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.


1 Comment

Filed under pre-war Hong Kong

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

  1. I would very much like to be in touch with you – I have written of the 5 men who received the George Cross in Hong Kong in my series of books on the George Cross and could add something about the life of the women from a diary. Also the only person whose family I have not found is that of Fraser – have you ever found them? please email
    excellent blog

Leave a Reply

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

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s