By Carolynne Dear for Hong Kong Living
Second World War-survivor Barbara Anslow has just published her war-time diaries, Tin Hats & Rice, seven decades after they were first written. She might be turning 100 this year, but her memories of Hong Kong under the Japanese remain sharp. Now living in the UK, she was keen to expand on her experiences when I reached out to her last month.
She was interned with her sisters and mother shortly after the Japanese invasion in December, 1941, and survived three-and-a-half gruelling years as a prisoner of war in Stanley Internment Camp.
But publication of her daily diary entries written during this time took a circuitous route. After rewriting them decades later when the journal’s paper started disintegrating, she began posting extracts to an internet group. They were read by David Bellis, founder of Hong Kong history website Gwulo, who thought it would be interesting to email daily extracts to a subscriber group so people could relive the events at the pace at which they happened. The feedback was positive and it was suggested Anslow should publish the diary as a book.
Anslow’s relationship with Hong Kong began well before the outbreak of hostilities. She first arrived on board a steamer in 1927 when her father was sent out from England to work in the naval dockyard as an electrical engineer.
“It was a great life for Olive and Mabel (her sisters) and me,” she recalls. “The naval yard used to lay on bathing trips at weekends on a tug, taking us to swim at the lovely beaches, Deep Water Bay, Big Wave Bay, Silvermine Bay, Cheung Chau and Castle Peak. It was absolute heaven.”
The girls attended Kowloon Junior School and then the Central British School (now ESF King George V School) and when the family moved to Kennedy Road on Hong Kong Island, they attended the former Garrison School which used to stand next to the Lower Peak Tram terminus. It was a one-storeyed building mainly for army children and Anslow remembers the boys escaping out of the iron-barred windows when the teachers’ backs were turned.
Due to her father’s ill health, the family returned to the UK in 1929, but nine years later he was re-appointed and they arrived back in Hong Kong in 1938.
She found work as a government stenographer but as war engulfed Europe, in 1941 she was evacuated on a ship bound for Australia with her sisters and mother, Mabel Redwood. However, on reaching Manila, they received news that Anslow’s father had suddenly died.
“When we heard of dad’s death while awaiting shipment to Australia, we wanted to get back to Hong Kong as soon as possible to find out what happened,” she says. “We returned a month later and there was no sign of the Japanese attacking the colony, so we argued successfully with the naval yard officials that we should stay. Olive and I were the breadwinners and we both had permanent jobs as shorthand typists with the Hong Kong government.”
Anslow found herself living in Happy Valley in the lead-up to the Japanese invasion. She remembers tunnels being dug into the hillside and concrete one-storey bomb-protection buildings called ‘pen shelters’ being erected in residential districts. There were practice blackouts and air-raid wardens, mostly Chinese, were being hurriedly recruited and trained.
“I was working at the Air Raid Precautions headquarters which of course was dominated by war preparations. We were anxious, but hoping for the best,” she says.
On December 8, the Japanese invaded from China. They quickly crossed the New Territories and Kowloon, arriving on Hong Kong Island on December 18. After fierce fighting, the colony surrendered on December 25.
“Life changed completely after December 8,” Anslow remembers. “Most of the women had wartime jobs in nursing or food control. There was very little public transport and most workers ended up having to find somewhere to sleep close to their place of work as travel became increasingly difficult. My mother and Mabel were nurses, mum at a temporary hospital in the Jockey Club in Happy Valley and Mabel at the Military Hospital on Bowen Road, and I was working in the tunnel underneath Government House.
“Bombs were falling everywhere and we just went onto automatic pilot, doing our jobs. I remember it being a great shock when the Japanese finally landed on the Island.”
After the surrender, civilians were initially sent to small Chinese hotels – Anslow’s was on Des Voeux Road. “We shared beds and were provided with some food but we weren’t allowed out. We were very worried about what would happen to us.”
Anslow was eventually taken to Stanley with around 2,000 others. She remembers they were left to find bed spaces in intensely cramped conditions in St Stephens College and the pre-war staff living quarters of Stanley prison. And thus ensued three-and-a-half years of hunger, deprivation and desperate conditions. Anslow’s mother recalls a friend trying to cheer her up, reminding her it was “only for three months. Remember, Winston said so.”
“But if at that moment we had been given the power to see not just three months, but more than three years stretching before us, we just could not have borne it,” she records in her memoirs.
Perhaps the most harrowing event of the war is also documented by Anslow’s mother. While still stationed at the Jockey Club hospital, Redwood reports the rape of female medical staff by Japanese soldiers following the surrender. “The younger nurses were selected to accompany the soldiers back to their quarters, with the threat: ‘Go Jap – no come, kill all!’” she writes. “At length the poor girls came running back in great distress. Again, they (the soldiers) made a selection… none dared refuse lest we should all be slaughtered.” The situation was eventually resolved by the heroic actions of school teacher Marie Paterson, who escaped the hospital disguised as a Chinese woman and walked through the night to inform the authorities.
In the camp, the POWs were provided with two meals a day consisting of vegetables and rice and occasionally “tiny” pieces of meat, and hot water that they had to drink out of tin food boxes. “My mum dropped from 170 to 120lbs,” Anslow remembers. “Somehow we adapted to our situation, thinking that sooner or later the Japanese would be pushed out of Hong Kong. We never dreamt we would be in the camp for over three years.”
Time passed organising school lessons for the children, putting on concerts and plays, forming small study groups and organising church services for the various denominations. Despite the hunger, the outworn clothes, the cold in the winter and the anxiety about the future, Anslow says there were happy times. “We were generally not a miserable lot.”
“I think the war made me more tolerant,” she says. “Eating, sleeping and living in such cramped conditions, you had to accept other people’s habits. Pre-war I only mixed with British people, but in the camp I made friends with Eurasians, Chinese women married to British soldiers, Dutch, Belgians and Americans, so my outlook broadened. I also take notice of refugees on television, remembering when I was in that situation myself.”
Anslow met her husband, Frank, in the camp, and after the war they married and had five children, finally leaving Hong Kong in 1959. She re-visited Stanley with her sister Olive in 1986 and admits it hadn’t changed that much. “But when I returned with family in 2008, it seemed very different. Overbuilt, air conditioning boxes everywhere, shop staff who didn’t seem to speak much English – and I have never in my life seen so many taxis!”
Post-war, Anslow stayed in touch with ex-POWs and says the Stanley internet group has brought her in contact with the descendants of ex-internees and revived her memories of the bitter war years.
“But my lasting memories of Hong Kong are happy ones – the thrill of coming into the harbour with Kowloon to one side and the mountains of the Island on the other, of beautifully coloured evening skies, and of my courting days with Frank, walking together on the Peak.”
Tin Hats & Rice by Barbara Anslow is published by Blacksmith Books.