Colonial chronicler Austin Coates dies

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 March, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 March, 1997, 12:00am

Writer Austin Coates, best known for his evocation of a civil servant's life in Hong Kong, Myself a Mandarin, has died aged 74 after a long fight against cancer.

His history and travel books included Rizal, Philippine Nationalist and Martyr, City of Broken Promises, and A Macao Narrative. However, none gained the recognition of Myself a Mandarin, detailing his life as a Special Magistrate in the New Territories during the 1950s.

In its last pages he summed up how little influence any colonial civil servant could have: 'For a Westerner - or for the West - to believe it is possible in any way to influence China is chimerical. When a Westerner comes to China, no matter how high his rank or how great his influence all that he can achieve - all that he will ever achieve - is to add a grain of salt to sea-water since China, like the sea, is adamantine and of unchanging substance.' Coates was born in London in 1922, the son of composer Eric Coates.

A stint in RAF Intelligence during World War II took him to Burma, India, Singapore and Malaysia. Coates later said that from the moment he disembarked in Bombay he felt at home.

In 1949 he joined the colonial civil service and was sent to Hong Kong as an assistant secretary.

Like many Western newcomers, he was appalled by the double standards of the colonial system in its attitude towards those it ruled, and struck out against the old-school-tie orthodoxy of the time.

In 1957, at his request, he was transferred to Malaysia. Five years later he left the service at the age of 40 to become a full-time professional writer.

In 1974 Coates returned to Hong Kong from where he continued to write and travel widely. In 1993 he moved to a house near Lisbon where he died on Sunday night. He never married.