Hong Kong’s European society tends to lionise visiting literary figures; the absence of much serious home-grown talent means that when internationally known writers pass through Hong Kong they are pounced upon. Literary dinners and readings are held for them, mostly attended by lawyer/ banker types who combine artistic or literary pretensions with the financial resources to pay high prices in return for namedropping privileges afterwards (“… as I said to XX, when we had dinner together last week …”).
W. Somerset Maugham shrewdly noted, “to claim acquaintance with the celebrated merely shows one is, personally, of little account”, and in this respect Hong Kong has changed little over the decades.
One visiting author who generated a substantial local stir was renowned Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw, who visited the Far East in 1933 as part of a round-the-world cruise. By then elderly and world-famous, “G.B.S.” stopped off in Hong Kong before heading north to Shanghai. While here, he was photographed with leading Eurasian compradore Sir Robert Hotung. Both men were in Chinese dress and, as they were only a few months apart in age, they could have passed as brothers – or, perhaps, cousins.
On arrival, Shaw declined an invitation to speak to the local Rotary Club on the grounds that their mindless social conformity left him quite speechless. To compound the insult, Shaw tartly observed that local European “attitudes to the Chinese [in general] were close to middle-class attitudes to servants in Britain”.
Few things enrage Hong Kong Europeans more than being accurately depicted; the suggestion that they might really be petitbourgeois folk with middling minds and manners to match, instead of the merchant princes of their own imaginations, sent many self-important society figures into near-apoplexy.
In this – as ever – they were deeply conflicted; Shaw was famous, and the obvious desire to snub him tussled painfully with the equally pressing, snobbish need to claim some brief association with a man of his stature.
The Rotary Club president, P.S. “Jow” Cassidy, publicly remarked that Shaw’s disinclination to speak to them was “surely his loss” – a self-important, blimpish view that validated Shaw’s position.
Cassidy, who with his brotherin- law, T.E. “Tam” Pearce, then controlled trading conglomerate John D. Hutchison and Company, was a leading pillar of the Anglican Church, as well as a Rotarian, and was known for remarking to new arrivals that in China “one should keep hold of the Sabbath – and everything else that comes one’s way!” When he finally got to Shanghai, Shaw’s reception by the European community in that city – many of whom greatly enjoyed his plays – was cold. But more discerning individuals immediately warmed to him. Madame Sun Yat-sen was one such friend, as was Chinese philosopher and author Lin Yutang. Like Shaw, Lin combined scintillating literary talent with deep human insight and a profoundly tolerant, amused yet critical take on the world.
And like Shaw, Lin took an impish delight in sharply puncturing pretension and humbuggery wherever he found it, which unsurprisingly tended to annoy the butts of his humour.
Like most other self-possessed, deeply individual people, Lin didn’t care much for public opinion. Truth and honesty mattered more; he observed the world around him clearly and wrote what it looked like to him, and people either took it or left it, according to personal taste and individual temperament. No wonder they got along so well.