We first came to Hong Kong in 1927, when I was eight years old. My father was an electrical engineer in the naval dockyard. We stayed for only two years, but he was reassigned to Hong Kong in 1938, so I returned with my parents and two sisters.
After cold England, I liked everything about Hong Kong, except for the cockroaches and mosquitoes. We employed a cook amah, a wash amah and a junior makee-learn – so we three girls no longer had to take turns to do the chores. For much of the year we would go swimming at Repulse Bay. If it was too hot to walk to the shops, a rickshaw ride cost only 10 cents.
Even working in an office in Hong Kong was different to England, where we had never been allowed to chat or take a personal phone call. Outside of work, the South China Morning Post occasionally published one or another of my poems – but they never paid me!
EVACUATION AND RETURN We were told one Friday afternoon in 1940 that women and children would be evacuated on the Monday. Although, as government stenographers, my elder sister and I held exempted occupations, as did my mother, an auxiliary nurse, my father insisted the four of us women leave Hong Kong for our own safety. We were sent to the Philippines, supposedly en route to Australia. But while we were staying on a sugar plantation – like some super country club, with tennis courts, bowling alley and swimming pool – enjoying ourselves, news reached us that my father had died suddenly.
By the time we returned to Hong Kong, Dad had already been buried, and we had been booked on a ship to England. There was the turmoil of the Battle of Britain at home, so we made a case to stay and work in Hong Kong. We were jittery all through November. There was all the news of the Japanese in and out of talks with the USA. I used to try to enjoy each weekend as though it were our last … There was nothing you could do to prepare.
The weekend before the attack was much like any other. I worked Saturday, December 6, then went to tea at The Peninsula and on to the King’s Theatre to see My Life with Caroline. We played tennis the next day.
UNDER ATTACK The headquarters of the Air Raid Precaution (ARP) department, where I worked, moved underground, to a tunnel below Government House. Unusually early on the Monday morning, I was called into the ARP office – I didn’t know why. I was billeted on Duddell Street, off Queen’s Road, so I didn’t waste much time getting there. Even once we were told Pearl Harbour had been attacked I was none the wiser: I didn’t know where Pearl Harbour was.
I hadn’t been in the office long when the first air raid sirens rang out and the first Japanese bombers came over – heading for Kai Tak airfield. We were absolutely appalled at how quickly the Japanese advanced from the border through the New Territories and Kowloon.
ISLAND BESIEGED It was an awful feeling to think that the enemy were just across the water. The shells were what we dreaded most. You never knew where they were going to land. I don’t remember being upset about it: we were too intent on surviving. Every day throughout the battle I’d get up early and have some breakfast at the Parisian Grill. I’d work at the tunnel for eight hours, eat, and go back to my billet.
Christmas Day was much like any other day during the battle. My sister’s fiancé had been wounded in the fighting. He was in a makeshift convalescence hospital in the Hongkong Hotel (on Pedder Street). After work on Christmas Day, I went to see him. He was lying on a low bed amid many other war-injured patients. A lady I knew came over and said, “I’ve got some terrible news.” She couldn’t look straight at me, but she said: “We’ve surrendered.” We couldn’t believe it. Outside, it sounded like the battle was still going on, with planes overhead.
SURVIVING STANLEY I was 23 when we entered Stanley camp and 27 when we were liberated. Our days in internment were, to begin with, chaotic. The chaps who had fought were kept elsewhere, and nobody knew if family or friends had been killed. Accommodation in the camp was crowded, and food was scarce. But most of us were just relieved: this enormous thing that had been hanging over us for three or four years – the threat of attack by the Japanese – had actually happened, and we had survived it. People back in Britain suffered bombings and didn’t let it interfere with their lives.
At least once we were in the camp the bombing and shelling had finished. You could keep quite busy if you wanted to be. There was communal work, like cleaning our quarters, teaching and helping out at the camp hospital. Queuing for food and cooking it took up time – there were 600 people in our block to feed in turn.
Lectures were given on every subject you could imagine and school was organised for the children. There were lots of religious services and concerts. I used to write – or adapt – plays for children. Our Peter Pan was something of a hit with the internees.
HAPPILY EVER AFTER I met Frank Anslow in Stanley, and we married in 1948. Like all women who married, I had to give up my job for the Hong Kong government. I taught shorthand from home and wrote short stories for a Hong Kong magazine called Outlook. Our five children were all born in Queen Mary Hospital. Frank and I had 55 years together (he died in 2003). When my husband retired, in 1959, we returned to the UK. I began to write a novel set in Hong Kong. Almost 40 years later, after working as a legal secretary, I self-published The Young Colonials in 1997.
PENNIES FROM HEAVEN The war years have stayed with me. We had a wonderful reunion of Stanleyites at Leamington Spa (in central England) 50 years on. In 2008, I made a memorable trip to Hong Kong with my five children. I was amazed to find the quarters in Stanley where I’d been interned still standing and in great condition.
For the 70th anniversary of the VJ Day celebrations in London (in 2015), I read a war poem in front of Prince Charles at Horse Guards Parade on behalf of all internees and POWs. Afterwards, I paraded –
in a wheelchair – with other veteran POWs and internees through London, to incredible crowds of spectators warming our hearts with their cheering and waving.
The recognition today is starkly different to soon after the war. Back then, the British government gave us internees a paltry £47 in recompense. Sixty years after the event, they gave us £10,000, which I have always regarded as pennies from heaven – and so do my children.