Thomas and Tanaka (2): The Man In The Photo

In the late afternoon or the evening of December 25 Thomas and the staff of Lane Crawford’s Stubbs Rd. bakery were told to go to the company headquarters, Exchange House[1] in Des Voeux Rd.[2] That evening Thomas helped out in efforts to dispose of as much of the Colony’s alcohol supply as possible, probably at the nearby Gloucester Hotel.[3] And, then, like the rest of the Allied nationals he waited nervously for the next day when the victorious Japanese would take possession of Hong Kong Island.

Thomas discovered quite quickly that the man assigned to take charge of the Exchange Building was a reasonable and even humane one. In the last days of the fighting stories of Japanese atrocities had been circulating amongst the defenders,[4] and, although some were more optimistic than others, everyone knew the dreadful fate that might await them. Years later Thomas remembered Tanaka’s kindness:

My shirt was badlly torn. He told me to go back to my lodgings and get another shirt.

What had happened to your shirt?

I’d had to tear it up to help bind the wounded.

I t was a cold winter by Hong Kong standards, and no doubt the trip back to 82,Morrison Hill Rd. enabled Thomas to gather together other useful items. Perhaps including his high performance binoculars: Tanaka confiscated these at some point, but gave him a chit for them, saying the Japanese army would compensate him for the loss after the war. Thomas never held this against him, telling the story in a wry, ‘but I never got that compensation, you know’ manner.

In September 1946 when Thomas wrote an article for his trade paper The British Baker he was keen to record Tanaka’s behaviour:

During our stay in the main building, Captain Tanaka proved both helpful and generous. Besides ensuring that bread continued to be baked for the hospitals, he gave us cinema shows in the Café Wiseman; these shows usually consisted of European films with an occasional film for his soldiers who were stationed in the building.

Thomas gives Tanaka the rank of Captain, Selwyn-Clarke (see below) the slightly lower one of Lieutenant. The article also notes that Tanaka gave them permission on January 9th to bake bread for the hospitals and allocated them a supply of yeast.

I know of two other accounts that must be of this Tanaka because both link him to Exchange House. Les Fisher, a Volunteer imprisoned at Shamshuipo, records the arrival of some of his fellow Telephone Company workers at the POW Camp in his 1997 edition of his wartime diary. The Café Wiseman had been the centre of thee Hong Kong telephone network during the battle, so the staff of the Telephone Company were detained there to be joined by Thomas late on Christmas Day. Fisher passes on what he was told by his colleagues:

(They had been) treated well by a Captain Tanaka who was in charge.

The new arrivals also told Fisher about the film shows, and said that they were given ‘good food’ and managed to gather together ‘all kinds of useful tinned stuff and foods’.  Tanaka even gave each of them a bottle of whisky when they were leaving, and Fisher was also able to benefit from this kindness! As civilians they were destined for Stanley Camp, but at the last moment a uniform was found amongst them so they were sent to Shamshuipo instead, arriving on February 23.[5]

The third account is by Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, the Colony’s Medical Officer, who remained out of Stanley to work on public health:

 One of my first encounters with helpfulness from a Japanese officer concerned the reserve of four-gallon tins of biscuits, made of soya bean and wheaten flour with the addition of thiamine hydrochloride powder (against beri beri) which I had had baked in the leading department-store of Lane Crawford against the anticipated siege. By good fortune the Japanese had put Lane Crawford’s in charge of a certain Lieutenant Tanaka, who allowed me to remove all the tins for distribution to the P. O. W. and civilian camps and to those Chinese hospitals which had not been closed by the Japanese forces.[6]

Selwyn-Clarke adds: ‘Those vitamin biscuits were of real value’. I’ll be describing the complex history of these biscuits, devised by Dr. Herklots and baked by Thomas, in a future post!

The Japanese authorities must have been considering a role for the bakers in the days leading up to January 5 when the vast majority of the Allied civilians were assembled at the Murray Parade Ground before being consigned to squalid hotels and eventually packed off to Stanley Camp. Thomas, his fellow bakers and a team of drivers were kept back and eventually granted permission to start baking on January 9th. On February 8 Thomas and the others were sent to the French Hospital to join Selwyn-Clarke and his team of doctors and public health workers.

Selwyn-Clarke also records the rumour that Tanaka was later executed for his kindness to the prisoners:

Lieut. Tanaka subsequently disappeared, and rumour had it that he had been removed to Canton and there executed for displaying excessive concern for the Hong Kong prisoners.[7]

This may, of course, be true, but I’m inclined to doubt it. The wedding photo proves Tanaka was still in Hong Kong on June 29, 1942 – on the back of one of the copies he’s specifically identified, along with the other main guests, and this information can only have come from Thomas or Evelina. The Telephone Company personnel left the Exchange Building on February 23, and after that there was no reason for him to have any dealings with internees in Hong Kong. His role was probably accidental in the first place: he took over Exchange House because he was officer in charge of communications,[8] and that’s where the telephone exchange was, as well as the Lane Crawford HQ, bringing the biscuits under his control. British civilians who remained in the city were not treated badly in the early days,[9] and it seems unlikely that in July or sometime after he was killed for actions taken in January and February: actions which, insofar as they are now known, amount to no more than some generous decisions, a few bottles of whisky and the showing of some European films. Kiyoshi Watanabe, the well-known interpreter, performed many acts of kindness for the defeated, and although he was mocked, shouted at and eventually sacked he suffered no physical punishment. Of course, the existence of a rumour of this kind makes it highly likely that much about Tanaka’s benevolence has gone unrecorded, so he might indeed have been punished as Selwyn-Clarke describes– it’s even possible that his attendance at Thomas and Evelina’s wedding was cited in evidence against him. But his execution would have been the kind of thing that Thomas would have mentioned in later years if he’d believed it had happened: it would have been a good example of the incomprehensible cruelty of the Japanese,[10] something he did mention on a number of occasions.

Captain Tanaka reminds us of the importance of remembering that not all Japanese acted badly during the occupation, and some manifested great kindness and compassion.


For more about Tanaka see



Filed under Captain Tanaka, Hong Kong WW11, Selwyn-Selwyn Clarke, Uncategorized

5 responses to “Thomas and Tanaka (2): The Man In The Photo

  1. Pingback: thomas’s work 1 | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  2. Pingback: Thomas’s Work (3): Outside Stanley | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  3. Pingback: Thomas Edgar: A Baker in Wartime Hong Kong | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  4. Pingback: Another Tanaka Surprise (and some speculations about the wedding) | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  5. Pingback: Early Days in the French Hospital: The Evidence of Staff-Sergeant Patrick Sheridan | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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