Following a nostalgic visit to his former home town, the US-based academic tells Jason Wordie about growing up in pre-war Hong Kong and his time as a volunteer after the Japanese invasion.
'In February I attended a conference at my old alma mater, Hong Kong University [HKU]. It was on astronomy and the origins of life. After the war I became a research chemist and academic, and these subjects have always fascinated me. I'm now 86. For years I lectured at the University of Illinois in Chicago. I now live in Massachusetts, close to my daughter, but I am still an emeritus professor in Chicago.
In Hong Kong my daughter and I stayed up at the university, at Robert Black College. We breakfasted at the college and went on to the conference. In the evening some special event was organised. Nothing too late though, my nights are fairly early these days.
I come from a long-established Eurasian family. My grandfather [on my mother's side], Richard von Braun, was with the Chinese Maritime Customs in China and later became the harbourmaster of Amoy [known today as Xiamen]. He died there in 1908 - his grave in Amoy has been lost; it was probably destroyed along with other foreign graves. When I went back there in the 1990s we were unable to find it. He met my grandmother in China. Her name was Annabelle Lam Ho-tsoi. She is buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery in Happy Valley and my father, Thomas Matthews, is buried in the Colonial Cemetery, next door.
[My mother's] family came to Hong Kong in 1908 so my mother, Anna, could attend the Diocesan Girl's School [DGS] in Kowloon, where most of the Eurasian girls went at that time. In our day Eurasians were looked down on in Hong Kong, by both the Chinese and Europeans. I remember as a child being taken up to the Matilda Hospital on The Peak with a minor health problem and being turned away. This was the only time I ever saw my mother in tears. The Matilda at that time was not permitted, by the terms of the will that endowed the hospital, to take Chinese, Portuguese or Eurasians as patients. My mother's boss [she was the secretary of a prominent American resident named Lambert Dunbar] was furious with this and intervened. As a result we went back and I was treated. But that was how it was in those days.
Dunbar had a firm that imported flour into China. His wife, Elsie, set up the Hong Kong International Women's Club in the 1930s, to encourage women's involvement in community life and help combat racism. The club was housed on the third floor of the Gloucester Hotel [where the Landmark is today] - one of Hong Kong's best hotels at that time. My mother ran this club as well.
She also worked part time for Sir William Hornell, who was vice-chancellor of HKU. He was a bachelor and my mother used to help organise his social functions and so on. All of my mother's duties drew on her rich bicultural background. We were invited to use Sir William's mat shed [beach hut] out at Repulse Bay in the summer. Dunbar had given us one as well at 11 Mile Beach, out towards Castle Peak, and we used it regularly in the hot weather.
I started school at Diocesan Girl's School [DGS] - little boys went there first - and moved on to the Diocesan Boy's School [DBS], in Kowloon. That was a tremendously rich experience. My headmaster there was Christopher Sargent, who became bishop of Fukien. In spite of the difference in our ages we became friends. He used to broadcast opera for ZBW, that was what Radio Television Hong Kong [RTHK] used to be called. I learned a lot from him.
My eyesight declined not long ago, so reading is no longer possible, but I listen to a lot of opera and other classical music, which is a great joy to me. My family are close by and we spend a lot of time together.
Cricket has always been very important to me. We DBS boys often played against other schools; CBS [Central British School, on Nathan Road] was not far away and we often played against them. Later I captained the HKU team and we played against other local sporting clubs such as Craigengower Cricket Club, on Hong Kong side, and Club de Recreio, in Kowloon; the Portuguese boys always produced such good cricket teams in those days.
While I was studying at HKU I joined the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps and we were mobilised for action just before the Japanese invaded. I was in No3 Machine Gun Company, which was also known as the Eurasian Company. One of our British officers, Lieutenant Bevan Field, wrote after the war, 'I was particularly impressed by the fine spirit and steadiness shown by the volunteers under my command. They were all Eurasians, a type which in Hong Kong had not been credited generally with the character these men showed.'
Along with several others, I was not caught up in the heavy fighting with the rest of the company up at Wong Nai Chung Gap - we were away on other duties and that probably saved our lives. Towards the end of the fighting we were in Wan Chai, and I must say the 'Suzie Wongs' of the district were very good to us; they brought us cups of tea and other food when we were under fire, at great danger to themselves.
On December 23 we were still in Wan Chai and were sheltering near some buildings from Japanese bombardment, probably from the Kowloon side. When it was over, we saw that our comrade Roy Maxwell had been hit by some shrapnel and killed. It was so terribly shocking; the rest of us were completely OK, but he was gone. We hailed a passing truck and took his body up to St John's Cathedral. We dug his grave ourselves.
It's still there, under a large tree. It's the only grave in the cathedral grounds. During this recent trip we visited his grave and those of other old friends who were buried out at Sai Wan War Cemetery.
[We left St John's] then went back to Wan Chai. I was still there on Christmas afternoon. I thought it was the last day of my life when out into the firing came a British officer carrying a white flag; he said it was all over, that Hong Kong had surrendered, so we laid down our arms.
I met the same officer again [Colonel Tony Hewitt] at a talk he gave [in Hong Kong] for the Royal Asiatic Society in 1997 - that was so amazing. Life is full of these coincidences, as they are sometimes called.
Before the war we attended Christ Church in Kowloon Tong and I was a Christian. As a prisoner of war I found religion to be of no comfort or survival value whatsoever. Art, music and poetry: I found they all had survival value during that experience, but religion? None at all. There was a professor in the camp, Norman MacKenzie, who used to lecture in poetry at HKU, we all learned a lot from him. I still enjoy poetry.
Towards the end of the conference, we had a dinner out at Repulse Bay and I gave a talk on my early life and our family connections to Hong Kong. I even sang one of the songs we made up in prison camp. It was titled Protein Deficiency but we called it The Egg Song. When I finished there was a standing ovation. It was such a fantastic experience being back in Hong Kong again.'