Huge thanks to the Bookworm Literary Festival, the Shanghai International Literary Festival, the British Council, the Royal Asiatic Society and all my moderators and volunteers for amazing hospitality. Read about my March tour of China and Hong Kong at http://destinationchongqing.blogspot.com.
Seventy years ago today, January 8, 1944, the Chaplain to the British Embassy in China's war capital married Max and Audrey in a simple ceremony attended by sixteen guests. It was barely two months since they had first met at a tea party hosted by Mme Chiang Kai-shek. There isn't a single photo of my parents' wedding, but a copy of the invitation survives - typewritten on flimsy paper.
Audrey wore her 'utility suit, old clod-hoppers, no hat, gloves or smart bag'. But champagne flowed at the reception that followed and Audrey and Max were toasted by a cosmopolitan crowd that included General Carton de Wiart, Churchill's personal envoy to Chiang Kai-shek, an array of Allied diplomats and journalists, and Chinese Generals and Admirals. The AP sent out a cable announcing that 'the first British service romance in wartime Chungking culminated with the wedding today of Wing Commander Max Oxford, RAF Assistant Air Attache, and Miss Audrey Watson, who flew from England last year to join the British Embassy.'
The date of Pearl Harbor - December 7, 1941 - is etched into collective memory in America. It is less widely remembered that the Japanese had other targets in their sights on that day of infamy. Within hours of the devastating bombing of the US fleet in Hawaii, Japan attacked targets in the Philippines, Malaya - and Hong Kong. The British colony on the edge of China awoke on the morning of December 8 (across the date line from Hawaii) to the sound of Japanese planes bombing Kai Tak airport. The aerial attack was quickly followed by a ground invasion across Hong Kong's border with mainland China.
My father, Max Oxford, was an air intelligence officer working out of Hong Kong's emergency battle headquarters - a rabbit's warren of underground bunkers known as the Battle Box. 'Of course it was hopeless from the start', he wrote of the battle which Hong Kong fought with determination, but no hope of reinforcements from Britain or its allies. Thousands of civilians and soldiers perished but the colony held out until Christmas Day, when the Governor Mark Young accepted his commander's advice that 'no further military resistance was possible' and surrendered to the Japanese invaders.
I've always been intrigued by this photo from my father's collection. He filed it under 'Hong Kong prewar', but it's undated and the friends are unidentified. They were clearly enjoying a good party in the days before the Japanese attack of December 1941. Max is standing on the right, with a cigarette holder and his hand draped on a mystery woman's shoulder. William Langhorne Bond, known as 'Bondy', the American head of CNAC, is fifth from the right, kneeling. Can anyone identify the other figures? Some of the uniforms are American.
My parents first laid eyes on each other 70 years ago today in the most improbable place. They were among a handful of British diplomats invited to tea with the alluring Mme Chiang Kai-shek and her husband, China's leader. The tea party took place at Huangshan, the Chiangs' mountain estate outside Chungking. October 31 was, as it happened, the Generalissimo's birthday. But Max and Audrey would remember the occasion for another reason.
Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution generously hosted a DC party for At Least We Lived on October 23. Forty friends, including Washington journalists, writers and politicos, helped to celebrate the publication over drinks at the gracious Kennedy-Warren building.
When Max and Audrey retired from the colonial service in Malaysia, they settled in Topsham, a picturesque town on the Exe Estuary in Devon. Our family's connection to Topsham now goes back half a century, so the Topsham Museum was the perfect venue for the English launch of At Least We Lived on October 5. Over 50 friends and family gathered on a sunny autumn evening to celebrate its publication.