Memories From Behind Barbed Wire

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WORDS Nicholas Rider

PHOTOGRAPHY Rosemarie Cruz

For many of us, our grandmothers are the most treasured family members. The ones with the lolly jars, the biscuit tins, the crafty skills the and the rocking blue rinses. But often it is the stories they tell that stick to us most – tales of another time, one that we never experienced. These stories, and the memories we share with our grandmas, can create a bond like no other.

“I couldn’t call it a happy time,” Wendy Petersen (née Barton), my 85-year-old grandmother summing up her internment in Stanley Camp. This was a civilian internment camp in Hong Kong during World War II, which was used by the Japanese to hold non-Chinese civilians. My grandma, at the age of 13, was interned in February 1942, along with her parents and 10 siblings. Her brother Bernard was not interned in Stanley, and instead was held in a military camp in Japan.

Stanley Camp was located on Stanley Peninsula, which is found on the south-eastern side of Hong Kong island. The area is quite hilly, containing very steep and rocky slopes. Wendy describes the setting as “a very beautiful part of Hong Kong… which had very lovely views”. Despite the wonderful location, the memories from behind barbed wire that remain with Wendy to this day are not so wonderful.
“We had the pre-war British prison officer quarters,” recalls Wendy. While her parents and brothers lived in one room, Wendy and her five sisters lived in another. “I shared a double bed with two of my sisters. The other sisters had camp beds.” As they were sleeping on only a bare mattress, they wrapped their legs in bandages to avoid being bitten by bed bugs.

Grandma remembers having a fireplace in her bedroom. “We dug up all the wooden floorboards for firewood.” She also has memories of making use of the church’s floorboards for firewood.
“We were starving all the time,” Wendy says. “All we really had was rice and sweet potato every day.” The food provided at Stanley Camp lacked both quality and quantity. The main food for the internees was rice. It was not always clean, at times containing mud, dust, cockroach and rat excreta, dead rats and cigarette ends. As for other types of food, Grandma explains that they had “no meat, no fish, no butter, no eggs, nothing”. She says, “We didn’t even have tea or coffee. We had to roast soy beans and convert it into a sort of coffee.”

She recalls on one occasion being served some buffalo meat, but it had maggots in it and they refused to eat it.
Stanley Camp also had a canteen, but it was not open regularly. “About once a month we were allowed to buy minimum supplies,” says Wendy. The internees were able to purchase things such as cigarettes, sugar and salt.
“We had the clothes we wore [the day we were interned] and the minimum amount we were allowed to take,” Grandma explains. Apart from their own personal clothing, the Japanese provided the internees with some military clothing. “We converted them [the khaki jackets/vests] into what we wanted… because we didn’t want the military clothes.”

There were more than 200 children in the camp, so a school was established. There were two sessions of school during the day: a morning session for the primary school students and an afternoon session for the older ones. All the classes took place in the hall. “We had very, very little writing paper. In fact we had to use cigarette paper to do our work,” Wendy laughs, recalling the lack of supplies.

Poor health and disease were obvious concerns of the internees at Stanley Camp. “A lot of people had diarrhoea, and they had very swollen ankles, and malaria and different types of sicknesses,” Wendy explains. She does not remember anyone in her family being seriously ill during their internment, but does recall her brother Bernard in the military camp suffering numerous malaria attacks. “I think he had 32!”

During internment there were approximately 20 marriages in the camp. One of these was the wedding of my grandma’s sister Marie. A friend of Marie’s, a fellow internee, had brought her wedding dress into the camp, which Marie borrowed for her own wedding. Looking back at how this special day was celebrated, my grandma remembers the Catholic priest making a wedding cake. “He used charcoal to give it a little colour,” she laughs.
“We had concerts. Normally once a week,” Wendy explains, “[with] some dancing, some singing. My mother was a pianist – she played”. Wendy recalls one time when the Japanese thought they would take photos during a concert, to publicise how well the internees were treated. “So at the end of the concert we all did this,” she demonstrates, raising her arms in the air doing a victory sign. “V for victory!” This resulted in concerts being banned for a month.

Apart from this entertainment and attendance at school there was little for a young internee to do in Stanley Camp. My grandma, however, does have some memories of swimming at Stanley Beach.
Wendy describes a time when she and a few others discovered a mound in the grass. Unsure what it was, they threw stones at it, which kept bouncing back. “We thought it was just rock or something, but it was a buried body.”
Japanese punishment for disobedience was extreme. Five internees were beheaded for possessing cameras in Stanley Camp. “They were beheaded because it was against the rules,” Wendy says.

The day the internees were set free is quite clear in Wendy’s mind. “When the Americans bombed Japan… we were free,” she explains. This was in August 1945, almost four years since being interned. “The British navy came into Stanley Harbour and we were then sent to Britain to rehabilitate. We had one year in England to recover.”
My grandma and her fellow internees left Stanley Camp with little, only the memories from behind barbed wire. Memories that would remain embedded in their minds forever.