Cecil ‘Sammy’ Carr

In February 1939 my father Thomas Edgar went on an outing to Shaukiwan with some friends from Lane Crawford (he’s the balding one behind the woman):


On the back of the photo, which he sent home to his family, in Windsor, he identified the others as Jean {Miller Whyte}, Charlie and Sammy.  The next month he attended a housewarming party at ‘Sammy Carr’s’ with ‘all the fellows from the store’:


I think that makes the man sitting at he front left of the photo Sammy Carr as he’s the only one apart from my father in both photos. The (unidentified) man seated next to him looks to me Eurasian, or possibly Chinese. Tommy Waller – who was in fact with Tramways not Lane Crawford – is seated next to my father (to the  left of the photo). The two men (unidentified, but see below) on his other side look to me rather like brothers.

Who was Sammy Carr? Those who know old Hong Kong’s ex-patriate community’s love of nicknames won’t be surprised to learn that actually wasn’t his name.

Cecil Carr  was born in Buxton, Derbyshire on August, 14, 1912. [1] His father was described in the 1911 Census as  a ‘chauffeur’ working in a ‘public garage’. I don’t know if that means he drove a bus, but, in any case, this would have been a link with  Thomas, as his father Herbert was also a driver – for the army in 1911, for an Indian businessman after the war. Not many people drove professionally at this time.

At some point Cecil moved to Cheltenham where he worked for the retailers then known as John Sainsbury. His mother died  in June, 1923, and as the death was recorded in the Gloucester District he might have been caring for her.[2] In any case, on August 11, 1936 Cecil sailed to Hong Kong on the Ranpura. On the manifest his age is given as 23 and his job as ‘shop assistant’.  He was leaving John Sainsbury to work for Lane Crawford.

I can’t be sure of the address of the house where the March 1939 party took place, but the most likely location was 76, Morrison Hill Road,  where, according to the Jurors List, Mr. Carr  was living in 1941.[3]  Another Lane Crawford employee, Frederick Ivan Hall, is also listed as living at No. 76.[4] By 1941 my father had moved to live with Tommy Waller in Broadwood Road, but in 1939 he was living close by – at 82 Morrison Hill Road, an address also given to William Walter Miles, a butcher with the Dairy Farm. According to his friend Patrick Sheridan – who was to win the Military Medal for escaping from Japanese-occupied Hong Kong –  my father was living in a company flat, so I guess number 76 was too. I’m not sure if these flats really had double occupancy, but in any case Frederick Hall – who was to be executed by the Japanese on October 29, 1943 – is an obvious possibility for one of the two unidentified men sitting on the sofa.

At Lane Crawford, the most important department store in Hong Kong, Mr. Carr was known for his knack of remembering customers’ names and their likes and dislikes. [5] Outside work, like most ‘white’ (and many ‘non-white’) Hong Kong  males, he enjoyed sport: he was a keen lawn bowls player and always took an interest in Hong Kong Football Club for which he played in his early days.[6] The interest in bowls continued until the war and was  a further link with my father, as they both played for the Lane Crawford  company team, matches being reported in January, February and July 1941.

I have not been able to find any record of Mr. Carr’s activities during the Japanese attack (December 8-25, 1941); it’s most likely he was assigned to work for Food Control, whose job it was to try to make sure the entire population got fed. By this time he’d risen to the position of Grocery and Provisions manager, so this would have been a natural appointment. He almost certainly was not in the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps, because, if he’d served in uniform he would have been held during the occupation in Shamshuipo POW Camp, not Stanley Civilian Internment Camp. Before being sent to Stanley he was kept for a couple of weeks in Room 401 of the Mee Chow Hotel. Lane Crawford manager A. W. Brown and another company employee were in the same room and others in 403, so this might have been the location of some of  the Lane Crawford contingent in Food Control.[7]

It was  A. W. Brown who made the farewell presentation to Mr. Carr when he left the company in the summer of 1949. He stated that, while in Stanley, Cecil had paid so much attention to the comfort of others he found himself eventually without even a bed space.[8] Anyone familiar with conditions in the camp will understand the significance of such unselfishness. Brown’s praise for his ‘excellent work’ is all the more telling because he himself was awarded an OBE for his services in Stanley, where he ran the canteen. The only other thing I’ve been able to find out about his time in Stanley comes in a diary entry: on July 23, 1945 Barbara Anslow records that one ‘S. Carr’ attended a meeting of the tiny group of pacifists.[9] This was probably him, as he seems to have been generally known as ‘Sammy’, but I don’t know if he was a pacifist himself or just an interested observer.

Mr. Brown’s speech -which accompanied the presentation of a solid gold cigarette case – tells us that Carr played a role in restoring food supplies after the British fleet arrived on August 30, 1945, but I’ve not yet been able to find out  more about this. On December 12 he was called for repatriation on the Highland Chieftain, which was to sail about December 20.  This ship was delayed and he probably returned to the UK for recuperation leave on another vessel. On September 14, 1946 he left London to return to Hong Kong on the Otranto. He’d been living at an address in Knustford, Cheshire.

By the time he left Lane Crawford in June or July 1949 he was manager of the Food Department. He was planning a two month holiday in South Africa before returning to the UK,[10] and he set sail on August 10, 1949.[11]

Cecil Carr died in Stockport, Cheshire in October 1996. He was 84.



[1] http://person.ancestry.co.uk/tree/11293790/person/815921112/facts

[2] http://person.ancestry.co.uk/tree/11293790/person/815901701/facts

[3] http://gwulo.com/jurors-list-1941

[4] http://gwulo.com/jurors-list-1941

[5] ‘Farewell Gift’, SCMP, July 1, 1949, p. 5.

[6] ‘Farewell Gift’, SCMP, July 1, 1949, p. 5.

[7] http://www.hongkongwardiary.com/searchgarrison/nonuniformedcivilians.html

[8] ‘Farewell Gift’, SCMP, July 1, 1949, p. 5.

[9] http://gwulo.com/node/12331

[10] ‘Farewell Gift’, SCMP, July 1, 1949, p. 5.

[11] SCMP, August 11, 1949, p. 4.




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A Note on the Nutrition Research Committee (1938)

Sometime before November 10, 1938 the Hong Kong Government set up an enlarged Nutrition Research Committee.[1] Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, the socialist Director of Medical Services (DMS), who had arrived in April, was the Chairman, and to me the whole thing looks to be his handiwork. The Committee’s new functions emerged from his battle against TB, which was responsible for one death in nine in the Colony in 1937, but its remit was wider:

(Its) duty will be to ascertain the amount of malnutrition in Hong Kong and to devise measures to counter the effects and prevent the occurrence of malnutrition as far as possible.

The wily DMS never separated public health from politics: other aspects of his war on TB included improved housing and higher wages! A few of the 4,000 TB deaths in 1937 must have been Europeans – in Stanley Internment Camp, where high standards of health prevailed, a death or two was recorded. This meant that the DMS was guaranteed the support of highly health-anxious European Hong Kong in his attempt to eradicate the disease. Without suggesting for one moment there was anything hypocritical about Selwyn-Clarke’s campaign – of course he really wanted to rid Hong Kong of TB – there’s no doubt in my mind that in choosing to approach this problem ‘from various angles’ he had a political agenda too.

And this apparently apolitical committee is in itself a myth-busting development.

For a start, its members included one woman and, judging by names, two Chinese, as well as some eminent ‘Europeans’: the Chief Justice, Sir Atholl MacGregor for one, and the University contributed three professors, including Lindsay Ride (later leader of the resistance group the BAAG and Selwyn-Clarke’s sternest wartime critic), and Professor Gordon King as well as senior lecturer Geoffrey Herklots. Remember the purpose of the committee –which set up three sub-committees concerned with science, sociology and publicity – was to help the poorest of Hong Kong Chinese by establishing their nutritional deficit. I’m sure that, once it had armed Selwyn-Clarke with the facts about malnutrition he would have used them to argue for measures that would have addressed far broader problems than the greater susceptibility of the malnourished to TB.

And one passage of the Committee’s eventual report is worth quoting (Hong Kong was full of refugees fleeing the Sino-Japanese War and 13,000 – a rather trivial percentage – were in Government run camps):

An investigation into the calorie value of the diets given at the Government Refugee Camps showed that they had the following approximate values:- Men, 3,200; Women 2,600; Children seven to fourteen years old, 2000; Children under seven years, 1,300 calories. The proportions were correct, but the quantities were somewhat on the generous side.

Well, of all the mean-spirited, Scrooge-like – I bet they wouldn’t have treated ‘whites’ like that – thank goodness we have a fine historian like Gerald Horne to uncover the racist brutality of the British[2]…oh, hang on, there’s more:

It was decided it was desirable to continue giving these quantities because many refugees were undernourished on admission to the camps.


In other words, some of Hong Kong’s most eminent citizens met in a multi-racial committee set up to help the colony’s poorest residents – with almost no exceptions Chinese. They conducted careful scientific and sociological investigations, and in discussing the diets of the refugees in the camps they were responsible for, they decided to overfeed them to make up for past deprivation.

This doesn’t, of course, prove that ‘old Hong Kong’ was a paradise of race-free benevolence. But – with Horne still sometimes quoted as a reliable source[3] – it does underline the need for serious and detailed analysis of the nature of racism and anti-racism in the years leading up to the Japanese attack.

[1] Minutes., Hong Kong Legislative Council, 10 November, 1938, p. 170.

[2] Gerald Horne, Race War! The Japanese Attack on the British Empire, 2003.

[3] http://www.urbanphoto.net/blog/2016/07/25/how-hong-kong-forgot-the-battle-to-save-it/

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How studying the Hong Kong war made me a (sort of) Existentialist (2): the Resistance

In the previous post I offered an obviously very brief and simplified version of Sartre’s Existentialist philosophy under the rubric ‘How studying the Hong Kong war made me a (sort of) Existentialist’. In this post I’ll explain that statement.

Sartre 1967 crop.jpg

Sartre in 1967

By http://www.flickr.com/people/69061470@N05http://www.flickr.com/photos/government_press_office/6470403371/, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37461801

Of course, I need to stress ‘sort of’: I think it’s clear from my current vantage point (Europe in 2016) that all ‘isms’ and systematic philosophies are deeply flawed. In Sartre’s case, for example, he makes an unwarranted leap from ‘freedom’ as (he believes) a fact of consciousness to ‘freedom’ as a moral value  – it is a good thing to fully accept and use your freedom to create your own actions when his philosophy gives him no grounds on which to distinguish good from bad.

So what exactly do I find useful about Existentialism?

I spend a lot of time contemplating the actions of the Hong Kong resistance, the men and women of all races and backgrounds who fought back against the Japanese occupiers while fully realising what would happen to them if they were caught. How could they have shown such courage? I think Sartre’s Existentialism suggests part – it is only part, and it might only be a small part – of the answer.

Why did they do it?

Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, Chief Manager of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, and resistance agent – Code name ‘Night’

Wikipedia – The original uploader was Clithering at Chinese Wikipedia

I think that most of the resisters themselves would have accepted Jesuit Father Bourke’s comment on the banker Charles Hyde as true for them too, whether they saw their patriotism and sense of duty as directed towards Britain, China, India, America or Canada:

Mr Hyde and others thought it their patriotic duty to form a branch of the British intelligence service. (Hong Kong Public Records Office, ‘Father Bourke, ‘Release’, p. 3)

Perhaps we could offer some kind of formula: patriotism PLUS sense of duty PLUS courage PLUS opportunity PLUS hatred of the enemy = resistance? Sartre’s Existentialism stands in opposition to this and all formulae, even ones much more complex and sophisticated than that!

Early in the great masterwork of Existentialist theory he published in 1943 he wrote:

(I)t is a human act only in so far as it surpasses every explanation which we can give of it…(Being and Nothingness, translated Hazel Barnes, 35.)

Philip Mairet, the editor and translator of my edition of Existentialism And Humanism, claims that pre-Existentialist philosophers omitted ‘man, in the total, unfathomable inwardness of his being’. (Existentialism and Humanism, 7.) It’s that unfathomableness I want to take from Sartre (but for a caveat, see below).

In the case I’m discussing, the resistance, feelings of patriotism or duty surge up in consciousness in a particular way: Sartre’s image is that they are surrounded by a shell of nothingness, and what that means in practise is that they never occupy the whole of consciousness and so can’t compel it to act in a particular way. There’s always room for something else in our psyches, and that makes choice not just possible but unavoidable – I tried to explain this using the example of hunger in the previous post.

Moreover, human acts are inevitably directed towards the future, and the future cannot be determined by the past: if I breathe in, it usually implies an intention to breathe out, but I might choose to hold my breath in an attempt at suicide (Shelley has a character in his play The Cenci do away with himself in this unlikely manner!). So even after breathing in has apparently determined what happens next, the outbreath can only come from a free choice. The whole thrust of Existentialism is to deny the proverbial saying that ‘He who says A must say B‘.

So  we choose our future, out of those acts that are possible to us in the situation we find ourselves in, and when a resister contemplates an act of resistance the fear she feels does not stop her doing it nor does her courage (or whatever emotion arises from it) make her do it. She acts in a certain way because she chooses to do so

And even when I’ve chosen to become an agent of the British Army Aid Group, that choice has to be remade at every relevant moment, because in Sartre’s theory even one’s own past decisions can’t take away freedom in the present.

My past acts of resistance might well lead the person observing me to believe I’m going to make a drawing of the Japanese ship in the harbour and send it on to the BAAG in Waichow. But being human means being able to imagine otherwise – the feeling of bravery is only possible because at the very moment I feel it I’m aware of the possibility of being a coward, to tell myself that something is ‘my duty’ means that I know I might not accept it as such, and the past occasions on which I’ve opted to gather information do not exist in my mind as an inert mass forcing a mechanically-operating will to make the same decision now as I did then.

I think Sartre’s theory captures the ultimately mysterious nature of human choice. This was not necessarily his intention: he had no time for explaining things by ‘inexplicable original givens’ (Being, 560) although perhaps it was more the nature of these ‘givens’ (Freudian drives, character traits etc.) than their mystery he objected to.

But can we be content with saying that David Loie, Mateen Ansari, Charles Hyde, Ellen Field and the rest of the Hong Kong resistance committed their ‘valorous acts’ simply because they chose to do so? And that those who collaborated with the Japanese chose that course of action?

That would seem to be either nonsense, or unhelpful, or both, and Sartre himself gives the lie to it when he discusses those French people who went over to the Nazis:

(E)very nation has its underside, that fringe of failures and embittered men who were quick to profit from disasters and revolutions….(Paris Under Occupation, Kindle edition, Location 296)

In this passage Sartre acknowledges that a subjective fact (being embittered) and an objective fact (social failure) can contribute to the individual’s choice of the path of collaboration. As the post-war period went on, and he identified more and more with the socialist left, he became concerned to integrate the Marxist focus on social factors, particularly class, into his theory. In 1960, a couple of years after Gunn first published the poem discussed in the previous post, Sartre was abandoning the ‘classic’ Existentialism that inspired it. In Search for a Method (1960) he claimed to view his philosophy as an adjunct to Marxism:

It {Existentialism} is a parasitical system living on the margin of Knowledge, which at first it opposed but into which today it seeks to be integrated.

But he stresses he isn’t going to seek to ‘dissolve’ Existentialism into Marxism, his monumental Critique of Dialectical Reason – to which Search for a Method  was a preface attempted to bring the two together, with concessions on both sides. In it Sartre abandoned Gunn’s ‘solitary man’ and sought to discuss such matters of obvious concern to Marxists as ‘class being’: if, as his earlier work had claimed nobody ‘is’ a thief or a coward but has to re-make themselves as such freely at every moment without being forced by their own past decisions or their current motives (such as greed or fear) then shouldn’t we say the same about class?  But to argue that no-one ‘is’ a proletarian or a bourgeois is apparently to undermine Marxism, which insists on the objective reality independent of individual consciousness of classes and their relations (Critique of Dialectical Reason, 231 ff.)

Sartre’s answer need not detain us. It’s based on creating a new vocabulary of analysis and what in Being and Nothingness he called ‘facticity’, the existence of the unchosen objective realities (like class, nationality and gender) that constitute the possibilities of an individual but do not take away their freedom to choose.

It is indeed necessary to analyse the ‘facticity’ of the resisters and of everyone else caught up in the dark world’s fire of the occupation, but I don’t find Sartre of more than occasional use in that analysis, brilliant though his insights often are.

And I must end by pointing out that I’ve been engaging in a sleight of hand. I’ve stated that I find Existentialism useful because it points me towards the inexplicable and incomprehensible aspect of choice. I’ve developed this idea in discussing the actions of the men and women of the Hong Kong resistance. These are actions which, in a perfectly ordinary and unphilosophical sense of the word, I find it hard to understand: how could people have been so brave and have risked so much?

Tombstone of Mateen Ansari: By Cougarwalk at en.wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15495191

But Sartre intended his theory to apply to all acts, so we must accept an equally ‘unfathomable’ element in the decisions I soon expect to take when I make myself lunch, and in the very fact of my choice to eat at about noon.

The 600 plus pages of Being and Nothingness don’t seem nearly so necessary to me in an analysis of what is about to happen in my kitchen as they do in trying to understand the actions of the men and women who fought back against the Japanese.

Note: In the final part of this series I’ll explain why I think it’s useful for historians of the Hong Kong occupation to keep Paris under the Germans in their line of vision.


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How studying the Hong Kong war made me a (sort of) Existentialist (1): In the Piazza del Popolo:

Recently I fulfilled a long-standing ambition: I read aloud Thom Gunn’s ‘In Santa Maria del Popolo’ in the Piazza del Popolo, and then visited the church which houses the Caravaggio painting that is the poem’s subject. After the reading – but before the visit – I discussed the poem with the friends I had come to Rome with.

Conversion on the Way to Damascus-Caravaggio (c.1600-1).jpg

Caravaggio: Conversione di San Paulo (The Conversion on the Road to Damascus, 1601 – Wikipedia)

I had planned to visit the church before the reading and discussion, but like much else on this day – a tour under the rubric ‘From Seneca to Sartre’ – things didn’t go according to plan.

Piazza del Popolo

Questers in the Piazza del Popolo: Photo – Sue

We opened the church door a couple of minutes after 10 a.m., found a mass had just begun, and a request not to visit during services prominently displayed. We swapped round the order of events and found a suitable place in the square for a reading and discussion.

Piazza del Popolo By WolfgangM – Flickr.comOriginal photo [1], CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=352543Displaying IMG_1849.JPG

I’ll give the whole poem first and then break it down for exposition as I did on the day:

In Santa Maria del Popolo (1958)

Waiting for when the sun an hour or less

Conveniently oblique makes visible

The painting on one wall of this recess

By Caravaggio, of the Roman School,

I see how shadow in the painting brims

With a real shadow, drowning all shapes out

But a dim horse’s haunch and various limbs,

Until the very subject is in doubt.


But evening gives the act, beneath the horse

And one indifferent groom, I see him sprawl,

Foreshortened from the head, with hidden face,

Where he has fallen, Saul becoming Paul.

O wily painter, limiting the scene

From a cacophony of dusty forms

To the one convulsion, what is it you mean

In that wide gesture of the lifting arms?


No Ananias croons a mystery yet,

Casting the pain out under name of sin.

The painter saw what was, an alternate

Candor and secrecy inside the skin.

He painted, elsewhere, that firm insolent

Young whore in Venus’ clothes, those pudgy cheats,

Those sharpers; and was strangled, as things went,

For money, by one such picked off the streets.


I turn, hardly enlightened, from the chapel

To the dim interior of the church instead,

In which there kneel already several people,

Mostly old women: each head closeted

In tiny fists holds comfort as it can.

Their poor arms are too tired for more than this —

For the large gesture of solitary man,

Resisting, by embracing, nothingness.


Gunn begins in the Cerasi Chapel:

Cerasi Chapel (‘this recess’) in Santa Maria del Popolo, I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16783118

He’s there at a time when the light conditions make it impossible to properly view Caravaggio’s painting:

Waiting for when the sun an hour or less

Conveniently oblique makes visible

The painting on one wall of this recess

By Caravaggio, of the Roman School,

I see how shadow in the painting brims

With a real shadow, drowning all shapes out

But a dim horse’s haunch and various limbs,

Until the very subject is in doubt.

Of course, the way in which ‘real shadow’ mixes with Caravaggio’s famous chiaroscuro so as to make the ‘shapes’ of the horse, the groom and Paul himself impossible to discern has an obvious symbolic significance: the meaning of the painting is what’s unclear and will elude the poet until a moment of epiphany in the main body of the church. And of course ‘the meaning of life’ – the subject of the final stanza – is also rather hard to make out!

Then the light changes, and the poet gets to see the painting properly:

But evening gives the act, beneath the horse

And one indifferent groom, I see him sprawl,

Foreshortened from the head, with hidden face,

Where he has fallen, Saul becoming Paul. 

So Saul, a Jewish man who persecuted Christians, is shown in the act of becoming Paul, a Christian himself now and the key figure in spreading the new faith to the non-Jewish world. But Gunn feels that it’s Paul’s arms that Caravaggio wants us to focus on:

O wily painter, limiting the scene

From a cacophony of dusty forms

To the one convulsion, what is it you mean

In that wide gesture of the lifting arms?

Detail of The Conversion – from Lets Explore Art (https://letsexploreart.wordpress.com/2014/10/09/light-and-dark-caravaggios-paul/)

The next section of the poem speculates as to what the painter might have meant:

No Ananias croons a mystery yet,

Casting the pain out under name of sin.

Thom Gunn was an atheist and in those two lines he’s rejecting any Christian interpretation of Paul’s experience. In the Acts of the Apostles Paul is blinded by his vision but continues on to Damascus where a resident called Ananias gets a divine message to find him and heal his sight. So Gunn is saying that the painting captures a moment before Paul had accepted a (false) Christian interpretation of his experience. Caravaggio gets this right and shows us the real Paul before he was misled by Christian terms like ‘sin’:

The painter saw what was, an alternate

Candor and secrecy inside the skin.

Caravaggio, unlike the author of the Acts, is not so blinded by his faith that he can’t see ‘what was’.  His Paul, Gunn suggests, is an honest man but one  with secrets. What happens next in the poem is a bit strange: rather than elaborate on this theme, Gunn apparently goes off on a tangent and describes some other Caravaggio works and recounts a story that I think is no longer given much credence about the painter’s murder by a young man he’d picked up:

He painted, elsewhere, that firm insolent

Young whore in Venus’ clothes, those pudgy cheats,

Those sharpers; and was strangled, as things went,

For money, by one such picked off the streets. 

‘Pudgy cheats’ is a reference to a well-known painting called The Cardsharps:

Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi) - The Cardsharps - Google Art Project.jpg

Caravaggio – nAFtN9HI0FxbaQ at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23608545

I’m not sure about the ‘firm insolent/ Young whore in Venus’ clothes’ though. Caravaggio, like other artists of the time, sometimes used prostitutes as models but I haven’t been able to find a work of his that matches the description.

Anyway, the poem was first published in 1958 and Gunn is being careful. He’s hinting that Paul’s secrets are sexual ones, possibly homosexual ones. Caravaggio was most likely gay and Gunn was openly so. Born in England, he followed the path beaten by Auden and Isherwood – who we tracked a couple of years ago in Berlin – to a big American city – in his case San Francisco –  where he was much freer to live the life he wanted. But actually the idea of Paul as secretive and possibly gay does have some support: in 2 Corinthians Paul mentions a ‘thorn in my flesh’ and this has been interpreted as migraines, malaria, epilepsy, bad eyesight – all kinds of things, including homosexuality. I don’t think that’s a very popular theory these days, but Paul certainly keeps the nature of the thorn ‘secret’!

This is a good time to say that I don’t think Gunn for one moment believed that Caravaggio’s interpretation of the incident on the road to Damascus was the one that he’s offering in this poem. Caravaggio was a Christian and understood the passage in Acts as – well, as Gunn himself puts it, ‘Saul becoming Paul’,  a description of the violent birth of a Christian hero. The poem’s first stanza has told us ‘the very subject {of the painting} is in doubt’ and what Gunn gives us is his own attempt to pluck meaning out of obscurity, not to offer a historically accurate ‘reading’ of the painting.

We get Gunn’s own ‘vision’  in the tremendous concluding stanza, which to my mind is the best thing in the post-war English poets:

I turn, hardly enlightened, from the chapel 

To the dim interior of the church instead,

 In which there kneel already several people,

Mostly old women: each head closeted

 In tiny fists holds comfort as it can.

Their poor arms are too tired for more than this —

For the large gesture of solitary man,

Resisting, by embracing, nothingness.

The poet leaves the Chapel ‘hardly enlightened’, still not really understanding what the painter was trying to communicate – and there’s a pun here too as the poem is full of images of light and dark, partly as hommage to Caravaggio’s mastery of chiaroscuro. But as he re-enters the main body of the church, he sees the faithful kneeling at prayer – ‘mostly old women’, and some cradling their heads in their hands. Now he understands! Their gesture is the opposite of Paul’s; it’s an attempt by the weary and the defeated to administer a kind of self-hugging that will give them a little comfort in their misery. So what’s Paul doing flinging open his arms like that?  Not comforting himself obviously, but the key word is the one the poem ends with-  ‘nothingness’. Gunn postulates that Paul is doing two impossible and apparently contradictory things at once: how can you resist nothingness, how can you embrace it, and above all how can you do both at the same time?

Gunn's Meaning

Photo: Chrissie

To answer these questions we need to realise that ‘nothingness’ is a technical term in a form of philosophy that European intellectuals were much concerned with in the post-war period.

In 1943, in the middle of the German occupation of Paris, Jean-Paul Sartre published the first important statement of his Existentialist philosophy – Being and Nothingness. As someone pointed out, that must be the most comprehensive title of all time- it covers everything! This is a long and very difficult text and in 1946 he published L”Existentialisme est un Humanisme (‘Existentialism is a {form of} Humanism’) which in spite of its rather ponderous title is short and much easier to understand. It’s these two works that formed most of the basis of Sartre’s influence when Gunn was writing (the poem was first published in the October 1958 issue of a magazine called Poetry).

Our target word ‘nothingness’ is in the title of the first of the two books I mentioned, so what does it mean? A number of things, and I’ll offer an inevitably simplified discussion of the ones most relevant to Gunn’s re-interpretation of the Caravaggio.

Sartre starts from the position taken by some earlier philosophers who believed that consciousness must always be consciousness of something. Is that your experience? It is mine. If I now become conscious of my consciousness, as it were, I’m aware of hearing the sound of the fountain, of seeing you all, of the heat of the sun – of all kinds of sensations, thoughts and feelings. But this means that, although everything depends on it, my self has no independent existence. It is, we could say, nothing!

So what happens when I am conscious of something?

To understand this look at one of the things I might become conscious of: my boots. I can see they’re brown – and, for the boots themselves, there’s an end of it! They can’t do anything with that brownness – they will never alter, contemplate or resist their own brownness. But my consciousness is different and there is nothing that enters it in that total and unarguable way – everything that enters it comes in, as it were, with freedom at its edges – if my memory is correct, Sartre’s image is that everything in consciousness is contained in a shell of nothingness. The objects of consciousness -which of course include feelings and ideas – never fill us or force us – and when I think about doing something, I always know I can do something else. This is why Sartre claims that freedom is not something ‘added on’ to consciousness but part of its very nature:

Man does not exist first in order to be free subsequently; there is no difference between the being of man and his being-free. ((Being and Nothingness, translated Hazel Barnes, p. 25))

An example might make this clearer: let’s say I’ve not eaten for two days and my consciousness is apparently filled with an insistent and compelling hunger; I’m on my way to the fridge, where I know there to be a cheese sandwich made just the way I like it, when I hear a cry from my neighbour’s child, who’s managed to get herself stuck up the ladder and is swaying precipitously in the breeze. Neither in law nor in public opinion would I be justified in continuing my course to the fridge instead of taking the quick action that might save her life.

Sartre assumes it’s always like that, nothing enters consciousness in such a way as to deprive us of our freedom, and most of us would agree that, in the case I’ve imagined, to try to justify ignoring the child with ‘But I was really hungry – I had no choice’ is a piece of self-deceptive ‘bad faith’ – Sartre’s name for the process by which we deny our own freedom.

Let’s focus now on how we use – or rather live-  that inevitable freedom. I think Gunn’s poem is chiefly interested in acts that we might want to call moral – so where does an Existentialist morality come from?

Not from religion, as it did for Paul and Caravaggio. Sartre described his philosophy as an attempt to take atheism to its logical conclusion, and one of his explanations for why there is no ‘human nature’ is that there is no God to have a concept of it. But what about a non-religious concept of ‘human nature’ – is that any help to us in our quest for moral grounding?

Sartre has various arguments against any concept of ‘human nature’ none of which I find very convincing because I think that if there are no species-specific ‘natures’ then the theory of Evolution is meaningless – and I don’t accept the idea of Simone de Beauvoir, fine Existentialist philosopher though she was, that the nature of humanity is to have no nature. But actually I don’t believe this matters very much. People like Richard Dawkins  say that we don’t need Christianity and other moral systems because moral behaviour is built into human nature. As we’ve seen, Sartre would agree we don’t need – and can’t have – religion, but what about the idea that Darwinian evolution has given us genetically inherited moral feelings and principles?

Imagine that there’s a starving man over there in the Piazza – surely I’d feel compassion and want to do something about it? Simply because I’m human?

Well, what if I don’t? The Marquis de Sade didn’t, to put it mildly, and I think he disposed of the Enlightenment version of this cosy optimism once and for all. And, more importantly from our point of view this morning, Sartre would say that such impulses would enter my consciousness in a manner that would force me to choose what to do about them. By the way, I should note that Sartre would disapprove of an image like ‘enter my consciousness’ but I think that this straightforward way of talking about experience enables us to grasp his meaning well enough.

So I disagree with Sartre to some extent here: I do believe that as a human animal I have a particular nature – although I don’t see much evidence that universal compassion is part of it – but this never makes me act in one way rather than another, it never removes the great Existentialist imperative – ‘Choose!’


Photo: Chrissie

And that brings us to the crucial sense of ‘nothingness’ in our poem. On what basis should I make that choice?

There is no such basis, of course. Remember we are taking atheism to its extreme but inevitable conclusion so there is no God to tell us on what grounds we should make moral choices – or any choices for that matter, as Sartre tells us we are ‘abandoned to the intolerable necessity of making {ourselves} – down to the slightest detail’ ((Being and Nothingness, p.441)). Nor can there be any secular moral authority – we’ve seen that human nature even if it exists won’t do the job of providing standards or emotions to live by. So how do we know what ideals or feelings should guide our choices?

We know the answer by now: Choose!

Choose the basis on which you will choose your acts. And even when you’ve chosen, say, to base your life on compassion, or the struggle for socialism, you have to choose that over again at every moment – I’m sure you can see that Sartre’s theory of the self means that not even our own past commitments can take away our freedom in the present.

So now we can return to the last lines of the poem and see what Gunn’s doing. He’s turning Paul into an Existentialist hero who embraces, in every sense, his own freedom to be and act in any way he wants.

That Wide Gesture (2)

Photo: Chrissie

I repeat: if Gunn thought Caravaggio meant this, he was quite wrong but I very much doubt he did think that. The painting is of a man embracing his God, his Destiny perhaps – certainly not nothingness!

Sue asked a very perceptive question as we were being transferred to our hotel the other day: is Sartre a nihilist? Actually, you might well think so, and he was accused by some early critics of being nihilist. If there is no God or human nature to set moral standards, why can’t you do anything you like? Well, in Existentialism and Humanism Sartre quotes Dostoevsky who claimed that if there is no God anything is permitted – and he agrees, but without Dostoevsky’s horror at the prospect. ‘Nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies me in adopting this or that particular scale of values’, Sartre tell us somewhere in Being and Nothingness ((p. 38)).

Of course, Sartre at all stages of his career wanted people to act in certain ways, as we all do – one way he tries to get around the apparent inconsistency is to say he’s ‘recommending’ things – for example, accepting your own freedom – not saying you ‘should’ do them. I doubt that’s much more than a verbal distinction, but, although Sartre was not a nihilist in the sense of someone who calls for destructive behaviour or doesn’t care what happens to other people, he was close to being one in the sense of having abandoned the possibility of any kind of imperative morality, even or perhaps especially an Existentialist one.

Which brings me back to Gunn’s conclusion:

…the large gesture of solitary man,

Resisting, by embracing, nothingness.

Of course, the Existentialist must be ‘solitary’ – not like the women who are part of a Church – as the only person who can exercise your freedom is you, on your own with no-one who can compel or justify your decision. Paul is embracing Existentialist nothingness: he’s fully and unconditionally accepting his freedom to choose his own acts and his complete responsibility for them, abandoning all ‘somethings’ like God, human nature, the Kantian Categorical Imperative and so on. But this act of unconditional acceptance is at the same time a ‘resisting’ of nothingness in a slightly different sense of the word: refusing to submit to despair or indifference, refusing to be destroyed by the grim fate of humanity, thrown into the world whether we like it or not, and then left completely to our own devices.’We are left alone, without excuse’, Sartre tells us and this abandonment can be overwhelming, even destructive. He says that the human condition is one of anguish at our freedom and responsibility – we fear things like earthquakes, knife-wielding maniacs and tigers – and we take measures to minimise our risk of encountering them. But we can never escape from the anguish of the need to choose without any grounds on which to base our choice, an anguish made all the worse because in Sartre’s view when we choose for ourself we do so for all human beings at the same time. As we’ve seen, Sartre believes that is the very nature of the self: although when we engage in the actions we’ve chosen we can forget this anguish for a while, it’s always there waiting for us when the next decision arrives.

In the face of such permanent insecurity and un-settlement what’s the best way to avoid psychic obliteration? The best way to avoid a collapse into the despair and indifference of true nihilism? Embrace the  nothingness at the heart of humanity completely – don’t look for gods, for moral systems, for comfort or for excuses.



After some vigorous questions and comments, we went into Santa Mario del Popolo. Assuming Gunn was giving a reasonably accurate description of his experiences, there’s been an important change: the Cerasi chapel and its three masterpieces are now illuminated, although the light went off occasionally and we could get an idea of what it must have been like to view under natural conditions.

Alerted by Gunn’s poem, what jumped out at me was ‘that wide gesture of the lifted’ arms was present in all three of the paintings. The central one is Annibale Carracci’s Assumption of the Virgin, where the gesture suggests triumph at the heavenly reward offered to the virtuous.

 Annibale Carracci – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=363471

The painting we’ve been discussing is on your right, and on your left is another Caravaggio, the Crucifixion of St. Peter, in which you can see one of the victim’s arms already nailed to the soon-to-be inverted cross, so the other one is implied, and with it another version of the gesture.

Caravaggio – [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=363489

The meaning of the three paintings – from this perspective – is ‘accepting God means the possibility of great suffering but the certainty of a greater reward for those who live their lives rightly’. Pretty much the opposite of Gunn’s position.

On leaving the Cerasi Chapel, I was somewhat disappointed to see that no-one on the church benches was cradling their head in their arms.

We took the metro southwards to the Protestant Cemetery where Keats and Shelley are buried – two more ‘splendours of the firmament of time’.

At the Grave of Keats

At the Grave of Keats and his friend the painter Joseph Severn: Photo – Chrissie



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Thomas Edgar: Two Post-war Letters

My father was one of the earliest non-governmental workers to leave Stanley after the arrival of Harcourt’s fleet on August 30, 1945. On September 3 the South China Morning Post reported that the Stanley internees could expect their first half pound loaf of wheat bread that day – baked by him. There had been an intensive search for the flour by members of the Food Control organisation and I think it’s likely he was involved in that search and that he left camp on September 1 or 2nd.

In this post I transcribe two letters he sent to his family in Windsor Berkshire in October 1945. The telegram he sent telling them he was alive and free has been lost – they knew it was genuine because he signed it ‘Ooke’ his family nickname (see below). He probably wrote at least one letter in September but if so that too has been lost.

Scans of the original letters and some indication of the context of his work in September and October 1945 can be found here: https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/thomass-work-6-post-war-reconstruction/


32, Hong Kong Hotel

Hong Kong


Dear Mum & all

Well I think it is pretty well official now that I can not come home till about Christmas. Everybody is shouting for bread (we have not had bread, meat or fish since January 1944[1]) so will have to stay for a short while.[2] Glad to know everybody well have just received your Aug 23rd the first since Sept 1943. Wish Dad many happy returns on the 5th.[3] hope to be home for your birthday.[4] We are quite fit really & the navy & Australian Red Cross are doing their stuff now.

Write again soon am very busy getting bakeries into working order.


Lena & Ooke


              Lane Crawford’s


Dearest Mum & all

Very many thanks for Joyce’s[5] letter. Glad to know that everybody’s well. Congratulations on Joyce’s engagement.[6]

I put on 17 lbs. since I left Stanley. Life in Stanley was pretty grim. What really saved us from starvation were our private gardens (which produced sweet potatoes, tomatoes, vegetables etc.) and what we could buy from the black market with money we obtained through selling our engagement ring & watches. the Formosan guards used to smuggle the goods into the camp.

We don’t know when we shall be going home yet as everything is still in a horrible mess. I am still trying to have Lane Crawford’s bakery in production. I have four men from H.M.S. Resource[7] but the Japs were using our bakery as a button factory, rattan basket factory & for salt fish, so you can imagine the state of affairs. We hoe to leave here about January or February.

Mr. R. Bauder a great friend of ours might be staying in England on is way to Switzerland [8]and will call home for a few nights, hope you can look after him O.K.


Ton & Lena

[1] Mistake for 1944 – even then this is not really true as small amounts of low-quality fish continued to be sent in to Stanley.

[2] In fact Thomas and Evelina didn’t leave Hong Kong until the summer of 1946.

[3] Herbert Sidney Edgar was born on October 5, 1878.

[4] Alice Edgar was born on January 1 1888.

[5] Joyce Edgar, Thomas’s sister, was born in Windsor in the first quarter of 11920.

[6] Joyce married Ernest A. Sadler in the second quarter of 1946.

[7] A Royal Navy Repair Ship.

[8] Robert Bauder worked in the watch department of Lane Crawford. He ended the war as an Assistant Superintendent of Rosary Hill Red Cross Home. He left employment there on October 31.

HMS Resource in 1932.jpg

H.M.S. Resource in 1932 : Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33574907

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‘The Necessary Boldness’ – Rudolf Zindel’s Red Cross Work

Even though neutral and apparently free, the Swiss were in fact prisoners in Hong Kong, as their representative Harry Keller found when, on June 16 1942 he wrote to the Government in Bern about the possibility of community repatriation. About 10 weeks later he received a reply to the effect that the Hong Kong expatriates might not be able to get back to their homeland because of the effects of the war in Europe, and that if they did so they would experience ‘grave disillusions’ at the lack of job opportunities. In a clear rebuke, the minister advised them to show ‘quiet and dignified courage’ and stay put.[1]

Many of the Swiss wanted to leave because the possibilities of earning a livelihood were ‘practically absent’,[2] and we know that Rudolf Zindel, a businessman in his early forties, was broke and looking for work when the job of Red Cross Delegate came his way. Later in the war his salary was 1200 Swiss Francs a month – if he was getting anything like this in June 1942 he must have rejoiced in his good luck as at that stage of the occupation it was enough to support comfortably himself  and his wife and their young daughter.

But it can’t have been long before he started to wonder if he’d made a mistake taking on his new role. The Japanese put obstacle after obstacle in his way and in one important area he had to risk his own safety to do any kind of decent job.

The Japanese were paranoid about the fighting men they had captured, and they provided as little information as possible about these prisoners, although in the summer of 1942 cards and sometimes even letters did begin to move slowly to and from Shamshuipo and Argyle Street Prisoner of War Camps.

One of Zindel’s ‘greatest disappointments’ was his failure to induce the POW camp authorities to disclose information about the whereabouts and welfare of the Hong Kong POWs.  His requests were batted away and he was sent on a wild goose chase of fruitless enquiries;[3] a personal appeal to Prince Tatsugu Shimadzu, head of the Japanese Red Cross failed, so he was reduced  to indirect means of gathering information.

Most of these were legal – he could, for example, learn a lot from the receipts for the 10,000 remittances sent through his office to the Prisoners of War. But if one of these receipts was marked ‘undeliverable’ that left him with three possibilities: 1) the man was dead 2) he was in Gendarme custody 3) he’d been sent to Japan as a labourer.[4]

This meant that he was in no position to reply to enquiries, so he adopted a courageous expedient: he bribed a Japanese officer attached to POW headquarters with occasional presents (a Swiss watch, razor blades, a civilian suit….). Once or twice a month he slipped into his hands a small folded piece of paper which contained the names of those whose fate he was anxious to ascertain. On the next visit, the officer would secretly return the list to Zindel with coded signs signifying the prisoner’s state: dead, alive in camp, transferred to Japan, or ‘unknown’. This system enabled him to reply to a large number of queries, but had to be abandoned when the Gendarmerie placed their own man in Prisoner of War Headquarters.[5]

Zindel calls this course of action ‘dangerous’ and this is no exaggeration. Bribing a Japanese officer to become a spy – which is how the authorities would have seen the matter- would almost certainly have meant a most unpleasant interrogation with a likely sentence of death to follow. In fact, two of his fellow Red Cross workers – delegates whose position the Japanese never recognised – were executed in Borneo on charges that included seeking information about POWs, with  no bribing of a Japanese officer involved.[6] That was in Borneo, in May 1943 when Zindel faced arrest himself.

He’d been warned in February that his Kempeitai dossier was getting thicker and as part of the crack-down that began that month he’d been followed by two men and had his phone tapped; even a few of the people he helped denounced him to the Japanese! Some of these ‘needy’ aid recipients were almost certainly agents provocateurs sent to try to get him to carry out illegal relief – the Japanese had told him they didn’t want him involved in relieving Asians, who would be looked after as part of their Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Nevertheless, in some cases, he did provide ‘illegal’ relief to Eurasians.

He was also told he was suspected of espionage in Stanley. In May, at the time of the mass arrests designed to break up the (non-existent) spy ring the Japanese believed had been run by Dr. Selwyn-Clarke, who Zindel had always worked in loose co-operation with, he was warned he would be dealt with if he went wrong just once more. He decided to act pre-emptively and appeal to a senior Japanese of his acquaintance, a tactic that worked and which he used again in the autumn when he was once more being harassed by the Kempeitai:  this time he appealed to the head of that organisation, the much-dreaded Colonel Noma, who proved to have a detailed knowledge of the Red Cross and its problems, something that must have been both re-assuring and disturbing. In any case, Noma seems to have called off the pursuit.[7]

So when, during the sticky Hong Kong summer of 1944, Zindel faced a difficult decision he was no stranger to illegal activity and the dangers it posed.

His problem was this: Hong Kong’s official currency, the Military Yen, experienced more or less continual depreciation during the occupation and things were reaching a crisis point. Most of his relief work was paid for by remittances from the British, Canadian and American Governments, sent to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, and transferred to Hong Kong via Tokyo, where the Japanese changed the sum, received in Swiss Francs, into Military Yen at the official rate of about one franc to one MY. By summer 1944 this amount in depreciated Hong Kong currency wasn’t enough to enable him to buy the supplies he needed for his work, which by that time was based on housing and feeding most of the dependents in Rosary Hill Red Cross Home and sending food, medicine and money into Stanley. In fact, Zindel was obviously soon going to find it hard to feed himself and his family on his Red Cross salary. As far as I can reconstruct his situation, he was faced with three basic choices.

The safest course of action was simply to resign as Red Cross delegate. We know that at some point – maybe in summer 1944, maybe earlier – he did indeed approach the Japanese to tell them he was standing down. They loved the idea but wouldn’t accept anyone in his place, and he felt that to resign, under such circumstances, would have been a betrayal of trust. He could do little but that little was better than nothing.[8] Of course, if he’d left the Red Cross at any point he would have lost his SF1200 a month salary, but, like other of his co-nationals, he could have drawn on loans from the Swiss Relief Fund and, in summer 1944, it would be a reasonable calculation that he, Alice and Irene would make it through to the end of the war. And in such circumstances he would have been as safe from the Kempeitai as any European in occupied Hong Kong could be.

The second plan, reasonably safe and assuring Zindel a continued income, would have been to carry on with his Red Cross work doing the best he could with the limited purchasing power at his disposal. He could, for example, have sent the Stanley internees cash only and not tried to send in health-preserving foods and life-saving medicines, while shutting down Rosary Hill and forcing the dependents to revert to the system of small cash allowances at levels that would have meant the speedy demise of those with no other source of income or sustenance. He would have had lived with the knowledge that he was doing little to preserve life, but this would not have been the fault of the Red Cross, and such a course of action would not have added to the risk of arrest he was running simply by trying to help the British and Americans.

Rudolf Zindel – who had already risked his life and had come close to arrest on at least two occasions in 1943 – rejected both these plans and instead chose a third course, one that put him in huge personal danger.

To understand what he did we need to consider another aspect of the financial situation in the second half of 1944. Not only were Military Yen  plunged in value -with further falls likely – those who had large holdings of them were worried that when the British returned (as they probably would) the Japanese currency would immediately be declared invalid, leaving their holdings literally worthless. (The British did in fact try to do this, but soon back-tracked because of the problems this caused.) This fear meant there were wealthy people who, in return for a reliable promise of repayment in a solid currency after the war, were willing to advance loans in Military Yen at much better rates than the official 1=1. In fact, Zindel managed to get  MY21 for each Swiss Franc he committed in return:

In raising money locally, I contravened Japanese regulations and thereby exposed myself to a considerable risk.

He asked the Red Cross to pay his salary to relatives in Switzerland so that could act as collateral.[9] But that wasn’t enough to finance the entire relief operation he was responsible for:

(F)or this reason, {the possibility of being caught in illegal activity} and so as not to compromise your committee{the I.C. R.C} I raised the money in my own name, using as backing…personal resources I had in Switzerland and the U.S.A. 

This added the risk of financial ruin to those of being imprisoned, tortured and executed by the Japanese for breach of their currency regulations.

This procedure involved the risk that, under certain circumstances, I, or my heirs, might not be able to recover from your Committee the commitments entered into by me personally for the benefit of the British, American and Delegation interests….

The last remittance Zindel received through Tokyo was in April 1945[10] – after that the chaos and destruction of the final stages of the war prevented any further payments. Zindel carried on, now supporting the relief effort entirely from his own pledged resources. In that time he spent over 3,000,000 yen.[11] Of course, he hoped the Red Cross (and the Governments which paid it to help their citizens) would re-imburse him after the war, but he had no way of being certain this would happen.

During this period when he was regularly breaching Japanese exchange regulations, Zindel defied their rules on at least one other occasion, bringing further possibility of retribution, but saving five lives.

That was the number of diabetics in Stanley, and they needed 2,400 units of insulin a month, provided mainly by the Red Cross. When during the summer of 1944 it became known the camp would be taken over by the Japanese military, he sent in as much as he could lay his hands on as he realised it might be difficult to do so later. He then had discussions with the new administration which told him to suspend supplies as they would furnish the insulin themselves. He was unhappy, but his visits had been reduced to one every six months and he was no longer permitted to speak to the internees or Gimson, so he couldn’t check the situation.[12]

In spring 1945 Zindel received ‘an underground chit’, presumably from Stanley, which showed him the Japanese had failed to supply the promised insulin. Although he realised he’d have a problem explaining  his actions, he immediately purchased a few months’ supply and got permission to send it into camp. After the war, Gimson told him the Japanese had made enquiries as to how the ‘leakage’ from the camp occurred but had accepted the story that individual internees had mentioned the insulin problem in postcards to friends in town and one of these had got past the censor. Zindel felt that the incident showed the Japanese had no compunction about letting the diabetics die, even though the insulin came at no cost to them, and that action by him solely on the strength of unofficial information put at risk both the Delegation and the internees.[13] This suggests that he didn’t act on such ‘unofficial’ messages very often.

Nevertheless, as the war came to an end, Zindel was told he was on a list of eleven Europeans about to be arrested – the third time he had been close to the nightmare dreaded by everyone in occupied Hong Kong.

Zindel refers to the arrival of Harcourt’s fleet on August 30, 1945 and the return of British administration as ‘our liberation’ – with no pretence of neutrality. Like many others, he suffered as a result of his experiences during the occupation, but he agreed to stay on at his post in order to provide relief for the now imprisoned Japanese. At the same time, he had to waste his energy fighting the lies about the Red Cross and his own personal role that were circulating in Hong Kong:

(U)nfortunately, my sustained efforts during the 31/2 years of Japanese Occupation (in the face of unceasing difficulties, set backs and frustration as well as occasional threats to my personal safety, had sapped my vitality to an alarming extent, and my expectations that I would pick up quickly with the better food and the less strenuous conditions after our Liberation, have only been partly realized… I am therefore carrying on my work under a considerable handicap and I am keenly looking forward to my forthcoming holiday in Switzerland, which will represent the first break during 9 years in the Tropics.[14]

I’ll detail British Hong Kong’s appalling reaction to Zindel’s work in more detail in a future post. For now, let the judgement of Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke – who usually adopts the generous policy of not mentioning anyone who he can’t praise and at least has the decency to leave out Zindel’s name – be itself judged against the record I have described:

A year after the capture of Hong Kong the International Red Cross was allowed to send a Swiss representative {Zindel wasn’t sent, he was already in Hong Kong and, as I showed in this post, he was hard at work from late June 1942} and to him I handed over  most of my welfare duties. Although I was glad to do so, I gained the impression that he had heard rather too much about Japanese severity to act with the necessary boldness on behalf of the prisoners and internees. And from what I was told after the end of the war my foreboding had been justified.[15]

Schloss Sargans.jpg

Castle at Sargans, Zindel’s birthplace (Wikipedia – Adrian Michael, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sargans)

Note: Most of these references are given in incomplete form to prevent plagiarism.

[1] Letter from the Swiss Minister, sent via Camille Gorgé on August 18, 1942 to Keller, pp. 1-3 (Swiss Federal Archives).

[2] Letter from Keller to Hoffmeister, 30 July, 1942 (Swiss Federal Archives).

[3]  Rudolph Zindel, ‘Supplementary Report – A Few Aspects of the Delegation Work in Hong Kong Under The Japanese Occupation’ pp. 3-4 in BG17 07 074 (Archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross).

[4] Supplementary Report, 11.

[5] Supplementary Report, 12.

[6] Charles Roland, Long Night’s Journey Into Day, Kindle Edition, Location 4689.

[7] In Correspondance Avec M. Zindel á Coire et Shanghai, 25.05.46-12.10.46 (AICRC).

[8] Russell Clark, An End to Tears, 1946,  67.

[9] General Letter no. 29/46, 28 March 1946 pp. 1-2, in Lettres recues (General Letter) 02.01.46-05.05.47 BG017 07-074 (AICRC).

[10] AICRC.

[11] Clark, Tears, 66.

[12] Supplementary Report, 12.

[13] Supplementary Report, 13.

[14] General Letter No. 21/46, 20 February 1946 p. 2 (AICRC).

[15] Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, Footprints, 1975, 71.

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Zindel Wrings His Hands: Emily Hahn on the Early Work of the Red Cross in Hong Kong

He was not permitted to visit any of the military camps, He wrung his hands and sat in his office, and hired more people (Swiss) to do the paper work that mounted and mounted.[1]

Thus did American writer Emily Hahn sum up the early activity of Red Cross Delegate Rudolf Zindel. She’s talking about the period from late June 1942 to January 1, 1943; on June 26 Edouard Egle arrived from Shanghai to help Zindel set up the Delegation (not, as Hahn claims, to inspect it) and at the start of 1943 Zindel took over most of the legal side of Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke’s relief operation, leaving the Director of Medical Services free to concentrate on the illegal side, although how much Zindel knew about that is uncertain.

Hahn’s first claim is wrong, although not badly so.

On July 3 Zindel and Egle, accompanied by Colonel Tokunaga and several of his officers visited, Argyle Street, North Point, Shamshuipo (all POW camps) andSt Teresa’s Hospital and Bowen Road Military Hospital. [2] He gathered a little information about the Indians at Ma Tau-chung Camp but he was forbidden to concern himself with them – as Asians, they would be looked after by the Japanese as part of the Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. I’ll return to this visit later.

As to the second claim – that the new Delegate indulged his own feelings of impotence while hiring his co-nationals to do paper work unrelated to any actual relief of distress – I’ll summarise Zindel’s own documentation of what he was doing in the second half of 1942.

It’s of no importance to the subject in hand, but I think Hahn is probably wrong to state that Zindel had lived in Hong Kong ‘for years’, although I’ve seen this in other sources too, one stipulating twenty of them. In 1927 he sailed to New York via Britain on his way to live in China. [3] In 1937 he left Genoa on the journey back to Hankow (now part of Wuhan) where he had been living before what was presumably a visit home.[4] When the Japanese attacked in December 1941 he still had possessions stored in his former apartment in Hankow.[5] All this, and the pattern of references in the South China Morning Post, make me think he came to Hong Kong in about 1939 after 12 years in China. His job, at any rate, is not disputed: he was a ‘Kaufmann’ or merchant, working for a German-founded company, Arnhold Trading, which had been in Hong Kong since 1867, a year after it was first set up in Shameen (now part of Guangzhou). In the 1930s this became part of the powerful Sassoon conglomerate.[6]

The Japanese attacked on December 8, 1941. The Zindel family’s flat on the Peak was destroyed by a shell on December 20. The early months of the occupation found Zindel, his wife Alice and daughter Irene (aged 8) ‘settling down under present changed conditions’ in a ‘nice little apartment on MacDonnell Road’. He was cheered by the resumption of the mail from Hong Kong to Switzerland and his wife’s parents sent them greetings over the Swiss radio. But the money situation was ‘tight’ and the breadwinner out of work and needing a job.[7] The appointment as Red Cross Delegate obviously turned round Zindel’s financial position. A money transfer from Switzerland he had requested was no longer required.[8] Later his salary was to be 1200 Swiss Francs a month, and if it was anything like that at the start it would have given him a comparatively comfortable life at this early stage of the war.

In so far as Zindel was doing anything in the first months of the occupation, he was looking after the interests of Arnhold and Co. He had no previous connection with the Red Cross or relief work – so how did he become Delegate?

In early February the British forwarded an alarming report on conditions in Hong Kong to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva. The Swiss consul attempted to get permission for an ICRC delegate to visit but failed. On March 30 another alarming report was forwarded to Geneva,[9] backed up by a cable from the Canadians asking for the ICRC to try to secure an independent report. In spite of being overstretched in Europe, the ICRC was already pressing the Japanese, but meeting with a complete lack of co-operation. There were almost no Japanese prisoners, so reciprocity was not possible. In March they offered a concession above the recognition of Fritz Paravicini in Tokyo: they agreed to the appointment of a delegate in Shanghai – Edouard Egle was chosen. The ICRC hoped to be allowed a delegate in Hong Kong too, and after speaking to his uncle in a Swiss village, settled on Zindel, who, they were assured had been a diligent employee of Arnhold,had an ‘honest and open nature and healthy spirit’ and, his uncle assured his questioners, the necessary qualities for such a task. [10] If  a post-war newspaper interview with Zindel is to be believed, the Japanese gave him full Delegate status only by mistake!

As we have seen, his mission began at the end of June, 1942 when Egle came down for an extended stay to help him get started and together they visited all of the ‘European’ camps including Stanley, which Zindel was allowed to re-visit without Egle on July 18.

Then something strange happened. Egle’s formal account of these inspections was sent back to Geneva on August 7 – and a cable about the POW camps actually went off on July 10th. But Zindel didn’t draw up his report until December 15, sending it to the ICRC a few days later. His explanation was that ‘the work involved {as Red Cross Delegate} had rather outstripped my capacity and that I found it difficult to keep pace with the many new problems which constantly cropped up’. As he promised to ‘organize my office as rapidly as possible, in such a way as to be able to meet all legitimate requirements without undue delay’ the implication was that lack of secretarial support had also contributed to the delay.[11] All this is unconvincing: Zindel was a businessman of long experience and the idea that he couldn’t put together two reports of little more than half a dozen pages in total for over four months is absurd.

My guess – and it is only a guess – is that he realised he was in an impossible position: if he told the truth about the camps, the Japanese, who read all his reports and other correspondence, would at the very least censor the critical passages out, perhaps end his mission and even imprison him (Red Cross work gathering information for the outside world about prisoners, internees and casualties looked rather like spying to them anyway, so they wouldn’t have to go far for an excuse). But if, as in fact happened, he chose to give an idealised picture of life in the camps, he would be accused of inaccuracy and bias in their favour.

Hahn hated Egle, who she obviously regarded as a Japanese toady if not actually an outright supporter,[12] and his report certainly seems to be genuinely enthusiastic:

(Stanley)  indeed looks more like a summer colony than an internment camp. Mr. Zindel and I were there for about three hours and were left absolutely free to move amongst the prisoners and converse with them. I did not see a single sentry inside the camp, internees appeared to have complete freedom, some played lawnballs (sic), others had a sun bath, practically all looked in perfect health, internees have permission for swimming, the canteen seemed well stocked, internees receive a liberal supply of food and comfort parcels….[13]

Not surprisingly he soon felt the need to defend himself to the ICRC – he probably became aware of the very different accounts carried out of Hong Kong by escapees or American repatriates. A self-justificatory letter was sent back to Geneva on August 27 suggesting, among more convincing things, that the sun-bathing was contributing to any weight loss experienced by the internees.[14] e’d Perhaps Zindel understood the reality of internment better and was reluctant to be forced to either promulgate an idealised picture to the outside world or face the possible consequences I outlined above.

Whatever the reason for his dilatoriness, Zindel’s exculpatory account of what he had been doing belies Hahn’s claim that he ‘wrung his hands and sat in his office’:

A great deal of my time has been taken up by the interviewing of large numbers of destitute Third Nationals {neutrals}and others applying for relief. Moreover, there are several hundred families (dependents of Prisoners of War) living in Hongkong, many of whom rush to my office whenever some fresh rumour regarding the Camps or its inmates crops up. I might also mention that my office, since the middle of August, has handled 1,399 individual remittances to prisoners of war and Civilian Internees in local Camps.

He points out that he hasn’t been able to use cheques so every transaction involved a cash withdrawal which only he was authorised to make.

In August 1943 Zindel reported that he was no longer allowed by the Japanese to relieve Third Nationals.[15] As the accounts of his 1942 activities that he’d sent to Geneva in March hadn’t arrived, he enclosed duplicates which give a glimpse of some of 1942 work and are also a good source for the historian of Third Nationals during the occupation.

Most of those he helped were White Russians, who made up the largest non-interned ‘European’ community in Hong Kong. Other recipients were Latvian, French, Hungarian, Portuguese, Filipino, Czechoslovakian, Costa Rican, and Polish. Some, but not all, of these were in the category of  ‘British dependents’ which was to prove one of the biggest problems for the Red Cross as the occupation wore on. But perhaps the most interesting thing in the detailed accounts Zindel provides is the fact that from the middle of 1942 a number of German residents were coming to him for help. Most of Hong Kong’s Germans had been sent to various locations after the outbreak of the European war, but a number managed to stay on and, for all their country’s alliance with Japan, they seem to have had the same kind of experience as the neutrals.

By August he and his four ‘girl’ assistants and Chinese staff were running  ‘well organisated (sic – one of Zindel’s rare mistakes in English, which was one of the four languages he knew) shopping service for benefit of pows and internees who prefer receiving parcels instead of money’. This meant a lot of work and he felt the need for more employees.

Another major responsibility arrived in mid-November 1942 with the first remittance of ‘British Funds’ to spent for the benefit of prisoners, internees and their dependents[16]. This came at an opportune time: the resources of the International Welfare Committee, a body set up in Stanley Camp to work with Selwyn-Clarke’s Informal Welfare Committee (more diverse naming and a different acronym would help the historian!) had just about reached the end of its resources. Zindel was able to use the British Fund (provided by the London Government) to offer emergency assistance to the destitute and to offer Stanley bulk supplies of healthy food and small ‘pocket allowances’ for the internees to spend at the canteen. All went well with the British Fund until spring 1943 – I’ll discuss the problem that arose in another post, as it forms part of Hahn’s indictment of the Swiss.

But that was in the future. Zindel ended 1942 by sending each Canadian POW – just over 1500 officers and men – a Christmas gift of ten yen in individual envelopes with a pine tree motif to remind them of home. He needed special authorisation to use the Fund for this purpose, and it seems the Canadian Government reimbursed the British.[17]

That wasn’t all Zindel was doing, not by a long way. Another 1942 task was dealing with requests from Stanley to try to salvage personal belongings from the internees’ former homes. Such visits required him to get an individual permit in each case.  With the help of two Belgian bankers, he and his staff acquired more than 5000 books for Stanley, the POW Camps and Bowen Road Military Hospital. They had to check each book page by page to make sure none contained a secret message! [18]

All this – and more – was done before January 1, 1943, when he took over as much work as possible from Selwyn-Clarke. In December he was obviously preparing for that transfer and there’s a fascinating letter from Selwyn-Clarke in this part of the Archive that give the best picture I know of the work of his Informal Welfare Committee.

This is hardly a picture of hand-wringing inactivity. In a future post I’ll consider the other aspects of Hahn’s negative portrait of the Red Cross: that Zindel was too scared and ineffective to do his job properly, that he let his Roman Catholic prejudice against ‘common law’ wives interfere with his work, and that he was, in any case, Swiss and thus one of a nation of cowardly neutrals who spent the war looking after themselves while others fought to bring down the Axis.

[1] Hahn, China To Me, 1986 ed. (1944), 372.

[2] ‘Interim Report On First Visit To Prisoners Of War Camps And Military Hospitals In Hongkong’, in Archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (Geneva) BG 017 07-061 (first dossier).

[3] Ancestry.com. UK, Outward Passenger Lists, 1890-1960 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012.

[4] Ancestry.com. New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.

[5] Letter from Zindel to Hoffmeister, July 21, 1942 in Zindel, R. Hong Kong: E2200.122#1000/156#47 (Swiss Federal Archives, Bern).

[6] http://www.arnhold.com.hk/about-arnhold/

[7] Letter from Zindel to Hoffmeister, 24 April 1942 in Zindel, R. Hong Kong: E2200.122#1000/156#47 (Swiss Federal Archives, Bern).

[8] Letter from Zindel to Hoffmeister, July 21, 1942 in Zindel, R. Hong Kong: E2200.122#1000/156#47 (Swiss Federal Archives, Bern).

[9] Caroline Moorehead, Dunant’s Dream: War, Switzerland and the History of the Red Cross, HarperCollins, 1998, 473.

[10] Moorehead, 474.

[11] Zindel to ICRC, General Letter No. 10/42, December 18, 1942, AIRC (Geneva) BG017 07-61.

[12] Hahn, 372-374.

[13] Report by Mr. Egle, 7 August 1942 in Archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (Geneva), BG17-07-062.

[14] Letter fom Egle to ICRC, 27th. August 1942 in BG017 07-062.

[15] Zindel to ICRC, General Letter No. 73/43, 21 August, 1943, AIRC (Geneva) BG017 07-61.

[16] Zindel to ICRC, General Letter No. 4/42, November 16, 1942 in AIRC (Geneva) BG017 07-61.

[17] Zindel to ICRC, General Letter No. 13/42, December 23, 1942 in AIRC (Geneva) BG017 07-61.

[18] Zindel to ICRC, General Letter No. 10/42, December 18, 1942, AIRC (Geneva) BG017 07-61.

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