Category Archives: Emily Hahn

Wystan Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Vandeleur Grayburn (5): Grayburn’s Story (4): Death

On August 15, 1943 Sir Vandeleur and Edward Streatfield celebrated the completion of half of their sentence. Grayburn was in good health that day, but on the next he complained about a slight fever and a loss of appetite. His condition deteriorated, and on August 18 he was moved to the Prison hospital.1 Khader Bux,2 an Indian warder who was made to act as ‘medical officer’, applied to the Japanese authorities four times3 for a doctor, but none was sent. On his own initiative, and at risk to himself, he took Dr Harry Talbot (who’d been tried and sentenced alongside the two bankers) to see Sir Vandeleur. Talbot saw him in the evening (probably of August 20) and again the following morning.4 On that first occasion, the patient had a high fever and was slightly delirious, and the doctor advised Mr Bux to get sulphonamide tablets; the courageous warder got some smuggled in, but too late to save Sir Vandeleur, who was comatose when Talbot visited him the next day.5

According to Dr Talbot, there were no medicines in the Prison hospital, and Dr. Saito, who was theoretically responsible for the health of the patients, was rarely to be seen. While the Chinese prisoners were allowed to have vitamins sent in from outside, British prisoners weren’t until the last few days of his sentence (which ended on September 30) when a few boxes of vitamin pills were allowed in from Stanley Camp. Rations in the Prison were so low, that malnutrition and eventual death were inevitable if they weren’t supplemented from outside, but according to Mr Streatfield, hospital portions were set at about 2/3 of the general ration so as to make sure that only those who were really sick entered (Dr. Talbot specifies 8 oz of rice and a little marrow as the daily ration).6 It seems that many prisoners went there just to die, making the atmosphere even grimmer.

On Friday morning (August 20) Grayburn felt better. After the evening meal he talked to fellow patient Police Sergeant Victor Morrison (an escaper who’d been quickly recaptured) about his travels in Norway and his brother’s time as a tea planter in India. He interrupted the conversation to try and urinate into a tin, but failed twice to do so. He dropped the tin and collapsed. Sergeant Morrison, himself weak, helped him to bed as best he could. Grayburn apologised – ‘That was very remiss of me’ – and sank into a coma.7

Sir Vandeleur died at about 7.30 p.m. on Saturday, August 21. He was 62 years old. Edward Streatfield wrote:

At no time had he ever been seen by a Japanese doctor. There was no doubt whatever of the great regret of the bulk of the Indian warders and several of them expressed their resentment at the attitude of the Japanese in not affording him qualified medical aid. The ‘M.O.’, in particular, had done everything his limited power and ability enabled him to do.8

Lady Grayburn was not at any time called to see her husband even though she was in Stanley camp which was next to the prison. It seems that the authorities held onto his body all the next day (August 22) and the morning of August 23, perhaps to make it harder to establish the cause of death. Prison officer R. E. Jones wrote in his diary:

Sir Vandeleur Grayburn died in goal am. 21st. Japs made sure his body decomposed enough to prevent investigation & then let C. S. {Colonial/Camp Secretary Franklin Gimson} know this afternoon. He was buried 6.30 pm.

George Wright-Nooth describes the handover of the corpse in some detail:

The body was to be released at 3 pm. A party of police were detailed to receive it. They brought the dead box {the camp’s constantly re-used coffin} along and waited some while outside the prison gates. The gates were opened and the box taken inside….Chinese convicts brought the naked body in a blanket and placed it face down in the box – all very grim and sad. Our men then placed a sheet over the body and took it to the mortuary, an improvised construction made by us in the camp. The body was in a decomposed state and emaciated; death had obviously occurred about two days ago.9

We learn a little more from a notice Franklin Gimson posted on a camp board sometime on August 23. It also contained the first of what was to become a long line of errors about the circumstances of Grayburn’s death:

It is with the umost (sic) regret that I have to report that the death of Sir Vandeleur Grayburn occurred at 7.30 a.m. on the 22nd instant in the Stanley Prison Hospital. The funeral procession will leave the mortuary at the Tweed Bay Hospital at 6.15 p.m. and the funeral will take place at the Stanley Cemetery at 6.30 p.m.

It seems that Gimson was following misinformation provided, perhaps deliberately, by the Japanese, but he soon found out the truth and posted a second notice on the same day:

From later information received, the death of the late Sir Vandeleur Grayburn occurred at 7.15 p.m. On the 21 instant, and not at 7.30 a.m. on the 22nd instant.10

According to Frank King ‘practically the whole internment camp turned out and followed the cortège from the camp mortuary to the graveyard’.11

So much is, to the best of my belief, fact. The question as to what exactly brought about Sir Vandeleur’s death cannot be answered with any great certainty. On September 15, 1943 the Colonial Office wrote to the HSBC in London with news of the death and, basing itself on Red Cross reports, gave the cause as ‘avitaminosis’.12 Emily Hahn, who presumably heard the news a month or so before she left Hong Kong on the Canadian repatriation ship, said that the Gendarmes said ‘with amazing candor that he had died of beriberi’13 (a disease of malnutrition). According to Geoffrey Emerson, there was a medical examination and the verdict was also death from ‘malnutrition’.14 However, a letter from Camp Medical Officer Dr. D. J. Valentine to Chief Justice Atholl MacGregor clearly states that the doctors assigned to the task refused to come to a conclusion as to cause of death because of the advanced state of decomposition (Hong Kong Public Records Office, HKRS 163 1-303).

Hahn refused to believed the gendarmes for two reasons. Firstly, ‘they said it was beriberi, so it couldn’t have been’ and secondly Lady Mary had been ‘sending her husband food in large quantities every week and we have reason to believe he got it’.15 Hahn was ‘inclined to believe’ an opinion she attributes to the Chinese: Grayburn died ‘as an accident after too enthusiastic an “investigation”’ – perhaps under the infamous ‘water torture’. I think this passage is the origin of the myth that Grayburn was tortured to death,16 and somehow an even grislier version of the story reached wartime Shanghai.17 One of the reports submitted to the British Army Aid Group also said that ‘third degree’ was being used on the bankers while they were at Happy Valley Gendarme Station, but, as we’ve seen,18 apart from one occasion when Grayburn was forced to hang by his hands after a chair was kicked away, the two men were never tortured, and the accounts of Streatfield and Morrison establish that ‘the water treatment’ had nothing to do with Grayburn’s death. And, in response to Hahn’s second point, it seems that most of the vitamin tablets Lady Mary sent her husband were returned after his death19, and it’s possible that he didn’t receive most of her food parcels either -many reports tell us that delivery was a matter of Japanese whim. Further, it seems from George Wright-Nooth’s description of the practicalities of smuggling he was only able to get a small amount of food into Sir Vandeleur.20

I think that the ultimate cause of death was undoubtedly malnutrition/avitaminosis/beriberi, but that the proximate cause of his death was given more precisely by the last doctor to see him alive, his fellow prisoner Dr. Harry Talbot. Talbot told a war crimes trial that Sir Vandeleur had been admitted to hospital suffering from boils (Wright-Nooth specifies on his right leg21), and that because of insufficient dressing he was squeezing the boils out himself and the result of this failure to provide proper care was septicaemia (bacterial infection of the blood). There was a second instance of medical neglect when no sulphonamide (anti-bacterial) drugs were administered before the warder’s smuggled ones, as these would have saved him.22 Talbot mentioned ‘about three’ hospital admissions in all for Grayburn, one with dysentery and another with severe boils and claimed that the only treatment he ever received was a little ointment. He told the court ‘I believe he died of septicaemia’.23

In summary, I’d say that it would be reasonable to conclude that Grayburn’s death was caused by septicaemia, brought about by the failure to provide dressing for boils, caused by long-term malnutrition, perhaps aggravated by a weakening of the heart due to beriberi, and only fatal because of further medical neglect.

The trial Talbot was giving evidence to was of Saito Chuichi, the medical officer whose responsibilities included Stanley Prison. The court heard evidence that when C. F. Miles came to Hong Kong in 1945 he still found plenty of drugs in the Colony, a position supported by Hugo Foy, another imprisoned HSBC banker who’d been active in raising relief funds. Mr Foy said he found medicines including thiamine chloride – a treatment for beriberi- in the HSBC Bank Building, which had been taken over and used as Japanese headquarters. Speaking in Dr. Saito’s defence, Kazuo Kogi said that when he heard of Grayburn’s condition, the Medical Officer rushed to the prison and tried to save him, but this isn’t mentioned in any other account. Dr Saito was sentenced to death, but the sentence was later commuted to 20 years, partly as a result of a plea from Dr. Selwyn-Clarke.

Sir Vandeleur’s story is a remarkable one. From his position at or close to the top of Hong Kong society he fell to the same low level as almost every other British citizen: stripped of home and possessions, trying to subsist on inadequate rations in cramped conditions, Although he understandably regretted his losses and the squalid conditions of his new life, this didn’t stop him from throwing himself into the work of raising illegal funds for the relief of his fellow sufferers. When the chance came, he joined the resistance, although he must have known that exposure would mean torture and death.

And what of the undoubted racism I discussed in my first post?24 Well, we know that he shared his wife’s food parcels with Mr. Harry Ching, a Eurasian fellow prisoner,25 and that he was liked by most of the Indian warders in Stanley Prison, one of whom risked severe punishment to try and save him. Edward Streatfield’s evidence suggests he was respected by almost all the warders and prisoners, which tells us something about his demeanour while incarcerated. It also strikes me as relevant that, as an agent of the BAAG, he entrusted his life to its Chinese agents on a regular basis . Pre-war Hong Kong was noted for its class snobbery as well as it’s racism, so I’m struck that Sir Vandeleur’s last conversation was with a Police Sergeant, close to the bottom of that rigid social hierarchy, and that it ranged over personal material.

This is not enough evidence to come to any firm conclusion, but who would have guessed that ‘the King’ of old Hong Kong was capable of so much? And of his commitment to the welfare of others and of his firmness of character and courage there is a mountain of evidence. If we could have been present at that 1938 meeting with Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden with which I began,26 how many of us would have had the slightest idea that it would not be the radical and socially concerned young writers but the supercilious old colonialist who would stay at his post and act with consistent heroism when war came? The less than edifying story of how the other two conducted themselves when fascism and militarism engulfed the world in flames I’ll detail in my next post.

I’ll leave the last word on Grayburn with those who knew him. Emily Hahn, who benefitted personally from his generosity during the occupation, wrote:

Grayburn was brave, stubborn, and dignified. As I had reason to know, he was kindly too, although many people would not admit that before the war. I am grateful, and I grieve for him.28

And his fellow HSBC board members, meeting in Stanley Camp after his death, recorded:

In the troubled sea of depression, tension and panic he stood as solid as a rock, and his personal courage and unfailing optimism were an inspiration to all who came in contact with him.


1 Frank King, History of the HSBC, Volume 3, 1988, 623.

2 I take the name from the evidence of Kazuo Kogi at Dr Saito’s war crimes trial – China Mail, April 3, 1946, page 3. George Wright-Nooth gives the name as Gholum Mohammed – Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 175. It’s also possible that the kind and courageous warder was called Rhemet Khan, who was described at the trial as the chief Indian warder.

3Talbot’s testimony, China Mail, April 3, 1947, page 2.

4King, 1988, 623.

5Talbot’s testimony, China Mail, April 3, 1947, page 2.

6Talbot’s testimony, China Mail, April 3, 1947, page 2.

7Wright-Nooth, 1994, 175. This source wrongly dates these events to August 6 and the death to August 7.

8Cited King, 1988, 623.

9Wright-Nooth,, 1994, 175-176.

10Both notices are reproduced in David Tett, Captives in Cathay, 2007, 299. Jan Morris’s book on Hong Kong continues the tradition of misinformation by quoting only the first notice with the wrong date of death. I’ve contributed to this myself by following Wright-Nooth’s inexplicably inaccurate diary entries in an online chronology.

11King, 1988, 623.

12Tett, 2007, 300.

13Emily Hahn, China To Me, 1986 ed, 394.

14Geoffrey Emerson, Hong Kong Internment, Kindle Edition, Location 1749.

15Hahn, 1986 ed, 394.

16Both Tett and Morris imply that this was the case, and see also



19Tett, 2007, 297.

20Wright-Nooth, 1994, 149; 158

21Wright-Nooth, 1994, 175.

22Talbot’s testimony, China Mail, April 3, 1947, page 2.

23Talbot’s testimony, China Mail, April 3, 1947, page 2.




28Hahn, 1986 ed., 395.

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Wystan Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Vandeleur Grayburn (3): Grayburn’s Story (2): Towards Disaster

The Story So Far
In the previous post I described the way in which HSBC head Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, having lost everything in the 18 day hostilities, remained out of internment after the surrender and threw himself into the work of raising funds for the relief of the Allied community. When agents of the BAAG arrived in town in June 1942 he joined the resistance (code name: Night), later declining offers to arrange his escape, mainly because he felt he was doing essential work in Hong Kong.

In the Autumn of 1942 Sir Vandeleur declined a ‘specific offer’ of an aided escape, and two fellow bankers were taken out instead, with Grayburn’s approval and possibly encouragement.1 At 7.30 p.m. on October 18, 1942 T. J. J. Fenwick and J. A. D. Morrison left the Sun Wah Hotel ‘with a Hong Kong basket containing socks, shaving gear, a spare shirt and a quarter of a bottle of whisky and a bottle of Napoleon brandy’. With the help of two skilled Chinese resistance agents and the communist guerillas they arrived at the BAAG advanced headquarters in Waichow on October 22,2 providing there much valuable information on financial developments in occupied Hong Kong.3

These escapes were a triumph for the BAAG, but they left Grayburn having to deal with the tricky situation that resulted. After an initial period of relative leniency, the Japanese reacted strongly to escapes, and one thing that gave pause to those thinking of trying was possible retaliation on the ones who stayed behind.

On November 4 Grayburn sent a message to Arthur Morse, the head of the HSBC in London. I don’t know what he said to Morse, but he included a short optimistic message for his daughter: ‘All more or less well here …tell Elizabeth not to worry’.4 That ‘more or less’ is telling but, on the evidence available to me, it seems that the response to the Fenwick and Morrison escapes wasn’t too unpleasant. On November 7 he sent a message to Douglas Clague,5 a major in the BAAG:

‘Trouble is brewing’ are his first words, and they suggest that either nothing much had yet been done in retaliation for the escapes or that any initial burst of punitive activity had died down. The Kempeitai, he contiued, wanted to pack them all off to Stanley – which would probably have saved the lives of Grayburn and two of his colleagues – but the Foreign Affairs Department and the Finance Department were resisting, because the bankers’ help was still needed. Grayburn estimates that the signing would take another three months and stated that the ‘liquidation’ of the Bank’s assets was nowhere near finished. In my previous post I discussed a message Grayburn received from one of the Japanese ‘liquidators’ on December 10 in the context of the light it throws on the bankers’ conditions during their time outside Stanley. My guess is that the tightening of the rules governing their movements that was conveyed to Grayburn in that message was a necessary concession to the Kempeitai on the part of those Japanese who wanted the bankers to continue to live outside Stanley. In any case, Grayburn had to give his word that no future escapes would take place (‘Have promised no others will leave’) and it seems that each banker was also required to give his personal ‘parole’, which in at least one instance acted as a deterrent to escaping.6

Interestingly Grayburn mentions something that happened in Stanley Camp only the day before – the young men were sent to sleep in the prison for fear of escapes during the an American air raid. I don’t know if he had a system for getting speedy information from Stanley, or if he just learnt about this so quickly through chance. He ends by assuring Clague that ‘otherwise all well with us’.

On the day before that message (November 6) Lieutenant-Colonel Lindsay Ride, the BAAG’s commander, had been in Chunking, where he was asked by the authorities for details of Grayburn’s signing of ‘duress notes’ (see previous post). The British announced several times during the war that these would not be honoured, an impression that was further strengthened after liberation, so much so that some people had dumped theirs in the garbage before the Bank announced a change of heart!7 The notes are now sought after by collectors. In the same document Ride notes that he’d asked Douglas Clague to find out if Grayburn would be willing to escape ‘alone if necessary’.8 This suggests that there were still moves afoot to get Grayburn out, and gives some support to the theory that he was unwilling to leave because this would have left Lady Mary to face Japanese reprisals.

As 1942 slowly gave way to the new year, there wasn’t much rejoicing in the Sun Wah. Banker Andrew Leiper was there:

In our community there was little heart to celebrate Christmas and the advent of 1943 was marked only by a party given for the half dozen children in the boarding-house. They were each presented with a small packet of home-made toffee, for which we had all contributed a part of our sugar ration.9

Grayburn continued the job of maintaining communication with the BAAG and with Consul John Reeves in Macao.10T he Waichow Intelligence Summary of February 12, 1943 notes a message had been received from him estimating that the bankers would be out of Stanley for another 6 months as the signing of the duress notes was very slow. Using the light code common in BAAG communications, he reported ‘No serious damage to our shop so far’ – presumably the Bank building. He notes that the news was good and predicted that Germany would give up before ‘many months’ were over.11 Two HSBC bankers, Charles Hyde and Luis da Souza, were listening to a short-wave radio hidden on the premises of the Indian company Abdoolally Ebrahim12 and this might have been the source of the over-optimistic news.

Emily Hahn believes the start of the Kempeitai ‘strike back’ – the so-called ‘reign of terror’13 – in February 1943 was connected to Chinese puppet ruler Wang Chi Wei’s declaration of war against the Allies.14 In any case, as Philip Snow,15 points out it was systematic, comprehensive and successful, and Grayburn was one of the first trio of British victims.

Grayburn had smuggled funds into Stanley Camp directly twice before: in November 1942 the wife of J. T. Dupuy was sent into Stanley and at some point in 1942 or early 1943 G. H. Cautherley had been allowed to leave camp to be x-rayed at the French Hospital.16 In February 1943 Dr Harry Talbot, a prominent local doctor who’s also worked for the Soong family,17 came to the Hospital for the same purpose. Grayburn, his deputy Edward Streatfield, and their colleague Charles Hyde – probably the most active British resistance worker – all gave him money to smuggle back into the camp; in Grayburn’s case it was 800 Yen for the former nursing staff of the Matilda Hospital,18 an institution he’d financed and now served as a trustee.

The arrest of Talbot was a disaster for Grayburn, but I’ve never seen a source that gives the exact date it happened– I think it was probably on or close to February 20.19 Further, every version of what led to the arrest is a little different,20 but what they all have in common is that Talbot was searched on his way back to the camp and the money was found. He refused to name the people who’d given it to him – Frank King claims he was tortured, but other accounts say he wasn’t – and, on February 23,21 after a few tense days during which the French Hospital was searched by the Navy, Grayburn and Streatfield went to Mr. Oda, the sympathetic head of the Foreign Affairs Office, and confessed, claiming that all the money had been provided by them (I think they must have been anxious to keep Hyde out of the hands of the Gendarmes). They said the money was for bank staff and nurses in the camp. Streatfield denied all knowledge of the source of the funds, while Grayburn claimed it came from the repatriated Americans22 – it seems like this was a common explanation for surreptitiously acquired funds after June 1942!23

The meeting took place on February 23; Oda lectured them on the seriousness of their offence,24 and then let them return to the Sun Wah. He had no choice but to tell the Kempeitai and Emily Hahn believes that before taking action the Japanese in Hong Kong needed to get advice from Tokyo – it was no small thing to arrest the best-known financier in the Far East, and, when the blow fell on March 19, Hahn records that even Japanese civilians were surprised.25

The pre-war ‘King’ of Hong Kong, ‘the Governor’s Governor’, had lost almost everything during the hostilities – his house, his possessions and his job. His health, already undermined by overwork, deteriorated still further under the harsh conditions of the occupation. But he still had what seems to have been a strong marriage, and above all he retained the determination of character that had taken him to the top of his profession. With deeply impressive courage and resourcefulness, he reinvented himself as a raiser of illicit funds for the relief of suffering and an agent of the Hong Kong resistance.

Now he was entering a brutal prison system, and he can have had no illusions as to the consequences if his interrogators ever discovered the identity of ‘Night’.


1Frank King, History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Volume 3, 1988, 617.
2King, 1988, 618-621.
3George Wright- Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 153.
4David Tett, Captives in Cathay, 2007, 298.
8 L. T. Ride, Memo of 6 November 1942 – Ride Papers, kindly sent me by Elizabeth Ride.
9Leiper, 1982, 164.
10King, 1988, 621.
11WIS 18, 12 February 1943, Ride Papers.
14Emiily Hahn, China To Me, 1986 ed, 386.
15Philip Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, 2003, 185.
16King, 1988, 621.
17 Hahn, 1986 ed, 389.
18King, 1988, 622.
20Recently a Memoir written by Dr Talbot has emerged, so hopefully a definitive account will one day be possible –
21King, 1988, 622.
22King, 1988, 622.
23Hahn, 1986, ed, 390.
24King, 1988, 622.
25Hahn, 1986 ed., 389-390.

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Wystan Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Vandeleur Grayburn (2): Grayburn’s Story, Part 1 – Loss, Relief and Resistance

A version of this post with public image illustrations can be read at:

Those who called Sir Vandeleur Grayburn ‘the King’ of Hong Kong weren’t far wrong. As well as head of the Colony’s most important business, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, he was (or had recently been) a member of the University Court1 The Exchange Fund Advisory committee, 2The Taxation Committee,3 and the War Revenue committee,4 a JP5 and from July 1941 an Unofficial Member of the Executive Council.6 Probably of much else as well.

In spite of his position at the centre of Hong Kong life, Sir Vandeleur showed no particular foresight in the immediate run up to the war. On Sunday, December 7, 1941 the HKVDC (Volunteers) were mobilised along with the rest of the garrison amid compelling evidence that an attack was imminent. When HSBC employee M. G. Carruthers informed his boss he’d been called up, Sir Vandeleur looked at him in horror and told him he couldn’t go – ‘this is going to blow over’.

He shouldn’t be blamed too much for this: at the start of the month Governor Mark Young and the garrison’s commanding officer Major-General Maltby had joined forces to convince him that if the Japanese started any trouble a naval force would sail up from Singapore ‘and everything would be hunky-dory’.7 On December 2 plans for Grayburn to go with other senior staff to Singapore and set up head office there had been approved, and the Governor appealed to Sir Vandeleur not to leave the Colony as he feared it would have a serious effect on morale.8 He agreed to stay at his post fro a second time – he should really have stepped down in 1940, when it had been planned to replace him with David Charles Edmondston, who’d been appointed Hong Kong Manager in 1936. Because of the serious situation in the Far East, Sir Vandeleur had agreed to stay.9 A minute of the HSBC Board of Directors (meeting in Stanley Camp soon after Grayburn’s death) recorded that he could have retired after a successful term as head of the bank ‘but he chose to remain at his post and see the war through’.10By the time the Pacific War began, some colleagues considered he was ‘rundown with overwork’.11

During the hostilities he was either in the Essential Services Group– someone who was tasked with working at their normal job12 – or perhaps because of his age and eminence simply exempted in order to provide advice and leadership. We know he was at ”the Bank’ (as the HSBC was often called) on day one of the attack (December 8) as Colonel Harry Hughes reported that he went there that day and even Sir Vandeleur couldn’t get him Chinese currency13 On December 11, focusing on the bank’s future in case of defeat, Grayburn requested that the Governor seek an Order in Council to transfer the HSBC head office not to Singapore but London. Governor Young forwarded the request, but pointed out that ‘the contingency is not contemplated’. Frank King implies he still had hopes of holding the Colony at this stage.14

Like everyone else whose house was in a place deemed (sometimes wrongly) to be relatively safe, the Grayburns had their house on the Peak (‘The Cliffs’, no. 355) designated a billet for evacuees from more dangerous or exposed areas. One of his HSBC employees, Doris Woods, alongside her two sisters was amongst them, and Miss Woods tells us that by December 14, in the midst of continuous shelling and regular aerial bombardment, the electricity had failed, they couldn’t listen to the world news, food was running short, and the strain on everyone’s nerves was leading to frequent quarrels. Lady Grayburn was probably still in the house – I can see no reason for her to have been moved – but her husband was likely to have been sleeping in the bank.15 In any case, on that December 14, another air raid started and Doris and her twin sister (and partner in a popular singing duet) ran to take shelter in the pantry, where they sat for hours repeating the 91st Psalm. When the shelling stopped, they emerged and inspected the effects: the front of the house had been damaged and the Grayburns’ private sitting-room was in ruins.16 In a letter dated May 31, 1942 (see below) Sir Vandeleur told his daughter that Cliffs was ‘badly damaged’ and their ‘possessions all gone’.17

The Bank shut at noon on Christmas Day and the staff went up to the mess on the seventh floor for a simple meal; they learnt shortly after of the Colony’s surrender18 (which took place at about 3.15 p.m.). On December 26, the Japanese, under the orders of the former manager of the Yokohama Specie Bank, entered the HSBC building and assembled the staff. Grayburn was questioned at length, and all the banks keys were surrendered and the safes and treasuries sealed.19 The Building itself, ‘Grayburn’s Folly’, became the seat of the Japanese administration.

What happened next is perhaps controversial. Grayburn almost certainly played a leading role in the decision of some bankers, include himself, to stay uninterned and help the Japanese ‘liquidate’ their banks. It’s sometimes said that this decision was made under ‘duress’ but in fact threats to the bankers and their families came later -in spring1942– to force them to sign unissued HSBC banknotes (see below). The initial agreement to stay out was partly to help the Chinese and other uninterned nationals but I think mainly to look after the interests of the HSBC and the other banks whose staff were involved. In any case, refusal to help wouldn’t have stopped the Japanese plundering the banks, and a number of sources testify that, as well as making records of, or at least keeping an eye on, what was happening, the bankers dragged their feet as much as possible.

Both during and after the war, it was Dr Selwyn-Clarke and the team of public health workers he led that bore the brunt of criticism on the grounds of collaboration. This was partly because Selwyn-Clarke, although he did co-operate with the resistance, had an uneasy relationship with it, while, as we shall see, the British Army Aid Group received enthusiastic help from the HSBC staff (although they were disappointed that some of the younger bankers refused to escape and were even unsure about being repatriated because of pressure from ‘seniors’ to remain in Hong Kong, presumably to re-open the Bank quickly after liberation20). After the war, the deaths of the two most prominent HSBC staff, and of one other, executed for resistance activities, and the imprisonment of another HSBC employee and three members of the Chartered Bank, left the bankers effectively beyond criticism. Nevertheless, George Endacott, a distinguished historian, who is clearly sympathetic to those experiencing the dilemmas of the occupation, has written that these people ‘were presumably collaborators and could, and perhaps should, have refused to assist in the handing over of the banks, and gone into Stanley internment earlier than they did’. But he goes on:

But their remaining out enabled them to see that records were preserved and information about accounts and notes in circulation were up-to-date, and this materially assisted the British take-over in 1945.21

We should also note that the Chartered Bank people consulted the Financial Secretary (probably R. R. Todd, who was acting FS on October 9, 194 22) and the bankers of other nationalities (American, Dutch and Belgium) who agreed to stay out did so after consulting their consular staff.23 Our source for this, Chartered Bank employee Andrew Leiper, doesn’t tell us what Grayburn did, but there’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t have got the same advice if he thought it necessary to consult anyone. Accounts both by bankers themselves and those who used their services make it clear how important their work was to the ordinary people of Hong Kong during the chaotic first months of the occupation,24 and, in my opinion, this would have justified the decision even without the contributions made by the bankers to the ongoing relief efforts that will be discussed in the rest of this post. One of the Chinese who benefited from their services noted:

The Japanese cannot do anything in the banks without (British) help. If the British are asked to do something contrary to their sense of justice, honesty and honor, their answer is ‘Send us to Stanley Internment Camp’. Since their help is absolutely necessary, the Japanese have to treat them honourably.25

We know from both Chartered Bank and HSBC sources that their staff bent or broke all the rules of banking to help out, for example, unquestioningly paying to spouses from the accounts of those who’d died.

On January 5 the HSBC bankers joined the rest of the Allied civilian community at the Murray Parade Ground. Those destined for Stanley, 126 of them, were marched to the Nam Ping Hotel, those needed for the liquidation to the Sun Wah. At first the two groups were allowed to mingle, but then the Sun Wah people had their movements tightly controlled (until July, when their situation eased – see below)26

Now the scene was set for the drama that was to play itself out ‘in town’ for the next 18 months. There were under 100 men who met the criteria for internment (healthy ‘white’ Allied civilians) but who were kept out of Stanley, usually with their families, to do essential work, and these men, in some case their wives and in at least one case their children, were going to provide the spearhead of the non-Chinese relief and resistance movements.

The most important of these in this respect was the former Director of Medical Services, Dr. Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, who was almost the only Briton in the Colony who had a clear vision of his role in the occupation. With the help of a senior Japanese military medical officer who’d been impressed by his racially egalitarian courtesy when he’d visited Hong Kong in the past, he was allowed to stay out and carry on his work – in the short term, the dead bodies scattered around Hong Kong posed serious risks of epidemic disease that would hit the Japanese as hard as any other group, so action was urgently needed. In addition to organising public health measures, Selwyn-Clarke quickly realised that the conditions in Stanley and the POW Camps (primarily Shamshuipo, Argyle Street, Ma Tau-Chung and Bowen Road Military Hospital) were such that a massive relief effort was necessary to prevent large-scale suffering and death.

In the dreadful financial conditions of the occupation, raising the money to pay for food and medicine was a major problem. Some better-off people of all the uninterned nationalities started to give the doctor money directly or to take other personal actions, at great risk to themselves.27 Even sending a food parcel to a friend ran the risk of attracting the attention of the Gendarmes, who were always on the look out for evidence of Allied sympathies. But individual acts of charity were not enough to meet the huge need; what was required was a systematic money-raising campaign, and it was a huge stroke of luck for the beneficiaries that a swathe of Hong Kong’s bankers were out in town to organise it. It didn’t prove to be lucky for the bankers themselves, though, and this group (at its maximum 80, including women and children) suffered more than any other in terms of members arrested, tortured, died or executed.

Sir Vandeleur was almost certainly the leader in the effort to raise money to give to Selwyn-Clarke to buy desperately needed food and medicines for the camps. Like Selwyn-Clarke, the bankers probably started by receiving spontaneous charity – depositors would come into the bank to make a withdrawal and whisper to the cashier to hold back some of the cash for Stanley – but it doesn’t seem to have been long before they started working more systematically to raise funds.

The cashier for these efforts, Samuel Perry-Aldworth28 tells us:

…(David) Edmondston and Grayburn and Hugo Foy….arranged with some of the Indian and Chinese constituents, who were paying in every day to pay off their overdrafts and all that, to divert a bit of it…29

These ‘diversions, proved inadequate, but to explain what happened next I need to remind the reader that on January 9, 1942 Lindsay Ride of the HKVDC Ambulance Unit escaped from Shamshuipo POW Camp with the help of his Chinese employee Francis ‘Chicken’ Lee. Ride and Lee were aided in their escape by communist guerillas. After reaching the war-time Chinese capital Chunking (Chongqing), Ride was able to set up the British Army Aid Group (BAAG), a multi-faceted organisation that carried out a wide variety of resistance tasks in southern China and occupied Hong Kong. The organisation worked closely with the guerillas (who are best known under the name of the East River Column) and depended for the most part on Chinese agents who could move relatively freely in and out of the former colony. In June 1942 the first BAAG agents arrived in Hong Kong. The earliest contacts of which I’ve seen evidence were with men known to Colonel Ride at the University and the French Hospital, but it wasn’t long before agents reached the Sun Wah – the initial contact seems to have been David Edmondston, who also had known Ride pre-war.30

It’s hard to know how much of a risk Grayburn thought he was taking in his ongoing relief work. He might have felt that the Japanese would turn a blind eye to the attempts of the most prominent financier in the Far East to raise money for purely humanitarian purposes, and, as we shall see, the Gendarmes did treat him in a relatively lenient way when they found out (the Japanese liquidators had known for a long time, but, like most Japanese civilians in Hong Kong, they were decent people and did no more than warn the bankers they would not be able to help them if the Kempeitai found out31).But when the agents of the Hong Kong resistance made contact with the bankers at the Sun Wah, he can have been in doubt as to the consequences of getting involved. Nevertheless, in his early 60s and not in particularly good health, Sir Vandeleur became a BAAG agent, code named Night. Now he must have understood that all the prestige in Asia wouldn’t save him from torture and execution if he was caught. And the conditions they were working under were difficult; Leiper says they identified at least one Chinese as having been sent so spy on them,32 and, although they probably weren’t watched as carefully as Selwyn-Clarke’s team, there are likely to have been many more clandestine observers.

It wasn’t long before Grayburn was deeply involved with the BAAG. It seems messages were soon passing back and forth from the Sun Wah on a routine basis. On July 31, 1942 Grayburn sent a message to a Chunking banker through BAAG agent 36 (Lau Teng Ke) asking, ‘Is it possible to draw on you’? Obviously he was hoping to be able to use Chunking funds to supplement those raised locally for the relief work. What seems to have been the same communication asked the British Embassy in that city to ensure the honouring of financial instruments (‘Rupee and Sterling drafts on paper dated 23/12/41’) that the bankers were selling secretly to raise money. After a period of confusion – the authorities in London were aware that the bankers had been signing ‘duress’ notes since the spring (see below) so felt that not all their financial transactions should be accepted – the Rupee and Sterling drafts were indeed honoured.33 Interestingly Grayburn added that the scheme had the approval of Colonial Secretary Franklin Gimson, which suggests that he was able to get messages into and out of Stanley, unless the idea went back to the period before March 13 when Gimson had been interned.34

The full story of the bankers’ work will probably never be known, as neither Grayburn nor Edmondston survived (Hugo Foy kept a diary but so far this has not been made generally available). One thing that’s worth adding, though, is that it wasn’t just the bankers who raised money, as we know that two BAAG agents, the American Chester Bennett and the Portuguese Marcus da Silva arranged loans, guaranteed by wealthy citizens interned in Stanley.35 But I think it’s clear that it was the bankers, under Grayburn’s leadership, who raised most of the cash for Dr Selwyn-Clarke’s work. Another thing we’ll never have much idea of is how many lives were saved and how much suffering was eased.

The bankers kept some of the money for their own relief efforts in the city itself. Conditions in occupied Hong Kong were bad enough at the start, but they began to deteriorate as early as June 1942, and soaring prices soon meant that only the very wealthiest had no worries about feeding themselves and their children. With Edmondston and perhaps others, Grayburn administered a fund to provide illegal loans to distressed Allied nationals who’d not been interned: when Edmondston refused to lend money to American writer Emily Hahn, in protest at her adulterous affair with Charles Boxer, Grayburn lent her the money from his private account.36

While all this was going on, the bankers were liquidating their own banks. In the spring the Japanese discovered a stock of unsigned banknotes, and they set Grayburn and his colleagues to work signing them for their use – ‘unbacked, unlawful, distinguishable only by their serial numbers from the genuine ones’.37 According to Oliver Lindsay, who provides no source for the claim, they were made to sign only 500 a day, half an hour’s work.38

We have a few glimpses of the conditions in which Sir Vandeleur and Lady Mary were living during the occupation. In late May 1942 Grayburn learnt he’d be able send out a letter through a soon to be repatriated American, and on May 31 he wrote one in which he tried to tell the unadorned truth, or a little of it at least, to his daughter Elizabeth:

(W)eight dropped from 200 to 160 lbs. Mary is somewhat thinner. Our cubicle is tiny, we sleep on a single mattress. Had no proper bath since December.

These words were blacked out by the Japanese censor.

A domestic detail did get through:

Mary cooks every Thursday for whole community of 80. Some soup maker!!39

One of the repatriated American bankers, Theodore Lindabury, wrote to Elizabeth himself:

During that time (the Grayburns) were working every day in the liquidation of the Bank and were able, by various means, to secure a sufficient supply of food, other than the rice given by the Japanese.40

The ‘various means’ probably meant buying extra food on either the open or the black market, and Lindabury stressed how lucky they were not to be in Stanley. In spite of this understandably upbeat picture, Sir Vandeleur was seen ‘looking as gaunt and grey as a timber wolf’.41

Other repatriated bankers gave a general account of conditions at the Hotel to journalist Vaughn Meisling, himself a Stanley repatriate. They described the Sun Wah as ‘a fire trap well-stocked with vermin’ and said that many of their number had needed treatment for dysentery, malnutrition and insect bites. They were marched a mile and a half to and from their work every day – the notorious ‘chain gang’ – escorted by soldiers, although after the Americans had left the remaining bankers were spared this indignity. They were often slapped and humiliated by their captors, the worst of whom they called ‘Slaphappy Joe’ because he was never happy except when hitting someone. At afternoon roll call he would box their ears until they learnt to answer in Japanese. My guess is that this was the guard who subjected the bankers to ‘additional indignities’ who Grayburn got transferred by complaining to the Finance Department in March.42 The American bankers often felt they were being sniped at as bullets hit or entered the hotel.43

According to Andrew Leiper, who was in the Sun Wah with two of his colleagues from the Chartered Bank, there was no electricity until March, but when it came it greatly cheered the residents44 – this restoration had been requested by Grayburn at the same time he complained about the guard.45 Before the July easing of conditions, the bankers suffered badly from boredom – it was worse for the women and children who seemed to have been confined to the Sun Wah. The women (all British, Dutch and Belgian as there were no American wives) spent the early weeks cleaning and disinfecting46 what had once been a squalid boarding house which, if it was like most of the hotels used to house Allied nationals before they were sent to Stanley, had doubled as brothel after the pre-war Government had launched a futile drive against prostitution. At first the residents had nothing to read except banking reference books and the Japanese-produced Hong Kong News. The highlights of the week were ‘bath night’ – 6 inches of hot water, so you can see why Sir Vandeleur complained he’d not had a proper bath and ‘rations night’ when Leiper and the Dutch banker Hugo Bakkeren handed out weevil-ridden rice and flour, peanut oil, salt and wong tong47 to representatives of each ‘mess’.48

Emily Hahn tells us that to get away from the Sun Wah, Sir Vandeleur and his wife sometimes visited French banker Paul de Roux, who had arranged a flat for himself at the top of the Bank d’Indochine building. They were also able to take a bath there.49 De Roux was also (or later became) a resistance agent, and on February 19, 1944, he jumped from that flat in order to escape arrest by the Kempeitai.50

More about the lives of the Sun Wah bankers, and about Grayburn’s leadership role, is shown by a development of late 1942. On December 10 he received a note from one of the Japanese Liquidators:

I have to advise you sincerely that all Foreign Officer (sic) of the Bank at present working under the liquidation and their families should refrain from moving about freely on Saturday afternoons, Sundays or any other holidays, especially during the evenings and nights.
Should there be any necessity to go out, permission must first be obtained from the Liquidators.
I wish to emphasize that this is a matter of serious importance and that should one single person get involved in trouble, all the others will suffer the consequences as a result.

The Japanese were often anxious to prevent ‘contamination’ of the Chinese by Allied nationals, and Leiper and others were once ejected from a cinema, but my guess is that this tightening of the rules was a response to the October escape of two HSBC staff, which I’ll discuss in the next post. Grayburn got all the bankers at the Sun Wah to initial the document, having first written on it:

This ruling refers to all times, we are only allowed out for shopping and exercise. French Hospital may only be visited for real necessity not for softball.

The bankers had been allowed very little freedom at first, but in July 1942, as a reward for ‘good behaviour – ironically this was about the time that some of them were making contact with the BAAG – they were allowed passes that gave them some right to move about the town, for example, to shop in Central or to go to the French Hospital ‘in case of need’ or to visit relatives and colleagues there.51 They were also given an allowance of $300 a month for food, probably at this time.52 Weekend ‘excursions’ to the Hospital to visit or take food to any Sun Wah resident there became popular as they provided the chance to get away from the hotel and enjoy a walk in the fresh air,53 and it would seem from Sir Vandeleur’s comment that some bankers also went to take part in the softball games started by one of the American Health Department drivers before his repatriation.

According to postal historian David Tett, whose source was undoubtedly Grayburn’s family Sir Vandeleur ‘took no heed’ of the risk himself, so presumably he ignored his own instructions and continued to visit the French Hospital.54 Andrew Leiper tells us that it was the health workers who kept the bankers ‘in touch with what was happening at Stanley’,55 and, although he’s discussing an earlier period, my guess is that the soft ball and the visits enabled those bankers working for the BAAG to pick up useful information.

Given the hunger and squalor of his daily life and the dangers that he faced, why didn’t Grayburn try to escape from the unguarded hotel? Lindsay Ride, indeed, devised plans for a mass escape of the bankers, but these were over-ruled on political grounds: it was felt that it would be embarrassing to get the bankers out while leaving almost everyone else under Japanese rule.56 But what of Grayburn’s personal attitude to remaining in Hong Kong? In the message of July 31 previously referred to, he wrote:

Staff requests make every endeavour repatriate self as only person who can clarify present situation.57

That, however, referred to an authorised repatriation, and it seems that Grayburn never wanted to try his luck in an illicit escape. This might have been because, as T. J. J. Fenwick and David Edmondston believed, the chances of a tired, 61 year old with gout and general debility getting out of Hong Kong were low. One source claims that his health was so poor at this time meant he never appeared at the bank unless required.58 However, King suggests that his illness might have been part diplomatic – to keep him out of his office where he could do little and might annoy the Japanese.59 Others have suggested he was afraid of reprisals against Lady Mary, which would have been a perfectly reasonable attitude to have taken – one Portuguese escaper had his ex-wife arrested! But it seems that an important, perhaps the main, reason for his remaining was he believed that it was in Hong Kong that he could do most good. Lady Mary later testified:

(W)hile we were prisoners (Sir Vandeleur Grayburn) was repeatedly asked to make his getaway and all plans were made and organized by people in Free China to this end, but he always refused because his argument was that he was doing more good in Hong Kong than he would do if he were away from it.60

Once again Grayburn – now sick, tired, hungry and facing the gravest dangers imaginable – stayed at his post.


1GA 1939, no.. 320 .

2GA 1938, no. 807.

3Report of the Taxation committee, SP 1939.

4Report of the War Revenue committee, SP1940.

5GA 1941, no. 521.

6GA 1941, no. 885.

7Philip Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, 2003, 47.

8 King, 568.

9King, 1988, 403.

10David Tett, Captives In Cathay, 2007, 302.

11Frank King, History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Volume 3, 1988, 617.

12See Andrew Leiper, A Yen For My Thoughts, 1982, 8.


14King, 1988, 572.

15See King, 1988, 572.

16John Luff, The Hidden Years, 1967, 136-137.

17Tett, 2007, 291.

18King, 1988, 572.

19 King, 1988, 572-573

20Waichow Intelligence Summary, No. 25, 27 March 1943, Ride Papers.

21G. B. Endacott and Alan Birch, Hong Kong Eclipse, 1978, 240.

22Minutes of the Finance committee meeting for that date.

23Leiper, 1982, 102-103.

24Leiper, 1982, passim; Alice Y. Lan and Betty M. Hu, We Flee From Hong Kong, 2000 ed (1944), 48.

25Lan and Hu, 2000 ed (1944), 48.

26King, 1988, 573.

27Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, Footprints, 1975, 73.

28There seems to be a photo of him taken in 1961 in the National Portrait Gallery –

29Cited King, 1988, 612-613.

30King, 1988, 614.

31 King, 1988, 613.

32 Leiper, 1982, 169.

33King, 1988, 613-614.

34Some sources give March 11.


36Emily Hahn, China To Me, 1986 ed, 392-393.

37Snow, 2003, 152.

38Oliver Lindsay, At The Going Down of the Sun, 1982, 112.

39Tett, 2007, 291-292.

40Tett, 2007, 294.

41Snow, 2003, 141.

42King, 1988, 574.

43 Billings Gazette, August 26, 1942, page 2.

44Leiper, 1982, 134.

45King, 1988, 574.

46Leiper, 1982, 117.

47Similar words mean both brown sugar and dumplings. My sense is that in Hong Kong WW11 sources it usually means sugar.

48Leiper, 1982, 141.

49Hahn, 1986 ed, 376.


Another account has him die on February 19 in a Kempeitai prison as a result of mistreatment.

51Leiper, 1982, 147-148.

52King, 1988, 574.

53Leiper, 1982, 150.

54Tett, 2007, 295.

55Leiper, 1982, 143. Leiper says that they heard reports about the Kowloon POW Camps ‘from the same source’ .

56King, 1988, 616.

57King, 198, 617.

58King, 1988, 613-614.

59King, 1988, 617.

60King, 1988, 616-617.

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Filed under British Army Aid Group, Emily Hahn, Hong Kong WW11, Selwyn-Selwyn Clarke, Stanley Camp, Vandeleur Grayburn

Emily Hahn As Source (4): The Art Of Vendetta (Hilda Selwyn-Clarke)

It’s possible to underestimate the achievements of Emily Hahn simply because she and other rebellious females have been so successful and, by their writings and their examples, have broadened the possibilities for women so hugely. Even today, though, it’s not so easy for a ‘white’ western woman to study mining engineering at college, head off to Central Africa for a couple of years, and then spend much of the rest of her youth and maturity in the Far East, often in war zones, and conducting at least one ‘trans-ethnic relationship’. For Hahn to do such things in the teeth of multi-faceted prejudice was an epic feat of courage, determination and creative living.

Those of us interested in Hong Kong between 1941 and 1945 are therefore extremely lucky that she lived through and described much of the Japanese occupation – adding to our good fortune is the fact that she was a writer by profession and her book (China To Me, 1944) is one of the few accounts of China at war (as well as Hong Kong, it encompasses Shanghai and Chungking) that can be enjoyed by people who have little or no interest in the history. The fizzing style, the deft characterisation and the skilful scene construction make it well-worth reading for its own sake. Yet it is also, as she herself hoped, ‘a social document’,[1] a picture of an era that historians can and must draw on as a source for their accounts of Hong Kong just before and during the war. This means that careful attention must be given to its nature as source material, and in this post I want to extend the analysis of Hahn’s occasional tendency to distort her material out of a desire to pay off old scores. If we bear this in mind, then the book becomes even more valuable.

I want to look at the way Hahn uses her literary art to paint a particular picture of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, the wife of the Colony’s Director of Medical Services, and a woman who, in Hahn’s representation, seeks to play a ‘male’ role in the affairs of the Colony but fails under the test of war because of her excessive female emotionalism, her ‘hysteria’ or ‘womb disease’ in fact. One of the things that’s going on in China To Me is the author creating a picture  of herself as Emily ‘Mickey’ Hahn, an androgynous figure who combines ‘male’ tough-mindedness with ‘female’ emotional honesty and using ‘Hilda’ as her main foil. This portrait of the latter is consistent over both Hong Kong Holiday, which I’ve shown in previous posts to be a heavily fictionalised source, and China To Me, which, as we have seen, is meant to contribute to the historical record.[2]

It might seem that Hilda Selwyn-Clarke begins the war well:

Hilda hadn’t heard officially, but when I told her she was calm and everyday in her manner.[3]

But it’s significant that Hahn notes her calmness at all: I have read few or no accounts of anyone falling to pieces simply on being told the Japanese had attacked, so it’s hardly worth noting that she didn’t either. It’s rather like someone saying, ‘When I first encountered Mr. X. he showed no signs of mental disorder’. You know what’s coming.

A couple of pages later Hahn formally introduces her theme:

Hilda Selwyn-Clarke is an admirable woman, and I wonder now why my fortnight’s association with her is marked by so much irritation. It must have seared my soul. Perhaps like a lot of other people I blow off steam by getting angry with the nearest object, instead of letting go and being frankly terrified. Also, I’ve never liked feeling like a guest too long at a time; I like to be boss in the house.[4]

There’s a clever merging of times here – we might expect ‘my fortnight’s association was marked’. We’re invited to bear in mind that Hahn’s portrait is probably unfair because of that tendency to blow off steam at someone nearby rather than at the real cause of the problem – this no doubt was genuine, and not confined to Hahn, as it explains some of the frequently recorded quarrels over trifles that took place during the fighting. But Hahn is actually writing in 1944, safe in the USA, and has had plenty of time to come to terms with the stresses of December 1941 and offer the reader a more balanced account of the people she spent the hostilities with. Of course, Hahn is perfectly justified in writing as if the events were taking place as she was describing them – this is one of the things that makes China To Me so vivid. But notice the way in which ‘hot’ wartime reactions are ‘authorised’ to stand in for ‘cool’ peacetime assessment – and very little is going to be described that any reader is likely to find ‘admirable’.

She has more to say by way of explanation of her problems with Hilda:

If Hilda seemed shockingly self-centred to me, and obsessed with the welfare of her own people, I know that my seeming oblivion to Carola got on her nerves terribly.[5

Hahn’s belief that any irritation felt over her own actions was due to her putting her lover’s welfare before that of her baby was possibly mistaken.  Margaret Watson, another leftist and a close friend of both the Selwyn-Clarkes, offers a different account of the animus that some people, almost certainly including Mrs. Selwyn-Clarke, felt against Hahn during the hostilities:

 During the hostilities, I was alarmed by her rather unscrupulous use of people to achieve her ends. The dislike which she engendered arose out of this and not…out of disapproval of her unmarried state with a child. We had too many urgent, painful and tragic concerns of our own to occupy us.[6]

Ms. Watson seems to be speaking for more than one person here, but, even if this is just her own perception, it opens up the possibility that Hahn’s behaviour was pretty much the same as that she attributes to Hilda Selwyn-Clarke. Perhaps both women put the emphasis on looking after their own interests and those of their loved ones in a time of huge danger, and for that few people would blame them (for the whole question of ‘blame’ see the concluding paragraph).

Of course, Ms. Watson doesn’t actually address Hahn’s point – that she was disapproved of for putting lover above baby, not for having a baby at all. It’s not my intention to argue that one representation is more accurate than another in cases like this where no objective judgment is possible – which is not, of course, to take the ‘postmodern’ view that there is only representation and all representations are equal. Sometimes it is possible to arrive at a conclusion about reality– always tentative and provisional, but a conclusion nonetheless. I have concluded, for example, that Hahn’s representation of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke is unbalanced, although not necessarily completely inaccurate.

Let’s take a closer look at what Hahn perceives as Hilda Selwyn-Clarke’s self-centredness. A good example of this comes when, soon after the surrender, she is keen to get a separate camp for mothers and children, but when the Japanese allow her and her daughter to stay uninterned alongside her husband, she forgets about the idea.[7] Even before the war, Hahn’s Hilda is egoistic – it’s implied she thinks her own activity ‘cosmically important’ and she hints that Hahn should have an abortion so as not to interfere with her work.[8] Of course, we’re meant to forget at this point that Hilda actually has a child.

Her quest for self-aggrandisement makes her something of a hypocrite too: she likes being the wife of one of the most important men in the Colony ‘in spite of all her broad-minded political tendencies.’[9] Hahn’s portrait of Mrs. Selwyn-Clarke is not completely negative: she states clearly that in a Colony where many people tried to ignore the existence of China, she ‘worked hard for several Chinese organisations’.[10] Hahn’s representation of Hilda’s husband, Selwyn, is also a mixture of positive and negative but my sense here is that, although I personally wouldn’t choose a time when someone is imprisoned and facing torture to give the world a ‘warts and all’ portrait, what she says about Dr. Selwyn-Clarke is reasonably balanced and pretty much in line with other sources.[11] There is distortion – there’s always distortion – but here it’s relatively minor. In the case of Hilda I think she’s made only enough attempt at balance (‘admirable’ and working hard for the Chinese) to give credibility to her depiction of negative traits.

The crucial point about China To Me’s representation of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke is that she’s associated with hysteria. We also see this hysterical Hilda in the story ‘The Doctor’s House’, first published in The New Yorker in May 1944 (so roughly contemporary to China To Me) and reprinted in Hong Kong Holiday (1946). According to Hahn, Dr. Selwyn-Clarke tells her that he depends on her ‘to keep Hilda occupied’ during the hostilities as ‘she’s inclined to be high strung’ – it seems he similarly depends on a number of other women too.[12] The story sets up an opposition between Hilda, who does all she can to live up to the ascription of taut nerves, and Dr. Douglas Valentine and his wife Nina who seem afraid of nothing.[13] Hahn suggests her own narrative reliability (and blend of ‘male’ and ‘female’ qualities) by sharing something of the Valentines’ stoicism and Hilda Selwyn-Clarke’s weakness (she says she wants to share in the prussic acid she claims Hilda had acquired as an escape route).

China To Me works much more subtly – anyone reading ‘The Doctor’s House’ would recognise it as a piece of character assassination, whether or not they were in a position to judge its accuracy. In China To Me the idea of excessive emotionality is planted early and kept before the reader in various ways.

When, during the hostilities, Hahn has a chance to spend some time with her lover, Charles Boxer, Hilda insensitively gets in the way, questioning the Major about the course of the fighting:

Then Hilda butted in again, her voice quivering with hysteria, and we couldn’t talk any more.[14]

Thus are her insensitivity, self-centred nature and excessive emotionalism all neatly established. In other words, Mrs. Selwyn-Clarke does not have desirable ‘female’ empathy (if so she’d have left the others alone); instead, her self-centredness leads her emotional responses in the direction of the undesirable and also traditionally ‘female’ trait of ‘hysteria’.[15]

When, during the occupation, Hilda Selwyn-Clarke and Hahn take on the task of shopping for food to be sent into Stanley, the reaction in camp, we are told, ‘was a strong feeling of hysterical gratitude for Hilda, replacing the earlier outburst of jealous resentment.’[16] As Hahn was never in Stanley even for a visit it’s hard to know how she can be so certain of the emotional quality of the response to Mrs. Selwyn-Clarke’s work. But the point is to keep the word in the reader’s mind, and to make sure the emphasis isn’t solely on how valuable it was.

Eventually Hilda’s husband, Selwyn, is arrested on charges that, as Hahn well knew, guaranteed prolonged torture. Amazingly Hahn manages to make this episode about herself and the harassment she alleges she received from the Medical Director’s wife.

It might seem strange that she begins by denying rumours that none of her readers will have heard (the book was published in the USA in 1944):

It is not true, as some hysterical patients averred, that the soldiers came whooping over the wall as if they were attacking a fortress, but their entry must have been sufficiently melodramatic to put the fear of God and the devil into the French sisters and the rest of the staff.[17]

The point is to get the words ‘hysterical’ and ‘melodramatic’ into the reader’s mind again, ready to be applied by association to Hilda Selwyn-Clarke. But first of all Hahn must also downplay the ordeal she was going through. The Gendarmes who storm the Hospital are deluded, wrongly imagining that the place is a ‘hotbed of espionage’; the lightly mocking tone lowers the emotional temperature. In the course of the day a few other people ‘showed up’ at the Hospital – the phrase suggests voluntary attendance, almost as interested spectators. These people are ‘Chinese doctors suspected of working in the espionage game with Selwyn and the like’. ‘Espionage game’ again suggests that what’s going on isn’t fully serious – in fact some of these Chinese doctors were soon to be facing the most brutal torture. So far Hahn’s been carefully keeping the temperature low, and Hilda’s first message, through a cook left outside the locked-down Hospital, is reasonable: she’ll get in touch with Hahn as soon as possible.[18]

Hahn is summoned to the Japanese Foreign Affairs Office to be warned by the chief, Mr. Hattori, to stay clear of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke. There’s nothing to suggest this isn’t on the same day, but occupied Hong Kong had kept the Sunday holiday since April 1942,(G. B. Endacott and Alan Birch, Hong Kong Eclipse, 1978, 156) so this is unlikely to have been when the interview really took place. The whole passage operates a kind of double time scheme: for added drama everything seems to take place on one day, while at the same time there’s the sense of an extended crisis (‘the Ho girls went about their work’, ‘the notes kept pouring in’, ‘for that week’[19]). I’ve tried to puzzle out exactly what did happen on May 2, 1943 and the days following here:

The British Army Aid Group reports are understandably contradictory, and I should say, in the interests of full disclosure, that my parents were among those who had the fear of god and the devil put in them by the arrival of the Japanese, and who then spent the rest of the day, or longer, cowering in terror at the prospect of being arrested. And this is probably a good place to add that I never discussed Hilda Selwyn-Clarke with my father, but I did with my mother, who didn’t like her.

In any case, Hahn’s description of the interview mentions that she’s now received three letters from Hilda through the cook, telling her to come to the Hospital at 5 o’clock (again this gives the sense of everything happening on the one day) to talk through the iron gate. When she returns, there are four more notes from Hilda – ‘she was not in her most coherent mood’, and she wants Hahn to use her contacts with the Japanese to get her husband released. Hahn’s lover Charles Boxer had been seconded to a Japanese regiment and while in Hong Kong his exchanges with them had continued in his role of military intelligence officer; he was popular with the  Japanese in Hong Kong who’d met him, as he was a fluent speaker of the language and had no sense of racial superiority. Most of his contacts had left Hong Kong by 1943 and, although his influence still provided special protection for Hahn, as she herself makes clear, there was in fact almost nothing either of them could do with regard to the Kempeitai, although Hilda Selwyn-Clarke might well have not realised this or preferred to ignore it in her desperate panic. Her requests were understandable enough, but of course Hahn was quite justified in declining to accede to them on the grounds of her own security and that of her baby. Ellen Field, a woman Dr. Selwyn-Clarke describes as of a ‘valiant spirit’[20] seems to have abandoned her own enquiries after some of the sisters at the French Hospital told her that she was in danger just for asking questions.[21]

The response to Hahn’s refusal to go to the Hospital reminds us that we’ve had the words ‘hysterical’ and ‘melodramatic’ planted in our minds, and now we’re meant to apply them to Hilda Selwyn-Clarke’s behaviour:

Down in the French Hospital, Constance {Lam} and Hilda ranted and said that I was a false friend and a traitor. The notes kept pouring in

Hahn sends a friend down to the Hospital, and she manages a short talk before being chased away, and this makes Hilda ‘not so sure I was a traitor’.

Luckily Mrs. Selwyn-Clarke recovers in a day or two:

Helen Ho told me {later} that for the first few days Hilda was in a bad state, but that she was all right afterward.

Of course, this suits Hahn’s purposes well as it suggests that what’s going on isn’t so dreadful after all. Personally I doubt that Mrs. Selwyn-Clarke felt ‘all right’ about what was happening to her husband after a couple of days. It is, possible, though, that she courageously overcame her feelings so that she could properly care for her daughter and do anything possible to help her husband.

Hahn’s summary of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke’s behaviour with regard to herself is this:

For that week, however, it was embarrassingly evident that the Hilda who was then uppermost in her character was determined to get me sent to Stanley too.[22]

That ‘embarrassingly’ is a nice touch; the author, it seems, was rather ashamed of her friend’s behaviour at the time and is a little reluctant to have to report it now. In fact Hahn has provided no evidence of Hilda’s sinister motivation: even if her representation is accurate – down to Hilda Selwyn-Clarke sending at least seven notes in one day – all she’s done is give a picture of a woman in a state of desperation casting around for any means to help a husband facing brutal torture and probable execution. Her primary thought was not likely to be Hahn’s wartime location, and it remains unproved that either for reasons of revenge, spite or to get her company she was motivated by a desire to have her friend interned. But, if asking Hahn to use her Japanese contacts was perfectly reasonable, to keep on pressing the point wasn’t, and nor was her failure to understand her refusal. Dr. Selwyn-Clarke himself had warned Hilda to have nothing to do with him if he was arrested, for her own security and that of her child.[23] I’m discussing Hahn’s representation in 1944, not her behaviour in 1943, which seems to have been impeccable. In those grim days of May 1943 every European in occupied Hong Kong was quite justified in acting as if what was going on was all about them[24] – and Hahn had a young daughter to consider as well.

It’s not just Hilda who’s the victim of Hahn’s animus. Hahn did not like Hong Kong’s small circle of leftists, and interestingly defines them by their relationship to Mrs. Selwyn-Clarke:

One of the results of the surrender was that there was a rush on the part of the leftists, Hilda’s friends, to save their skins. I suppose I had better not use names. Except for Jim Bertram, who simply enlisted with the Volunteers and fought, and was captured, and in general behaved well and Max Bickerton, who did his job too and made no attempt to get away, the leftists behaved in a way that made me slightly sick. One after another they came up to {the Queen Mary} hospital with plans for getting into disguise…and shaking with terror. Each one seemed to feel that the Japanese had waged this war with the sole intention of getting hold of him.[25]

After he witnesses a particularly craven display, Hahn’s lover, Major Charles Boxer, points out that she, Hahn, has as much to be afraid of as them – she’s written a book about the Soong sisters which might be seen as support for the Chinese Nationalist cause. Hahn’s reply is firm:

Well….I’m not. I don’t think the Japs care about any of us.[26]

This is something she feels strongly about: she ‘almost’ forgave another leftist, Margaret Watson, for all her rudeness to her when Watson admitted that ‘so far there have been absolutely no inquiries about Hilda’ and on this basis opines, ‘We made fools of ourselves. I think it must be a sort of conceit, don’t you?’[27] And even Hilda Selwyn-Clarke herself comes ‘around to normal pretty well’ once she calms down and starts to take the kind of courageously realistic attitude that Hahn has, it seems, adopted all along. Up until then, it seems, almost all of these apparently tough-minded communists and fellow-travellers have been as hysterical as Hilda!

But why so much animus against Mrs. Selwyn-Clarke and the leftists? Hilda Selwyn-Clarke had, after all, been financially and personally supportive to Hahn,[28] who was sometimes taken for one of the radical  ‘literary-political circle’ herself. I know of no authoritative account, but there’s some interesting speculation. It’s been suggested that socialist writers like Agnes Smedley – Hilda’s friend and comrade until a falling-out just before Smedley’s death[29] – looked down on Hahn as a lightweight, partly because of her attempts to undo the illusions she thought left wing writers were creating in the American public – an overly rosy view of the communists and an unfairly dismissive one of the Nationalists.[30] It seems that the communist-leaning Madame Sun Yat-sen even suspected Hahn of being a nationalist spy, something that Hilda Selwyn-Clarke took seriously until Agnes Smedley ‘laughed me out of it.’[31] It’s probably fair to say that writing a book on seduction[32] and generally seeming to place a lot of emphasis on sexual relationships didn’t do much for Hahn’s credibility with this circle.

If this is the case, one of Hahn’s pay-backs is to paint Hilda Selwyn-Clarke as herself a political lightweight – ‘she was mildly radical’.[33] In fact, she was very close to communism at this time: Selwyn had met her when she made the arrangements for his Intourist trip to Stalin’s Russia,[34] and in the days before the war Hong Kong Special Branch were impounding her copy of the Daily Worker.[35] After the war she wrote about the ‘fascist’ Nationalists, making it clear which side she was still on.[36] There was nothing ‘mild’ about her radicalism, except perhaps from a hyper-Trotyskyite perspective.

Further, her fear and that of the other leftists that they would suffer at the hands of the invading Japanese was well-grounded, not at all the self-centred paranoia that Hahn suggests. There’s no doubt that she was at least right in thinking they took the threat with the utmost seriousness. One of this group, Israel Epstein, wrote later about his ‘calmly taken decision after the surrender of Hong Kong to the Japanese…to kill myself if faced with the choice of being tortured to death or informing on my friends and becoming a propagandist for the invaders.[37] Another prominent member of the China Defence League died during the fighting in ambiguous circumstances,[38] but Epstein managed to avoid being recognised by the Japanese long enough to escape.

Hahn bases her condemnation on the fact – admitted by Margaret Watson – that the Japanese never came looking for British (or American) supporters of the Nationalists or Communists. But they began looking for Chinese ones from almost the start, and no-one had any way of knowing if this vengefulness (or caution) would extend to the British. It did elsewhere, in Shanghai, for example, where journalist John Powell suffered appallingly at the hands of the Kempeitai. Some of the evidence of his ‘dangerous thoughts’ went back to 1932, so the Hong Kong left were quite justified in fearing their pre-war work might be of interest to the police. As Powell himself put it:

Japs have long memories, and their intelligence files are very complete.[39]

Even before the war James Bertram, who Hahn rightly admired for his conduct during it, had been shown ‘a very full dossier’ on his activities in China.[40] Most tellingly, Agnes Smedley was in Hong Kong until the summer of 1941, and, because of her work for the Chinese armies and in particular the communist Eighth Route Army, the American Consul-General had placed her name on a list of those to be taken to China by emergency planes if the Japanese attacked. She herself had ‘no illusions’ about her fate if captured: she’d be told (by Powell) of 2 or three Japanese blacklists, mainly of journalists, and expected to be treated as a Chinese belligerent, i.e. shot out of hand.[41]

It will be useful to conclude by looking at other representations of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke before and during the war.

Agnes Smedley describes her in 1938:

In the middle summer months, when the Yangtze Valley steamed with heat, the Red Ross Medical Corps gained one of its most valuable foreign volunteers. This was an English woman, Mrs. Hilda Selwyn-Clarke…. We had carried on a friendly correspondence; finally she came to Hankow by plane. She was a handsome woman with flaming chestnut hair and liquid brown eyes. Her husband’s position in the Hong Kong Government gave her prestige and authority, and to this she added a tremendous organizing ability gained in the labor movement of England. Her horror at conditions in the Chinese hospital generated in her….an iron determination to use all her ability and influence on behalf of China.[42]

Smedley goes on to describe her founding of the Foreign Auxiliary of the Chinese Red Cross, and the way in which she built up a ‘network of international aid’ and organised ‘an intricate system for getting medical transport through the Japanese lines’. She concludes with this tribute:

She stood at her post until Hong Kong was attacked, and then took her place among the medical workers defending Hong Kong to the last.[43]

Later she describes the way in which Selwyn-Clarke exploited her position as the wife of a senior Government official to aid her work for the Chinese – ‘without her help the {China Defence} League could never have functioned’. Reactionary officials called her manoeuvring and manipulation ‘unscrupulous’, but ‘when it came to her aims, Hilda was certainly as tough as nails’.[44]

I’m not aware of many sources for Mrs. Selwyn-Clarke’s conduct during the hostilities and the occupation, but those I do know also leave us with a very different picture to that in China To Me. Her husband’s autobiography tells us she organised the women who ‘trudged with mercy-loads up the steep ways to Bowen Road Military Hospital’. That was legal relief; she played her part in her husband’s illegal work too:

{While her daughter Mary was distracting the guards at Bowen Road Hospital} Hilda would casually stroll to a point from which she could observe a ward verandah where Major Gerald Harrison would be standing, ready to convey to her by understood signs what food, drugs and other items were most needed in the hospital. These she memorised, so as to be able to write down a list for me on her return….[45]

Lest this be thought the exaggerated account of a fond husband – and like Agnes Smedley a fellow left-winger –  it’s worth bringing in the testimony of Major Gerald Harrison, one of those who kept Bowen Road Hospital working during the occupation:[46]

At the end of the form {his official POW debriefing questionnaire} he brings to notice Mrs H. Selwyn-Clarke ‘till April 1943[47](when she was interned)’ and Miss Helen Ho, ‘from the beginning till our release’ who ‘did magnificent work purchasing & transporting to us, on parcel drugs, food which by private arrangement between us, went to the patients.

Of course, Hahn herself, and many others, took risks[48] and carried out valuable relief work. My purpose is not to attempt to aggrandise Mrs. Selwyn-Clarke’s contribution – she never did so herself – but to discuss the nature and justice of the representation of her in China To Me.

Lieutenant Colonel Donald Bowie, another Bowen Road officer, knew Hilda Selwyn-Clarke before, during and after the war:

{She} was an electrifying woman, full of energy, vastly intelligent and widely informed, with great warmth, firmly held opinions and completely devoted to the welfare of the Chinese citizens of the Colony.[49]

James Bertram is the only other significant source I have for Hilda Selwyn-Clarke during the hostilities:

Then Hilda – who had a job as dispenser at the War Memorial Hospital – showed up briefly, and gave me the private news that the defense lines in the New Territories had cracked wide open, and the Japanese were almost in Kowloon.

Bertram tells her of 3,000 Chinese guerrillas – later to become the nucleus of the highly effective East River Column – already organised on the mainland and explains that his efforts to get people at Battle Headquarters to look into bringing them into the fight had come to nothing:

‘Right,’ said Hilda with her usual energy.’ We’ll take it direct to general Maltby.’ She wrote a letter to the G. O. C…..

This does at least get the proposal discussed, ironically by Hahn’s lover Charles Boxer.[50]

After speaking in high terms of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke’s ‘trained efficiency with which she handled all she undertook – besides running a house and looking after a charming small daughter’ and stating that she was the ‘only Englishwoman in Hong Kong to use her social position all the way in behalf of the struggle of the Chinese people’, he adds:

Unsolicited testimonials may be unwelcome; but I am driven to include this one, if only to correct (if that is possible) an extraordinary portrait, or more properly caricature, that flits like a dishevelled harpy through the pages of Emily Hahn’s highly diverting but not always notably accurate China To Me.[51]

We need to bear this in mind: Bertram’s representation is constructed in opposition to Hahn’s, and we need to distrust it to some extent for that reason.

I want to make one thing as clear as I possibly can: Emily Hahn lived through a time whose difficulties I can’t begin to imagine, with courage, creativity and a commitment to helping others. She turned down repatriation in June 1942 to aiding Charles Boxer and only left in September 1943 when she believed that she could no longer be of use, and for two references to what I suspect were many acts of kindness to others see the texts mentioned in this note.[52] Even if Hahn had behaved badly in occupied Hong Kong – and I don’t know of a single substantiated instance of such behaviour[53] – I wouldn’t criticise her. Those of us who are lucky enough to have lived our lives (so far at least) in a time of peace have no business judging the actions of those who passed through the dark world’s fire of terror and deprivation that was Japanese Hong Kong. In fact, her record makes her so much my superior in morality and character that further comment is unnecessary. My criticisms – and it would be disingenuous to claim that this post is an uncritical attempt to ‘set the record straight’ – relate purely to her actions in peace time, and here the boot is on the other foot: from the comfort and safety of New York she penned a ‘caricature’ of a woman who was slowing starving to death in an internment camp while occasionally catching a glimpse of the broken body of her heavily-tortured husband in the grounds of the adjacent prison.

Hahn explained in her 1986 preface that she never expected most of the people she ‘wrote about so candidly’ to read her book. I’ll set aside the dreadful possibility that she thought she was safe saying whatever she wanted about the Selwyn-Clarkes and Margaret Watson because they’d never survive the war, and take that as a rather naïve assertion of authorial modesty. Anyone interested in wartime Hong Kong reads, or should read China To Me, so it’s important they’re aware that candid writing can also be deceptively artful.

[1] Emily Hahn, China To Me, 1986 ed., v11.

[2] Hahn, 1986, V11.

[3] Hahn, 1986, 259.

[4] Hahn, 1986, 260.

[5] Hahn, 1986, 261.

[6] Susanna Hoe, The Private Life Of Old Hong Kong, 1991, 277.

[7] Hahn, 1986, 308.

[8] Hahn, 1986, 224.

[9] Hahn, 1986, 269.

[10] Hahn, 1986, 222.

[12] Hahn, 1946, 56.

[13] Hahn, 1946, 54.

[14] Hahn, 1986, 264.

[15] Sorry for all the scare quotes. What I’m trying to suggest is that in her representation of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, Hahn was consciously or unconsciously guided by ideas about women and emotion that were current in her culture. I don’t rule out the possibility of genuine and biologically determined differences between men and women, but I’ve not seen any convincing evidence that such differences exist in the realm of feeling.

[16] Hahn, 1986, 359.

[17] Hahn, 1986, 405.

[18] All quotes in this paragraph Hahn, 1986, 404—405.

[19] Hahn, 1986, 4055-408.

[20] Dr. Selwyn-Clarke, Footprints, 1975, 79.

[21] Ellen Field, Twilight in Hong Kong, 1960, 210.

[22] Hahn, 1986, 407-408.

[23] Hahn, 1986, 388-389.

[24] A few heroic individuals didn’t – see my posts on Chester Bennett, Marcus da Silva and Thomas Monaghan.

[25] Hahn, 1986, 295.

[26] Hahn, 1986, 296.

[27] Hahn, 1986, 296.

[28] Ken Cuthbertson, Nobody Said Not To Go, 1998, 212.

[30] For Hahn on Chinese politics, see Cuthbertson, 1998, 286.

[31] Hahn, 1986, 222.

[32] Seductio Ad Absurdum, 1930.

[33] Hahn, 1986, 224.

[34] Selwy Selwyn-Clarke, Footprints, 1975, 79.

[35] Jim Shepherd, Silks, Satins, Gold Braid and Monkey Jackets, 1996, 35. The newspaper was banned for its anti-war propaganda between January 21, 1941  and August 26, 1942, so Shepherd’s presumably referring to a 1939-1940 impounding.

[36] Hong Kong Sunday Herald, December 29, 1946, page 4.

[37] Israel Epstein, My China Eye, 2005, 303.

[40] James Bertram, Beneath The Shadow, 1947, 142.

[41] Agnes Smedley, Battle Hymn Of China, 2003 ed (1944), 462; 458.

[42] Smedley, 2003, 195.

[43] Smedley, 2003, 196.

[44] Smedley, 2003, 453.

[45] Selwyn-Clarke, 1975, 79

[47] The original, as quoted online has 1942, which is obviously a slip – she was interned on May 7, 1943.

[48] Hahn, 1986, 364; C. G.  Roland, Long Night’s Journey Into Day,2001, 75.

[49] Donald C. Bowie, Captive Surgeon In Hong Kong, 1975, 192.

[50] Bertram, 1947, 73-74.

[51] Bertram, 1947, 62-63.

[52] Andrea/Trish Shepherd, Darlings I’ve Had A Ball, 1975,  202; Gwen Dew, Prisoner of the Japs, 1943, 113.

[53] I’m aware of various rumours, and consider them nonsense.


Filed under Emily Hahn

Hahn As Source (3): The Art of Vendetta (David Charles Edmondston)

In the next two posts in this series on Emily Hahn’s work as a source for the Hong Kong war I’m going to look at the way in which her apparent desire to take settle scores affects her presentation of events in China To Me, her most important testimony.

David Charles Edmondston, Hong Kong manager of the HKSBC and the man most likely to take over the number one position on the retirement of Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, might be thought a good representative of the stifling British Colonial orthodoxy which Hahn criticises on a number of occasions. In addition, she has three reasons to hold a personal grudge against him: firstly, he barred her way into the HKSBC building during an air raid – although luckily this incident was swiftly brought to a close by the arrival of Gordon King, Hahn’s obstetrician, who led her away in the direction of Queen Mary Hopsital and her wounded lover, Charles Boxer.[1] Secondly, he stopped Vera Armstrong, a mutual friend, taking Hahn’s baby daughter, Carola, into his house to shelter during raids, presumably on the grounds that she was born ‘out of wedlock’ and he disapproved of her parents’ behaviour anyway (see below).[2] Finally, this time after the surrender, he vetoed Hahn’s application for a loan during the hard days and runaway inflation of the occupation. Hahn’s description of this third incident is vivid:

Edmonston[3] was violently opposed to letting me have any money. ‘But why?’ asked Grayburn, mildly puzzled. ‘I admit she is not British, but she is certainly an ally of ours; she has worked hard for our men; she is entitled to aid – ’

‘Because,’ said Edmonston passionately, ‘Boxer treated his wife disgracefully, and I for one do not intend to overlook it.’

Sir Vandeleur grew more puzzled. ‘Is that any reason,’ he asked, ‘why an American woman and her child should starve now, in the streets of occupied Hong Kong?’

Yes,’ snapped Edmonston.[4]

These three incidents are none of them trivial matters. The second and the third show a cold-blooded willingness to let a baby suffer for the actions of its parents. But according to Hahn the banker was ‘shaking’ during that air raid when she met him at the HKSBC entrance, not out of fear of injury but because of his ‘encounter with a Scarlet Woman’ – Hahn seems to be suggesting that Edmondston was afraid of her, as although his shaking might have been from indignation he’s also described as having a ‘scared frown.’ Here, we might think, is a man whose narrow-minded adherence to conventional morality completely over-rides normal human decency and compassion.

As for that attempt to deny Hahn and her baby relief: we don’t have Edmondston’s side of the story, but, as it’s presented here, it’s impossible not to agree with Grayburn, who generously gave her a loan on his personal account.  It seems that the most likely source for these events, though, is Grayburn himself, as Hahn feels confident about his inner states at the meeting, and it would be fair to assume that, whoever was telling the story, would have wanted to point up the contrast between Sir Vandeleur’s slightly ineffectual but thoroughly decent bewilderment and Edmondston’s mean-spirited self-confidence. Nevertheless, this is the only account we have and it’s certainly possible that Edmondston acted – in language, intonation and sentiment – as the perfect symbol of the rebarbative conventional-mindedness of old Hong Kong.

In any case, even if the portrait’s over-drawn, Hahn’s quite justified in noting Edmondston’s behaviour in this case and the two others she mentions and in expecting to excite the reader’s indignation. I repeat: none of her grievances are trivial, all of them were potentially matters of life and death, and in two cases not for her alone.

D. C. Edmondston is the man with the moustache in the front pair. 

 But she does have one problem. On May 24, 1943, David Edmondston was arrested for his role in the Hong Kong resistance. Hahn, who spent four months in Hong Kong after this arrest, must have known about it – indeed, to be fair to her we absolutely must assume she did. The fact that she mentions his illegal activity in her book demands as much: it would be taking score-settling to criminal lengths if she were providing the Japanese with a picture of work on the ‘relief committee’, whose funds were for the most part raised illegally, at a time when he was still at liberty. Hahn is scrupulous about not putting people at risk (the book was first published in 1944) and only names individuals involved in illegal activity when they’re dead, escaped, or already in prison. I don’t believe she’s broken her rule here.

In fact the charges against David Edmondston were far more serious than his role in humanitarian relief. Accounts differ, but they probably involved his helping in the escape of two bankers and the planned escape of an Indian officer.  I don’t know if the Kempeitai found out about his communication with the British Army Aid Group,[5] which is well documented. His high position in the HKSBC seems to have given him some kind of recognized leadership role (under Grayburn, of course) in illegal work: another of the bankers, G. Lyon-Mackenzie, wrote to him urging him to rein in Charles Hyde. Lyon-Mackenzie obviously felt that Hyde’s wide-ranging resistance activities were risking  his own safety and that of the other bankers. Mr. Edmondston did nothing.  Lyon-Mackenzie was himself an extremely brave man, and it’s not my intention to suggest he was wrong (or right) but to add something to the reader’s picture of David Edmondston. (I’ve discussed this incident in a little more detail at The man who Hahn suggests was terrified at meeting a ‘Scarlet Woman’ was also a courageous resistance operative who must have spent the last six months or so before his arrest aware that one day he was likely to fall into the hands of the Kempeitai, knowing what that meant, and carrying on anyway.

When the ordeal came, he met it with magnificent spirit.  Although questioned with great brutality, Mr. Edmondston  gave no information to his torturers, about his only work or anyone else’s. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and died of malnutrition and medical neglect on August 29, 1944.[6] The back of his neck had been taken over by a huge carbuncle, he was in some kind of coma, and, although his wife and daughter were allowed to visit him in Stanley Prison, he was not able to regain consciousness and speak to them.

I doubt that Hahn knew anything other than that he’d been arrested and rumours as to why, but that posed enough of a problem for her: how to keep the focus on her own (substantial) wrongs and avoid sympathy for someone facing the horrors of a Japanese prison for their relief and/or resistance work? Her solution is simple: she doesn’t mention Edmondston’s arrest at all. To do so would be to complicate the reader’s feelings: most Americans, in 1944 and today, would feel admiration and sympathy for someone who was facing torture and deprivation for their role in helping others and in the struggle for a free world.

File:David Charles Edmondston Headstone.JPG


The artistic problem is solved by not putting down the full truth. The reader’s feelings, based only on the three incidents that show Edmondston’s prejudice, are likely to be of the kind Hahn wanted, and the man who lost his life as a result of an attempt to free Indian POWs from Japanese imprisonment never comes into focus  But for a more complex example of the way in which Hahn’s score-settling influenced her representation of occupied Hong Kong, I need to turn to her treatment of the Colony’s small group of leftists, and in particular their most prominent figure, Hilda Selwyn-Clarke – ‘Red Hilda of the Peak’.

[1] Emily Hahn, China To Me, 1986 (originally 1944), 272-3.

[2] Hahn, 1986, 273.

[3] Hahn makes this common mistake in giving his name.

[4] Hahn, 1986, 393.

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Filed under British Army Aid Group, Emily Hahn, Hong Kong WW11

Emily Hahn As Source (2): Tanaka Transcends The War

Dr. Selwyn-Clarke, writing of the period after the Christmas Day 1941 surrender of Hong Kong, tells us of the first indication he had that not all Japanese officers were obstructive:

One of my first encounters with helpfulness from a Japanese officer concerned the reserve of four-gallon tins of biscuits, made of soya bean and wheaten flour with the addition of thiamine hydrochloride powder (against beri beri) which I had had baked in the leading department-store of Lane Crawford against the anticipated siege. By good fortune the Japanese had put Lane Crawford’s in charge of a certain Lieutenant Tanaka, who allowed me to remove all the tins for distribution to the P. O. W. and civilian camps and to those Chinese hospitals which had not been closed by the Japanese forces.[1]

Emily Hahn’s story ‘Silicon Dioxide’ describes a dinner hosted by Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, arranged for the purpose of persuading a Japanese officer, Captain Yamaguchi, to release a store of biscuits from Lane, Crawford – he’s been put in charge of the company’s entire stock of food.[2] As part of her unremitting campaign to denigrate Hilda, Hahn claims that she considered these delicious and nutrition-packed pieces of confectionery, baked by my father at the bakery in Stubbs Road,[3] to taste no better than ‘dog biscuits’![4] That’s a joke, but the campaign was real enough, and I’ll discuss it in a future post (while keeping an open  mind as to Hilda’s opinion of the biscuits).

Captain Yamaguchi is undoubtedly based in some sense on Tanaka – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that one of the factors in the creation of this character was Hahn’s encounter with this real-life officer. We have a detailed first-hand account of Captain Tanaka in Staff-Sergeant Sheridan’s Hong Kong Memoir.[5]A comparison between the Memoir and the story will throw light on Hahn’s intentions and on the nature of Hong Kong Holiday as a historical source.[6]

Hahn’s been forewarned that Yamaguchi’s one of the more helpful Japanese officers, yet at first she sees him as a set of stereotypes:

The captain stood in the doorway, clicked his heels, and bowed smartly, just like a German. He was stocky and spectacled and could have been a model for a wartime cartoonist; there were the teeth and the simian grin and the bandy, booted legs. Unlike most of his brother officers, Captain Yamaguchi had not shaved his head, instead he affected a Prussian haircut, half an inch long and bristling like a brush.[7]

 Such a description would be rightly seen as offensive if it came from a writer today – even though, as we shall see, it’s going to be overturned. The representation of the Japanese in terms of monkeys was not uncommon in the 1930s and 1940s, and this, and similar racist denigration,  contributed to the brutality of the Japanese occupation – although it’s worth pointing out that the British and even more so the Americans were on the whole treated better than other nationalities by the Hong Kong Japanese, so an emphasis on ‘white’ racism is very limited in its explanatory power. But what I want to draw attention to here is that Hahn first perceives Yamaguchi in terms that combine negative stereotypes of  both the Germans and the Japanese. It seems that the link with the Teutonic is not just present in the eye of the beholder: Yamaguchi says he spent a year studying in Germany and that, ‘My English too bad’,[8] while, as we shall see, his German’s  a lot better.

Staff-Sergeant Sheridan’s Memoir also introduces Tanaka in a way that makes the reader think he’s going to turn out to be a typical Japanese officer– it’s Boxing Day 1941, and he’s come to take over Lane, Crawford’s Exchange Building:

The Jap Captain speaks fairly good English, his name is Tanaka, he is a communications officer and all his men are technicians. He has come to take over the Telephone Exchange and spends a lot of time with the staff on the top floor.

Meanwhile he tells Brown ((the Lane, Crawford manager)) to make out a list of names of all the people in the Building. As we look out the windows on to the street we see Jap sentries at every corner, no one is allowed to move about other than Japs….I go and see Brown and he explains to Capt. Tanaka that Hammond and I are also Military and wish to go to Murray Barracks. Tanaka orders us to stay where we are. There are two sentries on the front door, and the side doors are locked, no one is allowed to enter or leave the building.[9]

Tanaka seems here to be the kind of Japanese officer we’ve met in innumerable other accounts; he’s authoritarian and it looks like he’s going to keep the assorted crowd that’s ended up in the Exchange Building on a tight leash. But what are we to make of the contrasting assessments of Tanaka’s English-language skills, Yamaguchi’s ‘too bad’ versus ‘fairly good’? Perhaps Staff-Sergeant Sheridan was exaggerating: Tanaka had an interpreter assigned to him in the early days of the occupation: the admirable and courageous Kaneko Bush, the Japanese wife of a Hong Kong Naval officer.[10] But this arrangement didn’t last long because Mrs. Bush was arrested by the Kempeitai on January 2, 1942[11] and it’s possible that he only needed an interpreter in the first days because he was then discussing technical matters with English-speaking professionals in his capacity as Communications Officer. But, as we shall see, whatever the truth of this, Hahn’s association of the Captain with Germany and the fact that she’s made him competent in German but not English is not an accident.

Hahn’s own presentation of Yamaguchi as a not untypical Japanese officer continues. He says he’s living in the Matsabura (Gloucester) Hotel and is looking for a house; Hilda suggests their place on the Peak, but Selwyn points out that Colonel Eguchi – the Medical Officer and the man mainly responsible for allowing Selwyn-Clarke to continue his work – has already taken it. Then, Hahn tells us, Yamaguchi looks around the flat as if he’s considering and rejecting it for himself[12]– just the kind of predatory interest we might expect!

His ‘too bad’ English means that when he tries to ask questions after dinner – during which he eats a lot of chicken – he keeps slipping into German, so he ends up writing questions on paper, in Germanic script, and giving them to Selwyn-Clarke, who passes them to Hahn.[13] Yamaguchi has previously told Selwyn-Clarke he wants an evening of scientific conversation and music[14] so it’s less of a surprise that one of these questions turns out to be ‘What are chemical composition of glass?’[15] Hahn’s answer gives the story its title, but discussion of this aspect is outside the scope of the current post. Yamaguchi, for all his friendliness, remains firmly in charge of the evening; after an hour or so of science, he announces, ‘We will now have the music’.[16] The music turns out to be the Kreutzer Sonata – Yamaguchi nods and hums, while the others sit motionless in the shadows, looking at him and thinking.[17]

Hahn would have the reader believe that Yamaguchi’s decision to hand over the bulk of the ‘siege biscuits’ – he’s already given Selwyn-Clarke a few cases– hangs on the success of the evening. This is an obviously useful literary device to provide both narrative thrust and tension, and it might or might not have some grounding in reality; but Staff-Sergeant Sheridan’s Tanaka only needs to be asked to do something helpful and it’s done:

There are thousands of loaves of bread in the main store in the basement going stale. Brown makes a suggestion to Tanaka that it be distributed to the Hospitals before it becomes unfit for consumption. Tanaka agrees and provides a lorry and armed escort.[18]

Sometimes he doesn’t even need to be asked:

About 7th February 1942 we are informed by Tanaka that we must leave the Exchange Building next day. Hammond, Edgar, Peacock and myself are to move to the French Hospital in Causeway Bay to join Dr Selwyn-Clarke’s team….Tanaka orders us to make out a list for each man for a week’s supply of tinned goods, which he issues from the store the night before we go.[19]

I’ll leave out several examples of Captain Tanaka’s generosity to all those under his control. Clearly he had developed a personal relationship with the bakers:

We thank him for his kindness and later he comes up to our room.[20]

I can testify that the only time my father talked about the war without showing clear signs of suppressed fury and horror was when he mentioned one or the other kindness of Captain Tanaka.

By the time Staff-Sergeant Sheridan comes to describe Tanaka’s appearance and character he’s come to realise that he’s ‘an exception’ to the general run of Japanese officer in the way he treats the British:

So far he has treated everyone very humanely, we have received reasonably good food and fair treatment.

Tanaka is not a regular Army Officer, but a civil Telecommunications engineer in uniform. He speaks reasonably good English and has travelled quite a bit in England.

At a guess he would be about 45 to 50 years old, but it is not easy to tell the ages of Asiatics. He wears large horn rimmed spectacles, but appears to be a fit man.[21]

There is no trace of stereotyping here; Tanaka is a human being, albeit of a group that is harder in one (neutral) way for Staff-Sergeant Sheridan’s group to ‘read’. And I see no reason to doubt Sheridan’s statement about Tanaka’s time in England. Hahn has deliberately transposed his European experience for the purposes of her story.

So why is Yamaguchi constantly associated with Germany? Everything from his haircut to his taste in music is German, and even the content of the evening – science and music – matches common Anglo-American perceptions of the Teutonic. Early reviewer Frances Stover writes:

The description of the Japanese captain who wanted an evening of ‘scientific conversation and music’ is typical of the Axis in each hemisphere.[22]

Yes, indeed: but that’s only the half of it. Hahn’s story was first published in The New Yorker on October 14, 1944.[23] By this time it was clear that the defeat of both Germany and Japan was inevitable. At one point in the evening, Hahn thinks she’s understood Yamaguchi’s rather strange social behaviour:

I began to understand the little man. He was trying to transcend the war. He was trying hard to spend an evening of civilized intercourse as Westerners would do it.[24]

If that dinner party really happened – and I think it probably did – it must have been in January or February 1942, close to the start of the occupation. As it’s described in the story, Hahn goes through a process of growing awareness: she first sees Tanaka as a bearer of stereotypical characteristics of both of America’s main enemies, but she comes to understand that he’s not a cartoonist’s model of any kind but a human being (with a wife but ‘unfortunately no baby’[25]). He’s been fighting for six years but has remained human; his desire to ‘transcend the war’, comic although it at first seems enables Hahn to do the same and to stop seeing the enemy in terms of stereotypes. And it acts as a recommendation for the USA, soon to be in Tanaka’s position of dominance, to find the forms of transcendence appropriate to a victor nation and not to hang on to the insulting cartoon versions of the enemy, either Japanese or German. Let’s think, Hahn is implying, of Germany as the nation of Beethoven and scientific achievement, and picture the Japanese not as predatory simians but as people capable of appreciating the best that European culture has to offer.

Staff-Sergeant Sheridan’s Memoir strikes me as an unusually good historical source:  the author makes no attempt to exaggerate his own role in events or to get back at those whose behaviour he didn’t approve of but draws on an excellent memory to describe the events he was part of in a remarkably objective way. Of course, no work is an uncomplicated chronicle of ‘what really happened’ – as I pointed out earlier, Tanaka is introduced in a way that makes the reader think he’s no different from any other Japanese officer so that we can share the author’s gradual awareness of his humanitarian generosity. The Memoir is principal a historical record, but, like all such, it uses art and technique to get its stories across in an effective way.

‘Silicon Dioxide’, on the other hand, should not be read primarily as a piece of history; an earlier reviewer called it ‘very nearly a perfect short story’.[26] I discussed the ways in which another of the stories of Hong Kong Holiday has been so read in the previous post,[27] and it would be easier if the volume bore no relation to the real history of occupied Hong Kong at all! It’s based firmly on Hahn’s own experiences there and it’s hard to resist the temptation to use it – and there’s no need to if this is done with care and with awareness of what a story like ‘Silicon Dioxide’ above all is: a piece of literary art that takes real events and people and shapes them so as to make a point (a number of points in fact, although I’ve focused on only one). And personally this delights me: Captain Tanaka, so kind to my father, and to many others, is made into a symbol of transcendence, a signal to a soon-to-be victorious America to quickly shed the coarsening of perceptions brought about by war.

[1] Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, Footprints, 1975, 74.

[2] Emily Hahn, Hong Kong Holiday, 1946, 123.


[4] Hahn, 1946, 124.

[5] Kindly made available to me by Helen Dodd and her sisters.


[7] Hahn, 1946, 126.

[8] Hahn, 1956, 127.

[9] Patrick Sheridan, Hong Kong Memoir, 82.

[10] Lewis Bush, The Road To Inamura, 1972 (1961), 144-145.

[11] China Mail, January 1, 1947, page 2.

[12] Hahn, 1946, 127-128.

[13] Hahn, 1946, 129.

[14] Hahn, 1946, 123.

[15] Hahn, 1946, 129.

[16] Hahn, 1946, 130.

[17] Hahn, 1946, 130.

[18] Memoir, 82.

[19] Memoir, 91.

[20] Memoir, 91.

[21] Memoir, 86.

[24] Hahn, 1946, 130.

[25] Hahn, 1946, 128.

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