In the second half of an essay on his father’s career in China, Perry Anderson writes about the closing phases of the Chinese Maritime Customs

In the third week of July this year a ‘national anti-smuggling work conference’ took place in Beijing. In sensational speeches, the rulers of the People’s Republic revealed that China is currently losing 12 billion dollars a year from a massive wave of contraband, involving public officials of every kind – not least the People’s Liberation Army itself. To staunch this disastrous flow, President Jiang Zemin announced the establishment of ‘a national special police force to crack down on rampant smuggling’, to be rewarded from the proceeds of confiscations, and ordered the Army to withdraw from all its – multifarious – commercial enterprises. The issue has certain historical echoes.

In the spring of 1930, 16 years into his service in the Chinese Maritime Customs, my father, James Anderson, was posted to Hong Kong. He remained there two years, technically posted to Kowloon, but living on the Peak. He disliked the place. The setting might be ‘carelessly beautiful’, but the society was dreary and the town repellent. ‘It is curious how out-of-date colonies are,’ he noted, ‘Hong Kong is just beginning to be Edwardian. Hanoi is almost entirely Jules Ferry. It is strange in Hong Kong to meet young girls being girlish in the manner of 1900, and in Hanoi to hear Frenchmen airing ideas about colonial development etc which are audacious in the manner of Rudyard Kipling.’ But Hanoi was at least pretty, with streets radiating from a lake surrounded with trees at the centre, cafés with pink and white awnings and flower baskets at every corner. He found Hong Kong ‘grotesquely ugly – the part which is intended to be dignified is simply terrible, a square with lawns all cluttered up with the most revolting statues of minor royalties’. His wife had other objections to the colony. In articles and letters, Stella Benson took her aim at government licensing of forcible prostitution, in which teenage girls from the mainland were sold as virtual slaves to local brothels. Cutting through missionary pieties and realist hypocrisies alike, she made it clear the issue was not sexual morality but exploitation. ‘To abolish brothels, and above all to withdraw even a semblance of government sanction from brothel-keepers, pimps, traffickers, “pocket-mothers” who exploit helpless girls is to establish the principle that a woman’s body is her own, not to dispute it.’ Against much official opposition, an effective campaign under League of Nations auspices forced a reluctant Governor to phase out the system.

This intervention naturally brought displeasure on her husband. But he was a servant of the Chinese rather than British Government, and the Maritime Customs was at loggerheads with the Hong Kong authorities anyway. The colony was traditionally a smuggler’s paradise, protected by British officials in collusion with local interests. Soon after my father arrived, the new Inspector-General of the Chinese Maritime Customs, Frederick Maze, descended in person for a showdown with the colonial authorities over the facilities the Customs needed to crack down on contraband into China. ‘We are busy quarrelling with the Hong Kong Govt and there is at the moment a prospect of our withdrawing from Hong Kong and putting a cordon of cruisers round the island to annoy shipping,’ my father wrote to his family in Ireland. ‘Last time negotiations were broken off and there was a good deal of ill-feeling. They don’t like or trust Maze very much. But he is an able man and will get his way, I think. He doesn’t care what people think of him as long as outward appearances are observed.’

Maze was already giving a new dynamism to the CMC. The recovery of tariff autonomy by the Central (Kuomintang) Government in Nanking had increased import duties from semi-colonial levels, below even a nominal 5 per cent, to 15 per cent by 1931, now on a gold unit basis. The result was a big jump in customs revenues, which within three years virtually trebled. By 1932 the Maritime Customs was generating 60 per cent of Central Government revenues – far more than ever before. Since tighter fiscal pressure at the frontier made contraband much more profitable, smuggling soared. To combat its spread, Maze created a new Preventive Department within the Inspectorate, secured its own powers of armed interception for the CMC and built up a modern fleet of fast cruisers, linked to a wireless network, for search-and-seize operations along the China coast. It was this kind of work to which my father was assigned, first as Deputy and then as Commissioner ad interim in Hong Kong, controlling the movement of small gunboats in the waters round the island. He was evidently good at the job (‘we are choked up with seizures’) and enjoyed it.

Contemptuous of the British authorities in Hong Kong (‘an out-of-the-way silly government’), he had also to finesse relations with the Chinese authorities he served. Canton was controlled by the Kwangtung warlord Chen Chi-t’ang, who had formed a regional bloc with his counterparts in Kwangsi against Chiang Kai-shek in Nanking. Each side naturally laid claim to the most valuable source of public funds available. My father’s work was thus, as he put it, ‘agreeably complicated by the fact that I serve two separate Governments’, one in principle legitimate but distant, the other insurgent but much closer to hand.

My chief card is force majeure. This word is very dear to all Chinese Govts, de jure or de facto (and in any case debilitated). An example. The Minister of Finance of the Central Govt instructs me in majestic terms to cease remitting certain revenues to the ‘rebellious dogs of the Canton faction’ and to let him have them. This means I get a friend among the rebellious dogs to send an old steam tug, with five or six indifferently armed soldiers on board, to make an armed demonstration at one of my revenue stations outside Hong Kong. We could perfectly easily blow up anything in the way of armed force the Cantonese could possibly send along, including their navy, which is very much less imposing than my own anti-smuggling flotilla. But instead of that I telegraph the Central Govt that I have been compelled to yield to force majeure. All is then well until the next crisis.

This note of insouciance, no doubt heightened for effect, did not last long. In the autumn of 1931 Japan overran Manchuria, and six months later set up the puppet state of Manchukuo. At a stroke, the CMC was excluded from all Manchurian ports, a major revenue blow. In January 1932, Japanese forces in Shanghai launched an assault on KMT positions, which after severe fighting led to a further weakening of Chinese control around the city where the Inspectorate was now located. ‘Though my personal position in the Customs is flourishing,’ my father told his family, ‘the position of the Customs is a little shaky in view of the warfare at Shanghai.’ In the short run, the CMC survived well enough. But Japan’s occupation of Manchuria, and gradual extension of its territorial control towards Peking, affected the system of mobility within the Customs sharply. From now on, there would be steadily fewer ports available for postings to the north of the country, where the climate was better and conditions healthier. Stella, who loathed Hong Kong, left for Europe just before the Shanghai Incident, buoyed en route by news that she had received a Prix Femina for her last novel. In April my father was transferred to Hainan.

A tropical island the size of Ireland, lying on a latitude with Luzon in the Philippines opposite northern Vietnam, Hainan is the southernmost extremity of China, a place of remotest banishment for Tang literati, comparable to Ovid’s Black Sea exile. In the Thirties it was still quite wild, with non-Han tribal groups at large. In the interior, a CCP guerrilla was active: ‘rank banditry cloaking itself in the garb of communism – a residue of the Borodin regime’, as the Danish Commissioner who preceded my father saw it. Its importance lay in its geographical position. All ocean-going junks from Bangkok, Singapore, Batavia or Saigon were required by an Inspectorate-General directive to report to Hoihow, on the island, before proceeding to any mainland harbour in China. Across the narrow straits to the Luichow peninsula, however, lay the dormant French enclave of Fort Bayard, some two hundred square miles of lease extorted from the Ch’ing Empire in 1898, and virtually forgotten thereafter. With the raising of Chinese tariffs in the early Thirties, however, this shadow-zone suddenly became a magnet for large-scale contraband, landed in Fort Bayard and then nimbly shipped across to Hainan, or over the land frontier. ‘Vast and powerful interests’, the Danish memorandum warned, had given rise to a ‘smuggler’s El Dorado’.

Maze had sent my father south after drawing attention in a circular to the vigorous example set by his seizures in Hong Kong. The CMC station in Fort Bayard was controlled from Hainan. My father’s first task as Commissioner was to attack the illegal traffic from the French territory. Creeks and bays on both sides of the straits were inspected, cruisers were mobilised, more speedboats and armoured shields were ordered from Shanghai. Three months after he arrived, Hainan was the scene of a major rebellion, when a third of the Chinese navy – virtually its entire southern fleet – declared against Canton. The revolt was put down only after a spectacular air attack on the warships in Hoihow, which sank the destroyer Feiying at the entrance to the harbour, amid ‘an enormous yellow flame and great columns of smoke’, requiring my father to telegraph warnings to mariners across South-East Asia. He soon decided that it would be better to tackle the smuggling problem from the other side of the straits, and got colleagues to lobby the Inspectorate for the transfer of control over Fort Bayard to Pakhoi, the nearest port on the mainland, currently administered by a somnolent Dutch Commissioner. Maze saw the sense of the proposal and appointed him to Pakhoi in the autumn of 1932.

After six months of literary success in London – prize-givings, soirées with the Woolfs, portrait by Wyndham Lewis etc – Stella was meanwhile making her way back to China with foreboding. ‘Now I am in danger again.’ Five days after she reached Hainan, she suffered a bronchial crisis, from which she only just pulled through, ‘devotedly nursed day and night by a Chinese concubine (not James’s) richer than we are’. When they moved to Pakhoi a fortnight later, she had to be carried ashore. There she recovered a little, resumed writing. The Commissioner’s house was ‘almost palatial’, set in a large compound filled with flowering trees and shrubs, looking down to the sea. My father, with his Russian deputy, criss-crossed the Luichow peninsula by car to set up a tighter cordon round Fort Bayard. There, at any rate, society was less stuffy than in Hong Kong. The portly Administrateur, Monsieur Jabouille, ‘a bachelor and impénitent, which means he keeps two Annamite girls’, would appear in ‘white satin pyjamas tucked into red woollen socks’, with the Légion d’honneur in his buttonhole. ‘His favourite conversational gambit is: Si quelqu’un me mord dans le derrière, je lui donne un coup de pied dans les roupettes. This means there has been a “frontier incident” – his secretary titters and says Monsieur l’Administrateur en Chef est si fin.’ In this setting, manners were more various. ‘At Kwangchouwan, I encountered a Chinese lesbian. A very curious woman, who is the wife of a Customs Clerk. She is called the “Conqueror”, is tremendously bossy, and sends for sing-song girls to sleep with her.’ My father seems to have enjoyed the challenge of this eccentric frontier, and confirmed the good opinion of his superiors, though the French authorities continued to turn a blind eye to forbidden traffic. For its part, the Kwangtung regime – which the scholar Hu Shih, after a brush with Chen Chi-t’ang, viewed as utterly benighted by comparison with Kwangsi – obstructed any effort to fortify the frontier on its side, regarding the Customs in Pakhoi as an agency of Nanking from which it stood to gain nothing.

By the late winter, Stella’s health was worsening again. ‘I am wondering now if I have not come to the end,’ she wrote: ‘I do not really mind. I have come to my full stature, such as it is, and do not feel that anything very valuable would be cut off untried by my death.’ In the summer, my father asked for a month’s leave and they went on holiday to the Javanese uplands. She was still very weak. In the autumn they went to Tonkin, where he had Customs business. After he went back she stayed on for a few days in the Baie d’Along, famous for its mountainous islets. There she caught a last pneumonia, and died. My father buried her on an island in the bay. It had been one of those peculiar relationships – common enough, or a by-product of alien circumstances? – like a broken figure of eight. She had fallen passionately in love with him; he married her with his mind elsewhere. She frustrated him physically, he disappointed her emotionally. Attachment frayed, they twisted away from each other. Yet her company became essential to him, and she accepted displacement for it. Tender and insensible, he certainly ended by loving her more than she did him, yet practically she gave up more for him, with only intermittent intensity of regret. When she was alive, he once said to her: ‘I wonder if you have ever really treated me as an equal.’ After she died, he wrote: ‘it is difficult to put on paper the secret pride I have always had in her, even when we were angry with each other.’ There are no letters from his last months alone in Pakhoi. In April 1934 he left for Europe. Taking her journal to the University Library at Cambridge, he wrote in a small hand on the last page: ‘This was a magnificent woman. Handing over these diaries is like burying her all over again. I can hardly bear it.’

While he was away in Europe, the situation in China altered fundamentally once again. By mid-1934 Chiang Kai-shek’s Fifth Extermination Campaign had made Mao’s base in the Kiangsi-Fukien border area untenable. In October Communist forces broke through encirclement, and began the Long March. A year later, after tremendous losses, a small remnant arrived in Yenan. While the KMT and its warlord allies harried the CCP in its new base in the northwest of China, Japanese pressure escalated in the east. A month after Mao reached Shensi, the Japanese Army extended its grip round Peking, without serious resistance from the Nationalist regime. On 9 December 1935, student protests against Nanking’s accommodation to Tokyo were broken up by police in Peking, with numerous arrests. In solidarity, patriotic demonstrations spread across the country, in which the Communist underground played a central role. After its military setbacks, the CCP was starting to recoup politically.

Arrived back in London, my father was still ‘torn to bits with pain and remorse’ about the death of his wife. Unwilling to face China alone, he went to nightclubs, flew the auto-gyro (precursor of the helicopter), considered alternative companions. Over the supper table, he was taken with the way one of them waved her knife and fork about while talking. He proposed to her. My mother was 12 years younger, in love with a guardsman whose Lytton family wanted no mésalliance: she was the daughter of a head of Scotland Yard. On country walks, in diary notes, she weighed up her choices. A trip to Ireland clinched it. In September 1935 they married. Sometimes, an epoch later, she would speak – did she mean it? – as if the marriage were almost arranged. Certainly China must have been a leap in the dark. But she was adventurous, and by current standards – then or now – the relationship must have worked. Maze cabled my father he was to proceed to Kunming. They set off in high spirits, missing one boat, catching another in Marseilles; my brother was conceived somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

In February 1936, they arrived in Yunnan. The new realities quickly made themselves felt. My father’s first dispatch to Maze opened: ‘The Communists: have entered the province in the north-east corner. Indications are that the Yunnan troops will not fight them, but steer them into Szechwan.’ Mao’s forces had reached Shensi, but now a second column of the Red Army, whose base on the Hunan-Hupei border had held out longer, was making its way across China. Led by Ho Lung, a former commander in Chang Fa-Kuei’s Ironsides, it was eventually to reach Yenan in somewhat greater strength – about 20,000 soldiers – than the survivors of the Long March. In April Ho Lung’s forces brushed so close to Kunming that that my father reported ‘something very like a panic here’: ‘last Friday the whole foreign population – and a good many Chinese – spent the night in trains with steam up, ready to leave at a minute’s notice.’ In her diary, my mother gives a livelier description of midnight chaos at the railway station, and the opinion to be heard that the Communists would be an improvement for the local population if they came. In fact, the Second and Sixth Red Armies did swerve west and north into Szechwan, without Yunnanese efforts to block them, as my father had predicted.

The alarm, however, brought Chiang Kai-shek to Kunming to review the situation. My father went out to the aerodrome with the official party for his arrival from Chengtu. ‘He looked remarkably well, in contrast with his host General Lung Yun, who is, and looks, a heavy opium-smoker.’ The diminutive Lung Yun, Governor of Yunnan, had ruled the province as a virtually independent state since 1927. A Lolo warlord from its north-eastern panhandle, he had never provoked the KMT regime as his opposite numbers in Kwangsi or Kwang-tung had done, but kept it if anything even more firmly out of his domain. Yunnan had its own silver currency, contact with the outside world through Indochina, tin mines to sustain revenue and, above all, the largest opium crop in China, filling its treasury and assuring the fortunes of its leading officials. Soon after his arrival, my father seized a large consignment bound for Tonkin ‘bearing the labels of the Yunnan Opium Suppression Bureau’, but was obliged to relinquish it. Opium smuggling was, he reported to Maze, ‘a very important vested interest of the local Government. Unless I am authorised to close my eyes to the opium and salt traffic, and without strong Central Government backing, I think it will be useless and dangerous to try to do anything. I would be grateful for a word of semi-official instruction in regard to this.’ He was tersely told to look away.

Even contraband that was less high-voltage was difficult to control, because of the sensitivity of Lung Yun’s regime to any encroachment of Central Government authority on its prerogatives. My father’s repeated requests for an armed guard to enforce Customs surveillance against ordinary smuggling along the railway line met with stiff resistance. ‘The Government views my attempt to recruit an armed guard and discovery of malpractice at Mapai as impertinent incursions in provincial affairs, whereas in fact I am attending strictly to my own business, revenue collection, which is the concern of the Central Government whose agent I am.’ Over-impressed, as were many educated Chinese at the time, by Chiang Kai-shek’s claims to be building a modern national state, he took a correspondingly low view of the Yunnanese authorities. ‘The truth is that the Government is not only Provincial but also extremely provincial: it has very little knowledge or understanding of what goes on elsewhere in China, and is extremely suspicious and difficult to deal with. This is the opinion of every extra-provincial agency.’

Such reservations did not impair the pleasures of Kunming, ‘one of the most charming places in China’. Set on a high plateau, under blue skies for most of the year, the city was enclosed by massive russet walls, pierced by four ornamental gates, and surrounded by hills covered with camellia and fruit-blossom. The river flowing past my father’s office ran down to Lake Dian just south of the city, from whose western shore rose the steep escarpment of the Hsi Shan: temples and shrines on the mountainside, sampans and islands in the water below. Such was the setting in which my brother was born. The family lived in a villa owned by Lung Yun, formerly the German consulate, next door to one of his residences. This was a golden age in family legend, which contemporary documents leave surprisingly intact: fêtes champêtres in the hills, midnight swimming in the lake, the merits of the Lawrences (D.H. v. T.E.), children’s parties in the garden, wives of the Governor or his cousin for tea. Perhaps there was too much entertaining; but when a transfer from the Inspectorate-General subsequently came, it was the only time my father broke protocol with a protest.

During this idyll, the first major battles of what became the world war began, when in August 1937 Chiang Kai-shek – having lost control of Peking – threw his best divisions against the Japanese positions in Shanghai. The botched assault, involving a quarter of a million casualties, was followed by a headlong retreat to Nanking. It was in October, at the height of the fighting, that my father suddenly received orders for his departure from Kunming. In his last dispatches, he predicted that Yunnan would benefit economically from the conflagration: ‘I now think something very like boom conditions are coming and will continue for the duration of the war. There is already an influx of Chinese refugees from other provinces. House rents are soaring.’ What he did not foresee was the cultural and political opening the war brought Kunming. Three months after he left, the transfer of the leading universities of Peking and Tientsin to Yunnan, creating the famous joint Lianda campus, was to make the city the intellectual capital of wartime China. While academic freedom was choked in Chiang’s headquarters at Chungking, Lung Yun – who had every reason to be wary of KMT designs – allowed it to prosper in his domain. Political debate was lively and opposition to the KMT increased. As soon as the war was over, Nationalist troops mounted a putsch, and then gunned down students and intellectuals in a series of incidents that helped trigger the Civil War: events hauntingly recorded by Robert Payne, who was teaching at Lianda. Lung Yun, arrested and deported to Chungking, later escaped to Hong Kong. He ended his days, like Li Tsung-Jen, an honorific figure in the People’s Republic.

In November 1937, as the Japanese swept the Nationalist armies from Shanghai, the family took the Michelin motor-rail, very advanced for its time, down to Hanoi, and embarked for Swatow, the port in Kwangtung to which my father had been directed. Known today principally as the birthplace of the richest of all Hong Kong’s billionaires, the shipping magnate Li Ka-shing, who has liberally endowed it, Swatow has a sticky climate and granite hinterland. Neither of my parents liked it. Professionally, my father had some consolation: revenue collection was twice as large as in Yunnan, and staff more numerous. Here, the Superintendent – the Chinese counterpart of the Commissioner, normally a figurehead – took an aggressive interest in Customs affairs. Calling on him immediately after arrival, my father found him ‘as I expected, out of humour and disagreeably inclined’, and ‘a fearful bore (in my experience an unusual quality in a Chinese official)’: an aside significant in a number of ways, not least for the implied comparison.

To this Maze replied in best colonial fashion: ‘I trust that by your discreet handling of the situation the Superintendent can be made to realise his real position in the Customs.’ In fact, it became clear that the official in question was mainly concerned to tighten up measures against smuggling, an objective with which my father had every sympathy. Japanese warships were now patrolling the South China coast to prevent military supplies reaching the Nationalist Government, and Swatow was in the zone of blockade, a couple of destroyers lying a few miles outside the harbour. The effect was to confine Customs motorboats to the shoreline, increasing commercial smuggling at sea, where the standard practice was to dump contraband from steamers overboard in bales attached to buoys, to be picked up and landed by local junks. Norwegian vessels, travelling without anti-piracy guards, were the worst offenders. By planting undercover agents on a steamer coming down from Hong Kong, and assigning a speedboat to lie in wait for junks in a nearby creek, my father netted a large haul of goods and runners, bringing dumping, temporarily at any rate, to a virtual halt. The handwritten annotations from the Inspectorate on this dispatch read: ‘a typical Anderson coup – well thought-out and planned’. Faint images from childhood stirred.

A few days later, Japanese shells were falling on settlements nearby and aircraft were flying overhead, though my father discounted an imminent landing. In March 1938, he was ordered inland to Wuchow on the West River. En route in Hong Kong he was told that he needed an operation, and given six months’ leave. The family was back in London by May. That month, Japanese demands on the CMC came to a head. Japan had not formally declared war on China, and still had to reckon with the other imperialist powers in the region. Although Tokyo now controlled both Shanghai and Nanking, the Customs could not be simply annexed or liquidated without provoking a conflict with Britain and the United States. Instead, the Japanese authorities demanded that all revenues collected in those parts of China under Japanese control be lodged in the Yokohama Specie Bank, and that staff appointments to the service reflect Japanese preponderance. Under this pressure Maze, appealing for support from London and Washington, and for understanding from Chungking, withheld accumulated balances in the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, and refused wholesale staff changes, but otherwise conceded the first demand and went some way towards the second.

In the autumn, the Japanese seized Canton. Within another year, they controlled ports accounting for 90 per cent of revenue. Foreign Commissioners – an American in Canton, a Briton in Tientsin, a Dane in Amoy and so on – continued to operate under Japanese occupation and Japanese authorities disbursed regular quotas to the Inspectorate for the expenses of the Service, while keeping the balances for themselves. Still legally a servant of the Chinese Government in Chungking, the Inspectorate-General was now dependent on the remittances of a government at war with it. From his headquarters on Hart Road in the International Settlement, Maze sought to finesse the Customs predicament as best he could, flying to Hong Kong to secure unofficial tolerance of these arrangements from the KMT Finance Minister H.H. Kung, who had come in from Chungking to meet him. In a confidential letter to the London Secretary, he later wrote: ‘my position was not merely difficult – it was impossible. An epigrammatist might describe it thus: “Tokyo required, Chungking objected, and the Interested Powers expected.” ’ But whatever the pressure exercised from Japan, or information passed to Britain, his loyalty as an official remained to China.

In October 1938, my father was recalled from London to Shanghai. My mother, just delivered of her second child, remained behind. For six months he led a becalmed life in the French Concession, in bureaucratic limbo. Nominally assigned as Commissioner to Wuhu, a Yangtze port in the Japanese war zone where no CMC station any longer operated, he lived in the Picardie Apartments, an art deco block on the Avenue Pétain, playing chess with Russian exiles, learning Italian, reading Saint-Simon. When spring brought a post in the field, his relief was palpable. Of the dwindling number of ports under Chinese control, he was given Lungchow. The town itself had not changed much over the decade since Deng Xiaoping raised the red flag there. But arriving via Hanoi, he found the scene on the Kwangsi-Tonkin border transformed. With the fall of Canton, the frontier crossing had suddenly become one of the only two remaining overland routes into Nationalist-held territory. On the narrow road from Hanoi to Nanning, the small examination parapet at the frontier was jammed with convoys of heavy trucks and other vehicles streaming from French into Chinese territory with military and civilian supplies. In the space of a few months, Customs revenues had increased more than a hundredfold. Conditions in Lungchow, supposedly the unhealthiest port in China, were primitive and the volume of tasks enormous. But he was clearly exhilarated to be there.

Only a hundred miles away, the Japanese were turning Hainan into a major naval and air base. Soon, Japanese sea-planes started air-raids over the area, bombing the road and strafing traffic along it. Cargo now had to be passed at night. By mid-August there were daily air-attacks on Lungchow. Two of my father’s assistants were wounded a few yards away from him, when a bomb hit his garden. A week later a squadron of heavy bombers, escorted by seaplanes, launched a much more savage assault, obliterating targets on both sides of the river, and smashing the Customs House. There were no antiaircraft defences of any kind in Lungchow: ‘the aeroplanes come down to low levels and habitually spend an hour here on every visit, bombing, circling round to look for dumps, bombing again, machine-gunning.’ Worse even than the din of the explosions was ‘the wicked menacing roar of the powerdive, which sounds as though a silken sky was being ripped open’. When the alarm went, Customs personnel took refuge in deep caves in the nearby hills, though heading out was hazardous: on one occasion the service car was riddled with bullets from planes coming in the opposite direction. In these conditions, my father moved his headquarters across the border to Langson. Officially, the French Governor-General forbade the move, in practice the Sûreté turned a blind eye. By day, and into darkness, the staff worked at the frontier post of Namkuan, ‘Porte de Chine’ – the China Gate of Samuel Fuller’s movie; at night they slept in Vietnam. The European war was now two weeks away.

In between bulletins on the military situation, my father continued to file reports on the surreal Customs problems of the region.

There are five main kinds of smugglers of wood oil; the Kwangsi Syndicate, working to defeat the interests of the Trade Commission (which is to say the Central Government); the Syndicate’s own staff, smuggling privately against the interests of both the Commission and the Syndicate; and local smuggling organisations working with the assistance and armed protection of local officials against the interests of the Commission, the Syndicate and the Syndicate’s staff. (All this in time of war for China’s national existence.)

Wood oil was a hugely profitable export. But ordinary commodities were now so extortionately manipulated and taxed by Chungking that ‘the exporter would have been less than human if he had complied docilely with Government requirements. He remained human and smuggled.’ In these conditions, far from pressing for further guards, he regarded them as useless provocation.

For 25 years, my father had lived at a peculiar diagonal to Chinese society. The Maritime Customs was not a colonial élite, ruling a subject people. It was not a modern expatriate community, out for its take. It was not a diplomatic body, looking after national interests. Its involvement with China was more intimate than these. But, inevitably, it was still dissociated from the deeper fabric of Chinese life. In the Imperial period, Western arrogance naturally permeated the Service. In the Republican period, there was perhaps less of this, but the weakening of the state of which it was a semi-detached arm encouraged a certain ironic distance. My father had seen a great deal of China, more than most educated contemporaries born in the country, but a basic remoteness remained. Now, perhaps, this gap lessened. Under Japanese attack, risks to life were shared, and my father’s admiration for the fortitude and ingenuity of his subordinates came out of a common experience. The resourcefulness of ordinary Chinese, their extraordinary ability in time of war ‘to get ten litres out of a litre bottle’, made a deep impression on him, and he became correspondingly more caustic about the authorities set over them.

In November a Japanese expeditionary force landed on the north shore of the Gulf of Tonkin and rapidly crossed the mountains into central Kwangsi. An aircraft-carrier supplied blitzes overhead. By the end of the month Nanning had fallen, cutting the supply line to the interior: ‘a severe blow’, Maze wrote to London, since ‘about one third of free China’s imports of war materials passed along the Nanning road.’ Turning south-west, a flying column reached Lungchow in December and laid it waste. My father reported: ‘four-fifths of the town has been razed to the ground, and the bridge over the river partly wrecked by dynamite.’ Namkuan was occupied a few days later. Customs staff were evacuated to Langson just in time. When Japanese troops moved on, they set up the frontier station again, and a detachment of CMC officials returned to Lungchow. In the midst of all this, my mother flew out from England on a small French aircraft, seating eight passengers and covering a few hundred miles a day – nights in Tunis, Alexandria, Beirut, Baghdad, Karachi etc: the plane just in front blown away by a sandstorm in the Persian Gulf – to join him in Langson. It was March 1940. In the back country round Cao Bang, where a decade later the Vietminh won the first decisive battles of the Indochinese War, she went along on inspection tours with him. In April Lungchow was heavily bombed from the sea again – ‘I cannot conceive why. There is almost literally nothing worth attacking.’ In May he handed over charge to a successor. Within another couple of months, Japanese inspectors were stationed inside French territory, controlling all traffic to China. In Nanking, a collaborationist government had been set up under Chiang Kai-shek’s vice-chairman, Wang Ching-Wei, claiming legitimate KMT credentials.

Recalled to Shanghai, my father was promoted to Statistical Secretary, one of the grandest jobs in the Service. He was responsible for the collation of returns, publication of results, maintaining of archives, running a printing-press, keeping a considerable library. In the summer of 1940 my aunt brought the children out to join them: a convoy to Montreal, a train through Canada, a crossing to Yokohama. Probably, the family lived in some style, if with the discretion of the haut fonctionnaire, rather than the chromium opulence of Ballard’s business milieu in Empire of the Sun. Economic security and domestic union were to hand; my father had badly wanted both. But he had never liked Shanghai, symbol of everything Westerners made of China; and he was bored by any desk job, however elevated. ‘I like moving about,’ he had written from one of his wilder locations. Most oppressive of all, of course, was the atmosphere in the International Settlement, now surrounded by Japanese troops and warships. Meanwhile the bad news was coming in from Europe. ‘Shanghai life is anything but gay,’ he wrote to Ireland in February 1941. ‘It is quiet and dull, and most of us prefer it that way in these times. Because the alternative – tense and menacing – is never very remote.’ He wanted a daughter, but could scarcely enlarge the family ‘when there is always the possibility of an evacuation scramble (to say nothing of a Japanese concentration camp)’. In April, twelve months’ leave came due. Maze, reluctant to let staff go, tempted him with Tientsin, the second largest port in the country. My mother put her foot down. Europe was out of reach. We sailed in the President Coolidge for San Francisco.

California in the summer of 1941 was in another time-capsule. While the family settled at Los Gatos, the Japanese grip tightened in Shanghai. Quotas from occupied ports for the expenses of the Inspectorate were withheld until a Japanese Commissioner was appointed in the city. Maze, citing his experience in the 1911 Revolution, resisted any contingency plan for evacuation, keeping all Allied Commissioners at their posts. Within hours of Pearl Harbor, as my parents watched with astonishment the mass panic and exodus from the Bay Area, the Japanese took control of the International Settlement. Two days later Maze was put under house arrest and dismissed by the Wang Ching-Wei regime in Nanking. Kishimoto, whom my father as a young man had dreamt of succeeding, took over as Inspector-General, and the Service was purged of US and British employees. In March the Kempetai, Japan’s feared military police, flung Maze into a felon’s prison for failing to co-operate with the new authorities. Collaborationist Nanking, however, had not yet declared war on the Allies. After a month Maze was released, and in the summer of 1942, at the height of the Pacific War, he and other Allied Customs staff were allowed to leave Shanghai untouched for Mozambique.

The anomalous status of the Chinese Maritime Customs held good to the end. In the First World War, Germans and Austrians had been discharged, but not interned. Now the boot was on the other foot. But the Nanking Government in 1942 acted as the Peking Government had done in 1917, treating British and Americans not as enemy nationals but merely as employees whose contract had come to an end. In Shanghai, bureaucratic continuity was meticulously kept up. Imperturbably, as the British were being routed in Malaya, the new Chinese Statistical Secretary was writing to the Japanese Inspector-General: ‘S/O No. 244. Dear Mr Kishimoto, I beg to renew the suggestion made by my predecessor, Mr Anderson ... ’

At the end of 1942 Maze made his way from Lourenço Marques back to Chungking to resume his position as Inspector-General in the KMT zone. He found everything changed. After the fall of Singapore and Hong Kong, Britain’s prestige was low; feeling against foreign officials was strong; and he was no longer shielded by distance from the Generalissimo, for whom he now developed an intense dislike (‘it is noticeable that, while “Liberalism” and Communism are condemned, silence is maintained regarding Fascism and Nazism’). With the war, the US had anyway become the dominant power in the region. In May 1943 he threw in the sponge. The last years, he observed with a new-found candour, had seen ‘the closing phases of the romantic story of the quasi-British control of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service’. It was useless to conceal some bitterness. The baton had to be handed over to America. In June the Nationalist Government with the agrément of Washington, appointed Lester Little, long-time Commissioner in Canton, the last Western Inspector-General of the Chinese Customs.

In California my father, descending into long illness, was in no condition to go back to Chungking. Invalided out of the Service in 1942, he worked when he was able in the Office of Political Warfare in San Francisco, set up by London to collect information and broadcast propaganda to China. The daughter he wanted was born in Denver. But a film of pain obscures these years, in the few letters that survive. In 1945, the family boarded the Queen Mary, still a troopship, for Greenock. On reaching Waterford, he assumed he had little time left. But his mind must have still turned to China. The last letter to be found is not by him. It is a reply from his Cantonese deputy at Lungchow, thanking him for an enquiry that had taken six months to find its way round China in 1946. The letter, in tiny clear handwriting, told my father without fuss the story of what had happened to his different assistants and their children (‘including the daughter who liked to dress as a boy’), during and after the war: penury, escape, hunger, promotion, death. The author, now in charge of the customs in Hainan, ended:

The Chinese people with the potential power of overcoming unbearable difficulties may set their house in order. It is very kind of you to think of us. If the people, especially those in power, of the world understand what is friendship and have in mind the farewell of others as you, an everlasting world peace would not be a dream. I hope I may be able to come over and see you some time in the future when the cost of an air passage will be reduced to an amount I can afford to pay, or at least I can talk with and see you in a television telephone. I have every reason to believe this is not a simple vision.

The letter was sent in December. By the time it got to Ireland, my father was dead.

The Foreign Inspectorate of the Maritime Customs lasted until the PLA entered Canton in October 1949. Its final service fitted the American postscript. Well beforehand, on orders from Chiang Kaishek who did not trust his own navy, Little loaded up two hundred tons of gold and silver in Customs cruisers – the entire bullion reserve of China – and shipped them off to Taiwan, to await the arrival of the Generalissimo.