Dietetics in Stanley Camp | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

Dietetics in Stanley Camp

Book type: 
Dates of events covered by this document: 
Thu, 1942-01-01 to Thu, 1942-12-31

My Dad, John Bechtel, wrote this shortly after his release from Stanley:

As far as the theory of the subject is concerned, I have always been interested in dietetics ever since in my younger days when Hygiene and Dietetics were included in our College curricula, but it was not until I was a prisoner in a Japanese Internment Camp in Hongkong, that my practical knowledge of dietetics became a vital part of ray experience. Behind barbed wire, surviving on a diet of wormy, polished white rice, with little in the way of meat, vegetables, no fruit, nor beverage aside from water, I soon learned the principle behind the slogan, "A man is what he eats."

To the person who is "slimming," undoubtedly there is a great deal of virtue and benefit in leaving the table with a "hungry feeling” in the vicinity of the stomach, but to have that gnawing, uncomfortable "hungry feeling" all the time is another matter. To reach the place where you will eat anything, just to ease the pain - - then dietetics becomes a vitally practical subject.

One of the inevitable results of our Internment menu was constipation, followed by internal and external piles. Most of my fellow-internees were thus afflicted. I had one of the milder cases, but one older internee had such a serious of protruding hemeroids that he could not [sit] down, but spent most of his time standing, which posture was not conducive to relief from external piles. Death came as a relief to this poor man, who suffered so much excruciating pain from the hemorrhoids situated outside the sphincter ani.

Although I was over 40 years of age whan I was incarcerated in the Internment Camp, for the first time in my life I suffered from painful piles, brought on by straining in an attempt to pass a stool. Our daily diet was so scanty, with the principal item cooked white, polished rice, that a daily evacuation was impossible. Without salt and very little roughage; faecal masses formed hard and difficult to propel. Sometimes days would pass without a bowel movement. I learned to get some relief by shaping crude, yellow soap into the form of a crude suppository. However, the caustic soda and other irritants in the crude, yellow washing soap caused irritation, but it was a lesser evil than the prolonged, painful straining to pass a dry, hard stool. If we could only have had a few leaves of senna or some other laxative or cathartic, what pain and suffering from these varicose veins in the lower bowel, near the rectum, could have been avoided!

Under the drastic conditions prevailing in the prison camp, Herbal Dietotherapy became a vital subject. We found that tea made from pine needles, while a little difficult to reconcile to the mental picture of a "drop of tae," yet did have a refreshing reaction. One of the redeeming features of pine needle tea was that the liquid was free from tannin, but did taste something like turpentine! Like Paraguay Mate, we hope it contained A, B, C.

Another practical discovery was a large field of alfalfa within the confines of the barbed-wire.    Before we were rounded up and confined in the Internment Camp, a herd of cattle had been fed alfalfa raised near a dairy farm. Although the alfalfa was old and had gone to seed yet we knew that it had food value, so we boiled it as greens, drank the water, and then bolted down the sodden leaves and stems. Without salt, the alfalfa greens were rather flat, but they did have dietary value.

Looking into a dust bin one day I saw a bulb of garlic that was a little the worse for wear. Some housewife, who had been dispossessed to make room for the Internment Camp, had thrown the bulb of garlic away because it was soft and mushy. Remembering that garlic has special dietary value, I retrieved the bulb. Instead of eating the few good sections of the bulb, I scrounged an old flower pot, planted the garlic. As the days passed I faithfully watered and cared for the "garlic pot”, until one day a slender green shoot appeared above the surface. From that day onward I had an inch or two of garlic shoot to chew. There was not enough garlic oil to give forth the characteristic pungent and persistent odour, but the powerful antiseptic value of garlic was there, and the slender spike of green garlic did give flavour to the wormy rice.

Although my college-day study of dietetics had taught me that peanuts, almonds, hazel nuts, brazil nuts, walnuts and acorns had dietary value, yet I had never realized that prune pits had a kernel inside the hard shell. Usually, we eat our stewed prunes and spit out the pits, which are consigned to the dust bin. Some lucky Internees, who had friends outside to send them parcels, received dried prunes. These they soaked and boiled; chewed them, expelling the prune pits. The Internee Involved thought he had extracted all of the good out of the prunes, but - - he forgot that the prune pits had an inside. These discarded pits were collected, washed, dried in the sun, and then cracked like almonds.

My pratical knowledge of Herbal Medicine was enlarged when I discovered that there was a weed growing wild in the Internment Camp which resembled Dandelions. I have never been able to find out the botanical name of the weed, but prescribing for a fellow-internee I found that this weed saved his life! The man was suffering from sprue, brought on by our vitamin-deficient diet. He was rather elderly, old enough to be my father. The psycholgy of being cooped-up behind barbed wire as a prisoner frequently results in periods of despondency in some people. My room-mate had reached an all-tine low on the psycho-somatic scale, his outer body showed the effect of the deplorable state of his inner man. To satisfy him, I had walked with him to a spot which he had chosen to be his last resting place. Some Chinese had been buried in the same grave before, so it must have been a lucky spot! Evidently the bones of the former occupant had been removed, scraped, and deposited in a large earthenware urn as is the custom of some Chinese. The sides of the coffin were still intact, the grave was already dug, it would be an easy task to bury him there. My friend was thin, the sprue had reaped its toll, there would be no difficulty in fitting him into the empty coffin. Just as his spirits had reached the lowest level, I suddenly discovered that the edge of the open grave was lined with a strange weed - very much like the dandelion family. Like a flash I had the inspiration to say, "Cheer up! There's the answer to your sprue—Dandelions!" Undoubtedly, the therapeutic value of Chinese dandelions is high, but, in this case, the psychological value was even greater—a man's life was spared.

After much negotiations the Japanese were persuaded to issue as rations soy beans. The soy beans were soaked, placed between layers of wet burlap bags, and then the bean shoots were served as greens to the internees. Not much for taste, especially without salt or seasoning, yet rich in dietary value. Because soy beans contain little starch and are rich in albuminoids, many a young person living today in Hongkong or in other parts of the world, who was born in Stanley Internment Camp, owes his life to someone in the camp who ground the dried soy beans, and made a paste, which was thinned with water and became a substitute for mother’s milk.

Up to this point it may seem that our thesis on Herbal Dietotherapy has degenerated into a non-technical P.O.W.’s diary, but the point we are attempting to make is that frequently we fail to avail ourselves of the dietary and medical virtues of some of our wayside plants, sometimes labelled ”weeds”.    As human beings, it would seem that we have to be placed under extreme living conditions, completely cut off from the corner chemist shop, and thrust, upon our own resources before we utilise the provision of Nature. Even dumb animals, such as the cat and dog, may be seen on certain occasions chewing grass, and an examination of the stool or vomit, seems to indicate that the grass has accomplished its task. Although the illustration is crude, yet it stresses the point that we should be alive to, and take advantage of, botanic remedies for treatment of diseases and nourishment of the body.

The westerner living in the Orient has dietary difficulties and problems not experienced by his friends in the Homeland. For instance, the daily vitamin intake and mineral requirements of individuals in the West are fairly accurately settled, depending upon the age and occupation of the patient. Whereas, in the Far East, there are a number of factors that have to be faced in evaluating the strength of vitamins prescribed by the Herbal Dietotherapist.    It is generally conceded that water charged with chlorine (a'qua Chlo'ri) destroys some of the qualities of vitamins. In Hongkong, when the medical authorities declare the Colony "a cholera inflected area" immediately certain steps are taken to stem the spread of the disease. One step always taken, in addition to mass inoculated, by the Director of Medical and Health Services is to issue orders that "more chlorine will be added to our drinking water." Granted, it is far better to have vitamin values destroyed than to be infected with cholera gems, yet the additional chlorination of the water supply does pose a question in prescribing vitamins. How many additional units should be added to offset the result of chlorination?