Historical Fiction

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Whitworth, Phoebe . (1969). View from the Peak. An Autobiography by Phoebe Whitworth, rpt. Cambridge, privately published by Timothy Whitworth, 2000.

Phoebe Whitworth’s 1996 autobiography dates back to her childhood years in early twentieth-century Hong Kong as the daughter of the colonial governor, Francis Henry May. May was a seasoned cadet of the colonial service who after terms as police superintendent, colonial secretary and acting governor, eventually ruled as governor of Hong Kong from 1912-1919. The memoir is a rare unofficial record of colonial life in the early twentieth century.

At the pinnacle of colonial society, the Mays’ natural habitat was the Peak (or Victoria Peak) area in Hong Kong. The memoir, as its title indicates, represents the view of someone who enjoyed the full privilege of her colonial position. It offers interesting  vignettes of what such privilege entails on a day-to-day basis. First of all, there is the view itself: ‘To have been brought up on the side of a mountain overlooking such a harbour and within sight of such a range of hills must be one of the assets we cannot weigh in our after life.’ Now, a century later, many Hong Kong citizens may be able to look down from the Peak, but Whitworth’s view of nature unspoiled has gone forever.  What has also largely disappeared is the constant attendance of loyal retainers. To Whitworth, nurses, amahs, and a panoply of domestic servants were normal to her life, almost as natural as the landscape itself. So too were teas, picnics, fetes and dinner parties, summers in Ireland and England, and holiday trips to empire’s other far-flung dominions. These effects of colonial privilege fill the pages of her memoirs just as colonialism as a reality is completely invisible from it. Only one local Chinese subject, the baby amah, Ah Soo, receives narrative attention. She becomes recognizable as a type of the loyal ‘native’ who plays out her allocated role as a secondary source of nurture in Phoebe’s childhood idyll.  The memoir is animated by fond memories of Ah Soo which offers some relief from her orientalized typicality.

Apart from vignettes of colonial life at the top, there is a very interesting moment in the narrative when Phoebe, on an outing away from her home patch, meets with some ‘native’ children from a village. She is unsettled by their staring, and averts her eyes because ‘[t]hey  were so dirty’ that she ‘did not like looking at them.’ She seeks conscious and unconscious refuge by directing her immediate attention to a banyan tree spreading ‘thick branches to give shade where everything else was hot and dusty.’ Turning from culture to nature, the child Whitworth’s view and that of  the more recent and belated memoir coincide -   despite their actual separation for more than half a century. In this view, colonial  Hong Kong is   transfixed as an island of tropical enchantment where the threat of the other’s returning gaze need not be countenanced.  (EH)

 
 
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