You could do worse than Francesca Brill’s The Harbour for a bit of light summer reading and I enjoyed it immensely but it might be a bit problematic for the historians – the lightly novelised story of Emily Hahn, Charles Boxer and Shao Xunmei (Sinmay Zau) ranging from Shanghai to Hong Kong and Hahn’s affair with Boxer and having his baby during the Japanese occupation. There’s some oddities – poor “Stevie”, the charter based on Emily “Mickey” Hahn has to walk in heels and all dolled up one night from the Cathay Hotel to Blood Alley (a fair way south of there) and then to a cafe in Hongkew (right back the same way and then a good trot north) – that’s a fair old trek, in heels!! To the best of my knowledge Sinmay Zau was not moving between Hong Kong and Shanghai in disguise as part of the anti-Japanese resistance. But it’s a novel so that’s fine and all fun.
However Brill weaves in the highly contentious theory that Boxer was a traitor who gave away the whole British intelligence structure in the Far East. This, of course, doesn’t go down well with Boxer loyalists. This all relates back to an article published by Hywel Williams in The Guardian (conveniently published just shortly after Boxer’s death) where he accused him of collaborating. Many thought this shabby – an accusation that could have been raised when Boxer and others from the time in Hong Kong when he was imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese were still around to contest it, and also shabby of The Guardian to only print the story after Boxer’s death and when safe from prosecution for libel. Certainly Boxer had a love and deep appreciation of Japanese history and culture and had studied in Japan before the war. His alleged collaboration though remains undocumented though, presumably for dramatic purposes, is raked up again in The Harbour. Hopefully this won’t now become an accepted part of the Boxer narrative. A summary of the so-called “CR Boxer Affair” and the accusations against him is here from the Council on Foreign Relations. At the end of the book Brill does note some similarities and differences with the real stories around Hahn, Boxer, Zau, Madame Kung etc but doesn’t note anything about the accusations against Boxer of collaboration.
I’m also a little concerned about poor old Ursula Boxer, here called Sylvia, getting a hard time – Ursula was Boxer’s first wife, the one he ditched for Hahn. She is often referred to as the most beautiful women in the Colony (sorry, I don’t know of a photograph of her) but she always gets a rather hard time from the heavily pro-Hahn crowd that write the story these days. Was she really as silly, pompous, snobby and ditzy as she’s so often (including here mostly) portrayed? If Boxer is lauded by the Hahn Loyalists for cleverly picking Mickey are we to believe his judgement was so far off with Ursula? She often seems to get a bit of a hard time for being a blonde and therefore a bit stupid and self-involved which seems a bit unfair? Additionally she’s often portrayed as an ice cold English bitch compared to the supposedly warm hearted, emotionally open and a bit goofy (in a cute way inevitably) American Hanh? All popular tropes of course, but any truth in them? Ursula went of to evacuation in Australia under British orders and instructed by Boxer, and then her husband played away back in Hong Kong with Hahn, she got preggers, he dumped Ursula unceremoniously – what did she do wrong to always be portrayed so unfavourably? Poor Ursula does get a rather hard time historically I feel and here once more.
Of course I do like that Brill mentions the ne’erdowells and low lifes that were in Stanley internment camp along with the usually reported posh Brits and stuck up housewives! But then ne’erdowells in China are my thing!