Isabella Palmer’s Story: Part 2

Introduction

On February 27 Bella Palmer kindly talked to me on Skype for a second time about her wartime experiences. The account below is written on the basis of this conversation and previous and subsequent emails. The first instalment can be read at:https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/isabella-palmer-a-child-in-the-far-eastern-war/

 

Bella began by recounting a vivid memory of an experience at the wire of the Shamshuipo POW Camp:

Two days before I went with my great Aunts to Macau as refugees, my mother dressed me up warmly and took me to see Dad at Shamshuipo Camp.

It was strange to see my father behind a high wire fence. My mother took my hand and led me up to the wire and told me to put my hand through and hold Daddy’s hand. I did this and I remember the warm smile as he looked at me.

This moment was not to last. I saw dad looking over mom’s back and at the same time, his rough army overcoat scratched across my hand and I pulled my arm back to my side of the wire. When I looked up, I saw Dad jumping up and down yelling “ Get me…………..get me……………”, my mother, warned by my father’s reaction, turned around to see a young Japanese soldier with his rifle raised high, running towards us.

The next thing that happened was the rifle’s wooden handle hit the ground very close to mom and she swooped me up and carried me through the crowd.

The speed at which my parents moved to protect me will always be something I admire about them There was no trauma for me. Hence the reason I forgot to mention this during our first discussion. I always knew I was safe with my father and mother nearby.

Bella, her baby sister and her two great aunts, Dolores (known to Bella as Cha-cha and to others as Lola) and Consuelo (Nanning) Hyndman were sent to Macao to live at the house of Pedro Lobo, where they were to spend the rest of the war. Katy stayed behind to send parcels to her husband in Shamshuipo[1]

In Hong Kong Bella had been attending kindergarten at the Maryknoll Convent School; in Macao she had to adjust to lessons taught in Portuguese at the prestigious Santa Rosa de Lima. Luckily she didn’t find this hard: her family had always spoken to her in both Portuguese and English, while her amah used Cantonese. Years later she heard this form of Chinese being used in southern England, and, still understanding what was being said, started a conversation with the speaker, who turned out to be from another well known Hong Kong family, the Gardners, who not only knew Bella’s mother, Katy, but lived in the same building as Katy before the war.

Macao was never occupied or attacked by the Japanese, but there were a number of American air raids (the reasons for them are disputed). Bella remembers at least two. One occasion occurred during bath time; Cha-cha and Nanning were bathing both the girls when the air raid alarm started up. Nanning wrapped a towel around Bella but was too weak to lift her out of the bath. She suffered from a muscular degenerative illness. Cha-cha handed the baby to one of the Lobo girls, and then helped both Bella and Nanning to the ground floor under the staircase for safety. Bella thought of Cha-Cha as her grandmother, and she provided much of her emotional stability until her mother came to join them. Bella remembers her as ‘solid and cuddly’. Sadly Cha-Cha did not survive the war years:

One day in late 1944, Cha-Cha told me she was going for an operation. She told me that she was not coming back and for me to be a good girl, do my homework, and that the war would be over very soon. True to her word, she died as a result of a hernia operation. I never saw my beloved Cha-Cha again. It was only on the day of her funeral, which I was not allowed to attend, being too young, that I actually realised she was not really my grandmother.

As the war dragged on, Bella became more and more bored with Macao. She’d gaze out to sea thinking how much more fun life would be back in Hong Kong. Macao was small and the life there had very little to offer a girl who was growing into a stage in which she wanted to experience new things.

On August 15 Japanese radio broadcast the Emperor reading the Imperial Rescript – in effect, surrender and the end of the war. On August 18 the Union Jack was raised at Shamshuipo; there was meat for dinner that evening and a concert.[2] As soon as he could, George Palmer got on a boat to rejoin his family in Macao. Bella remembers how thin he looked as he stepped on to the quay. He took his younger daughter in his arms, but she went rigid – to her, the man hugging her was a stranger.

George had to return to Hong Kong, where the urgent task of repair and reconstruction needed his help. He told Katy to stay in Macao, as the situation in Hong Kong was confused and dangerous, but she was a strong-willed woman, and on October 31, 1945[3] Bella boarded a large sampan with her mother and sister – their white cat “Rickets” was in a basket. They were travelling with members of the Xavier family, who had arranged to let the Palmers rent one of their flats for HK$350 a month.

The trip across to Hongkong was not comfortable, there was little room and there were planks across the hull of the sampan for seating, at different levels.

Bella sat on the upper level and two of the Xavier boys, her age, sat flanking her swinging legs on a lower level. The ladies sat with the smaller children and cat to the side. The boys, bored with the long crossing, pinched Bella’ s legs black and blue. They turned out to be best friends and remain friends to the present day.

Bella went to live at 62 MacDonnell Road in the Mid Levels. The peaceful world of her first five years had been shattered, but Hong Kong recovered more quickly from the war than any other Japanese-occupied territory, and there was much that was good about the new life she built for herself as she moved into the challenging explorations of the final stage of girlhood.


[1] For more details see https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/isabella-palmer-a-child-in-the-far-eastern-war/

[2] http://www.far-eastern-heroes.org.uk/James_OToole/html/dairy_1945.htm

[3] Recorded in a note in the Carl Smith Collection.

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