Meeting Adorno on the Train: Racism and Murder in Old Hong Kong

 

German philosopher Theodor Adorno introduced the fifth section of his Minima Moralia (1951) – a classic account of the state of European culture after the Fascist era-  with the resonant claim that ‘Nothing is harmless anymore’. A few lines later he gave an example:

When in the chance conversation with a man on the train, one acquiesces, in order to avoid a quarrel, to a couple of sentences which one knows ultimately certify[1] murder, (it) is already an act of treachery…

It is an unpleasantness few of us have been spared: the invitation to agree with a piece of casual racism which, harmless although it might seem in the railway carriage, in other contexts takes its place in a system of racist thinking of the kind that leads to murder.[2

Adorno’s idea is compelling.

Adorno.jpg

 Source: Jeremy J. Shapiro File:AdornoHorkheimerHabermasbyJeremyJShapiro2.png, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Without the development of a so-called scientific racism – tragically a product of the European Enlightenment [3] – and of  a particular sub-set of ideas relating to the Jewish people nothing like the Holocaust would have been possible. No doubt anti-Jewish pogroms would have continued – although probably not in Germany which had the most ‘assimilated’  Jewish population in Europe – but they would not have taken the unimaginably horrible and systematic form of ‘the Final Solution’.[4] So to promote in racism in inter-war Europe might reasonably be said to have helped bring to birth the Nazi monster, and even reluctant agreement in casual conversations might be said to ‘ultimately certify murder’.

But an important question remains: there is clearly huge variation over place and time in the number of racist murders, and only one society at one period has ever produced a systematic attempt to kill all the members of a large group that posed no military threat on the grounds of their imagined ‘racial’ characteristics. If one accepts that the craven acquiescences of contemporary British people like myself somehow contributed to, for example, the brutal slaying of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence, why aren’t things much worse? Or better – surely it’s possible to imagine a society in which racist ideas never lead to murder?

In previous posts I’ve suggested that British racism in pre-war Hong Kong did not – as one source alleges – allow ‘whites’ to kill Chinese people to avoid paying their hospital expenses after a road accident.[5] I’ve also mentioned  that from about 1937 onwards attitudes were changing: British Hong Kong was significantly less racist on the eve of the Japanese attack than it had been four years earlier.[6] And I’ve compared pre-war Hong Kong with the situation under the Japanese occupation: British racism allowed for the lives of the Chinese to be protected and their rights asserted, although never with as much assiduity as for ‘Europeans’. Japanese racism meant that the Chinese could have their lives snuffed out at any moment for the most trivial offences or at the whim of a soldier.

These are both simplified pictures of course, but I stand by them as forming an important general contrast between British and Japanese Hong Kong. But in this post I want to show that – as Adorno suggests – British racism in Hong Kong in particular circumstances did ‘certify’ murder.

First it’s worth reminding ourselves that ‘racism’ by no means gives us the full picture as regards British views of the Chinese who made up 98% of the pre-war Colony.

British attitudes to the Chinese included admiration, paternalistic benevolence, fascination with their ‘exotic’ ways of life, a genuine desire to see their condition improved – and much more. In any case, British Colonial administrators, like most other people, took pride in a job well done, so, irrespective of their feelings about the Chinese, they sought to keep the Colony running smoothly in ways that benefited everybody. It’s only people who have swallowed the picture of Hong Kong as a dystopia, whose dim-witted expatriate elite only left their luxurious homes on the Peak to make money, play bowls or engage in acts of racist domination who might be surprised to learn that the law offered reasonable protection to Chinese lives. However, a situation in which racist feelings are counter-balanced and kept in check by other attitudes might work well enough in peace – but what happens in the chaos and terror of war?

I want to discuss an incident in which – if we can trust the eye-witness account – racism straightforwardly resulted in murder.

The setting is Kowloon on or about December 11, 1941 and the British are in full retreat. Our eye-witness is William Allister, an educated and idealistic Canadian soldier. Allister was one of a small group of Canadians, most of whom were in defensive positions on the island, sent to the mainland to shore up a cracking defence. He and a few of  his comrades made it back to the Kowloon docks amidst chaotic scenes of looting and panic. This is how he describes what he saw in his 1989 classic Where Life and Death Hold Hands (pp.20-21):

A coolie running with a sack of rice was shot down by a policeman. “Looters,” said a Cockney voice nearby. We craned our necks. “Looting what?” They were rifling the godowns – a row of warehouses beside us, with police at the doors. {Canadian soldier Bob} Demant was astonished. Why don’t they let ’em in? The Japs’ll get it anyway!”

“And start a bleedin’ riot?”

A drunken white policeman was firing bursts from his tommy gun into the air for the hell of it, then he opened a godown door, shouting: “Go to it, mates!” Demant shouted his approval. Then the drunk began shooting down each coolie as he emerged and roaring in delight. “Breakin’ the law, mates!” he hooted as we gaped in horror. More than anarchy – pure lunacy.

When I visited the Canadian War Museum’s research room last May I inspected  a notebook containing an early version of  Where Life and Death Hold Hands.[7] This is how the incident is recounted in this draft:

One drunken sergeant of police was pissed to the eyeballs, and had a Tommy Gun that he used like a candid camera fiend. He shot at everybody(,) leisurely, happily, giggling, looters or no – he just lo-o-oved shooting coolies – – – One Volunteer was standing at a narrow doorway allowing the looters into a storehouse, then he’d shoot them. (p. 52).

When I returned to the published version after reading this passage, I realised that it wasn’t quite as clear as I’d thought: presumably the policeman who shoots a looter at the start is not the drunk with the tommy gun, but whose is the Cockney voice? Is he in fact the Volunteer[8] who works with the drunk to lure the Chinese to their death in the unpublished version? In any case, why such different accounts of the inebriated policeman’s murderous actions? In the unpublished version he’s shooting at everybody, even non-looters, and it’s the Volunteer who marshals people into the godown (warehouse), while in the published version the policeman tells them to enter himself.

If such incidents had been investigated for possible prosecution as war crimes – and that would have avoided the charge of ‘victors’ justice’ – these discrepancies might have led to a decision not to go ahead, as they raise the possibility of ‘reasonable doubt’ as to the events having taken place. Nevertheless, as a historian, using less rigorous criteria, I believe that something like what is described did happen. Allister is not one of those writers – and there are a surprisingly large number in the literature of the Hong Kong war – who simply makes things up to render their narrative more dramatic. Or, if he does, I’ve never caught him at it.

A little support is given by American oilman Norrnan Briggs:

The last act of the British military before they left Kowloon was to mount a machine gun on a truck and drive up and down the streets shooting into the crowds in order to stop the looting. Rumors were rampant, so this may not have been true. It certainly sounded bizarre to me.[9]

Perhaps the murderous acts of the drunken policemen were behind this story?

In any case, I suspect that this wasn’t the only case of the unjust shooting of looters, although hopefully it was the most blatantly criminal one.

The British killed a large number of fifth columnists during the fighting. In doing so they received effective help from Chinese Nationalists under the leadership of Admiral Chan Chak.[10] It seems that these Chinese were particularly eager to kill those they regarded as traitors,[11] and, in any case, it is a well-established right to be able to execute without trial any person not in uniform offering non-humanitarian assistance to the enemy’s military effort. Any army would be mad not to do so. It’s possible that in some cases decisions were taken that would have been made differently if ‘Europeans’ not Chinese had been involved. But this is hard to prove and innocent people die in any armed conflict and to err on the side of protecting your own troops doesn’t necessarily show racism.

Nevertheless, I have a strong sense that the way the martial law right to shoot looters  – whose actions are not in most cases a threat to anyone’s life – was exercised in ways influenced by race.[12] Many of those killed could have expected no mercy. Some of the looting was carried out by those fifth columnists, in order to spread fear and chaos. Some of it was the work of organised gangs of Triads taking  advantage of the situation to engage in large-scale robbery. But ordinary Chinese people looted as well, simply to try to get food and anything else that would help them and their families through what they knew were the desperate days ahead. As Allister suggests, to forbid such people access to food that was about to fall into the hands of the Japanese was a crime in itself and I don’t believe ‘whites’ would have been treated in the same way. Some of them took what they could from abandoned houses both before and after the surrender but none of them were killed for it – neither by the British nor by the Japanese, who, once they’d stopped encouraging Chinese looting, punished it with characteristic brutality.

So I believe the evidence indicates that, in the confusion and terror of war, British racism, in Adorno’s terms, certified murder. What was about to descend on Hong Kong was the infinitely worse racial arrogance of conquerors who, while proclaiming the desire to liberate their fellow-Asians, created an order in which ordinary Chinese could lose their lives for little or nothing even during the period when Japanese power was facing no military challenge.

But throughout this post I’ve been assuming we all know what ‘racism’ is. In future posts I want to probe this concept and try to decide the most useful sense we can give it in discussions of Hong Kong before and after the war.

[1] Or ‘imply’ or ‘result in’ or ‘are tantamount to’ – the original (see bottom of text) has ‘hinauslaufen auf’. I’ve used ‘certify’ from this translation as it enables me to make my point clearly without being untrue to the original:  https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/adorno/1951/mm/ch02.htm

[2] I’ve seen another interpretation of this passage but I don’t find it convincing: answer by Virmaoir at http://philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/26855/why-did-adorno-hate-the-movies

[3] See e.g. Robert Bernasconi”s discussion, in Les Back and John Solomos, Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader, 2009, 83-84.

[4] For the ‘assimilation’ of German Jews see Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred, Kindle Edition 5015.

[5] https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/06/04/savage-christmas-and-the-nature-of-racism-in-old-hong-kong/

[6] https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/09/12/the-european-far-left-in-hong-kong-1938-1941-1-definitions-and-personnel/

[7] CWM Archives: Textual Records 58A 1 284.1.

[8] Member of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps made up from the Colony’s civilians

[9] Taken in Hong Kong, Kindle Edition, Location 935.

[10] See e.g. Tim Luard, Escape From Hong Kong, 2012, 24-25.

[11] Charles Drage, The Life and Times of General Two-Gun Cohen, 195, 286. Cohen led a team of Chinese Nationalists who went around throwing hand grenades through the windows of fifth columnists while they ate.

[12] For an account of the eagerness of a young American driver to kill looters see Wenzell Brown, Hong Kong Aftermath, 1943, 31. But Brown is one of those authors who sometimes makes things up.

Note:

Adorno’s German text reads:

Das Zufallsgespräch mit dem Mann in der Eisenbahn, dem man, damit es nicht zu einem Streit kommt, auf ein paar Sätze zustimmt, von denen man weiß, daß sie schließlich auf den Mord hinauslaufen müssen, ist schon ein Stück Verrat…

 

 

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