Evelina In ‘The War After’

It was obvious that the Hong Kong war would exact a toll on the health of all those involved. Almost four years of near starvation rations in Shamshuipo, Stanley and the other camps, compounded by the scarcity of medicine were bound to have an effect. In Stanley Camp, however, where the conditions were generally better than in the POW Camps, the fortunate presence of a large number of dedicated doctors and nurses kept health problems to the minimum possible under the circumstances. But what of ‘mental’ health? Inadequate food, restrictions on freedom, constant fear, and the pressure of over-crowded conditions could have been expected, at the very, least to upset the equilibrium of the most well-balanced of internees, and one might well predict much more serious consequences than that.

Internee leader Franklin Gimson wrote later about the time in Camp:

A few cases of mild mental disorder caused alarm but generally their absence evoked surprise.[2]

Gimson was understating the extent of mental disturbance in Stanley: George Wright-Nooth tells us that the hospital held ‘several characters who were certifiably mad’ (policemen like him earned extra rations by looking after them).[3] It’s not possible to know, of course, if they were driven mad by internment or by previous events. In any case, I think Gimson’s claim stands even if it needs to be modified a little: there was remarkably little ‘mental illness’ in Stanley Camp. What happened, though, in later years, during what Anne Karpf has called in her distinguished memoir ‘the war after’?[4]

According to The Prisoner Of War, The Red Cross Magazine for relatives of POWs and civilian internees, the wraith-like and bemused internees who stumbled out of Stanley to freedom sometime in August or September 1945 had one question more than any other on their lips:

Do we seem normal after our long imprisonment?[5]

 The honest answer was ‘No’. It wasn’t just their physical appearance – you could spot the gaunt form of a Hong Kong ex-internee a block away – but numerous sources attest to their slow-wittedness, their inability to concentrate and to answer questions with reasonable promptitude. But it didn’t take long for most people to get back to that longed-for ‘normal’.

In some cases, though severe psychological disturbances did result: I’m aware of at least two post-war psychoses, and two or three suicides probably resulting from the events of the Hong Kong war,[6] and there were no doubt more.

For many, though, it wasn’t a question of major pathologies but of unwelcome character changes that seemed to come from the experience of internment. I think that Jean Gittins spoke, with her usual candour, for the majority of internees, who never attracted the attention of the psychiatric profession but knew that the war had made them different people:

I do not deny that I am nervous and not a little unbalanced in my outlook….[7]

Of course, as Anne Karpf points out, any trait we might want to consider a result of wartime experiences, whether in the later lives of the survivors or in their children, is certain to exist abundantly amongst those who lived out those years in peace. My intention in this post is not to discuss this methodological problem but to describe one of the main events in Evelina’s post-war life. That my interpretation of those events is speculative will be obvious. So are all the alternative interpretations, although those that focus exclusively on the menopause, hormones and the central nervous system might sound more ‘scientific’.

The photos taken in Hong Kong between 1945 and 1951 seem to show a reasonably happy woman:

Thomas and Evelina played their part in the speedy rebuilding of Hong Kong: I’ll discuss Thomas’s work as a baker in a future post, and Evelina found employment as a dental receptionist. She was no doubt very happy the week she won a huge lottery prize and they hired a floor of the Hong Kong Hotel to celebrate. Some of that money was later to enable her and Thomas to buy a house in England, which Thomas designed himself, drawing on the principles of feng shui he’d learnt in Hong Kong. Then Evelina’s life changed, and not for the better. Thomas wanted a child from the start, and various stories were later told as to why it took so long for them to conceive, but in 1950 they were successful.

 Brian was born in the French Hospital in October. This was the scene of Evelina’s first internment, and of the terrifying ‘lock down’ after the arrest of Dr. Selwn-Clarke in May 1943,[8] and it was a difficult birth.

Thomas always said later that he returned to England to have his son educated there, but, precocious as Brian no doubt was, he had no imminent need for schooling at three months, his age when the family set sail.  The real reason probably wasn’t the good work being done back in Britain as a result of the 1944 Education Act, but a historical development of a very different kind: the outbreak and course of the Korean War (June 25, 1950-July 27, 1953). In the month of Brian’s birth, a huge army of Chinese ‘volunteers’ crossed the Yalu River to fight alongside the North Koreans. If things escalated, than a Chinese attack on Hong Kong could be expected, and the whole nightmare would begin again. A glance at the headlines of the China Mail on the day of Brian’s birth suggests the real reason for such haste: the news was dominated by the Korean War and almost every other front page story suggests violence and instability inAsia.

Whatever the reason for her exile, Evelina must have hated England. First they lived with Thomas’s parents in a large, old-fashioned Victorian house in Windsor, and then, when Thomas got a job managing the NAAFI bakery and the family moved to Portsmouth, she was stuck in an ugly flat with the NAAFI factory on one side, the squat, noisy social club on the other, and the black stands of Fratton Park Football Ground behind. When she left the featureless industrial estate, she moved through a rather grim city still showing signs of heavy wartime bombing. How she must have longed for her elite life in Macau or for the sunshine and the beauty of Hong Kong, with Chinese servants to boot.

Naturally, her son came to seem more like a gaoler than anything else, tying her to a life she hated, but she conscientiously pushed his pram past the bomb sites to the sea-front and to Portsmouth Zoo. Soon she was a mother for the second time.

Life got better for Evelina in 1956 when they moved back to Windsor, but this time to a smart new bungalow. Evelina liked this pleasant suburb a lot more than the NAAFI estate; she could talk to the neighbours, lose herself in the housework, and enjoy the comforts of middle class living. The couple still saw old friends from Hong Kong though, including Tommy Waller (internee 2116).

They hardly talked about the war to their children though. Brian knew from before he could remember that they’d been held prisoner by the Japanese, but Thomas rarely, and Evelina almost never, provided any details. Once she told her son him that one day in camp she’d gone to put on her shoes and discovered a centipede in one of them; she’d screamed for Tommy, who’d come and killed it. It was the (relatively!) light side of camp life, and that was all she was willing to talk about.

Two events from that period now seem significant.

Brian was an enthusiastic school sprinter and he was obsessed by the Rome Olympics (1960), especially the swimming and the athletics. On August 30, the family were watching the final of the 200 metres breaststroke on TV. Tsuyoshi Yamanaka, a 21 year old Japanese swimmer, won the silver medal. He and the other medal winners came out of the pool and acknowledged the applause of the crowd; the Japanese swimmer bowed in traditional fashion to his delighted home supporters, who responded appropriately:

Tommy, they’re waving the flag.

 Evelina’s voice had the tension of held in emotion, but also a questioning edge; she was looking to her husband for guidance. All he could do was agree. He too was plunged into thoughts and memories, into emotions that those of us who have never known war and occupation can hardly begin to understand.

It was about this time that Brian watched his mother opening an unexpected  letter. Evelina began crying before she’d finished. It told of the death of one of their closest friends  from Hong Kong. The friendship had continued after the war, and this death was a heavy blow, all the more so because the circumstances suggested suicide.

And then Lena began to experience the menopause, although no one said that at the time, in front of the children at least.

It was realized during the war that there was a close link between menstruation and trauma. A number of women reported cessation of periods in Stanley Camp,[9] and after the war this was studied scientifically by Dr. Annie Sydenham (the only woman to serve on a Camp Committee during internment!).[10] Sydenham discovered that over 60% of young women suffered amenorrhea and in over 50% the condition lasted for more than three months. She concluded that although undernourishment was an important factor in prolonged cases, many women began to cease menstruation in December, 1941 before this became an issue. She thought that these cases were caused by ‘The emotional shock of war and internment, with the change of environment and occupation’ (italics hers).

I believe that for Evelina this process worked in reverse: ceasing to menstruate brought about a situation in which the emotional force of the war surged up irresistibly. Later Brian was, for a brief period, to become an admirer of psychoanalysis, but you don’t have to be a Freudian to believe in the ‘return of the repressed’. You can watch it happening around you all the time.

One day, probably in 1960 or 1961, Evelina sat down on a chair in her kitchen:

Tommy, my knees won’t stop shaking.

The problem didn’t go away. Her knees started shaking uncontrollably every time she sat down. Soon she was overcome by feelings of depression and exhaustion. Medicine at that time tended to view such problems reductively; many women after all, had a tough time at ‘the change’. But Evelina’s experience wasn’t just a matter of a difficult hormonal adjustment complicated by a problem ‘coming to terms’ with the fact that she could no longer bear children. It was a life and death struggle with the blackest emotions from her past, and, although she didn’t understand it herself at the level of the everyday self (‘Lena’) her deeper self understood it perfectly, and was sending out a clear signal to anyone who cared to ‘receive’ it: what could be a more obvious sign of fear than knocking knees? Almost a joke, having been milked for comic effect in so many bad films.

 It wasn’t just fear, of course, but all the humiliations and deprivations of Stanley Camp– the crowded bungalow room without the slightest privacy, the endless queuing, the lack of freedom, the ever-present hunger…At some point, Evelina, like all the rest of the internees realized that she’d lost everything except what she could carry with her into Camp:[11] for most of us that would be a major trauma, easily the worst thing that ever happened in our lives, but the inhabitants of Stanley Camp soon came to understand that it was the least of their problems.

Most of the internees identified and overcame the real problems of internment – personal and psychic survival. Evelina got through Camp, brought up her children for as long as she could, and then, when it was safe to do so and when she was ‘weakened’ by hormonal changes, she collapsed into what some people call a ‘healing crisis’ – although that makes it sound far too comfy and far too certain to have a happy ending. This was a question of life and death, and nobody knew what its outcome would be.

The scene of the drama that now played itself out was the lounge of the family home, a bungalow by no means identical to but strangely reminiscent of the one in which they’d spent two years as internees:

Evelina lay on the sofa for almost all of the day, crippled by headaches and depression. Brian went to his grandmother’s for lunch. He was worried that his mother wouldn’t be able to look after him at all and he and his brother would have to go and live there full-time. Thomas, who had been working regular overtime, as the family was never very well off by the standards of middle class Windsor – and, in any case, work was his best way of keeping the experience of the war safely walled-off – got home as soon as he could and cooked the family’s evening meal. Later the relationship would deteriorate, but at this time he was a loving as well as dutiful husband; nevertheless, he could do little for Evelina except practical things like that. He looked like a man a long way out of his depth. And he too suffered as day after day went by and his wife never seemed to get any better.

Brian looked at her on the sofa and he was filled with fear. She seemed so weak, so fragile. She was losing weight, but it wasn’t just that. He could see the energy of life dwindling in her, crumpling up her body and dragging her mind into a dark pit of pointlessness and despair. He didn’t see how she could ever haul herself out.

The family had an excellent GP and he made all of the appropriate arrangements. The doctors thought of the experience in terms of Evelina’s ‘nerves’, and one day the consultant who specialized in the nervous system came round to the bungalow. Such interventions were well meaning but pointless. The problem didn’t exist at the level of synapses, reflexes and the like: it existed because of what Evelina had experienced, and, quite unconsciously, she had found a way to deal with that experience.

As she lay on the couch, Evelina was somehow able to work through what had happened to her, to allow it, in some indirect and symbolic way, to come to the surface and be partially at least resolved.[16]

The emotions of Stanley Camp! What do you feel when you hear the screams of torture and know that the next victim might be the man you love? Or even you yourself, brutally questioned to extract evidence against him? What goes through your mind when you’re aware of someone in the next room preparing a small parcel of food to send to a husband who’s slowly starving to death on prison rations? When a woman you like learns that her husband has been beheaded? Or has died two days ago of malnutrition without the chance of a final meeting?[17]

That was the kind of thing that went on in  Stanley Camp’s Bungalow D, the model of the hone in Windmill Close that my father had designed himself in th middle o the 1950s.

Such emotions are too powerful to be faced at the time; they can only be stored, waiting for the day when they can be allowed some form of consciousness.

But let’s forget everything that happened before – the executions, the screams coming from the prison, the over-crowding, the cold, the constant hunger and  a dozen other things – and just focus on the second half of August, 1945. First, a rumour sweeps the camp that all the internees and prisoners of war in Hong Kong and China are going to be shot in revenge for a dreadful new bomb that’s been dropped on a place called Hiroshima. Then they hear the news that the Japanese have surrendered, the war is over, but they musn’t celebrate too much in case it provokes the Japanese. And the internees start to realise that there are still thousands of armed Japanese soldiers in Hong Kong and it’s by no means certain they’ll all accept the surrender. No-one knows where the nearest Allied troops are, and fear returns to the minds of the inhabitants of Stanley, mixing with the continuing but now precarious joy. To die now, with freedom so close – wouldn’t that be the worst of all? On August 30 every internee who’s able to walk staggers up to the high ground in Stanley to watch Admiral Harcourt’s ships sail past on their way to anchor in the harbour:

File:Swiftsure 1945.jpg

Harcourt rounding North Point

At 5 p. m. Harcourt came to Stanley Camp, and one of the incidental happenings of the day was that the internees encountered a jeep (the word and the the thing) for the first time. A flag raising ceremony was held; one internee from every nationality in Stanley raised the flag of their country while the rest of the Camp looked on. It was an almost unbearably intense occasion:

The man raising the flag is Thomas’s friend, the Prison Officer R. E. Jones. Now, at last, the war really was over and the people of Stanley Camp felt safe for the first time since December 8, 1941.

Just this – two weeks out of three years eight months – is too much for the human heart to bear, too much fear and uncertainty, too much roller-coastering, too much even of joyful emotions, which, if they can’t be fully experienced, will one day exact a  price just as surely as fear and sadness will. Some Hong Kong hospital patients, in fact, are recorded as having died of joy, their weakened bodies unable to stand the force of the happiness that surged through them when they realised they were finally free.

And it wasn’t just the feelings left behind by Stanley either. Evelina had had a hard childhood, as did so many children of the apparently pampered colonial elites. Her mother had died of tuberculosis when her daughter was three; the night before her death she’d called for Evelina to be brought to her bedroom and she slept her final night with her daughter, while the servants worried that she’d pass on to her not just her love but her deadly illness. Was it a co-incidence that when Evelina fell in love it would, again, carry with it the threat of death, this time by preventing her, as a neutral, from escaping to the relative safety of unoccupied Macao?[12] In any case, Evelina’s father remarried and she was sent away: she went back to Macao to school and spent most of the rest of the time with her grandmother. When she did visit her father, she saw a man being slowly killed by alcohol. As a teenager, she took to spiking his booze with water to try to keep him a little better-tempered and alive a little longer.

No, she’d not had an easy life before the war. And did she ever wonder during internment if that grim life of pain, fear and restriction was worth living? She wouldn’t have been the only one: ‘Sometimes,’ internee Edith Hansom told her husband towards the end of the war, ‘I just want to curl up and die’.[13] And such despair might well have been intensified when a friendly guard told Thomas all the prisoners were going to be killed anyway, the day the Allies landed on one of the main Japanese islands. Nevertheless Evelina kept going, like almost everyone else. There was at least one suicide attempt in Stanley (reported by diarist M. L. Bevan on October 27, 1944), but that seems to have come out of the special circumstances of a blackmarketeer, and most people were unwavering in their determination to survive.

But, so much was being stored in the minds and hearts of the internees as they forced themselves, as far as possible, to keep optimistic, so much that had to be faced later. As Jean Gittins perspicaciously pointed out:

It is not war but its aftermath that imposes so relentless a demand on fortitude and endurance. In time of war we are buoyed up by a spirit of dedication and supported by a prop of comradeship. When it is over and we are left to our own resources, we might well wonder when things go wrong if our sacrifices have been worthwhile….In the years of weary rehabilitation following internment, many ex-internees faced trials and crises of a different nature and often these were more testing than the ones they had met in the camp.[14]

After the crisis was over, Evelina said she’d known what those people who take their own life must feel. It was the nearest she, as a loyal Catholic, could come to talking about what had been on her mind, about the thoughts of suicide that sometimes seemed the only way out. I doubt that she thought consciously about Stanley as she lay on the sofa. But, in some form or other, her mind was facing that blackness, acknowledging in some disguised and displaced form the dreadful emotions of the Hong Kong war.

Suddenly one day:

Tommy, I can sit down and my knees aren’t shaking

It was over. She was still ‘ill’, but from that day onwards she was obviously getting better. It wasn’t too long before she could be considered ‘recovered’, and not long after that before, on the surface at least, everybody had forgotten that it had happened.

 It wasn’t, of course, that the experience of the war had been left behind completely: that kind of ‘moving on’ and ‘drawing a line under what happened’ is  a fantasy –  and I don’t know why some people think such a forgetting of what’s made us who we are is a good thing anyway. No-one would say that Evelina was a particularly happy person thereafter, and she always remained someone for whom allowances had to be made by her friends. But she’d somehow managed to expel the worst of the poison from her system. The terrors and deprivations of the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong  would always affect her life but could not destroy her.

Evelina had survived the war. Now, drawing on all the resources of her deepest self, she had found a way to survive ‘the war after’. It was a magnificent achievement. But it had been a close-run thing.

[2] Franklin Gimson, Internment in Hong-Kong, hand-written introduction, page 13. Held at Rhodes House (Oxford), Ms.Ind. Ocn. S222.

[3] George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner Of The Turnip Heads, 1994, 213.

[4] Karpf’s parents were Holocaust survivors. Anne Karpf, The War After, 1996. I would like to take this opportunity to humbly acknowledge all those, survivors and children, connected to this experience. It should not need saying that these events were  infinitely worse than those of Stanley Camp. I also wish to state my conviction  that understanding the Holocaust should be at the centre of our European cultural enterprise in the first part of the twenty-first century. Of course ‘understanding’ involves removing the conditions for anything like a repetition.

[5] September 1945, page 8.

[6] Psychoses: http://www.hongkongwardiary.com/searchgarrison/hkvdc.html – see note 193;  also Arthur E. Gomes, Newsletter, July 1, 1997, 5-6 – in this sad case a former internee believed that the Japanese were invading the peaceful Devon village where she was spending her retirement. Suicide – Tony Banham, Not The Slightest Chance, 2003, 373.; series of nervous breakdowns: Gomes, Newsletter, September 1, 1997, page 4.

[7] Jean Gittins, I Was At Stanley, 1946, 19.

[8] Early in the morning of May 2 the Kempetai (‘the Japanese Gestapo’) arrested about half a dozen doctors, including Selwyn-Clarke, who was in effect Thomas’s boss. Everyone else, including Thomas, Evelina and about 20 other Allied nationals, was kept prisoner in the Hospital for about five days while the Kempeitai searched the building for evidence of espionage. Selwyn-Clarke, who was not a spy but had been running a large network smuggling food and medicine into the internment camps, was tortured for 10 months but refused to name a single one of his helpers.

[9] See e.g. Jean Mather, Twisting The Tail Of The Dragon, 1994, 40.

[10] Bernice Archer, The Internment Of Western Civilians Under The Japanese: A Patchwork Of Interment, 2004, 127.

[11] I have in my possession a small Portuguese prayer book, held together by sticky tape, published in 1921, which may or may not have been bought before the war. Otherwise the only things that survived Stanley seem to have been a few photos, including one of her with her father.

[13] Allana Corbin, Prisoners Of The East, 2002, 274.

[14] Gittins, 1982, 163.

[15] Allana Corbin, Prisoners Of The East, 2002, 152.

[16] According to the (not always reliable) American professor Wenzell Brown, while he was in Stanley he experienced something slightly similar over twenty days. He’d fainted due to exhaustion, malnutrition and weakness brought on by dysentery, carried to his room, given medical care and tended by friends, he finds peace and sleep:

The tortured, hammering need that had kept me on my feet for the preceding week was gone and I could rest.

The next twenty days were healing days – there was healing of mind as well as body. Slowly the horrors of the siege, the filthy brothel and the camp receded. My mind had been glutted with violence – bombings, bayonetings, beatings. Now I sorted these scenes of violence and carefully put them aside – not to be forgotten but to be accepted as a part of the dreadful drama of war. Wenzell Brown, Hong Kong Aftermath, 1943, 180.


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  1. Pingback: 1944 (2): Thomas’s birthday – In Praise of Illusion | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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