Chapter Five

Social Encounters



Chinese restaurant, September 26th 1953

I had gained an introduction to a Chinese professor at the university, who was willing to take me out to dinner and tell me about China. It was Saturday evening and the Hong Kong waterfront was teeming with people darting about between the overflowing pavements and the long rows of cars, taxis and rickshaws, jostling along the centre of the road. Ma Meng was the son of a well-known Chinese scholar who had a special knowledge of painting and the arts. His own interests were in sociology and anthropology and he had studied at the London School of Economics. I met him at his house below the university and, after some Chinese tea and introductions to his family, we ventured forth and threaded our way through the streets. At his home, I found myself embarrassed by strangely addressing this cultured man in the pidgin English of our mess waiters! He made no comment but I reprimanded myself severely and kept a close watch on my tongue.

Sea-going junks were busy loading and unloading along the quay-side and, on some of them, the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts was in such full swing that the boats were almost invisible, beneath the masses of bunting and paper decoration that covered them. Just beyond the pier for the steamer to Macao, Mr Ma told me that we had arrived and, turning abruptly out of the arcading, we climbed a steep flight of narrow stairs at the back of a ground floor shop. As we entered the restaurant, the waiters bowed and smiled and one of them led us through the mass of little tables to one which looked out over the waterfront, the busy junketings and the harbour, stretching away to the shining white buildings and big ships along the Kowloon waterfront. The room was not large and the tables covered with oilcloth.

Several were already occupied and others were being rapidly taken. Near to us, a number had been put together and a party was assembling around them, grandma on the far side, very clearly the matriarch, and several of her sons and daughters and in-laws. The children were intrigued by my European face and gazed open-mouthed in my direction. The slightest sign of a smile set them grinning but their adults at once put them in their places. It was clear that Europeans were not frequent diners in this establishment. Two men, dressed in the loosely-fitting, black clothes of the Cantonese, came in and played to us on two-stringed instruments that emitted a weird and wonderful sequence of sounds. Mr Ma told me it was a set tune of old China but I found it difficult to appreciate.

The room was filled by a deafening sound of Chinese chatter, combined with the twangings of the two-stringers and the rattle of the many Mahjong boards next door, while outside in the growing dusk the lights of the great liners, anchored in the harbour, flickered upon the waves and ferries came and went continuously. Passengers were boarding the little boat for Macao with its gay Union Jacks painted on its bows.

We were to eat a Pekingese meal. In the north of China, rice is not the basic constituent of meals; instead rich savoury batters and pastries of wheat flour are eaten, with portions of meat, fish and vegetables cooked in strongly tasting oils. We began with tea, and then three large dishes were brought in, piled high with shrimps, small pieces of chicken and larger portions of fried river fish. Each had a tantalising aroma and every morsel was a treat to lay upon the tongue. The food was transferred by ladles to small bowls or eaten with chopsticks directly from the plates. I acquitted myself passably with these instruments, the most difficult manoeuvre involving a sizeable piece of fish held with them in one hand, while one nibbled the meat from it to leave a clean bone. Eating with chopsticks is, at first, quite a strain on the muscles of the hand and brings on a kind of writer’s cramp.

A plate of thin batter cakes was brought to us, filled with oily vegetables, rich, tasty and aromatic. Spring rolls followed, small toothpaste tubes of pastry filled with a pungent mixture of chopped shrimp, chicken and vegetables. All these delicacies were accompanied by sips from small glasses of Chinese rice ‘wine’, like a thin sherry, served hot like tea. The final dish was a refreshing soup of cabbage and vermicelli, cleansing the mouth pleasantly after the oiliness of the earlier dishes.

When we had finished, the waiters arrived with two little plates of neatly folded towels, hot and steaming after being wrung dry of water. We mopped our faces, lips and fingers and, selecting a little wooden toothpick, leaned back in our chairs to enjoy a final cup of tea, some tooth picking and a cigarette.

All the time, I was plying Mr Ma with questions to which he responded nobly. He seemed to enjoy our conversation. In the old days, Ma told me, China was a very static country. There were minor upheavals, revolutions and invasions but the country was so vast it absorbed them all, without much effect on its essential way of life. It was a pastoral, agricultural country, ruled by the “Celestial Emperor”, who was always the greatest of conservatives. Prime ministers and lesser rulers were selected for office from scholars who had come up through the sieve of an extensive public examination system. A candidate had to be an expert calligrapher, intimate with the Chinese classics and philosophies and his knowledge of characters had to be immense. Such men had memories of an extraordinary capacity. Often whole books would be learned by heart. Yet, while such learning by memory required considerable mental ability, it did not encourage speculative thought or innovation in ideas. Everything hinged on the old books and ancestral law; there was never anything new in the established way. No doubt many of these mandarins were wise and, on the whole, the system worked well. They lived according to a code of gentlemanly behaviour, created by the school of Confucius and based on filial piety, the son respecting and honouring his parents and elders, while daughters kow-towed to their mothers and, especially, their mothers-in-law. The young wife of a parentally-arranged marriage was more or less a servant to the mother-in-law, who was often a vicious and cruel tyrant. Of course, in the end, the young wife became a mother-in-law in her turn, so repeating the cycle.

At the summit of the system, the Celestial Emperor reigned supreme, god, pope, king, all in one, and hidden deep in the Forbidden Palace of Peking. Civil government tended to be effective due to the respect given to elders and old laws and, although these were rigidly enforced, the people were not unduly oppressed. Any progress, in the modern European sense, was, however, well-nigh impossible. There was generally a passive acceptance of a person’s social position in the cycles of family life. Criticism was heresy.

The social system was feudal, with peasants working for the lords of estates, yet successful farmers could become rich men. Wealthier men could afford the leisure to cultivate the arts, philosophies and politics. So long as an individual was bound by relative poverty and had to work to keep his family alive, such interests were barely possible. Even so, Ma said, it seems that deep down in the Chinese character there is a love of nature, silences, contemplative philosophising and idleness which those, free from physical privation, soon come to express. Confucius was at one time a minor ruler or minister, who eventually renounced office to become an itinerant teacher with attendant students and disciples. Lao-tzu, the founder of the Taoist school of thought, is also reputed to have been a member of the aristocratic classes.

During the second and third centuries bc there were many schools of philosophy in China and explorations of the meaning of life were subjects of endless discussion. Out of these emerged the Confucian ideals of the perfectly behaved and cultured man and the mystical Taoist thought of Lao. Mencius fused the two into a philosophy of leisure through the contemplation of nature as a way to happiness. These thinkers were not concerned with “God” nor with the sort of sectarianism that appears in Christianity. Laws of behaviour were associated with a love of nature, to encourage a deep feeling of a direct knowledge of the agelessness of the world. Early Taoist thought was preached by monks through riddles and quietism, “keeping oneself low” and “inaction is better than action” being important principles.

“Politics, competition and strife at court led many of the greatest politicians of China to become weary of the intrigue and corruption that went with power and they retired to their farms to philosophise, enjoy music and poetry and to practice various Taoist meditations and yogas. Tao Yuanming was such a one, but we must remember,” said Ma, “that, however much he eulogised his land and his fruit trees, it was not he who worked them. Although a relatively poor landowner, he enjoyed his musical evenings.” We agreed that every nation owes its culture to those who had the leisure to cultivate it, such as the upper classes in Europe since the Renaissance.

When Portuguese and British ships first appeared in the China Sea, the Celestial Emperor closed all doors in the face of the “barbarian outsider” (Fan Kwai). Europeans were pitied for their lack of enlightened high culture and treated as lesser beings. Their extraordinary success in reaching the Chinese shores at all did not seem to strike the rulers as significant.

The British were allowed to set up warehouses in a reserved cantonment outside Canton and from their so-called ‘factories’ they could conduct trade. They were allowed no women, either European or Chinese, and the rules for their behaviour were strict. No travelling in China was permitted. The Emperor believed he could contain the influence of the foreigner in this way, not appreciating Professor Toynbee’s later point that even the smallest penetration by a powerful culture into another civilisation will lead to changes in the more static way of life.

The behaviour of the British merchants was as vindictive as that of the Chinese was non-cooperative. Opium was grown cheaply in India and shipped to the dens of old China. Soon it was causing great social harm and the Emperor ordered a halt to it. He cut off the ‘factories’ from Canton city and rebuffed all gestures of goodwill. The Opium War followed but, along the coast of China, the Emperor’s ill-equipped forces stood little chance against the advanced seamanship and gunnery of the Royal Navy. Eventually, a treaty was signed giving the British five trading ports, including Shanghai and Canton. Hong Kong was acquired for open trading from its splendid harbour.

From this time on the westernisation of China proceeded apace with Christian missionaries streaming in. There were many interchanges, the Europeans finding Chinese art and culture fascinating and the etiquette and “quaint” customs intriguing; yet they were also convinced of their moral superiority over this heathen people. The Chinese, meanwhile, remained convinced of their own cultural superiority but admitted a limited admiration for western creativity. Old political forms collapsed and the imperial court dissolved. Sun Yat-sen attempted to establish a form of democracy in China and was followed by Chiang Kai-shek, who originally held similar high principles. His regime, faced with economic and political problems on all sides, became repressive and wealthy ministers began to practice intrigue and corruption, much as before. He lost the faith of most of the people. By and large, the Communist victory under Mao Tse-tung was welcomed by the majority of ordinary Chinese as a chance to remove corruption from their lives.

Ma Meng believed that Mao was a shrewd and brilliant man who, through a profound and intimate knowledge of Chinese ways, was introducing a poisoned pill into Chinese life and thought. The sweeping reforms of the first phase of the revolution, the changes in land ownership, the ending of traditions, such as the bound feet of women, and the establishment of women’s rights, were all to the good and the imposition of change by force had not been unknown in China’s long history. Many people were delighted by the dramatic and refreshing reforms. Indeed, many Chinese, in other parts of Asia, turned their heads hopefully to China. The progressive restriction of personal liberty under an intolerant police state had, however, spread insidiously like a fungus through the arteries of an only partially revived national life. Independence of thought, criticism and creative argument were increasingly replaced by oppression and indoctrination, expressed in simplistic slogans which everyone had to believe. Ma said that never had personal freedom been so restricted as it was now in China and, as in the days of the old empire, China had closed her doors on outside influence.

Ma went on, “We Chinese intellectuals of Hong Kong and South-east Asia are in a very unhappy position for we are loyal Chinese but to whom? We have little empathy with Mao’s communism and even less for the old clique in Taiwan, which represents no political force nowadays.”

I asked him about the refusal of the USA to recognise the new China politically. Ma said that this was about the most unrealistic policy that any such powerful nation could maintain. He considered the American way of life a complete failure, lacking even the roots of true culture, concerning itself with such superficial and temporally unimportant things such as personal wealth, success, careerism and McCarthy-style witch-hunting. The US fails in both personal and national diplomacy, he informed me.

Ma Meng’s own views were socialist but without adherence to any particular party. He was very critical of the social situation in Hong Kong.

“You know the medical service really only serves the rich. A Chinese coolie, without strings to pull, has no chance of medical treatment until at death’s door or beyond. The middle class, shopkeepers, teachers, lecturers, and such like, are badly hit by medical charges. Doctors charge enormous rates. A maternity room in hospital incurs costs for the room, the doctor’s visits and the food brought in by an outside company. Penicillin injections may cost twenty dollars [twenty-five shillings].” I was shocked by this information, remembering the fifteen or so penicillin injections I was given at Mons, when my hand was slightly crushed in an accident and the fact that, on a week’s patrol, a soldier may consume some thirty-six Paludrine tablets for nothing. We have a large stock in camp. A tin of a thousand could be flogged downtown for a considerable profit.

“The social services are embryonic here and the government is, of course, undemocratic. How could it be otherwise, where the citizens feel a natural loyalty to China – even if they are not sure which one! Representation of the Chinese in government is not possible – at least for the present. Hong Kong is a colony. We understand that and, indeed, benefit from British protection and the rule of law but Chinese needs are inadequately considered. The legislature tends to be drawn from the wealthy and is elected by British citizens who, even if some of them are Chinese, are an extreme minority of the population. Chinese intellectuals have little say, since few of us are British citizens.”

Ma told me that before the war it was possible to get very rich quickly in Hong Kong and some of the millionaire Chinese have houses in Europe and America and move around with the seasons. Concubinage remains frequent and, when the legislature was about to declare it illegal, one influential member announced it was bad to interfere with old customs. Privately he had said that, as a solicitor, he would lose most of his clients if he supported the motion.

Ma Meng became upset and so angry, as he told me this, that for a moment he lost the fluency of his English. Au Boon Haw and the other wealthy cranks of Hong Kong would donate a hospital here or there but their whole way of life was false and absurdly luxurious, he said.

“I do not like the rich of Hong Kong. They do not love China. They have no love for Hong Kong. They care only for themselves and their wealth and keep in place old practices that long ago should have been consigned, like themselves, to a dustbin!”

I sympathised with his mood. The great differences between rich and poor here, the grandeur of the Peak mansions and the fantastically expensive cars that cannot go far on a small island, are indeed vulgar, in a way that only the mindless rich can be.

Ma told me of his friends in Hong Kong, their hopes and despair.

“We cannot do anything in our time. War would bring no good to China, only devastation, as in Korea. My generation will never go back. We can only hope that, in the circle of years, peace and freedom for the individual will return again.”

He told me that he felt an ever present fear of Communist expansion throughout the world.

“The Communists have one set purpose whereas the West can never speak with one voice. American physical strength may well, in the end, be the only deterrent. Yet we cannot predict the future from day to day or year by year events. It is the larger, often unknown, forces at work behind history that are vital, not the transience of day-to-day incidents. History cannot be read from a chapter of incidents!”

We walked back along the waterfront and stopped to view the brilliantly-lit junks arrayed for the Hungry Ghosts festival. On one of the vessels, a puppet show was in progress, fantastic colours and costumes. On the other, Taoists were officiating over a ceremony. A high priest sat in scarlet robes and crown below a resplendent array of electric lights, flashing in all imaginable colours. One, in particular, flashed on and off within a great, scarlet, plastic heart. What with all the bowing, tinkling of little bells, chanting and clashing of cymbals, I supposed some religious rite was in progress but I experienced it more as a Whit Monday fair in England.

I was grateful to Mr Ma for a richly informative evening, a wonderful tutorial, as it were, on the history of China and the situation in Hong Kong. I felt moved by his impassioned sense of social justice and saddened by his plight and that of his friends, isolated from the great culture they loved so well and saw so threatened by a soulless creed.