In 2009 Jane and I decided to return home after spending more than four years teaching in China. We planned a grand final trip: first ten days in Tibet with two fellow teachers…
Temple scene, Samye Monastery, Tibet
…then on to Chengdu for a short rest stop before flying to Xinjiang for another fortnight’s tour of this huge and history-steeped northwestern province.
But while we were in Tibet, we learnt of violent riots, with many dead, in Xinjiang. So in Chengdu, we rested, took our second look at the famous pandas…
…and used the time to talk over possible options. In the end, we chose to spend the time in Hong Kong, from where we’d booked a return flight to the UK, as Jane had never visited and, although I hadn’t planned to return so soon after my last visit, I knew there was plenty more for me to see and do.
We so most of the time we did ‘tourist’ things and my focus was not, as it had been on my two previous visits, on my parents’ experiences in Stanley Civilian Internment Camp.
But Jane was eager to see the place she’d heard so much about, so on our third day we took the bus southwards and began by looking around Stanley Village:
Then we went to the Victorian Military Cemetery that was opened again for the internees and served both as burial place and recreational area. This is the only part of the former Camp open to the public without special permission; it has beautiful views out to the South China Sea, and, although my mother told me she and my father almost never went there, it is the place at which I feel the presence of the Ghosts most intensely.
But this time I saw it through Jane’s eyes, or imagined I did.
I could see that the cemetery today has a rather scraggy, disordered, flung-together kind of look
Although some spots were still full of emotion for me:
But the full value of this new experience of Stanley wasn’t revealed until my second visit, a brief ‘goodbye’ on our penultimate day in Hong Kong.
I left Jane looking around Stanley Market and made my way laboriously uphill to the Cemetery. It was hot, even though evening was drawing in, and I was sweaty and uncomfortable. Besides, I had a headache and felt bad tempered. Why was I bothering to return, with so much effort, to a now familiar place?
I stared across at views that had formerly seemed magical to me and they left me unmoved:
I felt that these were merely the graves – whether of Victorian soldiers and their families or the internees – of imperialists who had been beaten by the climate or by a rival imperialist gang. Then I turned right towards my favourite seat, and got a surprise…
…a tree had been blown down and its branches were covering the headstones marking the graves of the 14 internees accidentally killed by an American bomb early in 1945.. There was a ‘Danger – do not cross’ sign and a rope to keep people away from the fallen tree. I stepped over this and went to the seat…
…and sat down to think. This novel element rekindled my interest and I started to feel a little more positive.
But I still had a headache, I still felt sweaty and unpleasant, and I now had to walk back down into the village, find Jane, and catch the bus for what seemed the long journey back to North Point. I got up and walked though the cemetery towards the hopefully still unlocked entrance. Just before I reached the large memorial cross…
…I turned and, not fully conscious of what I was doing, opened up my pituitary gland to the Ghosts.
There was hardly space through so much bad feeling for them to communicate, but one message, weakly received although clear and powerful in its transmission, came through: the Ghosts would only speak again when I could listen with a deep impersonality.
The events in wartime Hong Kong would always be the most important thing in my life, but they also needed to be merely something that had happened, once, to other people. One of the signs that I was ready to listen would be my confidence that I could attain and hold this ‘double consciousness’, this sense of total personal involvement combined with the disengaged (but not unemotional) and austere ‘listening’ of something in me deeper than the merely personal.
Now the meaning of both my visits became clear. The Ghosts – ‘my’ creations but so much wiser than ‘me’ – had been using them to begin the task of creating this deep impersonality. The personal involvement had long been there, and was the reason I had previously been twice to Stanley and learnt so much from these strangely-born revenants. But it was no longer enough.
Feeling no better, but with a renewed amazement at the work of Ghosts, I headed down the hill, into the darkness.