Monday, 21 September 2015

Hong Kong 70 Years Ago: Herklots the biologist; North the civil servant

The website Gwulo: Old Hong Kong is superb. Those who have followed the daily updates that show entries from the diaries written by internees in Hong Kong before, during and after the Japanese surrender, 70 years ago, will have noticed the name of Dr Geoffrey Alton Craig Herklots (1902-1986).

I hope to write more about Herklots later but at the time of the Japanese invasion in December 1941 he was Reader in Biology at the University of Hong Kong; he had joined the university in 1928 to start the teaching of biology. He later wrote the books, Hong Kong Birds and The Hong Kong Countryside. In addition to his job in the University, Herklots also became involved in Government work. In 1937, for example, he was appointed Superintendent of the Botanical and Forestry Department. He set up a Fisheries Research Station in the University and he founded, edited and contributed to The Hong Kong Naturalist.

Herklots was part of the group of underfed, ill and exhausted internees led by Franklin Gimson (who had himself sworn in as Acting Governor) out of Stanley to re-establish British rule immediately after the Japanese capitulation. The intense activity of those few days, before the arrival of the Royal Navy taskforce, is described in Philip Snow’s The Fall of Hong Kong (Yale University Press, 2003). Against a background in which U.S. army generals and Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalists were trying to ensure that the latter took over Hong Kong, there were local deals to be done with the Japanese and with a local triad gang in order to maintain law and order as armed, looting gangs ran riot.

Camellia hongkongensis
from The Hong Kong Countryside
In the newly restored Government Herklots became Secretary for Development and had a particular responsibility for fisheries and agriculture. He became greatly involved in the business of survival both before and after the surrender to the Japanese in December 1941. Before the Japanese crossed the border, the Director of Medical Services, Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, asked Herklots to devise a ‘siege biscuit’ that would provide the population with basic nutrition. With Thomas Edgar, a master baker, and after numerous trials, a successful product was launched. On the day before the Japanese attacked, a successful biscuit was produced that also contained calcium carbonate and shark liver oil.

In the Stanley internment camp, Herklots played closely involved with the welfare and education of its inhabitants who were malnourished, in terms both of quantity and quality, terrorised and short of medical supplies (even Red Cross parcels were held and not distributed by the Japanese). Herklots was a member of the organising Camp Temporary Committee, continued with running the University as far as was possible, gave general lectures ('Tropical Seas', for example) and continued work on trying to counter nutritional problems in the internees. This extract from Gwulo shows what he was involved in:

Thursday 1 July 1943
More than 18 months of poor nutrition are taking their toll. One of the most alarming developments is the occurrence of eye problems due to B vitamin deficiency. The camp's doctors are trying to tackle the problem, and today Dr Kenneth Uttley writes in his diary:
     Now that Lane Crawford’s baker Mr Edgar has been interned here, I have set Herklots and him on to the problem along with myself; we have cut down the amount of sugar required and are making more efficient use of the soya bean residue left after making the soya bean milk for the children and invalids. We have at last what appears to be a fairly active yeast and Geoffrey and I dispense it daily at 2pm to the eye cases and certain other B2 deficient cases.  Geoffrey and Edgar are busy most of each morning working on the yeast and are thoroughly enjoying themselves. We even entertain the idea of making yeast for the whole camp, but that will have to wait.
     Former Secretary to the Health Department J. I. Barnes reports that he was almost blind from vitamin deficiency but 'fully recovered' his sight after two doses of yeast - he got the second because he was a 'special worker' and most cases only got one dose. His job was looking after the camp stores - he slept there at night to prevent theft.

The internees in Stanley had also done a lot of thinking and planning. Before the arrival from London of a new civil administration to work under the temporary military administration, the ex-internees worked hard. At the speed that characterises the way things were done in Hong Kong, Herklots launched his new scheme for fish marketing on 12 September, less than a month after the Japanese capitulation, a week before the formal Japanese surrender and only 13 days after Harcourt’s ships and troops arrived in the harbour.

Herklots sketched his encounter with a large jellyfish
(The Hong Kong Countryside)
The other internee re-establishing British rule of interest here is Roland Arthur Charles North (1889-1961), Secretary for Chinese Affairs in the pre-war government and acting Colonial Secretary. I have written about him here*, since I have his complete run of The Hong Kong Naturalist on my bookshelves.

Herklots and North (a member of the old guard in the Colonial Service with whom Gimson disagreed on the way in which Hong Kong should be governed in the future) were members of the Hong Kong Government that seized the day and which issued its famous first communique since Christmas Day 1941 at 11.00 on 30 September 1945 The communique signalled loud and clear in thirteen words both immense relief and the carrying of a very big stick. Was it, I wonder, drafted by Duncan Sloss (1881-1964), temporary Director of Information and Vice-Chancellor of the University from 1937 until 1948?

Rear-Admiral Harcourt is lying outside Hong Kong with a very strong fleet…

The University of Hong Kong's building for biology in the 1930s
In the 1960s it housed the University Press. Before its conversion for biology  in 1928
it had been used for staff housing. After biology moved to the Northcote Building
it was briefly used as a women's hostel; Han Su-yin, under her university name of
Dr Elizabeth Tang was its sub-warden.
(from Bernard Mellor's The University of Hong Kong. An Informal History)

*I have made some recent additions to this post of 20 October 2013.