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.


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