Spain to China: Letters of a lasting friendship


AUSTIN COATES: Souvenirs and Letters, by Ramon Rodamilans. London: Athena Press, 2007, 140 pp, £5.99 (paper)

The Spanish author of this memoir recognizes early on just how much his subject, the British writer and historian Austin Coates (1922-97), like Coates’ Vietnamese companion, “came from south-east Asia.” And yet Coates was, in certain ways, a quintessential Englishman. It is a paradox that the letters and recollections delicately explore.

Coates’ father was the composer Eric Coates, who wrote the theme music for “The Dam Busters” among many other well-known pieces. Austin was educated in England and in Paris, and served in the Royal Air Force intelligence in India in World War II. Afterward he worked with the colonial administration in Hong Kong, and eventually settled there, spending part of the year in Europe.

Having worked as a magistrate in the British colony, Coates wrote up his experiences in an engaging volume called “Myself a Mandarin: Memoirs of a Special Magistrate” (1968). He also lectured on the history of Hong Kong and Macau, turning his researches into books, including a novel, “City of Broken Promises (1967),” which then became a successful musical, thus reclaiming his father’s territory.

These volumes enhanced my own appreciation of Southeast Asian history when I came across them in bookshops in the relevant places. Particularly moving and impressive was Coates’ scholarly biography, “Rizal: Philippine Nationalist and Martyr” (1968), from which I learned much about the Philippines. All of his books seemed to be intelligent, informative, and elegantly written. It is clear that Roman Rodamilans had the same impression.

The volume under review is a record of the “special and spontaneous friendship” that grew up between Coates (the words are his) and Rodamilans during the last decade of Coates’ life. It began with a letter of inquiry, which developed into regular exchanges, while both men moved back and forth across Europe and Asia, meeting infrequently. Eventually, Rodamilans proposed a Spanish translation of the Rizal biography.

There is much about music in these charming letters, this being a matter of particular interest to both, but also about the places where they meet, Spain, Portugal and China. Coates opines that Taiwan is, for him, “the real China,” and he leaves Hong Kong for good before the mainland takes it back. He also says that “Everything of cultural importance in the Philippines . . . comes from Spain.”

There are a number of remarks on numerology, on which Coates wrote another book. In what was perhaps his most wide-ranging study, he made a survey of the whole of Asian culture, asserting that its cultural lodes were India and China. The title of that book, “China, India and the ruins of Washington” (1972), sounds increasingly prescient today. But all of his books are highly readable, and this memoir is an enjoyable addition to them.