During my year as a National Service officer in the Royal Artillery in Hong Kong (1953–1954) I wrote regular letters home. In these writings I explored many aspects of my fresh experiences. I was twenty-two, had completed a degree in Zoology at University College, Southampton and had gained a place for future doctoral research in animal behaviour at Cambridge. The army was an obligatory interlude between two periods of academic training. Yet that year was to be perhaps the most influential of my life.
National service opened up my character and widened my horizons in a way an uninterrupted entry to my profession as a biologist could never have done. To that year I have owed my fascination with Eastern life and thought and my gradual turn towards social anthropology, psychology and Buddhist studies, to which I eventually came late in my career. Yet to that time I owe something more, as will be apparent in this work – the beginning of an insight into Zen, a capacity for cross-cultural relationships and the exploration of deep friendship itself.
Hong Kong, at the time of the Korean War, had barely recovered from the ravages of the Japanese occupation which remained vivid in the minds of old China hands. The place was overflowing with refugees from Communist China, who included, among their number, intellectuals and brilliant businessmen who were to bring wealth and fame to the colony in years ahead. Talking with these people was a rich source for understanding the problems of the Chinese at that time, beset by ideological conflict, poverty and the anxieties of war. Few of my friends in the Army took a personal interest in the Chinese and, by the time I left, I was considered the regimental expert on the Chinese way of life! In fact, had it not been for Communism, I may well have taken up the study of China in later years had I been able to visit that country in an unimpeded manner.
The letters home explored all these matters and my parents carefully preserved them. My gratitude to them for their kindness and care remains deep. Intuition told me I might use the letters for some sort of writing but, in the event, although they were worked on for a few months after my return, they were then, due to a developing career, put safely in a bank to await attention. Forty years later I took them out and began to edit them for this book. The text is very close to the original writing, as I wish to preserve my manner and the register in which I wrote at the time, for that is already part of history.
With certain obvious exceptions, the material here all comes from those letters. The remaining portions (particularly Chapter Six) were written as letters but never sent. Chapter Twenty-six was written at a desk, on the troopship returning home, with tears falling on the blotting paper.
This work is in some sense an archive, providing a picture of Hong Kong colonialism, at a time when the British presence provided a freedom from tyranny for countless Chinese. Sino-British relations were nonetheless restrained, polite, with a mutual sort of surface respect hiding the native arrogance of each people. In fact, the relations between simple soldiers and ordinary Chinese may well have been the closest in the colony in spite of appearances. My closeness to my men on Brickhill gave me a considerable understanding of exactly what this relationship was. There was a certain mutuality deriving from the soldiers’ loneliness far from home and the desperation and isolation of so many refugee people. While a degree of exploitation existed, there were also many relationships in which kindness and even love flourished. It was a rough world full of many rough diamonds.
My own public school origins (Sherborne) and education in the late imperial period of British history accounts for the mildly paternalistic attitude I sometimes show in these writings, both towards my own men and the Chinese. I have not attempted to edit this out, following some misconceived notion of contemporary political correctness, for it was a truth of the period which I do not wish to deny. As a national serviceman I had a critical attitude towards the army in which I served and this is often apparent. Nonetheless, I owed the whole experience to the army and to my training as a young lieutenant which brought out a certain confidence that was perhaps strongest in me at that time. I learnt much from being given the command of the RHQ troop of my regiment, during the last months of service, an appointment normally given to a regular officer with the rank of captain. At the time I did not know that my work was well appreciated but my Commanding Officer finally gave me a generously worded recommendation to potential employers when I left. This touched me deeply because, in the end, in spite of its frustrations, I developed a soft spot for military life.
I have often not given names or else I have changed them when I give a critical account of someone’s actions. Even after this lapse of time, I have no wish to embarrass those who have been my past companions. Other names are true history. I am especially grateful to Yiu Yannang, JP, MBE, at his retirement Deputy Commissioner of Labour in the Hong Kong Government and now active in a consultancy role, for his agreement that I may use his name throughout this text. Our friendship has continued through these long years and I am indebted to him for his reading of this work and correction of Chinese terms.
Brickhill is now the site of a huge modern marine aquarium dug deep in the hillside. The old officers’ mess is still there and also the bunkers, now used as stores for gardening implements. In the eighties I visited the deserted gun site. A pack of wild dogs inhabited the place, the ghosts of departed soldiers!
John H Crook