The Reign of Terror (1): Prelude and Early Moves

Until the war came to Hong Kong, Thomas must have felt his decision to leave England had been a good one. With the help of a little forgery – he’d changed his birth certificate so as to appear three years older – he’d landed a job managing one of the most advanced bakeries in the Far East, he was enjoying the kind of comfortable life a working class man could rarely aspire to back home, and he loved the strange and beautiful territory he spent so many weekends exploring: the pre-war photos he sent home are usually of outdoor locations – Mount Parker, Shaukiwan, dramatic scenery on a small island, a hunting trip with other men…[1]

He was a patriot with a strong sense of duty and there’s no doubt he would have returned to England and joined the army, if that’s what his country had asked of him, but at least part of him must have felt relieved at the instructions to ex-pats to stay at their posts and keep the Empire running. A trip back to cold, blacked-out England was not his idea of fun.[2]

The eighteen days of vicious battle changed things forever. But even during that grim conflict I doubt that Thomas felt nothing but anxiety and regret. This is what former internee Barbara Anslow – one of the most consistently reliable sources on all matters connected with the Hong Kong war – has to say about those eighteen days:

We reacted much the same as our compatriots during the blitz and wartime in UK, with a sort of sang froid, making the best of things. If you have seen the photo taken on Christmas morning 1941 outside the CSO tunnel, of 2 men in the Public Works Dept. and myself, we are all smiling and cheerful. Of course some people had had dreadful experiences, but Ican’t recall people in constant fear and misery.[3]

And, as Gwen Priestwood, whose over-gloomy portrait Anslow is critiquing, points out:

To banish fear there is nothing like having something definite to do.[4]

Thomas certainly had plenty to do during those hectic days, and surely some part of his mind must have been capable of feeling pride that he was trusted enough to be chosen to run the Colony’s wartime bakery service.[5]

Like every other British national, he would have felt deeply the pain of defeat, and he would have also have shared the general fear in the days after the Christmas surrender. Priestwood probably spoke for many:

My thoughts were full of the probable coming horrors.[6]

As did Mary Goodban:

I thought there would be a wholesale massacre and torture of Europeans[7]

Every expatriate was aware of what had happened after the fall of Nanking (Nanjing), although optimistic ones like Ellen Field assumed that the Japanese would treat the British differently,[8] would even allow them to carry on with more or less their old ways of living as part of their new order, but as news of the atrocities committed by Japanese troops during the fighting spread round the Allied community, such optimism disappeared. Years later Thomas – still baffled and angry– told his son about the courage of Dr. Black and Captain Whitney, who were brutally murdered at St. Stephen’s College while trying to protect the nurses and patients from the victorious Japanese army.[9] The St. Stephen’s massacre, one of the worst atrocities of the Hong Kong war followed.[10]

Thomas must have been relieved when, on December 26, Captain Tanaka took charge of the Exchange Building, the Lane Crawford Headquarters where he began his internment. Unfortunately there were also two war criminals with the name Tanaka in Japanese Hong Kong, and, as I shall suggest in a future post, there might have been some confusion between them even amongst the Allied population during the war, but three separate sources, including Thomas’s 1946 article, attest to this Tanaka’s excellent treatment of the Exchange Building captives.[11] One of these sources even suggests he might have been executed for what the Japanese Army regarded as his excessive concern for the defeated.

Thomas might also have been happy to avoid the fate that befell most of the Allied civilians in January 1942: crammed four to a bed in squalid waterfront brothel-hotels, left for over two weeks without adequate food, water, exercise or fresh air, and then shipped off to an improvised internment camp at Stanley, where traces of some of the most bitter fighting of the Hong Kong war were still visible and almost nothing in the way of facilities had been provided for the 3,000 or so unfortunates who were told they had to make their home there until the war was over.

There was also, of course, his new relationship with Evelina. At first, he was a prisoner in the Exchange Building but on January 9 Tanaka gave him permission to start baking bread for the hospitals,[12] and his life then must have become a little freer. He never described this period, but accounts of other Allied nationals left in the town at this time suggest that, although subject to strict controls and confined to his quarters (he moved from the Exchange Building to the French Hospital in February) he would have had some opportunities to enjoy social activities.[13]

And after his wedding on June 29 he would no longer have to face the future alone. Sadly, it was probable that soon after that date things started to get worse. The bankers who’d been kept in the waterfront hotels to transact Japanese business found that ‘things tightened up after the middle of 1942’.[14] Whatever the ‘local’ conditions in Hong Kong – and the Kempeitai (roughly: the Japanese Gestapo) there were gradually tightening their grip until they achieved a degree of control greater than in any other Japanese-held territory – it’s probable that the over-riding factor was the turn taken in the Pacific War after the American victory at Midway (June 4-7). After this, although nothing can be taken for granted in war, the most likely prospect was what actually happened: a slow Allied progress through the Pacific gradually re-taking lost territory. By July 1942 Lindsay Ride had established a viable resistance operation based in Southern China,[15] and American air power was developed enough to begin bombing targets in Hong Kong as early as October 1942.

Ride’s British Army Aid Group was in touch with Stanley and the POW Camps, and had agents operating in ‘free’ Hong Kongtoo. He Kempeitai believed that Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke was the head of the BAAG in Hong Kong. They were wrong; the Medical Director occasionally used this organisation – for example, as a source of medical supplies[16] – but he was careful to confine himself to purely humanitarian operations. He was ‘protected’ by Mr. Oda, head of the Foreign Affairs Office, and by Colonel Eguchi, the chief Japanese Army Medical Officer, [17]who believed he was crucial in preventing epidemic diseases that would strike Japanese solders just as surely as they would Chinese and Allied civilians. This meant that the Kempeitai couldn’t just arrest him and try to torture a confession out of him, which was their usual way of procedure. However, if they could provide some form of evidence that he was involved in spying, then that would be another matter. With grim logic and a total disregard for the norms of civilised behaviour, they decided to arrest and torture some of his associates in the hope that they could be made to incrimiante him. By January 1943, at the latest, they were ready to strike.

On January 21 they arrested Mr. E. D. Sykes, the head of the Eurasian Welfare Association was arrested and asked under torture if he was a spy and if he knew the Medical Director.[18] On February 10 they abducted the dental practitioner Dr. K. W. Chuan after he’d just paid a visit to the Medical Department:[19] he was pushed into a car, had his face covered with cloth, forced onto the floor and driven to the Central Police Station, where he was asked if he knew a Dr. Suen, who’d left the colony. When he answered that he didn’t, the brutality began in earnest.[20]

So far, no luck. Their next attempt took them still closer to Selwyn-Clarke.

[4] Gwen Priestwood, Through Japanese Barbed Wire, 13.

[6] Priestwood, 27.

[7] Oliver Lindsay, At The Going Down Of The Sun, 37.

[8] Twilight in Hong Kong, 21.

[9] A brief account can be read at St Stephen’s College was soon to be part of Stanley internment Camp.

[10] There’s a graphic description in George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 7-9.

[12] British Baker article.

[13] See e.g. Emily Hahn, China To Me, 305. Emil Landau, of the Parisian Grill, tells us that the bankers used to come to the Grill for ‘tiffin’ on Sundays – China Mail, January 8, 1947, page 2.

[14] Banker H. W. Hawkins, in Liam Nolan, Small Man of Nanataki, 74.

[16] Selwyn-Clarke, 77.

[17] Selwyn-Clarke, 70.

[18] Sunday Herald, January 5, 1947 , page 2

[19] According to Ellen Field, Selwyn-Clarke’s ‘office’ was on the top floor of the former National City bank building – 86.

[20] China Mail, January 8, 1947, page 2.



1 Comment

Filed under Hong Kong, Hong Kong WW11, Selwyn-Selwyn Clarke, Stanley Camp

One response to “The Reign of Terror (1): Prelude and Early Moves

  1. Pingback: The Reign of Terror (3): The Courage of Dorothy Lee | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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