Wynne Ward and the 1940 Evacuation

My most recent blog posting discussed the internment of civilians at Stanley Internment Camp during the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong (1941 – 1945). Today’s posting investigates the evacuation of British women and children in 1940 through the story of Wynne Ward, who sadly passed away in 2017. This article was originally written for The Hong Kong Heritage Project’s Past & Present magazine. 

Wynne Ward was born in Hong Kong in 1917 and died in Stanley in 2017, making her one of Hong Kong’s longest living residents of British descent. The daughter of two Yorkshire emigres, Wynne’s father was Arthur Robert Fenton-Raven, the renowned architect who built King Yin Lei, a palatial mansion situated on Stubb’s Road which was a backdrop for films ‘Soldier of Fortune’ (1955) and ‘Love is a Many Splendored Thing’ (1955). Wynne spoke to HKHP in 2008 and gave vivid accounts of her pre-war colonial life, the evacuation of Hong Kong in 1940 and an invaluable insight into the social history of Britons in the city.

Up until the Second World War, Wynne lived with her parents and sister at Tsat Tsz Mui in North Point, then a rural enclave on Hong Kong Island. ‘It was all countryside in those days and nice beaches along the main road and we had a bungalow sort of halfway up a hill.’ Her life as a young woman there, though devoid of indoor sanitation, air conditioning, proper refrigeration and at constant risk of malaria and TB, was interspersed with carefree swimming parties and tennis lessons. On hot, sticky summer nights the family would sleep on the lawn in camp beds, protected only by mosquito nets. Wynne kept a donkey called Dennis and for a short time cared for a honey bear, a pet that was quickly returned to its original owner. ‘We had a job trying to get it back up to the hill, to the other house, but we eventually managed to get it back there by putting a honey tin in front of it and rattling it, and it could smell the sweetness’. Wynne vividly remembered the devastating typhoon of 1926, which caused one of the greatest floods in Hong Kong’s history. The typhoon ‘went on all night long’ and resulted in smashed windows and more than a dozen villagers taking refuge in the family home. School was at Central British School (CBS) where students would eat ‘very good curries’ for lunch. Along with other children from North Point, Wynne took the ‘school boat’ – the Tai Koo launch – to school every morning and back.

Wynne and her sister enthusiastically took part in the then colony’s vibrant social scene. As talented ballet and ballroom dancers they were often asked to perform ‘floor shows’ at glamourous balls. Tea dances were held every afternoon at the Hong Kong Hotel on Pedder Street, as well as The Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon and the Repulse Bay Hotel on the south side of the Island. The ladies would wear strings of cards around their wrists on which men could write their names for the privilege of a dance. ‘It was a different sort of existence altogether’ recalled Wynne, with one girl to every five men. Another important part of the social scene were the parties held on P&O ocean liners. They left for Britain every fortnight, transporting civil servants to Britain on ‘home leave’. Before the ship’s departure Wynne would enjoy on-board cocktails and a live band, and later, ‘streamers would be thrown down to the people who were waiting on the wharf’ in a classic colonial image of pre-Handover Hong Kong. Such social conventions and forms of entertainment were exported from Britain, and although they served to re-enforce cultural separation, they also engendered a ‘home away from home’.

Although many Britons in Hong Kong were undisturbed by the prospect of war in Europe and the Japanese advance in China, Wynne remembers the sudden departure of several naval officers to fight for the Allied cause in September 1939:

‘I remember when the war broke out between Germany and England. We had a tennis party on that day and we had a lot of Royal Naval officers up playing tennis, and suddenly it was announced on the radio and one of them said; ‘we’ve got to go now’. And some of them of course went off and we never saw again. They were killed.’

Wynne, her sister and mother were among the women of ‘pure European descent’ evacuated from Hong Kong in June 1940 when war against Japan became likely. Over one third of Hong Kong’s British population was sent to Australia in a highly contentious policy governed by colonial notions of ‘Britishness’ and shaped by categories of race and class. Wynne set sail on the Empress of Asia, first stopping in the Philippines for six weeks before reaching Sydney in Australia. During the war Wynne worked as a model and met her future husband, John Ward, a Royal Naval officer who later became managing director of Gammon in Hong Kong. Wynne’s father was interned in Stanley Civilian Internment Camp and emerged looking ‘terrible’ as ‘all skin and bone’.

After the war, Wynne and John returned to Hong Kong following a short stint in Britain and Singapore. They started a family and moved to Shek O, then settled in Stanley. On the weekends Wynne would frequent Hollywood Road, where she discovered ‘wonderful bargains’ in her search for Chinese antiques. She remembered the open nullah running down Peddar Street and the low-rise buildings of Central District. Wynne fondly recalled Maxims (now Landmark Building) where she would meet her friends for coffee – her social circle included such renowned figures as the philanthropist Noel Croucher. After the 1997 Handover she lamented the end of the British Empire in Asia. Wynne, who lived in Hong Kong most of her life, was certainly the product of a bygone colonial era, but she always called Hong Kong home.

For a list of evacuees and more information on the 1940 evacuation of Hong Kong, check out Vivian Kong’s excellent blog ‘1940 Evacuation of Hong Kong British Families to Australia’.

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