Happy Birthday Barbara - 100 today! | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

Happy Birthday Barbara - 100 today!

Today is Barbara Anslow's 100th birthday.  Barbara is a regular contributor to Gwulo, and has generously shared her memories of life in Hong Kong in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s.


Below I'll look back at some of the major events from Barbara's first century - usually reported in her own words, as she is a keen diarist and letter-writer.

An author and a teacher

Those diaries often mention some story or other she is working on, so it's clear she loves writing. She also notes that although she "yearned to be a school teacher", she felt the chance had passed her by while she spent her prime years as a young woman imprisoned in a Japanese camp.

But it's funny how life turns out. The diaries Barbara kept in that camp have become invaluable resources for people with relatives who were imprisoned by the Japanese. eg Many parents have since passed away, never having talked about their wartime experiences. Barbara's diaries have helped their children learn about what wartime life was like, and understand their parents better - Barbara is a teacher.

And in the last few months, those diaries have been published, sold out, and re-printed. Barbara is most definitely an author too!

Like all authors, Barbara likes to hear from her readers. If you've enjoyed Barbara's writing, please let her know in the comments below.


1918 (Age: 0)

This is one event we can't read about in Barbara's own words, but fortunately writing skills run in the family, and her mother's memoirs include some of the events leading up to Barbara's arrival. She describes how Barbara's father, Will, had a motorbike, but it was out of action because of petrol restrictions during the World War 1. She continues:

'These were eased after the Armistice in November 1918 when the arrival of our second child ((Barbara)) was imminent. Will was delighted when he heard that from 1st of December, private vehicles could be used within a 30-mile radius of one's home, so the day before - a Saturday - the kitchen was commandeered for the re-assembling of the machine, the weather being too wintry to do the job outside.

"I'm getting up early tomorrow morning to have a trial run," he said, setting the alarm clock.

He need not have bothered about the alarm -  I woke him at 4 a.m. and his trial run took him into Inverkeithing to call the doctor and the midwife. Miraculously, the bike started without any trouble at all after its long period of inactivity. He knocked up the doctor then went for the midwife who, despite the wild wind and pelting sleet, climbed astride the pillion and rode back with him. A well-built Scotswoman in her late fifties, she used to say when telling of her trip afterwards, "I never thoct to see masel' on one o' they contraptions" '

Will worked in the Royal Navy's dockyards, something which had kept him out of harm's way during World War 1. But a downside was that the family had to pack up and relocate whenever he was moved from one Naval facility to another. Initially these moves were all within the UK, but in the 1927 he announced the family was moving to Hong Kong.


1927-29 (Age: 8-10) - Living in Hong Kong for the first time

Barbara aged 9

Barbara wrote this poem soon after arriving in Hong Kong, and it's clear she wasn't very impressed with her new home!

'Where the sun is hot and the earth is dry
And babies wander about like a fly
Is my dwelling-place for quite a few years;
If I stay much longer I shall be in tears.
It's the dirtiest place I've ever seen,
There's no grass like a lovely green.
I'd rather be back in my home in the North
And go for a sail on the River Forth.'

The family settled in though, and came to enjoy life in Hong Kong. Barbara has written about that time in her article: Childhood memories of 1920s Hong Kong.

However, Will's health suffered here, to the point that the Navy's doctor cut short his time in Hong Kong, sending the family back to the UK.


1938-1941 (Age: early 20s) - war is coming

Given Will's previous early departure from Hong Kong, it was something of a surprise when he was posted back here in 1938. All the family returned to Hong Kong: Barbara, her parents, and her two sisters. Barbara's Memories of life in Hong Kong, 1938-39 describes their daily life - lots of social activities to enjoy - and also gives extracts from her 1939 diary. Naturally, the impending war and it's eventual arrival are its main topics.

She continues with more diary extracts in 1940-41: Hong Kong's "Phoney War". It seems she's to leave Hong Kong again, when British women are evacuated to Australia in mid-1940. But they only get as far as the Philippines when they learn that Will, who'd remained in Hong Kong, had died suddenly. Barbara and her family rush back to Hong Kong.

1941 Tennis at Civil Service Club
1941 Barbara front-right


Dec.1941 - Aug.1945 (Age: mid 20s) - Japanese invasion, internment

Barbara turned 23 on 1st Dec. 1941, and the Japanese invaded Hong Kong a week later.

Her diaries lead us through the fighting, the surrender on Christmas day, the uncertainty of the next few weeks, then the long internment at Stanley Camp.

Photo: Christmas Day, 1941
Photo: Christmas Day, 1941, by Admin


Barbara's 1941-45 diaries are serialised here on Gwulo each year, as part of the daily 'Wartime Diaries' email. Just recently they have been published in book form for the first time - more on that below.


1946-2010 Hong Kong (again!), family life, re-awakened interest

In Life after internment, Barbara answers the question: What happened next?

In 1946 there was yet another unexpected return to Hong Kong. Then in 1948 she married Francis (Golly) Anslow, a fellow Stanley internee. Here they are in the centre of their wedding photo.



I once asked Barbara if she had anything written down about their life in Hong Kong in the 1950s. She said she was too busy raising a family to have time to write!

Eventually they moved back to England, and stories of Hong Kong gradually faded into the distance. She notes renewed interest started growing in the 1990s, and how it really took off when the internet started putting ex-internees and their families in touch with each other.


2010s (Age: 90s) - Never a dull moment

You might think that reaching her tenth decade would be a good reason to slow down, but if anything life seems to be getting busier and busier.

2012: The Wartime Diaries daily email. I'd had the idea of using the Gwulo website to send out a daily email with diary entries written on that day, seventy years ago. Subscribers would follow events in wartime Hong Kong at the same pace as the diary writers. Then the problem was: where to find the diaries?

Barbara had posted extracts from her diaries to the Stanley Camp Discussion Group, but I was very unsure about bothering her with my idea. Then one day she posted a message to the group saying how much she enjoyed hearing from people all over the world, so I got in touch. Barbara was very helpful, supplying the text to me, and answering my many questions asking for explanations of the diary entries. In a few days time we'll launch a new cycle of Wartime Diaries - this will be their eighth year, and the daily emails are sent to 3-400 people each day.

I've been very fortunate to have visited Barbara each year for the last several years, and on the 2014 visit I took the chance to gather questions from readers, then record a Q&A session with Barbara. It's almost 90 minutes in total, and still well worth listening too: part 1, part 2.


2015: VJ Day. Barbara was chosen to read the FEPOW Prayer at the event in London to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the surrender of Japan and the end of World War 2. Here are a few shots from the television news coverage:

Barbara Anslow at the VJ Parade


Barbara Anslow at the VJ Parade


Barbara Anslow at the VJ Parade


Barbara also made a couple of visits to Buckingham Palace during these years, and there's always the steady stream of people visiting Barbara to listen to her memories of people and events.


2018: Barbara's book is published

This year, Barbara's diaries have been published as a book, Tin Hats & Rice

 Front cover of "Tin Hats and Rice"


The book has had a great response, with coverage in the SCMP, and the Daily Mail, and the book needing to be reprinted after the first print run sold out.


To wrap up her 99th year, Barbara gave a sold-out talk to the Hong Kong Society two weeks ago, receiving a standing ovation at the end of it.

Barbara signing books before last night's talk
Barbara signing books before last night's talk, by patricia


Then today is the big day, with a tea-party planned with Barbara's family. I'm hoping they'll send us a few photos of the event.

That's the end of Barbara's first century. I can't wait to see what she has in store for the second!


Barbara, thank you so much for all you have shared with us here on Gwulo - it is invaluable to hear about people, places and events in the past, from someone who knew them first hand. 

One of the benefits of running this website is getting to meet some remarkable people. Your modest nature, your honesty and generosity, are so precious, it really is a privilege to know you.

Have a fantastic time at your party today,

Love from David and the Bellis ladies

PS In summer 2016 there was a happy coincidence when Barbara and my family were both visiting Wales at the same time, and I was able to introduce this special lady they had heard so much about:

Barbara with the Bellises