Stranger In My Heart

By Mary Monro

Retracing her father’s heroic escape across China in World War Two leads his daughter on a gripping voyage of discovery about him, China and, inevitably, herself.

While we were surveying the scene over the cricket ground and Happy Valley racecourse two black kites, smaller cousins to our European red kites, flew overhead. I had the strangest feeling that somehow it was a wave from Dad. I almost said “Hello Dad!” out loud, but managed to stop myself. Nonetheless seeing these birds made me feel at home and that Dad was with me on my journey.

None of us knows what happens to us when we die and this is, perhaps, one of the consolations of grief – we can believe whatever we like. I have had a number of experiences over the years that lead me to believe that we retain some sort of presence after death. This seems to fluctuate such that when you are doing something that resonates strongly with the deceased, they in turn manifest more strongly. This trip to China was all about Dad and it was as easy as wallowing in a warm bath. On a subsequent visit with a more tenuous connection to Dad’s time in China, I didn’t feel him with me in the same way, and the trip was more difficult.

My reaction to the kites was visceral and immediate and it made me pay attention to the nature of my experiences during the rest of my trip. I realise that my sense of being accompanied may have been a construct of my mind to stave off fears about this challenging journey, but this first sighting was not consciously anticipated or sought. In my career as an osteopath I have had to learn to trust my hands and my intuition with the same confidence that I trust my eyes and my ears. At first one naturally cross-checks with more tangible evidence – if I can feel the impression of an impact injury, I quiz the patient about their history, for example – but gradually one accepts the veracity of incoming information from all of our sensory apparatus. It’s like going from black and white to colour.

Whilst I was in Hong Kong I made a side trip to Lamma Island. My sister Kathy had lived there in around 1980 and I was curious to see what it was like. Her usual style was to live in the most squalid conditions in a low rent part of town, whether it was Edinburgh or Cairo. Consequently I assumed that Lamma would be a dump, but I could not have been more wrong. It was far and away the most lovely part of Hong Kong and where I would have chosen to live if I were working there. I walked across the traffic-free island from one village to the other, stopping briefly at a cocktail bar on the beach, and was accompanied by yet another kite. I found my oblivious, soaring companion a great comfort. Visiting Kathy’s old haunt also stiffened my resolve. She was a proper “viaggatrice intrepida” who would quite happily hitchhike through a war zone with only a toothbrush and a spare pair of knickers in her backpack. I really had nothing to be fearful about on my fully guided, luxury hotel itinerary.

I transferred from the hotel in Causeway Bay to the YMCA in Kowloon, next to the Peninsula Hotel but about a quarter the price. Dad had been marched past these hotels on his way to Sham Shui Po camp – I don’t suppose they have changed much. I then walked into the rather disreputable Chungking Mansions to get some Chinese currency. It was described in my guidebook as a ‘huge, ramshackle, high rise dump’ with ‘a peculiar odour of cooking fat, incense and sewage’. Regardless, it has the advantage of having about 20 bureaux de change next to each other, forcing competitive rates. Bizarrely the entrance is on the main shopping street in Kowloon, Nathan Road, sandwiched between Chanel, Louis Vuitton and other such elegant global brands.

No first-time visit to Hong Kong would be complete without a ride on the Peak Tramway, an insanely steep, ludicrously expensive, 6 minute ride up The Peak to where the rich folk live. It is a well-designed tourist trap, delivering you to the “caverns of tat” before you are allowed to exit to admire the smog-stained view. At the end of the caverns of Duat in ancient Egypt, your heart was weighed to see whether you were fit for eternal life – if heavier than a feather, you met the Devourer of Souls instead. No such test was met after the caverns of tat, which is probably just as well as my heart was feeling irritably heavy at that point.

The next day I met up with my friend from Shropshire and we drove out of the frenetic city and into the hills. She lives in Stanley on the south side of the island, which is where many civilian refugees were taken for internment. It is a delightful spot nestled on a pretty bay and a world away from the exhausting pace of the city. We visited the military cemetery where almost 700 people are buried. Whilst every single headstone tells a sad story, I didn’t really connect until I found the grave of one of Dad’s colleagues, George Neve, whom he mentions in his story of the battle. Dad was surprisingly critical of the opportunistic action taken by Neve and his companions. They were all staff officers, responsible for communications and intelligence, and thus rather crucial to the management of the battle:

“Wednesday 24th December 1941: A few days ago Bird, Neve and Boxer went down to look at the position at Aberdeen.  While they were there they took it into their heads to lead a local counter attack.  Now all three are wounded in hospital.  One of them might have done such a thing, but three staff officers together is folly. We went out to the Queen Mary Hospital to see the George Neve/Boxer crowd. George Neve was very cheerful, Boxer was sitting up and looked fit though they told me he had a lost a lot of blood. Bird seemed quite chirpy”.

Major George Neve of the Royal West Kent Regiment, died in January ’42, having been wounded in battle on the 20th December. I don’t suppose the healthcare in POW camp was up to treating wounds or fending off infection. On further investigation I found, to my horror, that some wounded men in Stanley hospital had been bayoneted to death by the Japanese.

Captain Godfrey Bird died in Sham Shui Po. Charles Boxer fared better, but he was transferred to Argyle Street camp and in September 1943 he was arrested by the Kempeitai (Japanese Gestapo) when they discovered a radio receiver in the camp. He was badly tortured and sentenced to fifteen years in jail. He survived and after the war became Emeritus Professor of Portuguese at the University of London and died in 2000, aged 96. His obituary in The Daily Telegraph makes it clear that he was a remarkable man, barely mentioning his military career as its significance was dwarfed by his academic career:

“His scholarly output was phenomenal, and by his 80th birthday had reached more than 300 books and articles, ranging from textbooks on the Dutch and Portuguese colonial empires before 1800 to definitive editions of Iberian missionary narratives and the journals of Portuguese and Dutch naval commanders. This unparalleled flow reflected a mind of remarkable keenness and lucidity, immense erudition, legendary industry, sheer intellectual zest, a formidable memory, and a willingness to accept new fields for, and techniques of, investigation”.

Most of the graves at Stanley were for young men who’d died in the last two or three days of the battle. One couldn’t help feeling that they died in vain. They may have had a better time of it than those who were imprisoned, however, many of whom did not survive. Many died in POW camp, many more died on the transport ships to Japan and yet more died under the slave labour regime if they did reach Japan. Subsequently known as "Black Christmas," the surrender of Hong Kong cost the British around 9,500 captured as well as 2,113 killed/missing and 2,300 wounded during the battle. Japanese casualties in the fighting numbered 1,996 killed and around 6,000 wounded[1].

[1] according to Kennedy Hickman, although it is difficult to find reliable and consistent information about casualties. This tallies with Gen Maltby’s Despatch about the Battle of Hong Kong (published by the War Office as a Supplement to the London Gazette, 29 January 1948, no. 38190).

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