Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 January, 2011, 12:00am

Seventy years have passed since the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong and the last prisoners of war and civilian internees are now in their dotage. Over the decades, many memoirs based on the occupation have been written, although their historical accuracy and general readability have varied widely.

Probably the best general memoir of the Stanley civilian internment camp experience yet to appear is George Wright-Nooth's Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, published in 1994. Political correctness, thankfully, plays no part in these memoirs. The unapologetic author tells it like it was and the title clearly indicates the tone of the content. Loh baak tau - literally 'turnip heads' - is the age-old Cantonese epithet for the Japanese, derived from the latter's dietary preference for the pungent vegetable.

A tall, strapping, stereotypically buff and hearty 'rugger' player, Kenyan-born Wright-Nooth was a most unlikely author. One former Stanley internee, who later helped organise Wright-Nooth's wedding, once fondly described him as 'mostly bone from the neck up'. Nevertheless, his dramatic account of wartime internment at Stanley has been widely acclaimed by former internees as among the best first-person accounts ever written about their ordeal. The author's uncompromising frankness and willingness to name names and point fingers was received with considerable interest. His graphic description of the execution by beheading of several camp inmates in 1943 is deeply disturbing, all the more so for not being written out of a desire to gratuitously shock.

Part of the first-ever batch of gazetted officers (as the senior officer cadre in the Hong Kong Police were once known), Wright-Nooth arrived in Hong Kong in 1940. As a young police probationer, he was studying Cantonese when the Japanese invaded the following year.

Considered combatants by the British during the fighting - all received general service medals after the war - the European members of the Hong Kong Police were nevertheless interned with Allied civilians at Stanley. The reason for this decision was twofold: younger men were required to help with heavy work, such as chopping firewood, and it was felt that having a disciplined service element in the camp might help keep potentially unruly individuals in line.

Wright-Nooth resumed his police career after the war, eventually retiring as deputy commissioner, and then spent a decade overseeing security operations at the Hong Kong Jockey Club. He eventually retired to Britain, where he died, aged 85, in 2002.

Greatly embittered by his experiences as an internee, Wright-Nooth later wrote that 'God may forgive; I cannot. Nor can I forget.' Few readers of his gripping book will ever forget it, either.