Memories of barbed-wire barbarism

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 August, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 August, 1995, 12:00am

ON the night of August 18, 1945, Arthur May, former civil servant and emergency electricity specialist for Hong Kong's hospitals during the Japanese occupation, crept out of the Argyle Street military camp, slithering under three layers of wire fence to retrieve a Union Flag he had hidden before the Japanese came four years earlier.

Along with a friend, he clambered up the Peak to plant the flag on the top. His defiance earned him threats of death.

The two were only saved by the reasonableness of the camp commander, who said hostilities were virtually over.

So they were. Though the Japanese had not officially surrendered, the atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, and the end was in sight.

But Mr May had no reason to expect such leniency. Frail now, having turned 88 in May, he chokes back tears as he remembers atrocities he saw: an old woman beaten to death with a bamboo pole, a man decapitated with an officer's sword, simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

'They wanted to frighten people,' he says, 'to make them frightened of the Japanese. The Chinese had it much worse than the foreigners.' His memories still haunt him, he says: 'For some of us, it is still going on now. A lot of us still suffer from dreams.' Yet he can still laugh. The triple-layer fence was barbed wire, followed by a link fence, followed by an electrified fence. 'But we got so thin we were able to get out under the whole lot with no trouble at all,' he recalled.

Frequently he did so to take and receive information from the next-door camp for Indian troops. He'd been a messenger through his time in the Public Works Department, when his electrical work took him between departments and officials and back to his precious radio at home, tuned mostly to the BBC World Service. But he lost that facility when he was interned in 1944.

'It was death to anyone caught with a radio, even for the local station' - which was run by the Japanese anyway. 'Several people in Stanley were executed after they made a radio for the local news - just for the local news.' He lost many other things too. 'I weighed 175 lb [80 kilograms] when I went in. I weighed 97 lb when I came out. We suffered from all kinds of malnutrition diseases. Our comrades were just dying all the time around us.' Yet people outside risked their lives just to keep them informed. 'Friends outside would toss us newspapers over the barbed wire . . . when the sentry was furthest away they used to run across the road and toss the newspaper over the wire. We went and collected it, across at least 100 yards of open ground.' One of the worst times, ironically, was when the war was nearly over and the US began bombing Hong Kong. 'They killed more civilians than the Japanese did,' he says wryly. 'We dug zig-zag trenches to lie in to avoid the bomb shrapnel if they mistook our camp for a Japanese military camp.' US bombing of Stanley claimed scores of lives.

A lady calling herself only 'Vanessa', Anglo-Chinese and in her 70s now, says she cannot forgive the Japanese after seeing people beaten during her time in the Wei Xian camp in Northeast China.

'I don't forgive them and I don't forget them,' she says from her present home in the China Coast Community in Kowloon Tong. 'I saw too much.' Her memory of the war is sharp. She was glad to go into the camp - the American Presbyterian College campus. In her 20s at the time, with sisters and brothers elsewhere and her parents dead, she felt very alone outside and worried what the invaders might do to her. 'I was young enough to be a comfort woman for the Japanese Army, and I didn't want to be a comfort woman,' she says firmly.

Yet she had chosen to return to occupied Northern China in 1938 - seven days by boat from Qingdao - from Hong Kong, where she was finishing her schooling at St Paul's Convent in Causeway Bay and living with her sister. Having lived in Tianjin since her Chinese father had taken her there when she was two after her English mother died, it was her home, she said.

'I didn't like the climate [in Hong Kong] and it wasn't my home.' The camp had some rooms for families and other dormitories made up in the classrooms. The Japanese guards - 'called consular police because they were supposed to be attached to the consulate' - lived in the teachers' quarters.

Among the inmates - all foreigners - were Hawaiians, some blacks and 'some Italians for goodness sake, I don't know how we got them,' she said.

The camp also had an electrified fence on top of the campus wall and watchtowers with sentries at every corner.

Vanessa's father, who had run an import-export business, died shortly before the war. 'I was happy he wasn't around because it would have been tough for him,' she said.

'Generally speaking our camp was probably better than others in Shanghai.' But it got difficult, particularly in the last couple of years. 'Food was very short. The men lost 30-40 lb and there were a lot of hernias. They had to shovel coal for bread baking. Women did the cooking but there was very little to cook with - there were many turnips but no green veg at all and no eggs, although sometimes we were able to buy eggs on rations.' The men tried to smuggle in the local spirit, called baigar. Some of the Chinese who tried this were electrocuted trying to get over the fence.

Two students of Chinese with fluent Mandarin - one Arthur Hummell, later to become US Ambassador to Beijing, the other a Briton - escaped. After failing to get to the unoccupied Chongqing, 'they got in with a group of Communist guerillas' and returned to the camp in Communist uniforms after liberation, she said.

VE Day is not clear in her mind. 'I think some people did know. There were a lot of Catholic priests and one of them wrote in my autograph album - I don't have it here now - something about VE Day.' But she remembers the end well. 'There was an airdrop of seven Americans by parachute in August 1945.' One was a Chinese American, another called Captain Steiger of the Office of Strategic Services.

'We were quite thrilled' when the parachutists arrived - though they stayed hidden for days.

When they realised there would be no resistance, 'the men carried them in on their shoulders'.

But later, after a full landing at Qingdao, the British PoWs got annoyed, she said. 'The Americans brought the latest music and kept playing it. The PoWs had had a rough time of it, they wanted some peace. They went and cut the wire to the record player,' she said.

Then there was a drop of tinned food, peaches: 'B29s were dropping food in tins. They nearly fell on people's heads.

'When we were free to walk out of the camp into the town we were able to get chickens and cook something.' It seemed a normal town, she said, even though the locals had put up with so much cruelty.

'I asked them why they didn't attack the Japanese, but they wouldn't,' she said.