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Love and Death in Old Macau OR How my DNA test made an already over-large category larger still

Students of old Hong Kong will be aware that the term ‘Eurasian’ is problematic in the extreme – it’s even been suggested that its real meaning, as applied in the pre-war period, is ‘not Chinese, not European and not Indian or any other single ethnicity’. Sometimes people are referred to as ‘Eurasian’ even without recent European ancestry, and although there were a number of Chinese-British families in Hong Kong, and that’s what most people think of when they read ‘Eurasian’, this ancestry was far from universal even amongst those who would meet the criteria in some reasonable definition of the term. (For some of the debate around ‘Eurasian’ see And if anyone is wondering why historians of old Hong Kong are so interested in ethnicity and ‘race’, it’s because in the society we study it defined your life chances to a degree that’s happily now hard to imagine (and did so even more in the complex and intensified racial politics of the Japanese occupation).

I don’t have anything to add to the terminological debate: most linguists tell us that the meaning of the word is determined by the way it’s understood at any given time, not by the existence of  a ‘correct’ definition somewhere outside contemporary usage. This raises questions (‘are all users equal?) that I’m happy to ignore. But my recent DNA test does enable me to tentatively add a new ethnic mix to the already rich texture of Hong Kong’s Eurasians.

I had my DNA analysed for a specific reason: my mother told me that her mother – who died very young – was Chinese. But in the one photo I have of her she looked rather Eurasian to my eyes at least:

Mum with her mother

I chose Living DNA as the tester most likely to yield a helpful result: to put it simply, I assumed that if I had about 25% ‘East Asian’ genes my grandmother was full-blooded Chinese, if about 12.5% she was Eurasian. Even a scientific dunce like me knows that apparently clear figures of that kind can be misleading, but I reckoned that a result in one range or another would at least give me a default theory. And if she was Eurasian, I was assuming she would have been Chinese-Portuguese, as that was most likely in Macau.

The results came when I was busy with other projects, and what happened shows the danger of set ideas. I noted that 27.8% of my genes were described as  from Asia (East) and a further 1.8% as from Asia (Central). I also noted that the most likely origin of the East Asian part of my genotype was Yunnan Province in China’s south-west. This surprised me, as most Chinese people in Hong Kong were from nearby provinces like Guangdong and Fujian, and I assumed that would also be the case in Macau, but it did allow me to speculate that the Central Asian genes were from a merchant who, many generations ago, had come down one of the Silk Roads that ran though Yunnan. In any case, I thought that I now had my answer: my grandmother was clearly Chinese. There I left it until the imminent visit of a Eurasian friend who was also thinking of having the test made me look at the results again.

This time something from the report leapt out at me:

Your motherline is most frequent in the indigenous Lahu populations. They are distributed across Yunnan, China, Burma, Laos and Vietnam, and speak a language that is part of the Loloish group.

Although the testers quite rightly emphasised we are dealing with mere probabilities and that nothing should be seen as certainly proved, it did seem that my grandmother was indeed full-blooded, but perhaps not Chinese (in other words, of Han ethnicity) but one of China’s 55 ‘minority’ peoples. I lived in Yunnan for a year and we visited one of the ‘minority’ areas in the south, close to the Lancang Lahu Autonomous County, but the Lahu still weren’t on my radar. There are only about 600,000 native speakers of the Lahu language, mainly in Yunnan and bordering countries like Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.

But, given, the uncertainty of conclusions drawn from genetic testing, was my grandmother really Lahu? I found some images of Lahu women online that make me think that’s a real possibility:

Image result for lahu peopleImage source:

The facial structure of the woman on the left of the line as you look at it certainly seems similar to me. I’m now trying to track down some documentation from Macau that might (or might not) settle the issue, but in the meantime what else do I know about my grandmother?

Just two things. Firstly, the name given for her on my parents’ marriage certificate – 1942 in occupied Hong Kong – is Maria, which is probably Europeanised rather than what she was given at birth. Secondly, she died of TB when my mother was three. 

Maria could feel the end coming, and told the servants to bring my mother to her bed. They were reluctant, as they feared she would pass on the disease that was killing her to my mother, but they had to obey, so my grandmother had her daughter with her during her last night on earth. What a powerful message for my mother, a message of the strength and selfishness of love, of its importance in life and of its intertwining with death.

My grandfather, Antonio Sage Marques d’Oliveira, was born in 1888 to a father who’d come to Macau from Portugal and a mother who was part-American and part-Portuguese (although given the fact that the Portuguese empire was more tolerant than others of ‘mixed’ marriages might well have also had some Chinese blood). If his wife was indeed Lahu, how did they meet? I can only speculate: Antonio was a tea merchant and Yunnan is a tea-growing part of China. I have later documents that link him to Fujian Province, where he died in 1938, but perhaps as a young man he went west instead of east on business and found love in Yunnan? That he did love Maria seems clear from the new year’s card he sent out to mark the start of 1917:

Mum with her father


Both he and my mother are clearly devastated, and he’s chosen an empty background to match his mood (compare the potted plant in the photo of my mother and grandmother above).

I hope I’ll be able to find a document – a marriage certificate perhaps – that will settle the matter once and for all. But at the moment it looks as if my mother might have been Portuguese-American-Lahu, a form of Eurasian-ness that I believe to be unique even in the great Hong Kong melting pot.


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Two notes of September 1945

I now have two more notes from my parents, sent in the immediate aftermath of the arrival of Harcourt’s fleet on August 30th, 1945. (For other cards and telegrams, see

My father left Stanley on about September 2nd to try to get bread production started. This note was probably sent by air mail on September 3rd and would have been the first definite proof that his family had that Thomas and his new wife had survived. My aunt told me that they knew it was genuine because he used the family nickname ‘Ooke’:

Dad first post-war note

The second is a longer note sent the next day:

Dad 14-9-45

For all the desire to get home quickly, it wasn’t until August 1946 that they left Hong Kong. And not until February 1951 that they came to the UK for good, although even then they considered returning to Hong Kong for some time after that.

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Tin Hats & Rice by Barbara Anslow

It is good to see that Barbara Anslow’s diary, plus other material from Barbara and her family, is now available in book form:

All the Stanley Camp diaries have their particular areas of focus, depending on the personality and interests of the diarist, and, happily for both the historian and the general reader, Barbara has an outgoing character and an endless fascination with people. As an account of what day-to-day life in Stanley was like for ordinary internees, this diary has no equal.

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My ‘Postmemory’ of the Hong Kong Occupation: A talk at Rome Sapienza

At the end of June I attended a conference at Rome Sapienza. The theme was ‘postmemory’ – in my case, that means my relationship to my parents’ experience of the war and the strange way in which their memories intermingled with my own.

Below is a slightly revised text of the talk. PP refers to Power Point slides, which I’m afraid the reader will have to imagine, and Word Press has taken out the footnotes as usual.


In the Dark World’s Fire: a personal-theoretical investigation of postmemory of the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong

PP Empire of the Sun

There’s a scene in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun.

PP Cadillac of the Skies

Jim, a boy prisoner based on James Ballard the author of the original novel, runs outside during a raid on the airfield next to his internment camp shouting a phrase he’s learnt from one of his American ‘protectors’, ‘P51, Cadillac of the skies’. It’s a scene Spielberg himself regarded as central, and it wasn’t the first time the film had brought me to tears, but now I became aware of something strange.

I was crying because of the resonance with my parents’ time as civilian internees in Hong Kong’s Stanley Camp and I realised that I was experiencing their experience with something stronger than empathy. In a way I couldn’t understand, those experiences felt mine as well as theirs and the tears seemed more powerful and more personal than any I’d cried during a catharsis-based psychotherapy in the early 1980s. Many years later this ‘confusion’ went still further.  Another Spielberg film, War Horse, led to crying about a time in my life when I perceived myself as the object of a lot of hatred. But soon I apparently found myself crying my father’s tears at the hatred coming from the Japanese occupiers.

How had such a strange transfer come about? Is it evidence for Cathy Caruth’s claim that trauma is by its nature belated, and that it’s only in future generations that experiencing can take place?

The Japanese attacked Hong Kong on December 8th, 1941 and my father was in charge of the Colony’s bakeries during the eighteen days of resistance. About a month after the Christmas Day surrender most British civilians were packed off to Stanley Internment Camp on a southern peninsula of the island. 

PP Stanley

But Thomas volunteered to stay uninterned, living in the occupied city, to bake bread for the hospitals, and in January 1942 he met my mother, Evelina, a Eurasian with a neutral Portuguese passport. They married in June:

PP Wedding photo

That’s Lieutenant Tanaka, a humane Japanese officer who befriended my parents. In May 1943, after the arrest of my father’s boss on spying charges, they were sent off to join the others in Stanley Camp, where they passed the rest of the war.

It’s crucial that this was very different from an experience of the Holocaust. So much so that the death rate in Stanley Camp was comparable to peace time. 

Now, ‘trauma’ is a tricky concept, but what’s common to most definitions is the idea of an experience so unpleasant and overwhelming that it defies immediate processing and leads to memory traces that make themselves felt later. My parents’ time in occupied Hong Kong was full of ongoing humiliations and deprivations. Stanley was massively over-crowded, the food was always inadequate and sometimes the rice came with weevils and mouse droppings.  There were also the kind of high impact traumas focus on which has given rise to the Bessel van Kolk and Cathy Caruth theorisation of events so overwhelming that they shut off ordinary consciousness and representation and leave an imprint of the experience burnt into the brain. A typical example of that kind of trauma: my father’s journey in quest of baking supplies, speeding through shells and shrapnel with a terrified and incompetent driver. A couple of years into the occupation he was involved in an attempt to keep a woman inside the billet so she wouldn’t see her husband being beheaded for resistance work on the beach below.

 PP Hyde

But worse than anything that happened – and a further complication of the concept ‘trauma’- was the fear of what might happen. In June 1942 my father played a role in the escape of a British soldier. To be interrogated about that would have been an unimaginable experience that he must have spent a lot of time imagining.

My mother had her own mental terrors. This passport photo is one of the few objects that survived internment:

PP passport photo

I think she must have kept her Portuguese credentials close during the period of mass rapes, mainly of Chinese women, that followed the British surrender.

Deprivation, high impact trauma, and terror about what might happen. Nevertheless, they both loved Hong Kong, and even wartime had some positive elements. In many ways activities and personal relations in Stanley Camp were more fulfilling than in pre-war society, and beneath the torpor there were new challenges and a sense that you might at any moment need all your human capacities in order to maximise chances of survival. There’s a certain nostalgia about some of the writings about Stanley that, again, takes us completely outside the world of the Holocaust, and indeed the death railway in Thailand and even other Japanese camps for civilians – significantly Ballard’s Lunghua was also one of the milder camps.

So what emerged in my parents was a complex form of memory in constant engagement with the conditions of their postwar life. They certainly didn’t seek to avoid wartime associations. When I was born in 1950 they were renting a flat next to a notorious Japanese torture chamber. Back in the UK, in 1955 my father designed a bungalow that echoed their billet in Stanley Camp, down to the parquet floor. The conscious stage of my formation of postmemory began in a house that acted as a mnemonic of the Hong Kong war.

PP Bungalow

The Kindness of Women, Ballard’s sequel to Empire of the Sun, makes it clear that in the greyness, literal and symbolic, of English life he came to long for the far eastern light of Shanghai and Lunghua, even to the extent of fantasising a return to the conditions of war through an atomic explosion. My parents remembered the traumas of the occupation in the way they did partly because in all the ennui and limitations of the 1950s they were nostalgic about a time that challenged every faculty just to survive. In the isolation of a nuclear family they were haunted by the camp’s communal living, even when that came as a bunk bed on the floor of a lounge shared with a couple they didn’t like. 

I knew my parents yearned for Hong Kong and in some ways for the life of internment so that acquired a powerful glamour for me. My mother had a music box and the tune it played I came to associate with Stanley. I learnt to turn the constant electrical hum in the air into that music, always playing somewhere above my left ear. I was, of course, seeking my own forms of escape from the greyness.

I’ve begun with that nostalgia, which was probably specific to a small percentage of settings, because of its importance in the most conscious parts of my postmemory. Although the terror, deprivation and horror experienced by British civilians in Hong Kong was not on the scale of other places it was more than enough to dominate post-war memory. I want to examine this through trying to answer the question:

How did their memory become my postmemory? How did that terror and horror come through to me? 

Like most of those who went through the occupation my parents decided not to speak much about it so as not to burden their children. But sometimes, in my father’s case, things forced their way out.  And it was the worst horrors he felt compelled to talk about – contrary to the idea that trauma resists linguistic representation. He told me about being with Mrs Hyde while her husband was executed on the beach below, alongside at least one other man he knew personally. He spoke about the way the Japanese forced the Chinese into junks and sunk them in the harbour for artillery practice. Always when he talked about this violence there was an underlying anger. It covered over his fear and it was directed both at the Japanese and at me, for not being able to understand. The only time he spoke in a different register was when he mentioned Captain Tanaka.

That was verbal transmission. Eva Hoffman tells us that the first transmission to her was not memories expressed in words, but ‘something closer to enactment of experience… the past broke through in the sounds of nightmares, the idiom of sighs and illness, of tears and (the) acute aches…’.

I was a fearful baby who sometimes wouldn’t sleep on his own, so I find that invocation of nightmares particularly resonant.  A key moment in my own understanding of the ‘idiom of illness’ came in about 1960 when I was 10. My mother had a nervous breakdown in which she spent most days lying on the sofa, stricken with headaches and suicidal thoughts. It was seen by the doctors and neurologists as a reaction to the menopause, which was of course part of the truth. But the real content of the experience – the terror of the war – was signalled clearly enough: her years of travail began the day she sat down and couldn’t stop her knees from trembling and it ended the day she sat down and her legs remained still. 

Between 1968 and 1972 I recreated their ordeal in occupied Hong Kong by building my own prison – obsessive reading for almost every waking hour which went on in its extreme form for almost exactly the duration of the occupation, three years and eight months. This was in some ways functional for someone doing a literature degree but the main purpose was to minimise the pressures of life in the late 1960s as I was unable to deal with them. After the degree, I escaped from my own prison through a nervous breakdown modelled on my mother’s, and actually found myself consulting one of the same neurologists.

I’ve described my creation of the music of Stanley and later breakdown as if they were free choices, and as an Existentialist of an extremely heretical kind I’m interested in the way some theorisations of trauma challenge the fundamental tenet of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness: no experience is so overwhelming as to deprive human consciousness of its freedom to choose its response. 

There’s an early but classic critique of Sartre’s theory of freedom by the American philosopher Vivian McGill which praises him for resisting, amongst other things, the use of trauma as cop out – he mentions Otto Rank’s idea that the personality is formed in large part by birth trauma. But McGill goes on to suggest that choices are inevitably made on the basis of our ‘psychobiological nature. Of course, Sartre denies that there’s any such thing as ‘human nature’, but both theory and my own experience put me with McGill on this issue.

I want to try to square the circle and suggest that both the original memory and the subsequent postmemory are created in a dialectic between freedom and determinism.

This is no simple dichotomy in which verbal communications leave consciousness existentially free and the kind of bodily-energetic-emotional messages described by Eva Hoffman compel a particular response. Nevertheless that type of transmission begins much earlier – my own experience suggests it begins in the womb, but in any case body messages begin at a time when the psyche is more open and more vulnerable and they don’t stop when the stories start. 

It’s in this bodily-emotional-energetic transmission that I find the most obvious limits of freedom. Sartre denies the existence of such a thing as human nature, but I believe that human subjectivity is pre-formed by evolution and one thing I’ve found about mine is that I react to the most powerful elements in my consciousness and some experiences are so powerful they leave little choice as to the form of reaction. An example. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, I’m filled with terror which, traced back, always has its origins in Japanese Hong Kong, although of course with way stations in my own life. Very early on my parents’ continuing terror forced its way into my consciousness. But at the same point at which choice was rendered impossible, freedom began. Introspection suggests that the terror is the liveliest state of my bodymind in the circumstances in which it occurs and for that reason I give consent to its reappearance, just as in the early 1970s I gave consent to various elements of unhappiness and turned them into a ‘nervous breakdown’.

So, contrary to much theorising, there are no repetitions, re-enactments or literal returns in the memory or the postmemory of trauma, only recreations, old feelings put to work in new situations in a way that can be called neither free nor determined, or both at the same time. 

In spite of all I’ve said, I do not believe that I experience my parents’ experience, that their belated traumas find their witness in my tears.

PP Stanley 1996

When I first stood in what once had been Stanley Civilian Internment Camp, a stunning location looking out over the South China Sea, I was overwhelmed with the thought that, amidst all this beauty, even if there had been nothing bad in my life except the reflection of the pain caused in this place, I would have been destroyed.

It was a comforting thought because it made so much clear, including the difference between my parents’ experience and my own. When I took on some of their memory, whether voluntarily or through being overwhelmed, it was in both cases knowing, crucially knowing, it was theirs not mine. Those tears while watching Empire of the Sun were of confusion not identification and even when I apparently cried my father’s tears at the dark world’s fire of hatred in Japanese Hong Kong I never lost the knowledge that they were his and that he had experienced the occupation not me. That’s why I could cry them.

As Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer so rightly suggest in their foundational text, we must resist the equation of memory and postmemory, especially when it comes marked with the specious authenticity of tears.

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Internee Burials in Stanley Military Cemetery: A Tentative Reconstruction

For me, and I’m sure many others, the most resonant area in what was once Stanley Civilian Internment Camp is the small cemetery where the internees buried their dead  and marked their graves with stones hewn and inscribed by a Russian police officer.

The cemetery was used in the early years of the Colony to bury British military personnel and their families, most of whom had succumbed to Hong Kong’s harsh (for Europeans) climate and the diseases it brought. It had been closed for a long time by 1941, but was re-opened to house those who died in Stanley. In this post I want to try to reconstruct the way in which the internees used the space available for burials. It is important to remember that the current cemetery is enlarged, added to and modified in various ways. And what are now CWGC stone memorials were wooden crosses as late as 1953. In the immediate post-war years the small cemetery must have made an even more powerful impact on visitors.

Let’s start by orientating ourself. This is the path that leads from St Stephen’s College down into the graveyard:


Bungalow C (more of which later) is just the other side of this path. All future directions as to left/right are from the perspective of someone walking down this path from the school. That means the sea is on your right; and here’s the view back up the path from a little way down: the curved graves are Victorian, the tall stones post-war:


A little further down we see two areas containing  graves of children who died in Stanley Camp:


All of the memorials are post-war, expect for the one marking the grave of Brian Gill, which is the first of the 1942-1945 stones we’ve encountered:


Brian died tragically in a drowning accident in May 1944, which, as we shall see, means his grave is not where we would expect it. My theory is this: children who died had their graves marked with a cross not a stone, and were all buried in this area – Brian Willey, who is commemorated on the stone to the (viewer’s) left of Brian Gill died on January 24, 1942, so was probably the first internee of any age to pass – his burial at this point might have established the area as one for the internment of children. After the war, the crosses were replaced with stones, which is why Brian Gill’s is the only original marker.

These two photos of one of the children’s areas in 1945 (courtesy of the Imperial War Museum’s non- commercial licence and kindly drawn to my attention by Sandy Wynd) support this theory (and show how different the cemetery was at that time):

Cemetery 1945

Cemetery 1945 2

The photos show Juan (or possibly Duane) and Dennis Clarke, who were interned with their parents, at the grave of their brother Anthony, who died on December 14, 1942 at the age of 12 days. If the IWM account is correct, this was one of the most poignant deaths from malnutrition in the camp.

My guess is that the original plan was to bury everyone starting from Brian Willey’s grave and moving downhill, but for some reason it was decided to continue a little bit further down. This is the view from the children’s graves to what was to become the main part of the cemetery:


The memorial (the large cross on a rounded plinth) is post-war, as is the white building on the left.

These are the first adult graves (you can see the white building again):


We are now going to see graves moving generally speaking down the hill (and keeping to the left side of the path), but Charles Bond died before John Shephard, and there was never an attempt to bury people in geometrical progression. There was plenty of space (the death rate in Stanley was remarkably low), so later graves could be dug in front of earlier ones:


Grayburn was never in Stanley. He died of malnutrition in the prison next to the camp, and because his wife was an internee (sharing Bungalow D with my parents and about 20 others) he was brought to the cemetery for burial. He was head of the HSBC and well-known throughout East Asia. He had been sent to prison for trying to smuggle money into camp – he and his fellow bankers had raised millions of pounds in today’s terms for relief work all over Hong Kong. His funeral probably saw the largest ever gathering in this cemetery.

In 1944 the ‘layering’ of graves on the left side of the path continued. This one had not only a short quotation, but an unusual visual adornment:


But that’s not the only reason for examining this photo. If you look to your left and go behind the grave of William Kershaw you will see two wartime stones, one marking the grave of Sgt. White of the Volunteers, and the other that of Abdul Haq, a gunner in the Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery who was killed on December 25, 1941. I think that Sergeant White was Norbert Leyburn White, who died on December 22nd.

The site of Stanley Camp had seen some of the bitterest fighting of the war. One of the things the internees had to do to make their new home livable was to find and bury the bodies that lay inside or just outside their perimeter. These are clearly the graves of two soldiers who fell in the defence of the Stanley area – the Japanese were fighting their way to Stanley Fort, where many soldiers from other units had retreated, and which would have been the centre of a ‘last stand’ if the British hadn’t surrendered. My guess is that these burials took place in late January or early February 1942 – most internees arrived on January 21. This is quite a way down the hill from the children’s graves, so it’s probable that at this early stage there was no consistent policy as to where people should be buried. I think that begins with the graves of Bond and Shephard (above).

The layering policy continued into 1945: here are two graves from that year close to one from 1944:


‘F. A. Sutton’ was better known as One Arm Sutton, a general in the Chinese army who died of malnutrition and some would say despair. Interestingly, only three British men ever became Chinese generals: the best known is Gordon of Khartoum (aka ‘Chinese Gordon’) and the other two were in Stanley (Morris ‘Two-Gun’ Cohen was repatriated with the Canadians in September 1943).

When Bungalow C was accidentally bombed by the Americans in January 1945 the victims were buried on this side:


Nevertheless, at some point in 1944 burials began to take place on the right side of the path as well:


J. S. Anderson had also been in Bungalow D with my parents, but by the time he died he had moved (there was a big change around in the Bungalow in late 1944, something that made my parents’ lives a bit easier – I’ll explain why in a future post). I think the building in the background (also visible in the next photo) was the one where the American diplomats were housed before joining their co-nationals in the June 1942 repatriation.

The right side continued to be used in 1945:


John Owen Hughes was a member of both the Legislative and Executive Councils. In the background you can see the grave of David Charles Edmondston, Grayburn’s Number 2 at the HSBC, who also died of malnutrition, about a year after his boss. Edmondston had also been part of the banker’s fund-raising effort, but in his case was imprisoned for being in contact with Consul John Reeves in Macao.

In summary, we can see that there was a general tendency to move down hill as the months went on, and to keep to the left hand side of the path. Some time in 1944 burials began on the right hand side, while continuing on the left – those on the right hand side were at roughly the same level as those on the left.

L. A. Collyer, who was in charge of Hong Kong’s mental hospital, noted in his camp diary that the graveyard was almost full by August 1945. On the face of it, there’s lots of space at different points – but I wonder if this is an illusion caused by post-war enlargements?

I’ll end with another question. This memorial to those murdered in the Christmas Day massacre at the St Stephen’s emergency hospital (which took place in another part of what was to become the camp) is to the right of the path (going downhill, as always) and close to the entrance to the College:


If it dates from the war, it is the largest structure to have been erected. But would the Japanese have allowed it, even with the uncontroversial wording? And the other stones are thought to have been pre-war markers – what was this larger one? Did it go up very soon after liberation?

Note: Those interested in the Cemetery might wish to consult Philip Cracknell’s carefully researched account of those who are buried here






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It is always necessary to say that ‘old Hong Kong’ was racist!

In a number posts on this blog I’ve presented evidence that some portraits of the racism of pre-war Hong Kong are exaggerated. In this one, for example, I show that it was NOT possible for Europeans to murder Chinese people to minimise their financial outlay after causing a car accident. And here I show that the Colony’s social life did not entail an apartheid-style separation in which  ‘Europeans’ (a rough synonym for ‘whites’ in pre-war texts) never came together with men and women of other ethnicities to relax and enjoy themselves.

In drawing attention to such matters I’ve been putting a hand on the tiller, reacting to what I perceive as the biases of my immediate predecessors. In this case I’ve been correcting what I regard as the excesses and inaccuracies of a position I’m in substantial agreement with. In the first period after the war, the endemic racism of pre-war Hong Kong tended to be ignored or downplayed by much of the work published in English. In the second period historians quite rightly emphasised that race structured, or at least influenced, almost all aspects of life. Philip Snow and Gerald Horne are two historians whose work, published in the early years of the new millennium, played an important role in bringing about this understanding, and I discuss some aspects of Dr Eddie Gosano’s eye-witness account (1997) of Hong Kong racism below.  I regard myself as in the ‘third stage’, building on and replying to those writers – not attempting to deny, disguise, or minimise racism in old Hong Kong but to describe it more precisely.

Nevertheless, an ebook has come my way which makes me realise that I shouldn’t take the advances of the ‘second stage’ for granted.

Three Years Eight Months: The Japanese Occupation by Jenny Chan and Derek Pua is published by Pacific Atrocities Education and has an introduction by Sarah Kleeb, who is connected with Toronto-based Alpha Education. This is their Mission Statement:

ALPHA Education is an educational NGO, non-profit, and registered charity in Canada that promotes a critical-historical investigation of the events of World War II in Asia. Our mission is to foster awareness of an often overlooked aspect of World War II history, in the interest of furthering the values of justice, peace, and reconciliation, both for survivors of the past and for those who shape the historical narratives of the present and future.

This is admirable, and I support these goals 100%. How far the book under discussion contributes to these aims is a question I shall consider on another occasion.

As I’ve indicated above, the matter I want to discuss in this post is different. Here is what Chan and Pua have to say about the Hong Kong that the Japanese attacked:

Under the rule of the British, Hong Kong was transformed from a series of insignificant fishing villages into a booming centre of international commerce. By the 1920s, Hong Kong was a rather urbanised city with modern style buildings on both sides of Victoria Harbor. (Location 134)

Up until this point the account of the history of Hong Kong has, although necessarily brief, been judicious. They don’t fall for the ‘barren rock’ myth but describe it  as ‘a small coastal settlement of the Qing Dynasty’ – tiny, but not completely undeveloped and part of a much greater whole whose culture it could draw from. There were, in fact, villages, markets and even schools – the authors could strengthen their account by drawing on the work of Ko Tim-keung, but given the space at their disposal, what they say is reasonable enough and I think we should still emphasise the remarkable transformation brought about under British rule (often by Chinese enterprise, of course). And the authors don’t disguise the fact that Hong Kong was filched – in the first of the ‘unequal treaties’ – in a war fought partly on behalf of opium merchants, while also mentioning that broader issues of ‘trade’ were also relevant.

So far so good; but if we have space for the up-to-date buildings of Victoria (now Central) and Kowloon then we also have space for the racism of those who ruled over them.

Both authors are, I think, partly or wholly of Chinese ethnicity, and both have links to Hong Kong, so I’m not accusing them of ignorance or of a sinister cover-up. But I think it was an error of judgement to leave out the racial realities of pre-war Hong Kong. In my view, any account that aims to introduce people to the colonial order that came to an end in December 1941 needs to at least mention this.


Because, although the Colony was not racist in every single aspect of its life, racism was prevalent enough for it to be an unavoidable daily issue for the 98% of its citizens who were Chinese, and for members of the other non-European nationalities. If we want to understand the history of the Japanese occupation we should not forget this.

Let me give two examples of that racism. The first relates to the ‘structure’ of Hong Kong life, the second is what is sometimes called ‘anecdotal evidence’.

The Hong Kong Government, for all its commitment to a modified version of ‘laissez faire’ capitalism, was inevitably a major employer of labour, and as such it operated a cynically racist pay system. Dr Eduardo Gosano, a Portuguese medic who performed heroic work during the hostilities and the first part of the occupation, left for Macao in June 1942 where he showed a different kind of courage, joining and for a period of time leading, the British Army Aid Group’s cell in the Portuguese colony. He was one of those on the BAAG Mission that left Macao for Hong Kong to carry a message to Franklin Gimson instructing him to set up a provisional British administration in the wake of the Japanese surrender.

Before the war Dr Gosano was paid significantly less than his ‘white’ colleagues, and, after the war, in spite of all his work for the British and the good intentions of many in the new Government, equal pay was not achieved before he left, with some understandable bitterness, for the USA. His autobiography, published in 1997, the year of the handover to China, was entitled Farewell to Hong Kong.

It wasn’t just the medical services that paid people according to their race.

Chief of Police in 1941 was John Pennefather-Evans, a man of the old school who believed that if a European police officer married a Chinese or Eurasian woman (the police were all male) he should lose his job.  Pennefather-Evans produced a report while in camp that explained that one reason for recruiting the  Russian police contingent in the 1930s – long before he came to Hong Kong himself – was that, as refugees, they could be paid less than other ‘whites’. Indians and Chinese, of course, were on still lower scales. Again, we need to be fair: Pennefather-Evans  recommended that non-Europeans be paid more generously after the war, although not on the same scale as ‘Europeans’, who should also be given a raise.

And what of the ‘anecdote’? It is important when analysing racism – or anything else – not to rely on such evidence, which can be used to ‘prove’ almost anything, but to offer as much statistical or analytical material as possible. Nevertheless, some stories can help us get to the heart of an issue in a way that statistical information alone cannot do.

Chemistry Professor Clifford Matthews was a science student at the University of Hong Kong before the war. Already a man of wide culture, he loved European classical music, worked behind the scenes on productions of George Bernard Shaw and enjoyed discussing the Romantic poets with friends studying the arts. As a British subject he was conscripted into the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Force, and when war came he and his younger brother were in the largely Eurasian No. 3 Company. The Volunteers generally acquitted themselves well in the 18 day defence of Hong Kong, but many sources, including the commanding officer, Major-General Christopher Maltby, single out No. 3 Company for its unshakable determination in defending the crucial pass of Wongneichong Gap against a much larger Japanese force.

Matthews was an enthusiastic cricketer before the war, and he’d already experienced racism when he was allowed to play at, but not to join, the Hong Kong Cricket Club. At some point during the hostilities he encountered it again. He showed up at the Matilda Hospital to ask for treatment for a wound and he was given an admission form to fill in. When he returned the form with the word ‘Eurasian’ on it, he was told to seek medical help somewhere else.

That story leaps out and grabs me by the throat over seventy five years later. Of course, I too am a Eurasian and an academic, but I’m sure that’s not the only reason. To me it’s a potent reminder that even in a brief survey we should point out the racism that characterised Hong Kong society on the eve of the Japanese attack.

Note on sources:

The story of Clifford Matthew’s wartime experience is told on page 15 of Vicky Lee’s excellent Being Eurasian: Memories Across Racial Divides; Matthew’s own account of his life, which does not mention this incident, can be found in Dispersal and Renewal: Hong Kong University During The War Years.

J. P. Pennefather-Evans’s ‘Interim Report on the Hong Kong Police’ is in HKMS149 1/5 (Royal Hong Kong Police Force Historical Records) in the HK PRO.

I read Dr Gosano’s Farewell To Hong Kong at the London Imperial War Museum. It doesn’t seem to be available to purchase at the moment.






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

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

Sammy Carr Party

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

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

Housewarming March 1939

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

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

This is part of Horne’s indictment:

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

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

Sammy Carr Same Party

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

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

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

Housewarming March 1939

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

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

Sammy Carr Same Party

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

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

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

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







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