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.

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