Monthly Archives: November 2014

Pre-war Hong Kong: The Myth of Mediocrity (Part 3): Eleventh Rate Women

For two related reasons it’s harder to refute the second half of Stella Benson’s claim that 1930s Hong Kong was full of ‘tenth rate men and eleventh rate women.’ Many ‘European’ women did what they were expected to do at the time and stayed at home, managed the servants and looked after the children and household. It’s hard to judge the qualities they brought to such activities, and because most of them didn’t have paid jobs we lack the objective evidence about esteem and career progression I was able to marshal in my previous post on the men. But the first thing to say is that if the men weren’t tenth rate, as I think I’ve demonstrated, then there’s no reason to believe they’d settle for low-quality women. The ‘myth of mediocrity’ is all of a piece: the men are duds, their wives are worse and the communal life they built up was deplorably limited in achievement and scope.

As I pointed out in the previous post, you can only get so far by holding up examples of men or women and exclaiming, ‘Look, obviously tenth/eleventh rate (or not)!’ There were enough men and women in Hong Kong for all categories of merit to be present, so we need to be able to suggest who was and wasn’t representative. In fact, most of the critics of Hong Kong’s pre-war Europeans don’t even bother to give examples, preferring to take mediocrity as self-evident. I shall cite a few instances of what I regard as talented pre-war women, as if I don’t it will look as if I couldn’t find any. But first I’ll look at how the idea of ‘eleventh rate women’ has been put together.

Firstly, the claim that the women were worse – more narrow-minded and racist – than the men is a colonial stereotype. This doesn’t mean there’s automatically no truth in it, but it does mean we should look carefully at how such a conclusion is arrived at. This is E. M. Forster writing in a journal about the situation as he knew it during his time in India:

If the Englishman might have helped the Indian socially, how much more might the Englishwoman have helped! But she has done nothing, or worse than nothing. She deserves, as a class, all that the satirists have said about her, for she has instigated the follies of her male when she might have calmed them and set him on the sane

That was the kind of picture he drew in his great novel of British colonialism,  A Passage to India, and it’s clearly a version of a much broader assumption of female inferiority that’s been widespread in European culture perhaps from the beginnings. So widespread it’s even shared by some women : as Susanna Hoe points out, Stella Benson – a former suffragette – constructed her picture in the way most of us create our ‘unreasonable prejudices’ – she decided what she believed and then discounted all evidence to the contrary:

She is….forever meeting an interesting or an open or a clever woman and defining her as very much not a ‘honkongeress’. If one were to add up the number if times she wrote something similar one would deduce that she had as many compatible acquaintances as most of us have in Hong Kong or similar transient places. (Susannah Hoe, The Private Life of Old Hong Kong, 1991, 182).

Hoe also points out that Helena May library held all of Benson’s novels, which is worth bearing in mind as at least some counterbalance to the picture of Hong Kong’s philistinism that is part of the ‘myth of mediocrity.’
But Stella Benson’s own experiences tell heavily against her denigration of Hong Kong’s women. In the wake of a hard-hitting book published by a husband and wife in 1930, Benson joined the campaign against the Chinese system of ‘mui tsai’ – opponents considered this institution no more than domestic slavery, but even westernised Chinese defended it as giving girls whose family couldn’t support them the chance of a decent life. But Benson wasn’t the only female campaigner. Bella Woolf Southorn, the wife of the Colonial Secretary, got involved. Benson got involved in the campaign after being invited by solicitor’s wife Katherine Beavis and Gladys Foster to sit on the local League of Nations sub-committee (Hoe, 249) and Gladys in particular seems to have been a very active campaigner. Beatrice Pope, a teacher at St Stephens, was also on the committee. It seems that Adjutant Rosa Raines of the Salvation Army was probably involved too (Hoe, 249, 255). So all these women were presumably classified as definitely not typical ‘Hongkongeresses’ so Benson could maintain her stereotype!

This earlier campaigning was matched by the work of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke who came to Hong Kong with her husband Selwyn, the new Director of Medical Services, in 1938. Mrs Selwyn-Clarke was a former parliamentary candidate for the Independent Labour Party, which was to the left of the Labour Party itself. She was thoroughly committed to the Chinese, both to the betterment of their condition in Hong Kong itself and to their victory in the war with Japan. She was already influential as the wife of a senior Government administrator and she added to that all that could be achieved by charm and force of personality – one source says that she could wind the Governor around her little finger, although that’s undoubtedly an exaggeration. But I suspect that there was another factor that added to these two to make her the most influential ‘white’ woman in the Colony: through the China Defence League, which she served as Honorary Secretary, she became an ally of Soong Ching-Ling (Madame Sun-Yatsen) who in some ways was the most influential woman of any ‘race’ in pre-war Hong Kong. I’ve written about Hilda Selwyn-Clarke and some of her work at length elsewhere on this blog, e.g.

The Eugenics League was a multi-race medical welfare organisation in which women palyed an increasing role as time went on. Anyone in interested in learning more about pre-war Hong Kong’s very much not eleventh rate women should take a look at the final chapter of Susannah Hoe’s excellent work cited above: Phyllis Harrop, Margaret Watson, missionaries Mildred Dibden, Ruth Little, Dorothy Brazier and Doris Lemmon all made valuable contributions to Hong Kong life in the peace and showed their mettle in the war.

Before I conclude, I want to return to this question of the stereotyping of Hong Kong’s women. In general I’m confining my analysis to the last years of peace, but there’s an example of stereotyping at work too good to leave out. American reporter Gwen Dew, describing her experiences during and after the siege of the Repulse Bay Hotel, provided a vivid picture of all that was worst in Hong Kong womanhood: ‘Mrs Elegant’ is racist, snobbish and selfish
‘The idea of giving all these ((Chinese)) people food!” Mrs. Elegant sniffed. “They shouldn’t be here at all, and they will get plenty of food even if we don’t!” (Prisoner of the Japs, 1943, 49):

On the long forced march from the hotel to the northern shore of the island, Dew starts to feel sorry for Mrs Elegant, but not for long. The Japanese were persuaded to provide enough water for one glass per person, accompanied by a single sugar lump:

But all my antagonism came flooding back as she managed to get to the bucket first, and before even the sick children had a chance. She had five glasses of water! Then she grabbed two dozen lumps of sugar and put them in her pockets and walked off! (Dew, 66)

She’s unforgettably nasty, and historians Gerald Horne and Stacilee Ford have both used her as examples of what the British were like. Lewis Bush, an author who fought with the Volunteer Naval Reserve, describes her counterpart amongst the civilians who found themselves at Marina House in Central soon after the surrender:

A well-known socialite was immaculate, powdered and perfumed, and demanded that Suzuki arrange for her to go to her home. Daughter of a marquis, niece of a general…She did not conceal her disgust at having to rub shoulders with the wives of bank clerks, Eurasian girls, wives of policemen and sanitary inspectors, with shopwalkers and even whores. The Chinese ladies she could tolerate, especially those who’d been received at Government House.

So far, so like Mrs Elegant: a mean-spirited racist snob. But Bush continues:
But she was apparently untiring in her efforts to create order out of chaos in the building, and, as Kaneko ((Bush’s Japanese wife)) was to tell me, had tons of courage and seemed to overawe even the most arrogant Japanese (Lewis Bush,The Road to Inamura, 1972, 145).

This has the messy feel of reality; Mrs Elegant, who is all of piece with no redeeming virtues, is a literary creation. Dew is playing to her American readership’s expectations of upper-crust British colonial women. This doesn’t mean, of course, that there’s no reality to the stereotype, for, in this case, there undoubtedly was, but I don’t think it’s an accident that the Yahoo Stanley Discussion Group, which contains two of the historians who know most about the siege of the Repulse Bay Hotel and a woman who was personally acquainted with some of those there has been so far unable to identify the real-life original of Mrs Elegant! ( Nevertheless, Horne and Ford have written her into the historical record where she now stands as yet another proof of the nature of Hong Kong’s pre-war females.

I hope I’ve shown I this post that the ‘eleventh rate’ label is merely a stereotype, and that Hong Kong had at least it’s fair share of strong, socially committed and active women in the years before the Japanese attack. In the final post in this series I’ll examine the charge that Hong Kong life at this time was philistine, parochial, snobbish, racist, backward and smug. I think there’s more truth to this than to the other components of the ‘myth of mediocrity’, but it’s a long way indeed from the full truth.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Pre-war Hong Kong- the Myth of Mediocrity (2) – Tenth Rate Men

In my first post I gave examples of a view of pre-war Hong Kong that can be summed up in novelist Stella Benson’s dismissal of its British elite as ‘tenth rate men, eleventh rate women.’ In this post I consider the first part of her claim. The trouble is that merely saying ‘this man was or wasn’t tenth rate’ proves little, because there were enough British males in Hong Kong in the 1930s and early 40s for every category of competence to be represented, but luckily there is some objective evidence relating to professional esteem and career trajectory which enables us to go beyond the ‘individual men’ approach. I’ll start right at the top with the Governor.

This quotation from Oxford historian Anthony Kirk-Greene, himself a former colonial administrator, relates to the immediate post-war period, but I’m confident that it would have been just as true of the years leading up to the Japanese attack:

As with ambassadorships, Whitehall ranked its colonial governors in four grades. In 1946 there were ten first-class governorships, representing the pinnacle of the colonial service. Nigeria, Gold Coast, Kenya, and Tanganyika in Africa joined Ceylon, Palestine, Straits Settlements (Malaya), Hong Kong, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago. ( This article is mainly focused on the post-war Empire, but it also discusses the situation in the 1930s and 1940s)

High esteem was reflected in salary. In 1945 the Hong Kong Governor got £7,000 for ruling a colony of 2.5 million people while his unfortunate Ugandan counterpart had to make do with a mere £5,000 for steering a territory with about twice as many people. That in itself is quite a blow for the ‘dumping ground’ thesis (see first post), But lets look at the two men who ruled Hong Kong in the period under review and see if we can deduce anything about their quality. Anthony Kirke-Green again, to give us some orientation:

Really outstanding governors, of course, might hold two or more successive governorships. If a man were successful in the testing ground of chief secretary in a major colony… or of a minor governorship… the way was open for him to aspire to the plums of the service like Nigeria or Kenya, Ceylon or Malaya, Tanganyika or Hong Kong.

Geoffry (it seems this is the correct spelling) Northcote entered the Colonial Service in 1904, held two chief secretaryships (the Gold Coast and Northern Rhodesia) and moved to Hong Kong in late 1937 from the Governorship of British Guiana. It seems a normal kind of career progression for a successful man as described by Kirke-Green: two stints as the number two, a try-out as number one in a minor colony, culminating in promotion to one of the top ten.
Northcote had got to know Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke in the Gold Coast, and soon after his appointment he invited him to join him in Hong Kong in the important role of Director of Medical Services. We should note that Selwyn-Clarke was willing to move to Hong Kong from the same post in Nigeria, a colony with a population well over ten times as large, which is further evidence that Hong Kong was not considered a refuge for the dead-beats and losers of the Colonial Service. I’ve already written at length about Selwyn-Clarke’s personal qualities, so I’ll just refer the reader to:
Anyone who considers Selwyn-Clarke, for all his admitted ‘mulishness’ and excessive attachment to his own opinion, anything but first-rate has very high standards indeed. As I’ll show in my concluding post, Northcote, with Selwyn-Clarke as an important ally, inaugurated a period of reform that belies the idea that Hong Kong before the war was reactionary and unchanging, unstirred by the liberal ideas that were slowly transforming the world.

Northcote’s successor was unlucky enough to arrive so close to the war that he had little opportunity to leave his mark. Before coming to Hong Kong on September 10, 1941 Mark Young had been Governor of another of the ‘pinnacle’ positions ‘, Tanganyika, having moved there from a senior position in another, Trinidad and Tobago. Again, this looks absolutely what one would expect from Kirk-Greene’s account. Of course, the crucial premise is that the official has been successful in the previous posts, so I think we can assume this of both Northcote and Young. (
The Colonial Secretary – the number two – when the war broke out was Franklin Gimson, who was even more unfortunate than Young as he arrived just one day before the Japanese attack. Gimson had spent all his colonial career rising though the ranks in just one colony, Ceylon – but the island was regarded as the very best posting of all, ‘the premier colony’ as Kirk-Greene puts it. (India had its own system and didn’t come under the Colonial Office). His war-time record was controversial: Geoffrey Emerson reports that most of the internees he spoke to for his 1973 thesis on Stanley Camp didn’t admire him, but the preface to the book version of Emerson’s work (2010) registers a vigorous defence of Gimson’s role in Stanley, one with which I wholly concur. In any case, the Colonial Office thought highly enough of his actions to elevate him to the Governorship of Singapore in April 1946.

What of the other ‘leaders’ of Hong Kong society? There were enough outstanding men to cast further doubt on the ‘tenth rate’ label. I’ll briefly consider the heads of probably the three most important non-governmental institutions: the University, the Anglican Church and Cathedral, and ‘the Hong Kong Bank. (I’ve left out the police because I haven’t been able to find out enough about the Commissioner John Pennefather-Evans to present a clear picture.)

Duncan Sloss, appointed head of the University of Hong Kong in November 1937, had come from Burma, where he’d led the University of Rangoon through a major expansion. (
He had been far more than a university administrator there, playing a major role in the government. He’d proved controversial, and has been accused of sparking off a Student revolt that was to end in Burmese independence after WW11, but his administrative talents nor his ability to bear the weight of huge non-academic responsibility were not seriously in doubt and he was appointed unanimously by the committee (Peter Cunich, A History of the University of Hong Kong 1911-1945, 2013, 332). The University, Sloss discovered, was in crisis because of uncertainty as to its future role; within weeks of his arrival, he’d evaluated the situation and devised a strategy for bringing it back from the ‘brink of disaster’ (Cunich, 2013, 332). He pressed forward on the crucial matter of University science teaching, and negotiated the deal whereby Lingnan University, forced to flee Canton by the Japanese invasion, could get started again by sharing some of the Hong Kong facilities. The University’s research culture was admittedly poor, so Sloss tried to build on the few excellent parts he found, for example, by encouraging Geoffrey Herklots to set up a Fishery research Station supervised from the Biology Department (Cunich, 2013, 357).

One of the men under Sloss at the University was Lindsay Ride, who’d been made a professor of physiology in 1928. Ride was a man who seemed able to turn his hand successfully to almost anything: before the war a medical professor and author, during the fighting head of the Volunteers’ Field Ambulance Unit, and after escaping from Shamshuipo in early 1942 the founder and leader of the BAAG, a resistance organisation that chalked up a huge number of successes – in escape, evasion, intelligence gathering, sabotage, propaganda and relief – partly because Ride proved a master at managing the complex relations with other British organizations, the Americans, and the two warring Chinese factions of Communists and Nationalists. After the war, Sloss emerged from Stanley to get the University back on its feet, to be followed by Ride who started the process whereby it now vies with the Universities of Tokyo and Singapore for the top position in Asia ( It’s actually one of the top fifty universities in the world, and amazingly it began its ascent to the global first rank under the leadership of two men who were active in Hong Kong before the war!

Bishop Ronald Hall was the head of the Colony’s influential Anglican communion. This is what a current Hong Kong Anglican source has to say about him:

Bishop Ronald Owen Hall was the longest serving, the most influential, and perhaps the most controversial bishop in the Hong Kong Anglican Church. His episcopacy, from 1932 to 1966, covered the most tumultuous period in the history of China.  (

Controversial – why? Well, for a start:

In 1926 when he visited the tomb of Confucius, he was so overwhelmed by its harmony and beauty that he did something that would have shocked his fellow Anglicans at the time.  He bowed three times in front of it.  In 1936, Bishop Hall asked a Chinese bishop to baptise his own son in Hong Kong – a British colonial outpost – making the political and theological statement that Chinese and British Christians are equal in the sight of God.

Not much of the narrow-minded, culturally smug stereotype here, and you can see why he was a controversial figure among the expatriates. But that wasn’t the half of it. The Bishop was a socialist:

At a time when communism was branded as a godless and evil ideology in the West, Bishop Hall recognized the spirit of personal sacrifice and dedication to the welfare of Chinese people in the early communist movements in China.  He was recognised by both Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-Shek during the Second Sino-Japanese War for his work with Gong He, raising huge amounts of funds internationally for its support…. He rejoiced at the founding of the People”s Republic of China in 1949…He helped establish a number of workers’ children”s  schools in Hong Kong, and earned the nickname, “the Pink or Red Bishop”. ((

‘Gong He’, from which we get the phrase ‘gung ho’, was a set of industrial co-operatives founded by the New Zealand communist Rewi Alley to underpin the Chinese war effort against the Japanese. The effects of this war were felt in Hong Kong itself after the Japanese attack on south China October 1938, and Bishop Hall helped Selwyn-Clarke to set up the Social Service Centre of the Churches to provide rice kitchens for refugees and street sleepers, (David M. Paton, R.O. – The Life and Times of Bishop Ronald Hall of Hong Kong, 1985, 217) and he also served with Selwyn-Clarke’s wife Hilda, (and Duncan Sloss) on the committee of the Foreign Auxiliary to the National Red Cross Society of China, whose head quarters was at the bishop’s house. But the war, during which he was out of Hong Kong, brought a still greater storm his way.

In 1944 he licensed the first woman priest in the Anglican communion – not because he believed in female ordination, but because this was the only thing to do in the circumstances created by the war in south China ( After the war, he continued his social activism. There’s a lot more to be said about Bishop Hall, but the point is clear: he was a man of outstanding talents, an absence of cultural or racial arrogance, a social reformer and a campaigner for the Chinese cause in the war against Japan.

I’m not, by the way, claiming with regard to Bishop Hall or anyone else that left-wing ideas are an automatic proof of talent and virtue: but, when they’re found in Hong Kong’s leading ‘white’ citizens they certainly show a willingness to engage in independent thought, and I would go as far as to claim that a sense of the equal value of Chinese people and culture and support for their cause in the war with Japan was an unambiguously good thing. And I should mention while on the subject of Hong Kong’s Anglicans that the Dean, Alaric Rose (who I think was number two in the hierarchy) had a first class degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford (Paton, 105) – PPE was considered perhaps the most demanding Oxford degree, and in 1952 Rose became a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong.

To leap ahead to the territory of my final post: there was an amazing moment in 1939 when this supposedly smug and ossified colony had socialists as Bishop and Director of Medical Services, a Jewish Marxist editing one of its four English language dailies (another was under the direction of a Eurasian often regarded as the greatest newspaperman in Hong Kong’s history) and perhaps the most influential woman was the Medical Director’s wife, another socialist, who worked alongside Madame Sun Yat-sen to help the Chinese war effort, and was said to be able to twist the liberal-minded Governor round her little finger. One of her friends and co-workers was the Colony’s first Medical Almoner (a social work type of post) who also supported the Chinese Communists in the battle with the Nationalists, and who would, after the war, marry the Vice-Chancellor of the University who in 1939 was himself working to help the Chinese beat the Japanese, albeit while supporting the Nationalists in the rumbling civil war. These people were all involved in one way or another in a movement of liberalisation and reform that drew in people who were in no sense on the political left. It’s amazing the stereotypes about mediocrity, apathy and ‘sleepiness’ have lasted so long.

Someone who definitely wasn’t on the left was the man who many people believed was the real ‘governor’ of Hong Kong, Vandeleur Grayburn, the head of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. When he was appointed in 1930 some people felt that he’d been too long in Asia so rather lacked international experience (Frank King, A History of the HKSBC, Volume 3, 1988, 202-204). Otherwise, he seemed the right man for the job. I’m not the right person to offer an assessment of his role in helping his Bank and the Colony generally respond to the challenges of the worldwide depression that began in 1929, or of his actions and advice in the wake of the Chinese decision to abandon the silver standard in late 1935, but I do note that he was knighted for his services to Far Eastern commerce in 1937 – this wasn’t an automatic honour for the HKSBC head, as he was the first such recipient since the founder, the great Sir Thomas Jackson. ( He also received an honour from the Chinese Government for his defence of their currency (King, 1988, 291). It’s also worth noting that, although he was the man who told Auden and Isherwood that the Sino-Japanese war was just the ‘natives fighting’, in his public capacity he claimed – plausibly as far as I can make out, to have seen helping China as major duty:

I have done my utmost to do what I consider is the principal duty of the Hong Kong Bank – to help Hong Kong and China and the Government of both places – and I think I have done it. (King, 541)

In 1935 Grayburn commissioned the design for a new HKSBC headquarters, (see first post) which was modern in both appearance and the fact that it was the first Hong Kong public building to have air-conditioning, so he was no backward looking cultural reactionary. Still, the building was sometimes known as ‘Grayburn’s Folly’, so it would be fair to point out that not all of the community shared his advance taste (or at least high level of cultural tolerance.) Finally, I think it also worth pointing out that Grayburn refused the full salary package he was offered in his first year at the top and that he and his number two David Edmondston shared one office, Grayburn at a large desk and Edmondston with his at an angle:

From this two-man office, Grayburn and Edmondston ran banks with assets of $1,246million (= £77.2 million) and an Eastern staff of 254 in 1940. (King, 1988, 446)

Of course, he was also a racist with perhaps even more bigoted views than some of his fellows, as his scorn for others extended to thinking that one American at the Bank was one too many. But the HSBC was on its way to becoming the second largest bank in the world in terms of total assets, and if Grayburn was a tenth rate dud he certainly did well to keep them fooled for over a decade!

It’s rare for propagators of the ‘dumping ground for duds’ view of Hong Kong to name names, so I’m left wondering who these tenth-raters actually were. Well, here’s one candidate: policeman George Wright-Nooth felt that Attorney General Sir Grenville Alabaster – nick-named the Blind Knight of Stanley for his habit of wearing dark glasses on even the most sunless of days – was regarded as ‘the archetypal semi-senile civil servant.’ In his rigid conservatism, dogmatic orthodoxy and attachment to red tape, he might seem to have personified the Hong Kong of hopeless ‘duds’, yet Wright-Nooth was forced to admit that whenever they spoke he found his conversation ‘quite stimulating’ and that appearances can be deceptive. In any case, he wasn’t shipped out to Hong Kong because of obvious incompetence: ‘very few young men have commanded the admiration of so many intelligent people’ reads one newspaper cutting, which went on to laud his ‘great intellectual distinction and…judgement of rare clearness and sagacity’ and mention his contribution to various legal reference works and the Encyclopedia Britannica. After the war, effectively blind perhaps because of the deprivations of the occupation, his sisters would read him the clues to the Times crossword in the morning, and he’d give them the answers after lunch. (

I’m not claiming that there were no ‘duds’ in pre-war Hong Kong, nor that the general human standard was pretty much on the level of Athens in the time of Pericles. Merely that the picture is pretty much as you’d expect: a melange of men of differing levels of talent and that the colony was seen as a desirable enough place to be posted, not as a ‘dumping ground’ for failures in either private or public service. In the next post I’ll look at some of the ‘eleventh rate women’ who infested the Colony, and then conclude the series with a general account of Hong Kong life on the eve of the Japanese attack.


Filed under Uncategorized

Pre-War Hong Kong: The Myth of Mediocrity (Part 1)

Part 1: The Myth

Hong Kong historian Jason Wordie put his finger on something in a South China Morning Post book review last year:

Probably the most prominent popular belief today maintains that pre-war Hong Kong was governed and garrisoned by a clutch of blimpish colonial stereotypes, straw men with no clue about events taking place in the wider world. In tragic consequence of their ignorance and complacency (as we have been led to believe), Hong Kong was caught catastrophically by surprise when the Japanese finally struck.  (

Yes, indeed – this is one version of the view that Hong Kong’s pre-war ‘European’ elite were a bunch of trivial-minded and incompetent no-hopers, and that the Colony’s expatriate life was racist, philistine, narrow, conventional, complacent and generally without merit. It’s not just a ‘popular’ view either, as a number of historians hold it.

Military historian Tim Carew, for example, thinks that Hong Kong’s civil servants were ‘old and atrophied’, its administration corrupt, its police force inefficient, and its military supine and ostrich-like (The Fall of Hong Kong 1963, 11). Gossip and scandal, leavened with ‘snobberies’, were the ‘staff of life among the colonizers in Hong Kong,’ opines American professor Gerald Horne. (Horne, Race War!, 2004, 25). Canadian historian Ted Ferguson believes that the Peak dwellers – the elite of the elite – were even ‘more complacent than their forebears’ because ‘they’d been entrenched in their way of life for so long (Desperate Siege, 1980, 23-24). The ‘way of life’ he describes is smug, trivial, conventional and marked by an extreme sense of racial superiority. So these British, American and Canadian historians are in agreement: Hong Kong before the wars was woefully deficient as regards the calibre of its rulers and the form of life they created.

Philip Snow, a much weightier figure than these three, shares this grim view: the Colony was seen as ‘a dumping ground for the duds’ of the Colonial Civil Service, he claims (The Fall of Hong Kong, 2004, 2.) Charles Boxer, who seems to have coined the ‘dumping ground’ phrase used the idea more widely to include ‘duds’ such as himself and presumably his fellow military and intelligence officers:

‘Hong Kong is the dumping ground for the duds,’ he said. ‘Including me. Any old fool who can’t be used elsewhere is dumped out here in Hong Kong. Look at them!’ (Emily Hahn, China For Me, 1986 ed., 209). According to Snow, Stella Benson, who lived in Hong Kong in the early 1930s, saw it as ‘the acme of provincial philistinism’, a place where life revolved around sport and gossip. (Snow, 2003, 2). It seems that the phrase that sums up much of this view is Benson’s jibe about Hong Kong’s ‘tenth rate men and eleventh rate women’.
I suspect that one of the reasons for this negative view is that imaginative writers have imposed it on historians and then it’s spread to the reading public through both conduits. I am not, I hasten to add, trying to suggest that the whole thing is a fictional imposition, and that nothing about this view is correct, that the ‘whites’ who ran pre-war Hong Kong would have seemed outstanding figures even in the Athens of Pericles. But it does strike me that imaginative writers have played a significant role in this rather inaccurate stereotyping.

Benson was a novelist, Hahn, who reported Charles Boxer’s remark as something like the truth, wrote novels as well as working in a broad range of other genres, and two other stern and influential critics of pre-war Hong Kong, Wystan Auden and Christopher Isherwood who visited in 1938, were respectively the leading poet and one of the most distinguished novelists of the day. I’m not accusing Hahn of making things up – she did do that in the novel Miss Jill and in the New Yorker articles collected in Hong Kong Holiday, and at least one reviewer and two historians have been misled by the latter’s convincing semi-fictions, but in China For Me she’s doing her best (within the limits set by the war-time publication of the book) to tell things as she saw them. She was always had the eye of a journalist and novelist though, and she didn’t look too carefully at a good story, a picturesque detail or a lively opinion. In general I’ll be focusing on Hong Kong’s civilians not its soldiers, but it’s worth taking some time with Charles Boxer because of his contribution to the myth of mediocrity.

It is frankly amazing that Hahn should have quoted her future husband’s opinion as if it was definitive or that anyone else should have accepted it. For a start, there’s the English belief in the virtue of self-deprecation that needs to be taken into account. But more significant is Boxer’s role as a military intelligence analyst. I have to confess that I’ve never been approached by my country to work in the field of espionage, but common sense tells me that, if I were to act in such a capacity, it would be better not to let it be known that my colleagues and I were unbelievably sharp and on the ball operatives who knew what the enemy were up to before they did themselves. Rather, I’d try to have it believed that we were doddering incompetents who usually found out things by reading them in the newspapers.

The Commanding Officer Colin Maltby did believe his intelligence system was weak ( so you could make a case for Boxer having been right – but not about himself. First of all, he was the one who told Maltby that the Japanese attack was imminent: he’d just taken over monitoring Japanese radio broadcasts when the announcement was transmitted. He was doing so because he’d learned the language (and claimed he was the first of the foreigners in Japan to learn Kendo fencing instead of Judo) during a secondment of three years from 1930 to the Japanese army during which he won the respect of many of their officers. (’s certainly true that some people in Hong Kong intelligence – but not only in Hong Kong intelligence – were reporting that the Japanese wouldn’t attack right up until they did, but Boxer wasn’t one of them. He understood that the shabby appearance of some of the Japanese troops was deceptive, and he was sharp enough to feel that the Japanese officers who’d entertained him to dinner on the night of December 5 had been suspiciously polite.
(Ken Cutherbertson, Nobody Said Not to Go, 1998, 221)

In any case, In his distinguished study of Hong Kong in the context of the war in south China, Franco David Macri has shown that Maltby was given good intelligence often enough but failed to act on or even believe it (Clash of Empires, 2012, 302).

And there was another aspect of Boxer that makes his self-deprecation impossible to take seriously: he was later to become one of the most brilliant scholars of his generation. After the war he was offered an academic post in spite of his lack of formal qualifications. A fellow professor sums up his career:

Charles Boxer was no ordinary academic. As well as the chair of Portuguese, he held or was
offered three other chairs in three other subjects… and this in a career that only began when he was 43 years of age. What would we think of an Olympic athlete who only took up his sport in his twenties and then went on to win four gold medals in four different disciplines?
When failing eyesight eventually put an end to his remarkable career, Charles Boxer had over
three hundred and fifty publications – all of them works of originality and substance.

In today’s universities, obsessed with getting their staff to churn out papers for some form of ‘research assessment’, Vice Chancellors would kill for someone like that. Of course, he might have been right about his colleagues in Intelligence – but neither the poetry-loving Alf Bennett, who was also a fluent Japanese speaker, nor Max Oxford, whose achievements are one of the subjects of the recent memoir At Least We Lived sound like they’d fit the bill!

Even a fine historian like Robert Bickers – one of the greatest experts on the British in China – has fallen for the myth of the mediocrity of the men of pre-war Hong Kong. He draws on both Benson and Auden, who visited Hong Kong briefly in February 1938, to convey his own judgement:

In his sonnet (‘Hong Kong’) Auden brought a first rate mind to bear on Stella Benson’s tenth rate men. (Robert Bickers, Britain in China, 1999, 235).

The Auden lines Bickers quotes describe the 1935 Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation headquarters, a building I shall have more to say about in this and the subsequent post:

Here in the East the bankers have erected
A worthy temple to the Comic Muse.

That’s fair enough – Auden indeed saw the building as a symbol of the lack of seriousness of Hong Kong life, but he had other things to say as well. I quote the original version written a year or so after his 1938 visit:

The leading characters are wise and witty,
Substantial men of birth and education
With wide experience of administration,
They know the manners of a modern city.

There’s a degree of irony here, but not of the kind that makes the lines mean the opposite of what they appear to say. Auden doesn’t want us to admire these men, because they are indifferent to the Chinese they live amongst and to the war in China, and, as a later version of those lines makes clear, because he also disliked their cynical take on morality. But in no way does he suggest the men he met were fools or incompetents (not in this poem at least – see below for more Audenesque impressions of his hosts) They are urbane, weighty and – within their limits – up to the task of ruling Hong Kong.

The contemporary writer John Lanchester, whose grandfather was one of the dentists in Stanley Camp, also relies on Auden to act as guarantor for his view of pre-war Hong Kong as ‘deeply stuffy, socially rigid’ and ‘hierarchical’ – a ‘backwater’ even by the standards of the British Empire at the time (Family Romance, 2008, 156-157). He too quotes the line about the HKSBC building and opines that it shows how ‘inherently trivial, and how profoundly provincial, the colony seemed to a super-intelligent cosmopolitan visitor in the 1930s’. That’s an impressive fusillade of adverbs and adjectives, but Lanchester’s failed to notice something strange: Auden made the Art-Deco Bank into a symbol of Hong Kong’s shortcomings because it was too modern for him! He later admitted that while posing as a cutting-edge Marxist intellectual and calling for ‘new styles of architecture, a change of heart’ (symbolic of social transformation) he actually preferred old styles of building. (‘Sir, no man’s enemy’; ‘Preface’ to Collected Shorter Poems, 1966) Grayburn’s Folly, as some locals called it, was actually too advanced for the hyper-intelligent poet. Further, as his travelling companion and fellow leftist intellectual Christopher Isherwood later revealed, the two men were disappointed by Hong Kong’s clash of architectural styles – they’d hoped for something ‘purely and romantically oriental’. So the ‘cosmopolitan’ poet was not only an architectural conservative, but a form of what later came to be called ‘Orientalist’, who wanted the East to conform to his simple fantasies. The bank building simply wasn’t exotic enough!

Isherwood provided more details of the poet’s contempt for the Hong Kong British (which he himself obviously shared):

They (((he’s writing about Auden and himself in the third person)) were invited to formal dinner parties at which they met government and millionaires. Wystan was not charmed by the food or the company. ‘The oxtail soup wasn’t oxtail,’ he wrote, ‘the women were cows and wore mermaid dresses; Sir Blank Blank, a squat red-faced toad, was reputed to have The Eighteenth Century Mind.’ (Christopher and His Kind, 1977, 223.)

(Isherwood revisited Hong Kong in 1957 and was surprised at his own earlier reaction, now finding the city ‘picturesque, to say the least’. ) So it seems that the poet’s reaction to the Hong Kongers was based, at least in part, on a love of fine cuisine, an obviously sexist dislike of the women and their dresses, and the belief that in order to be a proper intellectual you had to be tall, fine-looking, upright in posture and not get rubicund through drinking. And as Sir Blank Blank (who I think is easily identifiable, but whose name I’ll withhold) lacks all these qualities, Hong Kong must be an intellectual wasteland which sees the Mind of the European Enlightenment in a man Auden knew by looking at him was a cultural nonentity.

(For more on Auden and Isherwood in Hong Kong, see

Another communist-leaning writer, the New Zealander Robin Hyde also visited Hong Kong in 1938. Like Auden and Isherwood she didn’t like the ‘Europeans’ (for want of a better word), but unlike them she made the sensible decision to spend as much time as possible with Chinese rather than inflict on herself the company of the rich and powerful. The two Brits started off in a luxury matshed at Repulse Bay and then moved into the house of University Vice-Chancellor Duncan Sloss – you would never, by the way, guess from either man’s comments that they’d been put up by a delightful and polymathic conversationalist and world-expert on William Blake, a poet whose work and ideas had certainly influenced Auden. Anyway, I think Robin Hyde, who got to know Hong Kong much better than them during her visit, was putting her finger on something important in the negative view of the Colony when she dubbed a senior civil servant ‘High British Official Winkle’ – as in Rip Van. (The Dragon Rampant, 1939, 42). The image that comes across to me from a lot of the critical descriptions is of a Colony asleep – snoozing away while the Japanese mass at the border, and more fundamentally, enjoying overfed afternoon slumbers while the modern world passes it by.

In fact although there are undoubted elements of truth in the critical version of pre-war Hong Kong – and no-one should try to deny or defend its extensive racism – much of it is a myth, a parody of the real men and women of the British community and of the lives they lived. As one reviewer of Philip Snow’s book – whose excellence once it gets to the war years he rightly acknowledges – the Hong Kongers of its first chapter are ‘colonialists in the comic-book tradition.’ (Patrick Hase in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch, Volume 42, 2002, 471). That’s true of the writers and historians I’ve been discussing, and of many others, as Jason Wordie has testified.

In my next post I’ll consider some of the ‘tenth rate men’ of old Hong Kong and follow that up with one on the even lower-rated women. In the final instalment I’ll consider the nature of colonial life in the years leading up to the war – smug, narrow, philistine, torpid, reactionary and criminally indifferent to the coming storm as it’s sometimes considered to be.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized