In Memory of Alison McEwan (1950-2022)
Alison McEwan was born in Hong Kong on April 24th, 1950, the second of three girls. Her father, Colin, was the director of physical education in the colonial government, and her mother Betty (MacMillan) was also a teacher. Both were from the west coast of Scotland.
Colin had gone out to Hong Kong before the start of World War Two as a young gym teacher. He was awarded an MBE for his role as a commando in the defense of the British colony against the Japanese in 1941 and his work behind enemy lines in China with the British Army Aid Group.
Alison and her sisters had an almost idyllic childhood, living in Repulse Bay, swimming, sailing, and kayaking in the South China Sea, and picnicking in the green hills of Lantau Island. They attended the Diocesan Girls’ School – among the first expatriate British to do so. The family moved back to Scotland when Alison was 12. She went to Ayr Academy and then Edinburgh University, where she studied Scots Law. She took Chinese as a subsidiary subject but having learned Cantonese rather than Mandarin as a child she chose to write her answers in the final exam in Italian. “If your Italian had been better I might have found this more amusing”, sniffed the examiner
In contrast to her more straitlaced colleagues in the Faculty of Law, Alison was something of a wild party girl at Edinburgh, taking part in student protests and working as a go-go dancer in a bar to help pay for her drinks and cigarettes. Smoking became a lifelong vice. In her final year of studies, her friendship with a boy from the Chinese Department called Tim Luard developed into something more serious. She would rejoin him a year later in Hong Kong and spend the rest of her life with him. But first (having failed to get a job as an airforce officer after telling the interview board she didn’t approve of war) she went to Philadelphia to work as an au pair for a Jewish family, the BB Browns. The Yom Kippur War had just begun and at grace before dinner on her third night she was asked to pray for “the total destruction of the Arab race”. Alison had always longed to return to Hong Kong and arriving back there in 1974 she soon landed an exciting job as an Investigative Officer with the recently formed Independent Commission Against Corruption, or ICAC. Her duties included monitoring tapped telephone calls by senior police officers and undercover surveillance of them as they held furtive meetings with triad bosses in hotel lounges. Over the next five years, she helped turn the British colony from one of the most corrupt places in Asia to one of the cleanest. One of the job’s perks was a serviced government apartment on Hongkong Island, but mostly she commuted by ferry from the home she shared with Tim in a traditional Chinese fishing village on the outlying island of Cheung Chau. There – over noodles and beer at waterfront cafes and on rural walks to secluded beaches -- they got to know a bohemian crowd of young artists, writers, journalists, and others – French, British, Chinese, American, and Portuguese – many of whom remained lifelong friends.
In 1980 Alison and her friend Anne founded The Hilltribe Shop, supplying remote villages on the Thai/Laos/Burma borders with raw materials to make traditional handicrafts. These they sold in Hong Kong and London, returning the profits to the hill-tribe villagers and refugees.
The McEwan-Luard relationship entered a new phase back in London, where Tim had now swapped freelance journalism for a staff job at the BBC. The couple finally got married in 1984, leading some to refer to them henceforth as the McLuards. Their honeymoon was in Pakistan, where Alison’s younger sister Rachel (“Pin”) was working at the British Embassy. Amid the round of parties held in their honor as they waited for a clear day to fly from Islamabad to a more romantic location in the hills, the travel agent arranging their flight danced enthusiastically onto Alison’s foot – ensuring she spent the rest of the honeymoon with one leg firmly wrapped in plaster.
A second law degree -- at the College of Law in London -- was followed by brief stints working with various legal firms. But these proved enough to convince Alison that a career as a lawyer was unlikely to provide the sort of opportunities for doing something worthwhile -- helping oppressed women, in particular -- that she’d hoped for.
Instead, she found herself going to Beijing, where Tim had been appointed as a correspondent. As well as traveling widely around China for the next two years, she helped run the BBC office in the capital and experienced at firsthand the seven weeks of nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations centered on Tiananmen Square. The morning after the massacre, she was driven to the airport past lines of tanks and the occasional dead body in the street to fly to Hong Kong for an emergency operation for a detached retina. One of the journalists working out of the pressurized cauldron that was the BBC Beijing office at the time wrote much later that Alison had been the sun at the center of a small solar system of old Beijing friends, her “warmth and humanity gluing us all together and reminding us how we should be treating each other”.
Back in London, Alison and Tim moved from their flat in Islington to a big Victorian house and garden in Hackney, where they were to remain for the rest of her life. She also found a career that she loved -- as a librarian.
Her job with Hackney Libraries over the next two decades involved more than just books – often the various local public libraries where she worked served more as community advice centers. It was a role for which she was well suited, being blessed with a natural warmth and empathy that enabled her to strike a chord with anyone she met, of whatever race and background, and with a sense of curiosity and an iron will that ensured she stubbornly pursued the answer to any question or problem – from a cryptic crossword clue to a faulty printer -- until she found it. She was also phenomenally well-read. And she continued to be well-traveled. She and Tim stayed frequently at his mother’s successive homes in Spain and South Africa. In 2007 they made a 6-month round-the-world odyssey, visiting friends and relations in almost every continent. And as well as visiting Alison’s sisters in Scotland they regularly joined friends at rented properties in both Scotland and Wales.
They also continued to make regular trips back to the Far East. When her mother died in 2004, Alison found among her papers a war diary written by her late father. It included a graphic account of a dramatic escape he’d made through Japanese lines on the day of Hong Kong’s surrender -- Christmas Day, 1941 – together with a one-legged Chinese admiral, some senior British officers, and more than fifty Royal Navy sailors. Tim and Alison mapped out the route of the group’s four-day march through enemy-occupied China and proceeded to re-enact the entire journey themselves. They returned the following year with some sixty other relatives of the original escape group whom they’d helped to track down. While Tim wrote a book about the episode, Escape from Hong Kong, Alison organized a major exhibition that remained on show in Hong Kong for the next three years. Her own interests and talents were numerous, ranging from drawing to dancing, walking to watercolors, and gardening to Greek. She and a friend briefly ran a jewelry design business – and she even played occasional harmonica for the Hackney Beatles tribute band. Alison was also a keen member of a Hackney activity group for the Over-50s, The Sharp End, involving herself in administration as well as regular art, dance, yoga, and pilates sessions.
Alison McEwan was found to have lung cancer in 2019 and in early 2021 the tumors spread to her brain. Over the next year, she underwent several rounds of chemo and radiotherapy but by July 2022 the cancer had severely reduced her mobility and strength. Even so, she managed final visits to Diafani and to see old friends in Kent and Devon in the month before she died, at St Joseph's Hospice in Hackney, on August 25th, 2022.
She always said she was no good with babies (she was scared of dropping them, she claimed) and she and Tim decided early on against having children. But Alison was a devoted aunt to her sister Pin’s two children, Meltem and Bora, and to Tim’s sister Clarissa’s son, Zafar. She also became very fond of her godchildren and her last few weeks were brightened by the task of preparing individual presents and messages for them.
Close to her heart in a different way were her “chaps” or “chums”-- an extended family of stuffed animals, each with their own distinctive personality, mannerisms, and voice which only she could reproduce to perfection and which brought endless delight to those who knew her well enough to be introduced to them. And unlike humans, they could be relied on never to let her down. Her last decree was that the chaps — numbering about 25 in total —should not be split up after she died and that the four who were closest of all to her heart — Angus McDuff (“Heli”) the elephant, Harum Scarum the koala, Tushuguan the panda and Dr. Chab the all-knowing bear -- should be cremated alongside her.
Alison somehow managed to keep up her beloved diary to the very end, dictating it when she was no longer able to hold a pen. This consists of a factual record of how she spent every day of her life, starting in 1979. All but ten of the 43 page-to-a-day pocket diaries in which it was written out each day in her tiny but beautifully neat hand had been laboriously transcribed by her onto her computer over recent years – a task that Tim has vowed to complete, as a lasting legacy to a life well lived in which she spread so much love and happiness to so many others.