English version of interview between Enoch Tam and author Gregory B Lee published in Mei Pai 微批 11 August 2022
Interviewer: Enoch Tam, Chief Editor Typesetter Publishing 手民出版社主編譚以諾
Interviewee: Gregory B. Lee, Author of The Eighth Chinese Merchant and the Disappeared Seamen, Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies《第八位中國商人同消失咗嘅海員》作者、中華文化研究學者利大英教授
Let's just talk first about the peripheral things beyond the novel. After the novel was written, why did you choose to publish it in Hong Kong, and why did you choose to publish it in Cantonese and English?
I wanted this memoir, or fictionalised biography, to be available in Chinese so that it could reach more of the people whose ancestors it discusses. A first Chinese version was in 書面語 (written standard Chinese), but I immediately realised it sounded false. The people who figure in the book were alive and active in the first half of the twentieth century when several Chinese languages flourished alongside one another. The language that was dominant in the Chinese diaspora was Cantonese, although Shanghainese was also current. My grandfather's first language was Cantonese. Also, I have thought for many years that Cantonese should have been practised as a serious written literary language in Hong Kong, and I hope that this book is a modest contribution to that effort. It is not easy to reconstruct what Cantonese was like before Hong Kong became its fertile ground; modern Cantonese is really a product of late twentieth-century Hong Kong culture. But I believe the translator and revisers have done a good job. We'll see what the readers think! Once I decided the book was to be in Cantonese, Hong Kong was the obvious place to publish, as Hong Kong is the centre of the Cantonese cultural world. Also, I had great faith in the ability of the publisher to do an excellent job. I have not been disappointed.
Can you tell us about your relationship with Hong Kong, and why, years later, you are running a course in Hong Kong Cultural Studies in Scotland?
I've always felt a deep attachment to Hong Kong, but also to Macau; my grandfather lived in the Portuguese colony as a young man. I remember vividly the first time I flew into Kai Tak airport over 40 years ago. It was very a very moving moment. Later, in the 1990s, I worked in the Comparative Literature department at Hong Kong University where I co-taught a course with P K Leung (Ye Si 也斯) on Hong Kong history and culture. Most of my students worked on Hong Kong and Macanese cultural studies; I learnt at least as much from them, as they did from me. The Chinese community in Britain has always been largely Cantonese-speaking, and more recent immigration will make it even more so. But, there has always been a great deal of ignorance in the UK about Cantonese language and culture. In recent years, so-called Mandarin 官話 has increasingly become synonymous with Chinese. I wanted to correct that impression. Moreover, the new generation of Hong Kong Chinese Britons deserve to have their culture valued and taught somewhere.
To return to the novel itself, why did you conceive of writing it in the first place?
The novel is the natural result of a lifetime of thinking about my grandfather and what his life must have been like. When he passed away I was too young. I hadn't had the chance to ask the questions I needed to ask. My career in Chinese studies was largely motivated by a desire to know him. A vain hope perhaps, but in a sense this novel and the research that is behind it brought me to know him better, or at least a version of him.The revelations about the deported Chinese seamen brought two stories together: that of my grandfather, and that of the wider 1940s Chinese community. At first, I envisaged a stage play, or even a film. But such ventures are extremely costly. I would, however, still like to see a Cantonese-language play emerge from this story one day.
We have heard a lot about Chinese intellectuals studying abroad at the beginning of the last century, but we have heard less about the experience of businessmen. Your grandfather Chen Quanli's experience was not common at the time. Can you tell us more?
First, I don't think of him as a career businessman. Like many emigrants he had to eke out a living as best he could. He was born in the 1880s at a time when opportunities were scarce in the territory that was then the Qing state. Like many he studied to sit the civil service examinations, but these were abolished in 1905. He tried to find employment in Hong Kong, but at that time even clerical jobs were reserved for white people. He earned his money by gambling, and it was that money that he would later invest in laundries and grocery shops in the UK - these were the only trades open to Chinese immigrants. His real talent was for speaking up for his fellow immigrants. He interpreted in the courts for Chinese people in trouble. In fact, it was much more than that. He legally represented them, since he alone understood English law. One of the first books I remember seeing on his table as a boy was Everyman' Own Lawyer.
You write in the novel that Chan Chin Lee worked for the Chi Kung Tong, raising funds for the Chinese Revolution and the anti-Japanese cause. Do you know if the Chi Kung Tong is a real organisation? Is it related to China's Zhi Gong Party?
This is a very pertinent and timely question. In the early 1900s the Chi Kung Tong 致公堂 was one of the principal organizations supporting 孫中山 Sun Yet-sen's efforts to establish a democratic republic. Since it was opposed to the Qing government it was necessarily a secret society, and it had to operate clandestinely. Today "secret society" means something very different. The Chi Kung Tong was very popular in North America. My grandfather was its main representative in the UK; it was headquartered in Liverpool, at that time the largest Chinatown in Europe. As the 1911 Republic established itself, its purpose became more diffuse, and it served as an association for Chinese living permanently or temporarily overseas. In effect, it formed the main instrument of governance within the Chinese community. It naturally played a large part in collecting funds for the anti-Japanese war effort in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1949, as the 致公黨 Chi Kung Tong or Zhi Gong Dang, it became one of the 8 officially recognised "democratic" parties within the People's Republic of China. When mainland China was closed off from most of the world in the 1950s and 1960s, the overseas Chi Kung Tong 致公堂 mainly served to look after the interests of Chinese in diasporic Chinatowns 唐人街. However, over the past decade, China's United Front Work Department 統一戰線工作部 has taken a much keener interest in the overseas Chi Kung Tong 致公堂, and has used its branches as instruments for implementing China's soft power initiatives amongst overseas Chinese communities. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the premises at 10 Nelson Street, Liverpool, served as my grandfather's office. He would leave me sitting in the from room of the Chi Kung Tong 致公堂 with a savoury bun 喊包 in my hands, while he saw to affairs in Chinatown.
The novel relates many details of Chan's life in exile in England. I wonder what the social status of the Chinese in the UK was at that time, whether they would be excluded and discriminated against, and how they would face exclusion and discrimination?
I think readers will discover the answers to this question when they read the book. Since the nineteenth-century there had been negative representations of China and Chinese people in the UK media. So-called "Yellow Peril" was constantly evoked, except when the British had need of Chinese labour, as was the case in World War One and World War Two. Later during the Cold War the label "Red Menace" was added to "Yellow Peril". So, during the whole period when my grandfather was in England from his arrival in 1911 to his death in 1963, he and his children experienced prejudice. My mother continued to encounter anti-Chinese prejudice during the rest of the century. The recent COVID-19 pandemic which is suspected to have started in Wuhan, re-ignited anti-Chinese sentiment in the UK, and resulted in a number of hate crimes. It has never been easy to be a visible minority in the UK.
The novel refers to the case of Chinese seafarers who were forcibly repatriated. How did you learn about this incident, and how important it is for us to understand that generation of Chinese who remained in the UK?
The facts of the forced repatriation of thousands of Chinese seamen in 1945-1947 only became known when the UK Home Office archives on this matter were opened at the beginning of the 21st century, so around 20 years ago. I made a BBC radio programme "Liver Birds and Laundrymen" in 2005 that mentioned the story. But, for half a century the story of the deportations was unknown, or at least unspoken. The main impact of the deportations was to massively reduce the size of the Chinese community. It was left truncated, diminished. Its hybrid nature – most Chinese men had taken white English or Irish wives – would soon disappear. It was not until the late 1960s that immigrants from Hong Kong began to emigrate to the UK in significant numbers.
Chan Chin Lee had always wanted to go back to China. Why was it so important for him to return to China? What is the legacy of his generation that he could not return to China in the end?
Chan Chin Lee was of the generation who imagined and strived for the emergence of a modern, democratic, independent China. Remember, he was born a subject of the Qing state and like many of his generation supported Sun Yet-sen's revolutionary ambitions. I think it must have been very hard for him never to set foot in the Republic of China, and never to see again his native Guangdong. My feeling is that there was no contradiction for him between wanting to see a strong China, and his attachment to the diversity of China's cultures. He spoke several Chinese languages, and his notebook contains poems written in Cantonese. I don't think his was a generational tragedy; there were few people of his age in his situation in the UK. But without being overly sentimental, I must admit that the day my plane landed at Kai Tak airport, I felt that I was "returning" on his behalf.
Finally, the book ends with the 1950s as the end of the story of a diaspora, and implies that in the 1960s another group of immigrants from Hong Kong restarted the story of the Chinese diaspora. Can you tell us a little bit about the situation of the later immigrants from Hong Kong? Will this story become a sequel to the novel?
In fact, the book ends in the early 1960s, shortly after Chan's death on 7th January 1963. In the 1960s, many people were arriving in Hong Kong from mainland China. The ultimate ambition for some was to emigrate to the United States. That was only possible for a minority. But it was easier to emigrate to the UK. For those who could do neither their "final" destination was Hong Kong. But for many families, Hong Kong has proven to be a less permanent abode than they imagined, and grandparents and parents were themselves immigrants to Hong Kong now see their grandchildren and children moving on once more. I think any sequel to the novel would have to embrace the divergence and convergence that has produced both mainland China and Hong Kong itself since the 1950s. That would be a mega-novel. Are you commissioning me to write it?