An education champion and reluctant war hero

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 December, 2008, 12:00am

Michael Stewart pulls a small book from his bag, The Hong Kong Volunteers in Battle, an account of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps' role in the defence of the city. During the battle, which resulted in Hong Kong's surrender to Japan on December 25, 1941, 280 volunteers died. Some, like Mr Stewart's father, Evan Stewart, had military experience from the first world war.

Many, though, were ordinary men who trained at weekends and then took up arms to defend Hong Kong. A perhaps futile battle but one approved by British wartime prime minister Winston Churchill to slow Japanese soldiers' move across Asia.

The book is now in its ninth edition and Mr Stewart's father, a former headmaster of St Paul's College, was the author. It is only now that his name has appeared on the cover.

'The general at the time was asked to write the foreword and the then-governor was asked, but they were both overcome with some sort of modesty and my father had a deadline, so in the end it went to print with no foreword,' Mr Stewart said on a visit to Hong Kong to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his father's death.

Michael Stewart, 77, was born in Hong Kong in 1931. A retired colonel from the Territorial Army who now lives in Yorkshire, he comes from a family many of whose members dedicated their careers to missionary or education work in Hong Kong and the mainland.

He was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1955.

'My grandparents worked as Irish missionaries in China. But in [August] 1895, they and two of their children were killed by a group known as the Vegetarians, who were anti-foreigner and even more against missionaries.'

It was an atrocity in which 11 people died and was known as the Kucheng Massacre. Mr Stewart's uncle Herbert was killed on the morning of his sixth birthday.

Evan Stewart was thrown under the bed by an elder sister and survived. A younger sister also perished. The surviving children escaped and were taken to Ireland and England.

'My father returned when he was 20 and immediately taught at St Paul's College,' Mr Stewart said. Another uncle was a doctor and a third a missionary.

When Mr Stewart's father was head of St Paul's College - from 1930 until his death in 1958 - it was situated in Bishop's House, next to Ice House Street. It moved to Bonham Road as it expanded its intake after the second world war.

The school was shut during the war, during which Evan Stewart fought as a volunteer heading up Three Company which consisted largely of Chinese and Eurasian soldiers.

He had been wounded in the first world war in the Somme and was wounded twice again during the horrific battle through Wong Nai Chung Gap, during which the company sustained 80 per cent casualties as the Japanese tried to split the island on their way down to Stanley.

'I had already left in 1940 with my mother and we were evacuated to Australia.

'I had a wonderful time, during which my father was in Argyle Street prisoner of war camp and had a terrible time. For a long time we didn't know whether he was alive or dead and at age 10 I was old enough to be very aware of that worry.'

Mr Stewart did not see his father between the vital ages of 10 and 13.

After recuperating in England, Evan Stewart was keen to return to Hong Kong to get St Paul's College back on track.

Mr Stewart visited Hong Kong to join alumni and teachers at St Paul's College for the school's speech day, where last week he spoke about his father.

'I think the first word you would use is modest,' he said, when asked to describe him. 'He never spoke about his war experiences after the first world war.'

He suffered from malnutrition and his wounds went untreated, he said.

This resulted in his father being taken to Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Britain by ship after the war, where he was kept for months.

Evan Stewart began writing his book about the volunteers - in which his own experiences are not mentioned - while in the Argyle Street camp.

'He had studied history so was an historian and the others felt that he was the best person to do it.

'I still remember him writing everything in longhand in the late 1940s on our dining room table.'

As well as the speech day St Paul's College held a Stewart dinner to mark the members of the Stewart family who have contributed to Hong Kong's education.

'My father would much prefer to be remembered for his contribution to education than what happened to him during the war,' Mr Stewart said.

Before his father was headmaster at the college, his uncle Arthur had the job. Preceding him was Mr Stewart's maternal grandfather, Bishop Gerard Lander - so it was a Stewart dynasty that helped create the college as it is today. 'Hong Kong has changed so much now. It used to be much more rural when we lived just above Bishop's House,' Mr Steward said. 'There used to be fields up to The Peak. But [in the 1930s] there used to be a dreadful smell. It wasn't a very sanitary place.

'While visiting here I've been on the Peak Tram. I had to queue for a long time. It wasn't the case 70 years ago when I used to take the Peak Tram at age seven to the top and then walk for about a mile to the Peak School.

'Hong Kong was lovely in those days and my mother did not worry about letting me go by myself. I'm not sure I'd let one of my grandsons go now.'

During his nine-day stay in Hong Kong, Mr Stewart also visited the Stanley military cemetery.

'My aunt Kathleen Martin is buried there. She died in internment at the civilian camp, probably from malnutrition or one of the diseases that were prevalent in the camps. Her husband was Canon Martin who was headmaster at St Stephen's College before and after the war.'

War, tragedy and suffering may have afflicted the Stewart dynasty over the years but they made a significant contribution to education in Hong Kong.

'The Stewart dinner was a big event with 200 guests,' said Mr Stewart, whose jobs have included a stint as aide de camp to Queen Elizabeth. 'It was a great reunion event.'