What Strange Force?

Some time later in the 1940s my parents found themselves tracking their wartime experiences.

They went to live in Happy Valley at 79 Wongneichong Road (my mother’s spelling, which seems to reflect contemporary practice – now it’s Wong Nai Chung Road). This was either next door to, or one or two buildings away from, Le Calvaire, a convent run by French nuns:

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As readers of this blog will know, they sent the most terrifying period of the occupation in one of the buildings in the compound of St Paul’s Hospital in Causeway Bay – also known as the French Hospital because it was run by the same order of nuns as Le Calvaire.

The Convent had been taken over by the Kempeitai (‘the Japanese Gestapo’) at the start of the occupation, and they had  begun torturing Chinese prisoners there while the building was still being converted to its sinister new use. The prison that they created at Le Calvaire was the ‘black hole’ where the bankers Sir Vandeleur Grayburn and Edward Streatfield were held after their arrest in April 1943. Other inmates were journalist Cyril Faure and Harry Ching, the former editor of the South China Morning Post, as well as innumerable Chinese prisoners, generally treated worse than the Europeans. Some people thought this prison to be ‘foulest and most crowded’ of all those in wartime Hong Kong. Some time around September 1944 it had been knocked down and a new prison block erected in the Convent grounds.

But more significant from my parents’ point of view was another development that occurred while they were in Stanley Camp (they were interned there on May 7, 1943 in the wake of Dr Selwyn-Clarke’s arrest).

The School at the French Hospital had been forced to close by the accidental American  bombing (April 4, 1945) of the Hospital and in September 1945 plans were in place to start it up again at Le Calvaire. This means that for my parents moving next door was like returning to the situation that they’d been in during the first stage of the the war (for my father from February 1942, my mother joining him after their marriage on June 29, 1942). In fact, they might even have lived in the school building at St Paul’s: that’s certainly where my father was billeted alongside three fellow bakers when he was single.

How close was Number 79 to the Convent? Unfortunately that’s impossible to ascertain. The current neighbour is a restaurant that wasn’t there in the late 1940s:

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Number 79 itself is definitely a modern building:

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In fact, when I sent my photos of that part of the pavement to David Bellis of Gwulo, one of the leading authorities on Hong Kong’s streets, he was sure that all of the buildings were too recent to have been the one my parents lived in.

There can be no doubt that they were close to the Convent, though. And in October 1950 they went up the road from Happy Valley to Causeway Bay and back to the French Hospital itself. Surrounded by nuns (‘Push, Mrs Edgar, push!’) some of whom she’d almost certainly known during the occupation, she gave birth to her first child in the now demolished maternity section.

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Chapel of Christ the King at St Paul’s Hospital, where my mother and the nuns of the Convent would have attended services led by the Jesuit Fr Gallagher.

Today the conventional wisdom is that everybody should seek to ‘move on’ from traumatic experiences. Most people felt the same after the war, but some strange force inside my parents knew better and impelled them to stay close – in this case literally – to the dreadful experiences they’d been through. When they returned to England in the early 1950s they lived with my grandparents, and then in a flat provided by the NAAFI. As soon as they were able to buy a place of their own, my father designed a bungalow which strikingly resembled the one they’d lived in for over two years in Stanley Camp.

They remained there until his death in 1985.

That strange force was still present on his death bed and powered his last act as himself: after spending two days in morphine-induced sleep he suddenly woke and, ignoring my brother and myself, looked with full consciousness at my mother and invited her one last time into the relationship that had begun in the early days of the Japanese occupation. The lucidity of his gaze shone from a spirit that had finally comprehended the deprivation, fear and horror of those unimaginable years. One could say, I suppose, that he had moved on.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “What Strange Force?

  1. Les Bowie

    It is interesting, Brian, that “Moving on” and Taking ownership” are two expressions are often seen as mutually exclusive processes or strategies for dealing with painful experiences; however, they may indeed be complementary, equally necessary to healing after experiencing trauma.Perhaps your father did both.

    Thanks for this post.

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