Monthly Archives: November 2011

‘He didn’t know anything about the news’

On Saturday, February 6, 1943, Stanley internee George Gerrard wrote in his diary:

The news is again very good from what we hear, it seems hardly possible that the Germans can last out much longer, the Russians seem to be just rolling them up….[1]

 In my previous post I discussed the work, some of it against Japanese regulations, of Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke and his colleagues and the way in which the bankers, who were also kept out of Stanley Camp, raised the funds that paid for the ‘unofficial’ parts the  of Medical Department’s work.

 The Japanese ‘strike back’ of 1943, which brought tragedy to Stanley and haunted Thomas for the rest of his life, was aimed against the smuggling of food, money and medical supplies into the Hong Kong camps, and against two other kinds of activity that had sprung up since the defeat of December 1941.

There are many things that those of us who have never been in a prison camp can’t hope to fully understand. One of them is the desperate need for news, for information about the world outside the narrow confines of the camp, and in particular of the progress of the war on which the ultimate fate of the prisoners depended.

 Ralph Goodwin, himself an escaper from the POW Camp at Shamshuipo, puts it simply:

 Lack of any authentic news of the outside world was felt almost as keenly as the lack of sufficient food.[2]

 In all the main POW camps men were willing to risk torture and death by maintaining radio sets tuned in to BBC broadcasts. They passed the news on to carefully selected comrades, who in turn started ‘rumours’ – the camps were full of these anyway, and the courageous radio operators just made sure that some of them were accurate. In Shamshuipo the officers produced a bulletin in which selected news items were included under disguise, attributed, for example, to reports from sources approved by the Japanese, which sometimes carried accurate information, especially about the war in Europe.

On the rare occasions when Thomas talked about his wartime experiences in later years there was always a note of fury in his voice, except when he described the kindnesses of Captain Tanaka. There was  a bitterness that he made no attempt to suppress when he said to his eldest son,

 They executed Duggie Waterton. They said he’d been listening to the news. He didn’t know anything about the news.

Thomas was wrong. In peacetime Douglas Waterton been an employee of the Hong Kong Telegraph Company, and hewas one of those men who risked everything to bring information about the course of the war into the Camp.

 In Stanley attempts were made to confine the news to the internees’ leaders, primarily John Fraser and Franklin Gimson, who then passed it on to reliable members of the Camp governing body.  Why was it thought  necessary to risk so much to keep these men accurately briefed as to the course of the war?  I’ve never actually seen this claim in print with regard to Stanley, but I assume that at least one of the reasons for this was grimly practical: in an introduction to extracts form his diary held at Rhodes House in Oxford, Gimson tells us that secret plans were made as to how to react to a Japanese attempt to massacre the internees in the event, for example, of an Allied assault on Hong Kong. Gimson and Fraser would have wanted to know when such an attack was imminent, or when the Allies were about to land on one of the main Japanese islands – that was the development which Thomas and Evelina had been told by a Formosan guard  would trigger the final massacre.

We know from former internee George Wright-Nooth, himself part of the ‘chain’ which passed on news, that some ordinary internees were given accurate information (154). This was a dangerous breach of security, and rumours of hidden radios were rife. Attempts were made to tighten things up, but to no avail. In late June and early July the Kempeitai, who had informers in camp, arrested many of those involved. The penalties were severe: long terms in prison, or death.

In October 1943, Douglas Waterton was sitting in a condemned cell in Stanley Prison, just outside the bounds of the internment camp.

Like others amongst those facing death, he was determined that at least a little of his story should be known to the world, and he scratched a moving final testament on the walls of his cell. The Japanese tried to destroy these records, but Waterton’s grim calendar survived their efforts:

© IWM (A 30558)
 
And naturally he thought about his wife while waiting for execution. He wrote a last message of love in the pages of his Bible and entrusted it to a friendly Indian warder. The warder passed it on – in silence and under the protection of total darkness, for he knew what risks he was running – to a New Zealand officer serving a sentence (again a radio was involved) in the prison. This officer, Lieutenant H. C. Dixon, was able to hold onto the diary through all that he was still to go through and to deliver it to Mrs. Waterton after the war.

 Two men at least lost their lives to bring the news to Stanley Camp – the other was another telephone company man, Stanley Rees. Part of the case against two others was that they had been involved in a secret ‘route’ involving the lorry that brought the rations into Stanley Camp: the Japanese believed this route had been used not only to smuggle medicines and messages but also spare parts for the radio. Police Sergeant Frank Roberts, who’d originally brought their radio into the camp, and William Anderson, the camp quartermaster, were each given 15 years in prison for their role.

 One reason for this severity was that to the Japanese, a radio meant not just the voice of the BBC but the possibility of contacting the British Army Aid Group, an organisation set up to promote smuggling, escapes, and any other action that would help win the war. The Hong Kong resistance, the third target of the Japanese counter-attack of February to December 1943, will be the subject of my next post.

 

[1]George Gerrard’s diary, transcribed by Alison Gerrard, can be read in the ‘Files’ section of the Stanley Yahoo Group, which can be accessed by members – go to http://groups.yahoo.com/group/stanley_camp/messages

[2] Ralph Goodwin, Passport to Eternity, 20.

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In Praise of Bankers

By the end of January 1942 the pattern of life for the Hong Kong defeated was clear: most of the civilians were in Stanley Camp on one of the island’s southern peninsulas and most of the POWs were crammed into the former British barracks at Shamshuipo.

 They had survived the 18 days of bitter fighting and the dangerous period that followed, and now they all hoped to stay alive until the time came when the Allies were strong enough to re-take Hong Kong. The top priority, of course, was getting enough to eat, in particular getting the vitamins and other nutrients that are necessary to life. The Japanese were not interested in providing them. When the banker Hugo  Foy returned to the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation’s building, which had been commandeered by the Japanese, a man he recognised as the doctor at Stanley Prison gave him the key to a safe, which Foy found to contain supplies of thiamine chloride, cod liver oil and malt – the very thing needed to ease the suffering or even save the lives of prisoners suffering from nutritional diseases like pellagra and beri beri.[1]

 For both civilian internees and POWs the food situation varied during the war. In Shamshuipo it seems to have been worse in 1942 than 1943, for example, and in Stanleythe Japanese stopped regular deliveries of fish, meat and bread in January 1944 (although one day the ration truck unexpectedly brought in a water buffalo carcase, and meat supplies seem to have been resumed for the last 8 weeks of interment[2]). But one thing seems to be clear: the Japanese rations were not enough to sustain weight, health and, in the, long run, life.  

 After Thomas was sent to Stanley in May 1943 he became involved in supplying food to the Camp, so I’ll discuss the question of rations at length in a future post. For now, I’ll just note that those civilian internees (and POWs) who had managed to get money into their camp could buy extra rations from official canteens and the black market – some like Thomas and Evelina sold rings and watches in a desperate attempt to raise money to buy food. They also followed others in becoming ‘gardeners’ and grew what vegetables they could.

 The contents of that safe in HKSBC came somewhere between the categories of ‘food’ and ‘medicine’, and when it came to medicines proper, one of the other essentials for survival, the Japanese were equally reluctant to waste supplies on their prisoners. In 1947 one of those responsible for causing deaths by medical neglect, Major Chuichi Sato (sometimes spelt Saito) was sentenced to execution, later commuted to 15 years in prison.

 So, deprived by the Japanese of adequate food and most things necessary for proper medical care, the outlook for the Hong Kong prisoners was grim, and it would have been grimmer still without one man in particular, the Colony’s former Medical Officer, Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke.

Selwyn-Clarke had been allowed to stay outside Stanley to carry on his work; luckily, his Japanese counterpart realised that if epidemic diseases swept through the Allied camps they couldn’t be stopped from spreading to the Japanese population as well. Selwyn-Clarke was a brave and determined man. He realised that to save Allied lives he would have to go beyond the bounds of what the Japanese had authorised him to do. He knew that other ‘Stanley stay-outs’ were engaged in resistance activities, co-ordinated by the British Army Aid Group from its base in southern China, but he decided that to carry out his mission he must confine himself solely to humanitarian work. He had no illusions that this would make him safe and he was certain that one day the Kempeitai (the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo, as he himself called them) would arrest him, but until then he would do everything in his power to make the conditions of the prisoners more tolerable.

 He set up a network of volunteers – courageous men and women of all nationalities – to carry out his work. Sadly, the full story of this network and its activities will probably never be known. But we do know that Selwyn-Clarke’s ring smuggled drugs, medicine, extra food and money into the Camps. One woman, Ellen Field, who had evaded internment by burning her passport and pretending to be Irish, claimed to the Japanese that she was the secretary of a welfare organisation with large funds donated by local philanthropists – this was necessary to hide Selwyn-Clarke’s role.[3] In this guise she was able to get food parcels and even morale-boosting sports equipment into Shamshuipo. On one early visit to the Camp she was shot in the leg by a sentry, but refused to stop until she’d been granted an interview with the Camp Commandant, who insisted that she accompany him across the water from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island to get the authorisation of his superiors – only then did she seek proper treatment for her wound.[4]

 If the Welfare Association was a myth, what was the real source of the almost unlimited funds that Selwyn-Clarke seemed to have at his disposal? At one point, for example, he authorised her to buy what sounds like almost the entire contents of a Kowloon sports shop for equipment that would help maintain health and morale inside Shamshuipo![5] Some of the funds came from the British Treasury, but they didn’t send nearly enough to cover the needs of all the prisoners in the various camps (Oliver Lindsay, At The Going Down of the Sun, 1982, 153). Much more was needed. Who better to raise large sums of money than bankers?

 Members of the HKSBC had also been kept out of Stanley. They were living in a waterfront hotel, formerly a brothel, while they helped the conquerors loot the Bank’s holdings, a process which they did what they could to frustrate.[6] Every morning they were marched to work from their squalid accommodation:

File:Hk japo westerner.jpg

Although they were working under duress – threats were made to themselves and their families if they refused to co-operate – they were treated well by the civilian Japanese staff supervising them though.

 Two bankers, T. J. J. Fenwick and J. A. D. Morrison, made a daring escape to freedom with the help of Chinese operatives– ironically these pillars of finance capital were almost certainly assisted by the communist East River guerrillas, whose columns formed the most powerful force of the anti-Japanese resistance in Hong Kong and the adjacent area. The bankers carried with them important financialinformation which they passed on to the British authorities.[7]

 Those bankers who remained had plenty of time for activities more congenial but more dangerous than helping the Japanese acquire their banks’ money. C. F. (‘Ginger’) Hyde supervised a team of ‘money raisers’, consisting of the Portuguese attorney Marcus da Silva and the American Chester Bennett,[8] who would smuggle promissory notes from prominent internees out of Stanley, on the strength of which wealthy uninterned Hong Kong citizens would issue loans to be repaid after the war. This ‘slush fund’ was available to help British citizens outside the Camps,[9] and was the source of much of Selwyn-Clarke’s funding. It enabled him and his Medical Department to save lives and, as far as possible under the circumstances, maintain the health of many whose suffering would have been much worse but for the food and medicine sent into the camps. Grayburn and others paid out some of the funds to individuals in need and took responsibility for getting cash into Stanley.

And it was two unknown ‘European’ bankers – probably the citizens of neutral states – who helped Selwyn-Clarke rescue vital stores of Thiamin Chloride (Vitamin B1) from the vaults of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building. The courage and daring of these two men, and the other involved, can only be appreciated if we rememebr that part of this building was in use as the Japanese military headquarters! (Footprints, 75). 

As we have seen, some of Selwyn-Clarke’s provision was made under the aegis of the mythical Hong Kong Welfare Society, and to that extent was known to the Japanese. However, some of the food and materiél had to be secretly smuggled in, as did some of the cash. The scene was set for tragedy, and the only question was exactly when it would occur and exactly who would be involved.

 I intend to tell this story – the dreadful events of February-December 1943 – in future posts. For the moment I want only to mention that three bankers lost their lives and at least two more spent time in Stanley Prison[10] under dreadful conditions. C. F.  Hyde was executed close to Stanley Beach on October 29, 1943 and two senior bankers died through malnutrition and medical neglect while in Stanley Prison:  Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, the Bank’s chief manager, on August 7, 1943, and D. C. Edmonston on August 29, 1944.[11]

I shall devote a future post to each of these brave men, who understood full well the risks they were taking when they set out to deceive the Japanese in order to help their fellows.


[1] Hugo Foy, affidavit, cited in The China Mail, April 2, 1947.

[3] Ellen Field, Twilight in Hong  Kong, 105.

[4] Field, 90-100.

[5] Field, 155-157.

[6] Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, Footprints, 1975, 74.

[7] George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 153.

[9] Emily Hahn, China To Me, 392.

[10] Note: Stanley Camp was an improvised civilian internment ‘facility’ where most Allied civilians were held from late January 1942; it included some outbuildings of Stanley Prison, which the Japanese took over form the British and used for anyone, including internees, whom they regarded as guilty of a crime. It was just outside the Camp and the internees could sometimes hear the screams of those being tortured inside.

[11] China Mail, April 9, 1947.

 

 

 

 

 

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Photos of Edward Gingle

 
There’s some online interest in Edward Francis Gingle(s), an American internee at Stanley Camp and post-war Hong Kong restauranteur, so I’m publishing scans of four of my father’s photos in which he features.
 
Anyone interested in ‘old Hong Kong’ should check out the excellent Gwulo site, which has a thread on Gingles:
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Farewell to Stanley!

Today I’m publishing the only complete version online of a poem written by a former internee about the camp experience.  It’s a fine poem, and I want it to be available in full.

NOTE: I don’t know who the copyright holder is. If they wish me to remove the poem, I will.

 The poet, Cuthbert  James Norman, was later to become Hong Kong Commissioner of Prisons. Having experienced an inhumane regime of incarceration, he did all he could to improve conditions in the prisons under hbis control. I had long admired his poem, but felt that I was too close to the events he was describing to be able to judge its merits, so I showed it to a colleague at Exeter University, a man of huge reading and superb taste. He quickly pronounced the poem ‘distinguished’, which was my own view. Norman was obviously a man of high culture and intellect, as well as a skillful poet. He must have written other poems – almost no-one has ever produced work so good at their first attempt – but I’ve never come across them. Interestingly he should never have been in Stanley: he and his platoon of prison officers were captured in the uniform of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps, most of whose members were sent to Shamshuipo POW Camp. After agreeing to a Japanese request to stay at their posts in Stanley Prison during a short transitional period, they were interned in Stanley Camp, for reasons I’ve never seen explained. Another of their number was R. E. Jones, whose diary is frequently quoted in these posts.

A Farewell to Stanley

(with acknowledgements to Praed’s ‘Goodnight to the Season’) 

A Farewell to Stanley! It’s over.

Of internees there isn’t a sign

They’ve left for Newhaven and Dover

For Hull and Newcastle-on-Tyne.

It’s dark in the Medical Clinic

There isn’t a quack to be seen

To administer pills to the cynic;

There are ghosts on the old Village Green.

No tales where the rumours once started.

The kitchen’s devoid of its queues.
The strategists all have departed

With the lies which they peddled as ‘News’.

 

 No more of the lectures on Drama,

On Beavers and Badgers and Boats,

Or ‘Backwards through Kent on a llama’

And how to raise pedigree goats’.

In Stericker’s Sanctum Sanctorum

(‘You know such a nice boy, my dear’)

Where Committees would strive for a quorum,

Or adjourn to the following year,

There’s no sound but the cheep of the gopher

And C.S.O.’s oracle’s dumb

Where the staff would recline on a sofa

And dream of promotions to come.

 

 So farewell to Stanley! It’s over.

The billets are empty and dim

Where only the babes were in clover

For they fed on fruit-juice and klim;

There’s nobody left at the Welfare

To hand out the needles and soap.

We’re finished with Japanese Hell-fare

And messages sent through the Pope.

No more do we carry sea water

And rations are things of the past.

Farewell to the Indian Quarter

For internment is over at last!

Notes: John Stericker was secretary to the Camp as a whole and also to Franklin Charles Gimson, who, as Chair of the British Communal Council, was the head of the internees. Before the war he had been Colonial Secretary. CSO = Colonial Secretary’s Office.

Sancta Sanctorum (Latin): Holy of Holies. The tone is, of course, ironic.

Klim: milk powder. The poet’s claim that children were treated well by the internees is supported by other sources.

Messages sent through the Pope: Towards the end of the war the internees received a small gift from the Vatican, but I’m not sure what particular ‘messages’, if any, were sent through this medium. My guess is that he’s referring to enquiries about internees from relatives that were made through a Catholic organisation based in Australia.

the Indian Quarter: usually ‘the Indian Quarters’; part of Stanley Camp consisted of the accommodation used by the Indian warders at Stanley prison before the war. The grounds of the prison in general were in the Camp, but the main building itself was not, as the Japanese continued its use as a prison, and internees only spent time there if they were deemed to have committed ‘crimes’.

The poem that Norman was starting from, Praed’s Goodnight to the Season, is a light-hearted look at ‘the season’: the fashionable entertainments – balls and suchlike – of the rich of early nineteenth century England. Norman’s poem mocks Stanley life for being as trivial, and as full of backbiting as the frivolous world of the aristocracy at play. His handling of the verse and stanza form is impeccable, and his use of language creative and amusing – ‘Backwards through Kent on a llama’, for example, pokes fun at the kind of lectures that people gave to while away the endless, hungry days of internment. Norman keeps the subject matter as light-hearted as the swinging meter and jokey rhyming, only hinting at the true nature of the internee’s experience, the ‘Japanese Hell-fare’ they had to endure. 

Here’s the Praed poem:  

Goodnight to the Season

 

So runs the world away. Hamlet

 

Good night to the Season! ‘Tis over !

Gay dwellings no longer are gay;

The courtier, the gambler, the lover,

Are scattered like swallows away :

There ‘s nobody left to invite one

Except my good uncle and spouse;

My mistress is bathing at Brighton,

My patron is sailing at Cowes :

For want of a better enjoyment,

Till Ponto and Don can get out,

I’ll cultivate rural enjoyment,

And angle immensely for trout.

 

Good night to the Season ! the lobbies,

Their changes, and rumours of change,

Which startled the rustic Sir Bobbies,

And made all the Bishops look strange;

The breaches, and battles, and blunders,

Performed by the Commons and Peers;

The Marquis’s eloquent blunders,

The Baronet’s eloquent ears;

Denouncings of Papists and treasons,

Of foreign dominion and oats ;

Misrepresentations of reasons,

And misunderstandings of notes.

 

Good night to the Season! the buildings

Enough to make Inigo sick ;

The paintings, and plasterings, and gildings

Of stucco, and marble, and brick;

The orders deliciously blended,

From love of effect, into one;

The club-houses only intended,

The palaces only begun ;

The hell, where the fiend in his glory

Sits staring at putty and stones,

And scrambles from story to story,

To rattle at midnight his bones.

 

Good night to the Season! the dances,

The fillings of hot little rooms,

The glancings of rapturous glances,

The fancyings of fancy costumes;

The pleasures which fashion makes duties,

The praisings of fiddles and flutes,

The luxury of looking at Beauties,

The tedium of talking to mutes;

The female diplomatists, planners

Of matches for Laura and Jane;

The ice of her Ladyship’s manners,

The ice of his Lordship’s champagne.

 

Good night to the Season! the rages

Led off by the chiefs of the throng,

The Lady Matilda’s new pages,

The Lady Eliza’s new song;

Miss Fennel’s macaw, which at Boodle’s

Was held to have something to say;

Mrs. Splenetic’s musical poodles,

Which bark ‘Batti Batti’ all day;

The pony Sir Araby sported,

As hot and as black as a coal,

And the Lion his mother imported,

In bearskins and grease, from the Pole.

 

Good night to the Season! the Toso,

So very majestic and tall;

Miss Ayton, whose singing was so-so,

And Pasta, divinest of all;

The labour in vain of the ballet,

So sadly deficient in stars;

The foreigners thronging the Alley,

Exhaling the breath of cigars ;

The loge where some heiress (how killing !)

Environed with exquisites sits,

The lovely one out of her drilling,

The silly ones out of their wits.

 

Good night to the Season! the splendour

That beamed in the Spanish Bazaar;

Where I purchased my heart was so tender

A card- case, a pasteboard guitar,

A bottle of perfume, a girdle,

A lithographed Riego, full-grown,

Whom bigotry drew on a hurdle

That artists might draw him on stone ;

A small panorama of Seville,

A trap for demolishing flies,

A caricature of the Devil,

And a look from Miss Sheridan’s eyes.

 

Good night to the Season! the flowers

Of the grand horticultural fete,

When boudoirs were quitted for bowers,

And the fashion was not to be late;

When all who had money and leisure

Grew rural o’er ices and wines,

All pleasantly toiling for pleasure,

All hungrily pining for pines,

And making of beautiful speeches,

And marring of beautiful shows,

And feeding on delicate peaches,

And treading on delicate toes.

 

Good night to the Season! Another

Will come, with its trifles and toys,

And hurry away, like its brother,

In sunshine, and odour, and noise.

Will it come with a rose or a briar?

Will it come with a blessing or curse?

Will its bonnets be lower or higher ?

Will its morals be better or worse?

Will it find me grown thinner or fatter,

Or fonder of wrong or of right,

Or married or buried ? no matter :

Good night to the Season good night !

 

(Winthrop Mackworth Praed, (1802-1839), 1827

 
 
 
 

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Chester Bennett – ‘The American Hero of Hong Kong’

Note: My main source for this post is the work of the American war reporter Hal Boyle. In December 1945 Boyle wrote an article on the Japanese public prosecutor Kazuo Kogi in which he outlined Bennett’s story. He went on to write a seven part article on Bennett, under the heading ‘The American Hero of Hong Kong’, which was syndicated in the period January-March 1946. All seven parts are available on the internet, in different formats and from different sources. I provide a transcript of four of the articles here: https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2011/11/16/part-4-of-hal-boyles-series-on-chester-bennett/

I also use documents from the Ride Papers, which can be accessed at the Hong Kong Heritage Project, kindly sent to me by Elizabeth Ride.

 

Chester M. Bennett was born in California in the early 1890s, but there is some disagreement as to exactly when and where. One source says in San Francisco and on February 12, 1892,[1] while another has it on February 25, 1890. Oil City, a small town in the southern part of the state,  is given by another source as the place birth.

He studied law at the University of California, and practised for a short time, but then went to London as a commercial attaché with the American Embassy.[2] However, having started off on what might have seemed like a career of solid if somewhat unexciting professional activity he soon found ‘the movies’ more interesting.

Bennett’s career in film went back to at least 1917, when he acted in three short films and one longer one, The Lair of the Wolf.[3]  It’s possible he was an aviator in WW1;[4] if so, he returned successfully to his original career, directing 18 films between 1919 and 1926.[5] The last of these, a 50 minute effort called Honesty is the Best Policy was co-written by Howard Hawks, who later went on to direct Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and other Hollywood classics.

After gaining a technical grounding in film-making, he became a director for Vitagraph.[6] The 1920 US census already describes him as a ‘motion picture director’ and it also has him married and living in Los Angeles. In 1923 he was an active member of the Motion Pictures Directors Association.  He supervised the developing and printing of the films at his own laboratories. He was living in Hollywood and his hobbies included automobiles, golf and books.[7] He was divorced in 1924.

The 1930 US census describes him as lodging on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard. According to Hal Boyle, he arrived in Hong Kong in 1933 to look into the possibilities for animal pictures in the Far East.[8] However, one source claims he was present in Hong Kong in 1928, attempting to set up a production company with a Chinese partner; this came to nothing, so he launched his own business.[9] Given the 1930 census entry, either this source is wrong or Mr. Bennett visited Hong Kong in 1928, returned to California, and then went out to Hong Kong again.

Whenever he actually arrived, Bennett liked Hong Kong and made his home there, gradually building up a restaurant and juke-box provision business. He also worked for the brokers W. R. Loxley and Co. – although not mentioned by Boyle, this firm is given as his employer in the entry on the Jurors’ Lists for both 1939 and 1940, which also tell us he was living in the RuttonBuilding.[10] By the time of the Japanese attack December 7, 1941) he’d fallen he in love, with a Portuguese-Irish girl called Elsa Soares, whose father was a Justice of the Peace.[11]

After the fall of Hong Kong (Christmas Day, 1941), Bennett’s fate was the same as most of the rest of the Allied civilian community: at the end of January 1942 he was sent to Stanley Civilian Internment Camp to wait out the rest of the war. The rations sent in by the Japanese were neither calorific enough nor nutritious enough to maintain the health of the roughly 3000 internees, and it says a lot for Bennett’s standing in Hong Kong that, when the Japanese agreed that one person could return to the town to arrange the purchase of supplementary food with HK$300,000 that had become available to the internees, it was Chester Bennett who was asked to carry out this important task. His knowledge of the food business was one reason, but he must also have been completely trusted by the British administration and accepted by the internees as a man of integrity.[12] He was, it is said, ‘the man everyone in Hong Kong knew in peacetime’.[13]

On April 27, 1942 Stanley internee Barbara Redwood recorded in her diary:

Japs have offered us HK$75 each, and we have made out lists of what we want to buy and it’s hoped they will let someone in to town to buy it soon.[14]

There is much disagreement in the sources as to whether this money actually came from the Japanese; Boyle is probably wrong to suggest it came directly from the internees, but it’s possible that the ultimate source was the American Red Cross.[15] The diary of the Catholic Maryknoll Order, many of whom were interned in Stanley alongside their secular American countrymen, tells us what happened next:

May 8: Mr. Bennett, American, chosen to act as purchasing agent for our allotment of food, goes to Hong Kong and on his return announces that while in the city he got himself married.[16]

Elsa Soares was a courageous woman who supported him in his relief work: later she’d pawn the jewellery he’d given her to buy food for Stanley, while they lived simply together.[17]  It sounds as if the Maryknoll diarist thought that Bennett was buying only for the Americans, but it seems as if even at this stage he was purchasing on behalf of the whole camp.  On June 2 he was elected chairman of the American council,[18] the first incumbent the controversial Bill Hunt having been transferred to Shanghai. This is another sign of the high regard in which he was held.

On June 30 almost all of the Hong Kong Americans sailed for home – their government had arranged a prisoner exchange with the Japanese. In an extraordinary act of self sacrifice, Chester Bennett stayed behind. The British Colonial Secretary Franklin Gimson, had asked him to do so to continue helping the internees.[19]

Bennett used his relationship with his former barber to get himself sent out of Camp on parole – Yamashita, who’d cut his hair every week at the Hong Kong Hotel, was now a commandant of Stanley Camp (opinions differ as to whether Yamashita enjoyed a dramatic promotion or had always been a Japanese officer working in deep cover as a spy!) Again, it tells us something about Bennett that he had obviously won a degree of affection from a man whose nationality and line of work would hardly have commended him to most ‘white’ Hong Kong residents in the pre-war period, when hierarchies of race and class seemed so important. On August 11 he was allowed to leave the Camp alongside three Britishers,[20] probably under the guaranteeing out system:[21] one British Army Aid Group (see below) document claims the ‘guarantee’ was given by Elsa Soares. In any case, it would seem that he went to live in his wife’s  home, perhaps with other members of her family (KWIZ/41/4).

In June 1942, just before the Americans left for home, agents of the British Army Aid Group, a resistance organisation founded by escaped Hong Kong University Professor Lindsay Ride, made their first contacts with occupied Hong Kong. Ironically their first news of Chester Bennett was that he was ‘suspiciously intimate with the enemy’.[22] This opinion was offered by the bankers Fenwick and Morrison, who escaped in November 1942. I think that Mr. Bennett had almost certainly begun to raise money for Stanley illegally by that time, and he’d almost certainly begun smuggling it into the Camp as well –  my evidence for this is that Marcus da Silva approached Bennett to offer his help in late 1942:

Chester, I want something to do. I want to help. I know you didn’t get out of Stanley for your health. Bennett gave him a grin and replied, ‘Marcus I’ve been waiting for you to come to me. I knew you would.’ And the big American businessman and the dark energetic little Portuguese lawyer teamed up to get money into Stanley. [23]

We don’t know how long the American had been ‘waiting’ but it seems highly likely that he’d begun smuggling before the escape but that Fenwick and Morrison weren’t aware of it; in which case, his ‘intimacy’ with the Japanese was for the purposes of his illegal as well as his legal (food-purchasing) activities. It’s even possible that he’d already started spying for the BAAG when Fenwick and Morrison made their report, but its operatives didn’t realise this as the information was being relayed through Bennett’s ‘boss’ in the resistance Charles Frederick (‘Ginger’’) Hyde,[24] another of the bankers who the Japanese had kept out of Stanley for their own purposes.

Hal Boyle gives us a picture of the money raising work Mr. Bennett carried out with Marcus da Silva:

They did it by having Chinese guards on food trucks entering the camp bring out promissory notes standing in the community Bennett and Da Silva would then take the promissory notes signed by internees of known standing in the community. Bennett and Da Silva would then take these notes to rich Indian and Swiss merchants and asked them to advance Jap military yen in exchange for promissory notes, pointing out that when Allies won they would be worthless anyway.[25]

The system of smuggling messages et. al. through the drivers (rather than guards) of the Kowloon Bus Company was uncovered by the Japanese in the spring of 1943, and it’s possible that this was what led to Bennett’s arrest. As we shall see, the Gendarmes knew about his smuggling into Stanley, but they never had conclusive evidence of his spying.

Here’s the rest of Boyle’s account of the smuggling technique:

 Da Silva would collect the money and put it in a small basket swinging from his arm – (figure illegible- perhaps 40,000) to 50,000 dollars at a time – and walk boldly past Jap soldiers to a book store around the corner. Bennett would be waiting in the rear of the bookstore. He would take the money to another rendezvous and they’d smuggle it into Stanley by putting it in the bottom of lard cans This went on for several months They got hundreds of thousands of yen in to helpless internees – money that was translated into food and kept them going.[26]

 Boris Pasco, a bookseller of Russian origin who’d been in Hong Kong for over ten years, was arrested and charged with allowing his shop to be used for spying, so it seems likely that it was his premises, Brewer’s, where the exchange took place.[27] Pasco managed to convince the Japanese of his innocence, and thus survived to give evidence at the War Crimes trials. Bennett was also helped in his Stanley work by the Chinese Stanley Camp supervisor Mr. Chan Kai Wai.[28]

 As a BAAG agent Mr. Bennett’s main work was gathering information about Japanese shipping movements and sending the details to agents in China.[29] American submarines were able to take a heavy toll of Japanese ships partly thanks to this kind of work.

 In spring 1943, Bennett and da Silva were informed of Charles Hyde’s arrest, and soon after were told by a Chinese agent that their names were on a Japanese blacklist and advised to go into hiding. They discussed the situation and decided their work was so important that they had to continue it.[30] They planned to tighten their espionage ring, with Bennett focusing on financial issues, da Silva on spying. They also devised an impressively ambitious three part programme of resistance: 1) the organisation of an intelligence unit to spy on ship movements; 2) the assassination of Indian and Chinese agents of the Kempeitai (Japanese security police) as a warning to others and the first step in inciting wider resistance; 3) the maintenance of British  loyalty amongst the 2,000 troops used  by the Japanese to guard the Hong Kong-Canton railway by raising the money to give them a small monthly cigarette allowance.[31]  In April 1943 they sent a messenger into China with details of these plans, hoping to get approval from higher authority. It was their last message; the British Army Aid Group received notice on June 8 of the arrest of 173 people, including Bennett and da Silva.[32] Bennett had been taken by the Kempeitai on May 13.[33]  His arrest was part of a broad Japanese strike-back, beginning in February, against a range of ‘illegal’ activities in Hong Kong and the Camps.[34]

Four Japanese ‘gendarmes’ arrived at the Bennetts’ home one morning. They managed to hide the radio – another of Bennett’s ‘crimes’ was passing on war news to others –  and some internee promissory notes and messages from the Colonial Secretary, Franklin Gimson. The Kempeitai were eager to find an excuse to arrest Gimson, and the quick action of the Bennetts probably saved his life, as well as sparing the signatories of the notes arrest and mistreatment. The four gendarmes found nothing, but still took Bennett away.

 Over the next months he was starved and brutally tortured but he never revealed a single name of all those who had helped him in his work. Rope burns on his leg became gangrenous and the Japanese would have amputated if he hadn’t been sentenced to death.[35]Boyle gives the trial date as October 26,[36]  but according to former internee George Wright-Nooth it was October 19, and Bennett was one of the second of three groups of defendants.[37] The trial was a farce, with the verdicts decided beforehand and no defence allowed. The prisoners were forced to stand in the same place for hours on end, and beaten if they made any movement.[38] The Japanese were never able to prove that Bennett had spied on them, but they were confident he’d been smuggling money into Stanley. Marcus Da Silva thought they probably wouldn’t have executed him just for financial ‘crimes, but did so because of the arrival in September of Japanese ‘thought police’ from Tokyo ‘who put the harshest kind of penalties into effect’.[39] I’m not sure who these men were – the Kempeitai were sometimes called ‘thought police, and they might have been Gendarmes with a new attitude – but Mr. da Silva’s theory is plausible, as the Japanese didn’t usually condemn men to death without a confession or at least strong evidence of spying. In any case, it’s worth noting that Charles Hyde, in spite of being treated with great brutality, obviously never revealed his connection with either man.

On October 29, 1943 Bennett, Hyde and 31 others – Indian, Chinese, Canadian and British – were taken to the hillside close to StanleyBeach.[40] Bennett’s walk was upright, and he only limped slightly, in spite of what must have been agonising pain from his gangrenous leg. To all outward appearances he was calm. Two lines of trenches had already been dug in the small clearing. Black execution masks (or perhaps blindfolds) were placed over their faces, and they were told to kneel.[41] The beheadings were begun by one Japanese soldier and continued by others when he flagged.  [42] Eventually all the bodies were in the trenches and Indian warders covered them up.[43]  It was claimed that potatoes were planted on one of these communal resting places as a last gesture of contempt.[44]

In Stanley Military Cemetery, a little above the beach where he was executed, there is a memorial to Chester Bennett. The inscription reads simply British Army Aid Group, and when the stone was created there was no-one available to provide Mr. Bennett’s date of birth.[45]

In January 1944, a woman (her name’s illegible in my copy) who’d formerly worked for Chester Bennett at the brokerage firm Loxley’s escaped from Macao and brought news of his death in prison. In fact, as we’ve seen, he’d been executed long before, but many of the BAAG routes into Hong Kong had been smashed by the Kempeitai, and it seems that they weren’t aware of this. Marcus da Silva responded by pointing to the ‘heroic’ record and ‘considerable’ service of a man he called his ‘close personal friend’, and asking if anything could be done to rescue Mrs. Bennett – again, he seems to have been misinformed about her exact situation, but to have been quite right in principle, as she was arrested a few months later. If no funds were available, Mr. da Silva offered to sign a chit guaranteeing to pay the cost of the escape after the war.[46]

Mrs. Bennett hadn’t been allowed to see her husband for the five months after his arrest. On January 14, 1944, she gave birth to a girl. Marcus da Silva managed to get himself released and promptly fled to Macao, from where he sent a messenger to help her join him, but she refused to leave with such a young baby, and in any case didn’t think the Japanese would bother her after having killed her husband. She was wrong; the gendarmes came in June. They searched the house but failed to find Bennett’s papers, which she’d hidden in the garden. They took her anyway, accusing her of carrying on the work of smuggling money into Stanley. She was brutally interrogated and at one point starved for five days. She had to wash in cold tea. She never told her interrogators where to find her husband’s papers.[47]

One of the first to visit her after liberation was the Colonial Secretary, Franklin Gimson, at whose request her husband had turned down the chance of repatriation.[48]  According to one source, she eventually went to live in Los Angeles.[49]  

 Between August 2 and August 9, 1946 two Japanese civilians and a Warrant Officer were tried for their role in the brutality meted out to Bennett, Hyde and others. One of the civilians was also accused of mistreating Mrs. Bennett. The verdicts were complex and nuanced, with the judges obviously trying to assess the responsibility of the defendants in every act they stood accused of, but they were all found guilty of something. In two cases, their sentences, although not severe given the gravity of the charges, were reduced on appeal.[50] This was very different to the treatment experienced by Bennett and his co-defendants after their arrests.

 While awaiting execution, Bennett had heard that his wife was going to have a baby, whom he of course would never see. He wrote a final message of love, and asked his wife to bring up the child in her family’s faith ‘in which I now believe’[51]– this almost certainly means Catholicism. The letter was taken out by a friendly guard, while a Chinese fellow prisoner smuggled out his last message to Marcus da Silva: ‘Marcus I kept faith. I didn’t talk’.

No, whatever was done to him, Chester Bennett said not one word to implicate others. He knew what was in store for them if he did. But now his actions speak clearly, telling us of selflessness, dedication and total commitment to the cause of the good, of an unbreakable spirit that, in the most extreme of circumstances, displayed courage beyond imagination.


[3] Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0071667/

[20] http://sunzi.lib.hku.hk/hkjo/view/4401414.pdf: ‘Mr. Bennett and three Britishers leave at 3:00 p.m.’.

[22] Ride Papers, NA/343/170.

[27] The first reference to him I’ve been able to find is in the Hongkong Telegraph, October 13, 1928, page 12.

[28] George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 159. Wright-Nooth wrongly calls him Chester-Bennett.

[32] Tony Banham, We Shall Suffer There, 2009, Kindle Edition, Location 1849.

[34] Philip Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, 2003, 185.

[37] Wright-Nooth, 180. Tony Banham accepts the October 19 dating: We Shall Suffer There, Kindle edition, Location 2061.

[38] Wright-Nooth, 179-180.

[40] Geoffrey Emerson, Hong Kong Internment, 2008, Kindle Edition, Location 1758

[42] Wright-Nooth, 187.

[46] Ride Papers: Marcus da Silva, Letter to Ride, January 13, 1944.

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Parts 1, 4 and 6 of Hal Boyle’s series on Chester Bennett

(This is the first of a series

of columns on Chester Bennett,

“Hero of Hong Kong”)

By HAL BOYLE

Hong Kong, Jan. 26—(JP)

When little Carol Ann Bennett

toddles down Queens Road with

her Chinese “Amah” many

strange people pause to pat her

bright, ginger-colored hair.

She looks up at them wondering.

And when her chubby cheeks

crinkle in a friendly smile she

looks like her father. And people

who knew him feel sad and then

move on quickly.

Carol Ann is too small to know

her father was the American

“hero of Hong Kong.” She cannot

speak yet and she never saw her

father. She never will.

All that remains to mark

Chester Bennett’s stay on earth is

a stake driven into a garden patch

overlooking the small cove where

the first British Redcoats landed

more than a century ago on the

barren island that was to become

the empire’s jewel colony in the

Far East.

Japanese guards drove that

weathered stake into the ground

after beheading Chester Bennett

and 32 other prisoners convicted

of “crimes against the Japanese

Imperial government.” They planted

potatoes on the grave as a last

touch of contempt.

They accused Bennett of espionage

and smuggling money into

Stanley Bay internment camp so

that several thousand European

civilians held there could buy

extra rations—food that saved the

lives of many prisoners.

“The Japs were right on both

counts,” said Marcus Da Silva,

Portuguese attorney who worked

with Bennett and himself narrowly

escaped death. “But they could

not actually prove that he was

guilty. They finally killed him on

suspicion.”

Bennett didn’t undertake his

war tasks with the idea of becoming

a hero, or making a

profit. He was just a fat man

with a big heart and a sense of

adventure. He always had liked

to do favors for people.

“I believe be was an aviator

during the last war and just felt

that when the chance came for

him to do something In this

war that he had to follow

through,” said Da Silva, small,

neatly knit[1] man who had scorned

a chance to capture fat legal

fees under the Japanese for the

thankless duty of a spy.

Bennett was a heavy set.

broad shouldered man with a

large face under thinning hair.

His passport gives, his place and

date of birth as February 12,

1892, San Francisco. The photo

on the passport shows a heavy

featured face with keen, friendly

eyes.

Like most Americans who

make their career In the Far

East, he had come originally

only for a visit. He was a Holly-

wood photographer and small

scale producer and his assignment

when he arrived 11[2] years

ago was to look into the possibilities

of wild animal pictures

in the Orient.

But he fell under the Hong

Kong spell and decided to stay.

He had fallen in love, too, with

Elsa Soares, a flame-haired girl

of Portuguese and Irish descent

whose father was a justice of the

peace.

There were several hard years.

He was an American in a British

colony and with few contacts. He

scratched around with several prospects.

He became better known.

No man who talked with Chester

Bennett a half-hour ever left feeling

a stranger. Bennett formed a

partnership and became half-owner

of several bars and restaurants. He

had 17 Juke boxes scattered around

Hong Kong when the Japanese

struck.

After the island fell he was herd-

ed along with 3,000 other American

and European residents into Stanley

Bay concentration comp. The

Japanese, flushed with victory,

agreed to let prisoners send out one

man to buy 300,000 Hong Kong dollars

worth of food to supplement

their rations.

The man the British prisoners

asked to spend their money was

California-born Chester Bennett —

because be knew the food business

and they had faith in him.

“Sure,” said the easy-going American,

“glad to do it.”

And that was Chester Bennett’s

first step toward his grave.


[1] Word uncertain, but this is what it looks like.

[2] Possibly ‘12’.

Correspondents Notebook

By Hal Boyle

(This is the fourth of a series

of columns on Chester Bennett.

American Hero of Hong Kong)

By Hal Boyle

Hong KONG—Red-haired

Mrs. Chester Bennett, who

has an Irish smile and a Portuguese

accent, will never forget

May 14. 1943, the day Japanese

gendarmes took her husband

from her. She never again saw

the man who has become known

as “The American Hero of Hong

Kong.”

They had been living in

straitened circumstances. She

had been cashing her jewels to

buy food—Jewels her husband

had given her when his business

was prosperous and their life

was free. But although they permitted

him to remain at his

home, the Japanese forbade him

carrying on his restaurant business.

Ironically, while his own finances

were at the lowest ebb,

Bennett had sent priceless espionage

information out to the

Allies and had smuggled in hundreds

of thousands of dollars

to internees to the Stanley Bay

camp so they could buy extra

rations from the Japanese

guards.

It was on these matters that

Japanese gendarmes called five

days after Bennett’s first wedding

anniversary.

“That was an awful day,”

Mrs. Bennett said, shuddering.

“I was standing by the window

during breakfast and saw them

coming.”

At the moment she and her

husband were listening to the

shortwave radio over which they

got the war news they relayed

to Stanley Bay prisoners.

“Jap gendarmes,” she called.

“Hide the radio.”

There wasn’t time to put it

to its usual hiding place in the

arm chair. Her brother snatched

it up and fled through the

bathroom, A few seconds later

four Japanese gendarmes broke

into the home and began ransacking

the rooms, breaking and

tearing apart furniture as they

searched.

In a desk were a number

of promissory notes and messages

from the British colonial

secretary in the Stanley camp.

It was these promissory notes

that Bennett used to raise money

from wealthy Indian and Swiss

merchants.

“Chester gave me the high

sign and I began to yell and

scream and cry,” said Mrs. Bennett.

After staring at her contemptuously

for a moment the

Japanese turned away and began

to search another corner

of the room. She quickly seized

the promissory notes and messages

and stuffed them into an

old newspaper.

“While one guard was looking

out the window with a pair

of binoculars I slipped another

packet of letters and messages

from my coat in the wardrobe

and dropped them in among the

soiled linen in the bathroom

which they had already searched,”

she went on.

“They found no papers of

any value at all—only old pictures

and old correspondence.

But they took Chester away anyway

and I never saw him after

that day. I don’t think he quite

realized what the end of it would

be. He just told me: ‘Don’t worry.

I’ll be all right.’

“He was always cheerful

that way. Months after he was

dead I met some Chinese who

had been working with him in

sending out shipping information

and one told me: ‘Ah, Chester

Bennett: He was so brave. We

used to warn him to be careful

but he never was frightened.'”

Mrs. Bennett still weeps

when she recounts the terror-filled

days when her husband

was tortured in the Japanese

gendarmerie before being removed

to a cell in Stanley Bay

prison.

“He was a man who simply

couldn’t tolerate rice,” she said,

“and that’s all they gave him.

I used to take him food every

day to the gendarmerie. The

Japs wouldn’t let me see him.

“Once they didn’t take the

food for 10 days and I knew

they were starving him. I smuggled

some sandwiches and cigarettes

to him through a Chinese

man.

“After they took him to Stanley

prison they only let me bring

food twice a week and stole

most of what I brought. If they

didn’t want to bother, they’d Just

say: ‘No food, he’s already

dead.’

“They thought Itfunny to

say he already had been executed.

And each time I felt

they might be telling me the

truth.”

 


[1] The text here is hard to read but it’s most likely has ‘October 20’; October 19 is the date given by George Wright-Nooth.

Part 6

This Is the sixth of seven columns

on Chester Bennett, American

hero of Hong Kong)

By Hal Boyle

Hong Kong, Feb. 1— (JP) —

Autumn comes with cool benediction

In Hong Kong after the long,

hot, dry summer.

From his cell in Stanley prison

Chester Bennett saw the morning

of October 29, 1943. dawn clear

and beautiful. It was his last half-day

on earth.

In a few hours this American

“hero of Hong Kong” and 32

other prisoners were to be put to

death on charges of espionage and

“conspiring against the Imperial

Japanese government.”

Word of their fate had filtered

through to some 3,000 internees

in Stanley camp. They felt particularly

sorry for the cheerful, big-shouldered

American who had

smuggled money in to them so

that they could buy food. It was

for this crime—Japanese “thought

police” hadn’t been able to prove

he was sending out information to

British secret agents—that he

was to die.

Bennett was a large-bodied

man who had lived adventurously

and with zest. Yet his thoughts

turned less on himself in those

last hours than on his wife of a

year. He had just learned she was

to become a mother and bear him

a child that he would never see.

Before the guards came to take

him away he sat down and wrote

his pretty, red-haired wife a short

farewell note:

“I love you with all my heart

and soul. Goodbye. ChesterBennett.”

Then he turned the small sheet

over and wrote on its back:

“I am told you are to have a

baby. If so please raise it in the

faith of your father and mother {presumably Catholicism}

as I now believe in your faith. My

darling, I am sorry things turned

out this way, but believe me, I

love you and my last thoughts

will be of you. With all my love,

Chester.’

He gave the note to a friendly

guard and soon it was time to go.

The crowded black van pulled

out from the steel gates of Stanley

Prison and moved slowly down the

rough, narrow road leading to the

small bay where British redcoats

had planted the empire flag more

than a hundred- years before.

As the van passed a number of

internees toiling up the slope

someone put his face up to the

rear wire grill and called out:

“Goodbye boys. We shan’t be

seeing you again.”

At the bottom of the hill the

prisoners were forced to dismount

and follow a trail winding around

the edge of the bay. It must have

been torture at every step to Chester

Bennett. Rope burns on his

left leg had become badly infected,

the leg had become gangrenous

and needed amputation. But

he walked upright and limped

only slightly. To all outward appearances

he was utterly calm.

The prisoners marched in single

file to a small clearing. Ringing

the hills around them were scores

of Chinese gravestones. Before

them in the center of the clearing

the prisoners saw two trenches

dug by Indian wardens and knew

how they were to die.

The leader of the Japanese detail

was Captain Yamaguchi, the

prison commandant, who also bad

been trial Judge and now was to

execute his own death decrees.

There were 11 white men, Including

“Ginger” Hyde, leader of

the group of volunteer espionage

agents that Bennett had joined,

and seven Indians among the prisoners.

The rest were Chinese.

They were lined up before two

trenches, 17 in front of one, 16

In front of the other. Their bands

were bound behind them. The

prisoners looked up past the

brush-covered slopes and the ancient

white tombstone to the blue,

sunlit sky. Gulls flapped lazily

over the serene green water

washing softly against the clean,

rocky shore. All nature was at

peace except in this small vale.

The Indian warders who had dug

the trenches watched timorously

from the hillside.

Black execution masks were

dropped over the prisoners’ faces

and they were ordered to kneel.

Then Japanese non-coms wielding

heavy swords marched methodically

down the double line, lopping

off heads with powerful

strokes and kicking toppling

bodies into the trenches. There

were no outcries.

In a few seconds it was over.

The Indians came and covered up

the trenches and stuck up a rough

teakwood marker, listing in Japanese

characters the names of

those buried beneath. So far it

is the only memorial to Chester

Bennett, and his British, Indian

and Chinese comrades in achievement

and disaster.

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A Wartime Romance

I sometimes fancy trying my hand as a writer of popular romance. A short novel perhaps, or better still a film script. How about this for a scenario: Time: the ever-popular background of the Second World War. Place: the exotic and beautiful British colony (as it then was) of Hong Kong.  Action: the sirens whine, the shells whistle and crump, the fires blaze, and amid scenes of great confusion and horror the gallant defenders are overcome.

While most British civilians are suffering the fears and indignities of the defeated, a few are lucky enough to find themselves in the hands of a compassionate Japanese Army officer. He sets the bakers among them back to work, re-opening a small Chinese bakery to make bread for the hospitals. Everyone’s hungry and the Colony’s European population is desperate for the taste of bread; word soon gets round, and queues form – people will pay anything for a precious loaf. The bakers know that they’ll be packed off somewhere much worse if they abuse their position, but one of them refuses to let his friends leave empty-handed and gives them bread for free. While his comrades are remonstrating about the danger he’s putting them all in, a friend steps forward, asking for supplies not just for himself but also for his tenant, a pretty young Eurasian woman….

Everyone in Hong Kong’s been at risk of sudden death from shell or bomb during the fighting, and they all know that nothing can be taken for granted in the brutal new order that’s emerging. Things move fast, and the baker and the young woman are soon romantically involved.

Let’s make them an unlikely couple too, the kind who would never have got together in normal circumstances, but are thrown unexpectedly into each other’s arms by the heightened emotions of war. He’s working class and as English as they come – Hampshire and Berks – while she’s from  a good Macau family and has lived all her life in the south China world.

Their romancing takes place to the backdrop of Japanese soldiers patrolling the streets, tearing down the old English signs and erecting new ones, this time in the languages of the East, while all over the former Colony the message ‘Asia for the Asiatics’ is being drummed into a population that seems terrified at the atrocities going on all around rather than over-joyed at their liberation from British rule.  All this might lead up to a big scene in which the woman is offered the chance of returning to the safety and comfort of her neutral homeland (let’s give her some well-off friends to underline how much she’s sacrificing) but chooses to stay with her man, braving discomfort, slow starvation and the possibility of violent death at any moment.

Skip a few months and zoom into the couple marrying in church, and then standing on the steps for the group photo – the camera picks out a man in a Japanese officer’s uniform – what’s he doing there? – and then follows the couple as they walk off hand in hand, still prisoners but now at least together.

There follow three more years of terror and deprivation. Our hero and heroine, alongside the whole Allied community, are once again staring death in the face – either from starvation or massacre, but they’re saved by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one of the most terrible events in human history. They stumble out of their prison camp, play their part in the building up of a new world, and manage to hold a difficult relationship together all the way through to the husband’s death bed.

I know, I know these days everyone – romance readers and cinema audiences alike- demand something a bit more sophisticated than that. Why, the plot’s nothing more than a bunch of old-fashioned romantic clichés, stereotyped situations, exaggerated dilemmas and unlikely outcomes.

But that, in sober fact, was the life together of Thomas Herbert Edgar and Evelina Marques d’Oliveira.

They would not have given each other a second thought before the war. They came from such different backgrounds and lived in such different worlds.

Although things were getting more liberal in Hong Kong in the three years before the war, many of the British held on to a mythical view of racial hierarchy which meant that they and the other ‘Europeans’ were at the top of the heap and the Chinese at the bottom – in accord with this pernicious logic, Eurasians, who at least had some ‘white’ blood, were somewhere in between,[1] but probably closer to the Chinese: the Europeans had their own schools, for example, and so did the Eurasians, but those who didn’t have a place were generally educated alongside Chinese.[2] In fact:

Eurasians in a European social gathering created a climate of unease and psychological tension…Even highly educated Europeans reacted strongly against mixed marriages.[3]

Not surprising that there wasn’t much socialising between ‘whites’ and Eurasians.[4]

After their victory, the Japanese published a newspaper the Hong Kong News –  a lying propaganda sheet, but one that sometimes told the truth:

 (The) Eurasian when he seeks employment is classified as a ‘native’ and is required to accept ‘native’ pay.[5]

Evelina knew this for herself: she’d come to Hong Kong to work, something that as a middle class woman she was not expected to do back home in Macao, and before the war she had various jobs in sales. Eventually she rebelled and asked her latest boss to pay her the same rates as the European staff – to his credit, he agreed, but it didn’t change the system.

But race wasn’t the only prejudice in pre-war Hong Kong. There was a strict class hierarchy too, with the bankers and senior government officials at the top, wealthy businessmen not far distant, and everyone else graded according to job, salary, location, accent and so on. From this point of view, Thomas was really little more than a jumped up manual worker. True, he managed the bakery for Lane, Crawford, the most prestigious Department Store in Hong Kong, but he was a hands-on baker, someone who didn’t just tell others what to do but had learnt through a tough apprenticeship to do it all himself. And anyone who cared to enquire about his family would have learnt that he was the son of a domestic servant, later a would-be theatrical landlady, and a soldier-turned-driver. This is a photo of Thomas’s mother with her six children:

Evelina Marques d’Oliveira, on the other hand, came from a distinguished Macanese family. Her grandfather was a judge in Lourenco Marques, and there’s still a street named after him in Macao. Her father, Antonio, was a tea merchant, who took a Chinese wife; she died of TB when Evelina was three, and he later remarried.

Evelina’s best friends in Macao had been three Eurasian sisters, the Leitaos, daughters of a leading lawyer.  When her father moved to Foochow (Fuzhou), a centre of the tea trade on the south China coast, she was sent back to  Macao to be educated privately, probably at the elite Santa Rosa de Lima school. She spoke English and Portuguese fluently, and at some point was to become reasonably proficient in two forms of Chinese. She also acquired secretarial skills, and in many ways her written English was better than Thomas’s.

Thomas had been educated at the local state school and, although a bright boy, had to leave behind his studies and help his family’s finances by getting a job. At first he’d been a clerk in a motor company, but in 1927 – after his dreams of a boxing career ended with a knock-out – he began a three year apprenticeship at a baker’s, which meant long, unsocial hours, full of sweat and physical labour, at first working unpaid to learn his trade.

They had opposing religious beliefs too: Evelina was a Catholic, while Thomas was an enthusiastic Freemason, and therefore regarded as an enemy by the Church, a feeling which he reciprocated.

IMG_20140922_0005

Thomas on a day out at Mt. Parker in February 1940

Perhaps one thing symbolises most clearly the difference between the two worlds they’d been brought up in. The terraced house close to the river and in the flooding zone, which was all Thomas’s family could afford, was already full with him and his five brothers and sisters, but his parents still found room to cram in paying customers, actors appearing at the nearby Theatre Royal. In contrast, Evelina’s family bought a young girl as a servant under the old mui-tsai system – ‘We treated her well’, she said, many years later. This could have been true; British radicals in Hong Kong hated mui-tsai as a form of slavery, and there were indeed hideous abuses, but in many homes they were treated as part of the family – which didn’t necessarily spare them from long hours of work under a harsh discipline, of course.

You could say that Thomas and Evelina were united only by their relative disadvantages in class-conscious, race-obsessed Hong Kong. And perhaps by one other thing. Evelina was 28 when they met, 29 by the time they married. She’d had boyfriends: perhaps Horacio was one of them…

 …but she was leaving it rather late to get married according to the ideas of the time.  Thomas had been very shy when he was a boy; he sometimes used to cross the road to avoid walking too close to another person, although he’d probably got over that by the time he went to Hong Kong. Nothing is known about his relationships there though.  In any case, when his family heard the news of his marriage they were pleased for two reasons: firstly, it meant that he wouldn’t get himself killed trying to escape, and secondly that Thomas had found a woman who was willing to marry him in spite of his heavy drinking! Before the war he and two friends had been nicknamed ‘the three terrors of Hong Kong’ because of their alcohol-fuelled exploits.

 When the Japanese attacked on December 8, 1941 they were again in very different situations: Evelina’s Portuguese passport meant that she was a neutral, although no-one knew how far the Japanese would respect this. About Thomas though there was no doubt: he was an enemy and, as he was also young (28) and fit, he would be expected to play his part in the British defence.

Most able-bodied young British men had to join the Hong Kong Volunteers, a home guard with a dilettante reputation but which surprised most people by fighting with courage and distinction when the time came, but in October or November, 1938 as the Japanese war with China moved close to the Hong Kong border, Thomas received a letter telling him not to get involved in military training but to concentrate on preparing his bakery for any ‘emergency’. This was the new Lane, Crawford Bakery in Stubbs Rd, opened that year, and hailed in company adverts as the most hygienic in the Far East – disease was another Hong Kong obsession, this one with more reason.

So, almost exactly three years later, when the attack did come (December 8, 1941) Thomas was ready. The first air raid began at about 8a.m., and by that time he’d probably already left his lodgings in Broadwood Road and taken command in the Bakery. He was immediately promoted to Deputy Supply Officer Bakeries, which meant that he was in charge of most of the bakeries in Hong Kong, and he decided to start off by producing all the bread the population needed using the Lane Crawford machinery. If Stubbs Road became too dangerous, he’d prepared for production at some smaller premises in Wanchai, hoping that one or more of them would still be viable.

After the fall of the mainland on December 13 the bakery itself was in the line of fire between the Japanese and British forces. Thomas slept in the office chair, until the staff were given some camp beds. On December 19, the army field bakery in Deep Water Bay was forced to stop work, and Thomas’s responsibilities increased, as he now had to try to make sure that those doing the actual fighting had bread. Those who took the loaves from the bakery to the supply points were very brave men and women indeed. Hong Kong was being constantly shelled and bombed, and, although the Japanese made some effort to avoid civilian areas, there were many casualties. They also knew that the Japanese were not always taking prisoners.There was no water from an early stage of the fighting, so special deliveries had to be made by the Fire Brigade. Eventually there was no electricity either. In spite of everything, the bread went out, as ordered.

As the Japanese moved inexorably westwards from North Point towards the Hong Kong heartland of Victoria, the bakery’s situation became untenable. When it did, on December 21, Thomas moved production to some of the smaller bakeries he’d prepared for the task. These must have been terrifying but exhilarating days for him. He could die or be painfully wounded at any moment, but at the same time he was doing his duty, no matter what, moving around, working frenetically to coax the last ounce of production out of small and old-fashioned bakeries.

Thomas, helped by RASC bakers who arrved on the 23rd after an eventful journey from the south of the island, kept the bread supply coming until December 25 – later known in Hong Kong as Black Christmas – when the defenders were forced to abandon their hopeless resistance. Like the other Lane, Crawford employees Thomas was told to report to the company headquarters at Exchange House in Victoria’s Des Voeux Road, which was to become his first place of internment. He spent Christmas evening pouring away the alcohol stocked by the company’s restaurant- everybody feared what was about to happen, and it would have been foolish to leave around anything that could inflame the conquerors further.

The next morning Thomas woke up to meet the new rulers of Hong Kong for the first time. He was soon to realise that he was lucky: Exchange House was under the control of a communications officer, Captain Tanaka, a fine man whose generosity has been recorded by other former prisoners.  Tanaka allowed him to go to his lodgings to get a new shirt – he’d used the one he’d been wearing to bind the wounded, and it was bitterly cold by now. In the days to come, Tanaka  gave good food to the internees, and even arranged film shows for them.

On January 5 most of the Allied civilians were assembled in squalid waterfront hotels and from there they were soon to be sent off to a large  improvised place of internment on the southern peninsula – Stanley Camp.  Captain Tanaka arranged for Thomas and his fellow bakers to stay in Exchange House and on January 9 he gave them permission to go back to work to help feed the many patients in Hong Kong’s hospitals.

Evelina had a neutral’s passport, but as a Eurasian woman she must have been terrified as the Japanese troops took over. Everyone had in their minds the possibility of mass rape and murder, as had happened after the fall of Nanking. Years later in England she’d speak about her fear of the bombs, and sometimes hide in an understairs cupboard during storms if the thunder got too loud. But there was another, more immediate problem: hunger. Food was hard to come by during those chaotic, panic-stricken days. Luckily Evelina’s landlord (probably Robert Bauder, a Swiss national who like Thomas worked for Lane, Crawford) knew someone who could probably get her something to eat….Some time in January 1942 he took her to the Ching Loong bakery in Queen’ Road, where Thomas and his colleagues were at work, and the relationship began.

On February 8 Thomas was transferred to internment in St. Paul’s Hospital, generally known as the French Hospital, in Causeway Bay, but he continued to bake bread – and to see Evelina. The team of drivers who delivered this bread included an American, Charles Winter, and a Welshman Owen Evans, a man who was unlucky to have been there at all. He was a driver with the Friends Ambulance Unit based in southern China who’d been sent to Hong Kong to rest when war broke out.

It was from the French Hospital that Thomas was married on the afternoon of Sunday, June 29, 1942, a bright, sunny day. Interestingly, that was the very day that the Hong Kong Americans began their journey home. The American and Japanese governments had arranged a prisoner swap, and, while most of the other British were down at Stanley preparing to wave goodbye to their American friends, Thomas was getting ready for his wedding. Many of the people bidding farewell to the lucky repatriates had tears in their eyes, and complex emotions in their heart: sorrow at the loss of friends, happiness that for some at least of their number the ordeal would soon be over, pain that they would have to remain in captivity, and hope that their turn for release would soon come. Thomas must have felt all that, and more.

For he must have been aware that what was happening that afternoon was more than just a wedding. One of the few things from the days before the war that Evelina brought with her when, almost eight years later, she started her new life in England, was this photo, torn from an old passport:

 

Her Portuguese nationality was her only protection against the Japanese soldiers, the one thing that might save her from rape or murder if the behaviour of the victorious army in Hong Kong was anything like what it had been in Nanking.  Did Evelina seize this passport, kept in a place where she could get to it quickly, if she heard a knock at the door during those fear-filled early days of the occupation? Did she clutch it tight whenever she left the house, ready to brandish it if assailed in the street? Whatever protection her nationality gave her, she was abandoning it when she married Thomas.

The American journalist Emily Hahn was another ‘enemy’ civilian outside Stanley Camp at that time. Hahn was pretending to be Chinese, on the basis of having been one of the ‘wives’ of a Chinese poet. A friendly Japanese officer assured her that under Japanese law this marriage gave Hahn her husband’s Chinese nationality.  That may or may not have been true, but it’s certain that after the wedding Evelina’s fate would be linked with that of the English community, most of whom were currently languishing in Stanley.

Why didn’t she just go home to Macao? Hahn tells us that it was still considered safe then[6] and the Government there invited all Macanese to return – the Japanese were happy for them to go, as it meant fewer mouths to feed. The situation there could have changed at any time of course, as the Japanese didn’t always respect Portuguese neutrality, and the Macau Government had to manoeuvre carefully to remain unoccupied. But for most people the security of peace, albeit precarious, would prove preferable to immediate danger and many Macanese took up the offer of refuge .

One factor in Evelina’s decision might have been the plight of the Portuguese refugees who were flooding Macao  in 1942; most of them were living in over-crowded accommodation and on rations if anything worse than those available in Hong Kong. But Evelina had wealthy friends in Macao. In fact, although she probably didn’t know it, the youngest of the three Leitao sisters, her closest friends, also married in 1942. Clementina, a striking beauty, won the heart (it was said to be ‘love at first sight’) not of a baker but  a Hong Kong businessman who was already comfortably situated and was later to become one of the richest men in Asia. But leaving that aside, as probably not known to Evelina when she made her decision to stay in Hong Kong, she knew she could return to Macao and expect the help of the well-off and influential Leitao family. I don’t, by the way, know if her father Antonio was alive at the time. He died relatively young of liver disease but I haven’t yet found out exactly when.

I think the real reason that Evelina stayed in Hong Kong and married Thomas was that they were in love with each other, and she was willing to risk everything so that they could stay together. Years later, when asked why she didn’t go home in 1942, she replied simply, ‘It wouldn’t have been right’.

But, given the decision to stay together,  why actually get married a mere 5 or 6 months after meeting? Looked at from a purely utilitarian point of view, Lena might have seemed safer keeping her Portuguese nationality and it was useful to Thomas having someone who was not considered an enemy by the Japanese. She was working and reasonably free to move around Hong Kong, buying whatever was available with any money she had. ‘Third National’ (neutral) friends like  the Swiss Robert Bauder, prominent in the wedding photo, would have been able to channel small gifts of food through Evelina without raising the suspicions of the Kempeitai (Japanese Gestapo) – some neutrals and Chinese were tortured or even executed for being too friendly to the British.

And one possible  motive can be ruled out: Thomas and Lena were determined that they would not bring a child into the world under such conditions. Evelina was a Catholic, and this ruled out contraception, even if any was attainable.

I think part of the answer lies in the apparent coincidence of the  town group of Americans starting their journey of repatriation on the morning of the wedding day. According to American reporter Gwen Dew, a small group of Americans were told on March 30th. they were being repatriated. This firmed up rumours that had been going around in February, and at the end of the month the Americans were told that all of them would be going home (Prisoner of the Japs pages 140, 146). Naturally the British began pressing their leaders to try to arrange a similar prisoner swap, and for a time the ever-optimistic internees were hopeful that, as the Camp ‘anthem’ put it, they would soon ‘sail away’ to freedom; my guess is that Thomas wanted to make sure that there would be no doubt about Evelina’s right to board that so-longed for repatriation ship.

But beyond all that, I think that, once again, it was a simple case of loving each other and judging that marriage was necessary if they were to live the relationship in the way they wanted. One or both of them could die at any moment, so they wanted to spend as much time together as possible, and if the end came, they would face it together or at least married to each other.

It must also be remembered that, although Thomas would have seen plenty of examples of the brutal treatment of Chinese in Hong Kong, the British had not been badly handled since the surrender. There were rapes and massacres during and just after the fighting, but since then the British had suffered humiliation and appalling living conditions, but no worse. In fact, given the Japanese suspicion of anyone who showed the British too much friendship, it might have seemed safer to both Thomas and Evelina for her to have the same status as him. She was, after all, a recent girlfriend, and one who could reasonably be expected to go back home to Macao, so why, the  ever -suspicious Kempeitai might have reasoned, was she staying?

I wonder if Thomas and Evelina regretted their decision in the terrible months that began in February 1943?  The Kempeitai launched a campaign against the British community, one of the first acts of which was to arrest and brutally interrogate a woman who was working for Dr. Selwyn-Clarke, who was in effect Thomas’s boss at the French Hospital. Before the end of the year some of the most important figures in the colony had been imprisoned, tortured and in some cases beheaded. Selwyn-Clarke himself faced months of brutal interrogation but never revealed a single thing about the illegal relief activities he’d been at the centre of. Amazingly, he survived the war.

But all that was in the future on that hot June Sunday when their marriage was blessed by Father Riganti, the Rector of St. Joseph’s, a man who had himself known internment – in his case, by the British, who’d arrested him when the Japanese attacked on the grounds that he was Italian and an Axis national.

The three pictures of the wedding that survive tell an interesting story. In the first Evelina and her friends are standing outside the church –St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Kennedy Road. The name of the man she’s with, who was presumably to later give her away, is not known:

After the ceremony, the wedding party posed on the church steps:

small wedding 001

A note on the back of one of the different—sized versions of this picture confirms that the Japanese soldier in the second row is Thomas’s old benefactor, Captain Tanaka. As Thomas was no longer under his supervision, he must have kept in touch or at least found a way of sending the Captain an invitation. He’s standing tactfully at the end of the second row, wanting to be clearly in the picture but not to dominate it.

Thomas seems in good shape after six months in captivity. He hasn’t lost much weight yet and he’s in a smart white suit with what look like good shoes.  It wasn’t long after the surrender before some of the people in Stanley were trying to deal with problems caused by crumbling footwear and disintegrating clothing, while in June 1942, in the military POW camp of Shamshuipo his friends in the Hong Kong Volunteers were already suffering the torments caused by diseases of malnutrition like beri beri and ‘electric feet’ (Les Fisher, I Shall Remember, 41). But the emotional realities shown by the wedding pictures are very different.

Evelina is putting on a sweet but not very profound smile, while Thomas’s lips are only slightly raised, the merest gesture towards a sign of happiness. The other two men in the front row, Robert Bauder (second on the left, also in a white suit), and the man holding Lena’s arm in the earlier photo taken outside the church, look rather grim, while the best man, Owen Evans, is hardly smiling any more convincingly than Thomas. Only the bridesmaid on the far left and the Matron of Honour have the kind of expressions expected in the front row of a wedding party.

In the ‘happy couple’ photo, probably taken just afterwards, Thomas has abandoned any attempt at a smile; if anything, he looks angry, while Evelina’s smile has now been invaded by the ever-lurking sense of fear:

They were in love and getting married, but they had no proper home, they were  hungry most of the time, and one or both of them could die violently at any time. And they had no idea when, if ever, all this would come to an end.

Later that year Thomas’s family in Windsor were to receive a letter from Charles Winter, Thomas’s repatriated American colleague. It is hard to imagine the relief and joy this must have brought his parents and brothers and sisters. It was the first news they’d had of him since the start of the fighting on December 8, 1941, the first indication that he was alive and unwounded.

Mr. Winters paints a tactfully reassuring picture of Thomas at work in a Hong Kong in which business was pretty much as usual. And thanks to this letter the family learnt at the same time that Evelina existed and was almost certainly their daughter-in -law!

After the ceremony was there some kind of reception, a pooling of the meagre resources available in wartime Hong Kong? There’s no doubt that Captain Tanaka – who sent the employees of the Telephone Company off to their imprisonment in Shamshuipo Camp with a bottle of whisky each – would have provided something if he could, or that friends and colleagues would have chipped in from their meagre rations. But all that’s known for certain is that Thomas and Evelina returned to the French Hospital, now husband and wife.

Footnote

About ten months later, on May 7, 1943, they were sent to join the rest of the Allied civilians in Stanley Camp; Selwyn-Clarke had been arrested on May 2 under unjustified suspicion of being a spy. They stayed there until the end of the war in August 1945. After more than three and  a half years of terror and privation they were finally free.

And just over five years later, her brain and body still on fire with what had happened in the war, Evelina returned to the French Hospital to give birth to their first son. A few weeks later, the baptism took place.  Robert Bauder was there again, and posed for the camera with the baby in his arms. It was the same Father Riganti who officiated.

 


[1]Gerald Horne, Race War!, Kindle Edition, Location 830.

[2] Horne, Location 602.

[3] Hong Kong sociologist Henry Lethbridge, quoted in  Horne,  Location 830.

[5] Cited in Horne, Location, 792.

[6] Marriage and Japanese law: Emily Hahn,  China To Me, 321; Macao safe: Hahn, 368.

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