Tall, aristocratic and eccentric, Richard Arthur Brabazon Ponsonby-Fane was one of Hong Kong’s more unusual residents during the interwar years. I first heard of the Briton more than two decades ago, from Colonel H.A. de Barros Botelho. Known to his many friends as “Bots”, de Barros Botelho was kind enough to reminisce with me about the Hong Kong of his youth. Born in 1906, his memory was elephantine, and his recollection for small but telling details was extraordinary.
Among Bots’ most vivid childhood memories (from when his family lived on Caine Road) was the unconventional sight of Ponsonby-Fane striding energetically from the University of Hong Kong to Government House and back again for his morning constitutional.
Bots described him as a somewhat stooped figure, with a long beard and an almost completely bald pate, and who trailed a long, dangling scarf around his neck whatever the weather. The scarf was Ponsonby-Fane’s most prized possession, having been made by a Japanese empress and presented to him personally.
Ponsonby-Fane’s official career began in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1896, and over the two decades that followed, he served as private secretary to the governors of Natal, Trinidad, Hong Kong, Fiji and Ceylon. For part of his service, he was a protégé (in both Hong Kong and Natal) of Sir Matthew Nathan, a fellow “confirmed bachelor”. From 1915 to 1919, he served again in Hong Kong, and from 1916 to 1926, he taught part time at the then recently established University of Hong Kong.
Ponsonby-Fane first came under the spell of Japan during his time in Hong Kong, where he started to learn Japanese. Devotion to Japanese culture was not unusual among the British of that time. Both were island peoples who felt themselves to be – and in many key aspects, were – markedly different from their continental neighbours.
Unusual as it may seem today, interwar Hong Kong had a large and very visible expatriate Japanese community, and opportunities to mix with others who shared an enthusiasm for “things Japanese” were widespread.
Britain and Japan had been closely linked since the 1870s, and from the 1890s onwards, military, economic and cultural relationships became closer by the year, culminating in the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, signed in 1902, that remained in force until 1922. As the closest British possession to Japan, Japanophiles regularly passed through Hong Kong; some, like Ponsonby-Fane, stayed for extended periods.
Moving permanently to Japan in 1919, Ponsonby-Fane travelled to Hong Kong for four months of each year to fulfil his university commitments. Private wealth ensured he could do this for his own interest; apparently, he accepted no payment. He returned to his ancestral home in Somerset every summer (the sea journey from Japan took seven weeks each way) to enjoy the cricket, for which he was a lifelong enthusiast.
In his lifetime, Ponsonby-Fane became a leading non-Japanese expert on Shinto, and published widely on the subject. In 1921, when Crown Prince Hirohito of Japan visited Hong Kong en route to Europe, Ponsonby-Fane acted as his official interpreter. He later became the only foreigner invited in a personal capacity to Emperor Hirohito’s coronation in 1928.
Something of an oddball, Ponsonby-Fane loathed the trappings of modernity – a dislike that extended to trains, motor vehicles and the electric light (whenever possible, he spent the hours after sunset illuminated only by candles). He spent the last 16 years of his life in Kyoto, sharing them, until his death in 1937, with a much younger male “secretary” named Sato Yoshijiro.
This partner remained devoted to Ponsonby-Fane’s memory for the rest of his own life, arranging for posthumous publication of various works, and for decades maintaining their house as a memorial. Now in other ownership, the building still stands in suburban Kyoto.