Back to my promise to tell you about my search for family history in China — which I haven’t forgotten, though my recent book release has kept me quite busy. Here’s one of the more unusual rabbit holes I jumped into as I tried to chase a piece of my great aunt’s past… as a prisoner of war. Out of respect for her privacy, let’s call her Aunt Darla.
Hong Kong, China
April 11, 2008
I don’t know how difficult it would be to break out of a Hong Kong prison, but breaking into one is pretty much impossible. Yesterday, my translator Zhu Zhu and I took a bus from Hong Kong Central to the small beach town of Stanley on the far reaches of the island. We got off near the entrance to Stanley Prison. The prison was built in 1937, and by 1942 it was taken over by the Japanese after they invaded Hong Kong. Sometime between 1942 and 1945, my Aunt Darla, her fiancé, his family, and my other aunt’s husband Nippy were held prisoner at Stanley Internment Camp.
Sometime between 1942 and 1945, my aunt, her fiancé, his family, and my other aunt’s husband Nippy were held prisoner at Stanley Internment Camp.
According to second-hand stories: Darla and Nip had gone to the harbor to see off Darla’s fiancé and his family, who were moving to Macau. Her fiancé’s dad owned hunting rifles, which he tried to hide in a mattress to take with them. The Japanese found the rifles and accused everyone in the group of collaborating with the Portuguese, since Macau was a Portuguese colony. They were all arrested and thrown in Stanley Prison.
Darla spent several months there. Her father-in-law-to-be, who endured regular torture by Japanese guards, could finally take no more. He swallowed a chopstick to kill himself. I’m not sure how that worked; perhaps it tore up his throat or stomach. In any case, he succeeded. His wife lost her mind. The rest grew malnourished, but survived, haunted by memories they never much talked about – sharing just enough of their experience with this or that family member to make it possible for me to pick up this incomplete story.
Darla spent several months in Stanley Prison.
The Hong Kong Chinese still use the complex as a maximum-security correctional facility. So it struck me as strange to find it within a casual five-minute walk of the quiet resort town of Stanley.
It struck me as strange to find it within a casual five-minute walk of the quiet resort town of Stanley.
We asked the guard at the visitors’ office if I could visit an English-speaking prisoner who doesn’t receive many visitors. I figured I could accomplish two things: 1) gain entry to the facility without having to fuss with authorities, and 2) offer company to a lonely prisoner as a compensatory good deed. I expected a “no,” but it seemed worth a try.
The guard had never heard of such a thing: “Only family visits prisoners. You must be the strangest women I’ve ever met.” As a plan B, Fiona told him a condensed version of my aunt’s story and expressed my alternate request to see as much of the facility as possible. He was just as surprised by this odd request, and suggested we call someone higher up the chain. Zhu Zhu made the call right there. The higher-ranking official, too, was puzzled. At first he thought my aunt was currently a prisoner, in which case, of course I could visit. But an aunt who was here during World War II? What possible interest could I have in the place now?
An aunt who was here during World War II? What possible interest could I have in the place now?
As expected, the answer was “no.” However, the official suggested we visit the Hong Kong Correctional Services Museum, which was located in front of the prison. Perfect.
Inside the museum, we were fascinated to find old prison photos and artifacts, such as these locks and keys.
To clarify, the prison itself was almost completely hidden from view, tucked behind hills and outbuildings, on a peninsula that naturally hid most of the facility from casual view. But, inside the museum, we were fascinated to find old prison photos and artifacts: locks and keys, handcuffs, a wooden contraption where prisoners were once strapped for caning, a photo of men locked in stocks, and an old gallows complete with noose and trapdoor. Both corporal and capital punishment are illegal in Hong Kong today, but they were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when pirates and bandits were attracted to the growing commerce of Hong Kong. Many were beheaded and dismembered.
We watched a short film about the prison, then and now.
We watched a short film about the prison, then and now. It only touched briefly on the Japanese takeover of the prison in World War II, focusing on its use as an internment camp for British soldiers. Old photos featured grim-faced, emaciated white men with prominent ribcages and thinning hair. There was little mention of civilian prisoners of war.
Old photos featured grim-faced, emaciated white men with prominent ribcages and thinning hair.
One exhibit featured two replicas of Hong Kong prison cells: one old-fashioned, the other modern. The old-style cell was about five feet by seven feet, with a hard cot and a small barred window – high enough to give a tantalizing view of blue sky and green hilltops, but not low enough to show the ocean that lapped near the prison walls. “So close and yet so far away,” I said to Zhu Zhu. Two buckets sat in the room, one with the words “night soil” on it – meaning human waste. At various points during British rule of Hong Kong, Stanley’s tiny cells held two or three prisoners each. Surely the Japanese occupiers packed them in at least that tightly, or worse.
The old-style cell was about five feet by seven feet with a hard cot and a small barred window high in the wall.
Standing in that cell with the heavy metal door wide open, it was difficult to imagine what Darla suffered in such a place. I only met her once or twice in my childhood, another in a series of soft, round, Asian-Latina faces smiling down at me. I try to imagine her young and in love, or imprisoned and terrified — and still I only see a benign middle-aged aunt.
Standing in that cell with the heavy metal door wide open, it was difficult to imagine what Darla suffered in such a place.
I suppose all families deal with secrets, resentments, and mistrust. When Darla and her five sisters returned from Hong Kong to El Paso, not all of them immediately warmed up to my grandmother — their father’s illegitimate daughter. I’ve heard that one or another of them suspected their father of giving her a cushy life, while they were stranded in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong. Actually, my grandmother grew up impoverished with her mother’s family in East LA – her mother died when she was two. Still, when I considered the terror of living in an occupied city, where bombs dropped regularly, where soldiers tortured civilians in public, and where anyone could be imprisoned for saying goodbye to the wrong person, I could see how it might seem risky to trust, and smart to keep up one’s guard.
After the museum, we visited the charming Stanley Market.
After the museum, we visited the charming Stanley Market, where jade is no longer a bargain, but where the Star Restaurant serves delicious sweet and sour pork. Then we went to the tiny beach, where the sand was relaxing, though the water was a bit chilly. The prison was tucked out of sight behind a low headland.
Then, as now, Stanley Beach was the sort of place where a respectable family might enjoy a picnic.
Before the war, my aunt and her family were wealthy by Chinese standards, though merely working class by American standards. Then, as now, Stanley Beach was the sort of place where a respectable family might enjoy a picnic. I try to picture a teenage Darla and her sisters running into the water, giggling. They used to play in American softball leagues, so their legs would have been lean and athletic, splashing gracefully through torpid air and calm water. I find this easier to imagine.