Chapter Seventeen

Fate or Karma



I have seen more of Yannang and through him gained deeper insight into the struggle of Hong Kong life. He has no teacher to advise him for there are so many students that individual tuition is rarely possible. One evening he said to me,

“Sometimes I feel so small. The world is so vast a place and my own life such a fragmentary part of it, so transitory. What would be the use of becoming a merchant like my uncle? It does not seem to lead anywhere. The father of one of my friends was once a scholar but now he gambles all day. I do not want to be a rich man but I do so want to understand.”

Yannang loves literature and the fine arts, yet in Hong Kong there is little opportunity for a personal culture which needs leisure and peace of mind for creative thought. Very few young Chinese today are interested in their country’s history or the great philosophic tradition to which they are heirs. The jazz and dance hall mania has swept in from the West to supplant all that. Most youngsters want to be more Western than they can understand. Such is the fashion, such the craze.

Standing on the hillside with Yannang, gazing down through swirling mists upon the roaring, noisy city, the neon signs already blazing in the early dusk, I felt how terrible was fate – that great, impersonal tide that dominates our lives sweeping us where we would not. As the harsh reality of modern Hong Kong becomes clear, the old fateful forces return to press down upon me. Where there is mystery and a poetry in the unknown there is romance, which gives rise to inspiration but, lacking substantiality, this in time gives way to disillusionment.

Yannang works hard with little advice, no father to talk to, the perpetual pain of separation, of exile and insecurity, the nagging fear of poverty. These things are real for him, as they have never been for me in my sheltered life. It is easy for me to talk about ancient history, folklore and philosophy, yet I wonder if, at the back of his mind he may not perceive the futility of such studies in a life oppressed by hunger and circumstances. His courage is great and his devotion to learning is one of the most wonderful things I have known. At nineteen he has thrown off the usual fallacies of wealth and others’ esteem and has developed the critical power of a strong, sensitive mind. To him successes and failures are no game but a battle. This is true diligence – a word the Chinese use a great deal and with high praise.

One evening, when Roger and I met Yannang and a friend, the latter enquired with great seriousness into our beliefs. Addressing himself to Roger, he asked, “And what is your philosophy of life?” Poor Roger, I saw his eyebrows soar skywards as he rapidly thought through the public school code.

At times Hong Kong now seems to me to be a place of high tragedy. There are few who believe that the colony could be held against a Chinese assault for long. The community here thrives because the People’s Government has not yet seen fit to attack us. There would of course be an almighty battle and I dare not think what would follow.

The local Chinese would be in a fix if such an event were to occur. A passive people in a crisis sits still. Yannang has faith in the good government which the British supply but he is, after all, Chinese; he belongs to the people over the mountains. If the communists were to come, young idealists would simply cover up, becoming impassive, blank to all influences, helping no one, daring little courageously but rather turning back perhaps to a country life, where at least the mind could find some freedom. Yet, perhaps I am unfair. Quiet courage may go deeper than I suppose. Western films about heroism rarely portray the bravery of those who try to live their own lives in conditions far from freedom.

After one evening together, Yannang wrote me a long letter sharing our ideas over again. I wrote back to him:

“I, too, returned to camp with a full heart that night. I think maybe we understand the true sympathy of friendship. I sincerely hope so for both our sakes. Like you, I have written a long diary in my letters home, in which I have recalled whole passages of our conversations as if we were still talking together.

You ask me to correct the thoughts you express. Oh Yannang, I wish I could. What you say is pure and graceful in expression and the sorrow of homelessness runs like an arrow through my heart also, as I read what you have written.

Indeed my home in England waits for me, my mother anxiously looking forward to the return of her travelled son. There will be celebrations, talk and family love. When I think of your predicament I find the comparison painful. Yet we must address these problems together when we meet, talk about it, not hide from it. This has happened to you and you cannot forget or put it aside. You will live on, Yannang, after I have left Hong Kong. There will continue to be good wishes and friendship and love. There is as much kindness in the world as there is terror and despair. I believe love wins through. Despair in the world is no new thing and neither is love. We need a faith in the beauty of nature and the kind heart of man for all must in the end be well. At least, thinking so, the sorrowful moment will be easier to bear.” And I quoted to him the psalmist David’s writings on despair and the manner in which, taking courage, he walked on. “In you I can see both sorrow and courage and I know you will come to understand both. I love you for that.”




The Buddha statue

The professor seemed pleased to see me and ushered me into his flat. It was a spacious apartment, two sides of it window and a group of rooms leading off the main hall. There was a highly polished wood-block floor without mats and modern furniture, tasteful tables, chairs and stools.

After a brief exchange of pleasantries, he retired for his Sunday morning shave while I conned the morning paper. It was nearly half past eleven. As usual the news was unutterably depressing yet after a while I became aware of the music floating through the room from a little wireless. I had not noticed it when I had arrived. It was Bach’s St John’s Passion. It soared and roamed, tilted and slid into a long cascade of sound. My world steadied, became quiet, the view of the harbour beyond the window seemed to stretch further and further. Below lay the hillside park and scattered houses of the university compound and beyond that the city sprawled along the slopes of the hill leading down to the harbour with its liners, cargo boats, lighters, sampans, junks and ferries, and, beyond that, Kowloon and the hills leading towards China.

I heard a little bell ringing and, looking up, saw a small porcelain bell hanging before the open window. Below the tiny clapper a piece of paper was being blown by the slight breeze. As the professor returned I pointed to the bell.

“Ah yes – it represents one of the temple wind bells of Japan. Every time it rings it says a prayer. Look, it has Kyoto written upon it. That is where it comes from.”

Professor Kirby holds the Chair of Economics at Hong Kong University. I had met him at a private dinner party given by Mr A.C. Scott, an expert on Japan. Kirby was educated in Japan and speaks both Japanese and Mandarin fluently. During the war he held a kind of roving commission with the Chinese army in Chung King and at various war fronts. When Hong Kong was recaptured he acted as interpreter on HMS King George V. He is a strange old boy, very much a professor and correspondingly vague. He writes many papers and has a book on China in press.

We strolled together through a maze of streets and down Ladder Street, a long flight of steps leading down the steep hillside, flattening out every time it met a cross-roads. In Upper Lascar Row, also known as Cat Street, we began exploring the numerous shops. Everything seemed to be on sale from ancient sewing machines to old tin cans. Open to the street and stuffed to the ceilings, antique shops were filled with ivory carvings, work in bone, wooden Buddhist altar pieces, paintings, scrolls, trinkets, scent bottles, ancestor portraits, incense burners, innumerable ancient coins, implements and vases of all sorts and dimensions. The professor, something of an expert, told me there were three price ranges, one for the Chinese, one for the British and one for Americans. So one has to be decidedly British and pose as an expert, muttering about the Sung and Ming dynasties and expressing doubt when the dealer dates a piece absurdly early. Everything is to be minutely examined while one expresses extreme poverty and inability to spend even a penny.

Kirby was a well-known and welcome guest at all the shops and, after a quarter of an hour, speaking Chinese, he clinched a deal which had been debated for weeks. He came away with two enormous scrolls. They were ancestor portraits which interested him. Within the last fifty or so years a tradition had become established whereby the photograph of a deceased was copied exactly and a set of gorgeous robes of a bygone dynasty painted around the figure.

At the back of one little shop I spotted a small, throned Buddha image in gilded wood. It seemed a lovely little piece with a wonderfully serene expression, quite unlike the worldly, laughing Buddhas of which there are many in the shops. The professor dated it as mid-eighteenth century while the dealer put it earlier. It glowed gold with a rare quality that touched me. I asked how much. $220 I was told. I offered $100. At the time I really had no intention of buying it but the more I examined it the more I felt it was really worth having. The professor remarked that if I did not buy it, he would. That decided the issue. I was not to know this little figure would be of great importance to me and to others long into the future.




Unwanted promotion

For the last month I have been truly happy. My conversations with Yannang, my expeditions into the city and plans for a short holiday in Japan have all been juice for the spirit. One of the secret ingredients has lain in Brickhill itself. Often in the evenings I would climb up the hill beyond the perimeter wire to the very top. I would sit there watching the changes of light and shadow as the sun set.

I cannot claim to know anything of Eastern meditation but, somehow, perched up there on my rock, my mind became empty of troubles, becoming absorbed by the beauty of the world. I found an inner quietude and certainty I have never known before. This was not something mystical but a form of reflection; the view became mine while the details of a flower I picked focused my attention. Then, letting my eyes drift over the curves and slopes of the hills, the forms of rocks and trees, it seemed as if I was gliding my hands over them so close did they feel. I would come down to the mess for our evening meal, as refreshed as the earth after a cooling shower and as quiet in my mind as an unruffled pool. I believe these moments to have been among the happiest I have known because at such times there was no wish for anything else, no desire, no thinking, no looking for anything outside my vision.

But now my mood is as grey as the sombre sky.

Suddenly, without warning, I am told that next week I will take over the Regimental Headquarters Troop in Stanley as Troop Commander and that, as a result, my proposal for leave in Japan is cancelled. One is never allowed to be happy for long. All day I have felt caged, trapped in a world of regretted circumstances, near to despair for I was so looking forward to leave. I blasted all those military deities who push people around as if they were toys; those fools of officers with their petty pomp, their self-opinionated airs and graces, small minds and absurd idiosyncrasies. My inherent loathing of the whole system sprang up like a rampant dragon and I was hardly in control of my resentful thoughts.

I went to the adjutant, said I was really happy at Brickhill, that my passage to Japan was booked, that I only had three and a half months of service left to do. A reasonable man, he listened reasonably. He went to talk it over with the CO and told me he had done all he could. The CO had said, “Hard bloody luck!”6*

The adjutant did his best to help. I had been chosen, he said, for my ‘maturity’ to do a responsible job that needed some innate cunning and tact. He poured it all on – useful job, usually only staffed by regulars of the rank of captain, an interesting opportunity, a free command. As for my leave – well national service officers were only here for a year so they didn’t really need any! He hoped I would not bear a grievance.

I raged around suddenly realising how attached I was to Brickhill. I loved the odd little place. Two bombadiers came running up to me after a shooting match, “We’ve won, Sir – we’ve won!” Faces as radiant as school kids. I could have cried. I seemed to have grown up with these men and to have a bond of companionship with them. They seemed to respect me as a friend rather than as an officer. And I certainly felt towards them as friends rather than “the men”.

Stanley, the Regimental Headquarters, is a vast sprawling camp. It is difficult to get to know anyone there. There is saluting all the time, rigid etiquette and an officious military atmosphere. And I had the impression that the subalterns there were a dull, unimaginative lot who never seemed to use their time in HK in any creative way.

On and on I moaned. The happier one is capable of being the more miserable the world appears, I muttered to myself. I opened newspapers only to read about H-bombs, the ruin of continents, human power rivalling that of the sun – the air full of war and rumours of war. I realised how strong is the fear of war, the sense of fateful destiny. I was angry with the CO for not giving me a better time after all my hard work. Poor me. It is given to some men to snuff out candles – one day they will do it on either side of the altar of hope. Grrrrrrrrr...

Yet, I reflected, Yannang and I have spoken so much about accepting life that it now appears to be my turn to swallow a bitter pill. I realised more and more how I depended either on solitude or my few dear friends for spiritual comfort. Yannang has filled a well of loneliness into which I seemed to have fallen since leaving school. I sensed myself to have an odd character, feeling and thinking about things differently from most. “There is,” I wrote home, “perhaps a quality of contemplative thinking and a need for freedom which I hold very dear. But I must not be so introspective. It’s not polite!”

Turning over the new job in my mind I could see it would be a challenging one. My duties would include attending to the welfare and discipline of a wide assortment of men, functioning as drivers, mechanics, cooks, clerks, dutymen of various kinds, and arranging the pay of the Chinese labourers and civilian staff. I would have to deal with truculent senior NCOs of many years service and, at times, send orders from HQ to regular officers commanding the various regimental sites around the colony. Innate cunning and tact – a free command! Indeed. I do not suffer those whom I consider fools gladly and was afraid of losing my newly-established inner calm in a series of irritating incidents.

Even so, I consoled myself, the job did indeed offer an opportunity to experience responsibilities usually only given to regular officers of much higher rank. It would be, indeed, a sole and free command of a lot of men functioning at the heart of the regimental HQ. I was, I realised, pleased to have been chosen and had an opportunity to learn much about the problems of effective administration. I would miss the radar and the gunsite. Oh well, I would have to get on with it. When there is no choice – act.