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My life: Gerry Lander

The British physicist tells Jason Wordie about his connections to Hong Kong and the tragic distinction held by his Olympic-gold-medal-winning father

 

ANCESTRAL PORTRAITS My grandfather and namesake, Gerald Heath Lander, was appointed the Anglican bishop of Hong Kong and South China in 1907, after the earlier incumbent, Bishop Hoare, drowned in a typhoon the previous year. My grandfather served here until 1920, then retired to England; he died in 1934, five years before I was born. His first wife had died, and his second wife, Margaret, my grandmother, was quite a bit younger than he was. I remember her very well, because we lived together for a while in England after the war. My grandfather's first wife had Hong Kong connections of her own; her brother, Major Evan Stewart, was headmaster of St Paul's College for many years. He served here during the war, in the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps (HKVDC), and later wrote a detailed account of its role during the Japanese invasion. Margaret also had local connections; her brother was N.L. Smith, an administrative officer in the Hong Kong government - they were known as Hong Kong cadets in those years. Norman Smith eventually rose through the ranks and served as colonial secretary in the late 1930s; he spoke excellent Cantonese, by all accounts.

SOLID GOLD My father, John Gerard Heath Lander - always known as John - was born in 1907, just before my grandparents came out to Hong Kong. He went to school here - I presume to the Peak School, but there is no record of this - and then later to Shrewsbury School in the west of England: in due course I went there, too, for a while. He was a keen rower at school, and won the Ladies' Plate [which, despite its name, is contested by men's eights] at Henley [Royal Regatta] in 1924. While at Trinity College, Cambridge [University], my father was selected for the British rowing team to compete in the Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, in 1928, and won a gold medal, which is now at Shrewsbury School. Not long afterwards, he joined the Asiatic Petroleum Company (APC) and came out to Hong Kong in 1929. His father had left Hong Kong by this stage, but other relatives, such as the Stewarts, were still here. My father continued rowing throughout the 1930s, and as captain of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club team at Middle Island in 1929, and later for the Manila Boat Club when posted to the Philippines.

A TODDLER IN MANILA In 1937-38, my father went to England on long leave - it only came every five years or so at that time - and he met and married my mother. Interestingly enough, she had an athletic background; she had competed at the Empire Games in hurdling. They came out East together, and lived in Manila, where I was born in 1939. His work with APC continued to take him back and forth to Hong Kong, but we remained in Manila. In June 1941, he was posted back to Hong Kong. However, my mother and I couldn't go with him - European women and children had been ordered evacuated from Hong Kong in mid-1940 - [so] we stayed in Manila.

FAMILY PLANNING After my father went to Hong Kong, my parents wrote to each other constantly - it's really a voluminous correspondence. The correspondence stopped, of course, when the Japanese invaded Hong Kong, and, naturally, all my mother's letters to my father were lost. But the letters he sent survived our internment in the Philippines so one can build up a full picture of what they were saying to each other. Reading these letters is very painful, as we - today - know what eventually happened. But my parents were writing about a happy anticipated future together, including a sibling for me, at some stage. And then, of course, the war happened, and there was no joint future at all.

KILLED IN ACTION Largely due to Stewart being in the HKVDC, my father also joined the Volunteers, and was eventually posted to one of the gunnery sections at Stanley Fort. The training was apparently pretty basic by that stage - the letters mention some people being killed in a training accident. During the fighting he was killed, as far as we know, near the gate of St Stephen's College. He's buried in the Sai Wan War Cemetery. I first visited his grave in 1989. He's the only British Olympic gold medallist ever to be killed in a war - at least so far!

FILLING IN THE GAPS After a few years post-war in England, when we lived with my paternal grandmother, my mother and I moved out to South Africa, where I was educated to university level. I studied physics and have had a variety of academic posts in that field in various parts of the world. Part of the reason for coming out to Hong Kong this time was to give a series of lectures at City University. One of the real challenges growing up in South Africa was not only did I have no personal memory of my father, no-one else, except my mother, did either. It was all far too painful for my mother to discuss, and there were so many gaps. It's only now, at this age, that I have pieced all the parts - his story and mine and the Hong Kong connections - together.

 

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