On February 6, 2013 Isabella Palmer kindly spoke to me on Skype about her time as a child during the Hong Kong war. The following is an account of some of her wartime experiences put together from what she said on that occasion and previous and subsequent conversations and emails.
Before the war the family lived in the Homantin area of Kowloon. There was a playroom with a round window that had coloured glass making beautiful colours on the wall. Bella loved to go there to have fun with her toys, and the two family dogs, Flossie & Toots, would join in. It was a warm and secure home: two loving parents, and an amah, who had helped look after Bella since the day of her birth. About 11 months before the Japanese attacked, her sister was born.
That world was all the five year old Bella knew, but things outside were moving inexorably towards violence and destruction.
Bella’s father was George Palmer; he was Welsh, and a roofing contractor by trade. In his spare time he was an officer in the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps and also a keen hockey player – he ran a team called the Gremlins, and was President of the Hockey Association for some years. Her mother was born Katherine Hyndman, the daughter of an old-established Macao/Hong Kong family that had acquired Portuguese nationality early on. Katie was born in Hong Kong, so she held a British passport. Pedro Lobo, one of the most important men in Macao, was a relative by marriage. One day in 1941 he offered George Portuguese passports for the whole family. He knew what was coming.
Mr. Palmer’s rank in the HKVDC was Lieutenant – he was one of 12 officers in the Field Company Engineers and he specialised in demolitions. He told Mr. Lobo that he would stand by his fellow Volunteers, but advised his wife to accept the passport for herself and the children.
George Palmer (front) leading his HKVDC squad of demolition workers. The demolition experts went into action at 5.30 a.m. on the morning of the Japanese attack, doing valuable work blowing up bridges and other installations in the border area
He was called up on December 7 with the rest of the HKVDC; soon after the outbreak of hostilities, the rest of the family moved from Kowloon to the Island. They stayed for a short while in a large house in May Road, sharing it with the families of Portuguese Volunteers. While there they had to shelter from the frequent Japanese air raids. But sometimes Bella was more scared of the dark places than of the bombs:
My memory is fixated on the bomb “safe” places and the one where the shell fell. I cannot remember where we slept. The other memory was that dreadful swimming pool and the horrible darkness, which terrifies me even now. It really did not need to be so dark.
That ‘shell’ was a lucky escape: a piece of shrapnel hit a verandah which Mrs. Palmer and the girls were told to harbor under. Mrs. Palmer decided against it and on the next air attack, a large piece of shrapnel hit the exact spot where they would have been, much to the horror of everyone in the house.
Mr. Palmer had come to see his family while they were still in Homantin, bringing two dolls as Christmas presents for his daughters. He gave the servants as much money as he could, and advised them not to stay in Hong Kong but to go inland to try to find a refuge in the country, not the big cities. He told Bella to say goodbye to the two dogs, then fed them a big meal and he said he was going to turn them loose. Only years later did Bella realise he had his hand gun and rifle with him as he took them away, and that he undoubtedly shot them. This was a wise decision, which spared them being hunted and killed for food- by other dogs or by people – in the desperate days that were coming.
After the surrender, Mr. Palmer was sent with most of the rest of the HKVDC and the professional soldiers to Shamshuipo. The rest of the family didn’t stay long in May Road, but it’s not certain where Bella spent the rest of her time in Hong Kong.
There are many stories told of the Japanese kindness to children; Bella’s is one of the most striking:
One day my mother was out trying to get milk for my sister by bartering. A Japanese officer went up to her and asked her what she was doing and she told him. He said, ‘I have a wife and two daughters in Tokyo, and if they were here I’d be trying to find milk for them too. I’ll help you.’ He found out where we lived and came round with boxes of carnation milk. He also gave her a watch: he’d bought it for his wife, and he told her to sell it if she needed money for more milk.
Mrs. Palmer never sold that watch. It’s in Bella’s possession today.
On February 28, 1942 Bella boarded a night ferry to Macao. Her mother stayed behind to send parcels into Shamshuipo for her husband. Bella’s baby sister was on her back in a Chinese style baby carrier– ‘Hold on tight and don’t fall into the harbour’ said her mother to Bella. They were accompanied by two great aunts, one so ill she had to be helped onto the ship by the other. Bella was crying. She’d already lost almost everything, and now what little she had left – Hong Kong and her mother and father – was being taken from her. The crossing was a dark one due to the fear of torpedoes.
Eventually Pedro Lobo’s pleas to Katie Palmer to come to the safety of Macao prevailed. The Hyndmans were connected to the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, and she courageously smuggled out important bank documents that “Uncle Soares” (F.X. Soares – Chief Clerk of the bank) had asked her to take with her. They lived with ‘Uncle Lobo’ until the end of the war, returning to Hong Kong on October 31, 1945. It was a new place for everybody, changed irrevocably by four years of war and occupation. To a child it was a different world, one from which much of the pre-war warmth and safety had vanished.