By Vaudine England
Since the death of Dan Waters, aged 95, in Hong Kong on 27 January this year, he has rightly been lauded for many things: charm and personality, astounding memory, karate black belt, marathons after 60, and of course being such an inspiration to anyone interested in Hong Kong’s earlier days. His own life was impressive, from being a ‘desert rat’ under Montgomery in World War Two to joining the colonial service in Hong Kong in 1954, in the Education Department. He wrote a best-selling manual to technical education and helped to found the Polytechnic (now University).
Perhaps we can blame today’s political correctness for a refusal to talk about one of Dan’s most important commitments — that of a colonial service officer to a Chinese woman in the 1950s. Either people don’t like to talk about race in case they offend someone, or such an inter-racial liaison is now seen as so utterly normal as to be unworthy of comment. Yet what Dan and Vera did was pioneering.
Along with serving in the auxiliary police and coping with the Shek Kip Mei riots of 1956, Dan worked at the Morrison Hill Technical Institute. There he met Vera Chan, a mature student and also founder and director of Hong Kong’s first beauty and charm school. They married in 1960.
Dan knew this was important. He wrote Faces of Hong Kong in 1995, dedicating it to ‘all cross-cultural marriages and to Eurasians everywhere’. He wrote about it again in 2005 he came out with One Couple Two Cultures: 81 Western-Chinese Couples Talk About Love and Marriage. This is dedicated ‘to my Hong Kong-Chinese wife, Vera, and to all the cross-cultural couples who readily bared their souls and withstood my inquisitive probing…’ Apart from four books on technical English and education, cross-cultural ties were all he wrote about.
Let’s think about that. The 1950s was a time when Hong Kong had found it could recover from World War Two, from Japanese occupation, and from the fall of British empire elsewhere in the world. It had not yet found the excited money-making impulses of the 1970s, nor were skyscrapers blocking the view. This was a quieter, more ‘colonial’ time and one, importantly, when we are told cross-cultural marriages were banned by the banks, the hongs and the government. Yet clearly they were not forbidden. Whereas countries such as the USA and Canada passed laws to ban inter-racial marriage, neither Britain nor Hong Kong ever did so. Nor, as we see in Dan’s case, were they terminal to a career. Instead, they were just as likely to be a source of joy as any other liaisons.
The paradox strikes again: that where race is made important enough to be examined it turns out to be less important after all.
Dan Waters was an exceptional man in most of his fields of endeavour; he was wide open, inquisitive, fascinated. His ruminations in both books ranged from the picking of guavas in the Mai Po Marshes in the 1960s with his wife’s uncle, to the latter book’s detailed survey of how cross-cultural marriages work. He learned about the Man clan of the New Territories, and their migrations to the West (not only to England but whole villages which moved to the Netherlands and elsewhere), the rise of Chinese restaurants, why nouveau riche Chinese are so loud, and whether such migration ‘works’. Even when a transplanted Chinese marries another Chinese in their new home there are adjustment problems, he wrote, but when the marriage is cross-cultural, bigger worries emerge. There is the risk of the offspring never quite belonging anywhere, unhappily marginalised in Britain but out of place back in the New Territories village too. Writing before the handover of sovereignty over Hong Kong from Britain to China, he wondered how many Man clan members would want to keep a footprint in Hong Kong.
Dan’s later book began with a traditional Chinese matchmaker’s saying — ‘Let wooden gates match wooden gates and bamboo doors match bamboo doors’. Such a damning indictment of cross-cultural marriage is soon disproved. In fact, as his interviews with 81 partners in mixed marriages attest, the responses of each side in the partnership varied immensely. Some Chinese women wanted a Western husband to escape the constrictions of patriarchal Chinese culture; some of their families were open to it but most were not. Men’s feelings varied too, from wonder at the chaos of it all, to frustration about never being accepted by their partner’s families. Generalising the experience remains nigh impossible.
Dan managed, as so many (male) writers do, to lay the blame for discrimination against Chinese women in mixed liaisons at the feet of Western women. He also notes that of course there were restraints of which he, as a man in love in the late 1950s, was all too well aware: ‘No decent Chinese girl will marry you. All you can expect is a whore or a bar girl,’ he quotes a clergyman saying in the 1950s. Dan’s own boss was clearly against Dan’s plans to marry Vera; Dan was accused of ‘letting the side down’. He recalled too, his friend Michael Wright (the third generation of his family in government service in Hong Kong, now aged 103 in London) having to sign a declaration when he joined the Crown Colony civil service in 1938, to pledge that he would not take a concubine. ‘Up until World War Two, overseas British Banks required their expatriate staff to obtain approval before they married, and everyone knew what that meant…’ (Waters, 2005, p. 51).
Aside from his own case, Dan found more exceptions to such ‘rules’, many of them revealed in this book. The over-riding message is surely one to last beyond Dan’s life — that cross-cultural connection can be a marvellous thing. He described this book as a starting point for what he believed was a sadly under-researched aspect of life and history in Hong Kong. He hoped much more study and publication could be done on this theme of cross-cultural links, and Eurasians in general.
He ended with a quote from an American women who married a Chinese man: ‘Being in a cross-cultural marriage has mostly been a wonderful adventure, and I would do it all again in a second’.
Waters, Dan, Faces of Hong Kong: An Old Hand’s Reflections (Singapore, 1995).
Waters, Dan, One Couple Two Cultures: 81 Western-Chinese Couples Talk About Love and Marriage (Hong Kong, 2005).