Ghosts of Stanley

The Ghosts of Stanley: Part 1 – My Generation

Dangerous is it to be an heir.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Few people doubt that the experience of war and occupation – in Hong Kong and everywhere else – had a life-long effect on those who went through it. Even in the case of the survivors, though, the reactions ranged over such a wide span that it’s hard to make any generalisations as to the effects of the deprivation and terror that characterised the occupation. On the one hand – and leaving aside issues of impaired physical health – there are a number of tragic instances of madness, suicide and lives ruined by what are sometimes considered the ‘symptoms’ of ‘mental illness’: depression, anxiety, insomnia, nightmare, despair and terror. On the other, some survivors of the Hong Kong war seem to have lived their later lives so as to illustrate the dictum sometimes attributed to Nietzsche: what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.

But I’m a member of the next generation, a child of the survivors, and, as in many other cases I’m aware of, my parents made the conscious decision not to burden me with the terrors and deprivations of war-time Hong Kong. For the most part, they kept to this resolution, and rarely spoke about Stanley, which they entered on May 7, 1943, and the even more difficult period that preceded it, most of which they spent in the compound of the French Hospital in Causeway Bay, uninterned because my father was part of a small team baking bread to supplement the meagre rations of the patients in the town’s hospitals.

Not only did my parents rarely speak of the war: growing up a baby boomer in Britain I thought that the whole thing had nothing to do with the relatively safe, relatively prosperous, relatively civilised life that was going on around me. In fact, once our generational consciousness had produced ‘the sixties’, I believed, as did so many others at the time, that any talk of the war was a trick by our parents, the Conservatives, the Establishment -Them! – to prevent us from junking their old values and forging a new culture of liberation and human fulfilment.

My father died in 1985 and, when I went through the papers he’d left behind, I was mildly interested in the photos of Hong Kong before and after the war, the magazines of the Hong Kong Fellowship (a support organisation for the British relatives of the Hong Kong prisoners), and, above all, the cards and letters that he and my mother (a Eurasian woman he’d married in June 1942) had sent home from Stanley Camp.

That card was written about eleven months after the wedding, which took place in St. Joseph’s church on June 29, 1942, in the presence of Captain Tanaka, a humane Japanese officer whose kindly protection in the early days of the occupation my father never forgot:

But 1985 was too early for me to go into all this; it was the time of the Peace Movement and the struggle against Thatcherism, so my mind and my life were almost entirely focused on the present, and the possibly terrible immediate future of nuclear devastation. Towards the end of the 1980s, when the threat of apocalypse began to recede and it had become clear that three electoral defeats and the crushing of the miners in the 1984-1985 strike had rendered the left impotent for the foreseeable future, a strange experience began to shift my priorities in a dramatic and unexpected fashion.


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