There were a number of public scandals in the months leading up to the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, 75 years ago this month, but none enthralled the colony more than the so-called Mimi Lau Affair.
The official title was much less racy. Nevertheless, the Commission Enquiring into Certain Matters Connected with the Architectural Branch of the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) Department, which was held between September and November 1941, contained all the ingredients of a classic public corruption scandal. Not only the routine misappropriation of public funds, bribes and accusations of graft but a suicide, exotic female characters and marital infidelity by a man in high office.
Tension had been building for weeks by October 21, 1941, when those attending a public hearing held their collective breath as the chairman solemnly addressed the 55-year-old director of ARP (DARP), recognisable to all by his firm jawline and faultless military bearing.
“I would like to say at the outset that some of the questions I have to ask you are as distasteful to me, to have to ask them, as they probably will be to you, to have to listen to them,” said Supreme Court Judge Paul Cressall. He then undertook a slow and deliberate character assassination of Alfred Horace Steele-Perkins, OBE, based on the married wing commander’s illicit relationship with an attractive young secretary, Mimi Lau.
“He was a well-known society figure and it was a very salacious case,” says local history enthusiast Philip Cracknell.
In the weeks and months leading up to the first bombs being dropped on Kai Tak airfield, on the morning of December 8, 1941, most public attention in the colony was not focused on the Imperial Japanese Army, but on the ARP scandal. Wartime newspaper reports of Nazi bloodbaths, Japanese retreats in Hunan and Britain tasting the Blitz were little more than background noise compared with the lurid headlines and detailed accounts generated by the inquiry.
“The local newspapers, of course, made the most of the trial, during which time he had to continue in his job as DARP as well as planning to transfer to India,” remembers Barbara Anslow, who was Steele-Perkins’ secretary at the time of the scandal.
The story dominated gossip at the clubs and hotel bars of the city 75 years ago and a book written by Steele-Perkins’ wife, Gwen, and published 25 years after her death by her daughter, author Mary Tiffen, sheds new light on the case. Testimony to Love(2016) includes explanatory notes by Tiffen and tells the very personal and tragic family story that lies behind the ARP scandal.
“I wanted it published because I knew how much my mother wanted that,” says Tiffen, explaining that publishers refused to handle the book during Gwen’s lifetime because it was “too personal for general publication”. It’s certainly a compelling and candid autobiographical account of an upper-middle-class woman constrained by the rigid conventions and petty hierarchies of expatriate life.
Edith Gwendoline Fawcus Carrall was born in 1893 in Chefoo (now Yantai), in Shandong province, where her father, James Wilcocks Carrall, was a trusted lieutenant to Sir Robert Hart, the head of China’s Imperial Maritime Customs Service. She describes how she married Steele-Perkins, a dashing naval officer serving during the first world war, in February 1916, and how women of her background were entirely shielded from the realities of life. On her wedding night, the 23-year-old bride, who had worked as a nurse in military hospitals, hadn’t the first clue about sex or even the basics of human reproduction.
Her book was inspired by a religious epiphany experienced when she was close to death in a Kowloon hospital bed after complications following a miscarriage during her first tour in Hong Kong, in 1929-30, accompanying her husband, who was then in charge of the Fleet Air Arm detachment on board HMS Hermes. The reader feels like a voyeur, standing at the drawing room window of the family’s home watching their private and polite disintegration.
When Gwen suffered the death of her eldest child – Tiffen’s 18-year-old brother, John – in April 1935, while in England, she was at least able to lean on her religious faith, but the incident appears to have sent her husband completely off the rails. In the absence of organised bereavement counselling, the grief-stricken but emotionally repressed Steele-Perkins appears to have sought comfort and solace elsewhere. In 1936, a family scandal was only just averted after he had abused his diplomatic passport to smuggle a pretty young Hungarian woman, who he had met while on ARP business in Budapest, into England.
“My father rejected a god who could take away his son and no longer felt he need obey the seventh commandment: thou shalt not commit adultery,” writes Tiffen. There is also a suspicion Steele-Perkins felt a sense of guilt for the way he had mercilessly bullied his son – considered a “slacker” by his father, John had died of heart failure while out on a run.
Maybe the Hungarian incident hastened Steele-Perkins’ appointment to Hong Kong, where he was to take charge of the colony’s essential ARP measures, and he sailed with his wife and two young daughters (Mary and her younger sister, Ann) in February 1938, arriving some six weeks later.
Gwen joined her husband in the new ARP office, helping to recruit female wardens until the evacuation of European women and children was ordered in June 1940, as the Japanese advanced further into China.
It is doubtful Steele-Perkins was heartbroken about the evacuation and he was put in charge of implementing a policy that was to cause much resentment. Right up to the eve of the Japanese invasion, “bachelor husbands”, as they were known, were campaigning vigorously to have their wives and children returned and questioned why some wives (usually those of high-ranking officials) were allowed to remain while trained nurses (like Gwen) had been ordered to leave.
Gwen, Mary and Ann were shipped out to Australia via Manila.
“‘They did their best for us at Manila,’ said Mrs. A. H. Steele-Perkins, wife of Wing-Commander Steele-Perkins, who is in charge of A.R.P. arrangements in Hong Kong,” ran an August 11, 1940 report in the London Sunday Times, unearthed by Cracknell. “She is one of 535 women and children evacuees from Hong Kong who arrived in Sydney today on a liner.”
With his wife and children thousands of miles away, Steele-Perkins was free to indulge his predilection for womanising and quickly gained a reputation for being a considerable philanderer, even by the high bar set in wartime Hong Kong.
IT IS NOT ENTIRELY CLEAR what triggered the setting up of the commission into the workings of Steele-Perkins’ department but, says Cracknell, there was widespread public discontent about perceived corruption, double standards and moral decay at the heart of the colonial administration. More than 8 million dollars of public money had been spent very quickly in order to dig tunnels, build shelters, recruit and train staff and purchase equipment and uniforms. As Cracknell points out, “the procurement process was very messy”.
At first, the commission of inquiry, chaired by Cressall and assisted by Leonard Bellamy (general manager of Hong Kong Tramways), Sydney Hampden-Ross (chartered accountant) and Ken Barnett (barrister-at-law) as secretary to the commission, was held behind closed doors. It was reported in the press but few paid much attention to detailed investigations into the supply of steel helmets, poorly ventilated tunnels and the dubious quality of concrete blocks. But then tragedy struck.
“The suicide of Captain Hobbs really added fuel to the fire,” says Cracknell.
Captain Charles Christie Arthur Hobbs, chief architect for the Public Works Department (PWD), shot himself in the head at his home in May Road on August 21, 1941, after having given evidence and before being required to reappear at the inquiry with “certain documents”. Another, unnamed official was admitted to hospital around the same time with acute poisoning.
By the time of the first public meeting, held on September 3, when Lau’s evidence describing her and Steele-Perkins as “very good friends” was read out, controversy was raging. The following day, The China Mail newspaper included a fetching picture of Lau on its front page, smiling demurely, and from this point on, the scandal developed at a furious pace. The Hong Kong public could not get enough.
Described to the commission as having a “whimsical personality calculated to be attractive to Europeans”, Lau was employed as the personal secretary to the manager of the Chiap Hua company (a major supplier to the ARP Department) on a salary of HK$200 per month. It transpired, though, that she rarely turned up to work and had thousands of dollars in her bank accounts, a collection of expensive jewellery and an impressive wardrobe of haute couture.
“When the ARP inquiry started, I could hardly believe the Mimi Lau element: [she was also an ARP warden but] she never showed up at the office,” says Anslow. “At that time, many husbands whose families had been evacuated suffered from loneliness, so it was understandable that some sought comfort elsewhere – not an excuse, but a reason.”
It was revealed that the accountant of one key contractor, Kin Lee and Co, had absconded with the company’s books while the firm was charged with offering a bribe of HK$2,000 to a Mr Campbell in the PWD. Another contractor had set up his wife as a subcontractor and then charged the government a commission on her work, the public learned, and a contract for concrete blocks had been awarded to someone who had never made them before. No one cared much, though, because the private lives of Steele-Perkins and Lau were the main subject of public interest.
Initially, the wing commander put up a good show under cross-examination, politely and defiantly stating that, while he was the director of the ARP Department, he had no direct responsibility for procurement or tendering. He also stated that his relationship with Lau and another married Chinese woman, Violet Chan, were completely regular and known to his wife.
Gwen, thousands of miles away in Australia, was oblivious to proceedings until she spotted a report in The Sydney Morning Herald.
“I saw in the Sydney Papers my husband was in sad trouble. I wrote sending a cutting. He was not writing to me or the children as after sending the £100 he said my letters had been so full of anger he told his secretary, a dear little Chinese girl, not to open them but to burn them,” recounted Gwen, in notes written in 1941 that Tiffen has recently discovered. “This she did, and now he and she were in trouble.”
The £100 refers to money Gwen had been forced to request from her husband. Despite struggling financially in Australia and her husband burning her letters, Gwen still stood by him.
“She obviously always wished to promote and protect her husband’s career, which supported her and us. She had already shown she could forgive affairs, knowing his nature yet still loving him despite his stinginess,” says Tiffen, and her mother’s diary notes confirm it.
“Although the reading of it in the Paper was my first knowledge. I wrote to a Chinese woman, who I knew could help my husband, a letter she could produce in court. Which she did,” wrote Gwen.
The South China Morning Post reported on October 14 that Mr Strellet, the solicitor representing Lau, produced this letter at the inquiry. It was addressed to Chan – whom Gwen had recruited into the Women’s ARP Union – and thanked her for seeing her husband socially. It defended Steele-Perkins’ reputation at a crucial moment because it demonstrated the nature of his relationship with Lau and Chan was “not clandestine”, as had been suggested by the chairman of the inquiry.
Despite assistance from his long-suffering wife, by October 21, what remained of Steele-Perkins’ reputation was obliterated. He admitted helping Lau to open a bank account and buying her a HK$1,000 necklace and some ornate hair brushes. Even worse, having denied buying her any other presents, he was forced to admit to the purchase of a diamond ring, for HK$275. Cressall forensically exposed Steele-Perkins’ chaotic and extravagant living expenses, which included club memberships, the funding of private parties and the running of his motor car.
On November 1, it was suggested Lau was employed by Chiap Hua only because of her special friendship with Steele-Perkins. No one at the commission was aware that his family in Australia were struggling financially while the director of the ARP had been partying.
Despite the humiliating publicity, Steele-Perkins was allowed to depart for a new ARP post in India in December, just days before the Japanese invasion. The findings of the commission were never published. Cressall took the draft into Stanley internment camp and it was never seen again.
Few think Steele-Perkins was guilty of corruption, though.
“We believe Steele-Perkins was exonerated to some extent. Nothing he did was deliberately dishonest,” says Cracknell.
“I was surprised when one day he asked me what were people saying about him and all this,” says Anslow. “I told him that anyone who knew him properly just did not believe that he was guilty of any collusion over ARP contracts. That was my opinion, too, and thank God the court cleared him of it.”
It was only when Gwen returned to Hong Kong, alone, after the war, to help with repatriation work, that she realised the scale of the humiliation the scandal had caused. Perhaps not surprisingly, the couple did not stay together for long after the war and Gwen’s future in England as a single mother and successful business owner is revealed in her book.
THERE ARE TWO CONTEMPORARY reminders of the affair that rocked pre-war Hong Kong and ultimately fractured a family. ARP tunnels can still be discerned around the city, most noticeably in old Queen’s Road, where the bricked-up portals can be seen, and 75 years later, some Hongkongers still refer to concrete breeze blocks as “Mimi Laus”.
The woman herself would see the war out in Macau, but the newspaper-reading population of Hong Kong had not heard the last of her.
“Ms Mimi Lau Victimised,” ran a November 30, 1949 headline in The China Mail, after HK$3 had been stolen from her purse as she crossed Des Voeux Road.