18 Jul 1945, John Charter's wartime journal

Submitted by HK Bill on Tue, 05/17/2022 - 17:29

My natal month half gone: well the quicker it goes the better; and the next month and the next and so on until we get out of this death in life.

We thought fondly of Pop yesterday and hoped he was celebratin’ fit to bust and thereby, making up for our absence.

Yvonne and I lost our garden finally on July 1st. It came as rather a blow in the end for we had been led to believe that we should always retain a little of it – the small beds, which are really of no use for community scale gardening, that we had hacked out of the rough waste ground, by the sweat of our brows. But apparently the Japs said all had to be taken over and so it has been. Well, we were lucky to have kept it for so long; but it was rather sad to surrender our pumkin vines just as the female buds were beginning to form. We had planted more pumpkins this year as they had done so well last year and hoped thereby considerably to augment our food supply. We tried to transfer a few things to our plot near the cemetery, but the ground there is poor and there is no water anywhere nearby for watering purposes so apart from a few sweet potatoes which we shall leave to fend for themselves, we shan’t spend much time or energy there – it simply is not a paying proposition.

The food lately has become very bad. Much to my surprise the Japanese have maintained their delivery of meat every Saturday evening (the cooks have to stay up from 11 p.m. till 2 a.m. to prepare and cook it straight away or it would go bad. But it averages only about 4 ozs meat and 1oz bone per person which amounts to 20 grams (meat and bone) per person per day instead of the 50 they promised. This means that heavy workers get 40 grams instead of the 100 they should have and it is felt that this is worse than before the change when heavy workers received 40 grams oil per day instead of the 9 grams they now receive. The vegetables too are partly responsible for the deterioration for they are just greens (water spinach) and big tung (a large edition of the marrow family which is 98% water).

It is pretty grim to saw wood from 6.30 to 10.30 a.m. with 20 minutes off for a little congee at 8 a.m. and then go back at 11 a.m. for a scoop of rice and about a couple of tablespoons of boiled, chopped spinach. Most of the woodcutters have been loosing weight steadily. I am down to 130 lbs again, my lowest in camp, and am wondering if I had better knock it off before I knock up. My blood pressure is still quite good by camp standards 115 over 65 so I will keep on for a bit: some one has to do the work.

A most interesting chart was circulated the other day, relating to the food and health of the camp.  A copy was submitted, a few weeks ago, to the Japanese with the request that it be forwarded to the I.R.C. in Tokyo. I daresay, after the war, a much fuller statement about the whole position, as regards food and health in the camp, will be published. Deane-Smith is largely instrumental in preparing these statistics and intends to write a complete nutritional treatise based on the facts and figures obtained in this camp. In fact I believe he has already planned the skeleton of the thesis. He will be able to inform me of any publications on the subject and I must try and get hold of them for the purpose of inclusion with this diary; for food seems to have played the most important part in camp life – food and news (and just now we seem to be getting precious little of either).

The chart was full of graphs and tables giving all kinds of interesting information. I copied down some of them in case they are never officially published and hope to get a few more later if I can lay hands on the chart again. Incidentally, Deane-Smith should be able to collate some useful information because conditions here have been fairly unique: it is not often that a fairly large and representative number of people is kept on certain quantities of inadequate foods, the exact amount of which is known, for a period of years, with occasional periods of extra food and periodical changes in the basic foods – meat, flour etc. However, I’m afraid his information will be chiefly of a negative character: if they could dose us with all the different types of vitamins and different types of food and tabulate the results they would have some useful statistics; but unfortunately they have none of the necessary foods and vitamins. So it looks as though we are not even to be allowed to be useful human guinea pigs. Really, what use are we?

One of the astonishing things here is the small number of deaths in camp. It is true that the majority of people here had remained in the Colony for the purpose of carrying out war work and there are comparatively few old people here, (quite a few of the aged and infirm were taken to Rosary Hill years ago) so that the average expectation of life here is fairly long. Also, there is no traffic worth speaking of to kill us off (Bryan Gills is the only fatal accident in camp). But for all that the 115 deaths from Jan 1942 to April 1945 (3½ years) amongst 2,500 people is, I believe much lower than in normal life. We have kept remarkably free from epidemics, a serious one of which would have accounted for scores in these crowded conditions. 13 deaths have been due to malnutrition 10 of which were beri-beri. This is really another word for starvation and it is a horrid thought.

The graph showing the average weight of fit men in camp is rather interesting. It excludes all men suffering from any disease or complaint (or old age) and includes only those who are on the camp labour squads. At the beginning of camp the average weight was 172 lbs (12 stone 4 lbs) which would, I imagine be high compared with England: but the scale of living is higher out here than in England and many of the men on entering camp were too heavy. (One chap just topped 300 lbs! Now poor devil, he is under 145 – less than 50%). But they rapidly lost their superfluous flesh and by July (6 months later) the average weight was 145 lbs (10st 5 lbs). This remained about level till Oct and then the first I.R.C. parcels came in and by March the second highest peak was reached at 164 (11st 10 lbs).  By the end of March ’43 those supplies had given out and the weight steadily declined and a year later (March ’44) was down to 128 lbs (9st 2 lbs) and down another lb (127lbs) in June and July. Then the workers scale of rations came into operation and the Canadian parcels came Sept ’44 and the weight climbed labouriously to 129 lbs by Jan. 1945.

The statistics for this year are not yet available but I imagine they would show a rise to about 130 lbs by Feb. and then a steady decline again, and by now I think it must be down to 126 or 125 lbs (9 st or under). My own weight started at something under 150 lbs; dropped to 130 when the average was 145; rose to 151 when the average was 164 and is now back at 130 when the average is a little below that. I am glad to feel that at the worse end of the scale my figures compare favourably with the average. If I could stop myself worrying about one thing and another and shake off my fits of depression I’ve no doubt my health and weight would be even better. The placid people or the perpetually cheerful ones are best fitted temperamentally for this place. By now, I regret to say, I am neither placid nor particularly cheerful. Y keeps a commendably even keel though she too has her ups and downs – in fact nearly everyone has.

I have read, in this camp, of many heroic characters who turned their periods of trial into stern though faithful battle grounds for self discipline and character formation: Wilson of the Antarctic; Linaeus; St Francis Borgia – to mention a few – Rembrandt, another. But these people, it seems, were at least able to get on with their aims though often thwarted. Here, you seem to find yourself up a blind alley in whatever direction you turn. Learning Chinese seems to be about the most useful thing I have attempted here, though my memory serves me so poorly that it is slow work, rendered more difficult by nowhere quiet in which to work. Often I find that having sat down to do some Chinese I simply haven’t the mental energy to absorb anything! Life seems a negation; my spirit feels dead.

Church services seem rather ineffective as far as I am concerned: the flooring in the gallery of St Stephens hall was taken up for work on dry latrines (which, thank heavens, have never been needed) and the roof concrete base is left only. This, the lack of wooden skirting, handrails to the balcony etc. gives the hall a pretty sordid look and when people walk along the side galleries from one side of St Stephens to another during the services (the hall connects the two arms of the ‘H’) and doors bang, I’m afraid a feeling of irritation arises within me that usually spoils the service.

Lately everyone has been expecting something to happen momentarily and as nothing has (except a few small air raids) the camp, as a whole, is feeling pretty down. I have schooled myself to the thought that nothing is likely to happen here now till Nov. or Dec. and as a result I find I don’t feel quite so restless: on waking in the mornings and at all times of awareness during the night and day I find I no longer clench my fists and say: “Oh when will something happen? How long, Oh God, how long?”

Y and I are also schooling ourselves to the thought that soon we shall probably have to live on nothing but the camp rations.  

          1942  1943  1944    ------- 1945 --------
                              Jan   Feb   Mar   Apr
Rice     210.9 257.7 349.1  331.0 419.0 424.0 423.0
Flour    191.6 119.8    -*    -     -    -      -
Sugar      8.8   6.1   4.7    5.0   5.0   5.0   4.9
Salt       8.5   8.7   5.7    -     -     6.7  10.0
Oil        5.7   5.8  17.6   20.0  20.2  19.5  14.6
Beans      1.6    -    4.1    7.2   7.2  20.2  18.0
Meat     131.8  44.8    -#    -     -     -     -
Fish       7.9  81.7  57.9   27.0   6.8   -     -
Eggs       0.8   0.2    -     -     -     -     -
Potatoes  59.5  38.3  82.0  107.7  82.0  94.8  98.3
Tomato     2.3  14.6   7.8    -     -     -     -
Roots     14.2  30.6  69.8   64.5 126.1  128.3 64.7
Green    103.5  87.6  66.6   80.8  56.1   30.5 31.3
Gourds    18.4  22.9  73.8   16.3   8.9    1.6 13.3

We are nearly at an end of all our reserves, apart from our iron ration, and even that we are minimising. This is due to the loss of our garden and the virtual failure of the canteen. Well, if it isn’t too much longer, the camp rations will carry us through with, I hope, no great harm done (to teeth, eyes, heart etc.).

In June the canteen had to adopt a new method of procedure owing to the daily rise in price of foodstuffs. Everyone had to pay in their full monthly quota allowed by the Japs (i.e. Y75) if they could raise it. The canteen then made the best possible purchases available and you then had the option of taking your portion of the goods or receiving back part or all of your money. The canteen would never have difficulty in dispensing any surplus. In June we paid in our Y75 (approx £3 (pdv £135) at the current rate of exchange) and each obtained ½ lb wong tong at Y34, ½ lb bran at Y35.50, and ¼ lb salt at Y5.50; that was all: that came to Y75 exactly. But the bran has not yet arrived – they are still awaiting delivery six weeks after the order was placed. However, we hopefully paid in our Y75 for July and up till now have heard nothing further. It is this stoppage in canteen supplies that is contributing quite largely to the deteriorating food situation.

In the early days we could of course, buy such things as margarine, corned mutton and beef, sardines, peanut oil, flour, sugar, peanuts and goodness knows what else – fruit too – at prices which scandalised us then but just make us smile now. Latterly, we were able to buy useful foods such as beans, peas, egg white, egg yolk, and oil which provided the much needed proteins; but now they can be obtained only through the black market, and even that source seems to have its decided ups and downs. A little while ago the black market price of lard was Y600 (pdv £1080) per lb and wong tong Y200 (pdv £360) per lb. Helen Nobbins bought 1lb lard and 2 lb wong tong for which she wrote out a sterling cheque for £50 (pdv £2250). Lard is now Y870 per lb (pdv £1566).

Y and I decided we must at all costs try and get some egg yolk powder. (This, by the way, is processed in large quantities in China in normal times. The yolks and the whites of fresh eggs are simply dehydrated and packed up and shipped off as yolk powder and white crystals – used for all commercial cakes, biscuits etc.) Well, we had managed to sell a few things: the little gold clip of Y’s string of pearls had realised Y300 (pdv £540)! My shaving brush Y150 (pdv £270). A few odds and ends like a chiffon scarf.Then, with great reluctance, I sold my silver wrist watch that Mother and Father gave me for my 21st birthday. It was not gold, nor of a well known make that the Japs knew (like Rolex) and in the early days of camp here I had, by accident, snapped off the winding knob. But in spite of all that I got Y700 (pdv £1260) for it (egg yolk cost Y620 (pdv £1116) per lb!). The Formosan offered Y400 and I said, (via the intermediary): “Nothing doing,” So he asked how much I wanted and, quite undaunted I asked for Y1000! Whereupon he split the difference and offered Y700, so I clinched the deal.

We wanted to buy some egg white as that, beaten up with a little sugar, makes quite a nice spread for our bread or cold rice, but the Formosans say the stocks of egg white in HK have finished. After we had deducted enough for the month’s canteens we had sufficient left to purchase 1½ lb of egg yolk which is quite pleasing. We each have a teaspoonful per day. We still have a little bran left but are out of (for the first time) wong tong. We have hardly anything left to sell, except Y’s wedding ring and my gold tooth! One man got Y1000 for the gold stopping in a tooth! Mine is a golden stool and capping but I refuse to have my teeth pulled about for a pound or two of wong tong!

Platinum these days does not get a very good price although Y’s (wedding) ring was valued at about Y3000. But I should hate her to part with that. Nothing could replace its sentimental value – it has no precious stones, but precious memories. However, the typical blow that ironical Fate will aim at a person is that he will let them keep their precious treasure till the crisis is over and then snatch it from them in some quite unromantic fashion – Y will probably lose it the first time she goes bathing after she leaves this camp. We may have to dispose of it yet, but I hope not. 

It is senseless (unless you are amongst the very rich, which unfortunately I am not) to cash cheques these days. Money is scarce in camp and you cannot get more than about Y25 per £.  Egg yolk at £25 per lb (pdv £1125)  is not much fun and would soon see me bankrupt. So it seems that we shall just have to make do with our camp rations. If only we could know what was happening it would be a help.

Something has been happening to make the Japs unpleasant of late: we wonder what. It may be the heavy bombing of Japan; or the loss of territory – Burma, Singapore? At an outside roll call two weeks ago they forbade us the use of mackintoshes, hats or umbrellas (presumably because they had started without their capes) and though it came to rain quite hard they just kept us standing there. Was I mad with them; silly little so and so’s!! It really is rather funny when you see the funny side of it.

There was a nasty black market incident because the Japs had discovered a thin trail of sugar leading from the godowns to this chap’s room in St Stephens. They had started to question and beat him when a shower of rain came on and the Japs went inside. Read, thereupon cut a dash and hid himself somewhere on the hillside (a foolish thing to do, but he guessed that he was in for serious trouble and anyway he is (by his looks) a not too intelligent lad of 18. The Japs turned the whole camp out at 8 in the evening for a parade and kept us there till 9 p.m. (babies asleep in their parents’ arms). We wondered what on earth was up and fully expected to be marched straight off to the gaol! That is the sort of thing we envisage!  But it was nothing so exciting for us – only a search for the luckless Read. But they did not find him till next morning. Then they had him up and administered 3rd degree (I hear amongst other things, they pushed his head in a bucket of water and they pushed lighted cigarettes against his nose) till he gave the name of the Formosan who had taken the sugar to him from the godown. He then tried to make an end of himself by cutting an artery in his wrist with a razor blade. His efforts were not very successful and he was taken to hospital where he still remains. The Formosan in question had sworn he will kill him and Gimson is trying to get him transferred to the other small civilian camp in Kowloon. Of course, it was criminal of him to deal in the selling of food intended for the camp even though it had not yet been issued by the Japs to the camp, but he certainly paid dearly for his crime.

Date(s) of events described