A version of this post with public image illustrations can be read at:
Those who called Sir Vandeleur Grayburn ‘the King’ of Hong Kong weren’t far wrong. As well as head of the Colony’s most important business, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, he was (or had recently been) a member of the University Court1 The Exchange Fund Advisory committee, 2The Taxation Committee,3 and the War Revenue committee,4 a JP5 and from July 1941 an Unofficial Member of the Executive Council.6 Probably of much else as well.
In spite of his position at the centre of Hong Kong life, Sir Vandeleur showed no particular foresight in the immediate run up to the war. On Sunday, December 7, 1941 the HKVDC (Volunteers) were mobilised along with the rest of the garrison amid compelling evidence that an attack was imminent. When HSBC employee M. G. Carruthers informed his boss he’d been called up, Sir Vandeleur looked at him in horror and told him he couldn’t go – ‘this is going to blow over’.
He shouldn’t be blamed too much for this: at the start of the month Governor Mark Young and the garrison’s commanding officer Major-General Maltby had joined forces to convince him that if the Japanese started any trouble a naval force would sail up from Singapore ‘and everything would be hunky-dory’.7 On December 2 plans for Grayburn to go with other senior staff to Singapore and set up head office there had been approved, and the Governor appealed to Sir Vandeleur not to leave the Colony as he feared it would have a serious effect on morale.8 He agreed to stay at his post fro a second time – he should really have stepped down in 1940, when it had been planned to replace him with David Charles Edmondston, who’d been appointed Hong Kong Manager in 1936. Because of the serious situation in the Far East, Sir Vandeleur had agreed to stay.9 A minute of the HSBC Board of Directors (meeting in Stanley Camp soon after Grayburn’s death) recorded that he could have retired after a successful term as head of the bank ‘but he chose to remain at his post and see the war through’.10By the time the Pacific War began, some colleagues considered he was ‘rundown with overwork’.11
During the hostilities he was either in the Essential Services Group– someone who was tasked with working at their normal job12 – or perhaps because of his age and eminence simply exempted in order to provide advice and leadership. We know he was at ”the Bank’ (as the HSBC was often called) on day one of the attack (December 8) as Colonel Harry Hughes reported that he went there that day and even Sir Vandeleur couldn’t get him Chinese currency13 On December 11, focusing on the bank’s future in case of defeat, Grayburn requested that the Governor seek an Order in Council to transfer the HSBC head office not to Singapore but London. Governor Young forwarded the request, but pointed out that ‘the contingency is not contemplated’. Frank King implies he still had hopes of holding the Colony at this stage.14
Like everyone else whose house was in a place deemed (sometimes wrongly) to be relatively safe, the Grayburns had their house on the Peak (‘The Cliffs’, no. 355) designated a billet for evacuees from more dangerous or exposed areas. One of his HSBC employees, Doris Woods, alongside her two sisters was amongst them, and Miss Woods tells us that by December 14, in the midst of continuous shelling and regular aerial bombardment, the electricity had failed, they couldn’t listen to the world news, food was running short, and the strain on everyone’s nerves was leading to frequent quarrels. Lady Grayburn was probably still in the house – I can see no reason for her to have been moved – but her husband was likely to have been sleeping in the bank.15 In any case, on that December 14, another air raid started and Doris and her twin sister (and partner in a popular singing duet) ran to take shelter in the pantry, where they sat for hours repeating the 91st Psalm. When the shelling stopped, they emerged and inspected the effects: the front of the house had been damaged and the Grayburns’ private sitting-room was in ruins.16 In a letter dated May 31, 1942 (see below) Sir Vandeleur told his daughter that Cliffs was ‘badly damaged’ and their ‘possessions all gone’.17
The Bank shut at noon on Christmas Day and the staff went up to the mess on the seventh floor for a simple meal; they learnt shortly after of the Colony’s surrender18 (which took place at about 3.15 p.m.). On December 26, the Japanese, under the orders of the former manager of the Yokohama Specie Bank, entered the HSBC building and assembled the staff. Grayburn was questioned at length, and all the banks keys were surrendered and the safes and treasuries sealed.19 The Building itself, ‘Grayburn’s Folly’, became the seat of the Japanese administration.
What happened next is perhaps controversial. Grayburn almost certainly played a leading role in the decision of some bankers, include himself, to stay uninterned and help the Japanese ‘liquidate’ their banks. It’s sometimes said that this decision was made under ‘duress’ but in fact threats to the bankers and their families came later -in spring1942– to force them to sign unissued HSBC banknotes (see below). The initial agreement to stay out was partly to help the Chinese and other uninterned nationals but I think mainly to look after the interests of the HSBC and the other banks whose staff were involved. In any case, refusal to help wouldn’t have stopped the Japanese plundering the banks, and a number of sources testify that, as well as making records of, or at least keeping an eye on, what was happening, the bankers dragged their feet as much as possible.
Both during and after the war, it was Dr Selwyn-Clarke and the team of public health workers he led that bore the brunt of criticism on the grounds of collaboration. This was partly because Selwyn-Clarke, although he did co-operate with the resistance, had an uneasy relationship with it, while, as we shall see, the British Army Aid Group received enthusiastic help from the HSBC staff (although they were disappointed that some of the younger bankers refused to escape and were even unsure about being repatriated because of pressure from ‘seniors’ to remain in Hong Kong, presumably to re-open the Bank quickly after liberation20). After the war, the deaths of the two most prominent HSBC staff, and of one other, executed for resistance activities, and the imprisonment of another HSBC employee and three members of the Chartered Bank, left the bankers effectively beyond criticism. Nevertheless, George Endacott, a distinguished historian, who is clearly sympathetic to those experiencing the dilemmas of the occupation, has written that these people ‘were presumably collaborators and could, and perhaps should, have refused to assist in the handing over of the banks, and gone into Stanley internment earlier than they did’. But he goes on:
But their remaining out enabled them to see that records were preserved and information about accounts and notes in circulation were up-to-date, and this materially assisted the British take-over in 1945.21
We should also note that the Chartered Bank people consulted the Financial Secretary (probably R. R. Todd, who was acting FS on October 9, 194 22) and the bankers of other nationalities (American, Dutch and Belgium) who agreed to stay out did so after consulting their consular staff.23 Our source for this, Chartered Bank employee Andrew Leiper, doesn’t tell us what Grayburn did, but there’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t have got the same advice if he thought it necessary to consult anyone. Accounts both by bankers themselves and those who used their services make it clear how important their work was to the ordinary people of Hong Kong during the chaotic first months of the occupation,24 and, in my opinion, this would have justified the decision even without the contributions made by the bankers to the ongoing relief efforts that will be discussed in the rest of this post. One of the Chinese who benefited from their services noted:
The Japanese cannot do anything in the banks without (British) help. If the British are asked to do something contrary to their sense of justice, honesty and honor, their answer is ‘Send us to Stanley Internment Camp’. Since their help is absolutely necessary, the Japanese have to treat them honourably.25
We know from both Chartered Bank and HSBC sources that their staff bent or broke all the rules of banking to help out, for example, unquestioningly paying to spouses from the accounts of those who’d died.
On January 5 the HSBC bankers joined the rest of the Allied civilian community at the Murray Parade Ground. Those destined for Stanley, 126 of them, were marched to the Nam Ping Hotel, those needed for the liquidation to the Sun Wah. At first the two groups were allowed to mingle, but then the Sun Wah people had their movements tightly controlled (until July, when their situation eased – see below)26
Now the scene was set for the drama that was to play itself out ‘in town’ for the next 18 months. There were under 100 men who met the criteria for internment (healthy ‘white’ Allied civilians) but who were kept out of Stanley, usually with their families, to do essential work, and these men, in some case their wives and in at least one case their children, were going to provide the spearhead of the non-Chinese relief and resistance movements.
The most important of these in this respect was the former Director of Medical Services, Dr. Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, who was almost the only Briton in the Colony who had a clear vision of his role in the occupation. With the help of a senior Japanese military medical officer who’d been impressed by his racially egalitarian courtesy when he’d visited Hong Kong in the past, he was allowed to stay out and carry on his work – in the short term, the dead bodies scattered around Hong Kong posed serious risks of epidemic disease that would hit the Japanese as hard as any other group, so action was urgently needed. In addition to organising public health measures, Selwyn-Clarke quickly realised that the conditions in Stanley and the POW Camps (primarily Shamshuipo, Argyle Street, Ma Tau-Chung and Bowen Road Military Hospital) were such that a massive relief effort was necessary to prevent large-scale suffering and death.
In the dreadful financial conditions of the occupation, raising the money to pay for food and medicine was a major problem. Some better-off people of all the uninterned nationalities started to give the doctor money directly or to take other personal actions, at great risk to themselves.27 Even sending a food parcel to a friend ran the risk of attracting the attention of the Gendarmes, who were always on the look out for evidence of Allied sympathies. But individual acts of charity were not enough to meet the huge need; what was required was a systematic money-raising campaign, and it was a huge stroke of luck for the beneficiaries that a swathe of Hong Kong’s bankers were out in town to organise it. It didn’t prove to be lucky for the bankers themselves, though, and this group (at its maximum 80, including women and children) suffered more than any other in terms of members arrested, tortured, died or executed.
Sir Vandeleur was almost certainly the leader in the effort to raise money to give to Selwyn-Clarke to buy desperately needed food and medicines for the camps. Like Selwyn-Clarke, the bankers probably started by receiving spontaneous charity – depositors would come into the bank to make a withdrawal and whisper to the cashier to hold back some of the cash for Stanley – but it doesn’t seem to have been long before they started working more systematically to raise funds.
The cashier for these efforts, Samuel Perry-Aldworth28 tells us:
…(David) Edmondston and Grayburn and Hugo Foy….arranged with some of the Indian and Chinese constituents, who were paying in every day to pay off their overdrafts and all that, to divert a bit of it…29
These ‘diversions, proved inadequate, but to explain what happened next I need to remind the reader that on January 9, 1942 Lindsay Ride of the HKVDC Ambulance Unit escaped from Shamshuipo POW Camp with the help of his Chinese employee Francis ‘Chicken’ Lee. Ride and Lee were aided in their escape by communist guerillas. After reaching the war-time Chinese capital Chunking (Chongqing), Ride was able to set up the British Army Aid Group (BAAG), a multi-faceted organisation that carried out a wide variety of resistance tasks in southern China and occupied Hong Kong. The organisation worked closely with the guerillas (who are best known under the name of the East River Column) and depended for the most part on Chinese agents who could move relatively freely in and out of the former colony. In June 1942 the first BAAG agents arrived in Hong Kong. The earliest contacts of which I’ve seen evidence were with men known to Colonel Ride at the University and the French Hospital, but it wasn’t long before agents reached the Sun Wah – the initial contact seems to have been David Edmondston, who also had known Ride pre-war.30
It’s hard to know how much of a risk Grayburn thought he was taking in his ongoing relief work. He might have felt that the Japanese would turn a blind eye to the attempts of the most prominent financier in the Far East to raise money for purely humanitarian purposes, and, as we shall see, the Gendarmes did treat him in a relatively lenient way when they found out (the Japanese liquidators had known for a long time, but, like most Japanese civilians in Hong Kong, they were decent people and did no more than warn the bankers they would not be able to help them if the Kempeitai found out31).But when the agents of the Hong Kong resistance made contact with the bankers at the Sun Wah, he can have been in doubt as to the consequences of getting involved. Nevertheless, in his early 60s and not in particularly good health, Sir Vandeleur became a BAAG agent, code named Night. Now he must have understood that all the prestige in Asia wouldn’t save him from torture and execution if he was caught. And the conditions they were working under were difficult; Leiper says they identified at least one Chinese as having been sent so spy on them,32 and, although they probably weren’t watched as carefully as Selwyn-Clarke’s team, there are likely to have been many more clandestine observers.
It wasn’t long before Grayburn was deeply involved with the BAAG. It seems messages were soon passing back and forth from the Sun Wah on a routine basis. On July 31, 1942 Grayburn sent a message to a Chunking banker through BAAG agent 36 (Lau Teng Ke) asking, ‘Is it possible to draw on you’? Obviously he was hoping to be able to use Chunking funds to supplement those raised locally for the relief work. What seems to have been the same communication asked the British Embassy in that city to ensure the honouring of financial instruments (‘Rupee and Sterling drafts on paper dated 23/12/41’) that the bankers were selling secretly to raise money. After a period of confusion – the authorities in London were aware that the bankers had been signing ‘duress’ notes since the spring (see below) so felt that not all their financial transactions should be accepted – the Rupee and Sterling drafts were indeed honoured.33 Interestingly Grayburn added that the scheme had the approval of Colonial Secretary Franklin Gimson, which suggests that he was able to get messages into and out of Stanley, unless the idea went back to the period before March 13 when Gimson had been interned.34
The full story of the bankers’ work will probably never be known, as neither Grayburn nor Edmondston survived (Hugo Foy kept a diary but so far this has not been made generally available). One thing that’s worth adding, though, is that it wasn’t just the bankers who raised money, as we know that two BAAG agents, the American Chester Bennett and the Portuguese Marcus da Silva arranged loans, guaranteed by wealthy citizens interned in Stanley.35 But I think it’s clear that it was the bankers, under Grayburn’s leadership, who raised most of the cash for Dr Selwyn-Clarke’s work. Another thing we’ll never have much idea of is how many lives were saved and how much suffering was eased.
The bankers kept some of the money for their own relief efforts in the city itself. Conditions in occupied Hong Kong were bad enough at the start, but they began to deteriorate as early as June 1942, and soaring prices soon meant that only the very wealthiest had no worries about feeding themselves and their children. With Edmondston and perhaps others, Grayburn administered a fund to provide illegal loans to distressed Allied nationals who’d not been interned: when Edmondston refused to lend money to American writer Emily Hahn, in protest at her adulterous affair with Charles Boxer, Grayburn lent her the money from his private account.36
While all this was going on, the bankers were liquidating their own banks. In the spring the Japanese discovered a stock of unsigned banknotes, and they set Grayburn and his colleagues to work signing them for their use – ‘unbacked, unlawful, distinguishable only by their serial numbers from the genuine ones’.37 According to Oliver Lindsay, who provides no source for the claim, they were made to sign only 500 a day, half an hour’s work.38
We have a few glimpses of the conditions in which Sir Vandeleur and Lady Mary were living during the occupation. In late May 1942 Grayburn learnt he’d be able send out a letter through a soon to be repatriated American, and on May 31 he wrote one in which he tried to tell the unadorned truth, or a little of it at least, to his daughter Elizabeth:
(W)eight dropped from 200 to 160 lbs. Mary is somewhat thinner. Our cubicle is tiny, we sleep on a single mattress. Had no proper bath since December.
These words were blacked out by the Japanese censor.
A domestic detail did get through:
Mary cooks every Thursday for whole community of 80. Some soup maker!!39
One of the repatriated American bankers, Theodore Lindabury, wrote to Elizabeth himself:
During that time (the Grayburns) were working every day in the liquidation of the Bank and were able, by various means, to secure a sufficient supply of food, other than the rice given by the Japanese.40
The ‘various means’ probably meant buying extra food on either the open or the black market, and Lindabury stressed how lucky they were not to be in Stanley. In spite of this understandably upbeat picture, Sir Vandeleur was seen ‘looking as gaunt and grey as a timber wolf’.41
Other repatriated bankers gave a general account of conditions at the Hotel to journalist Vaughn Meisling, himself a Stanley repatriate. They described the Sun Wah as ‘a fire trap well-stocked with vermin’ and said that many of their number had needed treatment for dysentery, malnutrition and insect bites. They were marched a mile and a half to and from their work every day – the notorious ‘chain gang’ – escorted by soldiers, although after the Americans had left the remaining bankers were spared this indignity. They were often slapped and humiliated by their captors, the worst of whom they called ‘Slaphappy Joe’ because he was never happy except when hitting someone. At afternoon roll call he would box their ears until they learnt to answer in Japanese. My guess is that this was the guard who subjected the bankers to ‘additional indignities’ who Grayburn got transferred by complaining to the Finance Department in March.42 The American bankers often felt they were being sniped at as bullets hit or entered the hotel.43
According to Andrew Leiper, who was in the Sun Wah with two of his colleagues from the Chartered Bank, there was no electricity until March, but when it came it greatly cheered the residents44 – this restoration had been requested by Grayburn at the same time he complained about the guard.45 Before the July easing of conditions, the bankers suffered badly from boredom – it was worse for the women and children who seemed to have been confined to the Sun Wah. The women (all British, Dutch and Belgian as there were no American wives) spent the early weeks cleaning and disinfecting46 what had once been a squalid boarding house which, if it was like most of the hotels used to house Allied nationals before they were sent to Stanley, had doubled as brothel after the pre-war Government had launched a futile drive against prostitution. At first the residents had nothing to read except banking reference books and the Japanese-produced Hong Kong News. The highlights of the week were ‘bath night’ – 6 inches of hot water, so you can see why Sir Vandeleur complained he’d not had a proper bath and ‘rations night’ when Leiper and the Dutch banker Hugo Bakkeren handed out weevil-ridden rice and flour, peanut oil, salt and wong tong47 to representatives of each ‘mess’.48
Emily Hahn tells us that to get away from the Sun Wah, Sir Vandeleur and his wife sometimes visited French banker Paul de Roux, who had arranged a flat for himself at the top of the Bank d’Indochine building. They were also able to take a bath there.49 De Roux was also (or later became) a resistance agent, and on February 19, 1944, he jumped from that flat in order to escape arrest by the Kempeitai.50
More about the lives of the Sun Wah bankers, and about Grayburn’s leadership role, is shown by a development of late 1942. On December 10 he received a note from one of the Japanese Liquidators:
I have to advise you sincerely that all Foreign Officer (sic) of the Bank at present working under the liquidation and their families should refrain from moving about freely on Saturday afternoons, Sundays or any other holidays, especially during the evenings and nights.
Should there be any necessity to go out, permission must first be obtained from the Liquidators.
I wish to emphasize that this is a matter of serious importance and that should one single person get involved in trouble, all the others will suffer the consequences as a result.
The Japanese were often anxious to prevent ‘contamination’ of the Chinese by Allied nationals, and Leiper and others were once ejected from a cinema, but my guess is that this tightening of the rules was a response to the October escape of two HSBC staff, which I’ll discuss in the next post. Grayburn got all the bankers at the Sun Wah to initial the document, having first written on it:
This ruling refers to all times, we are only allowed out for shopping and exercise. French Hospital may only be visited for real necessity not for softball.
The bankers had been allowed very little freedom at first, but in July 1942, as a reward for ‘good behaviour – ironically this was about the time that some of them were making contact with the BAAG – they were allowed passes that gave them some right to move about the town, for example, to shop in Central or to go to the French Hospital ‘in case of need’ or to visit relatives and colleagues there.51 They were also given an allowance of $300 a month for food, probably at this time.52 Weekend ‘excursions’ to the Hospital to visit or take food to any Sun Wah resident there became popular as they provided the chance to get away from the hotel and enjoy a walk in the fresh air,53 and it would seem from Sir Vandeleur’s comment that some bankers also went to take part in the softball games started by one of the American Health Department drivers before his repatriation.
According to postal historian David Tett, whose source was undoubtedly Grayburn’s family Sir Vandeleur ‘took no heed’ of the risk himself, so presumably he ignored his own instructions and continued to visit the French Hospital.54 Andrew Leiper tells us that it was the health workers who kept the bankers ‘in touch with what was happening at Stanley’,55 and, although he’s discussing an earlier period, my guess is that the soft ball and the visits enabled those bankers working for the BAAG to pick up useful information.
Given the hunger and squalor of his daily life and the dangers that he faced, why didn’t Grayburn try to escape from the unguarded hotel? Lindsay Ride, indeed, devised plans for a mass escape of the bankers, but these were over-ruled on political grounds: it was felt that it would be embarrassing to get the bankers out while leaving almost everyone else under Japanese rule.56 But what of Grayburn’s personal attitude to remaining in Hong Kong? In the message of July 31 previously referred to, he wrote:
Staff requests make every endeavour repatriate self as only person who can clarify present situation.57
That, however, referred to an authorised repatriation, and it seems that Grayburn never wanted to try his luck in an illicit escape. This might have been because, as T. J. J. Fenwick and David Edmondston believed, the chances of a tired, 61 year old with gout and general debility getting out of Hong Kong were low. One source claims that his health was so poor at this time meant he never appeared at the bank unless required.58 However, King suggests that his illness might have been part diplomatic – to keep him out of his office where he could do little and might annoy the Japanese.59 Others have suggested he was afraid of reprisals against Lady Mary, which would have been a perfectly reasonable attitude to have taken – one Portuguese escaper had his ex-wife arrested! But it seems that an important, perhaps the main, reason for his remaining was he believed that it was in Hong Kong that he could do most good. Lady Mary later testified:
(W)hile we were prisoners (Sir Vandeleur Grayburn) was repeatedly asked to make his getaway and all plans were made and organized by people in Free China to this end, but he always refused because his argument was that he was doing more good in Hong Kong than he would do if he were away from it.60
Once again Grayburn – now sick, tired, hungry and facing the gravest dangers imaginable – stayed at his post.
1GA 1939, no.. 320 .
2GA 1938, no. 807.
3Report of the Taxation committee, SP 1939.
4Report of the War Revenue committee, SP1940.
5GA 1941, no. 521.
6GA 1941, no. 885.
7Philip Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, 2003, 47.
8 King, 568.
9King, 1988, 403.
10David Tett, Captives In Cathay, 2007, 302.
11Frank King, History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Volume 3, 1988, 617.
12See Andrew Leiper, A Yen For My Thoughts, 1982, 8.
14King, 1988, 572.
15See King, 1988, 572.
16John Luff, The Hidden Years, 1967, 136-137.
17Tett, 2007, 291.
18King, 1988, 572.
19 King, 1988, 572-573
20Waichow Intelligence Summary, No. 25, 27 March 1943, Ride Papers.
21G. B. Endacott and Alan Birch, Hong Kong Eclipse, 1978, 240.
22Minutes of the Finance committee meeting for that date.
23Leiper, 1982, 102-103.
24Leiper, 1982, passim; Alice Y. Lan and Betty M. Hu, We Flee From Hong Kong, 2000 ed (1944), 48.
25Lan and Hu, 2000 ed (1944), 48.
26King, 1988, 573.
27Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, Footprints, 1975, 73.
28There seems to be a photo of him taken in 1961 in the National Portrait Gallery – http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw233947/Samuel-William-Prittie-Perry-Aldworth?LinkID=mp140738&role=sit&rNo=0
29Cited King, 1988, 612-613.
30King, 1988, 614.
31 King, 1988, 613.
32 Leiper, 1982, 169.
33King, 1988, 613-614.
34Some sources give March 11. http://gwulo.com/node/9924
36Emily Hahn, China To Me, 1986 ed, 392-393.
37Snow, 2003, 152.
38Oliver Lindsay, At The Going Down of the Sun, 1982, 112.
39Tett, 2007, 291-292.
40Tett, 2007, 294.
41Snow, 2003, 141.
42King, 1988, 574.
43 Billings Gazette, August 26, 1942, page 2.
44Leiper, 1982, 134.
45King, 1988, 574.
46Leiper, 1982, 117.
47Similar words mean both brown sugar and dumplings. My sense is that in Hong Kong WW11 sources it usually means sugar.
48Leiper, 1982, 141.
49Hahn, 1986 ed, 376.
Another account has him die on February 19 in a Kempeitai prison as a result of mistreatment.
51Leiper, 1982, 147-148.
52King, 1988, 574.
53Leiper, 1982, 150.
54Tett, 2007, 295.
55Leiper, 1982, 143. Leiper says that they heard reports about the Kowloon POW Camps ‘from the same source’ .
56King, 1988, 616.
57King, 198, 617.
58King, 1988, 613-614.
59King, 1988, 617.
60King, 1988, 616-617.