I got off the bus and started to make my way through the outlying part of Stanley Village towards the cemetery.
This Supermarket was the Kempeitai Headquarters during the Occupation
I walked passed the old Post Office, a building that had also seen the years of the war:
That was it. I knew that part of me was, in some mysterious way, back in the 1940s.
As soon as I climbed the steps to the cemetery, I felt that I had never been away, even though it was more than twelve years since I had first returned to Hong Kong. It had the familiarity of a landscape that had haunted me, or that I had haunted, for the whole of my life.
After a quick preliminary survey of the whole terrain, I sat down on a bench close to the memorial to those who died in the accidental January 1945 bombing of Bungalow ‘C’. The feelings welled up strongly, but I didn’t know what they were and couldn’t express them. After a time, I walked to the other place in which I felt most intensely the power of the Camp, the slope on which is to be found the memorial to the victims of the Christmas Day massacre in the emergency hospital at St. Stephen’s School (which itself became part of the internment camp):
There were a number of visitors to the Cemetery, but none who seemed particularly interested in the tombs and memorials. At some point word seems to have spread amongst young Chinese couples that this was a good place for the woman to pose for photos with a picturesque background. It seemed somehow right to me that today this area should, for most people, mean nothing more than a place for pleasure. In a strange way I found it a proper tribute to the suffering of the internees: I wished I could reach back into the 1940s and say to them,
‘One day people will come here and do the absolutely ordinary. They will enjoy themselves, get upset, argue, chat, smoke…do the countless petty and pointless things that make up a life in peace time. Nothing can take away your suffering, but this will be one of the things that follows it.’
Ordinary enjoyments in a society in which those people down there could be Chinese, English, Israeli, Nigerian….
South China Sea from Stanley Cemetery, January 18, 2009
A society in which, whatever prejudices may still sadly exist (for an update see http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1245226/racist-hong-kong-still-fact?page=all) no-one’s life chances are predetermined by their nationality or their skin colour in the way they were during the British period or during the intensified racism of the Japanese occupation.
But there was more to it than that, and part of my presence amongst those graves related to that ‘more’.
Years ago I was struck by a passage from Laurence Van Der Post’s Night of the New Moon. Van der Post was a British officer in the Pacific War, and he and his men were captured by the Japanese and imprisoned on Java. As the fourth year of the war drew on, and it became clear that an Allied victory was inevitable, all over Asia men and women oscillated between hope and fear, longing for liberation but knowing that cold blooded butchery was equally likely – my parents were told by their guards that all internees would be shot when the first American soldiers landed on one of the main Japanese islands, while others expected a massacre when Allied troops tried to retake Hong Kong itself.
In different ways the prisoners prepared for the worst. Laurens Van der Post records that the POWs in his Camp hid stones and sticks, so that if they saw the final massacre was imminent, they could fight back – not that they had any illusion that they could defeat soldiers armed with rifles, bayonets and machine guns, but in the hope that someone would be able to slip out in the confusion and tell their story to the world. I was greatly moved that it should have been so important to these starving, suffering men that others should hear the story of their afflictions, their achievements and the manner of their dying.
So standing in the Stanley Cemetery I felt that the ordinary enjoyment I could see around and beneath me needed to be supplemented by acts of remembering. Van der Post had taught me this – it was important enough for dying men to rouse themselves to one last effort in the hope that, against enormous odds, their story would be heard amongst the living. I understood more deeply the importance of the work of historians like Geoffrey Emerson and Bernice Archer, both of whom have written about Stanley in a way that combines scholarly accuracy and thoroughness with an unmistakable empathy for the people whose lives they were seeking to reconstruct.
And on that day, in that place I, in a different way, had also come to remember.
I have no belief in life after death. To remember and to honour the dead does not imply that they are in any way ‘still with us’. But, as I stood there on that bright morning early in 2009, I was still haunted by the Ghosts of Stanley.
I stood in the Cemetery at dusk waiting for the ghosts to speak.
I knew that these ghosts were my own creation, yet, for some reason, they could not have been brought into being anywhere else but here, in this cemetery and in this light. I had brought the raw materials with me, but it needed the power of what had once been Stanley Camp itself to give them final form.
The message of the Ghosts, I believed, would be about suffering and its role in life, but it would not necessarily be a pessimistic one. There seemed to be something that drew the freed internees back to their wartime experiences. I had come to Stanley literally, but I’m convinced that, metaphorically, my parents came here often
Two days earlier I had spent most of the day in Stanley, under the expert guidance of Geoffrey Emerson. I had been shown round the prison buildings that had once made up part of the Camp, and after lunch we’d gone along the Stanley ‘trail’ set up by St. Stephen’s College, whose buildings had included the actual bungalow where my parents had been interned. One sign of the way in which the Camp had shaped my parents’ post-war lives is that when, in the middle of the 1950s, my father had been in a position to choose the kind of house he wished to buy, he had settled on (and designed) a bungalow that must inevitably have reminded him of the site of his internment. This recreating of the scenes of wartime imprisonment is also present in the novels of J. G. Ballard, the best known former civilian internee, who was held as a boy in Lunghua Camp, close to Shanghai.
Even before Ballard wrote about the Camp openly in Empire of the Sun (1984) and to some extent in the sequel about ‘Jim’s’ post-war life The Kindness of Women (1991), almost all his novels had recreated indirectly his time in Lunghua. At the end of an account of a return to the scenes of his captivity, he stated unambiguously that for him internment had been the best time of his life.
The first thing that happened in the Cemetery was simple: the emotions that had built up but not been expressed during my day in Stanley with Geoffrey Emerson welled up irresistibly, and I cried. Perhaps surprisingly, it had been helpful that I’d agreed to be interviewed during that day’s visit by journalist Annemarie Evans for the programme Hong Kong Heritage. Annemarie was an amiable and skilled interrogator, and her questions had helped me focus clearly on the past, and answering them, while trying to take in what I was seeing, and catching as much as I could of what Geoffrey was saying, had helped me stay active and engaged at all times. As for the emotions the Camp brought up, I knew I could store them somewhere and find them later.
The time to allow them to emerge was now, back in the Cemetery, at dusk. But I knew that the emotions were not – as so many of us believed in the sixties and seventies – the most important part of what was happening. It was essential not to deny them, as that would have blocked everything, but they were only the key that unlocked a door, and it was the view of the room I wanted.
I stopped crying and a thought – if this is the right word for something so drenched in emotion – replaced the tears: it was right, absolutely right, to be standing here in Stanley Cemetery, at dusk. The only thing that wasn’t right was that I hadn’t walked from England to get there! Please don’t misunderstand me: next time I visit, I’ll fly to Hong Kong, check into a comfortable hotel, and arrive at Stanley on the most convenient bus from Central. Feelings are not necessarily guides to action and they don’t always provide accurate knowledge of the world. This one was there to remind me that, for me, coming back to Stanley was the most important thing in life. It was a kind of italicizing or underlining of the whole experience.
It made me realize again how superficial is the idea (held by some therapists) that we children of the camps should seek to leave behind our obsessive concern with the war, to ‘let go’ of the limiting patterns of the past, and make our own lives free of the imperatives of others. Here in Stanley – if anywhere – I was free, and nothing in my ‘own’ life offered me such wide horizons as following these Ghosts wherever they wanted to take me.
I waited for the Ghosts to tell me more. I could sense them in the air all around me, flitting around the darkening graves, unafraid of the murderous blandness of the electric lights from the new apartment block at the back of the Cemetery
So far, these Ghosts had given me tears, and told me – with that strange proviso – I was right to have come back to Stanley. They had two more messages.
The first was that everything I thought I knew about life was wrong. In particular, all my ideas about the transmission to me of my parents’ experience of Camp were beside the point. I simply did not understand how human beings worked. I was right not to be satisfied with all the accounts I’d read of this transmission, but none of my own ideas had got very far in helping me puzzle out the truth. I would have to investigate much more deeply than in the past 12 years the ways in which human beings influence each other. I was directed to examine particularly my earliest post-womb experience, the three or four months I’d spent in Hong Kong before my parents returned to England.
And the final, precious, message was that it was impossible to tell me more. As I write this now, it seems obvious: how can a man like me hope to be able to comprehend the legacy of people who like John Fraser, for example, had suffered torture and death unwaveringly rather than reveal the names of their fellows in the Camp resistance?
Memorial to Defence Secretary John Fraser, Executed for Resistance Activity, October 29, 1943
Or the missionaries – both Catholic and Protestant – who had turned down the chance of a safe passage home in order to minister to the internees others were leaving behind?
Protestant missionaries Beth and Ancil Nance and their family chose to remain in Stanley, as did Catholics Bernard Meyer, Donald Hessler and – until forced home by illness – Charles Murphy
In death, as Mallarmé said, people become what they actually are; in life such people had been beyond me, but as Ghosts they had become something that I couldn’t even imagine. Unlike Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in today’s epigraph, I was not ready.
It was a wonderful message. And I felt and still feel liberated by the clear sense of my own unworthiness. This is not a religious sense, a question of moral judgement, but a simple statement of fact: to learn certain lessons you have to be a certain kind of person.
I would be told no more that evening. The judgements of Ghosts are without appeal, but they are not final because no person is ever a finished creation. It had been twelve years since I first came to that Cemetery, and all that I had done in those years had won me no more than a few tears and the answers to three questions. It was enough, more than enough.
But some day I would return. I knew that I ‘d have other chances, and there was nothing for me now but to prepare to take them.