Then & now: a many-named writer
The life story of the recently deceased author best known as Han Suyin is as fascinating as any of her books, writes Jason Wordie
Hong Kong and the 1955 film Love is a Many-Splendored Thing are inextricably linked in the public consciousness. But the back-story to A Many-Splendoured Thing, the autobiographical novel that preceded the film, and its enigmatic Sino-Belgian author, Elizabeth Comber (known to the world by her pen-name, Han Suyin), who died this month in Switzerland at the age of 95, remains less well-known.
Born in Henan province to engineer Chou Yentung, Han, known then as Dr Elizabeth Tang, came to Hong Kong in 1948 and worked in obstetrics at Queen Mary Hospital. She lived in Church Guest House, on Upper Albert Road, then in an old house on Conduit Road, lovingly described in her book, with Sheila and "Andy" Anderson, of the long-established medical practice Anderson and Partners.
Shortly after moving here, Tang became involved with Ian Morrison, a Singapore-based correspondent for The Times of London and son of Australian journalist G.E. Morrison, legendarily known as "Morrison of Peking". The Morrison family had many connections in this part of the world: Ian's brother Colin worked for the Hong Kong government; his other brother, Alastair, lived in Sarawak, Borneo, with his wife, Hedda, a talented photographer.
Tang started writing A Many-Splendoured Thing while her romance with Morrison, which she fondly believed remained a secret, was on-going. Classic roman à clef; picking out exactly who was who was an entertaining period pastime. Ian and Colin Morrison's wives were sisters, and no publicly conducted liaison remains quiet for long in Hong Kong, anyway.
In 1950, at the height of their affair, Morrison was killed in Korea.
A Many-Splendoured Thing, and Han's subsequent writings, paved the way for a rich middle ground of Eurasian-themed writing, which until then had only existed on the embarrassed frontiers of either European or Asian letters. Many later Eurasian authors have acknowledged a debt owed to her exploration of their cultural terrain.
Tang heavily embroidered her love story, and, in due course, Hollywood did the rest; Morrison, inevitably, became an American, and the tale was made substantially more exotic. While Love is a Many-Splendored Thing portrays a Hong Kong now largely vanished, some features linger; the Conduit Road mansion used as the setting for the hospital (and which became the Foreign Correspondent's Club) was demolished in the late 1960s, but the garden pavilion where the cinematic lovers had a tryst is still there, within the Realty Gardens residential complex.
In 1952, Tang married Leon Comber, then an officer with the Malayan Police Special Branch, and moved with him to Johor Bahru, just across the Straits of Johor from Singapore, where she established a medical practice. After their divorce six years later, Comber moved to Hong Kong, where he had a successful career in publishing, first with Heinemann Asia and then with Hong Kong University Press. He now lives in Australia.
Han attracted controversy for much of her long life. In 1956, she made a triumphal visit to the mainland as the personal guest of premier Zhou Enlai, shortly after And the Rain My Drink, her searing novel set during the Malayan Emergency, was published. A self-appointed China expert to the Western world, she parroted every twist of the party line with unabashed enthusiasm throughout the 1960s and 70s.
Han's feverish enthusiasm for Mao Zedong's China was partly enabled by the safety afforded by her British passport (acquired through marriage to Comber) and consequent ability to come and go from China as she wished. Like all reliable apologists for the communist regime, she became her own worst enemy. Prickly, arrogant and supremely self-satisfied, Han's less attractive personality traits were superbly manipulated by the authorities for propaganda purposes, until her usefulness declined in the early 90s.