Tales of con men in Taisho Japan resonate because they betrayed the insecurity that sometimes appears at the heart of expatriate life

“Personally I can see no points whatever in tropical life,” wrote Britain’s first press magnate, Lord Northcliffe, in his account of the round the world cruise that took him to Japan and China in 1921:

The only people I find who like it are (1) Scotsmen, who will go anywhere in the world, make money, and settle down. . . . (2) People who at home would occu-py humble positions, but are able to figure here as Under-Secretar-ies, Members of the Council, and the rest of it. (The social status in these little communities is steam-rollered down to exact accuracy). (3) People, including missionaries, who come with a sense of duty. . . . (4) Suburban folks, who, instead of having one little household drudge, bloom into petty magnificence begotten of the obsequiousness of four or five Orientals.

When Northcliffe died in August 1923, he was convinced that German spies were poisoning his ice cream, so he may not have been right on the money, but his further reflection, “Now and then I get a peep into a bungalow and see a white lady within . . . clothed in her bedraggled dressing gown” could have come straight from Somerset Maugham’s vinegary pen.

Despite the enormous success of their trading houses, the lasting achievements of their engineers, builders and many writers and the enquiring spirit of their newspapers, the association of the foreign communities of East Asia with boredom, jumped-up mediocrity and, above all, with failure, has gathered the force of truism.

Few interwar writers stayed long enough in Asia to write in any depth about the foreign communities there. Compared to Kipling and Conrad before him, or in his day, Maurice Collis and (with gritted teeth) George Orwell and Forster, Maugham was only an occasional visitor East of Suez. But both the drifters and the pillars of the foreign communities of East Asia come out worse in his writings than in any of his contemporaries’.

Either the degeneracy of the unsettled rebukes the prosperity of the settled community, or the pillars of the community are shown as heartless frauds. In The Taipan, after a slap-up lunch at his bank, Maugham’s prosperous executive of Shanghai, once a callow “griffin” fresh from the London suburbs, experiences a hallucinatory reckoning with the ghosts of old Shanghailanders in the English cemetery. In A Friend in Need, Maugham’s cheerfully ruth

Lord Northcliffe looks on

less merchant of Kobe, Edward Hyde Burton, offers a job to an old bridge partner fallen on hard times, on condition he completes a “rather difficult” threemile swim from the Shioya Club to the creek at Tarumi. When his old associate drowns, Burton explains, “Well, I hadn’t got a vacancy in my office at the moment.”

Both stories, first published in 1925, reflect an ambivalence about the true value of expatriate status. Who really wants to be a big fish in a small pond? Maugham’s phenomenal sales figures among the Anglophone settlers in East Asia indicate that, however viciously he twisted the knife, his readers bought into this ambivalence, and may have even enjoyed reading about their inner guppy.

By the turn of the century, the settled communities of Yokohama and Kobe had established a tight pecking order headed by merchants, minor Treaty Port consuls, clergy and schoolteachers, with a flotsam of resting actors, abortionists, counterfeiters, beachcombers, and elopers. Journalists and whores seem to have occupied a more ambiguous space, swanning around the higher reaches but feeding at the bottom according to necessity.

Between the two groups the one established, the other transient esprit de corps required that a deep insularity be maintained towards all new arrivals, especially those with a positive impression of their new home, who would be treated with the utmost suspicion until they saw the light.

MOST MINOR FOREIGN CROOKS preferred to put the bite on the Japanese, but some, like Leonard Hartman, “Manager of British Lion Films of Elstree,” over in Kobe to “investigate conditions,” mixed up a blend of hard-luck and prejudice bound to touch the heart of even the flintiest expatriate.

Hartman’s line was that he had just arrived in Kobe (or Yokohama or Nagasaki or Hakodate) when he met a “well-dressed” Japanese who drugged him and made off with $600 Canadian and a diamond ring. On the strength of this tale of “Oriental duplicity,” Hartman managed to renew his fortunes several times over before he was seen onto the next ship to Shanghai. In the summer of 1918, the Count de Toulouse Lautrec de Savine, a Russian General once in the suite of H.R.H. Arthur the Duke of Connaught dropped into Kobe to offer his services as a lecturer on Russian affairs. The Count flourished letters of credit practicable in America and Madrid, backed by a friendly note from the Equerry to the Duke of Connaught but, perhaps because they lacked the imprimatur of, say, British Lion Films, the Count’s bona fides failed to impress, and he and his lecture series left suddenly, also for Shanghai.

But Hartman and the Count were small time. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of their adventures was the amount of space the English-language newspapers gave them.

For a more significant impostor, and one whose motives were far more opaque and whose imposture aroused what now reads like a surplus hostility in the foreign community, let us turn to the sometime Captain William Howard Hardy (1836-1918).

Between July 1853 and March 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry led two naval expeditions to Japan, ending her isolation and securing the Kanagawa Treaty. Perry died within a few years of his final expedition and so was not in a position to appreciate the return to Japan of a “former crewmember, one William Hardy, now a regular Captain.”

When Hardy visited Japan in 1917, it was as the last surviving link with the Perry Expeditions, and he was wined and speeched and honored by everyone from the Emperor down, as if to make up for any shortcomings in the greeting given him and his commanding officer 64 years earlier. Described by the Japan Chronicle as “a tall, patriarchal figure with a long white beard, clad incongruously as a sailor with bell-bottomed trousers and looking for all the world like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner,” Captain Hardy impressed all who met him with his USS Mississippi sailor’s cap, his tales of derring-do and the eight pieces of surgeon’s silver replacing the ribs he had lost in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. When Hardy was taken to the beach at Kurigahama where the Expedition had landed back on July 14, 1853, the clarity of his recollections was a marvel and a blessing to witness.

Hardy put a gun to his head, but the bullet only punctured his starboard ear.

Not long after he had returned to his native Seattle, Captain Hardy applied for membership of the Veterans Association there. The club secretary duly sent off to the Naval Department in Washington for a copy of his service record. After a reply came stating that the Department had no service record for a William Hardy, he was arrested and charged with misrepresentation.

In Japan, there were red faces among Hardy’s sponsors at the American consulate. Back in Seattle, Hardy put a gun to his head, but the bullet only punctured his starboard ear.

After his botched suicide attempt, little more was heard of Hardy.Captain Hardy’s failed deception belongs somewhere between grandiose delu-sion and second-rate fiction. In a novel his character would have hampered the suspension of disbelief. In life, the community that granted him credibility felt badly let down by his failure to bring authenticity and value to their lives.

Michael Heyward once wrote, in the context of the Ern Malley affair, “A good hoax is like a snapshot of the Zeitgeist.” For a few months in 1917, a crowd of people who should have known better bought into William Hardy’s fantasy about his part in the expedition that changed Japan forever. When his story fell apart, they were left to contemplate their own gullibility, and many were deeply unhappy.

Their reaction demonstrated a fundamental lack of assurance, which is odd, because, although they were ultimately powerless, the position of the foreign communities in pre-war Japan and China was ultimately stronger than that of Britain’s far more domineering minorities in Malaya and India, for it rested more on individual achievement than on imperial diktat.

Whatever Maugham wrote or Northcliffe thought, the foreign settler communities of their day were no worse and no less successful than people anywhere. But in letting Captain Hardy get under their skin, the foreign communities of Japan betrayed the insecurity that sometimes appears at the heart of expatriate life in Japan. Perhaps the mediocrity driving the Captain’s claim to a walk-on part in their own early history irritated the foreign community so violently because it sounded such a strong echo of their own.

Peter O’Connor writes and lectures on the international media history of East Asia.