In May 1955 Twentieth Century Fox released the film ‘Soldier of Fortune’ starring Clark Gable and Susan Hayward based on a novel by Ernest K. Gann. Hayward is an American woman in Hong Kong searching for her photo-journalist husband who disappeared after illegally entering China. She enlists the help of a wealthy businessman played by Gable who has made his fortune from smuggling between Hong Kong, Macau and China. Gable rescues the husband who has conveniently fallen out of love with Hayward, leaving the field open for him. Filmed on location in Cinemascope ‘Soldier of Fortune’ is a fascinating record of how Hong Kong looked in the 1950’s and the expatriate community of that period.
Gann was a commercial pilot, sailor and popular author whose most famous aviation related novels include The High & The Mighty and Island in the Sky both made into films starring John Wayne. In Soldier of Fortune part of the action takes place in the Peninsula Hotel lobby and a fictional bar called Tweedies. These locations serve as backdrops for the author to introduce a group of comic characters representing the deadbeats and down at heel of the time. Gann had done extensive research in Hong Kong and based Tweedies on the real life Gingle’s restaurant located at 70 Nathan Road. The owner Francis Edward Gingles was a retired U.S. Navy Chief Commissary Steward who ran bars in Hong Kong before the war, was interned by the Japanese and then resumed business until his death in 1960. Gingles was a larger than life character well known throughout the colony. It was said he could drink a case of beer before breakfast and frequently did.
It is not known if Gable made the short walk to Gingles but he did spend most of his time drinking with John ‘Jock’ Inglis a long time resident of the Peninsula who occupied lobby table 44 as his personal office. The film producer had to ban Gable from Jock’s table until shooting was finished for the day. Gable is also remembered at the hotel for teaching a young and confused Chinese bartender how to mix a screwdriver cocktail.
In his memoirs Gann wrote of first meeting Gingles –‘Surely I whispered to myself – Sydney Greenstreet in the flesh !’. Greenstreet was a British-American actor who started acting in films at the age of 61 and is best remembered for his Warner Brothers roles opposite Humphrey Bogart notably in ‘Casablanca’.
Gingles (Source: Life Magazine)
The fictional Tweedie’s was a large bar and restaurant with overhead fans, tiled floor, chequered table cloths and light wicker chairs chosen to minimise injury if a fight erupted. Before the war his clientele were sailors but Tweedie aspired to manage a gentleman’s place and preferred to attract pilots, their wives and other American expatriates. The one type of customer he could not abide were unescorted women:
‘a woman alone is trouble, and two of them alone are twice as much trouble, and three of them alone can start a riot with a smile.’.
Regular drinkers included Marty Gates, an alcoholic, ex pilot scraping by as a part time pimp or taking a cut from gold smuggling deals and cross border cash remittances, Major Leith-Phipps a bogus English major and defrocked Methodist minister and the White Russian Madame Dupree, down on her luck former mistress of a Chinese nationalist general. Tweedie himself held court from a private table with his ageing hangers on, errand boys and bouncers who relied on him for food and lodging; Gunner a former ships engineer who; ‘considered himself an old China hand although he had never been farther into China than the port of Hong Kong.’, Big Matt, a former marine guard at the American legation in Peking who : ‘drank beer all day long and most of the night’ and the illiterate Icky ‘a small, gnarled monkey of a man’ with a full rigged ship tattooed on his chest.
In November 1959 another famous author landed in Hong Kong looking for inspiration and local colour. Goldfinger had been released earlier in the year and Ian Fleming was commissioned by the Sunday Times, to travel the globe, all expenses paid, reporting on thirteen thrilling cities in the style of James Bond. Much of the material he gathered would be incorporated into his later Bond novels including You Only Live Twice. On his first evening Fleming went out on the town with Dick Hughes, an old friend and Far Eastern correspondent of the Sunday Times:
Conder’s bar was at 22A Queen’s Road Central behind the old Shell House now re-built as Central Tower. It was entered through double swinging doors in an alley just off Wyndham St. The downstairs bar was a dark wood, smoky den decorated with horse brasses, toby jugs, hunting prints and regimental plaques solidly determined to provide an English pub atmosphere in the Far East. Beer served on tin trays in dimpled mugs or pub spirits were preferred and the bar boasted the largest liquor selection in Hong Kong – ‘If it’s in a bottle we have it’. Male conversation and pub games like darts, cribbage, shove ha-penny, liar dice and chequers were on offer undisturbed by any jukebox belting out the latest hits. Jukeboxes and unescorted ladies were more likely to be found in Wanchai where Hughes and Fleming ventured later. Upstairs at Conders bar was a dining room where ladies were welcome serving steaks, chops, grills and seafood – a similar menu to the nearby Jimmy’s Kitchen at a fraction of the price. Hemingway himself would have been at home but his literary types were bullfighters, boxers, deep sea fishermen, gangsters and gunmen. Jack held court with an equally diverse mix of characters including lawyers, journalists, diplomats, foreign correspondents, Taipans, old China hands and sailors from the visiting navies.
On November 5th 1955 Conders bar hosted the first gathering of an informal drinking and dining club calling themselves ‘Alcoholics Synonymous’. They included Jack’s great friend Dick Hughes, the bon vivant and master of the long lunch who was to inspire the literary characters of Dikko Henderson in ‘You Only Live Twice’ and Old Craw in John Le Carre’s ‘The Honorable Schoolboy’. This Saturday lunchtime crowd had always played dice to decide who paid the drinks tab but the club chose a fairer system of taking turns to foot the bill. Meetings later adjourned to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club where guests including the veteran journalist and world traveller Alan Whicker were always welcome. According to the BBC correspondent Anthony Lawrence there was no initiation ceremony and Fleming had been a victim of gentle leg pulling by the regulars when he dropped in.
Jack was enough of a local celebrity to be interviewed in April 1968 by the well spoken presenter Dorothy Barnes on the Radio Television Hong Kong programme -‘Time to Remember’. Linked by musical selections including ‘Beer, beer, glorious beer !’, ‘Moonlight and Roses’ and the Great Escape theme Jack gave a modest, gentlemanly account of his upbringing and adventurous life. At ease with his drinking companions, the stories became more colourful and Dick Hughes included a chapter on Jack – ‘Escape from Shanghai’ in his book – ‘Foreign Devil, Thirty Years of Reporting in the Far East’.
John Cecil Conder was born in 1907, the youngest of 13 children and grew up in the Wallasey area of Liverpool. In 1925 he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps to relieve the financial burden on his widowed mother and whilst serving at Catterick camp was ordered to Shanghai.
Shanghai at the time comprised the International Settlement governed by the Shanghai Municipal Council, the French Concession and the Chinese city. Unlike colonies such as Hong Kong and Macau ceded in perpetuity, the foreign concessions in China remained under nominal Chinese sovereignty. In 1927 the Shanghai Defence Force was established to protect British lives and property from the instability in China caused by Chiang Kai Shek’s northern expedition against the warlords.
On the 28th January 1927 Jack embarked with the 2nd battalion Coldstream Guards for the 28 days sail to Hong Kong. The ship passed through various Empire ports and days were occupied with deck sports, choir practice and boxing matches in which Jack at 5ft10in and 160lbs was volunteered as a fighter. Landing in Hong Kong the troops were billeted in the Peninsula Hotel then still under construction before transit to Shanghai. Daily Morning drill was carried out on Nathan Road and when the military eventually moved out the flooring and bathtubs had to be replaced because of damage from their boots and the storage of rifles and bayonets.
THE PARADISE OF ADVENTURERS
The Shanghai Defence Force was deployed to guard the boundaries of the International Settlement but as tensions eased the twelve battalions were gradually withdrawn at the end of 1927. In October 1928 with his three years enlistment period ending, Jack and several army colleagues decided to stay and join the Shanghai Municipal Police. The Shanghai Municipal Police founded in 1854 was a British run multi-ethnic force in which a foreign minority supervised a majority of Chinese and Sikh officers. After training at the Gordon Road depot Jack began shift work as a Constable on the beat. As Robert Bickers notes in his ‘Empire Made Me – An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai’ Jack and his fellow recruits soon realised they were at the bottom of the Shanghailander’s social hierarchy in one of the world’s most dynamic, thrilling and expensive cities. Low pay and poor barracks accommodation caused a regular turnover requiring constant recruitment drives from the military or UK police forces.
A typical report from 1935 on E.W. Peters, a 1929 recruit, read:
‘Not good at Chinese. Inclined to heavy beer drinking. Usual ex-soldier type – not too reliable but not a bad officer under supervision.’
In 1936 Peters faced a murder charge for allegedly helping another officer remove a beggar from the streets by throwing him in a creek. The beggar was fished out by Chinese boatmen but died later of pneumonia. In spite of strong evidence both were acquitted by the jury and compulsorily resigned from the force. Peters returned home and wrote the book ‘Shanghai Policeman’, part autobiography and part self defence. During the war he worked in a London factory and from 1949-1970 managed a sea front pub, The King Lear, in his home town of Dover.
By the 1920s Shanghai was a dangerous city to police with armed robberies and kidnappings almost a daily occurrence. The year Jack was recruited the SMP was involved in 117 ‘shooting affrays’ with nine police officers killed and 11 wounded. Many of the armed robbers operating in the International Settlement were ex-soldiers and their weapon of choice was the easy to conceal, semi-automatic Mauser C96 pistol nicknamed the ‘box cannon’ in Chinese. They fired the most powerful pistol bullet in Shanghai requiring the SMP to develop bullet-proof shields and heavy duty protective vests. The SMP Reserve Unit had started carrying Thompson sub machine guns in 1925 and Ted Quigley, a 1938 recruit, recalled in training they learned the first two organized units in the world to be armed with tommy guns were the SMP and Al Capones’s Chicago mob. The Shanghai Municipal Council arranged an exchange programme with five officers from the Chicago police for six months but after one month the Chicago police men requested to go home. When a police station received news of a robbery the station alarm bell rang and any off duty officers who responded were eligible for extra pay. Jack recalled racing to Swatow Road in a model T Ford squad car with Colt 45 drawn and in the excitement almost mistaking his Inspector for a robber.
SMP with Colt automatic pistols (Source: Reddit forgotten weapons)
Off duty Jack was in demand at the fashionable Astor House Hotel tea dances teaching Chinese girls the foxtrot and waltz whilst practicing his Shanghainese. The Paul Whiteman Orchestra played romantic dance tunes of the period against the backdrop of a peacock shell structure which constantly changed colour. The entry price of one Mexican dollar included sandwiches and cream cakes between 5pm and 7pm. A popular late nightspot was the Black Cat cabaret and café featuring Chinese dance hostesses and a jazz band called ‘Felix and the Meows’. After a night of partying Jack was having breakfast when the Black Cat staff asked for his help with a drunken guest who had concealed an expensive ashtray in his jacket. The would be thief revealed himself as the Crown Prince of Sweden. After negotiation he was encouraged by Jack to pay for this addition to the souvenirs collected on his world tour.
Black Cat Cabaret (Source: Shanghaisojourns) Schiff cartoon (Source: Maskee A Shanghai Sketchbook)
During his police service Jack married an English woman – Susan Grace Burgess who gave birth to a son George Cecil in 1929 and a daughter Margaret Joan in 1932. After three years on the beat Jack resigned from the force for a better paid job with the Shanghai Gas company. Eight years later he went to work as a warehouseman for Butterfield & Swire whose solid red brick office was located on the French Bund or ‘Quai de France’. During the 1930s the international situation deteriorated with the Japanese invading and occupying the Chinese administered areas outside the foreign concessions. On 10th August 1940 due to the war situation at home regular British troops were withdrawn from Shanghai. War was imminent and on 8th December 1941 Japanese soldiers marched in unopposed and their cruiser Izumo sank the British navy gunboat HMS Peterel moored in the harbour within sight of Butterfield & Swire. Rounded up as an enemy alien Jack was not interned straight away but forced to continue working at Butterfield & Swire as the Japanese transferred the company’s ships to their own NYK line. On 15th March 1943 he was arrested and imprisoned with his family in the Longhua civilian internment camp with around 2000 other detainees. At the same time British officers of the Shanghai Municipal Police were relieved of their duties and also interned.
The Longhua detainees were fortunate to have a relatively humane camp commandant. Tomohiko Hayashi was a member of the diplomatic corps who had spent four years in London, and himself been interned on the Isle of Man before repatriation in a prisoner exchange between the two countries.
Jack was determined to escape because of ‘domestic friction’ as he explained to his RTHK interviewer but didn’t elaborate. He became even more determined after the commandant refused his request for transfer to another camp. Years later one of Jack’s masonic brothers discovered that he left a letter for the commandant to find after escape. The fact that Jack’s wife and family returned to England after the war confirms their marriage had broken down but the letter also explained his behaviour lessening the chance of any retribution on them. Jack must have established at best a cordial but deferential relationship with the commandant. After the war Hayashi, then serving as Consul-General in Winnipeg received a note from Jack apologising for his sudden departure from the camp and from then they exchanged Christmas cards each year. With assistance from Tokyo University a copy of the letter from Jack to the commandant was found by Brian Coak an ex-Hong Kong civil servant who was a good friend and masonic brother:
The three miles long perimeter of Longhua camp was surrounded by a high wire fence, guard posts and arc lights. Jack noticed the guards sometimes forgot to turn on the floodlights and on a moonless night he made his move. Clutching an attache case containing spare clothes, needle and thread, a multi-purpose tool and malaria tablets but no food he crawled across camp to the barbed wire fence.
After removing some of the fence staples and barbed wire strands he burrowed under the fence, replaced the wire and headed off into the night. Jack’s plan was to head south west avoiding Japanese patrols confident that in the vast countryside of China he would run into anti-Japanese guerrillas. After 13 days sleeping rough, living on foraged sweet potatoes or whatever he could buy and steal Jack was picked up by a guerrilla band near the town of Jiaxing in Zhejiang province. After four months recovering from malaria and getting to know the local Nationalist General he was assigned an escort for the next stage of his journey. Heading westwards they were forced to zig zag and backtrack across country to avoid Japanese patrols but eventually reached Kweilin on 21st April 1944.
Along the way Jack hid from Japanese soldiers in a Chinese tomb, a pig sty and also spent ten days at the luxurious home of Chinese movie star Butterfly Wu sleeping in her bed. Miss Wu had already fled from the Japanese but he was able to express his thanks many years later when she was retired and living in Hong Kong. Jack reported to the British Army Aid Group (BAAG) in Kweilin commanded by Colonel Lindsay Ride who had himself escaped from captivity in Hong Kong.
THE FRAGRANT HARBOUR
After interrogation to confirm his account of traversing 1000 miles over enemy occupied territory, Jack was appointed a Captain and sent to India for parachute training. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the war to a sudden end and he headed to Hong Kong deciding to stay rather than resume his life in Shanghai. Desperate for a job he was hired as manager of the Red Lion inn on Kowloon side just a short walk from Gingles and sharing the same army and navy customers. Jack later became licensee of Victor’s bar at 22A Queen’s Road Central and by 1956 had changed the name to Conder’s. In 1957 he went home to UK for the first time since 1927 visiting his elderly mother, extended family and making side trips to the Carlsberg brewery in Denmark and the Guinness brewery in Dublin.
By the early 1960’s he had moved again, opening Conder’s bowling centre and bar on land leased from the Kowloon Canton Railway at Luen Wan Rd. near the corner of Argyle St. in Mongkok. The décor was the same as in Central including the stuffed alligator suspended over the bar with a replica of a human foot protruding gruesomely from its jaws. Conders bar in the new location became a popular watering hole for travellers to and from the old Kai Tak airport together with government officers from the North Kowloon magistracy. In those days office hours usually included a non-productive Saturday morning and a thirsty impatience developed as noon approached. Business was good and Jack could afford to live at nearby Braga Circuit, Kadoorie Hill together with his Chinese partner and a large wooden teak bar.
On 14th June 1976 the man who Dick Hughes called ‘The best known foreign-devil barkeep in the Far East’ passed away and his funeral service was held at the Union church on Kennedy Rd. opposite Zetland Hall, the home of freemasonry in Hong Kong.
Thanks to Ian Fleming, jovial Jack’s bar is remembered and the image he described is recognisable to anyone who has lived in Hong Kong. The mock English pub was a common hangout for expats in the Far East until at least the 1990s when they were steadily replaced with lounges or generic Irish bars. Wanchai had the Old China Hand, the Horse & Groom and the Bell Inn whilst at one time a Mad Dogs was located close to the original Conder’s bar. On Kowloon side Ned Kelly’s Last Stand has been holding out since 1972 as the oldest pub in Hong Kong offering Dixieland jazz and run by an ex British army Sergeant-Major. Dick Hughes a jazz enthusiast was a regular drinker who would occasionally be invited on stage. Hong Kong rents however continue to sky rocket and drinking tastes have changed making it unlikely for characters like Gingles or Conder to run bars today.
Empire Made Me (2003) – Robert Bickers
Thrilling Cities (1963) – Ian Fleming
Soldier of Fortune (1955) – Ernest K Gann
Foreign Devils, Thirty Years of Reporting in the Far East (1972) – Dick Hughes
Hong Kong Kill (1958) – Bryan Peters
A Spirit of Adventure (1994) – Ted Quigley
The Correspondent Magazine – Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club
RTHK ‘Time to Remember’- April 1968
Jack Conder (Source: State Library of Western Australia)