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Book Review: The Arthur May Story: Hong Kong 1941-1945 - Collated and Narrated by Ronald Taylor
This is a book that anyone interested in WW11 in Hong Kong will find interesting and valuable.
Last year on a research trip to Hong Kong I read through the Arthur May Papers, kindly deposited in the University of Hong Kong Library by Christine Henderson, who wrote a doctoral dissertation on Arthur May. Ronald Taylor has been able to go far beyond what is available in this collection. As well as conversations with May in his later years, he's had additional help from Dr. Henderson, including permission to use an unpublished manuscript, and access to a cache of private papers discovered after May's death.
The book that's resulted is a splendid tribute to May's achievements, and it makes it clear that these were even more wide-ranging and even more courageous than I'd thought.
Readers of Gwulo might be aware that Arthur May wasn't sent to Stanley Internment Camp alongside the majority of the British community in late January 1942; he was allowed to remain in occupied Hong Kong under a loose form of 'house arrest' because his skills as an engineer had won the gratitude of the Japanese, particularly, it seems, because he'd saved the day for the cattle at the Dairy Farm. He was not one of those who used this relative freedom - which was certainly advantageous in 1942 before the Gendarmes started arresting the 'free Europeans' under suspicion of spying - to benefit himself.
May threw himself into helping Dr. Selwyn-Clarke (himself uninterned to organise public health measures) in his campaign of both legal and illegal relief for the camps and the dependents of the people in them. He acted as link man with the courageous pharmacist Arthur Rowan, who was the main source of illegal drugs that were smuggled into camps and hospitals. He stole (or arranged to have stolen) some of the infrastructure that helped create the possibility of a minimally civilised life in Stanley. And this book reveals that he was the driver of the ambulance in the well-known escapade when Selwyn-Clarke and another volunteer broke into a medical store to steal a dentist's chair for Stanley.
That incident shows the huge risks May was running: the store had been sealed by the Imperial Japanese Army and the penalty for breaking the seal was death. Selwyn-Clarke believed the game was up when he saw a Japanese patrol marching towards them and was filled with horror not so much at his own imminent death but at the thought of the two men he'd led to their doom. Like so much else in the Hong Kong occupation, what happened next seems to come straight out of a rather bad war film: the patrol was under the command of a compassionate Japanese officer, who saw the ambulance, guessed the humanitarian intention, and wheeled his men down a side road to the left.
Almost every day he was in occupied Hong Kong, May was at risk of imprisonment, torture and death for that kind of humanitarian activity. The Arthur May Story reveals that this was only part of what he did. In the summer of 1942 he was able to contact an Indian officer, one of many POWs who had been allowed out of the camp (Ma Tau-wai) to work for the Japanese in one security capacity or another. May and this officer (perhaps Jemadar Dadhan Khan) devised a plan - which May insisted must only be put into effect if the Japanese position weakened - for the uninterned Indian POWs to overpower the Japanese military (which they outnumbered) and seize control of Hong Kong. It would be hard to imagine getting involved in anything more dangerous, but May kept up his contacts with the Indians right through the war, even after he'd been interned in Ma Tau-chung (the former Ma Tau-wai, whose Indian occupants had been moved to Arygle Street). That was in August 1944 and one of my few disappointments in the book - which is not Mr. Taylor's fault - is that it sheds no light on May's claim (recorded in an interview he gave to historian George Endacott) that he was interrogated by the Japanese for two weeks before finally being sent into the camp. I'd love to know why he was suspected and how he convinced the Gendarmes that their no doubt well-grounded suspicions were false!
It was from Ma Tau-chung that May carried out the exploit for which he's best known: on August 18, 1945, under the general direction of Selwyn-Clarke and with the help of fellow engineer James Brown, he raised the Union Flag on the Peak, the first time it had flown publicly since December 25, 1941, and a signal to the Americans and the Chinese that the British still saw themselves as the legitimate rulers of Hong Kong. May followed this up by making an incident-packed trip to Macao to get permission from London - via the Consul John Reeves - for a reluctant Franklin Gimson to resume British administration.
It's in describing the flag raising, the Macao trip and the surrounding events that the qualities of the editor-narrator as a historian become clearest. Given his unprecedented access to the man and his papers, and the fact that it's almost impossible to learn about May's war-time activities without becoming almost awe-truck with admiration, it's a real achievement the way Mr. Taylor maintains proper historical standards of objectivity and honesty. He makes it clear that May's own accounts differ from those of other actors in the drama that led to the British restoration in Hong Kong - and that they are, in fact, irreconcilably contradictory in themselves. This is hardly surprising: the deprivations and terrors of the occupation tended to drown out or distort earlier memories, and it's noticeable that accounts written in 1945-46 are sometimes wrong about the events of the 1941 hostilities. May seems to have revisited his actions in Hong Kong at different periods during his long life, and it's the nature of all memories to change over time. Nevertheless, I was rather surprised when Mr Taylor hinted that May's detailed account of a meeting with Colonel Simon White, the commander of the POWs in Shamshuipo, may have been in part at least confabulation (the creation, without attempt to deceive, of a false memory) and that it's only 'possible' it took place at all. But, given his knowledge of the sources, I'm sure he has good reason for these suggestions.
Finally, the book has a number of useful and very interesting appendixes: for example, letters from Gimson to Selwyn-Clarke in the immediate aftermath of the Japanese surrender, copies of the original notes smuggled by Indian POWs into Ma Tau-chung, and a specimen of the news digests May produced to keep others informed after tuning into Allied radio broadcasts in his 'secret chamber'. Dissemination of news was yet another activity that cost some people their lives, and May's 'bunker' was about 30 feet away from a Japanese-occupied house.
I was always rather surprised that May had survived the war - and, I now realise, I only knew the half of it! Strangely, in spite of Selwyn-Clarke's putting his name forward at least twice, he was never honoured for what he did.
But, pleasant as that kind of recognition no doubt can be, the real reward for men like May was, I'm sure, the achievements themselves and the role they played in alleviating distress and freeing Hong Kong from Japanese rule.
Thanks to Mr. Taylor anyone interested can now learn how Arthur May conducted himself during the terrifying days of the Japanese occupation.
This book is fitting tribute to an incredible man.