The Ghosts of Stanley: Part 3 – First Visit to The Camp (1996)

In 1996, as part of this search, I visited what had once been Stanley Camp for the first time. I was prompted by the imminence of ‘handover’ to China (1997) and the fear (totally ungrounded as it turned out) that getting to Hong Kong might not be so easy in the future.

I arrived at my hotel in Causeway Bay at about 10 in the morning and, after a quick bath, I took a bus into Central and then one on to Stanley. The only part of the former internment camp that is open to the public without special permission is the Military Cemetery, so I climbed the hill behind Stanley Village and walked up the steps, past the memorial cross, to the graves.

I was overwhelmed from the moment of my coming to this place. I wanted to see everything at once. I dashed around, looking for things I knew from photos and guidebooks were there, and gradually built up a mental picture of the cemetery and its contents.

Then I stopped, slowed down, and looked out at the South China Sea.

That beauty was a comfort to the internees, who used the cemetery as a place of meeting and relaxation as well as for the burial of their dead. It was, I thought, a beauty that held the horror of the Hong Kong war and in some mysterious way brought a peace that didn’t deny or in any way protect against those horrors. In fact, never had I been more aware of the suffering of my parents and the other internees than during those moments.

As I looked out at the sea and the hills I realised that, even if my childhood had been in every other way perfect, merely the reflex of my parents experiences in this camp would have been enough to destroy me. This was an immensely comforting insight, not because it excused my failures or licensed any slackening of effort to make what I could of my life, but because it marked the acceptance of what I’d always known but had never before been able to accept as fully and with as sharp a focus.

But I needed to explore the rest of the cemetery, the tombs of nineteenth century soldiers, their wives, and, as often as not, their children, who’d succumbed to the disease-ridden tropical squalor of early Hong Kong, and the granite stones erected by the internees when the cemetery was re-opened during the war.

Gradually two particular places emerged as those that evoked most strongly my feelings about the Camp. The first was a slope with a view of the sea close to a memorial stone for the victims of the St. Stephen’s Massacre. The  main building at St. Stephen’s School (which was to become part of the Camp) had been turned into an improvised hospital. On Christmas Day 1941 Japanese soldiers entered, and what followed is described, in the sober pages of The Journal of Contemporary History, as a ‘bloody rampage of murder and rape’. My father, on one of those rare occasions, when he abandoned his attempts not to talk to me about the war, told me the story of Doctor Black who, attempting to defend the nurses and patients, and for this was brutally bayoneted. What followed was unimaginably horrible, and some of the victims are commemorated on these stones:

The second was the area around the three stones marking the graves of the residents of St. Stephen’s Bungalow ‘C’, who were accidentally killed by an American bomb on January 16, 1945:

After my 1996 visit I wrote a sequence of poems about Stanley Camp, which included a piece inspired by the part of the graveyard close to the St. Stephen’s memorial:

I stood in Stanley

            I stood in Stanley

            Coming on for Christmas 1996.

            I looked from the graveyard to the sea;

            And I thought:

            Did my parents walk here

            Waiting for the terrible Christmas of 1944

            Believing it would  be their last?

            Or did they know that half a century later

            Their son would come to this place

            And look across the South China Sea,

            With such strange eyes?

            I turn, expecting to see them there.

This sense of my parents’ presence, and the presence of all the internees, the living and the dead, was still with me. But in fact, it would not, I’m sure, have crossed my parents’ minds that – even if they did live – their son would feel impelled to come to the place where they had suffered so much and would find there the most powerful of all his experiences. Nevertheless, I felt that I had been summoned to this place and that it was full of clues, full of messages, full of the most intimate and potent hauntings.

In the last post on this subject I mentioned Dina Wardi’s book on the children of the Holocaust. What I experienced on that first visit to Stanley Military Cemetery came back to me later when I read that book.

As I was reading Wardi’s book I thought it was excellent, so I was shocked when, almost without warning, she morphed from a sophisticated, sensitive and perceptive analyst of other people’s psyches to a rather  superficial ‘therapist’. It became clear as the book drew to a close, that the whole point of her efforts in unravelling the patterns of transgenerational transmission – whereby for many of the children of the survivors their parents experiences of the Nazi camps seemed to become their own –  was to enable those children to ‘move on’, to abandon their role of ‘memorial candle’ for the murdered dead and ‘live their own lives’, free of the burden of the past. I was amazed at the assumption – that’s all it was an assumption without supporting argument – that this was obviously what anyone would want to and should do. Ancelin Schutzenberger falls into the same trap, and I think the problem is the limited view of human nature embodied in the traditions of psychotherapy.

In reality, we have no ‘own’ life, free of the concerns and imperatives of others, to get on with.  The past is indeed a burden – as Marx famously said Ein Alp – an incubus and an intolerably heavy weight;[1] but it’s also what makes us who we are and who we might be. It’s like gravity – it holds us down, but without it we’d disappear from the planet.  Standing in Stanley Camp for the first time I felt happier, freer, more fulfilled – and closer to grasping the essence of my life – than at any other time.

I eventually learnt that I didn’t go to Stanley merely to free myself of suffering, to live my life more effectively through escaping debilitating patterns of experiencing and behaving – that’s what I thought during that first visit in 1996, and, of course, it was true to a certain extent. Like everyone else I sometimes suffer and sometimes behave in ways that harm myself and others, and going to the Camp did indeed help me to alleviate such pathologies a little. But there is more to it, much more, than that, a ‘more’ that I could not understand while I was in thrall to the agenda of Western ‘therapy’, with its certainty that it knows how human beings should be and how they should live their lives.

I revisited the Cemetery on my final day at Hong Kong. It was dusk. I went first to the graves of those who died in the January 1945 bombing:

Then I went to the place by the Memorial to the victims of the St. Stephen’s Christmas Massacre and looked down to Stanley Bay.

As I stood staring at the disappearing light on the South China Sea I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I was close to understanding all I would ever understand about human life.

The ghosts were in the air. They were speaking, and I hoped that one day I would understand what they were trying to tell me.


[1] For a discussion of this pun, see Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx, 108.

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