Keith Stevens, a retired official of the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office, lived in Mersham, near Ashford, Kent. He was recognised as one of the world’s leading authorities of the vast subject of Chinese deities, about which he had a unique knowledge and understanding. He died in July 2015
Mr Stevens, who was born in Heswall, Wirral, explained how his fascination with China began in an interview published by the South China Morning Post in 1991. As a boy, he said, he would sneak away from home, catch a bus and a ferry to Liverpool and walk around the city’s Chinatown, in those days bustling with seafaring men whose ships from the Pearl River and Ningbo were unloading their cargoes in the port.
The sights, sounds and smells, the people and the large Chinese words written on the walls of businesses enthralled him. “My parents didn’t like it, but I kept going there,” he recalled. His single-minded aim was to learn Chinese.
He was educated at Rock Ferry grammar school and left in the middle of the Second World War, subsequently enlisting, well under age, with the Royal Navy, who promised to teach him Chinese. Enrolled with the naval flying programme, he “was not a good pilot” and after a disastrously short career learning to fly in America, he was invalided out, having crashed his aircraft.
After a period filling in time on North Atlantic convoy duty, he was able to transfer to the Army and was seconded to the India Army who also promised to teach him Chinese. He served with the famous 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles one of the five in the Punjab Frontier Forces better known as the Piffers, close to the Khyber Pass, where he was able to grasp the basics of Gurkhali and Urdu, but not Chinese.
He remained with the Indian Army in the period before independence but after Partition and demobilisation, he returned to England to read Modern and Literary Chinese at the London University School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS). There he finally learned Chinese and also achieved a First in the Civil Service Interpreter Examinations. It was during his first week there that he purchased his first Chinese deity, a porcelain statue he found in an antique shop. It cost him £5. He told me much later in one of our meetings in his Kent Home that the money was for his board and lodging, and he walked to and away from that antique shop window three times before he finally decided he “just had to have it”.
After further study at Hong Kong University, Mr Stevens commenced a second career serving again with the British Army, first for a short time with the Cheshires before being transferred to the Intelligence Corps. He spent most of his service in the Far East, interspersed with two postings to Germany. The three stints in Malaya and Singapore were idyllic: the first posting to Ipoh in northern Malaya during the Emergency, followed by his marriage to Nora, who had caught his eye as they both boarded the troop ship to Singapore in 1952 and courted the whole of the journey from the first night aboard when he connived with the purser to be seated alongside the young Queen Alexandra nurse, Nora Mossop. The couple married and had three daughters.
His daughters still fondly remember their growing up in South East Asia and have kindly shared a few recollections.
I hated being dragged round the temples on Sunday which is why I was never taken on my own but my reward was going to the Singapore swimming club for curry puffs and fresh lime juice afterwards. Also Godding was so much a part of friends staying one Sunday Daddy took a friend to a temple in Johore Baru and as Carol and I were on our mothers passport and she wasn’t there rather than turn back Carol and I were left in the customs office for a couple of hours before they returned!
I remember the Swimming club at Tanjong Rhu well. It was a magical place. I spent so much of my childhood at the club, eating doughnuts and hand made chips (french fries) by the pool, with sea breezes wafting in. The comic store by the main entrance, the swim regattas, and catching crabs from the rocks on the beach. All this is reclaimed now for the highways built in the 1970s. I wonder if we were ever there at the same time? My parents were members from early 1950s right up to the 1980s.
Whilst trawling through the albums, I came across these added pics. The Citoen Safari was bought in Germany in 1964, it was brown with cream trim and was state of the art. It worked on hydraulics and people were fascinated by the process of having to wait till it rose up before you could drive off, they called it the aeroplane car. He shipped it out to Seremban and Singapore, where it ended its days, I assume. It was his mode of transport on his 'Godding' forays all around Malaya and Singapore.
When we were living in Singapore in the late 1970’s my father would select one square on the A-Z each weekend and then I would accompany him to scour the area for temples or shrines. We went down all the back streets, climbed tower blocks and knocked on lots of doors. He was always so thrilled to find a new image and a new story, I think people thought he was mad but they enjoyed sharing their culture and family histories and he loved what they revealed to him. He took photos of what we found and in those days each flash photo used a small bulb which had to be ejected after use - and was hot. We inevitably attracted lots of curious children as we trawled the streets and he would drop the hot bulb into an eager little hand, giving all the kids a laugh at the expense of the recipient.
Later in life I was fortunate to travel and wherever I went I always went in search of China towns and the temples where I took photos for him, amongst which were Darwin, Havana, Vancouver and Ventiene.
Thanks Gillian for this. Keith actually revealed his "templing “ methods to me, and I have already included this in the introductory message. But great to have confirmation of the story. About his weekends doing the squares with a street directory in hand. My only deep regret is I did not share one of those forays with him. His MO was very similar to mine, and looking through his writings its not surprising to me that I covered many of the temples that he had visited. Thats why my photographs, using later improved technology, actually blend so well with his texts. His interaction with the street people particularly the kids, so reflect my own experiences doing the same…. though I must say the use of hot bulbs had long passed. He had expert friends of course , such as Chinatown deity carvers, but mostly he was on his own in terms of the research, he didn’t have the internet like I have today and a team of experts to advise on accuracy of history and legends, using WhatsApp , Facebook and Messenger to get fast answers.
Using his language skills, He finally transferred to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a late entrant, enjoying a third career of 20 years with the Research Department, which included a posting of a further five years in Hong Kong before finally retiring to continue - now full time - his life-long study of the cults and iconography of Chinese folk religion.
At last he was free to travel throughout China, province by province. His family recount many tales of dad going off "godding" and exploring more than 3,500 temples in towns and often remote villages, as well as Taiwan, Macau and across South East Asia, documenting their layouts, altars, gods, legends and folklore. In the process he recorded more than 1,500 gods with meticulous notes on each temple he visited, further supported by more than 30,000 photographs, which comprises the Collection that his friend and mentee Ronni Pinsler acquired from the subsequent auction in 2016.
Mr Stevens was a member of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs from 1952; the Royal Asiatic Society in Hong Kong from 1963 and a founder member of the Friends of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong branch in London, established in 1997, serving subsequently as a committee member.
He wrote 36 articles relating to Chinese religious iconography, which led to the publication of two books on the gods of China, notably his lifetime work: the definitive Chinese Gods, The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons, published by Collins & Brown in 1997. He also wrote nine articles on the subject for the specialist Hong Kong-based Arts of Asia magazine.
It was alway the wish of Keith Stevens to publish a complete version of his researches. His publisher discouraged the idea as being impractical. But that was before the age of digital publishing.
Included in the “bookofxiansheng” website are various personal articles by Sifu Keith as we like to call him that exemplify his love of the Chinese Gods and the contagious humour expressed in revealing them to the rest of us.
This project is intended to be a fulfilment of his legacy.
Thanks to The Canterbury Auction Gallery for part of the above content and photo of Keith Stevens.