The Shell House Episode
There were two Tonias in our circle in Hong Kong, and since my mother was the smaller one, she was often called Little Tonia. The other Tonia was big and strong.
This photo was probably taken in the late 1940s.
The company which had employed my father in the construction of air raid shelters had carefully selected a good one for the families of their employees. We were evacuated from Kowloon to Victoria Island.
Before that evacuation, I had seen what I thought was a British warplane being shot down by a Zero in a dogfight. This must have impressed me greatly as I had reason to recall that event soon after with considerable effect.
After the surrender of Hong Kong, the Japanese quickly began the process of deciding what to do with the European population they had captured. I was only four years old at the time (that unlucky number again) but I still have vivid images in my mind from that time.
We were taken to Shell House on Victoria Island for processing. I recall a large room filled with nervous Europeans, several in uniform. Reports had filtered through that the Japanese had committed various atrocities such as bayoneting wounded soldiers in hospitals. What happened next I recall only vaguely, but the story was told to me later by my parents and confirmed by several others who were at Shell house at that time.
A day or two after Christmas, a squad of Japanese soldiers led by an officer carrying a large samurai sword burst into the room. The soldiers seemed to be a little drunk, perhaps having celebrated the fall of Hong Kong. They were furious that the British had resisted effectively for 17 days and seemed to be in a mood for revenge.
Just as it seemed likely that a massacre may occur right there and then, I apparently walked up to the Japanese officer in charge and said to him, Japanese plane go up, English plane go down. I had remembered the dogfight which I had seen a few days before.
The Japanese officer was delighted. Sodaska, he exclaimed. He then put me on his knee, patted my blond head, and barked out an order to his troops. Two of them left the room and returned soon after with three gigantic walking and talking dolls which were presented to me. They had taken them from a department store which had been full of Christmas gifts.
When the Japanese left, many of the British in uniform came over to me and also patted me on the head. They believed I had helped to avert a massacre of the civilians of Shell House, and they politely ignored the fact that I may have belittled the British Empire and its air force, which was close to treason for a little British chap like me.
Shortly after, two of the dolls given to me by the Japanese were taken by other, bigger children. I quietly wished that the Japanese would return to kill these nasty, thieving bullies! There is little mercy to be found in the heart of a swindled four year old.
The Japanese sent all the British to Stanley, which became a prisoner of war camp. Those Europeans who belonged to neutral countries were allowed to remain free in Hong Kong. Some Americans were sent to the USA in a prisoner exchange, and among them were friends of our family.
Since my mother, father and brother were stateless aliens, they were freed. Although I was a British citizen, having been born in Hong Kong, as a four-year old I must not have been considered a security risk by the Japanese and I was permitted to remain with my family.
Years of hardship and danger had begun.
There is an embarrassing postscript to this story. Much to my father's dismay, when I was little my mother had insisted on giving me the nickname of Pussy. He had lived in America for 10 years and knew what the word pussy stood for there. Many years after the war, well-meaning strangers would come up to me on the Star Ferry or on a bus, address me as Pussy, and thank me for my treasonous act in Shell house. It was mortifying.