‘One picture is worth a thousand words’ – that’s putting it too strongly, but…

This photo was taken at Cecil Carr’s housewarming party in March 1939:

Sammy Carr Party

I discussed the photo with regard to the host and some of the guests in this post.

Recently another photo taken on the same occasion was kindly sent to me by a cousin:

Housewarming March 1939

This new photo forms an interesting commentary on the vexed question of the nature of the relations between different ethnicities in ‘old Hong Kong’.

Gerald Horne’s lurid account of the ‘horrendous treatment accorded “Eurasians”‘ forms part of his attempt to show that British racial pride played an important role in fostering wartime support for the Japanese – the simple response to that claim is that the pride was real enough, but as the Japanese were, on the whole, much more arrogant and, unlike the British, murderously so, justified Chinese and Eurasian resentment at pre-war mis-treatment played little role in the history of the occupation. (The actions of the various Indian communities, where ethnic resentment worked alongside support for independence is another matter, although even here it is easy to over-estimate the extent to which Indian POWs and civilians fell for the Japanese claim to be liberating Asia from western imperialism.)

This is part of Horne’s indictment:

Henry Lethbridge, leading sociologist of prewar Hong Kong, has written that “Eurasians in a European social gathering created a climate of unease and psychological tension….”

Let’s look at the new photo again (in a different shading, for variety):

Sammy Carr Same Party

Judging by dress and appearance I think the woman seated on the sofa to the right of the viewer is Eurasian. I’m not sure about the woman on the left or the one standing. Either or both could be Eurasian – or European. But, at a minimum, we have one Eurasian woman and the Chinese man at the front (who was also in the original photo). All the other men are European: my father is standing behind the sofa, drink in one hand, the other on the shoulder of ‘Sammy’ Carr. His close friend Tommy Waller is sitting on the arm of sofa on the viewer’s right. The man on the left sofa arm and the one in between the women on the sofa have yet to be identified, although I suspect that one of them is Frederick Hall, another Lane Crawford employee who lived in the same apartment block.

Can anyone see unease in those men? Does anyone seem aware that this is ‘old Hong Kong’ and they’re meant to be obsessed with race? In fact, if we examine the one piece of white male anxiety we’ll see just how race-free this photo is.

Tommy Waller does, in fact, look a bit tense. But why? It’s nothing to do with the fact that he’s next to a Eurasian – his leg is resting easily against her arm, squashing it a little in fact. All of the muscular effort is in his upper body and it’s because he’s trying to lean in to what was about to become the photo (perhaps he’s also worried about falling on to the sofa). And the reason he’s leaning in rather more than he strictly needs to is that the scene has been very carefully composed. If he were sitting more naturally the gap between his shoulder and the edge of the photo would be much smaller than on the other side, and part of his upper body needs to be behind the seated woman’s so as to balance the situation at the other end of the sofa and to stop him appearing separate from the rest of the group:

Housewarming March 1939

Everyone is positioned so that as much of their body is visible as possible while the whole ensemble maintains a dynamic symmetry – not perfect, because that would look wooden as well as leading to some people being unnecessarily obscured. To take one example: move the man seated on the floor along a bit so that his position lines up with that of the woman between my father and Sammy Carr and you not only obscure the man behind him but you create an artificial ‘perfection’ of alignment that detracts from the liveliness of the scene. I’m sure this photo was taken either by a professional (and therefore probably Chinese) photographer or by a talented amateur.

In either case, the total effect has been carefully planned. And it’s obvious that gender is one of the ‘building blocks’ of that plan. The women form a pleasing triangle, and have been carefully placed so no two men are next to each other. But what about race?

Sammy Carr Same Party

It’s hard to be certain until the ethnicity of all the women has been established, but, if race is a ‘building block’ at all, it is so to a rather trivial extent.

The centre of both the photo and the group falls between the heads of the man on the sofa and the woman standing behind. The man is certainly ‘white’ but if the woman isn’t then race really isn’t a factor. True, the Chinese man is seated on the floor, lower than everyone else, but in the other photo he’s also on the floor and next to him is the host ‘Sammy’ Carr. And any idea that he’s being humbled by the placing is taken away by the fact that he’s the only one making an expansive gesture in which his arm moves away from his body. That gesture, inviting the viewer into the photo, is just a much the centre of the scene as the man and woman already referred to.

Perhaps the role played by race in composing the picture is down to the fact that the photographer was Chinese or Eurasian? That’s certainly possible, but even if that was the case, everybody in the photo had to agree to do what they were asked.

Of course, one photo proves little, but it is enough to cast further doubt in my mind about some representations of the racism of pre-war Hong Kong (and not just Gerald Horne’s). That picture, though needs to shaded, not jettisoned. Other photos in my father’s pre-war archive show more typical interactions between Europeans and Chinese. I’ll discuss these in a future post in which I tackle the question of Hong Kong racism head on.








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One response to “‘One picture is worth a thousand words’ – that’s putting it too strongly, but…

  1. Pingback: It is always necessary to say that ‘old Hong Kong’ was racist! | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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