Posted by Alice Xin Liu on Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 6:44 PM
This introduction was contributed by Peter Spurrier
In the years before the latter’s death at the age of 79, Jonathan Chamberlain spent an evening a week recording the stories told by Peter Hui. The resulting biography tells, in Hui’s own words, of scandal and corruption, drugs and pirates, triads and flower boats; of Japanese invasion and Communist intrigue; the real story of Hong Kong, told with the rich flavours of the street.
Who was Peter Hui?
He had been a famous kungfu fighter; a rich playboy, a regular frequenter of the pleasure houses of Macau; a gambler (he had run three gambling joints in Canton when the Communists walked in); the brains behind a gang of armed robbers (he alone escaped arrest when their third robbery went wrong); an associate of triads – and, before all that, he had been the owner of the biggest string of Mongolian ponies at the Hong Kong Jockey Club. That was during the war years, when he was a leading collaborator of the Japanese. He had once, for a very short time, owned all the opium in Hong Kong! Later, he was paid by a CIA officer to report on events in China. This was during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guard factions fought amongst each other.
Some periods in history are best illuminated by the stories of the people who lived through them. This is one of those: a riches to rags to riches to rags story. As we follow Hui’s life, we see in sharp focus what it was like to be a Chinese man in British Hong Kong through most of the years of the 20th century. And yet this book is not just one man’s story. It is the story of a time and place – colonial Hong Kong, Portuguese Macau and the South China hinterland – seen from the unique point of view of a man who was at home at all levels of society. There are, for example, no other published accounts of the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong as seen from the non-combatant Chinese perspective.
King Hui: The Man Who Owned All the Opium in Hong Kong extract from The Japanese invade Hong Kongby Jonathan Chamberlain
I don’t remember much about the Japanese invasion. People say there was a lot of bombing. Frankly, I can’t remember much. As far as I am aware the city was largely untouched. I remember one day some bombers came over to attack the naval base at Tamar but most of the bombs dropped into the harbour and one exploded on the empty hillside above the city near Magazine Gap. The airfield at Kai Tak was bombed but next to the airfield were the Whampoa docks and the Japanese didn’t want to damage them too much. I can say that most people in the city on Hong Kong island were unaware of the fighting. In fact, I don’t think there was much fighting. The Japanese quickly over-ran the British forces. By the time they reached the main city of Hong Kong the fighting was over. They came over from the south side of the island, through Wong Nei Chong Gap and then down Blue Pool Road to Happy Valley and Wanchai and then slowly, on horseback, they came to Central.
As soon as we knew the Japanese were going to invade we thought there would be chaos and looting. It seemed inevitable. But nothing like that happened. The first thing everyone thought of was to get money out of the banks and to buy food. By the time the Japanese invaded everyone had prepared themselves as far as they could. Now, we just waited. We didn’t know how long the battle would last or how long. I think we all knew the Japanese would win but we expected the fight to be very hard and long. Actually, Hong Kong fell very quickly. The sound of explosions stopped. We waited. We had no idea what was going to happen. Most of the people hated the British but they also hated the Japanese. Maybe the British were better. Maybe the Japanese were better. Who could say? On the one hand the Japanese were Asians like us. On the other hand, they were famous for being very cruel. The massacre at Nanjing was still a recent memory. What would they do to us? Everyone stayed indoors and waited to see what would happen.
On Kowloon side the Japanese quickly pushed the British back. The Peninsula Hotel was the command headquarters for the British generals. But there were many civilians there too. My brother-in-law’s colleague, Tsui Tim, was the Chinese superintendent of the hotel. As soon as he saw the situation was getting worse and that the fighting was getting closer he ordered the British flag to be pulled down. The British commanding general was furious. He ordered Tsui Tim to put it back up again but Tsui refused. He told the general: “If we have the flag up the Japanese will aim their guns at this building. There are women and children here. Also I am responsible for the safety of the hotel staff. I think for everyone’s sake this is the sensible thing to do.” And so the flag stayed down. That’s why the Peninsula Hotel was not damaged by gunfire.
The Japanese rode into Central a few days later on horseback. They immediately took over the Hong Kong Hotel as their headquarters and put the staff quarters under their control as well.
For the majority of the people of Hong Kong food became the big problem. Some people were starving on the streets. The poor people had nowhere to live and no money to buy rice. But it was no problem for my family. My brother-in-law was the Superintendent of the Hong Kong Hotel. Naturally, we had access to all the food supplies in the hotel. We had caviar, salmon, steak, lobster anything we wanted. We just went into the food store and took what we wanted. My father and the rest of my family didn’t like western food so much so he would choose food to make Chinese dishes. And there was plenty of wine and brandy. My father was always a heavy drinker and by this time so was I. Every night we had a feast. Each of us drank two or three bottles of brandy a day. My father liked Hennessy. That was the best in those days. The brand he liked had an axe-head on the label. I remember that. As soon as the invasion started, Ho Tim had closed the hotel up and told all the staff that because of the emergency they were all being made unemployed immediately. There was no possibility of paying them off because there was no money on hand. He told them they were welcome to stay as long as they wanted at the staff quarters but from now on they would have to find their own food. If they ate in the canteen they would have to pay for it. He advised them to go back to China. What else could they do? China was better for two reasons. First it was under the control of the puppet government of Wong Ching-wai who had been set up by the Japanese. It was therefore more stable and it was possible to do business there and get work. Also, if anyone went back to their home village in the country they were always certain of getting some simple food at least. Anyone could plant some sweet potatoes. Hong Kong was just a port. It had little food supply of its own: some vegetables and pigs. All the rice and most of everything else had to be imported. So, gradually, over the next few months, the staff quarters emptied. Not all at once as some couldn’t afford to go straight away and others wanted to wait and see what would happen in Hong Kong. We expected violence but there wasn’t any.
My father had a safe at the hotel which he had needed for his business. Here he kept money that he had made from the lottery business and other property. I remember we had some jewellery in there including a piece of jade. When I think of this jade piece my heart breaks. It was pure green colour. The very best colour of jade. It was one inch wide and three inches long. Not long after the war it was worth about $300,000. I was so poor in those early days that I had to sell it for how much? Guess! Only $700. Within a year it was worth 500 times as much. If I had just that one piece of jade now I would be rich. I could buy one or two flats at least. But I had no choice. I had to sell it to buy food for my wife and children. I had to pay the funeral expenses of my father. I tell you. My fate has been a hard one. But this was later. Now, at the time the Japanese invaded, I had no problems. I was eating well. I was drinking a bottle of brandy every day and I was making a lot of money.
When everything had settled down a bit, maybe a week after the Japanese arrived, I set up a gambling table in the street just outside the entrance to the staff quarters. I was the only one in Central though I heard that triads were operating tables in other districts. Immediately I started to make lots of money. The reason was simple. People who didn’t have enough money were hoping to make a big win and so be able to buy a ticket for China. Other people were just bored because there was no other entertainment. There was nothing to do at all. Other people had most of their hot cash in their pockets so they felt rich. Chinese are gamblers. We love gambling. I just had one set of dominoes so we played ‘pai kau’. It’s quite a complicated game but everyone knows how to play. I paid a few of the hotel staff to look after the table and many of the other staff bet at the table. Some were lucky and got what they wanted but there is one simple rule of gambling: the banker must win and I was the banker. Another group of people who had some money in their pockets were the Taiwanese interpreters who came to Hong Kong with the Japanese. They were quite well off. They also liked to gamble.
Don’t think I just made money from the hotel staff. I helped a lot of people at this time. All the hotel staff knew me. They called me ‘Kei gaw’ - ‘gaw gaw’ means ‘elder brother’. Even though I was younger than them they called me elder brother out of respect. They would come up to me and say: “Kei gaw, I need some money to go back to China. I don’t have enough. I don’t like to bother you and I don’t dare to ask to borrow some money but you can buy my bicycle. Or my watch or this bottle of brandy. ” A lot of them were waiters and when they left their restaurants they would take a bottle of wine or spirits. They didn’t drink it themselves but sold it to me. So I would give them say $5 for a bicycle. That was a lot of money in those days. So I quickly acquired six, seven, eight bicycles. I didn’t need so many bicycles but it was a way to help these people. I had so much money. It was easy for me to do. Later I sold them for a small profit. This was small stuff for me. I was making five or six hundred dollars a day.
Of course, once I started up my gambling table several others had the same idea and soon there were quite a lot of tables. When this happened the Japanese issued an order banning gambling. They posted up posters everywhere saying that anyone caught running a gambling table would be executed immediately. I think some people were caught. Everyone else went out of business immediately. Everyone except me! From then on I was the only one in Hong Kong running a gambling business. You could say I had a monopoly of gambling in Hong Kong! How is it I could succeed? All it took was a little cleverness. Now I must explain something. When the Japanese took over the Hong Kong Hotel they placed a large banner with the words ‘Japanese Military Authority’ over the entrance to the staff quarters. I simply pulled the table into the entrance to the staff quarters and carried on. When Japanese soldiers and gendarmes passed by they would see us gambling confidently. Then they would see the sign, hesitate, and then walk on. Naturally, we would bow at them and point out the sign with a smile. It seemed to them that we were carrying on the gambling business with the full authority of at least one senior military officer. My father and brother-in-law thought I was very clever. My wife never worried about what I did. They all knew I could look after myself.
Some people say that the Japanese soldiers were very cruel. That was not my experience. I did not have the impression that they brutalised the people. There were cases, certainly. But I have to say that, from my own experience, they behaved correctly. Always we had to bow low and obey them. If we did that we would be all right. I would say they behaved better than soldiers from other countries. Better than Chinese soldiers even. Naturally, if they didn’t like something they would kill you straight away. They wouldn’t shoot you. That’s not their way. They liked to use their swords. They would just cut off your head. I saw this once or twice. One man was caught stealing something, some food, I think it may have been a duck. He was caught and killed straight away. His body was just left lying in the street.
The gambling business could not continue forever. Not because of the danger but because soon no-one had any money. The value of money was dropping fast and the cost of everything was rising fast. The Japanese introduced military yen and made Hong Kong dollars illegal. Still, people preferred to use the Hong Kong dollar on the black market. This was strange perhaps. There was no government to support it and it was illegal. Still, people preferred it. But it couldn’t be used openly. Later people started to speculate by buying up high-value notes. You could buy a hundred dollar note for thirty or forty dollars.
After a few months, the staff quarters stopped being so safe. The soldiers knew that here was a regular source of manpower. From time to time they would do spot checks. What they wanted was labourers. If they had a job, they would come and get as many workers as they needed. They always needed workers because they paid almost nothing, so naturally no-one wanted to work for them. All they would do was supply you with enough food to stay alive. Many workers escaped and walked to China. So when they needed workers they would grab whoever they could find and force them to work for a few days. Only men. They left the women and children alone. I was lucky. I was never caught. But once my father was caught and taken away. When I returned to the quarters from whatever I was doing a few hours later, my wife told me what had happened. I can tell you I was damned angry. I didn’t think twice. When I am angry I am like that. I ran down to the Hong Kong Hotel where all the senior military officers lived. I charged into the lobby and demanded to see a senior officer.
“Who is the most senior officer here?” I shouted. Really I was furious. I didn’t care about my own safety. Naturally I was stopped by the staff.
“What do you want?” a translator asked.
“Your soldiers have taken away my father. Why do you need old men to do your work? If you need someone you should get someone young. Let my father go. I don’t mind to take his place!”
“And who are you?”
I told him my name and told him I was the brother-in-law of the hotel superintendent. Ho Tim still worked there for the Japanese but he earned very little. The translator calmed me down and promised to look into the matter. In fact, he did do something because my father was released a few hours later. He was very frightened by the experience. I knew that the next time we might not be so lucky. We had to move.
I found a flat on the Wanchai waterfront, just next to the Luk Kwok Hotel, which later became famous because it was the original of the hotel in the Suzie Wong book. So we all moved there and for the next few months we did nothing. Nothing at all. There was nothing to do. No-one had any money. Gradually, the money we did have on hand, our ‘hot cash’, gave out. It became more and more difficult to live.
It was at this time that our mui-jai ran away. She was the mui-jai my father-in-law had given my wife when we got married. Her name was Shen Yee. Why did she run away? Who can say? Maybe it was because we were getting poorer and poorer. Maybe she felt guilty to be eating our rice. Or maybe she felt this was a good time to gain her freedom. Actually, I can tell you that she was free to go anytime. No-one would have stopped her. Actually, by that time it wasn't really legal to have a mui-jai, but no-one told their mui-jai. The girls were illiterate so many of them didn't know. Maybe they did know but were happy to stay with their families. It was a kind of security. Anyway, the fact is, even if it was the law everyone ignored it. Maybe I am old fashioned but I have no objection to the mui-jai system if the master and mistress of the house are good. I can say that we always treated our mui-jais well.
Shen Yee disappeared and then, a few days later, a friend of mine told me that she was working in a barber shop. Although there was no work for anyone in the normal way there was always work for a girl in a barber shop. Why? Because these barber shops were different from normal hairstylists. In those days, when you went to a barber shop it wasn’t just to get your hair cut. They performed other services, especially massage. And it’s common for a customer to make an arrangement to meet the barber girl later for sex. So the girls who work in these shops are a form of prostitute.
When I heard Shen Yee was working in this barber shop I went to see her. When she saw me she looked scared. She thought I had come to take her back.
“Shen Yee, don’t ever be scared of me. I don’t want to do you any harm. You are free to do what you want. I just want to make sure you are happy. ”
She said she was happy there. After that, I dropped in to see her from time to time. Naturally, I felt some affection for her. We had lived together for six or more years. I didn’t want any harm to come to her. I saw her maybe ten times and then one day she was gone. No-one knew where she had gone. She just disappeared. I never saw her again.
For my wife, everything continued as before. She had three children to look after with just one amah to help. But my wife was always very clever about domestic matters.
During these months, the population of Hong Kong dropped a great deal. Maybe, it was only half or a third what it was before. The people who stayed had no money at all. People stayed at home or just walked the streets looking for opportunities. It was a hard time. Everyone suffered. There was starvation. Sometimes you would see bodies on the streets. I remember once, a man stole a cake and just stuffed it in his mouth. He didn’t care if he was caught, as long as he had something to eat. One thing that some people ate at this time was wild taro. This was not a good vegetable to eat. I’m not sure what exactly it does. Maybe it is slightly poisonous or maybe the wild taro paste can’t be digested so it stays in the bowel until it completely blocks the intestine or the stomach. People knew it was not good but it filled the stomach and stopped them feeling hungry. Many people died from eating too much. At first there is no problem but after six months or so of regular eating it becomes fatal. Another thing, girls and women were afraid of the soldiers but I don’t think there was much rape. My wife stayed at home most of the time.
One day my father made a decision.
“What good is it to be rich if you can’t afford to eat? I can’t stand to see all my grandchildren starving. We must sell some of our properties in Canton so that we have money to buy food. ”
So I was sent to Canton to sell some properties. My father was too old and frail. He didn’t feel up to travelling.
I took the ferry up to Canton with all the documents and certificates that were needed. I had to have his signature on everything. None of the property was in my name. I sold a few houses so once again we were rich and had enough money to buy food.
When I came back from Canton I found a nicer flat in Village Road in Happy Valley so we moved there. It was very cheap to rent. It was possible to move into some very nice flats and live even rent-free. Many owners who had fled to Canton were just happy that someone was living in their flats. We paid a rent but it was very small. Shortly afterwards, I got another flat for my father as there wasn’t enough room for us all. Ant then I got a third flat which I used for entertaining my friends and that’s where I took girls. I didn’t like to go to hotels. I didn’t want people to comment about me. As for my wife, that was no problem. She didn’t care much. She was an old-fashioned woman. She accepted that a man could have several concubines. I never cheated or lied to her. I would always tell her straight what I had been doing the night before: whether I had a good time with a society girl, or a dancer, or a film star or a waitress. She said to me:
“I don’t mind if you mess around with girls. All I care about is that you take care of us properly so that we have a comfortable life.” We understood and respected each other.
A man’s fate is a strange thing. It can change suddenly. One minute you may be poor, the next minute you are rich. It was about six months after the Japanese invasion when suddenly my life changed. Suddenly I was rich. Suddenly I had money in my pockets. I wasn’t dependent on my father, or KF. I didn’t have to be a broker. I had all the money I needed and more.
This moment was the turning point in my life. Naturally, I didn’t realise this at the time. All I knew was that I had as much money as I needed. My father still had to sign all the documents but he left all the decisions to me. While all my rich friends were broke I was suddenly rich. I can tell you that money is nothing. But it is a glorious feeling to have money - money to throw away on pleasure. That is all I thought about. Everyone else struggled to get by. They led quiet lives at home or they escaped to other countries. Only I had the desire to have fun. What else was there to do? It was a bad time to think of business. We just had to cope the best way we could until the situation improved. And I had money to spend. That was one thing. The other thing was that soon I was to have very good connections with the Japanese administration. These were the two necessary components: money and connections. For the next three years and some months of the occupation I led the second most glorious time of my life. My school years were first. Then came the years of the occupation.
Let me explain how it all happened. When I went up to Canton to sell the houses, I fooled around and had a good time. While I was there, I paid a visit to my old school friend, Tang Kin-shan. He was the one who had warned me several months before the war that the Japanese intended to invade.
“You should make some connections with the Japanese,” he advised me. He said he knew of someone who would be a good contact for me, the abbot of the only Japanese Buddhist monastery in Hong Kong - which happened to be in Wanchai, not very far from where we lived. His name was Fuji-san. Tang gave me a letter of introduction to him. I thought very hard about taking this step. I was worried that there might be some negative consequences but I couldn’t immediately think of any. I felt it could only be beneficial to me so in the end I made contact with him. I wrote him a letter introducing myself and saying I would be happy to be of use to the Japanese administration. A few days later I got a reply asking me to visit him for tea. When I met him he was dressed in civilian clothes, not the robes of a monk. I remember I was surprised when I met him. His head wasn’t shaved as I expected it would be. He had short hair in the military style. All I knew was that this man had powerful connections with the Japanese military.
“You would like to be of use to the administration?”
“That is my intention. But I don’t know how I can be useful.”
“You can speak English? Then, please come here every afternoon at four o’clock and teach me English and I will teach you Japanese. We can exchange lessons. How would you like that?”
Naturally I was happy to agree, so it was arranged that I would be an English teacher. I also set out to learn as much Japanese as I could. For the first few days I just taught Fuji-san but then he introduced me to some other Japanese who also wanted to learn English. Within a few weeks I had seven or eight students. I knew very little of my students. I knew their names but nothing else. I guessed they were senior officers but when I met them they were not in uniform so I didn’t know what rank they were or which section of the army they worked in. Now, I can tell you, they all studied hard. They were very serious about learning English. Fuji-san could speak some Cantonese but soon with my Japanese and my students’ English we could communicate quite well. Actually, I was very surprised that they wanted to learn English so I asked them why.
“We are engaged in the Great East Asian War,” one of them explained. “Our forces will eventually take over Australia and New Zealand. First New Zealand and then Australia. In order to get a more favourable posting to these countries we must learn English. ”
The others all nodded.
“Also, it is good for promotion,” another one said. “The more languages we can speak the better our chances of promotion. ”
“We enjoy your teaching,” a third officer said, “we know you are a learned literary man and also that you are good at kung fu.”
“How do you know all this?” I was surprised as I had never told them about my kung fu.
“Your friend Mr. Tang wrote to me,” the abbot said.
“Why don’t you join our army?” one of the officers asked.
“I may be good at kung fu but I know nothing of military matters. I have no experience of warfare or politics or anything of that sort. I would be a very bad soldier. ”
Although I joked with them and laughed, actually I was scared by the suggestion. If I joined them I would be considered a traitor. I kept this very clearly in mind. They repeated the suggestion several times but I said the same thing very firmly each time.
They went to a lot of effort to show that they appreciated my teaching very much, and I think also they valued my friendship. They tried to pay me for my tuition because although it was supposed to be an exchange actually we did very few classes in Japanese. Naturally, I refused, saying I was happy to do it out of friendship. Eventually they stopped asking me.
I realised, as any intelligent man would, that my connection with these officers was a sort or potential power. If I needed anything later it would be easy, or at least easier, to get it. One evening, I was out at the time, two military trucks with about a dozen soldiers drew up outside my house. The entire neighbourhood was alarmed. My wife was terrified as you can imagine. Japanese soldiers? There were many stories of Japanese soldiers going to a flat and knocking down the door and raping all the women inside. I never met anybody who had first-hand experience of this but that was one of the stories people told.
There was a loud knock on the front door. My wife was very scared and at first she was too frightened to open the door. But the officer knocked again and called out my name. Maybe I had done something wrong and they had come to arrest me? She realised there was nothing she could do. She looked through the grille and saw they were gendarmes. She knew that if they wanted to come in nothing would stop them.
“Yes?” she asked.
“Is this the house of Mr. Hui?”
“We have come to deliver some rice.”
The soldiers carried up to our second floor flat several large sacks of rice. Rice was rationed at that time. One man’s daily ration was six taels of rice. The Japanese had to import rice from China to feed the population. Everyone would have starved otherwise. In fact, people still did starve. This rice was a present from one of my students.
A few weeks later I was invited to a party at their officer’s mess. I can’t remember the reason for the party. I think it was because they insisted that I try their sake. They knew that I liked to drink and wanted me to taste sake. I don’t think I had ever had sake at that time. I knew all the Chinese and European drinks but not sake. The monk came and collected me in his car. I didn’t know where the mess was and as there was a curfew all the streets were dark and empty. I could hardly see where we were going. When the car stopped I realised we were outside the front doors of St. Joseph’s College on Kennedy Road. They had taken over the school and made it their mess. There was a guard at the door and they all saluted me as I entered. When they saluted, they screamed out loud. I jumped back a few steps but the monk just laughed. The monk was in civilian clothes but all the soldiers appeared in full dress uniform. I was led to a room where there was a long low table. We sat down in the Japanese style. There were a number of women there too. Japanese women. Each one of us had a girl sitting at his back. Her job was to keep our glasses filled and to feed us when we were too busy talking. She would pick out a choice morsel with her chopsticks and put it in my mouth. I can tell you that Japanese women know how to serve.
So we ate and drank and talked and laughed. Now, I have a good head for spirits and this sake was good but not so strong. I could drink a lot without getting drunk. But the Japanese enjoy getting drunk and so they drank more and more sake. It’s quite a pleasant drink. It’s served warm. We drank for several hours. The sake made us all feel warm. It was summer now and quite hot anyway. As the officers got hotter they started to take off their clothes until most of them were only wearing the cloth wrapping, like a baby’s nappy, that they wore as underwear. Also, Japanese are very ‘ham sap’ - wet and salty - what’s the English word? Randy? Some of the officers liked to touch the women. Only the monk and myself continued to behave in a proper way. I also took off my jacket and shirt but I kept my trousers on! At the end of the evening one of my students turned to me.
“So, my friend and respected teacher, you have tasted sake. Was it good?”
“Excellent!” I said.
“Now, have you ever tasted Japanese girls?” They all laughed at this. I laughed.
“I have to admit I haven’t.”
“Take one of these girls to one of the rooms at the back, Mr. Hui. Do what you want with her.” They were all prostitutes. This was their life.
“You can take any one of them. Whichever one you like. Don’t be shy. We are all friends. ”
I was a bit interested. I must admit I was tempted. It was true that I had never had a Japanese woman. Maybe she would be different in some way. It might be fun to ‘taste’ them as the officer had suggested. However, after a moment’s thought I shook my head. The fact was they were prostitutes. Even if I didn’t have to pay, I was scared of disease. Also, for some reason, Japanese women are not attractive. I don’t know why, I shook my head and made some excuse. It was after midnight when Fuji-san drove me home.
One of my students was the second-in-command of the gendarmes. The gendarmes were the political branch of the military police. They had great power and authority. They could arrest anybody, even a General, if they wanted. This man’s name was Kakei-san. One day, after the class, he said he had a job that he thought would suit my abilities and which would at the same time be very useful for the Japanese administration. He asked me if I would be prepared to take control of the Hong Kong Entertainment Bureau. If I took the job I would be in charge of all the entertainment shows and also I would have control over all the people in the industry: actors, actresses, singers and so on. Kakei-san explained that, if I agreed, this would allow the entertainment industry to be less formally controlled. Obviously, it had to be controlled otherwise the film makers and opera groups might be influenced or abused by anti-Japanese forces. However, the military administration realised that people needed amusements and if they controlled these too tightly there was a danger of alienating the people. That’s how he explained it to me. He asked me to think it over. I thought about it very seriously for one or two days before agreeing. One thing that influenced me was that many senior people in the business world were also collaborating with the Japanese. Also, it seemed to me that I would be helping normal life to return to Hong Kong. I assumed the position was a minor one but actually, I discovered later, it was a very senior post.
Kakei-san asked me to give him a negative of my photograph and the next day he gave me a large pass. It was the chop of the military police and the other had the chop of the Entertainment Bureau. Copies of my photograph were sent to all the cinemas and places of entertainment as well as to all the government departments. I remember that shortly after this I went to the Supreme Court building, now it’s the Legislative Council building, to see Kakei-san. That was the headquarters of the gendarmes. As I approached the entrance, the guards, there were six of them, suddenly stood at attention and screamed out loud. We always said this sounded like the killing of a pig. It was a loud high-pitched sound that seemed to end in a choke. Naturally, I nearly jumped out of my shoes, I was surprised. I thought they were going to arrest me but they didn’t. Then I realised they were saluting me. I asked Kakei-san how they knew I was a member of the Japanese administration. He told me they would have recognised me from my photograph which had been circulated. This was their way of giving me face.
The Japanese were like that. They had a profound respect for authority. For example, the puppet government of Wong Ching-wei, which was based in Nanjing, was headed by a famous revolutionary. He was the number one or two man in the Kuomintang. At this time he was more famous than Chiang Kai Shek. Wong Ching-wei actually was a great hero. He was the most famous revolutionary at that time. He was famous because he had tried to assassinate the last Chinese emperor. Not many people know about him now. If they do, they think of him as a traitor but my way of thinking is that he helped China retain some form of independence. He could save the Chinese from being controlled directly by the Japanese. Life would have been much harsher under the Japanese. Because of his position he could demand what he wanted and the Japanese had to give it to him to give him face and to make people understand that he had real authority. Of course, secretly, the Japanese had the real authority. But if China had been under the direct control of the Japanese life wouldn’t have been so busy and prosperous.
Actually, these years were quite stable and good for business in China. That was why I was able to sell my property in Canton. There was a market in Canton at that time, but not in Hong Kong. That’s why all my friends were so poor. Later, after the war, of course they all had their property intact while I had sold everything. So it was also a curse on me that my property was in Canton. Wong Ching-wei later claimed he had done what he had done to make life easier and to save lives. I believe him.
However, the Japanese were not so very bad to Hong Kong people during the war. I saw some torture. There was some abuse, some cruelty. But overall I can’t say that it was terrible oppression. Times were very hard for most people. There were very few jobs. Getting enough food to eat was a problem. We were lucky. My family lived well throughout the war. Since then I have suffered for it. But I thought then, and I still think, it was good for everyone that I and some other people collaborated with the Japanese.
I didn’t take the job very seriously. Very few films were being made at that time. The main form of entertainment was Chinese Opera. It was part of my job to approve all performances and scripts. This was easy as no-one wanted to annoy the Japanese. One of my other responsibilities was to approve travel permits for entertainers to go up to Canton. I was happy to take the title. Why not? I thought like this: you want to make use of me? Fine. Then I’ll make use of you. If I can make life easier for people, good. If this makes it easier for me to fool around with girls, fine. If I have some power to use to help people and help me have fun, why not? But, although I was working for them, in my heart my sympathies were not with the Japanese. I was well known in society and word quickly spread that I had been made head of the Entertainment Bureau. Later, when I began to own horses, people thought I was making a fortune from collaborating. They thought I was rich through my connections. They didn’t realise I was spending my own fortune. I don’t think they blamed me. Everyone understood that these were difficult times. You had to make the best of your opportunities, as long as you didn’t do anything to harm your country and as long as you used your influence to help friends.
One day, quite early on, maybe in the first few weeks of my job, I went to the Po Shing Theatre. Naturally, all the ticket collectors and managers knew me. The performance had already started and there was quite a large audience. I slipped in and sat down at the back. After a few minutes I realised that some sort of confrontation was going on. I noticed that two men sitting at the front were attracting a lot of abuse from a group of men who were standing round the side. At first I thought it was a personal quarrel and ignored it. But then the two men at the front got up to leave. They walked past me to the entrance. I could see that they were scared. I was curious so I got up and followed them. Out in the lobby I hailed them and asked them what the problem was. They explained that they were off-duty policemen who were out of their district. Now, it was clear to me that the other men were triads and that they must have a lot of influence with the local area Japanese military officers or maybe with the Taiwanese interpreters who were well known to be corrupt. Otherwise they wouldn’t be so proud of themselves. However, I had my own power as well. I told them not to be scared. I would take care of everything. They were a bit surprised.
“Please come back in with me. I will take responsibility for anything that happens.”
Maybe they were used to taking orders or maybe there was something in my attitude that convinced them, I don’t know, but they agreed to come back in with me. They trusted me. They could see I knew what I was doing. So the three of us went back in and sat down again at the front. Now the triad members could see something strange had happened. They were a bit unsure of themselves so they started to gather at the back of the theatre. I knew they were wondering what to do. I realised they were working out what to do with me. Certainly they would try to attack me. I thought to myself: “If I want to seek a compromise, I had better confront them directly and I’d better do it now before they work out a plan.” So I walked to the back where they were waiting for me.
“Show me your tickets!” I said. Now this is a sort of pun. “Fei” meaning ‘ticket’ also sounds like ‘bullet’. Nobody responded. No-one said anything and no-one moved. I still had the initiative. “Come on,” I said, “If your ‘tickets’ are the bullets in your guns let’s see them. Pull out your guns. Let me see them. I don’t care how many you’ve got. ”
Still they didn’t react. I don’t think any of them had any guns. I was just testing them. They just looked sullen. Then I shouted at them for causing problems for customers of the theatre. I warned them that there would be big trouble if they did anything.
“All right! Out!” I said and pushed them out. I suppose there were about fifteen of them. They were bemused. I knew that by acting in such an authoritative way when they didn’t know who I was would confuse them. They allowed themselves to be pushed out to the entrance. But they stopped here and started to mutter to each other. I knew I hadn’t won the fight. They would soon gather their senses and realise I was only one person. They would wait for me and attack me later. Or maybe they would come back. I went up to the manager’s office. He invited me for a drink but I told him I had important business. I rang the nearest Japanese army post and told them who I was. I didn’t have to explain. They already knew me. I told them to send some support and within minutes the Japanese soldiers arrived in their jeeps. As soon as the triads saw them coming they ran off.
That was the only time I had any problems of that sort. Actually, this question of bullets and guns was something that concerned me. That was why I challenged them in the way I did. I wanted to see if they had any guns. I have always known that it is useless in this day and age for a man to be a kung fu fighter. So what? He can easily be killed with one bullet from a gun. Bang. That’s it. I would be dead. If one of them had made a move to pull out a gun I would have attacked him immediately. Now, actually, I myself owned two guns. I had been given them by my students. I think they had wanted to get me interested in military things. One of them was a small Derringer. It looked like a small toy gun. The other one was a Colt 45. I loved them both. I loved to hold them in my hands. They were very beautiful. But I never carried them. My reasoning was this: if people came to hear that I carried a gun then they would try to shoot first. But if they knew I never carried a gun they would know they didn’t need to use a gun. If I relied on my hands alone I knew I had a ninety per cent chance of winning but if I carried a gun I had a ninety per cent chance of being killed. So I always left my guns at home.
Jobs in China
Henry on The Eurasian Face
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Michael on Julia Lovell on translating Lu Xun's complete fiction: "His is an angry, searing vision of China"
Brandon K. on Clueless academic takes on popular fantasy novels
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Books on China
The Eurasian Face : Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:
Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
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+ Korean history doesn't fly on Chinese TV screens (2007.09): SARFT puts the kibbosh on Korean historical dramas.
+ Religion and government in an uneasy mix (2008.03): Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊) article from October, 2007, on government influence on religious practice in Tibet.
+ David Moser on Mao impersonators (2004.10): I first became aware of this phenomenon in 1992 when I turned on a Beijing TV variety show and was jolted by the sight of "Mao Zedong" and "Zhou Enlai" playing a game of ping pong. They both gave short, rousing speeches, and then were reverently interviewed by the emcee, who thanked them profusely for taking time off from their governmental duties to appear on the show.