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1946: Letters from Hong Kong
Introduction from David: The second-half of the 1940s saw Hong Kong make a rapid recovery from the dark days of wartime. It's a period that hasn't been covered much in history books, so I'm always interested when there's a chance to read more about it. Below, regular contributor Barbara Anslow shares extracts from letters she wrote from Hong Kong in 1946.
HONG KONG 1946
Our family was repatriated from Stanley Camp to UK in autumn 1945. I was recalled to return to Hong Kong to my job with the HK Government in May 1946. My sister Olive was senior to me in the government, but had failed two medicals, so her return was delayed. I sailed from Tilbury on the ‘Otranto’.
The following are extracts from the letters I sent to Mum and Olive usually twice a week.
24TH MAY 1946 - AT SEA
Many ex Stanley folk on board, preponderance of women, I suppose their husbands went by air to resume their jobs. I'm so lucky Peggy ((Peggy Barton, my best friend in Stanley)) is on board: we mean to practice shorthand every day.
I am in an 8 berth cabin with Mrs Eager and her 4 young children ((Joan, Cynthia, Lesley and Cyril whom I knew well in camp)) and two non-Stanley women I didn’t know. The younger Eager children imagine they are going back to Stanley Camp, one told her mother that when she gets back to HK, she is going to the ration garage in Stanley ((to play or look out for bits of vegetable that might have dropped off the ration lorry!))
The ship is practically like life aboard pre-war. We get a cup of tea between 6.30 and 7.30 every morning.
Food very good, we had an apple each after dinner.
Most amazing things for sale in ship's shop. I bought a pair of cotton sheets for 30 shillings. I thought it a good idea to get them when available, remembering shortages in UK.
Weather good so far.
Five young Irish Catholic priests on board, Mass every day.
John Braga is also aboard. ((His older sister taught me the piano and Olive the violin in HK when we were children. John was quite a famous violin player. We had great chats on board. His wife and young children were not with him. John had spent the war in Macau, where living was so expensive that he used to play the violin in the street to make money to feed the family.))
22ND JUNE - HONG KONG
We arrived alongside Kowloon yesterday morning. Ray Lawrence from CSO (Colonial Secretary's Office) came aboard to meet Govt. staff. Told me I am billeted in Repulse Bay Hotel, and will work in Confidential Registry at CSO. ((Peggy went to live with her Dad in Kowloon; he had decided not to be repatriated to UK after liberation, as he owned his own house pre-war, and it was reasonably ok and he wanted to look after it. His wife and other 11 children went to UK and are awaiting passages back.))
I was driven to Repulse Bay and given a room to share with Agnes Berzin whom I only knew by sight in Stanley. We share a bathroom with the some of the Eager children who are next door. Since liberation, the hotel has been used as a leave hotel for the Forces until ten days ago when the whole place was cleaned and redecorated.
Very peaceful at Repulse Bay after the noisy and busy town, but shocked to hear the bus from RB to town costs $1 each way.
I bought a towel today $9.65 as mine are in unpacked luggage.
I am agitating at work for a transfer from Confidential Registry as there is so little to do, and I am beginning to be a clock watcher.
Several men ex-Stanley govt people I know are billeted in French Mission building at top of Battery Path opposite HK Bank. I have asked to live there ((I knew it well as the Govt took it over after liberation and I lived and worked there for 3 weeks before repatriation)).
Now I have moved in, and share a pleasant room a little bigger than our room in Stanley, on the top floor, with a school teacher Dorothy Cavill whom I knew pre-war when we both belonged to a small literary group, she was evacuated to Australia in 1940.
Our window overlooks Battery Path.
The men's rooms are on the first floor.
Ground floor, small lounge and large communal dining room. We have to pay 4% of our monthly salary to Govt for accommodation, plus $200 a month for food.
Furniture in our room, 2 hospital beds, one long narrow table, 2 easy chairs, low round table, one ordinary chair, 1 large shelved cupboard, tiny sink. I have found a few nails on the wall for some things, but the main place for dresses is on the rail for the mosquito net. I drape them on hangers round the foot of the bed and thus can keep bedroom door open at night and can't be seen by anyone walking past.
The Chinese Boy presented me with a large mirror, warning me not to say anything about it to the manager, else there would be 'plenty trouble' as he had taken it from an empty room.
There is an amah who will do all washing clothes and ironing for $30. per person.
Don't forget to save my letters, please, as I may want to refer to them some time if ever I write the book I plan to, and I don’t keep diary these days. ((The book wasn’t written until the 1980’s.))
Had to pay $6 for a small rattan basket. Materials for dresses at least $17.60 a yard. Ferry across harbour 20 cents. Apples cost one dollar each, bananas 80 cents a catty.
Govt servants are to get HCL – Higher Cost of Living Allowance. But bachelors and unmarried women will only get 80% of the allowance. I am going to write and explain that I am helping to support my mother so should have the full allowance.
Peggy and I went to the new Catholic Centre, first floor of King’s Building on the seafront. It really is a super place, as planned in camp. A large room with settees, a large library of all kinds of books; you can buy cakes and lemonade there; a small chapel – daily benediction and Mass; a tiny shop where you can buy rosaries, prayer books etc. Fr Maestrini is the priest in charge.
On another floor is Father Meyer’s St Nicholas Club for servicemen only; they are hoping to open a civilian part some time. ((They did, Peggy and I often went there for a snack. A few years later, we Catholics entertained there some survivors of HMS ‘Amethyst’ which had been attacked by the Chinese on the Yangtse River with fatalities.))
The Cheero Club ((where pre-war we often played whist and went to dances)) is now called the Cheerio Club; on the ground outside they have an outdoor café, little tables and fairy lights.
I spent last weekend with Peggy at her house in Kowloon Tong. The Police Guard extends that far now. We went swimming at Big Wave Bay. On Sunday to Mass at St Teresa’s which has come through war ok.
We visited Mr and Mrs Kopeczky ((the latter shared our room in Stanley until she and husband got a billet together. They stayed in Kowloon after liberation.)) She has had a rotten time, slipped in the bathroom and was unconscious for 2 days, one eye is a little bossed. Father Meyer ((who also stayed on in HK)) visited her; the Williams family who were great friends with them in camp sent them food parcels from Australia. ((Mrs Williams had diphtheria the first Christmas in Stanley so most indoor Christmas events planned had to be postponed to avoid crowd gatherings in case of an epidemic; this worked, no other cases developed. That Christmas Day we had Mass outdoors in the grotto.))
Very rainy days. I have to take a pair of dry shoes to wear in the office. I now do some shorthand for a Major Williams, an assistant Colonial Secretary (a relic of the Military administration), but still sit in the Confidential Registry and do some work for the lads there.
I priced camphorwood trunks today, the very small size $150, normal size $250.
We have a lot of rats in the Mission. The other night I heard one moving among my sugared peanuts, and in morning found a large hole had been eaten into the box. Not many sweets had gone but I dared not eat the others and now use them as bait; each morning I put a few on the ground and in the morning they are gone. The idea is to give the rats something to eat as otherwise they are liable to eat our clothes. Poor Bob Bates on the first floor had hung his best suit, folded. The rats obviously wanted the buttons, so ate their way through the legs until they got to the buttons one of which they devoured.
Bicky ((Bernard Bickford)) showed us a pair of his trousers with all the buttons chewed off. We are getting rat traps now.
We decided to turn the old cupboard in our room sideways so that where there were shelves have become spaces which will serve as a wardrobe. The Boy is going to put in hooks for the hangers; but the doors open peculiarly, one side you must lift up and the other down, but the main thing is to have somewhere to keep dresses etc. otherwise the room looks so Stanley-ish with clothes draped over the place.
Quite a lot of people who were evacuated to Oz in 1940, plus ex internees who were repatriated to Oz after liberation are coming back soon on the ‘Duntroon.’ They will be surprised when they hear how much money amahs want these days. There was a notice in the paper from the Director of Education asking the ages of children who would be likely to be in the Colony by September.
Because accommodation is so scarce, Govt. is opening more hostels for their staff, one in Macdonnell Road.
Remember Miss Sutton in camp, she had a withered hand. Believe it or not, she has recovered that little dog of hers which had to leave camp when the Japs took everyone’s dogs. I saw her walking along with it in town the other day.
I am contacting the Amahs’ Union to try to get in touch with Ah Ting ((our pre-war amah)). Have enquired at Post Office about sending food parcels to UK; one cannot send condensed milk, tinned meat or butter, so will restrict your parcel to sweets, choc. and jam.
Went to King’s Studio, they still have the coloured photo of us three girls ((taken in 1940 as present for our parents’ Silver Anniversary)). I am having a copy made for myself costing $25.
I got roped in for bridge last night but don’t intend to let it happen very often as there are other things I’d rather do – can’t do reading or writing at night as the lights aren’t very good, so I get up and write early, and go to bed after dinner is over, about 9pm. It gets light at 7am, and dark at 8pm. I thought about writing about camp and war, but that would be out of date, and I don’t think people will want to be reminded about the war.
Swimming on Sunday with Peg, Mr May and Jimmy Barnes at Repulse Bay. Peg has just started in the govt., in Price Control Dept. ((We did practise shorthand almost every day on the ‘Otranto’ as we planned.)) A few taxis are appearing on the roads now.
Govt. has bought Courtlands flats on Kennedy Road but they can’t be used for quarters yet because the Air Force or some other such service still in residence. ((Pre-war I belonged to a small literary group which met in journalist Arthur Gee’s flat in Courtlands. In 1949, my husband, baby and I moved in to one of those flats.))
You asked about my bosses: Bob Bates, Ernie Strange, Jacky Mitchell, Bunny Bickford and Dick Maynard – all in the Confidential Registry. Shorthand for Major Williams ((thirtysomething)) which this week included taking minutes of two meetings. Today I did quite a lot of shorthand for Tim Fortescue ((who with wife and child in camp lived in the kitchen next to our room.)) Am far more contented at work now that I’m well occupied.
We don’t get much fruit or veg. I suggest you bring some vitamin tablets to supplement this deficiency.
Sunday, went to Kowloon with Barbara Budden and Mr Charles Roe. Barbara B’s father and brother Gilbert had both died during the war in Argyle Street Military Camp where they are buried. We put flowers on their graves, also on Mr Peckham’s. ((Pre-war the Peckhams had been our neighbours in Naval Terrace. Mrs Peckham had been evacuated to Australia in 1940. We met up with her in UK after the war.)) Hardly any of the graves have marks save on the stone tablet with number.
Mr Roe tells me one can order food parcels to be sent regularly from Australia to UK at small cost, I am going to get going on that.
Wires cost 50 cents per word at deferred rate, guaranteed to arrive about one and a half days. Full rate is $1 a word is supposed to take 17 hours. Gas has gone up in price.
I don’t think you need to bring beds with you, the shops are full of everything.
Mr Pascoe ((of pre-war Brewers Bookshop in Des Voeux Road)) has a good library in Ice House Street, lots of second-hand books. $10 to join, but you get it back when you leave; 50 cents per book borrowed.
I heard someone say that old tenants of flats might get them back. I bought a bedspread, white with coloured cross-stitch, cost $40. Makes a world of difference to the room, hiding the calico sheets ((I was keeping the sheets bought on the ship until we had a flat of our own.))
Had a peculiar job today. Major Williams and three other men have been given the job of doing a survey of pre-war govt. living quarters, to decide which are worth repairing after war damage and looting. They took me with them to take notes of their findings. Good fun, instead of being in the office. We did Kowloon today, I had lunch in the hotel with one of the committee. I felt like Olive did when she had lunch with Sir David Owen pre-war when she was working for him when he visited HK.
Bought an orange this afternoon, cost 70 cents, apples are now $5 a pound. For the last day or so we have had no butter or sugar at French Mission, but some reappeared tonight.
Today the quarters committee and I went over some of the Peak houses, this time in a jeep, though quite a bit of walking where jeeps can’t go - although Major Williams said he ‘could drive the jeep there if it was operationally necessary.’ The air up there was that much sharper and fresher than in town. I got very sunburnt. About the only things left in these wrecked houses are baths. Saw the bones of pianos in two houses, they looked so pathetic.
In the garden of Mountain Lodge – previously the Governor’s summer residence – is a stone circular table from which you can see most of the points and surrounding islands, printed on the table, with distances away, like directions are marked on a compass.
This morning received Olive’s cable ((saying she was leaving UK on the ‘Sibajak’)). At last!
Typhoon, ferries and trams stopped around tiffin time; a bit of a lull this evening.
Had to get up early to take notes at Quarters Committee meetings, then continuing survey on the Peak; in afternoon had to try to get reports started, then to another survey meeting.
Sunday afternoon went to visit the Kopeczkys, had tea with them. They may soon have to get out of their flat and get another. I said would they be willing to take you as a lodger, Mrs K said ‘Yes, certainly!’
We ((expatriates)) arrived here too late for the Red Cross parcels which some ex-internees got, but Bicky gave me 2 tins of marmalade from his.
You ask about rations, they are more than adequate. Breakfast – porridge or flakes or fruit juice, then sausage and mash, or scrambled egg on toast etc. We supply our own jam, but it is only $1.20 a tin. Also early morning tea in our rooms. Tiffin and dinner are also good meals.
Shops are now displaying nylons at controlled price of $30 a pair.
More ex-Stanleyites are in the Mission: Mr Hillyer, Eric Kennard, Mr L. Morley (Freddy’s Dad). ((Freddy was also in Stanley with his parents and sister Dorothy. Freddy was then a late teenager and an artist. Postwar he became a world famous photographer, then called by his second name Lewis. He it was who photographed Christine Keeler sitting naked in a chair the wrong way round.)) Also here are Carr, and young Anslow ((as distinct from his father who was also in camp)).
((As well as the food parcel I was packing to send to my mother)) I am now arranging for food parcels to be sent to you from Australia. I hope you won’t have to spend another winter in England. It would be best for you to get out here now, and be on the spot for anything ((a job)) comes up. You would have to pay $8 a day for hotel, plus $5.50 a day. ((Mum would not be billeted by the govt. here. Olive and I would help with her expenses.))
The ‘Duntroon‘ is due here next week with a crowd from Australia.
There is a ferry strike on at the moment. The Navy are running the ferries, and wallah wallahs are in great demand.
Our next month’s catering won’t be so expensive, $160 a month, food is getting a little cheaper.
Outside of the general scheme for re-internment of war graves now in Kowloon, if relatives want to make private arrangements to have their dead interred in any particular cemetery, they can do so. Mrs Budden and Barbara are having Mr and Gilbert transferred to Happy Valley. I have written to Mrs Peckham and told her this, so if she wants Mr Peckham reburied in Happy Valley I could act for her. ((Several months later Mr Peckham was re-buried in Happy Valley cemetery next to my father’s grave, it was such a pathetic little coffin.))
Wrote to Tai Hou Kee Trust Company enquiring ((about our pre-war flat in Gap Road, asking if as a pre-war tenant, Mum’s name could be put on waiting list for that flat or another in the building)). I put that you would be returning here ‘shortly’: if we did get the chance to get the flat back before we could afford to live in it, I’m certain we would have no difficulty in lending it to someone we knew. ((What optimism!))
On Thursday evening it was so hot and stifling in the Mission that some of us went for a short walk up Garden Road when someone in a jeep called out ‘taxi!’, he was one of the Army who works at CSO. He drove us all up the Peak. The view from Mountain Lodge was breath-taking, from there HK looks the same as ever it was, lights blazing, the fishing fleet.
Went to post food parcel to you, apparently I have done all the wrong things, choc and sweets are supposed to be packed in tins ((not boxes)) against rats.
Yesterday the ferry service was suspended because the Navy had damaged a pier and put two of the ferries out of action. Today they have them running again and it’s hoped the strike will finish soon. The Govt. run a launch at rush hours for their employees, but if folk miss it they have to get across as best they can, it costs $1 per journey in a wallah wallah.
Major Williams is dealing with expected arrivals on the ‘Duntroon’ and the office has been full of callers/relatives.
Last night I was awakened by a few sharp bangings, I thought too loud for a rat. But this morning saw that some drawers had been well gnawed, the bottom one forced open to get at some chocolate which came from a Red Cross parcel – we got one parcel between 4 people.
VERY IMPORTANT, You should get all your innoculations necessary for the sea voyage done right away; if a passage should suddenly turn up, you don’t want any delays.
Have started putting on weight again. Am eagerly awaiting first letters from Olive, I expect she’s cruising through the Mediterranean at present.
In Kowloon at weekend, Peggy and I travelled on a tricycle (buses too crowded), we sat in state in the front part. It cost $1.50 between us. When Peg and I parted, she sailed off on the back of a bicycle – another roaring trade in Kowloon, professional cycles all over the place, with nice little seats on the back. Peg sat side saddle.
I bought a thin mat for our room $8. You should have seen me marching up Battery Path with my mat rolled under my arm – I felt like a looter.
Next day Mr Roe borrowed a car and drove Barbara B, Jacky Mitchell and Dorothy Cavill and me to Shek O. Pretty crowded, tents all along the beach, we had to pay $10 between us for ours. Loads of service folk there; they come in jeeps or other queer service transport that drive right on to the beach. Water simply glorious.
The ‘Duntroon’ expected tomorrow. We have list of passengers, which includes Mrs Ainslie ((an elderly lady who lived in the room opposite ours in Stanley)). No one is recorded as meeting her; she is down for the Italian Convent initially, so I will meet her. Govt transport provided to destinations.
We have now received in the office official notification that Olive left per ‘Sibajak’ on 29 July; I see from passenger list that there are several ex-Stanley school teachers and nurses on board.
No reply so far re Gap Road flat.
We had burglars in the Mission last night, only clothes stolen from Eric Kennard, Ray Lawrence and Jacky Mitchell’s room. They all slept through it. Burglars must have come over their verandah as we have a night watchman who sleeps just inside the front door.
I met Mrs Ainslie on ‘Duntroon. Went with her on launch to island , then on govt. lorry to the Convent where she will stay until she finds somewhere to live. Most of the ladies on the ship seemed overdressed, preponderance of white hats. Hardly any one wears hats here these days.
The govt. houses in Ventris Road and Wongneichog Road are gradually being done up, some are already occupied.
Nylon stockings are going down in price, now $22 a pair.
I have a nice job tomorrow – to buy some linen tablecloths etc. for a fellow who is going Home soon. I bought a small linen cloth for the little table I’m writing on, and plainer one for the longer table which serves as a dressing table. It will be fun tomorrow to let myself go with someone else’s money.
Remember this day last year? ((The day we were told that the war with Japan was over.)) Most Europeans seem to be celebrating it here. Someone brought champagne to the office at 5pm. I had a little but I don’t like it.
Today I had tiffin with Mrs Lena Edgar ((who was a friend in Stanley with her husband – later the parents of Brian who contributes so much to Gwulo)). She and husband haven’t been to UK since they left camp, but are flying to England next Sunday.
Mrs K. Grant ((and 3 daughters Rosaleen, Kathleen and Eileen)) had a stroke of luck – their belongings in their govt. flat ((near Mental Hospital where Mrs worked)) are practically untouched as some third nationals lived it during the occupation. I’ve asked the authorities if Olive can live in the French Mission as soon as she arrives instead of in a hotel first – ok.
I was told I was to work at Supreme Court next week, when Major Williams was scheduled to leave for UK but his departure is now cancelled and I am to be his whole time secretary; I’d have nothing to do with the Conf. Registry but would have desk in his room.
Am enclosing cutting from today’s newspaper ((re pre-war residents wishing to return)). Shall I write in about you?
My work situation has changed again! Major Williams is now being allowed to go to UK; I’m told I should remain to be secretary to whoever is his successor.
Barbara B and I combed Cloth Street for some cheap material to put on top of our large (upside down) cupboard and trunk to make room it look more like home when Olive arrives.
I am buying Olive a linen bedspread for her birthday.
I have sent in your name as wanting to come back here. At the Catholic Centre Father Maestrini is trying to find two people to work there, but he needs them right away to supervise the running of the restaurant etc. Both jobs will be filled long before you get here. As a sideline I’m doing some secretarial work for Mr D.D. Almeida. I don’t really mind where I work now I’ve got out of the rut in the Conf Registry - ‘I couldn’t care less’ in the current slang in use here.
Had cable from Olive at Bangkok, now on ‘E Sang’ due here 4th September.
Recently published here is priority list for return passages, your name isn’t on it, have hopes that your turn will come soon.
Govt have now said that return to Colony is to be based on priority on length of separation (from family), which is only fair, except that heaps of expats have got here before they brought this idea into operation.
We had some Peace Issue stamps issued the other day.
Had holiday on anniversary of the Fleet coming in (30th). Changing of the Guard in Statue Square. I had a good view from Prince’s Building.
Today they sang Te Deum after Mass to commemorate it.
Met Jill Beavis ((school teacher who was in camp)). She came by plane, left UK Saturday, arrived here Tuesday, sounds simply impossible.
Apples cheaper, now 40 cents each.
Olive arrived safely on 3rd, looking very well. She’s being posted to Public Works Dept.
She and I bought some rattan furniture, smooth cane with a green line, 2 low easy chairs and a little rattan table. The room looks quite homey.
I heard today that ANS without husbands are to get ALL their back pay ((i.e., not only for nursing during our 17 days’ war.)) It will be grand if you get all yours!
We now have official notification that Clifton left UK ((by air. He was my younger sister Mabel’s husband.)) I guess he is held up at Calcutta.
I think he will go to the Peninsula Hotel.
I’m afraid there’s not much chance of your getting a priority passage. I recently wrote to the person in charge who said that your name had been noted but nothing could be done at the moment.
I wrote to the govt. about our miserable salaries - the 4 girls in Hk who were taken on as stenos while we pre-war lot were recuperating from camp are on a much higher rate of pay than we are. ((Our salaries went up soon after.))
Am practising high speed shorthand as I’m on trial for taking down verbatim reports at Legislative Council meetings.
Went to services dance on Tuesday, held practically next door to French Mission – at St John’s Cathedral Hall; just like old times before Jap attack – non-stop for we females.
This morning we (Hong Kong) were sprayed from the air with DDT.
Olive is far more settled and contented now she is in HK. ((Her fiancé ‘Topper’ Sam Brown had died when a pow in Japan. They had planned to marry in 1942.))
Owing to the air crash, a lot of mail was lost. There were 19 people on board, most Chinese. It had just taken off when it crashed on the hillside not far from Peggy’s house. There was practically nothing left of the plane, it was the worst air disaster ever known in HK.
Last week an Army fellow was getting out of the water on to the pier at Stanley when a shark pulled him back into the water. Luckily his friends were able to pull him out, but he lost both his feet and is very ill in Hospital. This has put a lot of us off swimming ((remembering also how the policeman Jackson was killed by a shark at Stanley.))
This 1946 account is only about 20% of the content of my letters. Also there are gaps where my Mother forgot to keep all the letters.
She and Mabel arrived in Hong Kong in early December 1946 on the aircraft carrier ‘Victorious’. Mabel went to live in the Peninsula Hotel with Clifton, she was 5 months pregnant. Back in October when Mabel was told she was booked on the ‘Victorious’, Mum wrote to the authority and asked if she too could have passage on the ‘Victorious’ to help her pregnant daughter: this almost got Mabel’s passage cancelled because of pregnancy!
Mum went to lodge with the Kopeczkys at first, but before long was employed by the govt. as manager of the hostel in Macdonnell Road where she lived.
Both Olive and I became Hansard reporters (Legislative Council).
We heard no more about our old flat in Gap Road, Happy Valley, but didn’t need it as we all now had accommodation. We eventually made contact with our pre-war amah Ah Ding. She was now working for a family on the Peak, but kept in touch with us for many years. Olive and I lived in the French Mission until we were married to govt. employees also inmates of French Mission, I in 1948 to ‘young Anslow’, Olive in 1950 to William Darby.
Many thanks to Barbara for sharing these extracts from her letters with us. You can find links to Barbara's other contributions on her page, including recorded interviews, and details of her book about experiences in Hong Kong during WW2: Tin Hats and Rice.