“Searching for Billie: A Journalist’s Quest to Understand His Mother’s Past Leads Him to Discover a Vanished China” by Ian Gill

Billie

In 1975, journalist Ian Gill met up with his mother Billie in Hong Kong. He flew in from his home in New Zealand while she came from her home in Geneva. They hadn’t seen each other in a few years and Ian thought it would be just a chance to catch up with his mother. He had never visited Hong Kong and Billie hadn’t been back since World War II. Instead of a quiet holiday, Billie started introducing Ian to her old friends, friends she had known during the War. Ian knew very little about his mother’s years in China and Hong Kong, and what he began learning on that trip started to seem worthy of a book. And, as he would find, Billie and the people she knew in Shanghai and Hong Kong have already been the subject of a number of books. Now almost fifty years after that initial introduction to his mother’s past, Gill has published a family memoir, Searching for Billie: A Journalist’s Quest to Understand His Mother’s Past Leads Him to Discover a Vanished China. It’s a fascinating look at his mother’s early years in Shanghai and Hong Kong, but it’s also a who’s who in Chinese and Hong Kong history.

Billie’s father, Frank Newman, helped start the Chinese postal system during the late-Qing era and met his wife—whom he named Mei-lan after his mother—in Chengdu when he was sent there to open a post office. The chapters about China’s postal system are fascinating. The Post Office started out as part of the customs department, but eventually branched out into its own department. Both foreign and Chinese were employed in the postal system, but most of the people entrusted to open new branches were usually foreigners.

 

Searching for Billie: A journalist’s quest to understand his mother’s past leads him to discover a vanished China, Ian Gill (Blacksmith, April 2024)
Searching for Billie: A journalist’s quest to understand his mother’s past leads him to discover a vanished China, Ian Gill (Blacksmith, April 2024)

Billie herself doesn’t appear for the first one hundred pages and when she finally shows up, it’s 1916 and someone knocks at her parents’ door in Changsha holding a 40-day-old baby girl. Mei-lan takes in the baby and Frank also happily accepts another child into their family. They already have biological and adopted children and in no time it seems as if the new baby, whom they name Marylou, has lived with them all along. (She will be called Billie later on.) Frank takes a particular interest in Marylou’s education, and after the turmoil of the end of the Qing and the beginning of the Republican years, Frank settles his family in Shanghai where he enrolls Marylou in the English-speaking Shanghai Public School for Girls.

In 1927, Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists take over the administration of the Post Office and fire many of the foreigners. After three decades, Frank loses his job. The family falls apart and Marylou must stop going to school, a year before she’s supposed to graduate. Marylou finds a clerical job at a new magazine in Shanghai, T’ien Hsia.

 

It was to be a cultural magazine, written by Chinese and western scholars in a pioneering venture. While all the editors were Chinese, the content would be in English and the readership would be international. It all sounded exciting, and importantly, the financing seemed assured. Although he rarely appeared, the publisher was Sun Fo, the son of Sun Yat-sen, representing the Sun Yat-sen Institute for the Advancement of Culture and Learning.

 

At T’ien Hsia, Marylou works alongside Lin Yutang, Sinmay Zau and Emily Hahn, the latter of whom would become a close friend for decades. When a broadcaster is unable to deliver a press conference on the radio in 1937 as the battle of Shanghai began, Marylou is called in as a substitute. She needs to protect her identity as the Japanese military listens in, so she chooses the name Billie after the American actress Billie Dove.

In late 1937, the T’ien Hsia staff moves to Hong Kong and sets up office in the stately Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building in Central. As the T’ien Hsia office manager in Hong Kong, Billie meets Edgar Snow, Agnes Smedley, Martha Gelhorn, and Ernest Hemingway. Billie is only twenty-one when she arrives in Hong Kong and makes other friends in places where single women are accepted.

 

The Hong Kong International Women’s Club in nearby Gloucester Building was started by a Eurasian woman to provide tiffin and tea for lowly-paid Eurasian and Portuguese secretaries at more affordable prices than the restaurants in Central District. By the time Billie arrived, the club was open to office girls of all nationalities, and it had 500 members with an average lunch attendance of 50-60. Left-wing English socialites, like Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, wife of the Director of Medical Services, or Elsie Fairfax-Cholmondeley, a squire’s daughter turned socialist, sometimes made appearances to lend solidarity.

 

With her friends, she spends weekends on the beaches of Shek O and Repulse Bay and soon meets a soldier named Paddy Gill. They end up marrying and having a son named Brian. But as becomes a pattern in Billie’s life, the men she’s romantically involved with do not stick around, Paddy the first of them.

 

Gill weaves into Billie’s story fascinating parts of Hong Kong history. When the Japanese intern Hong Kong residents after taking the city in December 1941, British citizen Billie is among the prisoners of war. At first the POWs don’t know where they will be interned.

 

While the POWs were cooped up, the Japanese and British debated where to accommodate them. The Chief Justice, Sir Atholl MacGregor, requested that they be kept on the Peak but the Japanese were insulted by the idea of captives looking down on them. Dr. Selwyn-Clarke, who was respected by the Japanese, recommended Stanley, a peninsula on the southeastern tip of the island. Its open spaces and fresh air, he argued, would help prevent diphtheria and typhoid. The Japanese, who feared epidemics, agreed.

 

At the Stanley camp, Billie suffers from malnutrition and worries about keeping Brian healthy. Gill writes of an enchanting interaction between Billie and Morris “Two Gun” Cohen, a former bodyguard of Sun Yat-sen and the subject of a number of books. When Cohen learns that Billie would like nothing more than to enjoy a slice of pineapple, he sells the shirt off his back to make this dream come true.

Tragedy strikes Billie in Stanley, but it’s also a time when she becomes involved with her next romantic interest—and the author’s birth father—a journalist named George Giffen, who would go on to restart the South China Morning Post after the war.

After the war, Billie moves to New Zealand for a short while before trying England, where she lives with Emily Hahn and her husband, Charles Boxer. Billie ends up working for the United Nations in Geneva for decades. At the end of the book, Gill and Billie visit Shanghai together in 1993, the first time Billie has been back since she left in 1937. Together, they search for the places where Billie lived and worked as a child and in her early adult years. A decade later, Billie would pass away from a stroke at the age of eighty-nine.

Gill’s book is a lovely tribute to his mother and her side of the family. It’s also a nice addition to existing literature set in Shanghai and Hong Kong before and during the war years. Although Billie is no longer here to read the book, she helped shape it as she introduced Gill to Hong Kong and Shanghai all those decades ago.


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.