"Come and get it!" - the Stanley Camp food queues

Submitted by David on Sun, 07/17/2016 - 22:00

Food and hunger are common themes in Hong Kong's wartime diaries. Barbara Anslow wrote this piece in 1944/45, describing the daily food queues in Stanley Camp:

The summons for food is the same as the summons for everything else in the Married Quarters of Stanley Camp  - a raucous clanging on a broken shellcase with a thick stick.  Each set of accommodation blocks has its own particular arrangement for serving;  ours, the Married Quarters, boasts a separate serving table for each of our four blocks; each block has three floors which take turns in being first in the queue; beyond his, the rule of ‘first come, first served’ applies.

In fine weather the food queues are to be found anywhere in the Married Quarters courtyard, the position depending upon the whereabouts of the sun – the object being to place the servers and as many of the queuers as possible in the shade.  In wet weather, the question of site is even more complicated, the only spaces affording shelter being the porchways below the back stairs.   Today, however, it is sunny, and the shadiest area is at the end of the yard nearest the distributing kitchen; this means that to the general hiatus of serving food is added the noisy business of scrubbing out cooking containers and utensils, followed by the sluicing down of the site of these operations.   There are four queues in this particular spot this morning, so close together that to the uninitiated  observer it may seem that there is no queue at all,  but only a disorderly crowd.    Blocks 3 and 4 are serving here, in addition to the ‘specials’ queue, in which workers receive extra rations allotted to them for their labour, and the congee queue, which caters for those persons who are certified by a doctor’s chit as being unable to assimilate rice in its boiled form.   Blocks 2 and 5 have appropriated the only other shady place – between the buildings known as Blocks 4 and 5.

The scene from one of the verandahs overlooking the courtyard is one which brings to mind news films of refugees lining up for their daily bread, one main difference being that our food queue is comparatively cheerful, as rumours and gossip are busily exchanged.

The most important aspect of the food queue, of course, is the food itself.  A rough idea of what this constitutes can sometimes be gained in advance by reading the menu on the noticeboard.  I say only a ‘rough’ idea for two reasons, the first being that quite often the kitchen staff forget to change it from day to day;  the second that the same kitchen staff sometimes let their imagination run away with them, and describe, say, a flat, fried rice cake about 2 and a half inches in diameter as ‘Uncle Charlie’s Birthday Biscuit.’  The menu this morning reads ‘Rice; Veg. Pasty; Melon soup.’   As we had that sumptuous meal last night, today’s meal will have to remain a surprise until it actually comes across from the galley – a converted garage situated opposite the front corner of Block 4.  

A chain of sweating men stagger out from the galley into the courtyard, carrying zinc baths full of boiled rice; then the stew arrives.  Today it looks rather more interesting than usual, having a rich brown appearance, reminiscent of the gravy we used to have with our Sunday dinners in days of old.   On closer examination, however, it proves to be made of minced ‘horse’ beans; these large beans, black outside and brownish-yellow within, are believed to be those described in a Readers Digest we came across as ‘eaten only by mules and pit ponies, and only consumed by humans in case of famine or exceptional necessity,’ but they taste nutty and are a great improvement on the colourless, tasteless melon soup which usually accompanies the morning rice.

There is no possibility, these days, of drawing a double share of food, for the first official you encounter as you approach the serving table is a ‘checker’, who has a list of every one on block rations and how much rice they are due. You receive your share of China’s staff of life first – served by a perspiring individual from a medium-sized zinc bath over which he operates in much the same way as the ice-cream vendor fills wafers and cornets.  On his or her left is a bowl of hot water in which he dips the copper-coloured ladle (camp made) from time to time to loosen the rice grains which are inclined to stick.  The small quantity of rice which collect in this bowl are the recognised perks of the rice server; such rice as is spilt on the ground is swept up and, together with the grains washed out from the larger kitchen containers, goes to the camp chicken farm.

You then present your plate or other container before an oblong tray containing bean stew, of which each person receives one dipper full; the size of dipper used varies from day to day according to the quantity of stew available; today’s ladle was made in camp from a small tin of Chinese tomatoes.   The serving from this end of the table (which incidentally is actually a beige coloured door to which rough legs have been added), is superintended by some trusted member of the Block who can be relied upon to see that the server does not give her friends or relations an extra ladle of stew.   The official Block Representative (there is one for each Block) is also in the vicinity of the serving table, acting as a kind of liaison officer between servers and kitchen workers so that a further supply is available as soon as the first containerful is exhausted.

The queues are constantly breaking up to make way for some dripping member of the kitchen staff to come over to a table with a dish of hot stew, and all those within splashing distance have to stand back while the fresh stew is decanted into the serving container.

It is interesting to observe that some people collect only their own ration, whereas others carry makeshift trays with as many as 6 persons’ food.  You can see every single member of one particular room lining up for their food behind each other – this is usually an indication that relations in that room are strained and perhaps completely broken off.

A wider variety of containers than those in which the food is collected could hardly be imagined;  there is a large proportion of enamel mugs and plates of different colours donated to the camp some 3 years ago, but many of these have worn out and are replaced by odd china plates, saucers, little trays from prewar ‘tiffin’ carriers, and tins of various sizes, the ‘Domo’ and ‘Cowbell’ milk powder variety (from Red Cross parcels 2 years ago) predominating.   There are enamel measuring mugs, oblong medical trays of white enamel rimmed with dark blue, even an inverted lampshade with a makeshift bottom.  The experienced severs know where the rice goes and where the stew goes – some people are very fussy on this point, but most of the men have ‘everything slapped on together’ – to quote their own expression.

A good selection of Stanley fashions are displayed in the food queues;  most people are barefoot; the men, almost without exception, wear only a pair of shorts, although there are one or two who still consider it infra dig to appear without shirt, socks and shoes, no matter how tattered these articles may be.  The majority of the women wear shorts and blouses or suntops, usually revealing a sunburnt strip of midriff.  The garments are growing a little jaded this year.  The Welfare shorts received in camp in 1942 have washed from a bright khaki to a pale fawn, and the shorts made from dresses which droop sadly. Suntops are made from all sorts of odds and ends – from flourbags to small squares of different coloured materials pieced together.  A few ladies exhibit the more superior Stanley feminine fashion – an old dress which has worn badly has been cut off at the waist, forming a skirt and a short blouse, leaving an exposed midriff which makes for coolness.   This is a very popular fashion for growing girls, when the hems of their dresses have been let down to their utmost limit, a new lease of life is added by cutting the dress in the manner described.

Despite the very acute clothes problem, and the exigencies of the camp restricting washing to a minimum for soap and personal calorie economy, there are still a few women to whom the food queue is apparently the outing of the day, for they still arrive dressed in their best; one elderly lady never appears without a black felt hat belonging to a past decade.

Difference in dress and containers there may be – but difference in the ration received according to one’s entitlement – no!  Any one who considers that his rice is slight under weight may take it to a gentleman who presides at some scales in the yard, where any deficit is made up, or overage deducted (the latter possibility limits the number of those querying their share).   Once served, every one troops back to their rooms, threading their way through the day’s washing which usually flutters from practically every space on the clothes lines which run the whole length of the courtyard.

The last queue is served; any leftovers, or ‘seconds’, distributed to the rooms next on turn to receive them; the servers and supervisors disperse; the tables are moved out of the way and washed.    For a time there is comparative quiet in the Married Quarters as 500 odd mouths make short work of – and some remember to thank God for – their meagre meal.

Barbara Redwood
Stanley, 1944 or 1945

Thanks to Barbara for sharing this with us. By a happy coincidence, our paths will cross in just under two weeks' time, as we're both visiting our respective families in South Wales. I'm looking forward to inviting Barbara out for lunch, and guarantee there won't be any 'horse' beans on the menu!

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