In 1942, my maternal grandparents, Doris and Vernon Walker, were interned with nearly 3,000 other expatriates in the Stanley camp, where they endured cramped conditions, humiliation, disease and starvation for 3½ years. My mother, Veronica, who'd been evacuated to Australia in 1941, at the age of 14, hardly recognised them when she saw them again, in 1945: they were like walking skeletons. It was while I was researching my relatives' experiences in the camp that the idea of writing a novel came to me: The Orchid Tree is set in Hong Kong during the second world war and the post-war era. It follows the fortunes of a fictional British family whose luxurious lifestyle was destroyed overnight when the Japanese invaded.
Although The Orchid Tree - extracts from which are published below - is a work of fiction, I incorporated real events, imagining characters similar to my grandparents and using my grandmother's anecdotes about their harrowing time in Stanley. I found the memoirs of Jean Gittins and George Wright-Nooth, who wrote a book about the Japanese occupation in Hong Kong based on his 1,000-page diary, particularly helpful for my research.
ON THE OTHER SIDE of the police station, we cross a short strip of land leading to a small peninsula. Barbed wire blocks the road. Japanese guards verify our names and let us through.
"Out you hop," Papa says in a false bright voice. "I'll go and find out where we're to be billeted."
A cold wind whips my coat. I shiver and stare at a queue of people waiting by a building. Papa returns with a short bald man. "This is Mr Davies from the Housing Committee." His voice is still chirpy. "We're in the Indian Quarters."
"What are the Indian Quarters?"
"Where the Indian prison wardens used to live. The Japs've kept some of them on as guards, but they're living in the village now." He smiles briefly. "I don't think it's going to be too bad here, after all. The camp is governed by the internees. Housing, food distribution and medical care are all run by our chaps. Apparently, the Japanese just oversee things and send in supplies."
Papa folds his gangly frame into the lorry. I heave myself back into the cab with Mama and the bald man. We pass a school and stop by a block of garages. The last two hundred yards we struggle on foot, carrying our luggage down steps, past a small mosque, and along a stony path.
"How can you put us here?" Mama drops her hatbox. "These buildings have been bombed to bits."
"Not all. Follow me!" Mr Davies leads us up a narrow stairwell. "I've managed to get you a room to yourselves."
"A room?" Mama echoes.
We enter a two-storey block facing the sea and climb the stairs to the first floor. "Our youngest amah has a room bigger than this. And she has the room all to herself." Mama places her hands on her hips and, with a shudder, eyes the grubby grey walls. Her face looks as if she's swallowed a mouthful of sour milk.
"Is there a bathroom?"
"A washroom with a tap," Mr Davies says apologetically.
I glance at the lavatory. We have similar loos at home for the staff, and Jimmy calls them "crouchers" on account of having to squat over a hole. If Jimmy can manage I'll manage too. But Mama must be beside herself with disgust.
Mr Davies waves his arm to the left. "There's a sort of kitchen as well." A single tap graces a small annex; it's like no kitchen I've ever seen. Filthy stone benches line the sides; there's neither a stove nor any cooking utensils. A balcony runs along the front of the flat, and an open passage through the back. I peer into the adjacent room. "Who lives there?"
"The Chambers and the Morrises. They seem to be out at the moment."
"Two couples sharing?" Papa stands on the tiny floor space next to the mattresses, our suitcases piled on top. He frowns. "For God's sake, my dear chap. That's a bit poor."
"This is the best I can do for you. You've no idea what things have been like. In other parts of the camp, where the rooms are bigger, we've had to pack even more people in. Some of the apartments and bungalows have between thirty-five and forty-five souls with only one bathroom." Mr Davies sighs. "There's no water for the toilets either, so they're overflowing with sewage. And there aren't any beds. People have been reduced to sleeping on the floors. No provision has been made whatsoever. It seems the Japs had no idea there'd be so many of us to deal with."
"We should've been rescued before now," Mama says, opening a suitcase. "What are the Americans doing?"
"We've discussed this, Flora." Papa puts his arm around her. "They've got other fish to fry. I shouldn't think it will take them too long to defeat the Japs, though. We must have faith, that's all." He turns to me.
"Stay and help your mother unpack, dear girl, and I'll go back up the hill with Mr Davies to fetch our other stuff."
Papa returns, and I hover by the cases. This room is far too small. How will we cope all cooped up together? I've never spent more than an hour a day in both my parents' company before now …
"Thank God we've brought a few basics." Papa takes a hot plate into the so-called kitchen. "I presume the electricity is working."
"The only thing that does," Mr Davies says.
Mama trips over one of the mattresses and falls against me. "Must you get underfoot, Kate?"
I step out of the way. "Can I explore outside?"
"If you're careful," Papa says. "But don't go near any Japanese!"
Author's note: most of the expatriates had been interned by the time my grandparents arrived. The Peak was self-contained and they and other residents had been allowed to stay there. But, at the end of January 1942, the order was given to join the rest of the civilians. My grandmother told me about the squalid conditions, particularly in the Indian Quarters, where the rooms were smaller and more overcrowded than elsewhere.
"THEY'VE CAUGHT THAT TIGER," Papa says at supper three days later. "An Indian guard shot it."
I put down my spoonful of cold gritty rice. Thank God. "Do you know where it came from?"
"Apparently, it escaped from a circus. A fellow who used to be a butcher at the Dairy Farm will skin it. I wonder what tiger meat tastes like? No doubt only the Japanese will get any."
Papa said the Japanese rations were almost as poor as ours; of course they'll get first sniff of the tiger meat. Mama must be shuddering on her mattress at the very thought of being interned with a butcher. In Hong Kong society she wouldn't have dreamt of mixing with a tradesman.
"How many of us are here in this camp, do you reckon?" I ask my father.
"At the latest count, two and a half thousand British, sixty Dutch and nearly four hundred Americans, but the Yanks are due to be repatriated any day now."
"They're about to be exchanged with some Japanese nationals in the United States." Papa stands and makes a move to gather our empty plates, then quickly sits down again. "Bugger! All the strength's gone in my legs."
"It must be the bad diet," Mama says from the other side of the mattress. "Too much polished rice and no greens. The hot weather doesn't help."
"We'll be able to cool down a bit this morning." I deliberately insert cheerfulness into my voice. "Don't forget we've been given permission to swim!"
Papa's mouth twists grimly. "You go with the young ones, dear girl. It's too much of an effort for your mother and me."
Author's note: my grandmother spoke about the bizarre incident of a tiger appearing in the camp. After it savaged a guard, the animal was caught and skinned. You can see the skin displayed in the Tin Hau Temple, in Stanley Village. Gran also told me about friction between the internees, in particular over food rations, which consisted mainly of poor-quality rice.
I CRAWL OFF MY MATTRESS. There's a small black spot, marooned in the middle of my sheet. "What's that?"
"A bed bug, I think." Papa squashes the speck between his thumb and forefinger. "What a stink!"
I wrinkle my nose and inhale a whiff of bitter almonds.
Papa fetches a knife from the kitchen, turns the mattress over and cuts a hole. Thousands of slimy, shiny, black insects squirm as if irritated at being disturbed.
I back away, revolted. I stare at the spots on my legs and my stomach heaves. "I thought these were mosquito bites. Do you think they're in your beds as well?"
"More than likely," Papa says.
Mama pulls up her nightdress and examines the angry, red wheals on her thighs. Her face blanches. "I can't take any more," she sobs.
"There, there." Papa pats Mama on the back. "I'll find something to get rid of them and, in future, we'll make sure we do spot checks."
I clutch my sides as hysteria builds up. "Ha, ha, ha spot checks!"
"Be quiet, you silly girl!" Mama slaps me on the arm. "We can't let the neighbours know we've got bed bugs. Whatever will they think?"
"If we've got them they've probably got them too. Stay here with your mother, Kate, while I look for a container."
He manages to find an old kerosene tin, which he trundles over to the Police Block. I strip the beds as my mother looks on helplessly.
Author's note: the Indian Quarters were insect-infested, baking-hot in summer and freezing in winter. I've used Gran's story about bedbugs, which also appears in Stanley: Behind Barbed Wire , by Jean Gittins.
JAPANESE VOICES jangle from just outside the door. I'm perched opposite Papa at the piled-up suitcases we use as a low table, sipping tepid water and nibbling from a bowl of cold rice. I'm wearing a cotton slip, but the summer air is so wet it drips down my skin and collects in the bends of my arms and behind my knees. I wipe my hands and get to my feet. What's going on?
Two officers are standing on the threshold, swords hanging from their waists. Three more men in white suits and Panama hats come up from behind them. My breath catches. Kempeitai.
Papa raises himself slowly from his mattress and bows. He's still weak; he was only discharged from the hospital yesterday. The blood he coughed up wasn't TB in the end. Just a severe case of bronchitis.
"You got radio?" a short, tubby man asks.
"No," Papa says firmly.
"We do search."
There isn't enough room for Papa and me, let alone for the contingent of Japanese. The officer gives a cursory glance around then mutters something incomprehensible. The rest of the Japanese laugh and back out of the door, still laughing.
Author's note: my grandmother spoke often about my grandfather's cool, calm attitude when the Kempeitai, the Japanese secret police, came looking for radios. George Wright-Nooth's account of his time in Stanley, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads , also tells of a search for radios and executions of internees, providing me with evidence for Gran's account.
ON THE FIFTEENTH of January, air-raid sirens blare above Stanley. I rush to the window. American planes are overhead. They come often now to bomb the harbour, as well as targets on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Papa stands next to me. "We haven't got any white crosses on the rooftops. How will they know we're an internment camp?"
Throughout the day I count the aircraft, over three hundred of them, the biggest raid yet. The next morning, the alarm sounds again. "Look! They're back." I go to the balcony. "Thousands of them."
"Not quite thousands," Papa says. "I've heard the Japs have put guns on top of the prison buildings. That's certain to attract attention."
Japanese soldiers dash onto the village green, firing revolvers and rifles at planes miles high. "They're running around like headless chickens," I laugh, keeping my worry about Charles to myself. He'll be a sitting target in the prison …
A sudden roar. Four planes drop from the sky. They're heading straight for the Indian Quarters! Three American aircraft pass overhead, chasing a Japanese plane, their machine guns roaring.
"Quick! Get down!" Papa shouts.
A huge explosion rocks the building. Flinching, I peer over the parapet. The Americans have gunned down the Japanese plane, which has crashed into the hillside to our right - just above the bathing beach. A plume of smoke rises up. Tell-tale signs of more planes shot down: towers of smoke come from the outlying islands, from behind the hill on the other side of Stanley Bay, and from the cove itself.
The day wears on and the air raids continue. I curl up on my mattress, holding my breath during the attacks, and letting it in and out while waiting for the next one. Papa sits next to me, grumbling and muttering about the lack of a proper shelter.
Late in the afternoon there's a massive bang. I stumble to the back of the flat, my legs shaking so much I can hardly move. A heavy cloud rises up from behind the cemetery and I grab Papa's arm. "They must have hit one of the buildings at St Stephen's."
Author's note: on January 16, 1945, during an American air raid, a plane accidentally bombed Bungalow 5 at St Stephen's College, killing 14 internees. I can remember Gran telling me how terrified they were during the bombing.
I LINE UP ON THE VILLAGE green for a bowing lesson, heat and humidity enveloping me. The Camp Commandant is obsessed with military etiquette and seems convinced the prisoners aren't getting it right. I go through the movements, my mind elsewhere.
"How can the Japanese expect us to take this bowing seriously?" I whisper to Papa. In May, The Hong Kong News announced Germany's surrender. Soon afterwards, the Japanese said, "No more newspapers" and they became another item for black market traders. "It's obvious they're losing the war."
"They're doing it out of spite, I reckon." Papa laughs, yet his eyes, staring blankly, give the lie to his apparent mirth. "A guard said they've been tunnelling shelters and foxholes into the hills. Japs seem to think they can fight for Hong Kong. How desperate and pathetic …"
"Whenever I hear a guard coming, I run and hide or I give them my best bow." I shrug. "Everyone does. Don't they realise we're too weak for all this?"
To my left, Jessica Chambers is staring straight ahead. On the other side of the parade ground, a group of young men from the Hong Kong Police grin mockingly and make little effort to bow. I study the outline of Papa's ribs poking through his bare chest. Sweat pouring from his face, he stands to attention in the hot sunshine; I take his hand and it's like holding a bunch of twigs.
I glance at the Pearce family. Physically, they're surviving. Mentally, though, they've become listless and resigned to their circumstances, just like everyone else. They no longer mention Charles; they probably think talking about him will jeopardise his chances. So I try to do the same and carry on as if everything will turn out for the best. And I cling to that hope; it nestles next to the numbness that has seeped back into my soul.
The Commandant struts in front of us. "Captain Ito show you."
The Japanese officer stands on a table. He inclines at the waist, holding his body at a forty-five degree angle. We try to imitate him, struggling with the exertion, weak with exhaustion.
The new Formosan guards stand on the sidelines, their faces unreadable. The Commandant has put them through field training over the past couple of weeks, leading them around the camp, wielding a bamboo stick. He has no chance! The Formosans don't give a damn about fighting to keep Hong Kong in Japanese hands. The Japs treat them like dogs, unaware they participate in a thriving black market with the prisoners, keeping us informed about events in the outside world. Manila has already been liberated. Surely it won't be long before it's Hong Kong's turn? My hands shake. If freedom doesn't come soon, we'll all starve to death. The situation has become that serious.
Author's note: bowing was a bone of contention between the internees and their Japanese captors. Cultural misunderstanding, perhaps? Gran told me about a lesson given by the camp commandant to the internees on how to bow properly. The excerpt speaks for itself.
Hong Kong-born author Siobhan Daiko
Siobhan Daiko was born in Hong Kong, where she attended Kowloon Junior School and, for a term, King George V School. She is the daughter of the late Douglas Bland, a prominent Hong Kong artist as well as a commercial manager of Hong Kong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Co. Her maternal grandfather was Vernon Walker, the general manager of Hong Kong Tramways in the 1940s. After studying languages in Europe, she returned to Hong Kong in the early 70s and worked as a PA/translator for the Italian consulate.
After marrying Victor Daiko, Siobhan moved to Britain, in 1981. She now lives with her husband in the Veneto region of northern Italy, where she spends her time writing.
Other than The Orchid Tree, she has written and published two other novels, Lady of Asolo and Veronica Courtesan.
The Orchid Tree is available in paperback from Dymocks in Discovery Bay and can be ordered from Amazon and other internet retailers. A Chinese version will be out soon.