Written in the scars

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 December, 2011, 12:00am


It's a cool and blustery day. Daphne Sewell Erasmus wanders around the grounds of St Stephen's College with her teenage granddaughter, Hannah. The walk brings back many memories for Erasmus, 76 , not of carefree school days but of her family's struggle to survive as wartime detainees - the college buildings served as part of the civilian internment camp under Japanese occupation.

Erasmus was among 26 people from around the world who visited the college and cemetery in Stanley earlier this month to mark the 70th anniversary of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. Local historian Geoffrey Emerson organised the week-long programme as a commemorative event but it may be the last chance to visit for some ageing members of the group.

While some visitors came to honour their parents, about a third, like Erasmus, were former internees. Their trip can't be entirely be classed as a reunion. Some were just babies and toddlers when they were in Stanley.They were so young, they don't remember one another.

But some memories remain vivid to Erasmus: the sight of young Canadian soldiers sweltering in heavy uniforms, and the screams of a man being beaten to death on The Peak, for instance.

Her father, William Sewell, was a Quaker missionary teaching in Chengdu when war broke out. She and her family had been living in California at the time but flew to Hong Kong to reunite with him. The day after they landed, 30,000 Japanese soldiers swarmed across the border.

'I think we were about the last plane to arrive in Kowloon on December 7, 1941,' Erasmus says. 'The next morning, while we were having breakfast, we heard gunfire. That was the Japanese arriving.'

Later they were forced to flee the house under cover of darkness. 'In the middle of the night, my youngest brother lost his shoe and we had to wait. My sister kept lagging behind. It was a dreadful experience,' Erasmus recalls.

When they found shelter in another house, the sounds of fighting stopped. It was quiet and they could hear the birds again. The battle had ended.

By the time her family arrived at Stanley, the camp had been established. Committees had been set up to maintain order within the civilian community that sometimes swelled to 3,000 people.

Her family was able to bring some of their belongings, but other internees went in with nothing. All were forced to share limited accomodation.

'We had to move into a room where we were made to feel very unwelcome because they had to make space for us,' Erasmus says.

Some 30 people squeezed into one bungalow, says Bernice Archer, a British academic and author of The Internment of Western Civilians under the Japanese 1941-1945.

The lack of privacy in such cramped accomodation was a particular strain for many women, says Archer, whose research was sparked by conversations with a neighbour in Bristol who had been interned in Stanley.

Although she was just six years old at the time, Erasmus was aware that people were being executed by the Japanese - some for having a banned radio, others for listening to outside broadcasts.

'We were very aware of the executions as children. You had men walking around with swords and fixed bayonets on their rifles,' she says.

'My parents, being Quakers, believe that there is something good in everybody. They never taught us to hate, but they couldn't hide their anxieties from us.'

The youngsters did find moments of happiness at Stanley. Archer met a number of former child internees who recalled the camp as a place where they could run around freely and play with other children. One woman, for instance, described how they made their own fun when it was wet. She would slide down muddy slopes and boys would throw mud bombs at each other.

Erasmus, too, recalls playing on swings, and attending a couple of hours of lessons on some days.

Forty-six babies were delivered in Stanley during the time it served as an internment camp, 22 of which had been expected before the war. But in 1943, there was a sudden surge in births, including that of Brooke Himsworth.

The baby boom was due mainly to talk that the Japanese military was planning to release mothers and children and send them to Australia, says Himsworth, who now lives in Cumbria, England. As the men had to stay behind, some couples decided to try and conceive, thinking it might be their last chance to have children.

As it turned out, the order for release did not materialise and civilian leaders had to issue a notice begging people to stop having babies. The extra mouths posed a severe strain on limited resources.

Food was scarce and malnutrition brought problems caused by an impaired immune system. Internees became swollen with beriberi because of vitamin B deficiency, and minor cuts became potentially life-threatening wounds if infected.

Donald Ady, the son of an American missionary, was nine when he entered the camp with his family in 1942. They were repatriated within six months as part of a prisoner swap, but the food shortage had already affected their health.

'I remember sometimes being very tired when I climbed steps owing to the malnutrition,' says Ady, now 79.

For Erasmus, life in the Stanley camp was one of constant hunger. They had rice, but it was the lowest quality grain, gleaned from the holds of ships and shot through with cockroach droppings. 'There was never enough food; you had to make sure everything was very carefully portioned out,' she says. 'Even now, I'm very careful never to throw food away.'

Some Stanley children had fathers who were held in prisoner-of-war camps because they had served in the military or the Royal Hong Kong Regiment (Volunteers). Although prisoners managed to sneak messages to each other during the war, separated families often did not know if other members were alive.

But their reunion with their fathers was often not a Hollywood ending. The cruel truth is that most child internees had little recollection of their fathers and often resented their presence.

Barbara Laidlow took several years to get to know the father she hardly knew. After the surrender, she was taken in a truck to meet him at Sham Shui Po camp.

'I can remember my father caressing my mother and I didn't like that at all,' says Laidlow, now 68. 'It took me years to know my dad. He was a lovely man, of course, but there were difficulties.'

Another former child internee, Laura Darnell, had a similar experience. Although she was interned with her mother and five siblings for six months, it was three years before they saw her father again and the reunion was difficult.

'I didn't know him,' says Darnell, who now lives near Las Vegas. 'Here was my mum, and he was an interloper.'

Yet some of the visiting former internees have formed greater emotional link than even Emerson may have anticipated.

Laidlow, an Australian, hadn't met fellow baby internee Alan Weir, a Briton, until this Hong Kong visit. But his parents became her godparents because of the shared Stanley experience.

'It's a terrific bond thing,' she says. 'I keep bursting into tears every five minutes.

'We've asked Geoff if we can have a time at the end where we are all able to share and express what we are feeling.'

Laidlow also recently discovered that her mother may have faced torture in the camp. She already knew that Japanese soldiers had placed wax tapers under her mother's nails and burned them. But new information suggests there was more torment. 'We don't really know, it's sort of a closure we need,' she says. Her mother died in 2001.

For Erasmus, the return to Stanley is recognition of how the experience has shaped her.

'I love coming to Stanley. it was a part of my life and it makes me feel empathy for children [in similar situations],' she says.

'Often people don't know anything about the past. It's good to know about the past, but here we have the future,' she say, pointing to her granddaughter. 'It's lovely.'