Han Suyin, who died in Lausanne last week at the age of 96, was a writer who bridged cultures. Born in imperial China of a Flemish Belgian mother and a Chinese father, she was best known in her lifetime as the author of the 1952 satirical novel of Hong Kong expat life, A Many-Splendoured Thing, which gave rise to the famous film and its theme song.
But in a long writing career, she accomplished much more than that. Educated in both East and West – she graduated in medicine in London – she was published mainly in English and French and opened the eyes of her readers to how the world looked from a Chinese perspective. Her biography Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China told me more than any other book about the Communist leadership that emerged from the Long March, and the conflicts within it.
She wrote history, autobiography and fiction, more than 20 books in all, with a rare combination of insights into world politics and into the workings of the human heart. A year ago in Bali I came across her 1956 novel, And the Rain my Drink, in a new Singaporean edition. It’s based on her experiences as a young doctor during what was known to the British as the “Malay insurgency”. She writes with compassion about the intersecting lives of characters who range from the colonial administrators to the poorest rubber tappers, but there is no doubt where her sympathies lie – with the fight for national liberation.
I didn’t know until I read the obituaries in the British and American press that Han Suyin’s lover in Hong Kong, the man on whom the William Holden character was based in A Many-Splendoured Thing, was an Australian journalist called Ian Morrison. He was a war correspondent for The Times of London who died covering the Korean conflict in 1950. I looked him up. He was the son of the legendary “Morrison of Peking”, the journalist and adventurer whose biography by that title was written by fellow Australian Cyril Pearl.
Han Suyin experienced an extraordinary breadth of cultures, of which her three marriages – to a Chiang Kai-Shek general, a British intelligence officer and an Indian engineer – are just an indication. But although she spent much of her life outside her native country, she clung to her Chinese identity. Attacked in the West for her refusal to denounce the Chinese Revolution, she answered: “If one billion Chinese like me, I don’t care about a couple of foreigners who don’t understand.”
If we are serious about understanding the rise of modern China – as the “Australia in the Asian Century” White Paper declares we should be – she remains one of the writers we should be reading.
THE WISDOM OF TEACHERS
Alex and I thoroughly enjoyed the three speaking events we attended in Sydney – he’s written about them on the diary page of the current issue of The Spectator. All three had terrific audiences but the most stirring was the Ryde-Macquarie Teachers’ Association, who were up in arms at the 1,800 job losses and $1.7bn cuts from the public education budget recently announced by the NSW government.
NSW Federation President Maurie Mulheron made an impassioned speech in which he castigated the government for the devastating effect of the cuts on our children’s future, and also identified the ideological agenda driving the attack on public schools and TAFEs.
He doesn’t pull the punches when responding to right-wing propagandists. On the Federation’s website he refutes News Limited columnist Miranda Devine’s vitriolic assault on the student and community welfare program known as “Proud Schools”. Ms Devine, he writes, “is a miracle: the only human being who was born in medieval times who is still alive today”.
While Australian children in the 1950s had the edifying experience of listening to The Argonauts on ABC Radio, those of us growing up in Britain had the BBC’s Children’s Hour featuring “Toytown” of which my abiding memory is the baa-ing voice of Larry the Lamb. My sister’s favourite was “Uncle Mac” – Derek McCulloch, the golden-voiced presenter.
I’ve managed until now to avoid reading the sordid details of the Jimmy Savile saga, in which cases of serious abuse seem to have been drawn into an appalling vortex of hysteria, prurience, attacks on the BBC and confusion over all that sheer upper-class public-school weirdness.
But I did bring myself to read Andrew O’Hagan’s article “Light Entertainment” in the London Review of Books in which he names BBC producer Lionel Gamlin as a child abuser and – woe is me! – Uncle Mac as one of his circle. Piling one revelation upon another, it turns out that McCulloch and Gamlin had Enid Blyton’s work banned from Children’s Hour. And almost as devastating, Larry the Lamb and Uncle Mac were one and the same person.
My childhood memories are in ruins. Uncle Mac’s sign-off phrase, “Goodnight, children everywhere” will never sound the same again. Baa-a-a.