerson, there was a medical examination and the verdict was also death from ‘malnutrition’.14 However, a letter from Camp Medical Officer Dr. D. J. Valentine to Chief Justice Atholl MacGregor clearly states that the doctors assigned to the task refused to come to a conclusion as to cause of death because of the advanced state of decomposition (Hong Kong Public Records Office, HKRS 163 1-303).

Hahn refused to believed the gendarmes for two reasons. Firstly, ‘they said it was beriberi, so it couldn’t have been’ and secondly Lady Mary had been ‘sending her husband food in large quantities every week and we have reason to believe he got it’.15 Hahn was ‘inclined to believe’ an opinion she attributes to the Chinese: Grayburn died ‘as an accident after too enthusiastic an “investigation”’ – perhaps under the infamous ‘water torture’. I think this passage is the origin of the myth that Grayburn was tortured to death,16 and somehow an even grislier version of the story reached wartime Shanghai.17 One of the reports submitted to the British Army Aid Group also said that ‘third degree’ was being used on the bankers while they were at Happy Valley Gendarme Station, but, as we’ve seen,18 apart from one occasion when Grayburn was forced to hang by his hands after a chair was kicked away, the two men were never tortured, and the accounts of Streatfield and Morrison establish that ‘the water treatment’ had nothing to do with Grayburn’s death. And, in response to Hahn’s second point, it seems that most of the vitamin tablets Lady Mary sent her husband were returned after his death19, and it’s possible that he didn’t receive most of her food parcels either -many reports tell us that delivery was a matter of Japanese whim. Further, it seems from George Wright-Nooth’s description of the practicalities of smuggling he was only able to get a small amount of food into Sir Vandeleur.20

I think that the ultimate cause of death was undoubtedly malnutrition/avitaminosis/beriberi, but that the proximate cause of his death was given more precisely by the last doctor to see him alive, his fellow prisoner Dr. Harry Talbot. Talbot told a war crimes trial that Sir Vandeleur had been admitted to hospital suffering from boils (Wright-Nooth specifies on his right leg21), and that because of insufficient dressing he was squeezing the boils out himself and the result of this failure to provide proper care was septicaemia (bacterial infection of the blood). There was a second instance of medical neglect when no sulphonamide (anti-bacterial) drugs were administered before the warder’s smuggled ones, as these would have saved him.22 Talbot mentioned ‘about three’ hospital admissions in all for Grayburn, one with dysentery and another with severe boils and claimed that the only treatment he ever received was a little ointment. He told the court ‘I believe he died of septicaemia’.23

In summary, I’d say that it would be reasonable to conclude that Grayburn’s death was caused by septicaemia, brought about by the failure to provide dressing for boils, caused by long-term malnutrition, perhaps aggravated by a weakening of the heart due to beriberi, and only fatal because of further medical neglect.

The trial Talbot was giving evidence to was of Saito Chuichi, the medical officer whose responsibilities included Stanley Prison. The court heard evidence that when C. F. Miles came to Hong Kong in 1945 he still found plenty of drugs in the Colony, a position supported by Hugo Foy, another imprisoned HSBC banker who’d been active in raising relief funds. Mr Foy said he found medicines including thiamine chloride – a treatment for beriberi- in the HSBC Bank Building, which had been taken over and used as Japanese headquarters. Speaking in Dr. Saito’s defence, Kazuo Kogi said that when he heard of Grayburn’s condition, the Medical Officer rushed to the prison and tried to save him, but this isn’t mentioned in any other account. Dr Saito was sentenced to death, but the sentence was later commuted to 20 years, partly as a result of a plea from Dr. Selwyn-Clarke.

Sir Vandeleur’s story is a remarkable one. From his position at or close to the top of Hong Kong society he fell to the same low level as almost every other British citizen: stripped of home and possessions, trying to subsist on inadequate rations in cramped conditions, Although he understandably regretted his losses and the squalid conditions of his new life, this didn’t stop him from throwing himself into the work of raising illegal funds for the relief of his fellow sufferers. When the chance came, he joined the resistance, although he must have known that exposure would mean torture and death.

And what of the undoubted racism I discussed in my first post?24 Well, we know that he shared his wife’s food parcels with Mr. Harry Ching, a Eurasian fellow prisoner,25 and that he was liked by most of the Indian warders in Stanley Prison, one of whom risked severe punishment to try and save him. Edward Streatfield’s evidence suggests he was respected by almost all the warders and prisoners, which tells us something about his demeanour while incarcerated. It also strikes me as relevant that, as an agent of the BAAG, he entrusted his life to its Chinese agents on a regular basis . Pre-war Hong Kong was noted for its class snobbery as well as it’s racism, so I’m struck that Sir Vandeleur’s last conversation was with a Police Sergeant, close to the bottom of that rigid social hierarchy, and that it ranged over personal material.

This is not enough evidence to come to any firm conclusion, but who would have guessed that ‘the King’ of old Hong Kong was capable of so much? And of his commitment to the welfare of others and of his firmness of character and courage there is a mountain of evidence. If we could have been present at that 1938 meeting with Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden with which I began,26 how many of us would have had the slightest idea that it would not be the radical and socially concerned young writers but the supercilious old colonialist who would stay at his post and act with consistent heroism when war came? The less than edifying story of how the other two conducted themselves when fascism and militarism engulfed the world in flames I’ll detail in my next post.

I’ll leave the last word on Grayburn with those who knew him. Emily Hahn, who benefitted personally from his generosity during the occupation, wrote:

Grayburn was brave, stubborn, and dignified. As I had reason to know, he was kindly too, although many people would not admit that before the war. I am grateful, and I grieve for him.28

And his fellow HSBC board members, meeting in Stanley Camp after his death, recorded:

In the troubled sea of depression, tension and panic he stood as solid as a rock, and his personal courage and unfailing optimism were an inspiration to all who came in contact with him.


1 Frank King, History of the HSBC, Volume 3, 1988, 623.

2 I take the name from the evidence of Kazuo Kogi at Dr Saito’s war crimes trial – China Mail, April 3, 1946, page 3. George Wright-Nooth gives the name as Gholum Mohammed – Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 175. It’s also possible that the kind and courageous warder was called Rhemet Khan, who was described at the trial as the chief Indian warder.

3Talbot’s testimony, China Mail, April 3, 1947, page 2.

4King, 1988, 623.

5Talbot’s testimony, China Mail, April 3, 1947, page 2.

6Talbot’s testimony, China Mail, April 3, 1947, page 2.

7Wright-Nooth, 1994, 175. This source wrongly dates these events to August 6 and the death to August 7.

8Cited King, 1988, 623.

9Wright-Nooth,, 1994, 175-176.

10Both notices are reproduced in David Tett, Captives in Cathay, 2007, 299. Jan Morris’s book on Hong Kong continues the tradition of misinformation by quoting only the first notice with the wrong date of death. I’ve contributed to this myself by following Wright-Nooth’s inexplicably inaccurate diary entries in an online chronology.

11King, 1988, 623.

12Tett, 2007, 300.

13Emily Hahn, China To Me, 1986 ed, 394.

14Geoffrey Emerson, Hong Kong Internment, Kindle Edition, Location 1749.

15Hahn, 1986 ed, 394.

16Both Tett and Morris imply that this was the case, and see also



19Tett, 2007, 297.

20Wright-Nooth, 1994, 149; 158

21Wright-Nooth, 1994, 175.

22Talbot’s testimony, China Mail, April 3, 1947, page 2.

23Talbot’s testimony, China Mail, April 3, 1947, page 2.




28Hahn, 1986 ed., 395.

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Wystan Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Vandeleur Grayburn (4): Grayburn’s Story: (3): In The Hands of the Kempeitai

On March 17, 1943 Sir Vandeleur Grayburn and E. P. Streatfield were arrested at the Liquidation Office1 and driven by car to Kempeitai headquarters 2 where they were put in a room upstairs.

Grayburn must have been deeply worried about the forthcoming interrogations. He had been arrested on a relatively minor charge – after talking to Oda the two bankers had been heartened to learn that it wasn’t even clear that sending money into the Camp was in itself illegal,3 so during the two weeks before their arrest they must have hoped that the authorities would overlook the clandestine method they’d adopted. However, as well as the issue of smuggling, the Gendarmes were suspicious as to the source of funds – as we’ll see, they suspected they’d come from John Reeves, a man they had every reason to hate, and Grayburn certainly didn’t want to reveal their real source, which was probably loans raised by the bankers on the strength of ‘instruments’ that would pay well after an Allied victory. An even bigger secret that needed to be kept was the fact that Grayburn (although not Streatfield) had acted as an agent for the resistance – his BAAG code name was ‘Night’ and he’d been regularly supplying intelligence and smuggling out messages. He’d also been involved, at least as far as giving his approval, in the arrangements for the escape of Fenwick and Morrison (October 18, 1942). If the gendarmes found any of this out, the inevitable consequence would have been prolonged torture and execution.

During the afternoon Grayburn was taken downstairs for questioning; on his return, he told Mr Streatfield that he’d been accused of receiving the money from John Reeves, the British Consul in Macao, a courageous promoter of all kinds of resistance activity. Presumably Grayburn stuck to the agreed story that the money had been provided by conveniently repatriated Americans – some of them had been bankers living at the Sun Wah, so this was plausible.

From the HQ they were taken to a Chinese house and locked in rooms on the opposite side of a landing patrolled by a Chinese guard. Next morning the interrogations began again. At one stage Grayburn was questioned about relations with the BAAG.4 Once again, his denials were obviously convincing.

In a previous post ( I’ve argued that the Kempeitai acted with often scrupulous procedural correctness in the treatment of British civilians, and what happened to the two bankers is a good example of this. They were in prison on suspicion of illegal acts, but with a humanitarian not a military purpose, so, in accordance with general Kempeitai policy with regard to ‘white’ British civilians, torture was not used. This does not, of course, mean that the interrogators did not try to put psychological pressure on them, but the worst that either man had to suffer physically was an occasion when Sir Vandeleur was made to stand on a stool, which was then kicked away from under him, forcing him to hang by his arms.5

They were kept in the boarding house six days and allowed to receive two baskets of food, cigarettes, clothes and toilet articles sent by the other bankers in the Sun Wah Hotel.6 This was relatively easy imprisonment, and it must have been a consequence of Grayburn’s status, because I’ve never read of any other British prisoners being held outside a penal institution.

On March 24 things got dramatically worse. Grayburn and Streatfield were taken to the Happy Valley Gendarmerie,7 a Kempeitai station which had once been a French convent school – both the school and the Gendarme Station are sometimes called ‘Le Calvaire’8 The two men were separated and Grayburn was put into Cell 4; as he entered and looked for a space in the crowded cell, one of the inmates moved up to make room for him; this was Henry Ching, the Australian editor of the Colony’s most important English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post. A courageous anti-Japanese advocate before the war, Mr. Ching had not been interned because he was Eurasian. In 1943 he and other men connected with the SCMP had been suspected of spying, and he was arrested on February 17.9 His account of his arrival in the Gendarmerie gives us a good idea of what Grayburn must have experienced:

On both sides (of the corridor) heavy wooden bars four inches wide by one and a half inches. Have feeling of being in ship’s hold. Much noise of chattering but can’t see the people. Also terrific smell. Realise people are behind those bars. Small door on one side opened and I stoop in. Smell is terrible, but I am relieved. I am not going to be alone…Cell 4 in which I was put has verandah on north side – cloisters……..Only half cell inhabitable. Sanitary arrangements. Half dozen wooden buckets. Store room at end.

Another note from Mr. Ching tells us more about the place where Grayburn began his imprisonment:

Cell 4…(was) a large cell along the western side of the building, separated from the other three cells by a corridor. It held over 30 men and women. On the outside of Cell 4, and separated from it by a wall, was an enclosed verandah. But grills in the upper part of the wall enabled sunlight to enter the cell, and it was possible to look out towards the Yeung Wo Hospital on the other side of the Valley10.

In a smaller cell close by, holding about 10 people, was another British citizen, Cyril Faure.11 He’d not been sent to Stanley, for reasons unknown, and had been working on the Japanese-run Hongkong News. He was arrested the day after Henry Ching, also on suspicion of spying. In his evidence to a War Crimes Trial in early 1947 he described conditions in his ‘filthy cage’; he too noted the dreadful smell – the Indian warders had to hold handkerchiefs to their noses when they entered – and states that prisoners were given only one bowl and one blanket.12 Mr Ching’s son Henry give a slightly different picture of the bedding provision: basing himself on his father’s notes, he tells us that the prisoners were not supplied with beds but slept on the floor, on loose palliases;13 as inmates left, their palliases would be taken over by those remaining who thereby managed to accumulate several and were thus in relative comfort. Newcomers had to sleep on the bare concrete floor as no new palliases were issued.14

At least Grayburn’s cell had some light; in Mr Faure’s there wasn’t enough to catch the lice which infected everyone. He also mentions the inadequate washing facilities – at times there was no water at all – and tells us he lost about half a pound per day.15 Innumerable accounts confirm that the food provided in Kempeitai prisons was extremely scanty in amount and totally inadequate in nutrition, but the people at the Sun Wah were able to find out where the bankers had been sent and, according to Maurice Collis, to send them ‘daily supplies of food and from time to time a change of clothing’.16

It seems that some or all of Sir Vandeleur’s food parcels and clothing came from Lady Mary: the BAAG’s Waichow Information Summary correctly stated that he was at Le Calvaire, though, wrongly as we have seen, claimed he was taken there on March 17, and added:

No visitors are allowed and a boy, sent by LADY GRAYBURN with clothes for her husband, was not allowed to hand them to him personally.

This ‘boy’ turns up on other reports (see below) so the story is probably accurate. Cyril Faure also noted that Grayburn and Streatfield were allowed to receive food from outside, although he himself wasn’t,17 while Henry Ching’s son tells us that Grayburn generously shared these parcels with his father.18.

The two men’s next move was for the better, although it was still into conditions that were, by any normal standards, grim. On April 13, they were driven by car to Stanley Prison,19 where policeman George Wright-Nooth, watching from the internment camp, saw them being brought in – Grayburn chained to Streatfield.20 Here for the first time they were taken before a Japanese officer – previously all the questioning had been carried out by NCOs. They each had a cell to themselves, baths were provided and food parcels delivered.21 Short exercise periods were also allowed, and on the day after their arrival they were again seen by Wright-Nooth, who recorded in his diary that he’d watched the prisoners being exercised – ‘walking round in a circle with hands behind the back’ – and he’d seen Streatfield (‘a tall European dressed in a lounge suit’) and perhaps Grayburn (‘dressed in jacket and shorts’). On April 27 they were joined by Dr Harry Talbot,22 the bank’s doctor and the man who’d tried to smuggle money for them into Stanley. He’d been released, but was re-arrested in Camp.

On June 30 Dr Talbot and the two bankers were taken for trial. Streatfield wrote:

(T)he three of us were taken out of our cells at 8 a.m. and, having been given a bowl of rice to eat, were handcuffed together and taken under an escort of Japanese and Indian warders in a small covered truck into Hong Kong to the Supreme Court.23

In accordance with Japanese procedure, the court did not attempt to establish guilt – they had confessed, the Kempeitai had accepted the confessions, and that was that. The only thing at issue was the sentence . Although no charges were specified, the proceedings obviously related to smuggling money into Stanley.

Their judges were five Japanese officers, and, after some interrogation, the two men were asked if they had anything to say for themselves – an opportunity not granted to the British civilians who were to be tried on much graver charges later in the year. They denied attempting to cheat the Imperial Japanese Army and pleaded they saw no harm in trying to alleviate the situation of Bank and other dependants.24 They were sentenced to three months in prison – time already served not to count, a point that was to cost Grayburn his life.

The sentence was also to be served in Stanley Prison, but now they were convicted the regime was in some ways harsher and food parcels were stopped.25 They were put to work as gardeners which was something most prisoners welcomed, as it gave the chance to have something to do, get out of their cells, and interact with others. Collis tells us that the work was not heavy nor performed at great speed, but that the hours were long: 7.30 a.m to a 10.30 a.m. meal break, and then from 11.30 through to the second meal at 5.0 p.m.

E. P. Streatfield testifies to Sir Vandeleur’s bearing while in prison:

Grayburn from the start commanded the respect of the prisoners and most of the warders, not only on account of his age, but because of the cheerfulness and dignity with which he bore the unpleasantness of his position.26

But how had those left behind in the Sun Wah been reacting to these events? On April 25 the BAAG noted reports of a Sun Wah petition on the two bankers behalf:

The rest of Bankers sent petition to Governor requesting investigation and proper trial. This petition motivated by news that he was at one time put among other criminals and petty thieves.27

Another agent’s report in the same document gives a slightly different account of the petition and provides many more details:

After GRAYBURN’s arrest, he was visited by his boy who was eventually allowed to see him and who reported that he was in with all the other Chinese criminals and thieves and getting rice only to eat.

The boy immediately reported this to EDMONSON {David Edmondston, the HSBC number 2, who was himself arrested on May 24} and a petition was sent to the International Red Cross by the other bank staff. The International Red Cross intervened through the Foreign Office and the Gendarmes were highly annoyed that news of GRAYBURN’s conditions should have got out.

Lady GRAYBURN was then allowed to see her husband and was accompanied by the “boy”. On the way to the prison, Lady GRAYBURN asked the accompanying Gendarme, “Couldn’t something be done for GRAYBURN’s comfort?” He immediately turned round and said, “How do you know how he is being treated?” The boy who was acting as interpreter replied direct saying that he had given the information.

GRAYBURN was given new clothes and it is said that the old ones were lice infested. GRAYBURN was asked one question only by his boy, i.e. “then will you be getting out?”, to which he is reported to have replied, “Me, never.”

GRAYBURN is now getting cold food supplied by the Bankers and clean clothes once a week.

He was reported to be quite cheerful, but STREATFIELD was said to be pretty depressed.

The above story came from a source in very close touch with the Bankers and is believed to be substantially correct. There is no evidence yet of third degree being used….28

Grayburn’s wife, Lady Mary, was obviously a determined woman. The BAAG received contradictory reports about her visiting the Gendarmes: in one, she was summoned on April 5 and grilled for two hours, in another she cancelled a meeting she’d scheduled for April 8 for fear she’d give away too much if subjected to fierce questioning.29 If the second claim is true, it seems obviously sensible, as I think she must have known about her husband’s role as ‘Night’ – the BAAG referred to her as ‘Night Nurse’ because she’d been a matron before her marriage,30 but I don’t think she was herself an agent.

As we’ve seen, she was sending in parcels to her husband while he was in Le Calvaire Gendarmerie (March 24-April 13). Andrew Leiper, a Chartered Bank man living at the Sun Wah, reported that the people there heard by ‘bamboo wireless’ that Grayburn, Streatfield and Charles Hyde (arrested probably on April 21) arrested for arranging finance to send stuff into Stanley. This brought ‘relief and hope’, especially to the two wives (Streatfield was either unmarried or had no wife in Hong Kong), as it was thought this wouldn’t be considered too serious.31. This was true of Grayburn and Streatfield, but not of Hyde, whose resistance activities were numerous and varied, and who had been caught plotting to free an Indian POW from Ma Tau Chung Camp (he was executed on October 29, 1943). In any case, this relief proved shortly lived as no further news of the men was received, although some Chinese said they’d been seen in precincts of the former Supreme Court -32 as we’ve seen this was almost certainly where they had indeed been held.

Emily Hahn reports that Lady Mary went straight to Stanley to work on behalf of her husband after his arrest, but that’s not true – she herself gave the date of May 17 in a letter to her daughter,33 and that’s confirmed by the fact that she was in Bungalow D, which wasn’t opened until May 7, when my parents and 15 others were sent there from the French Hospital.34 She also says she was ‘sent’ to the Camp, but this proved useful as her husband had been in the adjacent prison for five weeks, and she was able to get police officer George Wright-Nooth to smuggle letters and a little food into him.35 Since some time in 1942, Wright-Nooth had been operating a smuggling system with a Chinese man who used the false name Wong for security purposes. Dr Selwyn-Clarke, living and working in town, would smuggle in food to internee leader Franklin Gimson through the daily ration truck, usually in the form of vitaminised chocolate or small biscuits. This food was given to Wright-Nooth, who would then pass on small amounts to’ ‘Wong’ who took it into the Prison, at first for four captured escapers, but eventually Sir Vandeleur and others also benefitted.36 According to Wright-Nooth, Wong was able to smuggle out Sir Vandeleur’s last letter – to Lady Mary – written a week before his death.37 However, as he’s already told us that Wong was replaced by the unsatisfactory ‘Lee’ in early summer,38 he might be misremembering. I’ll take up the story of Lady Mary’s food provision in the next post, as it bears on the controversial question of the cause of Sir Vandeleur’s death.

We have a few glimpses of Sir Vandeleur during his last summer. Some time around July 1, his former cell mate Harry Ching, who’d been released, recorded some news from another SCMP employee in his diary:

{A. M.} Omar {an Indian journalist who’d been in a cell close to Grayburn in Le Calvaire} skinny and health bad…. Was in {prison} again, sent Stanley. Scamp {Dr Selwyn-Clarke} there looking bad. Grayburn and Streatfield bearing up. Grayburn sent regards.

The same entry gives a picture of the prisoners’ day (presumably when they weren’t gardening):

Routine up at 7 a.m. and wash. Sit with arms and legs folded and not move. Breakfast at 9. Six ounces rice and sung. Squat39 until 11 when one hour exercise and can speak to each other. Then squat until 3 p.m. More exercise. Squat. Supper. Bed 9 p.m.40

This cross-legged sitting was something imposed on most prisoners, in theory at least, who were expected to face the wall and contemplate the crimes that had brought them to that pass.

On July 24 he had a boil on his thigh and had to enter the prison ‘hospital’ – the reason for the scare quotes will become clear in my next post. He seemed better on leaving, but he returned three weeks later in the grip of the illness that was to kill him.


1 Frank King places the arrests on March 19. I’m following Streatfield’s evidence at a War Crimes trial – China Mail, April 2, 1947, page 3.
2 Thus my source – Maurice Collis, Wayfoong, 1965, 226; presumably the former Supreme Court Building, which was in use as the Kempeitai HQ.
3Frank H. H. King, The History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Volume 111, 1988, 622.
4 King, 1988, 622.
5 King, 1988, 622.
6Collis, 1965, 226. See also the evidence of E. P. Streatfield at trial of Sato Choichi, reported in the China Mail, April 2, 1947, page 3.
7 Collis, 1965, 226.
8 Collis (226) wrongly claims the convent was formerly Italian.
12China Mail, January 3, 1947, page 2.
13Straw-filled mattresses.
15China Mail, January 3, 1947, page 2.
16Collis, 1965, 226.
17China Mail, January 3, 1947, page 2.
19Collis, 1965, 227.
20George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 157
21Collis, 1965, 227.
22King, 1988, 622.
23Collis, 1965, 227.
24King, 1988, 623.
25Collis, 1965, 227.
26Cited King, 1988, 623.
27WIS #28, April 25, 1943, Ride Papers.
28WIS #28, April 25, 1943, Ride Papers.
29WIS #28, April 25, 1943, Ride Papers.
30Edwin Ride, BAAG: Hong Kong Resistance, 1981, 223.
31 Andrew Leiper, A Yen For My Thoughts, 1983, 170.
32 Leiper, 1983, 170.
33David Tett, Captives in Cathay, 2007, 297.
35Wright-Nooth, 1994, 158.
36Wright-Nooth, 1994, 149-150.
37Wright-Nooth, 1994, 176.
38Wright-Nooth, 1994, 150..
39 i.e. return to the ‘arms and legs folded’ position.

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