Hong Kong has long attracted “Walter Mitty” types. This now largely disused term derives from the main character in James Thurber’s amusing-yet-dark short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Otherwise unremarkable, Mitty lived a heroic life entirely within his own imagination, which eventually came crashing down when the real world caught up with him. First published in The New Yorker magazine in 1939, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty was made into a successful film starring Danny Kaye in 1947.
So it is with various individuals in Hong Kong, past and present. And as the old China Coast truism maintains, after a lifetime in the Far East, one trusts no one, and believes absolutely anything. Hong Kong society has always taken newcomers at their word, however inflated, or frankly counterfeit, their claims may be. Such individuals are often tolerantly regarded as more or less harmless eccentrics who add amusement to life in an otherwise boringly conformist milieu; in other societies they would be shunned – quite rightly – as shameless impostors.
In the 19th century, it was far harder to cross-check the credentials of those who showed up in the colony “on spec”; their bona fides had to be taken on trust until confirmation, or otherwise, followed them from distant ports. One notable charlatan, recorded as having passed through Hong Kong in the 1880s seeking financial backers, was Marie-Charles David de Mayréna, the self-styled “King of Sedang”, a fictional territory supposedly somewhere in Indochina. Eventually rumbled, he left town in a great hurry and was never heard from again.
European rulers in remote parts of the world were not without contemporary precedent. Briton James Brooke established himself in Borneo and eventually became the White Rajah of Sarawak. His heirs remained in power until 1946, when Sarawak was, in effect, sold by the Brooke family to Britain. It became part of Malaysia in 1963. Scottish trader James Clunies-Ross acquired the Cocos-Keeling Islands, about halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka, in 1814; his descendants ruled there until the islands were annexed by Australia in 1978.
Hong Kong’s leading Walter Mitty figure in recent decades was – shamefully – a senior member of the local judiciary. Miles Jackson-Lipkin came to Hong Kong as a barrister and served as a High Court judge from 1981 to 1987. In common with many of Hong Kong’s more preposterously “English” posers (he habitually paraded around town – whatever the weather – in a bowler hat and three-piece suit), Jackson-Lipkin was actually of colonial origin. Originally from South Africa – though some accounts suggest he was born in Liverpool – he hyphenated his Jewish surname with his mother’s maiden name on arrival; double-barrelled monikers, however recently created, have historically bestowed cachet in Hong Kong, especially in administrative circles.
For some time, Jackson-Lipkin drove about in a car with a pennant flapping on the front, a point of protocol reserved for the governor and a few other senior officials. Hauled in by his superiors and made to desist from that particular affectation, he soon chose another one, which proved his undoing – fibbing about his war record.
At one point, this dreadful cad had appeared at Remembrance Day services decorated with second world war service medals that he could only have been eligible to wear had he enlisted as a very young teenager. Required to officially explain himself, Jackson-Lipkin resigned. In retirement, he claimed to have no assets and lived in a public housing flat on Wah Fu Estate, in Pok Fu Lam, yet he continued to maintain local club memberships and travel frequently overseas. Found out and prosecuted for social security fraud, he was convicted and jailed. He subsequently died in London in 2012.