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Thursday, August 13, 2015, 09:57

'Happy to have survived'

By Chitralekha Basu

Barbara Anslow was interned at Stanley Internment Camp from January 1942 to August 1945 and remembers it as if it were yesterday. Interview by Chitralekha Basu.

'Happy to have survived'
Barbara Anslow in a file photo taken in 2008. (Edmond Tang / China Daily )

1. Last June you represented Hong Kong’s internees at a Buckingham Palace Garden Party… What passed through your mind when you received the honor? Were you reminded of anything in particular?

I thought about how lucky I was just to be alive at that moment.

2. We would like you to re-imagine the days of HK’s liberation from Japanese Occupation, beginning 15 August 1945… When did you first hear of the liberation? What was that moment like?

On August 16, when we first heard that the Japanese had surrendered, some of us couldn't believe it. We were asked not to leave Stanley camp; there was no transport anyway; also, our flats and houses in the city 7 miles away had been war damaged and looted. Also it was not known how the Japanese in Hong Kong would react to the humility of surrender. We just had to stay in camp until our relieving forces arrived. We did not have contact with the outside world for the next two weeks, but were overjoyed when lots of good food was daily sent to us in addition to the usual rice and stew.

On August 29 a British plane flew overhead, and food was dropped to us by parachute. The plane flew so low that you could clearly see the men inside.

3. When did you leave the camp? Could you take us back to the days between knowing that freedom was imminent and actually stepping out of the camp premises? The build-up to tasting freedom?

On August 30, the British Fleet sailed into Hong Kong Harbour. The Admiral drove into Stanley Camp, we all gathered round him and our flag was raised. He didn’t stay long. Later that same day, an old bus arrived to take a few Government people (including me, a shorthand typist) to join the secretarial staff in the French Mission, just opposite Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank. It was so thrilling!

4. What’s your most endearing memory from that period… the months leading up to the liberation that you would never wish to forget?

The sight of colored parachutes carrying food and medical supplies floating down into the camp from a British plane.

The most sustained memory from that time was the extra food supplies. There was meat, rice, beef, sugar, though in small amounts. Red Cross parcels arrived from Canada and Europe. The arrival of food from outside was significant because that’s how we knew the world outside of the camp had not forgotten us.

5. What was the first drastic change you felt as HK returned to normalcy? HK is known for its extraordinary resilience, to be able to bounce back to normal life after each major crisis… was it the same, even then?

Before sailing for UK in September 1945, I visited the Happy Valley flat in which my family had lived before the war. The wood paneling on the staircase had disappeared. The flat was absolutely empty, all furniture taken — even the front door had gone.

When I returned to Hong Kong in June 1946, it was astounding to find how quickly the place had recovered from the occupation, although there was a scarcity of houses and flats, and many Europeans lived in hostels for the next few years.

6. The Chinese had it much harder post liberation … many were still starving to death… did you know of it then?

We didn't know it, until the Roman Catholic Bishop of Hong Kong visited Stanley Camp one day, and told us he had sold the Cathedral bells to get money to buy food for the starving Chinese.

7. You have mentioned several times that getting to socialize across cultures — meeting Americans, Dutch, Eurasians — was one of the unexpected benefits of your internment. How did you feel about the bloodlink issue by which compensation was denied to British citizens of a different ancestry for a long time? Did you feel vindicated when Diana Elias won the case?

I think British of all ancestries should definitely receive compensation, great that Diana Elias won her case.

Internment with different nationalities gave me a much wider view of human society than I had before.

8. Although you now live in Essex, you seem to be totally involved in the efforts to preserve the memory of occupied Hong Kong? Why is it so important to you, apart from the fact that you were privy to this extraordinary experience?

The memory of the years spent in camp are the clearest of memories of my long life, and I am quite happy to relate them to anyone who asks me.

I will be 97 this December. I am lucky that I am very well looked after to be able to recount that story.

9. If you were asked to identify just one lesson from the days of internment that present-day Hong Kong might do well to remember and even might use today, what will that be?

Living for years in a small room with other people who are not your family, you learn to accept their ways and irritations, and to go through all kinds of circumstances without complaining, you just had to be more tolerant.

10. Are you going to take part in a remembrance of VJ Day at the Cenotaph Whitehall on Aug 15, including a march past of veterans, this year?

Yes, but I shall be in a wheelchair pushed by my daughter as I don't walk very well. At the service, I am going to read a short poem by A.E. Ogden and V. Merrett called

The FEPOW Prayer, FEPOW being Far Eastern Prisoners of War.

I’m excited and a little nervous. I hope it doesn’t rain.

11. A lot of former internees find it stressful to talk about the time spent in Stanley Internment Camp. How is it you can look back on it without malice, anger or frustration?

Personally I didn’t have any dreadful experiences with the Japanese. I guess it is harder for people who did, to forget. After the war we found that our camp wasn’t so difficult as many others in the Far East, so we had reason to be grateful for that.

Also I think most of us post-war were too busy getting on with our lives and happy to have survived, to hold malice or anger.

12. Did you ever fear for your lives during the stay at Stanley?

Yes. It was a terrible shock when several internees were taken away by the Japs and executed because they had been in possession of wireless sets and using them. We all realized how helpless we were.

Then in January 1945 an Allied plane dropped a bomb on the camp and killed 16 internees. This reminded us that if the Allies decided to invade and retake Hong Kong, we would be in the thick of it, and might be killed by our captors.

As long as we bowed at the Jap guards when they walked round the camp, we had no problem with them... unless as sometimes happened an internee was cheeky to them, or stole some of their food, then there would be some beating up.

13. You met your husband at the camp? How did that happen?

I knew Frank slightly in camp but only as a friend. Back in Hong Kong after the war, by chance Frank and I were in the same hostel, the French Mission, with 30 other government staff, and our friendship developed. We were married in Australia in 1948.

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