The Essay: Secrets and lies

Dad was a spy, Mum was brought up in Shanghai by her prostitute sisters. Or maybe not. Film-maker Don Boyd travelled the world to uncover the strange truth about his family
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Indy Lifestyle Online
For 30 years I have dined out on two vivid childhood memories. The first relates to an event that took place on the Peak in Hong Kong in 1952 when I was four years old. Early one morning, I was woken up by my brother Ian. He was unusually keen to get me out of my bed and was whimpering anxiously. His brand new red toy boat was floating on a lake of water that had accumulated outside our bedroom window. It was not just pouring with rain, we were in the middle of a monsoon downpour.

We walked across the parquet-floor of my parents' luxury flat on the Poshan Road towards their bedroom. Beautiful blackwood furniture, fresh orchids and Chinese objets d'art complemented its cool pastel sophistication. We knocked on their bedroom door but were swiftly ordered back to bed. We had disturbed a couple of massive hangovers: my parents lived a permanent cocktail party. My brother persisted. "Boatie!", he cried. He was all of two years old. "Ian's Boatie!", I meekly repeated. My father appeared at the door in his silk dressing gown and escorted us angrily back to our bedroom.

Within a minute of seeing what my brother had so instinctively realised was a threat, however, the Boyd family were running for their lives, dressed only in nightclothes, down a steep hill in torrential rain. Our amah carried Alison, our brand-new baby sister. We reached the nearby police station where we took refuge. Within seconds of us leaving the house, it was destroyed by a landslide - a familiar phenomenon on the Peak. The next day I remember looking at the ruins of Dad's new green Mark Seven Jaguar, which had been crushed to within four inches of the ground. Ian's dawn whimpering had saved us from a similar fate, but we were homeless and, because Dad had not been insured, penniless.

The second event happened only a few months after that traumatic landslide incident and is more surreal. I remember telling my dad that I had seen some hippos walking across the golf course which led down to the shores of Lake Victoria, in front of our pink bougainvillaea-wrapped house in Jinja, Uganda. He told me that I was talking nonsense.

Throughout my weird nomadic childhood, my parents, Donald and Luba, provided me with a series of stories about their lives which have contributed to what has become, for my family, a soap opera of epic proportions. Last year I was commissioned by the BBC to direct a very personal film which would chronicle my parents' lives and, of course, my own upbringing. This has taken me on an odyssey to Russia, China and Africa. The extent to which I have embellished their stories over the years with my own romantic, and mischievous, imagination has been matched only by the wide disparity between their versions of their lives before they met and fell in love in Shanghai.

I have often toyed with fictionalising the Donald and Luba story. This would have made the blurred facts easier to integrate; it would have made the embellishments simpler to disguise. Where the memory lapsed or the facts were boring, I could have just invented incidents to keep things interesting. But in choosing to make a documentary, I have been forced to arrive at some sort of truth - not least because I am featuring my mother, who is still alive, my immediate family, whose hungry curiosity has created much of the mythology, and my youngest brother, who has seen and heard almost everything I have.

For this investigation into the murky areas of my family's history, I have had a significant watchdog: my 21-year-old daughter Kate is my collaborator. Apart from her talent as a film-maker (she is in her final year at university studying film and television), Kate has been a crucial witness to my genealogical dig. She has pressurised me, sometimes unwittingly, to avoid doctoring the truth for dramatic effect and her reaction to our joint confrontation with the reality of our family's drama has been a vital tool in telling the story accurately.

I had never visited Kiev, where my maternal grandparents were born, nor had I been to Harbin in Manchuria, where my mother was born, nor Shanghai, where my parents were married. I was very young when we lived in Hong Kong and Uganda, and I yearned to make some kind of atavistic attempt to retrace my mother's mysterious journey from Manchuria, through to its tragic denouement in a bedsit in Earl's Court. This would be as much an examination of the complexities of my own make-up as it would be a voyage of discovery about the lives of my parents. It would also be an opportunity to give historical context to two people who had no impact on the "great" events which were going on around them. A rationale, almost, for their existence. A catharsis for me.

Mum was born in 1921, in Harbin, Manchuria, which at the turn of the century was home to the largest expatriate Russian community in the world. Her mother had eloped from Kiev with a young worker on the Trans-Manchurian railway, which Imperial Russia was extending between Irkutsk - my grandfather's home - and the eastern naval port of Vladivostok. Harbin, with its Russian Orthodox onion-dome churches and exotic brothels, was the railway's eastern headquarters during its construction. It then became home for White Russians fleeing from their defeat in the Russian revolution.

Luba (the name means "love" in Russian), was the youngest, by 16 years, of a family of 12. The family was very poor; two children died in infancy, one of polio and another of cancer. The Songhua river, which runs through Harbin, freezes over for four months of the year, and this sub-arctic region of Manchuria is little different from the wastelands of Northern Siberia. My mother's idea of a square meal was a hot potato bought from a street vendor.

When another Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1931, three of my mother's sisters couldn't get out quickly enough. They took her, now aged nine, and a brother, Alex, to Shanghai in the rat-ridden hold of a cargo ship. The other children faded into history, not to be heard of again.

My father, by contrast, was the son of a rich Scottish sailor who piloted the first steamship up the Yangtze river to Shanghai. Donald was born in Scotland in 1915 and brought up in luxury in imperial Shanghai. His parents lived in a magnificent apartment on the Bund and, because my paternal grandfather's maritime skills were so vital to trade in China, the Boyd family had a special status in what was a very rarefied, elitist community. Dad's idea of culinary discomfort was caviare and vodka - he had once eaten too much of it on the Trans-Siberian Express. During the Thirties his social life revolved around the exclusive clubs which proliferated in Shanghai. The most famous, perhaps, was the French Club, which would make the grandest of clubs on Pall Mall look dowdy. An art-deco ballroom, an Olympic-sized pool, polo fields - just the job for a colonialist playboy and his exotic girlfriends. Needless to say, White Russians were personae non gratae in this decadent, privileged society.

I like to think that Donald was probably a spy. While working for the British American Tobacco Company in China during the Thirties, he lived in a variety of Oriental outposts and almost certainly passed on, and dealt in, secret information - executives of vast conglomerates in his position invariably did. Donald certainly led a double life. He claimed to me that he had lived in commercial barracks in Mukden and Sing Tao - squalid, repressed Chinese cities plagued by economic disaster, war and famine. Just par for the course for a humble accountant employed by a tobacco company? When the Second World War broke out, he was immediately made a major in military intelligence for the British Army in India. Intriguingly, shortly before he died, Donald made audio recordings of his life, but had a change of heart and destroyed them before anyone could listen to his story.

My father's version of my mother's story was as fanciful as mine is about him. By his account, her White Russian sisters, like many of their compatriots, began their working life as prostitutes in the nightclubs of Shanghai. Beautiful and alluring, they graduated to become high-class courtesans to rich men within the elite international community there. As soon as they could, they found husbands who could take them away from the ignominious reputations they had acquired in China.

My mother tells a different tale. When she arrived in Shanghai she could only speak Russian. She could neither read nor write. Her sisters were hard-working saints (waitresses, cigarette girls) who put their youngest sister through an expensive education at the Shanghai Public School and arranged for her to live with a series of families so that she could learn the five languages she eventually spoke. They were not prostitutes and, because of their charm and beauty, they were able to marry and leave China.

After filming my mother in Earl's Court, I began to retrace my parents' footsteps. Our first stop was Shanghai, where Kate and I holed up in the art deco magnificence of the Peace Hotel, which seemed an entirely appropriate base for our eccentric attempt to get to the bottom of all these mysteries and contradictions.

Using a pre-war map which showed Shanghai with its English and French street names, Kate and I tried to find the apartment block in Shanghai where my mother had lived with her sisters. At the time, the part of the city resided in by Europeans and Americans had been divided up into autonomous "concessions", run independently of the Chinese authorities. We knew that she had lived on the Avenue Joffre in the French Quarter and had been rickshawed to the Shanghai Public School, in the British section. By process of elimination, and helped by a superb Chinese guide, and some very hazy memories from my mother, we came across a sprawl of apartments which fitted all her descriptions: a clump of terraced three-storey buildings built in dark-red stone on a tree-lined thoroughfare in the French Quarter of Shanghai.

We came through a dark oak door into a hallway cluttered with push-bikes. A labyrinth of corridors led into tiny dormitories attached to even smaller cooking spaces and bathrooms which seemed to serve a dozen families. There were no toilets. We came across one family. The wife, a lawyer, was at work. We were then invited into a small room by a Chinese woman whose beautiful, incandescent smile disguised the fact that she was older than my mother. She proudly showed us her telephone. I told her that my mother had once lived next door. She seemed to empathise with my excitement about being there. The Chinese approve of family sentimentality and everybody wanted to help me find out more about my parents' life in China. She gave us tea and showed us her cheap Western knick-knacks, which she kept in a glass cabinet - glass thimbles, china dogs, silver ashtrays. I gazed out on to a wide courtyard which was filled with what at first looked like celebratory flags, but were in fact poles carrying the laundry of the hundreds of Chinese families who now lived where my mother and her two sisters had, some 70 years before. What this delightful old lady made of me - a middle-aged man with a shock of unkempt white hair, eyes permanently glued to an electronic device, carrying a furry pole in his left hand and babbling excitedly to his tall and very blonde daughter, also training an electronic device on me - I will never know.

This was a bizarre, moving encounter. I couldn't help imagining my mother crying in a room like this when she learnt that her brother Alex had died of cancer. Their father dead, their mother thousands of miles away in Harbin. No more Alex to share her rickshaw ride to school every morning. No more Alex to keep her company at night while her sisters danced with strange men in the nightclub down the road.

Amazingly, there are still nightclubs lining the Avenue Joffre. We tracked down the Casanova Club - another name from my mother's past. And we saw the classrooms where she learnt to speak English. According to the schoolmaster we talked to, nothing has changed there in 75 years. Roaming around its corridors and peering into the rooms, with their rows of wooden desks, I could believe him. Apart from one or two portraits of Chinese heroes on the walls, the school reminded me of the classrooms of my own Scottish boarding school. The Russian Orthodox church Mum visited is now the Shanghai Stock Exchange, but the church she seems to remember most from that era is the Anglican Cathedral, which has now been converted into the legislative meeting room for the provincial government. During the Cultural Revolution it was a cinema. The fantasies and propaganda of Chinese "liberation" cinema were played out in the holy venue of Luba's most poignant post- war memory: her wedding.

By a quirk of fate, Luba met Donald after the Second World War in the offices of BAT, where they were both working in 1947. He had returned from his intelligence duties in Hong Kong, which had included the supervision of war crime executions. She had been surreptitiously smuggling Red Cross parcels and provisions to the inmates of Shanghai's five Japanese-run concentration camps from those same offices. They were married in that Anglican Cathedral in Shanghai in 1947 and sailed to Scotland, where I was born a year later. A telegram from my father's employees, the Chinese subsidiary of BAT, advised the happy couple not to sail back (with me) to Shanghai, but to reroute to Hong Kong. Mao Tse-tung had ousted Chiang Kai-Shek and marched into Peking. British imperialists were no longer welcome. And so their married life on the Peak began with a win on the lottery at the famous Hong Kong Jockey Club and ended with the landslide on Poshan Road which destroyed everything they owned. After many a pink gin and stiff whisky to recover from this setback, they left the Orient for East Africa. Life for Donald and Luba never recovered.

My own upbringing was exotic enough. Post-war Hong Kong; the Ugandan shores of Lake Victoria during the twilight of the British Empire; on to Kenya, after the Mau Mau but before the "winds of change" in Africa led to independence. And then a Scottish boarding school - beatings, cold baths, rugby and the classics. "Spartam nactus es hanc exorna" (You inherit Sparta, live up to it). Before I was 10, I had accompanied my mother and father in the back of another Mark Seven Jaguar across the dust bowl of Roosevelt's America. In 1956, because my father refused to fly - he was claustrophobic - the entire Boyd family processed luxuriously on a British India ship up the east coast of Africa, through the Suez, over the Mediterranean and into the Bay of Biscay before docking in Southampton to begin "home leave". Home leave was the curiously inaccurate phrase applied to holiday time for colonial refugees. But the Boyd family didn't really have a home. We were nomads of the British Empire. Everywhere we pitched our imperial tent, the Union Jack seemed to come hurtling down the flagpoles.

The next serious section of filming took place in Hong Kong, where I had four targets. I had strong memories of that landslide and wanted to hunt down the site of our apartment block, which apparently had been rebuilt. I wanted to visit BAT's factory, where my father had worked. I wanted to pass through the Jockey Club en route to Stanley Harbour, where the men and women who had been killed in the most brutal of Japanese war camps were buried. (It was there that my father had been involved in the execution of Japanese war criminals when he returned from his war in Burma in 1946.) And finally, I wanted to visit the church where my brother Ian, my sister Alison and I had been christened.

I was followed faithfully by Kate to all of these bizarre locations from my family's past. I don't want to ruin the impact of the material she filmed by trying to describe it with a series of clumsy paragraphs. But each of these attempts to define my parents' past reinforced my deeply held conviction that it is the mundane, the ordinary, the unromantic aspects of our lives which truly characterise them. History turns events into grand, epic sagas. Poets and priests elevate our actions with their superlatives and bathos. I had wanted to contribute to this distortion - to reinforce the mythology, increase and heighten the drama. Embellish history.

Kate made that impossible by refusing to let me invent it. I developed a fresh, analytical, almost archaeological approach. When we finally found Poshan Road on the Peak, I had to come to terms with the fact that the landslide had probably swept away every remnant of our apartment block. Our driver, who was old enough to remember, had heard stories about the collapse of a house here. At first I refused to accept that it no longer existed. I lovingly filmed what looked like a replica - it was certainly of the period. The reality is that it was probably a totally different building. Kate laughed as I ran down the hill with my camera, crouching like a child in an attempt to recreate the terrifying experience of our flight during that storm.

When I returned to Uganda later in the year, I went back to the golf course in Jinja where I had seen the hippos. Not only does our house still exist, my father's office at the BAT factory is also preserved. The picnic site which looks over the Owen Falls Dam and the source of the Nile is as seductive as ever. And the Jinja Golf Club stands a symbol of the colonial past. To my delight, the club secretary walked me to the seventh green and showed me one of the local rules, printed on the score sheets they still give to the golfers. There, in black and white, is the course rule which proved that my second childhood memory - however surreal - had been based in truth. If a player's ball lands on a hippo's hoof print, it may be removed and dropped nearby without penalty. I asked whether hippos had indeed wandered across the course at dawn. He assured me that they had.

During my teenage years I naively thought that my upbringing had been normal. My isolated childhood, separated from a consistent circle of friends, regular routine or exposure to any parental input, seemed unremarkable to me because I had no point of comparison. Looking back, I can now understand why I was something of a loner at school. Living the fantasy of colonial luxury had tragic drawbacks for my parents too - you can only drink so many pink gins; one safari becomes very much like another; if you are passed over for promotion, as my father was, flogging cigarettes holds no special mystique.

My parents' relationship was beginning to strain during their second East African "tour" - as periods working in the colonies between "home leaves" were called. My mother came to Edinburgh for a year, while I was doing A levels at boarding school. This quixotic venture was to seek psychiatric help for herself, paid for jointly by BAT and my father. In reality, she was making a last desperate attempt to save their marriage, which had become a violent, alcoholic battleground. Pangas (African knives) at dawn over the shattered crockery and hysterical telephone calls to the askari, the local word for the police, had become the norm. Finally, in 1966, they left their paradise among the paw paw trees and bougainvillaea and sailed "home" to the UK, where the vicissitudes of their bizarre lives took a new twist.

The 20th century dealt them the joker in the pack - their "home" retirement became another series of nomadic nightmares as they tried in vain to fit into the landscape of Harold Wilson's pluralist society. In a spectacular moment of madness they decided to run a pub. The Lygon Arms in Broadway, Worcestershire - then the most famous country hotel in Britain - gave them a short, sharp training course in pub management. But this was a false introduction to what the booze trade is really about. Somehow, they had confused the image of cosy thatched-cottage retirement in the Cotswolds with the day-to-day grind of serving pints of Trumans and packets of crisps to lorry drivers in a bar on a dual carriageway somewhere between Leicester and Derby. More alcoholic hysteria led to ignominious unemployment, bankruptcy and finally divorce.

Dad wandered around the country as a golf club secretary for a couple of years. Then, oscillating between a job as the Willie Loman of Britain, selling insurance policies, and embarking on colourful romantic adventures with ageing widows in the Shires, he settled down to die from throat cancer in a small village in Dorset. After banishment from the marital home in Worcester because she refused to go into rehab, my mother came to London where I was a film student. She found herself work as a PA to the chairman of Montague Meyer, a successful lumber conglomerate, but her alcoholic temperament intervened again, and after a few years scrimping and drinking as a temp, she descended into a life of loneliness and agoraphobia in a subsidised flat near Gloucester Road. It is in this flat that I have been ferreting out the fading memories of her exotic past.

The brutal truth I face day after day, as I wade through the hours of footage we shot over the last six months, is that I can hardly claim that my mother and father are victims of the 20th century in the way that I would like. They didn't die a tortuous death in some godforsaken Oriental jungle; they didn't get slaughtered by the Mau Mau; my mother didn't get raped by the Japanese in Shanghai; my father didn't die screaming in a gas chamber. But they lived out a different tragedy. They became a different kind of victim of this awesome century: they survived.

My mother's alcoholic life in a tiny bedsit in London is testament to that. Her family is dispersed - we visit her once a year at Christmas. She has no friends who call. One friend from her Shanghai days rings every now and again. And the man she loved is buried in a small graveyard in Dorset, next to a woman he only met in the last two years of his life. My mother summoned up the courage to go to his funeral and watched with anguish as the pall bearers tried to fit the coffin into the grave - it had been dug too small and my father's cancer-ridden body lay in the graveyard overnight, unburied.

I asked her where she would like to be buried. She wants to be cremated; she wants her funeral service to be in London, in a Russian Orthodox Church; and she wants her ashes to be scattered in Kiev. We tried to persuade her to visit the country of her ancestors. I begged her to celebrate Easter in Kiev with me. At first the idea appealed and she cried. But in the end her agoraphobia and frailty overcame any sentimentality she may have been harbouring. "What's the point?" she exclaimed in her strange Anglo- Russian accent. "What's the point?" And so my mother will never visit Kiev, city of her grandparents and birthplace of her mother. Maybe they never lived there in the first place. I hope they did; I spent a week filming there last year.

Don Boyd 1999

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