Paul Atroshenko's childhood memories of wartime Hong Kong: View pages | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

Paul Atroshenko's childhood memories of wartime Hong Kong: View pages

((Although his family was denied entry to Hong Kong, Paul was born here in 1937, just before the great typhoon that hit Hong Kong that year.))

My brother Viacheslav was born in Shanghai in September, 1935, and I must have been conceived there sometime in December, 1936. It was a difficult time for my parents, Tonia and Ivan Atroshenko. The global economic depression of the 1930s had not affected Shanghai too badly but jobs were scarce for White Russians like my father. Social security did not exist for Stateless emigres like him.

To make matters worse, on August 13th, 1937, the Japanese military attacked the Chinese controlled sections of Shanghai causing widespread confusion and misery amongst the Chinese population. The Japanese expected a quick victory and had boasted that they would occupy Shanghai in just three days and that China itself would surrender to Japan in three months.

To everyone's surprise, the poorly equipped Chinese Nationalist army under Chiang Kai-shek put up a determined resistance and the battle for Shanghai lasted for three months. Although the Chinese eventually lost their sections of Shanghai, suffering some 200,000 casualties, the fact that they had held out for so long was a great morale booster for them. The Foreign Concessions within the city continued to be administered by various European Powers, such as the French and the British.

The Japanese never managed to conquer the whole of China, although they did inflict immense suffering upon the Chinese population in the years to come.

My father hated the Japanese. He had been a boy soldier in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 and had witnessed atrocities committed by the Japanese army in that conflict. Not wishing to live under Japanese military control, he somehow managed to obtain passage for his family and himself on a tramp steamer to Hong Kong.

When the ship arrived in the British Crown Colony, my family was informed by the authorities that they could not remain there. They had to return to China and apply for proper visas to gain official entry to the Colony. They were advised to sail with the ship to Canton (now called Guangzhou).

Because of the Japanese military aggression which had spread south, thousands of Chinese were desperate to enter Hong Kong hoping to be protected by the British. Thanks to the huge influx of people, typhoid and cholera epidemics were raging throughout the colony and the British authorities were at their wits end trying to sort out the problems brought on by the flood of terrified refugees.

No sooner had my father been told that he and his family had to go back to China, my mother began to experience the pains of childbirth. I was about to make my entrance. She was rushed to the Matilda Hospital which is close to Victoria Peak. My father and brother remained on the tramp steamer in Hong Kong Harbour.

The Chinese believe that the number four is unlucky. On the fourth day of my existence, Hong Kong was hit by the worst typhoon in its history. In the harbour itself, normally protected from severe winds, about thirty ships dragged their anchors and were swept ashore. It was later estimated that eleven thousand people died in the colony during the storm. A tidal wave 18 foot high swept away the village of Tai Po in the New Territories. Hundreds of junks from the fishing village of Aberdeen were smashed to pieces by the huge seas and their crews perished without a trace.

Just before the typhoon hit Hong Kong with maximum force, the doctors and nurses at the Mathilda Hospital decided to unite all the babies with their mothers and leave them unattended in the maternity ward. They reasoned that it would be better for the mums and bubs to perish together. The medical staff then wisely went to the safety of the small typhoon shelter.

The typhoon was so severe that the Morants (a French family who befriended us during the Second World War) told us several years later that their garage door, which was made of solid iron and which sat on open hinges, was lifted from its position by the wind and tossed away like a paper plate. Their car, which had its parking brake on, was sucked out of the garage and flung down the slope.

The maternity ward in Mathilda Hospital was devastated by the powerful gusts of wind. All the windows were smashed and there was utter chaos in the ward. But when the doctors and nurses emerged from the typhoon shelter a day later they discovered that all the mothers and their tiny infants had miraculously survived. It was my first lucky break.

SAFE IN HONG KONG AGAIN... or so it seemed.

Somehow my father managed to obtain visas for the family to return to Hong Kong. Apparently, having a child in the family who was British by birth was an advantage in obtaining visas for all of us.

While my mother established her dressmaking business in Hong Kong, my father was soon successful in prospecting for minerals. With both my parents gainfully employed, this was a short period of considerable comfort and stability for us. We lived in a spacious flat in Kimberley Road, Kowloon, and I vividly recall the tricycles that my brother and I rode around the flat.

Since my mother was very busy with her dressmaking salon, I had my own baby amah to care for me. I became very attached to my amah as I spent most of my time with her. In this respect, my early upbringing was similar to the very wealthy children in Europe who had little contact with their parents, and became very close to their nannies. My father was away a great deal in the New Territories, as he spent most of each week supervising the operation of the mines which he had prospected there.

Although my father had little formal education, apart from his studies for the priesthood in Ukraine, he had acquired valuable lessons in prospecting for minerals from his elder brother. This brother had been responsible for diamond prospecting in Siberia during Tsarist times. He was so successful in this endeavour that, after the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks put him in charge of diamond prospecting in the Urals as well as Siberia.

It turned out that my father was an apt pupil. Several of the mines in Hong Kong and its New Territories owed their existence to my father's talent for discovering minerals of various kinds.

By the early Forties, the British authorities in Hong Kong were well aware that the Japanese posed a threat to the Colony in the near future. Since Britain itself was under siege from the Nazis and fighting for its very survival... this was the time of the Battle of Britain as well as the Battle of the Atlantic... there were few military resources which could be spared for the defence of Hong Kong.

Furthermore, in 1921, the British had agreed to limit the fortifications of the colony and this had increased its vulnerability. The government began a program to build air raid shelters in the colony and my father was employed by the Marsden company to supervise the construction of some of them. ((Jurors Lists show that Paul's father was actually working for the mining company "Marsman".))

By late 1941, the Japanese controlled most of the area in China just to the north of Hong Kong. For the defence of the colony the military commander of Hong Kong, Major-General Maltby, had only 14,000 troops. The force was made up of Canadian, British and Indian regiments as well as Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps. Maltby only had five antiquated aeroplanes at Kai Tak aerodrome. These were no match for the Japanese Zeros which were among the best fighters of their day. In the Harbour, there was only one destroyer, a few gunboats and a small flotilla of motor torpedo boats.

The Japanese attack began on December 8th, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor. They had massive superiority on land, sea and air. The Allied troops resisted bravely, suffering severe casualties and inflicting punishment on the Japanese invaders, but after 17 days of brutal fighting General Maltby advised the Governor that further resistance was futile. The American fleet had been decimated at Pearl Harbor and the British had lost two of their capital ships, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, to Japanese bombers off Malaya. There was no prospect of relief from the sea. The defenders of the Colony were on their own.

On Christmas Day, 1941, Hong Kong surrendered.

((Date is approximate))

The Shell House Episode

The company which had employed my father in the construction of air raid shelters had carefully selected a good one for the families of their employees. We were evacuated from Kowloon to Victoria Island.

Before that evacuation, I had seen what I thought was a British warplane being shot down by a Zero in a dogfight. This must have impressed me greatly as I had reason to recall that event soon after with considerable effect.

After the surrender of Hong Kong, the Japanese quickly began the process of deciding what to do with the European population they had captured. I was only four years old at the time (that unlucky number again) but I still have vivid images in my mind from that time.

We were taken to Shell House on Victoria Island for processing. I recall a large room filled with nervous Europeans, several in uniform. Reports had filtered through that the Japanese had committed various atrocities such as bayoneting wounded soldiers in hospitals. What happened next I recall only vaguely, but the story was told to me later by my parents and confirmed by several others who were at Shell house at that time.

A day or two after Christmas, a squad of Japanese soldiers led by an officer carrying a large samurai sword burst into the room. The soldiers seemed to be a little drunk, perhaps having celebrated the fall of Hong Kong. They were furious that the British had resisted effectively for 17 days and seemed to be in a mood for revenge.

Just as it seemed likely that a massacre may occur right there and then, I apparently walked up to the Japanese officer in charge and said to him, “Japanese plane go up, English plane go down”. I had remembered the dogfight which I had seen a few days before.

The Japanese officer was delighted. “Sodaska”, he exclaimed. He then put me on his knee, patted my blond head, and barked out an order to his troops. Two of them left the room and returned soon after with three gigantic walking and talking dolls which were presented to me. They had taken them from a department store which had been full of Christmas gifts.

When the Japanese left, many of the British in uniform came over to me and also patted me on the head. They believed I had helped to avert a massacre of the civilians of Shell House, and they politely ignored the fact that I may have belittled the British Empire and its air force, which was close to treason for a little British chap like me.

Shortly after, two of the dolls given to me by the Japanese were taken by other, bigger children. I quietly wished that the Japanese would return to kill these nasty, thieving bullies! There is little mercy to be found in the heart of a swindled four year old.

The Japanese sent all the British to Stanley, which became a prisoner of war camp. Those Europeans who belonged to neutral countries were allowed to remain free in Hong Kong. Some Americans were sent to the USA in a prisoner exchange, and among them were friends of our family.

Since my mother, father and brother were stateless aliens, they were freed. Although I was a British citizen, having been born in Hong Kong, as a four-year old I must not have been considered a security risk by the Japanese and I was permitted to remain with my family.

Years of hardship and danger had begun.

There is an embarrassing postscript to this story. Much to my father's dismay, when I was little my mother had insisted on giving me the nickname of “Pussy”. He had lived in America for 10 years and knew what the word pussy stood for there. Many years after the war, well-meaning strangers would come up to me on the Star Ferry or on a bus, address me as Pussy, and thank me for my treasonous act in Shell house. It was mortifying.

((Dates are approximate))

Brutal Episodes during the Occupation

During the war, the Japanese military behaved brutally, especially towards the Chinese. But remarkably, as a little blonde boy, I was often shown great kindness by both Japanese officers and soldiers. I was constantly patted on the head for good luck.

On one occasion, my parents and I were walking past a Japanese sentry who became annoyed because my mother and father did not show him sufficient respect by bowing very low. At bayonet point, he forced them both to kneel for over an hour on a hard concrete surface. Several Japanese officers saw what had happened and came over to me bringing cakes and a cold drink. While my parents kneeled in great discomfort, I was entertained by them on the lawn. It was a strange feeling seeing my parents suffer for such a long time, while I was having my head constantly patted. Kindness and brutality wrapped up in one package.

When I was just five, I used to spend a lot of time just roaming around the streets of Kowloon. For some reason, I always felt safe on the streets, and my parents never objected to my adventures. One day I saw a large crowd obviously witnessing some interesting event and I pushed my way through a dozen adult legs until I broke through to the front of the crowd. There was a quick movement and then a human head rolled past me. I had witnessed my first summary execution. A Japanese officer had used his samurai sword to chop off that head. I was told later that the victim had been caught stealing. He had been tried, found guilty, and executed in a matter of minutes. That kind of rough justice was apparently common during the occupation.

On another occasion, I was making my way home and was about to cross Nathan Road in Kowloon. There was a string of Japanese soldiers with fixed bayonets in the middle of the road, each standing about 10 feet apart. Their job was to ensure that nobody crossed the road. A senior Japanese officer had just arrived from Japan and a procession of cars was about to carry him past us on his way to his new headquarters. Since he was regarded as an emissary of the Emperor of Japan the route he was taking to his headquarters was regarded as a sacred passage. No foreigner was permitted to soil that passage by crossing the road before the eminent person had passed. And when he was passing us we were supposed to bow respectfully towards him.

Since I had already witnessed several acts of brutality by Japanese soldiers, I took their threat seriously and waited patiently by the kerb.

A Chinese woman approached the road, saw the soldiers and started to walk towards one, explaining in Cantonese that her children were waiting for her at home. Could she please cross the road?

Without a word, the Japanese soldier rammed his bayonet into her stomach. Two other soldiers came out of the side street, casually grabbed a leg apiece and dragged her body away.

We all watched silently as the soldiers did their gruesome work with calm efficiency. When the procession of cars carrying the emissary of the Japanese Emperor passed us, we foreigners bowed very, very low.

My first big air raid

My brother and I had the misfortune to be caught up in the very first air raid which the Americans launched against Hong Kong. I was five at the time, and my brother was seven. We had gone to visit a Russian family which had three daughters, each older than us.

They lived in Kowloon a few blocks away from Nathan Road. Their home was an entire flat on the top floor of a three storey block of flats. This block consisted of two sections of three stories each, joined by a party wall, with two entrances side-by-side. Our friends lived on the left-hand section of the block.

We were sitting in their dining room, idly chatting with the girls. Then, far in the distance, we began to hear explosions… quiet, rumbling ones at first, but steadily getting louder and louder. Suddenly there was an almighty crash close by and the three girls quickly jumped to their feet, and, without saying a word, they started running down the stairs towards the front entrance.

My brother and I watched in amazement as the three girls disappeared from view. We remained frozen on the sofa. Then another explosion erupted nearby and the whole flat shook. Plaster and dust rained down on us. My brother jumped up, grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the stairwell. We ran down as fast as our tiny legs could carry us.

When we arrived on the ground floor there was a noisy argument going on about the front door. Some wanted to shut the door to save us from the debris flying around outside. Others were afraid that shutting the door could cause us to die from concussion caused by the bomb blasts. The doors remained open, for better or for worse.
Across the street I saw an old Japanese woman opening the door of her house. There was a whistling sound, she looked up at the sky and quickly shut the door. The bomb hit the house and I saw the roof collapsing. Suddenly her house was just a pile of rubble.

Minutes later, we heard that hideous whistling sound again but this time, instead of an explosion, there were just four muffled thumps. We all wondered what that meant. It was only days later that we discovered that an American bomb had gone through the roof of the adjoining flats, and had then crashed through the third, second and first floors, landing without exploding onto the ground floor. The unexploded bomb lay just a few feet away from us on the other side of a thin dividing wall. My guardian angel must have been working overtime on that day.

When there appeared to be a lull in the bombing, my brother and I decided to make a dash for home. For some silly reason we thought it would be safer for us to run rather than stay with our friends. Perhaps we had had enough of the arguments in favour of closing or opening that front door.

We had just made it to the first corner when something horrific stopped us in our tracks. A motor car was burning in the street and the driver had got out. He was covered in flames and he must have been in agony, but I can't remember him screaming. All I can recall is that he was lurching silently towards us. My brother and I were like two timid mice hypnotised by a cobra. We couldn't move as he came closer and closer. Then he collapsed about 6 feet away from us and we were instantly released from his spell. We turned the corner and started running as fast as we could towards Nathan Road.

Halfway down the street, a Chinese woman jumped out of a doorway and grabbed the two of us by the collar, and quickly dragged us into the safety of her building. I turned around and saw a Japanese officer, his samurai sword slapping on his thigh, running down that same street. An American plane must have been strafing the street because the officer's stomach seemed to erupt in a mass of red. He had been hit several times in the back.

We waited there for several more minutes until the sounds of the aeroplanes and the bombs slowly faded away. When we arrived home we discovered that the area near our house had hardly been touched by the bombs. The district where the three girls lived had been the epicenter of the attack. They and their parents were obliged to live elsewhere for a few days while the unexploded bomb was safely removed.

I have no idea where the American planes had come from so early in the Pacific War since it would have been dangerous waters for a carrier task force. Perhaps they were a squadron of the Flying Tigers. The air raid came as a huge shock to the Japanese. I had mixed feelings about it because I wanted the Americans to win the war but I wasn't too happy to have their bombs dropped all around me.

Our family came through the war intact, though not without considerable hardship. During that first air raid, a family my parents knew well were walking along Kowloon Road when they received a direct hit from an American bomb. The mother, the father and the two children died instantly. A huge hole in the road was all that served as a memorial to them.

Postscript from Fanling

About 4 PM on the day of that first big air raid, we began to be worried about my father who had gone by train to Fanling, which was in the New Territories. He was in the habit of catching the same train back to Kowloon, and always used the fifth carriage. My Mother and I went to the station to find him. On the way there, close to the Peninsula Hotel, we saw a train which had been hit by bombs. To our horror, the fifth carriage had been overturned and completely destroyed.

My mother quickly realised that it was the carriage which papa always used. There were trucks driving away with dead bodies and piles of squashed vegetables. We ran to the Kowloon railway station and told the man at the information desk that we were looking for my father. The man asked us what my father had been wearing. This did not reassure us.

After searching the crowds looking for papa, we finally went home. My mother was hysterical with grief and Viacheslav and I found it impossible to console her. How was she going to bring up two young children by herself in Hong Kong during this terrible war? By that time we were utterly convinced that papa was dead.

At about 8 p.m. that evening, my father walked in through the door, carrying his two familiar rattan baskets full of vegetables. My mother promptly fainted, either from joy or because she thought he was a ghost. Papa then told us what had happened to him at Fanling.

Because my father refused to cooperate with the Japanese, it was impossible for him to obtain a normal job. His way of making money was to catch a train to Fanling, buy good fresh vegetables there, and then sell them as a hawker. He soon developed a string of loyal customers who were mainly members of various foreign consulates of neutral countries, or those which were allied to the Axis Powers. Many of these consulates were scattered around the Peak in Hong Kong.

Since the Peak Tram had stopped operating shortly after the Japanese occupation, this meant that my father had to cart his vegetables from Kowloon to the highest roads on Victoria Island. The Peak Tram was pulled by a cable and the Japanese must have decided that they could use that cable elsewhere, probably for some military purpose, so the cable was removed.

My brother and I occasionally went with him on these selling trips and tramping up and down Victoria Peak was an excellent way to keep fit. Sometimes my father would use a battered old pram to carry the vegetables and we would help him push it up the hills.

Being a creature of habit, my father always caught the same train and the same carriage to Fanling and back. On that day, after finishing his purchases, he was about to enter the carriage of his choice when a Japanese soldier challenged him and said that that carriage had been reserved for Japanese officers. When my father still tried to get on the train the soldier roughly pushed him backwards, sending him sprawling. His baskets flew open and the vegetables were scattered all over the platform.

By the time my father was able to gather up his goods, the train had pulled out of the station, much to the amusement of the Japanese soldiers. That carriage, with its precious cargo of Japanese officers, received a direct hit from an American bomb. There were no survivors. My father’s luck had held out once more.

This was just one occasion among several when my father had almost died or been killed during the war.

Life in the Italian Convent

We lived for the last two years of the War in the Italian Convent, half way up the peak of Mt Victoria. This gave me a dress circle view of the air war. Sometimes the American planes would come diving over the top of Mt Victoria, passing just a few feet away from where I crouched on the roof terrace. I would wave frantically to the pilots and other air crew and sometimes they would wave back. By today's standards, the planes flew very slowly and many were easy targets for anti-aircraft fire. If any of the pilots were captured, the Japanese would treat them very badly indeed, before executing them. In my view, those American pilots early in the War were the first kamikazes.

After the War in Hong Kong

The war in the Pacific ended on August 15, 1945. The Japanese had surrendered after the dropping of two atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Peace in Hong Kong meant no more air raids and lots of food to eat. During the war we survived on starvation rations and I still remember the physical pain in the stomach from lack of food.

When the British Fleet sailed into Hong Kong harbour, they brought back the rule of law. We no longer had to fear the arbritrary and savage behaviour of the Japanese army. To this day, the Chinese have not entirely forgiven the Japanese for the many atrocities committed during the long war and the occupation of much of China. This second Sino-Japanese War began officially in 1937 and ended in 1945.

My brother and I were enrolled in the Central British School when it reopened soon after the war. The school was later renamed the King George V school (KGV). It was a pretty good school at the time, but I was a lousy student. I think that was mainly due to the fact that I was, and still am, a lazy person. Mind you, I was about two years younger than most of my fellow students in my class and that could have been a problem. Two years difference in age at that stage of life was critical. When most of my coed fellow students were experimenting in the bushes, I was still reading "Biggles".

Some of our teachers were brilliant. I remember with great pleasure our English teacher, Conrad Watson; our French teacher, Mrs. Crosier; and our Math teacher, Gamble. I can only hope that I did not cause them too many heartaches with my poor behavior. I played hooky regularly, and was often in the art room, drawing and painting, when I should have been in geography or chemistry lessons. It was my last art teacher who put the apparently ridiculous idea into my head that I could study to become an artist, and for that I'm truly grateful. He told me that he could have arranged a place for me at the Central School of Art in London, but I explained to him then that our family was headed for Australia. Continue reading on Paul's website...