THE ANGELS OF WANCHAI
This first appeared in issue #1 of 'History Notes', compiled by the late Phillip Bruce. It is reproduced here on Gwulo by kind permission of Mr Bruce's family.
The ladies of Wanchai are often mentioned with great affection by those who endured the hardship of imprisonment in Hong Kong. Risking life and limb the girls who had formed attachments with soldiers and sailors got food through to the camps.
Hong Kong veteran Bob Yates recalls the "Angels of Wanchai."
"Before 1939, very few regular soldiers were married and the greater majority by far were aged between 18 and 28. Add to this the fact that almost every man who enlisted (and the only women in the forces were nursing sisters of the QAIMNS with officer status) went overseas usually to places where there were very few white women - who would have nothing to do with the private soldier anyway. Sexual problems were bound to arise.
The Wanchai girls helped solve that problem. It was said there were about 20 000 registered with the police - in Hong Kong prostitution was legal but brothels were illegal. Very few girls chose that life; some had been sold into it, and others because it was either that or starve. I was not in the front line at Wanchai, so cannot personally vouch for the truth of the stories, that they took in the wounded and cared for them, or that they took them tea, food and other comforts, but I believe in all honesty that these tales are true. Men I knew personally have told me so, and in any case it is the type of thing they would have done. After all, they were bedfellows, in more ways than one, the soldiers and the girls that is. The former felt themselves to be outcasts so far as the European population was concerned, and the latter were outcasts to both the Europeans and most of the Chinese.
Their 'beat' in the Wanchai area was mainly outside the clubs and bars which the servicemen frequented, places like the China Fleet Club, Soldiers and Sailors Home, Seaman's Institute, Nagasaki Joes and the Black Dog. They lived mainly in Lockhart, Hennessey and Johnson Roads. If they didn't know you their approach was usually: 'Hello, Georgie, where you go, you come topside with me, short time.' The normal charge for this was two Hong Kong dollars although during the week it could be as low as one dollar fifty cents or even one dollar. This was because very few soldiers could afford to go out other than at the weekend. It was also possible to get it on 'tick', believe it or not, and if the girl knew the 'swaddie' fairly well it could even be free!
I have been out myself during the week and have been approached by a girl who would ask if I knew so and so in the barracks (they knew the different cap badges and where the units were stationed). On saying I did, she gave me a packet of fags and requested that I give them to him. She would know at that time of the week he would be short of cash. This happened (and not only to me) a number of times, and I myself have had fags sent in in this way.
When the age for drawing marriage allowance was lowered from 26 to 21, sometime early 1940 I think, a number of men married these girls, in fact some had done so before this. Generally these were the soldiers who had been 'keeping' the girl. This meant giving her five dollars a week (a dollar equalled one shilling and threepence).
Usually, she found accommodation near the barracks, e.g. for those men at Fort Stanley, in Stanley Village, those at Lyemun, in Shaukiwan, and those at Mount Davis, in Kennedy Town, and so on. All-night passes were restricted to Saturday nights, and only then if you were staying in one of the authorized clubs such as the China Fleet Club. You simply booked in at the club, and got your receipt but didn't go back there - it was necessary to produce the receipt on return to barracks. Normally one had to be back in camp by midnight on other days. In any case, it was always possible to 'break barracks', especially if, like myself, you slept in a gun store or similar place and not in the barrack room. At times, of course, you were caught.
'Going Down Home' was the common expression used, so the girl became known as 'The Downhomer', and, depending upon who was being referred to, so did the bloke! Home in this case was far from being a comfortable house or flat, rather it was the same type of accommodation as the more ordinary and poorer type of Chinese lived in. Imagine a block of about four or five stories with one central stair-way. Each floor was divided into about four large rooms and each room again divided into compartments by partitions about seven feet high - no ceiling - and measuring perhaps eight feet by five feet at the most. There was one central cooking place for each floor and one toilet. Even families lived in these cubicles, so for a girl' to have one to herself was really something. That was home. However, the soldier didn't live there in the true sense of the word, after all he always had his bed in the barracks if he didn't feel like going down.
The girls never complained about not being taken out for example, or not having enough money. Indeed, I suppose it would be fair to say that the soldier had all the benefits of marriage with none of the responsibilities. They would, if you had told them you were going out that night, have washed, starched and ironed your uniform (khaki drill or whites) and cleaned the buttons, and along with clean underwear it would be laid out on the bed awaiting your arrival. No questions as to where you were going etc.
Sordid? I suppose it could be called that in those days, but there seemed to be some sort of rapport between the serviceman and the Wanchai girl. They didn't seem to be as mercenary as their Western counterparts, although never having experienced the latter, I can only go on hearsay. They accepted the fact that one day the soldier would leave the colony and if they were being 'kept', then they would have to return to the streets. They usually adopted western hair styles, but wore the cheungsam which invariably suited them. Of course there was always the danger of VD, but not if you 'kept' one.
In Kowloon, at Whitfield Barracks, the army had a VD hospital, and apparently so I was told many times (not having suffered the misfortune of catching it myself) the Military Police used to come around there weekly and ask the inmates to take them to the girl from whom they had contracted it. Very, very few ever did. It seemed to be a point of honour with them either not to help the Redcaps of give the girl away. I suppose it was all rather foolish, as all the MPs wanted to do was make the girl go for treatment.
Whilst we were being marched to POW camp many of the girls stood on the road-side and all were crying. Later many came to the wire at the Shamshuipo POW camp to throw soap and food to their boy friends. They took terrific beatings from the Japs when caught, but still returned. I recall one being made to strip off and stand naked in full view of everyone, although many POWs turned away and refused to look instead of taking it as a sort of Japanese-provided striptease.
Each sentry coming off duty or going on would touch her up, slap her, or behave in such manner as to degrade her. But it was they who were degraded. The girl stood there unflinchingly, and took it all, without, in my opinion,- losing one scrap of dignity. Now and again, a Jap would leave the guardroom, with a bucket of cold water and pour it all over her - it was a chilly day. Eventually they let her go, she had been standing there around four or five hours, throwing her clothes some distance away so that she had to run for them, at the same time trying to conceal parts of her body with her hands, something she had not been allowed to do whilst standing there all that time. No, I doubt if you'll ever hear anything other than praise for the Wanchai girls from the ordinary British soldier who knew them.
Of one thing you can be sure. If there is such a place as heaven, then the 'Angels of Wanchai' won't be there. Like Kipling's Gunga Din, 'they'll be squatting on the coals, giving drink to poor damned souls' in the other place. Furthermore, they'll have opted for this of their own free will probably to care for and comfort the same British soldiers they knew all those years ago in Hong Kong who, more than likely, will be among 'those poor damned souls.'
It is possible to go on for ever about these girls, so one story to finish off.
I was introduced to a young girl who had come across from Macau with her sister, who was being 'kept' by a friend of mine, Joe Viotto, a Gibraltarian who had enlisted in the Royal Artillery. I suppose she was about 17. When I first met her she wore coolie-type dress, trousers and jacket, and had a queue, or pigtail, and I rather liked her that way. Joe and I had them get a place in Kennedy Town (we were both at Mount Davis at that time) and one day when I went down there she excitedly showed me her new western hair style, and cheungsam.
When I reproached her she collapsed in tears, saying she thought I would like her better that way. On my asking what she had done with her queue, she pulled it out of a box under the bed, with the usual pieces of red ribbon still holding the plaits in place at each end. I asked if I could have it, and she readily handed it over - the only request she made being: 'Please, you no burn, if you do, me die. When you no want you bury in ground.' I promised I would never burn it, not because I believed in what she said but rather to humour her. However, I did intend to keep that promise.
I kept that queue all through my POW days, even taking it to Japan with me. I told the Japs that it belonged to my wife and, strangely, had no trouble keeping it. However, on the day the second atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, our POW camp at Kamaishi in north Japan, was bombed and shelled by a US naval task force. I was out on a working party, and the queue had been left in my hut. The camp was burned to the ground, and the queue with it.
I often wonder what happened to that girl. Was she killed during the battle, or raped and killed by Japanese soldiers. Don't suppose I'll ever know. Her sister, who Joe Viotto had married, was never seen again either. Could they both have been killed, after all they did live in the same house and fighting had been fierce where they lived. Joe went down on the Lisbon Maru whilst being taken to Japan by the Japs. This ship was torpedoed by the US submarine Grouper in October 1942. There were no markings on the Lisbon Maru to show it was carrying POWs so no blame can be attached to the sub commander. The Japs battened down the prisoners and left them to drown. Even after they had broken out and jumped into the sea they were being shot and killed. Anyway, like so many other Chinese wives of British soldiers his wife has never applied for the war widow's pension, to which she is fully entitled, so perhaps she was killed - and her sister too.