Category Archives: Hong Kong

Herbert Edward Lanepart (2): Bringing Nudism to Hong Kong

When Sir Robert Ho-Tung – one of most prominent Eurasian residents of Hong Kong and the only ‘non-white’ allowed to live legally on the Peak – arrived in Singapore on his way to London in the spring of 1932 it was natural for him to talk to The Straits Times. What is surprising, though, is that amongst the topics he discussed one was the activities and likely success of a small Hong Kong ‘cult’ that probably had fewer than 30 members. That ‘cult’ – the word was accepted by its leader – was the Hong Kong Nudist Society. Sir Robert assured the people of Singapore that, in his view, Chinese public opinion was ‘very strong against the mixing of the sexes’ advocated by ‘a section of the European population, with a Mr. H. E. Lanepart as their head’. ‘It’s too much ahead of the times’ was his ‘personal opinion’. Asked about the island that Lanepart’s group were currently trying to acquire, he said, with a smile, that this was an excellent idea but it remained to be seen if they would succeed.[1]When The Hongkong Telegraph picked up the story a week later it left out Sir Robert’s opinions on such things as the controversial ‘mu tsai’ system and the weighty matter of the economic effects of the boycott of Japanese goods to report only his views on Nudism and the not unrelated subject of the need for the Chinese girl to balance modernity and tradition.[2] It seems that in the spring of 1932 Lanepart’s ‘nudist cult’ was extremely interesting to people in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the Far East.

In my previous post I sketched Lanepart’s involvement in bringing Theosophy to the Colony. In 1928 he was appointed to what seems to have been an important role in the Far Eastern movement, and the online press records a number of lectures he gave to the local Lodge in that year. I’ve not yet been able to find any record of Theosophical activity after 1928, except for a donation to the movement he made in memory of its deceased leader Annie Besant in 1934. This shows that his two enthusiasms ran alongside each other for a couple of years, but it seems clear that between 1928 and the founding of the Hong Kong Nudist Society in March 1932 his main focus was switching.

My guess is that information about his plans had already reached the Hongkong Daily Press in February when they despatched a reporter eager for ‘knocking copy’ to the YMCA to ask if it was true that male non-members had to bathe there naked while members were permitted to wear a slip. The YMCA had ‘not turned nudist’ and the embattled secretary said the reason was purely hygienic – fluff could contaminate and dyes dirty the water. He admitted that the ‘mythical’ lady with a telescope could see the bathers from the Peninsula Hotel, but didn’t think that was a problem ‘in these advanced days’.[3] He was wrong. An organisation devoted to nudism in a place far distant from Kowloon’s chief hotel would soon be perceived as a problem indeed.

We can be certain that the Daily Press had advanced knowledge five days later when it published a mocking poem (‘Why I’m A Nudist’) and announced ‘rumours’ that the Island would soon be visited by ‘this King of modern cults’. The poet had been assured that his desire to see naked women would soon disappear and then he’d be able to concentrate on sun and ‘general health’,[4] something he obviously didn’t believe. The YMCA article and the satirical poem set the tone for the Colony’s response.

On March 8 the Daily Press ended all doubts as to what was in store by publishing a notice they’d got hold of: they included the words ‘Private and Confidential’ in their report and offered readers the chance to inspect the original. The accompanying text made it clear that the society was real not just ‘mythical’ as some had obviously suspected or hoped. The notice summoned sympathisers who supported ‘MIXED nude culture’ to a meeting at the reserved Meeting Room of the Lane Crawford Restaurant in the Exchange Building. The meeting was at 6 pm. sharp on Thursday, March 10 and its main purpose was to formally set up the Society. Those not in favour of ‘MIXED nude culture’ were not invited; the founders had received 45 written applications all but 2 in favour of mixed nudism and 25 verbal applications all for mixed nudism. Those interested were expected to attend and asked to bring along friends ‘IN FAVOUR OF MIXED NUDISM’ and ladies were especially asked to be present.[5]

The capitalisation is all in the original and, alongside the special invitation to females, the emphasis on ‘mixed’ nakedness must have confirmed the suspicions of some Hong Kong residents about Lanepart’s true motives. My guess is that in fact it related to issues in the ideology of the nudist movement, something I’ll discuss below.

The next day the paper published a letter protesting the publication of private material; Lanepart signed himself ‘for and on behalf of the Founders’ Group, Hong Kong Nude Culture Association (in Formation)’.[6] ‘Nude Culture’ is obviously a translation of Nacktkultur, and it was in Germany that the ideas and organisations of nudism had most strongly taken root.

In the next day’s paper the correspondent ‘Occidental’ took up the issue in a letter opining that nudism, although its supporters touted its ‘hygienic benefits’ had no place in a mixed race colony like Hong Kong, and the Government should deny all facilities to a group whose practices were considered ‘wholly distasteful’ by 99% of the population.[7] He was probably right about that.

Nevertheless it seems that over 40 people including six women attended the meeting on March 10, although only 21 (3 women) joined.[8] But the meeting itself had seen more mockery of the about-to-be-formed group. Two days later The Hongkong Telegraph reported that a well-known rugby player had infiltrated the ‘sacred precincts of the nudists’ meeting’ in drag, getting himself introduced to Lanepart and welcomed as one of the most promising of the female nudists.[9]

On March 14 Lanepart made the first statement I’ve been able to find of the ideological underpinnings of his commitment to nudism. The Hongkong Telegraph reported that the Government had not yet received an application from the society to rent beach space so couldn’t yet state its attitude to ‘the Hongkong Nudist movement’ or to the specific issue of renting them a beach. Lanepart, however, was ‘hopeful’; an official had told him there were many stretches of beach on Lantau, Lama (sic) and Ma Wan islands that were a long way from any dwellings. He even believed that a sympathetic Government might drop the rent to a nominal $10 a year for 40, 000 square feet, and he told the reporter he’d ideally like as much as half  a million square feet; the Society would like to erect matsheds over an area of 500 square feet of the area leased to them. He stressed the society was for the ‘earnest-minded’ only and he had no wish for the ‘foolish and frivolous’ to join. The reporter summarised Lanepart’s general view of the purposes of the Society:

It was their intention to practise the cult as it was being done in Germany and other parts of the world, namely by the playing of athletics, games and gymnastics.

In Germany the cult was very advanced and was part and parcel of the daily lives of the people.

The Society hoped to make it as essential to the people in Honkgkong. Not only had the movement a huge recreation ground of forests, fields and meadows in Berlin, but once a week the members of the Society gave mixed swimming demonstrations in one of the public baths.

When questioned, Lanepart admitted he didn’t plan to bring such mixed swimming displays to Hong Kong, as the people were ‘too frightened’. However, he would have nothing to do with allegations of  prurience as a motivation for mixed nudity:

The objects of the Society were to take serious-minded people away from the turmoil of the city and allow them to get back to a natural state of life.

He felt the Government would be sympathetic because of the ‘progressive and healthy’ objects of the movement.[10]

In other words, to Lanepart nudism was part of a general culture of the body that constituted a key plank in a program of ‘returning to nature’, a program that was expected to restore proper functioning and good health to people whose minds and bodies had been weakened by the urbanisation and industrialisation of the nineteenth century. The origins of this movement lie in European Romanticism, most evidently in Rousseau’s famous dictum that God makes all things good but human meddling turns them to evil, and in the turn towards nature, spontaneity and the virtues of rural living that this and similar ideas engendered in late eighteenth century western European culture. Rousseau did not, as some people believe, have a simple concept of ‘the Noble Savage’, but he did think that the bodies (if not the minds) of those who lived in pre-modern conditions had a strong tendency to be stronger and healthier than those who swarmed in the over-crowded urban ant-heaps and who were softened by the comforts and conveniences of modernity. As we shall see, Lanepart added a distinctively early twentieth century twist to such ideologies.

Interest in the Society continued, even though it did so little that Lanepart had to refute allegations they were running scared. On April 4, 1932 The Telegraph announced that Lanepart dreamt of a nudist island within Hong Kong’s territory with himself as Governor. He denied being in hiding, saying that his group was extremely active behind the scenes and was planning a branch in Macao and eventually ones in Shanghai and Tientsin. Meanwhile they were waiting for the Government’s reply to their application for lease of an island. Perhaps not fully seriously, Lanepart declared that when they’d got their island they’d set up a colony there with a minister for public works, an admiral of the fleet and other positions. He estimated they could get 10,000 people on the one he had in mind. Applications, he said, had made to the Government on March 22 and repeated on April 1. The location of the future island kingdom was a secret.[11] On April 5, 1932 Lanepart wrote to the China Mail from a PO Box address denying a report in another newspaper that the Government had turned down the society’s application.[12] (The Hongkong Daily Press of the same day made such an announcement on page 9). It seems that the Society at some point got their island, although I can find nor reference to this in Lanepart’s time;[13] this development probably didn’t take place until the 1950s when the Society, now rebranded as the less confrontational Hong Kong Sunbathing Association,[14] met on a beach at Ma Wan Island.[15]

On April 18, 1932 the correspondent ‘Matron’ objected to Lanepart’s statement that only the clergy opposed nudism. She had talked to many women and, although everyone was aware of the virtues of sunbathing, they felt ‘loathing’ at the idea of doing it alongside men. Her main objection was aesthetic and based on the rather unattractive impression likely to be made by those no longer young. The editor congratulated her on her ‘excellent’ letter and assured her that anyone caught in the nude would be treated like any other criminal.[16] I haven’t been able to find Lanepart’s original statement, but assuming it’s been accurately quoted, it tells us that part of his ideological commitment to nudism came from a belief that it represented a challenge to the forces of traditional morality represented most strongly by the church. I’ll have more to say about this below.

Part of Lanepart’s pitch was simpler and less embattled: in a letter to the China Mail (which was also picked up by the Straits Times) he described the beauties of the nudists’ site, hinted at ambitious plans for matsheds and tennis courts, and ended by invoking ‘mixed nudism in lovely surroundings, away from dusty crowds and unhealthy, wet clothing’ (China Mail, May 10, 1932, page 6). Nudism here is not presented as the product of a life force that it then goes on to strengthen but as a pleasant activity that promoted health – the reference to ‘wet’ clothing was a reminder that Hong Kong’s humid and unpleasant high summer wasn’t far away.

But whatever the rationale it offered for its activities,  as the year wore on it seemed as if the Society still wasn’t doing very much. On September 2, 1932, The Daily Press published an account by Lanepart of how his movement differed from the Doukhobors – a Russian group that practised religiously-inspired nudism – and gave details of a leaflet Lanepart had sent them. It seemed that members had to be ‘approved’ by the Society and sign a declaration of sympathy with ‘Simultaneous Nude Sun- Water- and Air- bathing of both sexes in special recreation grounds’. They also had to profess a friendly attitude towards the Hong Kong Society, and promise not to leak unauthorised details of its activities to the press.

On September 6, 1932 the China Mail assured its readers on its front page that the Hong Kong Nudist Society existed ‘in reality as well as in name’. It was claimed that there were over 40 members, including women, both European and Chinese. The men were said to be mainly Chinese, Russian and Portuguese, although some Britishers had signed up. The sect had held two meetings since its foundation, and there was obviously particular interest in the fact that women were said to be members and that some had attended the first excursion although, it was reported, definitely not the second. The organisation owed its existence to Lanepart’s ‘enthusiastic belief in the beneficial effect of the sun’s rays upon the human body’ and it was said to be much like those recently founded in Germany, Russia, Britain and elsewhere. Readers were told that the Society had failed to get government building permission or any land grant from the administration. Instead, Lanepart had arranged to rent land from a farmer in Tai Wan – Plot no. 388 at Lock Pick Sheung near Cheung Sheung Fan in the NewTerritories. It seemed that the failure to provide suitable facilities was holding back the many women who had expressed interest.

Parts of the article are an interesting blend of mockery and the idyllic:

The camping place is in a valley bounded by the river Shingmun and almost completely encircled by the rough, barren hills with entrance well-hidden from the main road…. {Those admitted as members are} privileged to strip and dip in the cool stream that runs through the hidden valley of Lock Pick Sheung or to play in Old Sol’s rays.[17]

The idea of escaping the stresses of modernity and the ugliness of cities to frolic in a romantic ‘hidden valley’ obviously had at least a degree of appeal to the reporter.

In any case, the article makes it clear that fears about the deliberate or even accidental offending of public sensibilities were misplaced: you needed a guide to get to the site and the danger even of ‘spies and evil-minded sight-seers’ finding their way there was minimal. And, according to Lanepart, the possibility of infiltration by the ‘Peeping Toms’ correspondents sometimes worried about was also guarded against because you had to answer questions to join: are you an idealist, a sportsman with a well-developed physique, a person of position and respected in the Colony? I doubt that this line of defence was quite as effective though!

The article ends with the assurance that although officialdom frowned, ‘Nudism persists in the Colony’.

So great was public interest even after half a year at rather a low level of activity that even the failure to hold an outing attracted a short notice on the front page: the third planned outing to Lock Pick Sheung didn’t go ahead because no members turned up at Kowloon Railway Station, perhaps realising that the river that had to be crossed to reach the site had been made swollen and impassable by recent rains.[18]

How small the group holding the Colony’s attention was becomes clear from a report of the outing of October 2, 1932 which revealed that the cult (Lanepart’s own word) had shrunk from 8 active members at the September peak to a mere 4, all male. It seems that the founder would attempt to round up the women before the train left but thus far without any success. The only participants, according to this reporter, had been young Chinese males, and one Eurasian who admitted he was only going out of curiosity had dropped out. The members left Kowloon soon after 1 p.m. and returned at 7.30 giving about 5 hours at the site, which remained unimproved in spite of Lanepart’s ambitious plans. The activities were a dip in the pool and sun-bathing. A ‘juvenile gallery’ of locals assembled to watch, but the village elders were unperturbed and haven’t made the expected complaint.[19]

The China Mail interviewed Lanepart on November 9, 1932. In spite of his less than stunning achievements so far, he spoke of nudism’s ‘bright future’ in the Colony and claimed over 100 members, 75% of whom were European – but due to their ‘inherent shyness’ these members, although they arranged private nudist parties, didn’t attend meetings in such numbers as the Chinese, who were every enthusiastic. In fact, Lanepart asserted, it was the Chinese especially young Chinese girls who ‘pushed the movement’. This claim is even harder to believe than the membership figures. Nevertheless, Lanepart envisaged that the Chinese would soon form their own group as part of a centralised China movement, but that depended on the attitude of the Central Government which at the moments seemed ‘very narrow-minded where morality is concerned’. Nudism, he said, depended on each person’s ability to enjoy ‘complete rest’; it was a ’new kind of recreation’. At one point he launched an assault that tells us a lot more about his ideological commitments:

The European girls will never join the society as a mass. They are too selfish. The European girls of the Colony are sick with lifelessness, wrong ideas and social inhibitions. They have little life of their own, they are just puppets, not much good for life’s purposes because they are full of their own narrow-minded and selfish plans, gold-digging and dancing.

If there was some high social advantage to be reaped from nudism, then they would attend our meetings.[20]

Ideas of the ‘life force’ were common in the first half of the twentieth century (similar concepts abound: élan vital, Odic force, vital spark, Orgone Energy, even the Freudian Id…). Perhaps the exponent of such an ideology most familiar to British readers is D. H. Lawrence, who in 1926 published a story called ‘Sun’ in which a sick middle-class woman discovers the power of giving herself naked to the sun (the story actually ends tragically as this power has its limits in a generally diseased society). Lawrence’s last complete work Apocalypse (1929-30) ends with words that are simply a more eloquent expression of the sentiments Lanepart was to offer to the readers of The China Mail a few years later:

What we want is to destroy our false, inorganic connections, especially those related to money, and re-establish the living organic connections, with the cosmos, the sun and earth, with mankind and nation and family. Start with the sun, and the rest will slowly, slowly happen.

The counterpoising of the vital force, warmed into more intense power by the sun, to the anti-life restraints of ‘morality’ – represented in Lanepart’s case by the Chinese Authorities and the Christian clergy of Hong Kong – is a familiar theme of such thinkers. Clothes come to represent social convention and psychic inhibition; they not only promote sickness (by blocking the energy of the sun and perhaps interfering with freedom of movement) but they’re only there in the first place because the wearer is already weak and diseased. Lanepart’s phrase ‘not much good for life’s purposes’ sums up Lawrence’s attitude to many of his characters, most notoriously Lady Chatterley’s crippled husband Clifford. And my guess is that Lanepart’s stress on ‘mixed’ nudism stemmed not from a prurient interest in the unclad female body but from his belief that anything less was a capitulation of ‘life’ to ‘morality’. I’m not, by the way, trying to suggest he was an avid reader of Lawrence’s novels – he more likely got his ideas from German sources – but that nudism was never just about taking off your clothes or the role of the sun in promoting physical health. It linked in to a set of ideas about ‘life’ that were influential in the first half of the twentieth century, and which, like Lanepart’s earlier Theosophical enthusiasm, survives now in much ‘New Age’ thinking.

Majority opinion in the Colony, of course, had a different view: on July 1, 1932 a Chinese man was reported to have gone naked in West Point; he was certified insane, but the headline was ‘Nudist in West Point’.[21] Taking off your clothes in public could be seen as a sign not of psychic freedom and the desire to participate more strongly in an all-pervading life force, but of mental imbalance. Perhaps strangely a Prussian ban on Nudism made the front page of The China Mail in August, but, given the background described in this post, it’s easy to see why the editor wanted to highlight the Reuter’s report:

The Nudist Cult has been described by prominent Germans as a form of modern savagery

The report labelled nudism a sign of ‘savagery’ seen not as noble but as a ‘demoralising’ falling away from civilisation. [22] The story also revealed some of the more concrete anxieties behind Hong Kong’s reaction: servants were said to be insisting on doing their work naked, and nudists were sometimes erupting into public spaces and causing ‘consternation or excitement’.

On September 9, 1932 the same paper published two hostile letters, one from ‘Disgusted’, suggesting that no ‘European worthy of the name’ was involved with Hong Kong nudism, and that no ‘decent European’ ever would get involved. The writer believed that Lanepart should be put under some form of ‘restraint’. He referred to the Society’s ‘lewd, naked exhibitions in the NewTerritories’ and suggested that the average European viewed the society with ‘mild amusement, tinctured with disgust’. A number of points are worth noting; ‘Disgusted’ obviously saw a proper attitude towards clothing as a mark of civilisation, and civilisation as a necessary attribute of proper European-ness. If the report of September 6 was his source, or was accurate and matched the writer’s private information, then Portuguese and Russians were not considered Europeans ‘worthy of the name’. Further, parts of the NewTerritories were still wild in the 1930s, and this area of the Colony clearly featured in the mind of ‘Disgusted’ as the kind of place appropriate to ‘savage’ behaviour like nudism.  It’s worth remembering when we consider Lanepart’s eventual Nazism (discussed below) that both as Theosophist and nudist activist he was working alongside (and in the first case under the leadership of) people who were not, to quote a phrase common at the time, ‘of pure European descent’ and that it probably wasn’t only ‘Disgusted’ who looked down on him for it. One nudist source suggests that the failure of Lanepart’s organisation in its first five years was because it only attracted Continental Europeans and had no ‘British or native Chinese’ supporters;  although undocumented, this claim is plausible (

The other correspondent (‘Anti-Nude’) thought that sexual interest was the main element in leading people to become nudists, and was also vexed by the question of race, forecasting ‘racial and temperamental conflicts’ if Lanepart were to bring about the ‘conditions’ he favoured in a ‘cosmopolitan’ place like Hong Kong.[23] If I’ve understood ‘Anti-Nude’ correctly, he felt that if Europeans took to walking around Victoria in the nude (as we have seen that was far from Lanepart’s plan, at least in the short term) then they would be likely to attack both by introverts and by more conservative ‘races’ like the Chinese. This was another way of playing the inevitable Hong Kong race card: Europeans were an advanced race, and in some cases this had led to moral decay, and it was the job of the responsible authorities to protect more conservative races like the Chinese from these degenerates. The failure of the village elders at Lock Pick Sheung to put in the expected complaint must have been a grave disappointment to some.

It seems that by the winter of 1932 – when presumably the Nudist Society was inactive – public interest had waned. It flared up again briefly in the summer of 1933 when the press took a few final kicks at Lanepart’s organisation.

On July 8, 1933 the Telegraph reported the opposition by a silk-merchant when he heard that the cult was to be imported to Shanghai from Hong Kong by ‘an enterprising foreigner’.[24] At about the same time The China Mail sent a reporter to Lanepart’s ‘paradise’ at Lock Pick Sheung. The article began on the front page and spilled over – ironically it claimed that, in spite of the importance this suggests, Lanepart was the only ‘visible member of the cult in Hong Kong’. The reporter says that the ‘gathering’ began with five people: Lanepart, a man from Canton who was setting up a similar enterprise there, his ‘lady friend’, and the two reporters. At one point a lady and her companion arrived, but left ‘rather hurriedly’, perhaps after seeing a three inch leech attached to Lanepart’s body. It seems she wanted to wear a bathing suit, but Lanepart was ‘adamant’ in wanting her to stick to the rules of the society. There had been reports had earlier visits by Russian and French women, although Lanepart said that was the first visit by a female.[25]

The reporter considered that the retreat grounds were still as ‘bare and stony’ as at the same time last year when the plot was rented from the villagers with the Crown’s permission. The ambitious scheme for a tennis court was shelved but a little work had been done by the swimming pool. Two notice boards warning uninvited visitors that the ground was leased to the nudist society were innovations. ‘A tent, a pair of water-wings and a ball are the only other possessions of the Society,’ concluded the reporter, although he added that Lanepart provided nudist magazines in German and French. Lanepart asked the reporter not to be misled by appearances and claimed nudism was progressing. Several high officials – whom he could not name – were members. The reader would be forgiven for thinking that the Society was effectively dead.

On August 5, 1933 the Daily Press reported with considerable satisfaction that Canton had followed Shanghai in taking measures to ‘suppress’ nudism:

In Hong Kong it {Nudism} is languishing and its life hangs, in appropriately (sic), by a thread.[26]

On May 16, 1934 it was reported that J. P. Braga had asked questions of the authorities about the proposed screening of a nudist film in the Colony with a view to getting it banned.[27] The reply was that no such application had been received and that it would not be screened unless it passed the censorship,[28] which it failed to do next month.[29]  What’s interesting is that the story is reported without any reference to the Hong Kong Society. Similarly, in October 1934 a long report on the first British national nudist conference makes no reference to Lanepart’s group.[30] Nevertheless, an  a report on another subject shows us that he was still a well-known figure in 1934.

In June of that year tKowloon’s Marcel Buffet was sued by Frank Lewiston Adamson, a former employee.[31] The China Mail account of the evidence given on June 27 has a complex set of headlines: at the top is ‘Remarkable Evidence In The Marcel Buffet Case’ and immediately below it we read ‘Mr. Lanepart Wears Long Trousers At The Request Of Court’; the next three headlines refer to the main evidence  The article itself re-iterates this apparently significant point:

Mr. Lanepart, who appeared in long trousers in deference to wishes of the court, was the next witness.

I think this shows that Lanepart usually wore shorts, as I doubt that the Court feared he’d turn up with no clothes at all. It seems that he was eager to have his say:

He had his volubility checked several times by both counsel.

His evidence tells us a little more about his background and his circumstances in 1934:

He stated that he was formerly given free meals and a salary to look after the books of the Marcel Café.

The picture that emerges from Lanepart’s testimony seems to me strongly in his favour. Adamson was suing Nathan Blumethal, the owner of the Marcel Café, for breach of contract, while Blumenthal claimed he’d dismissed his former manager for solid reasons. Lanepart was a strong supporter of Adamson; at one point he’d gone with Blumenthal, then his boss, to see a solicitor and was unable to stop himself bursting out with, ‘The whole trouble is that Mr. Blumenthal wants everything for himself’. He was dismissed soon after – Lanepart suggested that Blumenthal had waited until he’d presented a statement of accounts before sacking him.[32] If this is an accurate account, then Lanepart lost his job because he couldn’t stop himself telling his employer the truth as he saw it and standing up for a man he admired. But it’s significant that the headline singles out his long trousers not his integrity, and that neither the sub-editor nor the reporter felt the need to tell the reader why this was being mentioned. Lanepart seems to have been well-known in the Colony, and thought of as a reasonable subject of (albeit mild) mockery; some of the things I’ve quoted suggest that this was not something he went out of his way to avoid.

I have been able to find few traces of him after 1934 either in Hong Kong or in the wider field.

He wrote an article (‘Hong Kong Nudists Confront Tradition’) in the second volume of Sun and Health, whose first 12 volumes published a cumulative index in Volume 14, 1950; [33] this would suggest Volume 2 came out in 1936/7.

Evidence of the continuing existence of the Hong Kong Society comes in 1936. In May of that year two copies of an American nudist magazine were taken by the police from their owners (one of whom ran a bookstall on the Star Ferry wharf). The copies were returned as not obscene under the Act and the Magistrate objected to Lanepart’s use of the term ‘ban’ in a letter he wrote to the Inspector General of Police.[34]

I’ll conclude by discussing the passage that first told me about Lanepart’s existence:

A few Nazis were in sight. {As the defeated Hong Kong defenders were being taken into captivity.} One in particular, a man named Lanepart who had been founder of the Hongkong Nudist Society, strutted the streets beside us with the swastika band about his arm; in spite of his lofty stride, I had seen the photographs taken at his headquarters before the battle and I knew him to be just a dirty-minded idiot.[35]

I don’t know if ‘headquarters’ means the site at Lock Pick Sheung or if Lanepart had some kind of urban presence too – I would guess the former.

In my first post on Lanepart I dismissed as absurd suggestions that in some way his Theosophy led to his Nazi sympathies (if that’s what they were, a point I discuss below) – but how about his advocacy of nudism?

Strangely enough, nudist activity was politicised from an early stage; I’ll give a very simple account of a complex issue. Some of that Vitalist/Life Force thinking I discussed above, and some of the suspicion of modernity as well, did play into fascistic ideology, and, more directly, some nudists stressed that their work was designed to produce a healthy Aryan race. There were, however, also socialist nudist organisations – and Lanepart’s use of the word ‘progressive’ with regard to nudism might just suggest he supported them. The socialists soon fell into line after the Nazi takeover in January 1933, and, after some initial persecution, nudism was accepted and even to some extent promoted by the Nazi authorities – although nudist organisations continued to be harassed in some places because it was suspected they harboured Marxists! [36] Perhaps Lanepart was influenced by developments in Nazi Germany, perhaps he wasn’t, but in any case, there is no natural or inevitable link between nudism and Nazism.

Proulx’s image of this intriguing figure is a sad one to be left with. He clearly implies Lanepart had come along to gloat over the defeated, and, however much he’d been mocked for activities that now seem completely innocuous, it’s an unattractive picture. And of course support for Nazism at any time, but more particularly during the war, can only receive one kind of judgement. But how much can we deduce from Proulx’s description?

Well, it’s perfectly possible that the former Theosophist and proponent of nudism had become a Nazi, and it’s equally possible he’d come along that day to enjoy the humiliation of the defeated. However, unless Lanepart was actually goose-stepping, his ‘strut’ and ‘lofty stride’ are a matter of perception not of objective fact. And wearing a swastika in the early days of occupied Hong Kong might well have been done for personal safety rather than out of ideological sympathy; it could even have been part of a campaign to keep the wearer out of internment (his true nationality is uncertain, but he doesn’t seem to have been German, which would have guaranteed his freedom, and one possibility is Australian, in which case he’d have needed to make some kind of case for himself if he wanted to be allowed to stay on the streets). Finally, in the sources available to me, which are admittedly extremely meagre, I’ve not come across a single instance of an Axis national (other than a Japanese) doing any harm to an Allied citizen in occupied Hong Kong, and a number of instances of help being extended. Even if Lanepart did end up a Nazi, and indeed came along to gloat, we don’t know what he did thereafter.

Proulx is a reliable observer and his account is all the information I currently have on Lanepart during the war and it must be taken seriously. But, as so often in writing these two posts, I find myself very aware of the importance of not jumping to conclusions.

[2] Hongkong Telegraph, April 21, 1932, page 7.

[3] Hongkong Daily Press, February 19, 1932, page 6.

[4] Hongkong Daily Press, February 24, 1932, page 10.

[5] Hongkong Daily Press, March 8, 1932, page 6.

[6] Hongkong Daily Press, March 9, 1932, page 8

[7] Hongkong Daily Press, March 10, 1932, page 6.

[8] Hongkong Telegraph, March 11, 1932, page 22.

[9] Hongkong Telegraph, March 12, 1932, page 14.

[10] Hongkong Telegraph, March 14, 1932, pages 1 and 7.

[11] Hongkong Telegraph, April 4, 1932, page 1.

[12] China Mail, April 6, 1932, page 6.

[16] Hongkong Daily Press, April 18, 1932, page 5.

[17] China Mail, September 6, 1932, page 1.

[18] China Mail, September 12, 1932, page 1.

[19] China Mail, October 3, 1932, pages 1 and 5.

[20] China Mail, November 10, 1932, pages 1 and 7.

[21] China Mail, July 1, 1932, page 12.

[22] China Mail, August 13, 1932, page 1.

[23] China Mail, September 9, 1932, page 6.

[24] Hongkong Telegraph, July 8, 1933, page 9.

[25] China Mail, July 10, 1933, pages 1 and 7 (mislabelled 8).

[26] Hongkong Daily Press, August 5, 1933, page 7.

[27] China Mail, May 16, 1934, page 9; Hongkong Daily Press, page 7.

[28] Hongkong Daily Press, May 18, 1934, page

[29] Hongkong Daily Press, June 15, 1934, page 5.

[30] Hong Kong Telegraph, October 1, 1934, pages 1 and 7.

[31] Hongkong Telegraph, June 27, 1934, page 11.

[32] Hongkong Telegraph, June 27, 1934, page 11.

[34] Hongkong Telegraph, May 28, 1936, page 5.

[35] Bennie Proulx, Underground From Hong Kong, 1943, 130.

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Herbert Edward Lanepart (1): Theosophy in Old Hong Kong

Note: I have come across some uncertain and contradictory dating with regard to the history of Hong Kong Theosophy 1925-1928. I’ve assigned events to years as accurately as I can and in the text that follows I note one particular problem, but the chronology presented here should be treated with caution.

Update: Lanepart was a Latvian, almost certainly of German origin. He stressed his German-ness during the occupation for obvious reasons, and tried to make a living as a teacher – he seems to have succeeded because unlike other Latvians he does not appear in Red Cross records as needing help. He emerged after the war to restart his nudist activities, which I discuss in another post. My interpretation of the evidence so far is that any Nazi-related behaviour was tactical – to help him survive not to express his belief. An article on him in the SCMP in late 1945 is reasonably sympathetic and shows no awareness on the part of the reporter that he’d done anything to harm Allied people or interests. But this is a tentative conclusion that might change as further sources are found. He remained in Hong Kong and married relatively late in life.

While researching Germans in occupied Hong Kong I came across this striking passage from Benjamin Proulx’s Underground From Hong Kong – the defeated soldiers are shuffling slowly towards Queen’s Pier and the journey to the POW Camp at Shamshuipo:

A few Nazis were in sight. One in particular, a man named Lanepart who had been founder of the Hongkong Nudist Society, strutted the streets beside us with the swastika band about his arm; in spite of his lofty stride, I had seen the photographs taken at his headquarters before the battle and I knew him to be just a dirty-minded idiot.[1]

 I decided to look further and found a fascinating and rather tragic story. First of all, my initial and not very surprising assumption that Lanepart was German was not necessarily true: It seems that different sources claim him as Latvian, Australian of German descent, or Czechoslovakian.[2] In any case, it seems that the Japanese didn’t intern him whatever his origin. It turns out that he played a significant role in bringing two movements to Hong Kong: Theosophy and, indeed, nudism. I’ll devote one post to each. And I should say at the start that, although I don’t doubt what Proulx observed, I don’t think that on its own it provides conclusive evidence that Lanepart was a Nazi (and I’ve not yet found any other sources that cast light on this issue).

Herbert Edward Lanepart first appears on the list of Hong Kong Jurors in 1923 – Jury Service was voluntary, so this represents the latest date for his arrival not the earliest possible. He’s listed as living at the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home and working as a clerk at the Hong Kong Hotel, as he is in 1924. By 1926 he was an assistant at the Dairy Farm Ice and Storage Depot and his address is given as ‘on premises’ – it’s possible that he got the job through the influence of his fellow Theosophist, Company Secretary Malcolm Manuk (see below). In 1929 he had the same job but he’d moved into 10, Bowring Rd., Kowloon. In 1932 he’s described as a merchant with Y. T. King and Co. and living at 11, Nanjing Street; I’ve not been able to find him in any later list.

His first incursion into the public consciousness of the Colony was as a Theosophist, so I need to say a little about this once influential movement.

The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) and two others. Blavatsky, the most important figure in the Society’s early history, was controversial in her time and now. Sadly, a few people today don’t know she was a fraud, while most people know nothing about her except that she was a fraud. To put it simply, she claimed to be receiving messages by occult means from a dead Master called Koot Hoomi, and she wasn’t. In fact, one of her basic propositions – that the Society was communicating truths originating from a ‘hierarchy’ of Hidden Masters based in Tibet – was either a fantasy or a lie (or both). In addition she was a plagiarist and a prose writer of unimaginable tedium.

But there was more to Blavatsky than all this suggests. I can’t think of any woman of the nineteenth century who was more influential, and I believe that her influence did much more good than harm. She was perhaps the single most important figure in the process of bringing Asian philosophical ideas to the West, a process of incalculable significance and one that is still going on.[3] And interestingly Theosophy has also had an effect on the ideological development of the East, especially in Sri Lanka (although this took place largely after Blavatsky’s death).  Nevertheless, I need to make it clear that as well as being a charlatan (and a poor stylist), she was, also a racist[4], although perhaps no more so than many other nineteenth century thinkers as far as theory went, and the opposite of one in the practice of her organisation.

The Theosophical Society, although it’s sometimes considered (by those ignorant of its true nature) to be a source of miscellaneous occult nonsense, is in fact a product of the European Enlightenment and its nineteenth century successor movements: in the climate partly created by Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) it sought to found a scientific religion and create a universal brotherhood above all differences of class, race or gender – and Blavatsky’s fantasising about ‘ the Aryan root race’ and suchlike nonsense needs to be understood in this context. In any case, as some of her defenders have pointed out, racist passages make up a very small part indeed of her huge output.

At first Hong Kong largely ignored the new movement. The first mention I’ve been able to find in the online press is in the China Mail, and it reveals an intriguing ‘local’ connection: The Mail published a rather mocking notice of a proposed new book on Theosophical ideas by Alfred Percy Sinnett, ‘formerly connected with our morning contemporary’[5] – he was an erstwhile editor of the Hongkong Daily Press (1865-1868).  Sinnett, who eventually resigned from the Society,[7] was at one time President of the London Lodge, and his Esoteric Buddhism (1883) is often considered a classic of western ‘occultism’.

The movement itself doesn’t seem to have had a presence in Hong Kong until the work of the remarkable Malcolm Manuk. Manuk was born in India of Armenian parentage; he came to Hong Kong in 1899, and joined the Dairy Farm, rising to Secretary and Director.[8] [9] He established the Lodge on March 18, 1923, in a room in the King Edward Hotel[10] with a membership of 8,[11] one of whom was Herbert Lanepart. In a 1941 meeting held to commemorate Manuk, the then President J. Russell said that of the original members only Lanepart and Manuk’s sister Mary were still in Hong Kong.

On November 7, 1923, Manuk’s lecture on World Religions and Theosophy made the front page of the Hongkong Telegraph.[12] He explained that the Society was founded with the ‘express idea of drawing together men and women of every race and every creed’. This was a rare emphasis in the heavily racist society of pre-war Hong Kong.[13] He went on to say that the only qualification for joining was belief in ‘universal brotherhood’ and spoke of ideals like tolerance, service to humanity and selflessness. Membership (in late 1924) was over 50.[14]

In a February 1925 tribute to Manuk just before he left the Colony for a few months in Australia, Lanepart, at that time the secretary, said he’d worked ‘directly under him’ from the first days of the establishment of the Lodge. He praised Manuk’s ‘wonderful spiritual guidance and influence’.[15] In Manuk’s absence, Lanepart seems to have played the leading role in the Hong Kong Lodge.

On March 24 1925 the Lodge celebrated its second anniversary. The speaker (who might have been Lanepart – see below) told the meeting that over the previous year the Society had held 50 public lectures (in addition to other meetings) with an average attendance of 31. Thanks were given to the well-known philanthropists Mr. and Mrs. H. J. Ruttonjee (repeated at the 1926 AGM) for free use of premises.[16] Looked at in the long perspective, Theosophy was part of a movement to refresh Western thinking by importing ideas from Eastern religions – concepts like karma and reincarnation are important in Theosophical ideology – and it seems that the Hong Kong Lodge owed something (perhaps a lot) to support from the Indian community.

It was, in fact, an Indian who was at the centre of the world Theosophical Movement and the subject of rumours that reached ‘fever pitch’ in 1925.[17] Jiddu Krishnamurti had long been prepared by the Society’s leaders for his role as Maitreya, the future ‘World Teacher’, someone who would bring their message to a planet in sore need of spiritual wisdom. However, as well as huge excitement at the belief that Krishnamurti would soon be declared as the man everyone – whether they knew it or not – was waiting for, the year 1925 also saw the start of developments that would lead to Krishnamurti’s 1929/1930 split with Theosophy and renunciation of the role of ‘World Teacher’.[18] But it was the excitement of those rumours of the imminent arrival of a Messianic figure that is reflected in Lanepart’s contributions to the Hong Kong Lodge in the middle of the 1920s.

On Wednesday 2, December 1925 he delivered a public lecture which gives the clearest picture of how he understood the movement he was promoting.[19] He spoke of Theosophy as something founded by certain Spiritual Teachers to spread the ‘God-Wisdom’ of the East to the West, and praised its followers and their ‘noble aims of service to humanity’. He used terms very similar to that of the March lecture to explain that the first and only binding aim of Theosophy was to create a nucleus of the eventual universal human brotherhood without any distinctions of race, colour or religion. The Society’s second aim, he explained, was the study of comparative religion, which would also contribute to this noble enterprise by breaking down the barriers between East and West – the East was ‘the Mother of religions’, and it would help the West to reconstruct its ‘crumbling faith’ at a time when blind belief had been replaced by enquiry. The third object – to investigate the ‘unexplained laws of nature and hidden powers of man’ – would too play its role by demonstrating the ‘spiritual unity of all beings’. The process would have a number of benefits including ‘the softening of prejudices (and the) liberalizing of minds’. He stressed that the Theosophical Society had no dogmas and took no part in the bitter conflicts dividing societies (in fact the Society’s rules said that anyone who tried to get it involved in political disputes should be immediately expelled[20]). Instead it called for peace at all times and believed that there was no religion higher than truth.

Lanepart also reflected the racist side of Theosophy when he spoke of ‘the Great White Brotherhood, the Occult Hierarchy of the World’, who portioned out truth to ‘the races of Man’ in the measure that they were capable of accepting it. I’ll return to this later. He ended by briefly sketching Theosophical metaphysics – mainly Hindu and Buddhist, but with a little Christian admixture – and spoke of the ‘promise of Divine consciousness’ in everything and the ‘illusion’ of separation between human beings.[21]

At this point he seems to have had no anti-British feelings. In another lecture early in 1926 he spoke of God sending people into the world to create perfection out of imperfection. He expressed the hope that the British Empire (and the League of Nations) could contribute to the coming of a world in which humans were united not divided – ‘a federation of peoples, no longer fighting or domineering’. It was a ‘Divine plan to federate the world’, and each individual could contribute by showing the Divinity in him or her through ‘mutual service’.[22] At the bottom of the article we find the word ‘Contributed’. It seems that sometimes editors were happy to publish the long and rather turgid Lodge press releases in toto to fill up space.

In 1925-26 Lanepart was a regular (probably the most regular) lecturer. [23] [24]At the Annual Meeting in March 1926 he was able to report as secretary an impressive record of success in his review of the year 1925-1926: 107 meetings held, 47, public and a Chinese section formed with meetings in Chinese every week, a membership increase greater than the previous year’s doubling, many additions to the library, and the appointment of the Hong Kong Lodge President Malcolm Manuk as ‘representative for all the eight Theosophical Lodges in China’. And all this was in preparation for the imminent arrival of the World Teacher, an event Lanepart also stressed in the talk on ‘Religion and Its Future’ which formed part of the meeting.[25]

If I’m right in assigning this material to 1925-1926, Lanepart was also Secretary of the Star in the East, a group founded in 1911 to prepare the way for Krishnamurti’s emergence as world teacher, and in an annual report he gave an optimistic picture of some of its work:

The Hongkong Star Group, consisting of 14 regular members and many more sympathisers and friends, met every Sunday evening, under the President or Hon. Secretary. Special attention was given to the information of the public about the Coming of the World Teacher, the World Religion, and the Mission of the Order. Several of our public lectures were delivered especially for this purpose and frequent references were made to this in other lectures. 300 copies of Dr. Besant’s 1911 lecture The Emergence of a World Religion were mailed to all clergymen and the Bishops of Hongkong as well as to missionaries, Lodge Members, friends and public leaders.

Several newspaper articles and letters were published by us in the Press, in reply and correction of misstatements about the “Star” and its Head, and also several hundred reprints of these were mailed out together with the above pamphlet.

He took a rosy view of relationships in Hong Kong Theosophy and of its future prospects:

A spirit of perfect harmony and peace pervades the Lodges and we all look forward to greater work in the future. Many of our Members were seriously affected by the events in South China, and a number of them have left Hongkong on home leave for good, yet the work of the Lodge was steadily and successfully carried on and we are glad to say that Theosophy is well received in China and gives splendid hopes for the future.[38]

Lanepart lectured regularly to the Lodge throughout 1926, often stressing the coming of this World Teacher.[26] [27] Given this Theosophical push, it’s not surprising that the Vicar of St. Andrews, the Rev. G. R. Lindsay, felt obliged to point out that, contrary to some claims, Theosophy was not compatible with Christianity: Christians did not regard Jesus as one vehicle of the World Teacher but as ‘the Lord and Giver of Life’.[28] In fact, the work of the Lodge seems to have created some general interest in Theosophy in the Colony. On July 27, 1926 both the China Mail (page 2) and the Hongkong Telegraph (page 12) reported a Congress in Holland at which Krishnamurti occupied the place of honour on the platform (but did not speak). Two days later Krishnamurti’s reorganisation of the movement was also described.[29]

But in the year 1926-1927, with Lanepart as Librarian, Book Steward and Propaganda Secretary, the Lodge seems to have been going through difficult, although not disastrous times. This is an extract from the report to the President of the Theosophical Society:

During the year under review we gained 11 new members, making the total 44. The continued unsettled conditions in China, with the resulting economic depression, which has compelled many to leave the colony, accounts for the reduction in our numbers….[30]

In other words, the Lodge was still suffering from the economic difficulties caused in Hong Kong by the strike and boycott organised by the Nationalist Authorities in Canton between June 1925 and October 1926.[31] It’s worth quoting the section of the report that lists the officers because it gives a good idea of how multi-ethnic the Lodge was:

Officers. At the Annual Election Meeting in June, the following Officers were elected: President : Bro. Malcolm Manuk. Vice-President : Bro. John  Russell. Hon. Secretary: Mrs. Mabel May. Hon. Treasurer : Bro. Burjor  M. Talati, B.A. Hon. Librarian, Book-steward and Propaganda Secretary : Bro. Herbert E. Lanepart.

Committee : Bro. David Gubbay, Bro. Wei Tat, B.A., Bro. Wong  Man Keung, Bro. Maurice Minney, Bro. Lee Tinsik.

Not many organisations in old Hong Kong had ‘whites’ being led by an Indian of Armenian extraction with other non-Europeans also playing prominent roles! Manuk, by the way, died in 1932 (his death was reported as far away as Australia) and the Lodge was quickly renamed in his honour. A future leader was to be Arthur Fung, a Chinese doctor. All this is relevant to the question of Theosophy and Nazism discused below.

The report (written by Secretary Mabel May) goes on to detail Lanepart’s work as Propaganda Secretary, first as fundraiser:

The untiring efforts of our Hon. Propaganda Secretary has also enabled us to subscribe…to the “80 Years Young Fund” and Rs.45 to “Adyar Day”. [32]

And then as publicist:

 All our public lectures were summarised by the Propaganda Secretary and published in the four principal English newspapers, who were all liberal with their space. From 300 to 700 copies of their reprints weekly were distributed among the general public. Copies were sent to outports and all Far-Eastern Lodges.

In addition, a large number of propaganda leaflets and pamphlets were distributed among the Army and Navy (of which there has been a great influx owing to the trouble) and which may bear fruit on the return of the troops to their homes.

And finally as protagonist in debate:

In answer to attacks on Bishop Leadbeater and Mrs. Besant in a local newspaper,[33] the Propaganda Secretary replied by a number of letters in the “Correspondence” column, and effectively silenced our opponents. The whole controversy lasted about six weeks and thus gave the Society a large amount of publicity and the public a good deal of information.[34]

Leadbetter was a controversial figure who had been expelled from the Theosophical Society after allegations of serious sexual misconduct but then reinstated. He was working in Australia at this time, which might have had something to do with Manuk’s visit mentioned above. In any case, Lanepart’s conduct of his campaign for nudism in 1932 and 1933 was to show how much he enjoyed argument and controversy.

The Lodge’s meetings were taking place at Lane Crawford’s Restaurant – better known by its old name of the Cafe Wiseman and mentioned in many other posts on this blog.[35]

Note: A report in the Hongkong Daily Press on March 19, 1927 (page 7) gives Lanepart as Secretary and the number of ‘active members’ as 98 (22 new). It also mentions the setting up of a ‘new’ Chinese Lodge, which had also been reported in 1926. I’m confused by this, and further research is obviously necessary.

Lanepart’s efforts attracted the notice of circles outside Hong Kong. In The Theosophist Magazine for October-December 1927 Lanepart was praised for his good work in the absence of Malcolm Manuk during that year; it was said he lectured and published articles in the daily papers clearing up misconceptions about Theosophy and the coming of the World Teacher.[39] In August 1928 Lanepart was appointed ‘Chief Brother for China’ of the ‘Theosophical Order of Service’. This was an organisation that sought to help ‘humanity along lines of practical brotherhood in the light of Theosophy’, thus bringing about the visible diminution of ‘misery and pain’. Its motto was ‘a Union of all who Love for the Service of All who Suffer’.[40] Interestingly one of its seven principles was ‘back to nature’, which might provide a link to Lanepart’s next enthusiasm, nudism.

On October 1, 1928 Manuk opened their new premises on the second floor of the Mercantile Bank Building. The day was an auspicious one: it was the eighty first birthday of the leader of the movement, Annie Besant, and also the birthday of Mrs. Ruttonjee, and again it was stressed that Mr. and Mrs. Ruttonjee, the leaders of the Indian community, had provided some of the support that had led to the Society ‘standing where it did’.[41]

Theosophists continued to be active in Hong Kong throughout the 1930s,[42] but I don’t know how involved Lanepart was. In 1932 he founded the Hong Kong Nudist Society and his main efforts obviously went to that, but there is one indication that he remained a supporter of Theosophy even during this period. Membership by 1931 was only 22 (from 34 the previous year), but, as the report said, this didn’t represent the general level of interest in the Colony.[43] On September 21, 1933 the death of Annie Besant was front page news in the Hongkong Telegraph with the story running over to page 7, evidence of the continuing broader interest in the movement.  Lanepart made a donation to Theosophy in her memory.[44] This is the final link with Theosophy I’ve been able to find, but it does prove that his two enthusiasms ran alongside each other for a couple of years at least.

What are we to make of the relationship between Lanepart’s Theosophy and the apparent acceptance of Nazism that we must deduce if we take at face value the incident recorded by Bennie Proulx? (Whether or not we should do so I’ll discuss in my next post.)  I’ve already mentioned Blavatsky’s racism and anti-Semitism, and some people would have us believe that Theosophy could easily have been a training school for Nazi bigotry and irrationalism,[45] but such stigmatisations are typically the product of fundamentalist Christian conspiracy theorists. In fact, as every writer acknowledges, Nazism had many sources, and one of these was Christian persecution of the Jews– even if, as Zygmunt Bauman has argued,[46] Nazi anti-Semitism is significantly different from ‘traditional’ European anti-Semitism it is impossible to imagine it coming in to being and so quickly taking hold of so much of German society without the ‘preparation’ of centuries of religious anti-Semitism (and those who like to point to Hitler’s interest in Blavatsky’s works might remember that Luther’s anti-Semitic ravings were amongst the most quoted ‘authorities’ in Nazi Germany). It would, be obvious nonsense to suggest that someone became a Nazi because they had previously been a Christian.

A more reasonable view of the link between Theosophy and anti-Semitism is taken by James Webb in his excellent book The Occult Establishment:

Theosophy, its doctrine, its foundress, and its adherents, can all be shown to have been involved in racism, conspiracy theories and at least one anti-Semitic tract… Blavatsky was by birth a Russian of the official classes, and it would be surprising if something of the anti-Semitic mythology of the Russian aristocracy had not rubbed off on her. She cannot be accused of any active anti-Semitism, but her attitude was that of her origins.[47]

Theosophy, as I’ve tried to make clear in quoting Herbert Lanepart, was a movement based on peace and brotherhood. It was one of the few organisations in old Hong Kong that not only preached racial equality but practised it. Nothing could be further from Nazism’s glorification of violence and its lunatic racial hierarchies, let alone its organised mass murder. If Lanepart did end up a supporter of Hitler – a point I shall consider in my next post – it was in tragic contradiction to his work for Theosophy, not a continuation of it.

[1] Benjamin A. Proulx, Underground From Hongkong, 1943, 130.

[3] The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, still the most important European figure to  draw on Asian philosophy, hoped that the introduction of Sanskrit literature to the West would lead to a new ‘renaissance’, just as the original Renaissance had been partly brought about by the rediscovery of Greek literature in the fifteenth century– The World As Will and Idea, Volume 1, Preface.

[4] A fair-minded account of the issue is to be found at

[5] China Mail, July 10, 1886, page 2.

[7] Peter Washington, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon, 1993, 125.

[8] China Mail, April 7, 1932, pages 1 and 12.

[10] Hongkong Telegraph, April 8, 1941, page 7.

[11] Hongkong Telegraph, February 17, 1925, page 2.

[12] Hongkong Telegraph, November 8, 1923, page 1.

[13] This racism is one of the main subjects of Gerald Horne’s Race War! (2003). Horne distorts and misrepresents many of his sources, but he is framing a guilty man. A more balanced although much less detailed account is given in Paul Gillingham’s At the Peak: Hong Kong Between the Wars (1983) which suggests that the Colony’s vigorous sporting life was another relatively non-racist area of activity.

[14] Hongkong Daily Press, December 4, 1924, page 6. The figure of 53 is given for early 1925 – Hongkong Telegraph, February 17, 1925, page 2.

[15] Hongkong Telegraph, February 17, 1925, pages 2-3.

[16] China Mail, March 20, 1925, page 8.

[18]Washington, 1993, 270-279.

[19] China Mail, December 5, 1925, page 7.

[21] China Mail, December 5, 1925, page 7.

[22] China Mail, February 26, 1926, page 6.

[23] China Mail, March 6, 1926, page 5.

[24] China Mail, March 13, 1926, page 3.

[25] China Mail, March 20, 1926, page 11; Hongkong Telegraph, March 20, 1936, page 20.

[26] China Mail, March 27, 1926, page3; April 5, 1926, page 7, April 10, 1926, page 3.

[27] China Mail, 1926, May 1, page 3; May 8, 1926, page 3.

[28] Hongkong Daily Press, May 3, 1926, page 6.

[29] China Mail, July 29, 1926, page 12.

[31] This incident is also discussed in Paul Gillingham’s book mentioned above.

[32] A Theosophical magazine.

[33] As I’ve not been able to find these online the dispute probably took place in the columns of the South China Morning Post.

[36] The report appears undated on the internet.

[37] ‘The Star of the East’ was an organisation set up to prepare for the World Teacher and its Head was Krishnamurti, who dissolved it in 1929.

[40] Hongkong Telegraph, August 24, 1928, page 2.

[41] Hongkong Telegraph, October 2, 1928, page 2.

[42] See e.g. Hong Kong Daily Press, July 7, 1938, page 10; January 14, 1939; January 5, 1941;  Hong Kong Telegraph, July26, 1935, page 7.

[46] In his influential Modernity and the Holocaust, 1991 ed., passim.

[47] James Webb, The Occult Establishment, 1986, 226.

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The Reign of Terror (1): Prelude and Early Moves

Until the war came to Hong Kong, Thomas must have felt his decision to leave England had been a good one. With the help of a little forgery – he’d changed his birth certificate so as to appear three years older – he’d landed a job managing one of the most advanced bakeries in the Far East, he was enjoying the kind of comfortable life a working class man could rarely aspire to back home, and he loved the strange and beautiful territory he spent so many weekends exploring: the pre-war photos he sent home are usually of outdoor locations – Mount Parker, Shaukiwan, dramatic scenery on a small island, a hunting trip with other men…[1]

He was a patriot with a strong sense of duty and there’s no doubt he would have returned to England and joined the army, if that’s what his country had asked of him, but at least part of him must have felt relieved at the instructions to ex-pats to stay at their posts and keep the Empire running. A trip back to cold, blacked-out England was not his idea of fun.[2]

The eighteen days of vicious battle changed things forever. But even during that grim conflict I doubt that Thomas felt nothing but anxiety and regret. This is what former internee Barbara Anslow – one of the most consistently reliable sources on all matters connected with the Hong Kong war – has to say about those eighteen days:

We reacted much the same as our compatriots during the blitz and wartime in UK, with a sort of sang froid, making the best of things. If you have seen the photo taken on Christmas morning 1941 outside the CSO tunnel, of 2 men in the Public Works Dept. and myself, we are all smiling and cheerful. Of course some people had had dreadful experiences, but Ican’t recall people in constant fear and misery.[3]

And, as Gwen Priestwood, whose over-gloomy portrait Anslow is critiquing, points out:

To banish fear there is nothing like having something definite to do.[4]

Thomas certainly had plenty to do during those hectic days, and surely some part of his mind must have been capable of feeling pride that he was trusted enough to be chosen to run the Colony’s wartime bakery service.[5]

Like every other British national, he would have felt deeply the pain of defeat, and he would have also have shared the general fear in the days after the Christmas surrender. Priestwood probably spoke for many:

My thoughts were full of the probable coming horrors.[6]

As did Mary Goodban:

I thought there would be a wholesale massacre and torture of Europeans[7]

Every expatriate was aware of what had happened after the fall of Nanking (Nanjing), although optimistic ones like Ellen Field assumed that the Japanese would treat the British differently,[8] would even allow them to carry on with more or less their old ways of living as part of their new order, but as news of the atrocities committed by Japanese troops during the fighting spread round the Allied community, such optimism disappeared. Years later Thomas – still baffled and angry– told his son about the courage of Dr. Black and Captain Whitney, who were brutally murdered at St. Stephen’s College while trying to protect the nurses and patients from the victorious Japanese army.[9] The St. Stephen’s massacre, one of the worst atrocities of the Hong Kong war followed.[10]

Thomas must have been relieved when, on December 26, Captain Tanaka took charge of the Exchange Building, the Lane Crawford Headquarters where he began his internment. Unfortunately there were also two war criminals with the name Tanaka in Japanese Hong Kong, and, as I shall suggest in a future post, there might have been some confusion between them even amongst the Allied population during the war, but three separate sources, including Thomas’s 1946 article, attest to this Tanaka’s excellent treatment of the Exchange Building captives.[11] One of these sources even suggests he might have been executed for what the Japanese Army regarded as his excessive concern for the defeated.

Thomas might also have been happy to avoid the fate that befell most of the Allied civilians in January 1942: crammed four to a bed in squalid waterfront brothel-hotels, left for over two weeks without adequate food, water, exercise or fresh air, and then shipped off to an improvised internment camp at Stanley, where traces of some of the most bitter fighting of the Hong Kong war were still visible and almost nothing in the way of facilities had been provided for the 3,000 or so unfortunates who were told they had to make their home there until the war was over.

There was also, of course, his new relationship with Evelina. At first, he was a prisoner in the Exchange Building but on January 9 Tanaka gave him permission to start baking bread for the hospitals,[12] and his life then must have become a little freer. He never described this period, but accounts of other Allied nationals left in the town at this time suggest that, although subject to strict controls and confined to his quarters (he moved from the Exchange Building to the French Hospital in February) he would have had some opportunities to enjoy social activities.[13]

And after his wedding on June 29 he would no longer have to face the future alone. Sadly, it was probable that soon after that date things started to get worse. The bankers who’d been kept in the waterfront hotels to transact Japanese business found that ‘things tightened up after the middle of 1942’.[14] Whatever the ‘local’ conditions in Hong Kong – and the Kempeitai (roughly: the Japanese Gestapo) there were gradually tightening their grip until they achieved a degree of control greater than in any other Japanese-held territory – it’s probable that the over-riding factor was the turn taken in the Pacific War after the American victory at Midway (June 4-7). After this, although nothing can be taken for granted in war, the most likely prospect was what actually happened: a slow Allied progress through the Pacific gradually re-taking lost territory. By July 1942 Lindsay Ride had established a viable resistance operation based in Southern China,[15] and American air power was developed enough to begin bombing targets in Hong Kong as early as October 1942.

Ride’s British Army Aid Group was in touch with Stanley and the POW Camps, and had agents operating in ‘free’ Hong Kongtoo. He Kempeitai believed that Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke was the head of the BAAG in Hong Kong. They were wrong; the Medical Director occasionally used this organisation – for example, as a source of medical supplies[16] – but he was careful to confine himself to purely humanitarian operations. He was ‘protected’ by Mr. Oda, head of the Foreign Affairs Office, and by Colonel Eguchi, the chief Japanese Army Medical Officer, [17]who believed he was crucial in preventing epidemic diseases that would strike Japanese solders just as surely as they would Chinese and Allied civilians. This meant that the Kempeitai couldn’t just arrest him and try to torture a confession out of him, which was their usual way of procedure. However, if they could provide some form of evidence that he was involved in spying, then that would be another matter. With grim logic and a total disregard for the norms of civilised behaviour, they decided to arrest and torture some of his associates in the hope that they could be made to incrimiante him. By January 1943, at the latest, they were ready to strike.

On January 21 they arrested Mr. E. D. Sykes, the head of the Eurasian Welfare Association was arrested and asked under torture if he was a spy and if he knew the Medical Director.[18] On February 10 they abducted the dental practitioner Dr. K. W. Chuan after he’d just paid a visit to the Medical Department:[19] he was pushed into a car, had his face covered with cloth, forced onto the floor and driven to the Central Police Station, where he was asked if he knew a Dr. Suen, who’d left the colony. When he answered that he didn’t, the brutality began in earnest.[20]

So far, no luck. Their next attempt took them still closer to Selwyn-Clarke.

[4] Gwen Priestwood, Through Japanese Barbed Wire, 13.

[6] Priestwood, 27.

[7] Oliver Lindsay, At The Going Down Of The Sun, 37.

[8] Twilight in Hong Kong, 21.

[9] A brief account can be read at St Stephen’s College was soon to be part of Stanley internment Camp.

[10] There’s a graphic description in George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 7-9.

[12] British Baker article.

[13] See e.g. Emily Hahn, China To Me, 305. Emil Landau, of the Parisian Grill, tells us that the bankers used to come to the Grill for ‘tiffin’ on Sundays – China Mail, January 8, 1947, page 2.

[14] Banker H. W. Hawkins, in Liam Nolan, Small Man of Nanataki, 74.

[16] Selwyn-Clarke, 77.

[17] Selwyn-Clarke, 70.

[18] Sunday Herald, January 5, 1947 , page 2

[19] According to Ellen Field, Selwyn-Clarke’s ‘office’ was on the top floor of the former National City bank building – 86.

[20] China Mail, January 8, 1947, page 2.


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Filed under Hong Kong, Hong Kong WW11, Selwyn-Selwyn Clarke, Stanley Camp

British Army Aid Group

In previous posts I’ve discussed two of the three main targets of the Kempeitai crackdown of 1943 as it affected the British and Allied communities: the operation of secret radios on Stanley Camp and the military POW camps, and the humanitarian smuggling operation (of food, medicines etc.) carried out by the Medical Director Dr. Selwyn-Selwyn Clarke and financed by a group of senior bankers and their agents.  The third target was the British Army Aid Group, which organised resistance in Hong Kong from its bases in southern China. Hong Kong historian Tony Banham has been given access to the papers of Dr. Lindsay Ride, the founder and head of the BAAG, and in due course he will publish what will probably be the definitive account of this organisation. All discussions are likely to be made obsolete by Banham’s work (and it looks like Lawrence Tsui, son of the importnat agent Paul Tsui is also working on these papers) so this post should be regarded as even more tentative than usual. I offer this brief account only to provide the necessary background to Thomas and Evelina’s experience in 1943.

Lindsay Ride was a professor of medicine at Hong Kong Universitywho commanded an ambulance unit during the war. Francis Lee Yiu Piu was one of his students and also a member of this unit. Although he was Chinese, and therefore not liable to internment he chose to enter Shamshuipo POW Camp so as to use his knowledge and contacts to help Ride to escape. On Thursday, January 8, 1942, Lee jumped onto a sampan from a poorly-guarded jetty; on the evening of the next day he brought the Sampan back to the camp and Ride and two others sailed off to freedom.

Ride arrived in Chungking (Chongqing) the capital of Free China in February, and immediately set about organising what was to become known as the British Army Aid Group.[1] The main purposes of the BAAG were the facilitation of escapes, the gathering of intelligence, the smuggling of medical supplies into the camps, and the promotion of any acts of sabotage to then Japanese war effort that might be possible. American bombing of Hong Kong began in October 1942 and the BAAG was eventually to help 40 downed US airmen to safety.[2] To rescue these airmen, and in some of their other activities, the BAAG worked closely with the dedicated and well organised East River Column. This communist guerrilla movement was the only significant force to survive the events of 1943 – the Japanese caught some of their urban cadres, but the majority remained safe in their mountainous strongholds.[3]

By July 1942 the BAAG was ready to move, and Ride sent a letter into Stanley to Duncan Sloss, the Vice-Chancellor of Hong Kong University. This began a regular series of contacts using Chinese agents who in turn recruited people whose work took them into Stanley, for example truck drivers.[4] This will become significant when we return to Thomas’s story in the next post.

Ride was eager to promote mass escape of fit young men from Stanley with the idea that they would join the Allied war effort, but George Wright-Nooth, who, as a policeman, was just the kind of internee Ride wanted out of the Camp, judged the plan ‘weird and wonderful’, while Oliver Lindsay – an army officer as well as a military historian – considered a similar plan for a mass break-out from Shamshuipo ‘suicidal’.[5]

Probably planning escapes was not the BAAG’s most valuable function – even individual or small group break-outs, although more likely to be successful, were controversial, as they invariably resulted in direct punishments or worse conditions for those left behind.[6] It was their other activities that proved so important.

By March 1943 the BAAG had over 30 agents in Hong Kong– one estimate claims as many as 100[7] – providing a wide range of information:

They covered every significant branch of intelligence and their reports included the enemy’s army, naval, air and economic activities with details also on Japanese security, censorship and deception.[8]

Tony Banham has stressed the attention to detail of BAAG agents:

Even each individual Japanese ship visiting the port was sketched and reported.[9]

Two of the most important agents were Chester Bennett and Marcus da Silva, who I’ve discussed in a separate post.

Some people like to contrast Ride with Dr. Selwyn-Clarke: two great men, one magnificent in his fighting spirit, tthe other in his humanitarian  passion. This does less than justice to both. Although Ride’s main concern was to help win the war, he was well aware of the necessity for ‘illegal’ humanitarian actions as well –Japanese levels of food and medicine provision were so low that a huge number of deaths would have resulted if no additional supplies had been somehow got into the camps. The BAAG was involved in the smuggling of both cash and medicines, [10] and Edwin Ride’s book brings out well the fact that the imetus to Ride’s escape was the belief that if nothing was done huge numbers of the POWs would die of cholera and other diseases in the summer months: as he led to begin his journey to freedom, he said to his medical second-in-command, ‘Look out for medical supplies by March if we get through’ (Edwin Ride, British Army Aid Group, 1982, 26). The ‘Aid’ part of the organisation’s name wasn’t purely a cover, either: thousands of patients were fed and thousands more given medical treatment during a 1943 famine in western Kwantung, for example (Ride, 195). On the other side, it should be remembered that one of the first union jacks raised in liberated Hong Kong was hauled up the pole by Selwyn-Clarke. There were real differences between these Titans, and I’ll discuss them in a future post, but they were not of the kind that allows an easy contrast between the soldier and the doctor, the saviour of the innocent and the ruthless pursuer of the enemy.

Soon after March 1943 the BAAG in Hong Kong was to be crippled by the Kempeitai campaign that began in February and seemed at first to be aimed mainly at incriminating Selwyn-Clarke. In March this campaign took in the bankers who’d been supplying the former Medical Director with money for his new work as a smuggler and on May 2 it returned to Selwyn-Clarke himself, who was arrested at the French Hospital.

On April 13 some Chinese were executed close to Stanley Camp,[12] and these may have included BAAG agents, as most of the Hong Kong Nationalist resistance weren’t arrested until April 19.[13] On the last day of May the Kempeeitai arrested David Loie, a government chemist who had become the BAAG’s chief agent in Hong Kong.

On the day of his arrest David Loie jumped to his death from the Supreme Court building where the Japanese were preparing to torture him. He didn’t want to risk betraying others, and after the war he was awarded the King’s Police Medal For Gallantry to honour this courageous decision.[14] Nevertheless, in mid-June the Kempeitai began to detain the Chinese lorry drivers who took messages in and out of Stanley.

In the first quarter of 1943 Thomas was at risk from the Kempetai’s suspicion of Dr. Selwyn-Clarke. He was moved to Stanley, probably in April, and he was there when the Japanese attempt to destroy the BAAG brought them into Stanley Camp. He celebrated his first wedding anniversary the day after six of his fellow internees were arrested, at a time when ‘an intense and nameless fear’ pervaded the lives of the internees.[15]

[1]Oliver Lindsay, At The Going Down Of The Sun, 97.

[2] The Oxford Companion to the Second World War, ed.I. C. B. Dear and M. R. D. Foot, OUP, 1995, p. 163.

[3] Phillip Snow, The Fall Of Hong Kong, 185.

[5] George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 115; Lindsay,

[6] Les Fisher, I Shall Remember, 38-39; Lindsay, 110.

[7] Wright-Nooth,152.

[8] Lindsay, 122.

[10] Wright-Nooth, 114; Ralph Goodwin, Passport to Eternity, 107.

[11] Snow, 179.

[12] Wright-Nooth, 159.

[13] Snow, 185.

[14] Wright-Nooth, 152.

[15] Jean Gittins, Stanley: Behind Barbed Wire, 134.


Filed under British Army Aid Group, Hong Kong, Hong Kong WW11, Stanley Camp

A Wartime Romance

I sometimes fancy trying my hand as a writer of popular romance. A short novel perhaps, or better still a film script. How about this for a scenario: Time: the ever-popular background of the Second World War. Place: the exotic and beautiful British colony (as it then was) of Hong Kong.  Action: the sirens whine, the shells whistle and crump, the fires blaze, and amid scenes of great confusion and horror the gallant defenders are overcome.

While most British civilians are suffering the fears and indignities of the defeated, a few are lucky enough to find themselves in the hands of a compassionate Japanese Army officer. He sets the bakers among them back to work, re-opening a small Chinese bakery to make bread for the hospitals. Everyone’s hungry and the Colony’s European population is desperate for the taste of bread; word soon gets round, and queues form – people will pay anything for a precious loaf. The bakers know that they’ll be packed off somewhere much worse if they abuse their position, but one of them refuses to let his friends leave empty-handed and gives them bread for free. While his comrades are remonstrating about the danger he’s putting them all in, a friend steps forward, asking for supplies not just for himself but also for his tenant, a pretty young Eurasian woman….

Everyone in Hong Kong’s been at risk of sudden death from shell or bomb during the fighting, and they all know that nothing can be taken for granted in the brutal new order that’s emerging. Things move fast, and the baker and the young woman are soon romantically involved.

Let’s make them an unlikely couple too, the kind who would never have got together in normal circumstances, but are thrown unexpectedly into each other’s arms by the heightened emotions of war. He’s working class and as English as they come – Hampshire and Berks – while she’s from  a good Macau family and has lived all her life in the south China world.

Their romancing takes place to the backdrop of Japanese soldiers patrolling the streets, tearing down the old English signs and erecting new ones, this time in the languages of the East, while all over the former Colony the message ‘Asia for the Asiatics’ is being drummed into a population that seems terrified at the atrocities going on all around rather than over-joyed at their liberation from British rule.  All this might lead up to a big scene in which the woman is offered the chance of returning to the safety and comfort of her neutral homeland (let’s give her some well-off friends to underline how much she’s sacrificing) but chooses to stay with her man, braving discomfort, slow starvation and the possibility of violent death at any moment.

Skip a few months and zoom into the couple marrying in church, and then standing on the steps for the group photo – the camera picks out a man in a Japanese officer’s uniform – what’s he doing there? – and then follows the couple as they walk off hand in hand, still prisoners but now at least together.

There follow three more years of terror and deprivation. Our hero and heroine, alongside the whole Allied community, are once again staring death in the face – either from starvation or massacre, but they’re saved by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one of the most terrible events in human history. They stumble out of their prison camp, play their part in the building up of a new world, and manage to hold a difficult relationship together all the way through to the husband’s death bed.

I know, I know these days everyone – romance readers and cinema audiences alike- demand something a bit more sophisticated than that. Why, the plot’s nothing more than a bunch of old-fashioned romantic clichés, stereotyped situations, exaggerated dilemmas and unlikely outcomes.

But that, in sober fact, was the life together of Thomas Herbert Edgar and Evelina Marques d’Oliveira.

They would not have given each other a second thought before the war. They came from such different backgrounds and lived in such different worlds.

Although things were getting more liberal in Hong Kong in the three years before the war, many of the British held on to a mythical view of racial hierarchy which meant that they and the other ‘Europeans’ were at the top of the heap and the Chinese at the bottom – in accord with this pernicious logic, Eurasians, who at least had some ‘white’ blood, were somewhere in between,[1] but probably closer to the Chinese: the Europeans had their own schools, for example, and so did the Eurasians, but those who didn’t have a place were generally educated alongside Chinese.[2] In fact:

Eurasians in a European social gathering created a climate of unease and psychological tension…Even highly educated Europeans reacted strongly against mixed marriages.[3]

Not surprising that there wasn’t much socialising between ‘whites’ and Eurasians.[4]

After their victory, the Japanese published a newspaper the Hong Kong News –  a lying propaganda sheet, but one that sometimes told the truth:

 (The) Eurasian when he seeks employment is classified as a ‘native’ and is required to accept ‘native’ pay.[5]

Evelina knew this for herself: she’d come to Hong Kong to work, something that as a middle class woman she was not expected to do back home in Macao, and before the war she had various jobs in sales. Eventually she rebelled and asked her latest boss to pay her the same rates as the European staff – to his credit, he agreed, but it didn’t change the system.

But race wasn’t the only prejudice in pre-war Hong Kong. There was a strict class hierarchy too, with the bankers and senior government officials at the top, wealthy businessmen not far distant, and everyone else graded according to job, salary, location, accent and so on. From this point of view, Thomas was really little more than a jumped up manual worker. True, he managed the bakery for Lane, Crawford, the most prestigious Department Store in Hong Kong, but he was a hands-on baker, someone who didn’t just tell others what to do but had learnt through a tough apprenticeship to do it all himself. And anyone who cared to enquire about his family would have learnt that he was the son of a domestic servant, later a would-be theatrical landlady, and a soldier-turned-driver. This is a photo of Thomas’s mother with her six children:

Evelina Marques d’Oliveira, on the other hand, came from a distinguished Macanese family. Her grandfather was a judge in Lourenco Marques, and there’s still a street named after him in Macao. Her father, Antonio, was a tea merchant, who took a Chinese wife; she died of TB when Evelina was three, and he later remarried.

Evelina’s best friends in Macao had been three Eurasian sisters, the Leitaos, daughters of a leading lawyer.  When her father moved to Foochow (Fuzhou), a centre of the tea trade on the south China coast, she was sent back to  Macao to be educated privately, probably at the elite Santa Rosa de Lima school. She spoke English and Portuguese fluently, and at some point was to become reasonably proficient in two forms of Chinese. She also acquired secretarial skills, and in many ways her written English was better than Thomas’s.

Thomas had been educated at the local state school and, although a bright boy, had to leave behind his studies and help his family’s finances by getting a job. At first he’d been a clerk in a motor company, but in 1927 – after his dreams of a boxing career ended with a knock-out – he began a three year apprenticeship at a baker’s, which meant long, unsocial hours, full of sweat and physical labour, at first working unpaid to learn his trade.

They had opposing religious beliefs too: Evelina was a Catholic, while Thomas was an enthusiastic Freemason, and therefore regarded as an enemy by the Church, a feeling which he reciprocated.


Thomas on a day out at Mt. Parker in February 1940

Perhaps one thing symbolises most clearly the difference between the two worlds they’d been brought up in. The terraced house close to the river and in the flooding zone, which was all Thomas’s family could afford, was already full with him and his five brothers and sisters, but his parents still found room to cram in paying customers, actors appearing at the nearby Theatre Royal. In contrast, Evelina’s family bought a young girl as a servant under the old mui-tsai system – ‘We treated her well’, she said, many years later. This could have been true; British radicals in Hong Kong hated mui-tsai as a form of slavery, and there were indeed hideous abuses, but in many homes they were treated as part of the family – which didn’t necessarily spare them from long hours of work under a harsh discipline, of course.

You could say that Thomas and Evelina were united only by their relative disadvantages in class-conscious, race-obsessed Hong Kong. And perhaps by one other thing. Evelina was 28 when they met, 29 by the time they married. She’d had boyfriends: perhaps Horacio was one of them…

 …but she was leaving it rather late to get married according to the ideas of the time.  Thomas had been very shy when he was a boy; he sometimes used to cross the road to avoid walking too close to another person, although he’d probably got over that by the time he went to Hong Kong. Nothing is known about his relationships there though.  In any case, when his family heard the news of his marriage they were pleased for two reasons: firstly, it meant that he wouldn’t get himself killed trying to escape, and secondly that Thomas had found a woman who was willing to marry him in spite of his heavy drinking! Before the war he and two friends had been nicknamed ‘the three terrors of Hong Kong’ because of their alcohol-fuelled exploits.

 When the Japanese attacked on December 8, 1941 they were again in very different situations: Evelina’s Portuguese passport meant that she was a neutral, although no-one knew how far the Japanese would respect this. About Thomas though there was no doubt: he was an enemy and, as he was also young (28) and fit, he would be expected to play his part in the British defence.

Most able-bodied young British men had to join the Hong Kong Volunteers, a home guard with a dilettante reputation but which surprised most people by fighting with courage and distinction when the time came, but in October or November, 1938 as the Japanese war with China moved close to the Hong Kong border, Thomas received a letter telling him not to get involved in military training but to concentrate on preparing his bakery for any ‘emergency’. This was the new Lane, Crawford Bakery in Stubbs Rd, opened that year, and hailed in company adverts as the most hygienic in the Far East – disease was another Hong Kong obsession, this one with more reason.

So, almost exactly three years later, when the attack did come (December 8, 1941) Thomas was ready. The first air raid began at about 8a.m., and by that time he’d probably already left his lodgings in Broadwood Road and taken command in the Bakery. He was immediately promoted to Deputy Supply Officer Bakeries, which meant that he was in charge of most of the bakeries in Hong Kong, and he decided to start off by producing all the bread the population needed using the Lane Crawford machinery. If Stubbs Road became too dangerous, he’d prepared for production at some smaller premises in Wanchai, hoping that one or more of them would still be viable.

After the fall of the mainland on December 13 the bakery itself was in the line of fire between the Japanese and British forces. Thomas slept in the office chair, until the staff were given some camp beds. On December 19, the army field bakery in Deep Water Bay was forced to stop work, and Thomas’s responsibilities increased, as he now had to try to make sure that those doing the actual fighting had bread. Those who took the loaves from the bakery to the supply points were very brave men and women indeed. Hong Kong was being constantly shelled and bombed, and, although the Japanese made some effort to avoid civilian areas, there were many casualties. They also knew that the Japanese were not always taking prisoners.There was no water from an early stage of the fighting, so special deliveries had to be made by the Fire Brigade. Eventually there was no electricity either. In spite of everything, the bread went out, as ordered.

As the Japanese moved inexorably westwards from North Point towards the Hong Kong heartland of Victoria, the bakery’s situation became untenable. When it did, on December 21, Thomas moved production to some of the smaller bakeries he’d prepared for the task. These must have been terrifying but exhilarating days for him. He could die or be painfully wounded at any moment, but at the same time he was doing his duty, no matter what, moving around, working frenetically to coax the last ounce of production out of small and old-fashioned bakeries.

Thomas, helped by RASC bakers who arrved on the 23rd after an eventful journey from the south of the island, kept the bread supply coming until December 25 – later known in Hong Kong as Black Christmas – when the defenders were forced to abandon their hopeless resistance. Like the other Lane, Crawford employees Thomas was told to report to the company headquarters at Exchange House in Victoria’s Des Voeux Road, which was to become his first place of internment. He spent Christmas evening pouring away the alcohol stocked by the company’s restaurant- everybody feared what was about to happen, and it would have been foolish to leave around anything that could inflame the conquerors further.

The next morning Thomas woke up to meet the new rulers of Hong Kong for the first time. He was soon to realise that he was lucky: Exchange House was under the control of a communications officer, Captain Tanaka, a fine man whose generosity has been recorded by other former prisoners.  Tanaka allowed him to go to his lodgings to get a new shirt – he’d used the one he’d been wearing to bind the wounded, and it was bitterly cold by now. In the days to come, Tanaka  gave good food to the internees, and even arranged film shows for them.

On January 5 most of the Allied civilians were assembled in squalid waterfront hotels and from there they were soon to be sent off to a large  improvised place of internment on the southern peninsula – Stanley Camp.  Captain Tanaka arranged for Thomas and his fellow bakers to stay in Exchange House and on January 9 he gave them permission to go back to work to help feed the many patients in Hong Kong’s hospitals.

Evelina had a neutral’s passport, but as a Eurasian woman she must have been terrified as the Japanese troops took over. Everyone had in their minds the possibility of mass rape and murder, as had happened after the fall of Nanking. Years later in England she’d speak about her fear of the bombs, and sometimes hide in an understairs cupboard during storms if the thunder got too loud. But there was another, more immediate problem: hunger. Food was hard to come by during those chaotic, panic-stricken days. Luckily Evelina’s landlord (probably Robert Bauder, a Swiss national who like Thomas worked for Lane, Crawford) knew someone who could probably get her something to eat….Some time in January 1942 he took her to the Ching Loong bakery in Queen’ Road, where Thomas and his colleagues were at work, and the relationship began.

On February 8 Thomas was transferred to internment in St. Paul’s Hospital, generally known as the French Hospital, in Causeway Bay, but he continued to bake bread – and to see Evelina. The team of drivers who delivered this bread included an American, Charles Winter, and a Welshman Owen Evans, a man who was unlucky to have been there at all. He was a driver with the Friends Ambulance Unit based in southern China who’d been sent to Hong Kong to rest when war broke out.

It was from the French Hospital that Thomas was married on the afternoon of Sunday, June 29, 1942, a bright, sunny day. Interestingly, that was the very day that the Hong Kong Americans began their journey home. The American and Japanese governments had arranged a prisoner swap, and, while most of the other British were down at Stanley preparing to wave goodbye to their American friends, Thomas was getting ready for his wedding. Many of the people bidding farewell to the lucky repatriates had tears in their eyes, and complex emotions in their heart: sorrow at the loss of friends, happiness that for some at least of their number the ordeal would soon be over, pain that they would have to remain in captivity, and hope that their turn for release would soon come. Thomas must have felt all that, and more.

For he must have been aware that what was happening that afternoon was more than just a wedding. One of the few things from the days before the war that Evelina brought with her when, almost eight years later, she started her new life in England, was this photo, torn from an old passport:


Her Portuguese nationality was her only protection against the Japanese soldiers, the one thing that might save her from rape or murder if the behaviour of the victorious army in Hong Kong was anything like what it had been in Nanking.  Did Evelina seize this passport, kept in a place where she could get to it quickly, if she heard a knock at the door during those fear-filled early days of the occupation? Did she clutch it tight whenever she left the house, ready to brandish it if assailed in the street? Whatever protection her nationality gave her, she was abandoning it when she married Thomas.

The American journalist Emily Hahn was another ‘enemy’ civilian outside Stanley Camp at that time. Hahn was pretending to be Chinese, on the basis of having been one of the ‘wives’ of a Chinese poet. A friendly Japanese officer assured her that under Japanese law this marriage gave Hahn her husband’s Chinese nationality.  That may or may not have been true, but it’s certain that after the wedding Evelina’s fate would be linked with that of the English community, most of whom were currently languishing in Stanley.

Why didn’t she just go home to Macao? Hahn tells us that it was still considered safe then[6] and the Government there invited all Macanese to return – the Japanese were happy for them to go, as it meant fewer mouths to feed. The situation there could have changed at any time of course, as the Japanese didn’t always respect Portuguese neutrality, and the Macau Government had to manoeuvre carefully to remain unoccupied. But for most people the security of peace, albeit precarious, would prove preferable to immediate danger and many Macanese took up the offer of refuge .

One factor in Evelina’s decision might have been the plight of the Portuguese refugees who were flooding Macao  in 1942; most of them were living in over-crowded accommodation and on rations if anything worse than those available in Hong Kong. But Evelina had wealthy friends in Macao. In fact, although she probably didn’t know it, the youngest of the three Leitao sisters, her closest friends, also married in 1942. Clementina, a striking beauty, won the heart (it was said to be ‘love at first sight’) not of a baker but  a Hong Kong businessman who was already comfortably situated and was later to become one of the richest men in Asia. But leaving that aside, as probably not known to Evelina when she made her decision to stay in Hong Kong, she knew she could return to Macao and expect the help of the well-off and influential Leitao family. I don’t, by the way, know if her father Antonio was alive at the time. He died relatively young of liver disease but I haven’t yet found out exactly when.

I think the real reason that Evelina stayed in Hong Kong and married Thomas was that they were in love with each other, and she was willing to risk everything so that they could stay together. Years later, when asked why she didn’t go home in 1942, she replied simply, ‘It wouldn’t have been right’.

But, given the decision to stay together,  why actually get married a mere 5 or 6 months after meeting? Looked at from a purely utilitarian point of view, Lena might have seemed safer keeping her Portuguese nationality and it was useful to Thomas having someone who was not considered an enemy by the Japanese. She was working and reasonably free to move around Hong Kong, buying whatever was available with any money she had. ‘Third National’ (neutral) friends like  the Swiss Robert Bauder, prominent in the wedding photo, would have been able to channel small gifts of food through Evelina without raising the suspicions of the Kempeitai (Japanese Gestapo) – some neutrals and Chinese were tortured or even executed for being too friendly to the British.

And one possible  motive can be ruled out: Thomas and Lena were determined that they would not bring a child into the world under such conditions. Evelina was a Catholic, and this ruled out contraception, even if any was attainable.

I think part of the answer lies in the apparent coincidence of the  town group of Americans starting their journey of repatriation on the morning of the wedding day. According to American reporter Gwen Dew, a small group of Americans were told on March 30th. they were being repatriated. This firmed up rumours that had been going around in February, and at the end of the month the Americans were told that all of them would be going home (Prisoner of the Japs pages 140, 146). Naturally the British began pressing their leaders to try to arrange a similar prisoner swap, and for a time the ever-optimistic internees were hopeful that, as the Camp ‘anthem’ put it, they would soon ‘sail away’ to freedom; my guess is that Thomas wanted to make sure that there would be no doubt about Evelina’s right to board that so-longed for repatriation ship.

But beyond all that, I think that, once again, it was a simple case of loving each other and judging that marriage was necessary if they were to live the relationship in the way they wanted. One or both of them could die at any moment, so they wanted to spend as much time together as possible, and if the end came, they would face it together or at least married to each other.

It must also be remembered that, although Thomas would have seen plenty of examples of the brutal treatment of Chinese in Hong Kong, the British had not been badly handled since the surrender. There were rapes and massacres during and just after the fighting, but since then the British had suffered humiliation and appalling living conditions, but no worse. In fact, given the Japanese suspicion of anyone who showed the British too much friendship, it might have seemed safer to both Thomas and Evelina for her to have the same status as him. She was, after all, a recent girlfriend, and one who could reasonably be expected to go back home to Macao, so why, the  ever -suspicious Kempeitai might have reasoned, was she staying?

I wonder if Thomas and Evelina regretted their decision in the terrible months that began in February 1943?  The Kempeitai launched a campaign against the British community, one of the first acts of which was to arrest and brutally interrogate a woman who was working for Dr. Selwyn-Clarke, who was in effect Thomas’s boss at the French Hospital. Before the end of the year some of the most important figures in the colony had been imprisoned, tortured and in some cases beheaded. Selwyn-Clarke himself faced months of brutal interrogation but never revealed a single thing about the illegal relief activities he’d been at the centre of. Amazingly, he survived the war.

But all that was in the future on that hot June Sunday when their marriage was blessed by Father Riganti, the Rector of St. Joseph’s, a man who had himself known internment – in his case, by the British, who’d arrested him when the Japanese attacked on the grounds that he was Italian and an Axis national.

The three pictures of the wedding that survive tell an interesting story. In the first Evelina and her friends are standing outside the church –St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Kennedy Road. The name of the man she’s with, who was presumably to later give her away, is not known:

After the ceremony, the wedding party posed on the church steps:

small wedding 001

A note on the back of one of the different—sized versions of this picture confirms that the Japanese soldier in the second row is Thomas’s old benefactor, Captain Tanaka. As Thomas was no longer under his supervision, he must have kept in touch or at least found a way of sending the Captain an invitation. He’s standing tactfully at the end of the second row, wanting to be clearly in the picture but not to dominate it.

Thomas seems in good shape after six months in captivity. He hasn’t lost much weight yet and he’s in a smart white suit with what look like good shoes.  It wasn’t long after the surrender before some of the people in Stanley were trying to deal with problems caused by crumbling footwear and disintegrating clothing, while in June 1942, in the military POW camp of Shamshuipo his friends in the Hong Kong Volunteers were already suffering the torments caused by diseases of malnutrition like beri beri and ‘electric feet’ (Les Fisher, I Shall Remember, 41). But the emotional realities shown by the wedding pictures are very different.

Evelina is putting on a sweet but not very profound smile, while Thomas’s lips are only slightly raised, the merest gesture towards a sign of happiness. The other two men in the front row, Robert Bauder (second on the left, also in a white suit), and the man holding Lena’s arm in the earlier photo taken outside the church, look rather grim, while the best man, Owen Evans, is hardly smiling any more convincingly than Thomas. Only the bridesmaid on the far left and the Matron of Honour have the kind of expressions expected in the front row of a wedding party.

In the ‘happy couple’ photo, probably taken just afterwards, Thomas has abandoned any attempt at a smile; if anything, he looks angry, while Evelina’s smile has now been invaded by the ever-lurking sense of fear:

They were in love and getting married, but they had no proper home, they were  hungry most of the time, and one or both of them could die violently at any time. And they had no idea when, if ever, all this would come to an end.

Later that year Thomas’s family in Windsor were to receive a letter from Charles Winter, Thomas’s repatriated American colleague. It is hard to imagine the relief and joy this must have brought his parents and brothers and sisters. It was the first news they’d had of him since the start of the fighting on December 8, 1941, the first indication that he was alive and unwounded.

Mr. Winters paints a tactfully reassuring picture of Thomas at work in a Hong Kong in which business was pretty much as usual. And thanks to this letter the family learnt at the same time that Evelina existed and was almost certainly their daughter-in -law!

After the ceremony was there some kind of reception, a pooling of the meagre resources available in wartime Hong Kong? There’s no doubt that Captain Tanaka – who sent the employees of the Telephone Company off to their imprisonment in Shamshuipo Camp with a bottle of whisky each – would have provided something if he could, or that friends and colleagues would have chipped in from their meagre rations. But all that’s known for certain is that Thomas and Evelina returned to the French Hospital, now husband and wife.


About ten months later, on May 7, 1943, they were sent to join the rest of the Allied civilians in Stanley Camp; Selwyn-Clarke had been arrested on May 2 under unjustified suspicion of being a spy. They stayed there until the end of the war in August 1945. After more than three and  a half years of terror and privation they were finally free.

And just over five years later, her brain and body still on fire with what had happened in the war, Evelina returned to the French Hospital to give birth to their first son. A few weeks later, the baptism took place.  Robert Bauder was there again, and posed for the camera with the baby in his arms. It was the same Father Riganti who officiated.


[1]Gerald Horne, Race War!, Kindle Edition, Location 830.

[2] Horne, Location 602.

[3] Hong Kong sociologist Henry Lethbridge, quoted in  Horne,  Location 830.

[5] Cited in Horne, Location, 792.

[6] Marriage and Japanese law: Emily Hahn,  China To Me, 321; Macao safe: Hahn, 368.


Filed under Hong Kong, Stanley Camp

Thomas Edgar: Some Documentation

In the previous post I wrote about my father’s experiences as a baker in wartime Hong Kong. This post presents some more documentation of that period.

Firstly, I found in my father’s archive a tattered and decaying copy of what would now be called an advertorial  for the firm he worked for, Lane Crawford, placed in The Hong Kong Telegraph of November 26, 1938. It’s too big to scan easily so I’ve divided it into 6 parts (1-2-3 goes down the page, a-b-c goes across). What I’m particularly interested in is that in scan 3b you can see the words Exchange Building clearly there in the original – this is where my father was shown films by the humane Japanese oficer, Captain Tanaka (see my original post, and the further discussion on the  Gwulo Website:







Secondly, here are three photos of bakeries from his archive. They don’t seem like the Stubbs Rd. bakery; it’s possible they’re the old Lane Crawford Burrows Street premises, but it’s just as likley they’re of a Chinese bakery my father visited:




Thirdly, here’s a letter sent by the repatriated American Mr. Charles Winter to Thomas’s parents:

And here’s an article from his family’s local paper, the Windsor and Eton Express, which contains the same information and is a little easier to read. According to David Tett (Captives in Cathay, 2007, 144) letters sent from Hong Kong via the Gripsholm arrived in New York on August 5, 1942 and were then sent on to the UK; one letter he’s examined received a British postmark on October 12. The article on the Royal Berkshire’s Christmas away from home that’s visible in the cutting suggests a date in late November or early December; if so, it was just over six weeks before the paper were contacted with (or got to hear about) the news from Hong Kong.

Fourthly, here’s Thomas’s article in The British Baker. He’s wrongly called ‘E’ Edgar and the title is neither a quote nor an accurate representation of what he says. Sensationalism and inaccuracy aren’t confined to today’s tabloids! 


There’s an alternative version of this article with more about baking in Stanley amongst his papers:

Alternative unpublished version of ‘We Baked Bread to Japanese Orders’


 Prior to the outbreak of the Far Eastern War I was working with Dr. G. A. C. Herklots in producing a cheap siege biscuit that would contain the essential Vitamin (sic), would keep at least one year and be palatable to the Chinese and European population. In this we were very successful in that the biscuits when we came out of Stanley Internment Camp in 1945 were in excellent condition and 2 * ½ oz. biscuits contained enough B.1, B.2, Iron and Roughage for one day.  On the outbreak of war I was made Deputy Supplies Officer Bakeries, which actually meant that all bakeries in Hong Kong and Kowlooncame under my jurisdiction. After a few days I also took over the R. A. S. C. Bakery. My own firm {Brian’s note: Lane Crawford} were already responsible for the Navy bread, having held the Navy contract for (I think) over 75 years. Up till 21st December my firm’s bakery produced over 20,000-lbs. bread daily. The Japanese having landed on the Island of Hong Kong on the night if 18th December by the 21st December had made our bakery untenable. They had also taken the Power Station, thereby cutting off all electricity and water. I then decided to open five smaller bakeries and decentralize. I had already stocked various bakeries with wood, flour and hops (Yeast would not keep out of a refrigerator in such a hot climate). The Fire Brigade delivered water to the bakeries twice a day in a fire float. After the surrender on Christmas Day 1941 we were interned in Exchange Building.

 We received permission on 8th. January 1942 to produce bread for the hospitals. Later on we were interned in the French Convent (sic – in fact the French Hospital) and as we had plenty of rice I got a dealer to grind some on a Chinese Stone Mill and added ground rice up to 60% of the flour. The yeastw e were using was made by boiling 1g hops in 1 gallon of water for forty minutes then adding the mixture to 1-lb. flour that had already been slackened down  with cold water. This we kept going for about two years until our stock of hops ran out. Then we made quite a good yeast from sweet potatoes using the same method only using 1-lb sweet potatoes instead of 1g hops. We obtained the best results by using 60% of the rice flour and 20% of the wheat flour and 33% of the slat in a sponge.

 When we were interned in Stanley the flour ration was 4.22 oz. per person. We made 4 –ozs. Into bread, the remainder being used for kitchen work. We made straight Doughs (sic) until the flour was about 9-12 months old. After this the doughs used to go slack over night so I started using the sponge principle using 1/8 of the flour in the sponge and once again produced quite a good loaf. After the flour was two years old when the flour was added in the morning we had to mould it straight away as the dough used to crack and have a sour appearance. We could not cut down our sponge time as we had to be in our rooms before 8pm. and we could not leave them till 8am.

 We produced bread until 29 January 1944. Then all flour, meat and fish to the camp finished. We made for Christmas 1945 (sic) and 1st January a loaf for the people from an emergency stock that the Camp had managed to save. This flour was then nearly four years old. The wastage, weevils etc. was 3-5%. The Australian flour had kept a lot better than the American flour and the wastage was lower. The colour of the dough and bread being greyish and even in a very hot oven we had difficulty getting colour on the crust. At one time we managed to obtain rice polishings which we added to the bread at the rate of 1/8 oz. to 4 oz. flour. From time to time we managed to get maize and Soya beans which we roasted and added to the dough, obtaining the best results by using ¼ oz. to 4 oz. flour.

 Because of the poor food the health of the Camp generally was steadily getting worse and people started suffering from all sorts of minor ailments, one trouble being “CampEyes”. Again in conjunction with Dr. Herklots we experimented with six cases giving them doses of 2-oz. yeast (Hop) daily and in every case they showed an improvement. Thereafter 1-oz. yeast became a daily issue to the Camp.

 The last oven that we built I tried to make on the Hot Air principle, and although we had no cement, the top of the firebox being a manhole cover and the bottom of the oven roof tiles, our wood consumption was 6-ozs. for every 1-lb. of bread.

 After flour finished in the Camp we made a substitute bread from rice flour (ground in the Camp on Stone Mills). Although not very good it was better than nothing at all.

 Fifthly, here are two letters he sent home soon after the war came to an end:


Filed under Hong Kong, Hong Kong WW11, Stanley Camp

Thomas Edgar: A Baker in Wartime Hong Kong

Note: This is a preliminary sketch of Thomas’s life in the war years. Almost all of the issues it raises are discussed in much greater detail in later posts.

A different kind of summary can be found at:

More about Captain Tanaka:

Thomas and Evelina:

And a good example of the value of the internet as an ‘archive’: Chester Bennett, a heroic member of the Hong Kong resistance and a man almost certainly known to Thomas before and during the war, had almost vanished from history until American local papers began putting their earlier issues online!

Thomas Edgar grew up in a working class area of the small Berkshire town of  Windsor.  Arthur Road is close to the River Thames, and houses there sometimes got flooded.

His mother was a domestic servant,  her husband a soldier and later a driver. Tom was born in 1912, and his father was fighting in France for some of his early childhood. Like most children then, Tom was raised as a Christian, and went through the normal stages of religious socialisation:

Ironically, in view of what was to come later, he received a copy of G. A. Henty’s Tales of Daring And Danger as a Sunday School prize:

 This includes the story A Brush With The Chinese, which begins:

 It was early in December that H. M. S. Perseus was cruising off the mouth of the Canton River. War had been declared with China in consequence of her continued evasions of the treaty she had made with us, and it was expected that a strong naval force would soon gather to bring her to reason.

Hong Kong was filched from the Chinese as one of the spoils of a war whose primary purpose was to force Peking to allow British traders to sell opium on the mainland! The colonisers soon developed and modernised Hong Kong, and it wasn’t long before the colony became a place of economic and political refuge from the poverty and upheavals of late Imperial and early Republican China – by the time of ‘handover’ (1997) many analysts argued that the majority of the Chinese population would have preferred to stay under British rule. But the reconstruction of Hong Kong after WWII, one of the great success stories of the British Empire, was to be based, in part at least, on the realisation, won in the dark world’s fire of the Japanese occupation, that a Henty-style certainty about one’s own rectitude leads only to division, conflict and endless violence.

Britain in Thomas’s youth was a country slowly moving towards the idea of state responsibility for the welfare of its citizens. Balfour’s 1902 Education Act was meant to make schools a ‘ladder’ for the poor to climb higher in society. Tom won a scholarship to the nearby County Boys School, but his parents couldn’t afford the cost of the uniform, the books, and so on. They had five other children, all younger, to support, so Tom was apprenticed to a local baker.

In his teens and twenties he was one of the best amateur boxers in the Windsor area, having over a hundred fights and losing only one. I don’t know if he ever felt there was any contradiction between boxing and baking:

 Tom went to work all over the country to gain experience – Scotland, the east coast of England, Leatherhead….A reference from Bowkett’s of Margate, dated June 8, 1935 notes that he had been employed there since January of that year and was ‘sober, honest and willing and a good craftsman.’  He started a ‘stop me and buy one’ confectionery business, but was cheated by his partner and went bankrupt.

 Tom’s father had served in India, and like many before him, Tom thought of fleeing painful memories by heading out to the Empire. With the help of his mother, he paid off his debts, and then looked around for a job as distant from Britain as possible. He had two offers: one was from South Africa, and, if he had accepted it, someone rather like me would have been born a citizen of the apartheid state: when I describe the racism and other social imperfections of pre-war Hong Kong I do so as a historian, not a judge. My own  youthful attitudes were quite bad enough, even though I grew up in the relative liberalism of post-war Britain., and no doubt I and my bien pensant contemporaries hold beliefs that future generations will find shocking.

Thomas chose the other job because Hong Kong was further away than the Cape, and in 1937 or 38 became bakery manager at Lane Crawford Department store – he lied about his age to seem more experienced than he was. 

Thomas lived at 82, Morrison Hill Road, in Happy Valley:

File:Morrison hill road.JPG

Wikimedia: Morrison Hill Road Today

His first documented appearance in Hong Kong life was in the 1939 Jury Service List (information from the poster Moddsey on the Gwulo website

I have a number of postcards with his writing on the back, and, although they’re undated, I guess they were sent back to Windsor in the three or four years before WWII. They’re the kind of thing that you send home to show your family the exotic sites of your new home.

There’s one of a sedan chair, with the the probably joking comment, ‘this is how we travel’:

These two are of Chinese funerals; and he told his family that there was always a band, and they ‘made a devil of a noise’.

As the situation in the Far East darkened, he began to be drawn into preparations for the war that was to change his life forever.

Tony Banham has drawn my attention to this passage from Footprints, the autobiography of Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke,  Hong Kong’s Chief Medical Officer:

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.

I’ll come back to that helpful Japanese officer later. My father was working on this baking project with a Mr. Meredith and Dr. G. A. C. Herklots, as he describes in an article he wrote for The British Baker in 1946.

Interestingly, Tom says that the plan was for the biscuit to be both high in nutritional value and palatable to the Chinese population. By the end of October, 1941, machinery that could produce 1.5 tons of biscuits a day had been installed: ‘by the end of December (sic – presumably November) we had machinery installed enabling us to double this output but manufacture was discontinued on December 15th.’

Selwyn-Clarke tells us what became of these biscuits:

By good fortune the Japanese had put Lane Crawford’s in charge of a certain Lieut. Tanaka, who allowed me to remove all the tins for distribution to the POW and civilian camps and to those Chinese hospitals which had not been closed by the Japanese forces.

 On December 8th, Tom was appointed Deputy Supply Officer Bakeries, which meant that all bakeries on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon were under his supervision. He was based at Lane Crawford’s bakery in Happy Valley, and, after the fall of Kowloon, he and his staff were caught between the rival armies as the defenders tried to hold up the Japanese advance. Before that, they had been producing 16-22 thousand pounds of bread a day.

When it became clear that the fall of Hong Kong was imminent, my father was one of those detailed to pour as much alcohol as possible down the drains to prevent it from further inflaming the victorious Japanese soldiers.

On December 265th., the dayHong Kong surrendered, Lane Crawford’s staff were told to report to the company HQ, Exchange House in Des Voeux Rd. The next day Captain Tanaka, the Japanese officer in charge of communications, took control of the building. Luckily, Tanaka was a humane and decent man – he is not the Tanaka who was sentenced to death by both the Allies and the Guomingdang for war crimes in China and Hong Kong. At some point Tom had torn up his shirt to bind the wounded, and was given permission by Tanaka to return to his lodgings to get another one. The Captain commandeered his high-powered binoculars, but not without giving him a receipt, which, he claimed, would lead to compensation from the Imperial Japanese Army after the war.

 In his British Baker article my father recorded his appreciation of Tanaka’s kindness, and noted that he organised film showings for him and his staff while they were interned in the bakery. 

During this period, Tanaka also gave him permission to resume baking.  As the bakeries in Happy Valley had been taken over by the Japanese, they decided to open Ching Loong (Green Dragon) bakery in Wanchai. They baked 590 pounds of bread a day – later stepped up to 3,000 pounds– then took it to the Hong Kong Hotel, from where it was distributed to the hospitals. Until May 7th. 1942 a little was also sent into Stanley – each internee got about 1 ounce of bread a day. After that date, a regular flour issue was made at the Camp. (In Chapter 2 of his book on the Stanley internment Geoffrey Emerson, citing the Stericker papers, explains that some flour was available in Stanley from the start, and that after April 1942 the ration was increased and the internees began to experiment with ‘ways of producing yeast so that bread could be made’.)

My father was interned in the bakery until February 1942, and then at ‘the French Hospital’ –  St. Paul’s hospital, which serves the Happy Valley–Wanchai area, rather than its Kowloon sister hospital St. Teresa’s, which, Wikipedia claims is sometimes known locally as ‘the French Hospital’. But he wasn’t just baking bread in those early days of the war and occupation.

About a week or so after the Japanese attack, at a time of fear and chaos, Tom was introduced to Evelina d’Oliveira, a Eurasian woman, by a mutual friend who thought that he might be able to help her get some food. They quickly fell in love, and she refused to return to the relative safety of Macao, as her Portuguese (neutral’s) passport entitled her to do.

In pre-war Hong Kong, Eurasians were generally mistrusted, discriminated against and even despised. To marry a Eurasian (or of course a Chinese) woman meant an immediate fall in social status. (See, for example, Gerald Horne’s study Race War! – this book is a good introduction to the race situation in old Hong Kong, but, as I shall show in a later post, it’s extremely selective in its use of sources and withholds from the reader a huge amount of information necessary to making a fair judgement on this controversial issue).  Perhaps it was because the war was already destroying the old world of the Hong Kong English, or perhaps Thomas had learnt how wrong it is to judge people by racial categories, or perhaps he was simply too much in love to care.

They were married on June 29th. 1942 at St. Joseph’s.

 It’s Captain Tanaka who’s the Japanese soldier in their wedding picture:

You can see that he’s trying to be unobtrusive, not to steal the limelight on other peoples’ big day. Sadly, Selwyn-Clarke reports a rumour that suggests Tanaka’s kindness proved his undoing:

Lieut. Tanaka subsequently disappeared, and rumour had it that he had been removed to Canton and there executed for displaying excessive concern for the Hong Kong prisoners. (Footprints, 74)

In a letter dated April 30, but in fact written on about May 8, 1943 Tom tells his family that he and Lena have finally been interned. Everything is well organised, but they don’t yet have jobs. The address on his cards from camp is room 1, Bungalow D, an address he shared with Hilda Selwwyn-Clarke, wife of Selwyn, and an important figure in her own right, and Lady Mary Grayburn, wife of the head of the HKSBC. 

In a card dated the next month, May 1943, he records the arrival of a letter from home dated October (presumably 1942) which he has only just received. The last card is dated 6/8/44. Obviously, he was not allowed to say very much, so all the cards do is assure his family they were both ‘keeping fit’  and ‘Getting enough food’, which is an equivocation – enough to stay alive. (Scans of his cards from Stanley can be read in three locations on the Yahoo Stanley Group Website, in an area accessible only by group members; the complete article in The British Baker can also be read there.)

The British Baker article tells us that he went on baking in Stanley, alongside Sgm Hammond, who along with another RASC baker S/S Sheridan, had assisted him at the Stubbs Rd. bakery before the surrender. Thomas’s article would seem to imply that Sheridan did not bake with him in  Stanley, and Tony Banham has established that this is because he managed to escape from Japanese captivity, winning a medal in the process! (

Some notes made by one of his brothers suggests difficulties in adjusting to the situation in Camp, one in which hierarchies and coalitions had already been formed. Furthermore, because of his relationship with Tanaka there might well have been suspicions that he’d been too friendly with the occupiers.

The earliest document in my possession that relates to his release after liberationion 1945  is a telegram sent on September 13 and received in Windsor the next day:

Arrived safely at Hong Kong Hope Be Home Soon Writing Address Letters Telegrams To Hong Kong Hotel Edgar

 Five days later, an official telegram from the Colonial Office confirmed the release of Evelina – any official notice of Tom’s release has been lost.

Tom and Lena, May 1948

After the war, Tom worked for Lane Crawford again, and then moved to the Garden Company, and the owners, the Cheung family, became life-long friends.  He took up some elements of his old life again, including the Freemasonry that he’d first become involved with in Scotland. The picture below is of a Masonic cocktail party in 1950:

I was born in the early winter of 1950, at the French Hospital in Causeway Bay that had once been the site of their internment.

On December 16th., 1950, I was baptised at St. Margaret’s church by the same priest who had married them more than 8 years earlier, Father Riganti, the rector of St. Joseph’s. What they thought or felt on that occasion I can only imagine. I know my  mother never expected to survive internment.

Early in 1951 Tom, Lena and I sailed for England. As a child I was always told that he wanted me to be educated in Britain, but I think that the outbreak of the Korean War was also a factor. It would have stirred uneasy memories for all former internees from the start (June 1950), but when Chinese troops moved into North Korea (October 25th., 1950) fears must have become much more intense.  A few years before she died my mother added another possibility: a big strike was planned in Hong Kong, and threats were made to the lives of foreign managers. I’ve never been able to find confirmation of this.

In any case, Thomas Edgar’s time in Hong Kong was over. He went back only once, as a guest of the Garden Company when it celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1976. But in some ways ‘my thirteen years in Hong Kong’ dominated the whole of the time that followed, and, as we shall see in due course, there was a strange and powerful return to them as his life drew to a close.


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Filed under Hong Kong, Hong Kong WW11, Stanley Camp