A Eurasian Finally
Plays His Race Card
by Lionel Fisher
They met in Hong Kong in the summer of 1926, an
improbable couple in those primly proper British
Colonial times. He, Cornelius Stanley Fisher, Sr., 28,
an Englishman born and raised in London, a Lieutenant
Commander in the Royal Navy; she, Mercedes de Ocampo, a
27-year-old schoolteacher from a prominent Manila
family, alone on her first two-month holiday abroad. He
was in Hong Kong because his ship, the H.M.S. Kent,
was in port for several months. She had treated herself
to a vacation on the Isle of Victoria after two years of
teaching English composition at a Women's college in
Manila. In this romantic setting, they met, fell in love
and were married on May 2, 1929, two days before he
resigned his Royal Navy commission to begin a new life
and a business career in the Orient.
She would bear him three sons and a daughter in Hong
Kong: Arthur, Lionel, Elinor, Robert and a fourth son,
Stanley, in Manila, where they had moved in the fall of
1938. The youngest boy was born on September 26, 1941,
nine weeks before another fateful event. On the Monday
morning of December 8 -- Sunday, December 7, in Honolulu
-- Japanese planes struck at targets throughout the
Philippines, as they did simultaneously at Pearl Harbor.
In the ensuing weeks, the air raids over Manila
intensified until, on December 15, General Douglas
MacArthur transferred his headquarters to the island
fortress of Corregidor. A month later, Japanese troops
engulfed the defenseless city, stranding thousands of
British, American, Dutch, Polish, Spanish, Mexican,
Nicaraguan, Cuban, Russian, Belgian, Swedish, Danish,
Chinese and Burmese civilians, our family among them.
The Japanese cannily selected the University of Santo
Tómas as an internment camp for the large population of
enemy civilians trapped in the cordon of the invading
army. Occupying sixty acres in the dense heart of the
city, the venerable institution founded by Spanish
Dominican priests in 1619 was surrounded by high masonry
walls with an ornate iron palisade guarding its imposing
entrance. The rectangular campus with its massive
buildings and spacious dormitories was ideally suited
for its grim new purpose.
The first 300 internees entered Santo Tómas on
January 4, 1942. When the camp was liberated on the
night of February 3, 1945, it held 3,700 men, women and
children. During the three-year Japanese occupation of
Manila, a total of 6,874 civilians of countries at war
with Japan were interned at Santo Tómas and a second
civilian internment camp built in 1943 at Los Baños, 35
kilometers away. A total of 362 internees died in the
two camps, most of them from starvation, almost all at
"The rescue at Santo Tómas came on the eve of
the 1,126th day of imprisonment," reported The
New York Times on the front page of its February 6,
1945 edition. "It came in time to prevent further
deaths from malnutrition, principally among veterans of
the Spanish-American war, old men whose diminishing
stamina could not withstand the ravages of beriberi,
pellagra and other diseases."
Marooned in Manila at the outbreak of hostilities, my
mother, father, sister, two of my three brothers and I
spent the war inside Santo Tómas. I was seven years old
when we walked through those tall, ornamental gates in
January of 1942, ten when we were liberated and
expatriated to the United States in March of 1945. We
returned to the Philippines in May of 1946. The New York
firm that had employed my father before the war had
asked him to reopen its Far East branch in Manila, a
city once called the Pearl of the Oriented, devastated
by the war but resolutely rising from its ashes. And so
we went "home" again. Four months later, I
watched my father die. He was 46 years old. I was 12.
Confronting a Lifetime of Denial
Here at the beach a half-century after what happened
in those early morning hours of September 17, 1946 in
Manila, I finally allowed myself to remember, to grieve
at long last, to make peace with the shattering events
of my childhood, with my resolute denial of them and the
lifelong disavowal of myself.
After my mother died of cancer in a New York City
hospital in the winter of 1981, I took the scrapbook she
had given me back to Oregon, along with the 13
single-spaced pages she had typed in her bed during her
last pain-ridden months. She had done it for her
grandchildren, she said. Those pages tell of her life in
Manila and Hong Kong, and they are priceless to me now.
But after she died, I hid the words away, along with the
clippings. I couldn't bear to look at them. I didn’t
try for another 20 years.
On the Pacific Northwest beach to which I’d
retreated to face myself alone, to confront my deepest
disquiets, my lifelong unease with who I really was and
all I would never become, I finally read the yellowed,
crumbling newspaper clippings my mother had preserved in
a cardboard scrapbook along with the telegrams and
letters of condolence she had received. I had never
asked to see them; I had never wanted to.
Now the memories came flooding back, coursing over
the weirs of denial I’d built to hold them at bay for
as long as I can remember. With them came the remorse,
the renounced sorrow of a lifetime of failed choices,
lost opportunities -- all the irretrievable acts of love
and courage and kindness never consummated because I
hadn’t understood their importance until it was too
The boy was 12 when he watched his father die in a
suburb of Manila on the night of September 17, 1946. The
September 18, 1946 issue of The Evening Herald,
Manila’s English-language newspaper, carried this
front-page account of the crime:
Briton Killed by
In Pasay Home
Cornelius Stanley Fisher, manager of the Specialty
Corporation and a native of London, was riddled with
bullets in his bedroom at 923 F.B. Harrison, Pasay, at
around 3:15 this morning by five unknown men who broke
into his residence to rob.
In the investigation conducted by Detectives P.
Penaranda, C. Lagadi and D. Tugade of the homicide
section, it was disclosed that five unknown men entered
the house by cutting the wire screen of the window at
Pio Teves, the houseboy, who sleeps in the kitchen,
woke up because of the commotion, but before he could
call for help, one of the men pressed a revolver behind
him and ordered him to keep quiet and to lead the
malefactors to the room of Fisher.
Two of the unknown men stayed on the ground floor to
act as guards while the remaining three went up with
Teves who brought them to Fisher. Fisher, at the sight
of the men in his room, tried to reach for his .45
caliber revolver which was grabbed by the robbers.
The family of Fisher was herded into the room with a
lone armed guard while the two ransacked the rooms for
loot. It was at this juncture that Fisher grappled with
his guard for the possession of the firearm. The pistol
in the course of the struggle went off attracting the
robbers who were busy taking loot.
The robbers went into the room to help their
companion and they riddled Fisher with bullets, killing
Found missing from the Fisher household after the
hoodlums had fled were P300 cash money, Fisher’s .45
caliber pistol and personal papers.
Cornelius Stanley Fisher, who is a British subject,
has his office at the Wilson Building at Juan Luna.
Fisher is survived by his wife, Mercedes DeOcampo
Fisher, 45, and five children.
Allowing Himself to Remember
What the old man remembers of that night fifty years
ago begins when he is shaken awake. He opens his eyes to
see a man bending over him. The man’s face is covered
by two white handkerchiefs, one tied around his forehead
and flipped backwards over his hair, the other tied
across the bridge of his nose to hide his face, leaving
only a slit that reveals his eyes. He remembers thinking
in those first confused moments that Blanca, the family
dog, was having her puppies and he was being called to
He remembers being led to his parents' bedroom where
his mother and father are seated on the bed, just to the
right of the door. He remembers seeing another man in
the room with his parents, handkerchiefs also hiding his
face. The man tells him to sit and the boy sits on the
floor next to his mother and father, his back resting
against the bed.
He remembers seeing his father stand up suddenly and
lunge at the man, clutching him around the waist,
grabbing at the wrist of the hand that holds the gun. He
remembers watching the two of them struggle, sees the
man shoot his gun at the ceiling.
He can't remember whether he is standing now or still
sitting, but he is very close to the two men locked in
their frantic embrace because he remembers the puzzled,
plaintive look on his father's face as he grapples with
the gunman, as if asking himself, "Why did I do
this? What do I do now?"
The old man remembers his mother holding desperately
onto his father as he struggles, pleading with him,
"Sit down, Stanley, sit down, let him go," and
saying to the man with the gun, "He doesn't mean
it, he'll sit down, he doesn't mean it," then again
to his father, "Let him go, Stanley, let him go,
please let him go, it will be all right." He
remembers this most of all.
"Mrs. Fisher was helping her husband, biting at
the gangster," one newspaper reporter wrote the
following day, but that's not what the old man remembers
because he can still see his father's stricken eyes, can
hear his mother's pleading voice. And that is all he
remembers of that night.
He doesn’t know whether he turned away or chose to
forget the rest of what he saw. But he doesn’t
remember his father being shot, doesn’t see him fall,
doesn’t see him die.
There’s a picture in his mind of the dead man lying
in the bedroom on that night long ago, but it came from
a black-and-white photo in one of the news clippings
that he waited fifty years to read. In the grainy image
preserved on yellowing newsprint his father lies on his
back, feet bare under striped pajama bottoms and a
light-colored bathrobe. His left leg is bent, the knee
propped on the wall against which he must have fallen
before slumping to the floor. His face is turned toward
the camera, but the features are obscured in the shadow
of a dresser. Only a dark stain extending down the left
shoulder and across the upper chest of the light
bathrobe is plainly evident.
"Against the five masked gunmen," reads the
caption under the photo, "Mr. C. S. Fisher had no
Putting down the faded newspaper clipping, the old
man picked up the phone and called his bank to inquire
about the U.S. dollar-Philippine peso exchange rate. A
clerk told him it was currently .02612 and offered to do
the math for him. A few moments later she said, "At
today’s rate, 300 pesos is worth $7.84."
"Why did he do it, die so pointlessly?" the
old man asked himself, then remembered the reason his
mother gave a long time ago: "His favorite
expression was ‘My home is my castle.’ He said it
often. He died because he loved his family, because he
was English and he was proud and he loved his family.
That’s why he died."
An everlasting regret is that I never asked my mother
to tell me about herself and my father, about our family
and the early times of our life together. In her last
painful months, it would have been an act of kindness
and grace for me to have sat and listened to her talk
about the halcyon years in Hong Kong and Manila. But she
is gone and there are things I will never know because
learning was painful and knowing not important until it
became too late, and I am left with what I can remember.
Now I yearn to tell my children so much more than what I
know about this strong, complex, courageous woman. But I
can't, and their loss is as great as mine.
Black, White and Brown in America
And so I rose and went to my Innisfree by the sea, to
a snug little house, not of wattles and clay in a
bee-loud glade as in Yeats’s poem, but where the
murmur of surf on sand lulls my gimcrack spirit. At the
beach, when the old man allows himself to remember, he
realizes he must accept and forgive yet another denial
as great as the boy’s disownment of his father’s
death: his lifelong repudiation of himself in search of
someone he would never find, the person he could never
He recalls words he once read, what another Eurasian
author had said about her own yearning for acceptance:
"Everywhere I belong, and everywhere I’m an
He remembers a story his Filipino mother told him
when he was a boy in Manila, a story his English father
had laughed at heartily. "When God created
man," his mother said, "God fashioned a figure
out of clay and stuck it in the oven. But God took it
out too soon. And the white man was born.
"So God tried again, but this time left the clay
figure in too long. And the black man was born.
"Then God tried once more and took him out
exactly on time. And the brown man was born."
So the boy learned God finally got it right on the
But as a U.S. Marine stationed in America’s Deep
South in 1957, he discovered a different set of
After his graduation from boot camp at Parris Island,
South Carolina, the young man was assigned to the Second
Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Soon
afterwards, he and another marine, who also had enlisted
in New York City and gone through boot camp with him in
the same platoon, visited a town near the sprawling
base. As the two PFCs were about to enter a restaurant
in the small rural community, a man barred their way.
After peering intently at both, he told the 22-year-old
English-Filipino Marine from Manila, "You can come
in." To the 19-year-old African-American Marine
from the Bronx, he said, "You can’t."
Both men left quietly.
That evening, back at the base, the two were told a
saying they would hear many times again. "Around
here," another Marine cautioned them, "if you’re
white, you’re all right. If you’re brown, you can
hang around. If you’re black, stand back."
The Eurasian Marine had come to America when he was
18, dispatched to a Catholic boarding school for his
senior year of high school from a distant land and
far-different culture peopled no longer in familiar
shades of brown and tan but in starkly contrasting tones
of white and black.
He arrived at the most vulnerable time of his life,
not man or boy but something in-between, feeling lost
and separate, excruciatingly alone -- neither white nor
black nor brown but an ambiguous alloy of indeterminate
origin, desperately wanting to blend in and belong, to
be simply, indistinguishably American.
Such, the old man realizes, is the power of denial,
"vanishing cream for the mind," as English
writer Jeremiah Creedon calls it, a comforting ally in
our struggles for survival, a fierce foe in the quest
He understands finally that much of what he disavowed
in himself before recognizing its irretrievable value,
most of the heartache he caused himself and those who
chose to love him, came out of that repudiation of his
And he learns this about regrets: they don’t go
away. Most things distance themselves with time and
space, to eventually slide off the edge of our
consciousness and disappear forever, but not regrets.
You can shove them aside, disavow them for a lifetime,
but they always return. And the longer you deny them,
the more they punish you when they can no longer be held
Regrets, he has found, are particularly poignant for
the old and the dying, those who have used up most of
the chances they’ll ever get and are left to make
peace with their failed choices.
We are the sum of our choices, he now knows. The
right choices result in our goodness and character. The
wrong choices harden into bitterness and despair. And if
we don’t have the wisdom to make good choices when we’re
young, we need the grace to make peace with the bad ones
when we’re old. Luckiest of all are those who still
have the time to replace their bad choices with good
ones. Good choices in the nick of time can banish
Regrets are a constant visitor to the old man at the
beach. They come and they go at all hours of the day and
night. He lets them in, barring none their entry,
allowing all their full measure of blame so that when
they return the next time, and the next, they will be a
little less hurtful.
By remembering, he thinks, he will understand. By
understanding, he will be able to forgive -- himself
above all. And through forgiveness, the regrets will
begin to resemble hope.
© Copyright 2004 Lionel Fisher.
All Rights Reserved. Portions of this article are
excerpted from Celebrating Time Alone:
Stories of Splendid Solitude (Beyond Words
Lionel Fisher is an
author and freelance writer who self-syndicates several
humor/lifestyle columns, including "Past
Meridian" for those he describes as
"nearer the end than the beginning of their
journeys of life." Spiritual in nature, though
often lighthearted with a realistic edge to them, a
central theme of his insightful essays is the need for
us to find our happiness and fulfillment in
ourselves rather than steadfastly seeking it in
others. A former journalist, newspaper columnist,
corporate communicator and advertising creative
director-copy chief, Fisher lived and worked
in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Miami and Portland,
Oregon, before moving to Southwest Washington's Long
Beach Peninsula where he wrote Celebrating Time
Alone: Stories of Splendid Solitude (Beyond Words
Publishing, 2001). He also is the author of On Your
Own: A Guide to Working Happily, Productively and
Successfully from Home (Prentice Hall, 1995) and The
Craft of Corporate Journalism (Nelson-Hall 1992).
Celebrating Time Alone: Stories
of Splendid Solitude is
about living well enough alone, even magnificently, in a
world that goes around in twos or more and is wary
of solitary travelers. Fisher’s reflections on
solitude came into sharp focus on the remote Pacific
Northwest beach to which he moved 10 years ago,
where he kept a detailed journal to record his thoughts,
feelings and emotions during this climactic
period of willful isolation. He interweaves his own
insights and experiences with the true stories of
"new hermits" he interviewed across the
country, men and women who have stretched the envelope
of their aloneness to Waldenesque proportions, achieving
great emotional clarity in the process, as well as their
urban counterparts who through necessity or choice
prefer to savor their individuality in smaller servings.
The author interweaves their real-life stories with his
own insights and experiences to offer counsel,
inspiration and affirmation on being alone well.
His book’s central premise is timeless and
simple: "There are gifts we can only give
ourselves, lessons no one else can teach us, triumphs we
must achieve alone. It affirms that it’s all right to
be alone, to want to be alone, even to be lonely at
times because the rewards of solitude can make the
deprivations so worthwhile. It sings the praises of
those who have found amazing grace alone. They lead us
in quest of our own undiscovered selves."
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