12 Feb 1945, John Charter's wartime journal

Submitted by HK Bill on Mon, 03/28/2022 - 11:02

Eight days ago Y and I spent our fourth wedding anniversary in camp. Last year we were quite convinced that we should be free again by this anniversary, but here we still are! We had a cold and soaking wet day to greet us and on our way to a soya bean coffee and scone party in Maudie’s room in the morning we met Alec Potts who cheerily greeted us with,  “Quite like a summer day at home, isn’t it?”!

We had invited half a dozen of our friends to the coffee party and I took along a bottle of home made wine. We made it with some pineapple juice, a lime that Maudie had given us, some rice, and bits of raw potato and some wong tong. The cork blew off three times during the maturing process and in the end I had to tie it on! The cork came out with a rare old pop on the day and the wine really was very good and bubbly.

Some time ago they had sold some bottles of pineapple juice in the canteen (Japanese product) and Y and I bought a bottle for the purpose of flavouring our ground rice puddings etc. After it had been opened a little while it began to ferment and that gave us the idea of making wine. We made ourselves a jolly good lunch with the aid of a tin of I.R.C. meat roll and onions, carrots, sweet potato and pumpkin from our garden. Pumpkins keep for several months if the skin is not damaged. Then we had stewed prunes with rice and Yvonne Ho’s tin of condensed milk. In the evening the Corra’s came round for some cake and coffee. We look forward to the time when we can have a real celebration.

As I am writing of wedding anniversaries I had better mention Yvonne’s engagement ring. Before Xmas our funds were getting very low. We had taken a number of odds and ends to Mrs Langston’s ‘shop’ which she runs in her room at the Indian Quarters, and they sold very well. I had an E.P.N.S. cigarette case which brought Y50 ((pdv £450)) and Yvonne a Ceylon tortoise shell cigarette case which brought Y35. There were various trinkets of hers which also sold and a nice clothes brush of mine that went for Y30 (this is the only thing we have regretted selling as it was always useful). Altogether we raised about Y250 ((pdv £2,250)) in this way. But we are each getting two Y36 canteens per month making a total of Y144 ((pdv £1,296)) per month to be raised. We felt we simply must raise money for canteening as this was the cheapest way of buying extra food in camp and it can make a lot of difference to our health. In addition to canteen goods we wanted to try and buy extra rice especially as half our garden had been taken over by the community gardeners and the other half looked as though it will go at any minute. There are people who prefer to swap or sell rice for other things, especially families with small children who cannot eat their full quota. So reluctantly we discussed the advisability of selling Y’s engagement ring.

For sentimental reasons we were of course, much against the idea, but after talking it over we decided that our health was far more important than sentiment and we decided at any rate, to try and find out what we could get for it. The ring was a blue sapphire surrounded by ten small diamonds set in a heavy platinum ‘crown setting’. Well, eventually we went along to a friend of ours who had had dealings in these matters and asked what he thought we could get for it. He said that there was no sale at all for sapphires, apparently diamonds were the only stones in which the Chinese were (and are) interested – in jade too, of course, though few Europeans possess good jade. This news rather dashed our hopes, but our friend went on to say that there was a great demand for platinum now (a few months earlier there was no demand for platinum at all!) and after weighing the ring he said there was so much platinum in it that, with the small diamonds which would not fetch very much, we should get about Y3,500 for it. We tried not to show too much surprise or excitement for, with the exchange then at 10-1 this represented 350 pounds sterling ((pdv £15,750)) – a great deal more than I paid for the ring. This price, by the way, was for the carcass of the ring after we had removed the sapphire. This was grand because it meant we retained the big stone, the really important part of the ring and disposed of the small diamonds and the metal which really had little sentimental value in themselves. We therefore asked this friend to get in touch with his ‘dealer’, remove the stone and get a price. A few days later we were told that when they weighed the metal on accurate scales they valued it only at Y2,200 and the ‘dealer’ didn’t think the diamonds would bring the total up to Y3,500; what did we want to do?

The method of dealing is as follows: the owner states his price to the dealer who then approaches the Formosan with whom he deals. The dealer adds to the owner’s price whatever commission he hopes to make and offers the article to the Formosan at the total figure. If the Formosan thinks he can sell the article in town for the figure demanded he will often produce the cash on the spot and the deal is concluded there and then. If he is not sure that he can sell it for enough to make his profit too, he will give, as deposit the full sum asked by the dealer, and try his luck in town. If he can get what he wants for it he will say all right to the dealer and the money (less commission) is then handed to the owner. If he cannot get a sufficiently high price, the Formosan will make an offer and the owner can then decide whether to climb down or have his article back. This system was instituted after one or two pieces of jewellery had been lost or otherwise gone astray. Of course, it is safer all round to offer the article at a price which the Formosan will pay for straight away, but this means the owner probably loses a bit on the deal. On the other hand, if you ask too high a price, the Formosan will just refuse to negotiate. As the value of the Yen depreciates, the dealers have to push the prices up gradually, and as the dealer who gets the best prices (and there must be some half dozen or more in the game) gets most custom and therefore makes most commission, there is quite keen competition! Also, one imagines, this condition obtains amongst the Formosans.

Well, our hopes were a little dashed on hearing the revised prices and I was tempted to say, “Ask Y3,000 for it”, for even 300 pounds sterling was very handsome.

I wasn’t too keen on waiting about while the ring was sent into town. However, a last moment whim prompted me to ask the dealer to try Y3,500 and imagine our surprise when, a couple of days later, our friend turned up with the money in full! The Formosan had paid up like a lamb!

Having got the money we decided we had better dispose of it as quickly as possible. Our friend further assisted us in obtaining cheques from reliable people to the value of 200 pounds sterling for Y2,100 which left Y1,400. We were able to give some money to friends and we even bought 35 packets of cigarettes in the black market at Y16 per packet ((pdv £72)). No sooner had we bought them than the price of cigarettes dropped to Y11 and Y12 which made us feel rather silly! However, we hung on to them and have since bought 10 more packets at Y20. The price has now risen to Y25 ((pdv £112)). We kept the balance of the money for canteens and also bought some rice. If it were not for the fag of having to perpetually re-convert cigarettes back into cash when we wanted money for a canteen, it would have been better to invest all our money into goods of one kind or another, because the cash itself, always depreciates, while the value of goods continually rises. But it is astonishing how quickly the money goes. If we want more later we can cash some of the 200 pounds and still leave sufficient to cover the cost of setting the stone. A man with good credit (Govt servants are considered pretty safe!) can now get from Y25 to Y30 per £1 and heads of the big firms are getting Y35 or even Y40 per £1 for cheques written on their firms. Towards the end, in a month or so, I have no doubt the exchange will rocket to 100:1 and over. Of course the cost of goods will keep pace with this increase.

All kinds of things come in ‘through the wire’ at night; duck eggs @ Y40 per egg; bacon @ Y460 per lb (about £15 ((pdv £675)) per lb!); lard @ Y600 ((pdv £900)) per lb; wong tong @ Y150 per lb (compared with the canteen price of Y38 per lb!). One dealer got in a whole roast pig which he sold in no time at Y250 ((pdv £375)) per lb! Oil also comes in and egg yolk powder. In fact the Chairmen of the blocks think that the Japs in charge of this camp were making so much ‘squeeze’ on these dealings that they deliberately held up the supply of canteen goods during Jan. to force people to buy through the black market. I think this is very likely.

At the end of Jan. nearly every one had run out of matches and they were being sold at Y12 per box - at that time, about £1 ((pdv £45)) per box. This meant that the black market was doing harm to the camp in general; but now canteen supplies have been resumed (after continual requests and interviews by Gimson) the black market dealings mean that a lot of additional food is finding its way into camp and ramp or no ramp, that in itself is a very good thing.

The other day Y and I sold an 8 oz tin of I.R.C. salmon for Y150 ((pdv £225)) and bought four fresh duck eggs for Y120 ((pdv £180)).  A doctor told us that the eggs were better value than the salmon. We have another tin of salmon, but now eggs are Y40 each we must try and get more for it! If we wait too long, however, the (we hope) approaching food ship will bring down the value of tinned foods and we won’t be able to do our deal – what a game!

Most of these black market dealers have their agents in blocks all over the camp and, much to our surprise, Harold (Bidwell) has become an agent. I don’t know what his commission is and I am sure, by the amount of rushing around he has to do, he earns it. But one would hardly expect a person in his position to do this. However, it is no business of mine and, having just spoken of the good that this dealing is doing for the camp, I am either contradicting myself now or being a snob! However, I would not feel comfortable doing it myself and as they have just got a very good price for Elsie’s diamond ring, cannot imagine why he bothers with it. There are very few married women in camp, these days, with their engagement rings and many have parted with their wedding rings as well! We trust we shall not have to part with the family wedding ring.

Y and I have decided to budget and ration ourselves to the end of May. By then surely something will have happened. If not we shall cash some cheques. We buy chiefly rice at Y30 – 35 per lb, or exchange 3 packets of cigarettes for 2 lbs. Rice has come down in price since the beginning of Feb. for, from the first of this month, the Japanese, by an order from Tokyo, increased our daily quota from about 12 ozs to 480 grams - 16.8 ozs. This was marvellous news. Why is Tokyo so concerned about us at this late hour, especially when Japan’s supply questions must be growing more and more difficult. Have our numerous medical reports and requests borne fruit at last? Has the Red Cross been making representations on our behalf? Have the reports from the repatriated Canadians been in any way responsible!? Whatever the reason we are more than thankful.

For the last 6 or 7 months our rice rations have always been short and have varied between 88% and 98% of the full amount. When it was as much as 12% short it made a big difference to our meals. The average was short by 10%. For the first 10 days of the new scale we were 13% short! But for this next 10 days we are only 10% short which means that each person gets 2½ ozs per day more than the January maximums. This means that people who before Feb. had rice for swapping have even more rice now and, consequently, where we had to give 3 packets of cigs in Dec. and Jan. for 1 lb of rice we can now get 2 lbs for the same number. People also swap their oil for cigarettes, but we do not attempt to get extra oil chiefly (I am bound to admit!) because we manage to make do with our ration but also, (a little bit!) because we don’t think people should be encouraged to swap their oil for cigarettes. The same applies to butter, milk etc.  However, if we felt we really needed it I think our worthy scruples would just go with the wind! In here I’m afraid it is a case of ‘take care of yourselves and the devil take the hindmost’. Not that people will not help, in case of serious illness etc. but, on the whole, people don’t spend much time looking round to see if others are really in want. I now have a much greater respect for the widow with her two mites than I ever had before. 

Incidentally, I hear that one black market dealer possesses cheques to the value of £70,000!! ((pdv £3,150,000))  Wartime profiteering! Well, I hope he realises them all.   

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