Child of Internment

In previous blog posts I’ve written about the lives of uninterned Russians and Parsees during the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong. In this article, originally written for The Hong Kong Heritage Project’s Past & Present magazine, I speak to George Cautherley, a fifth generation Hong Kong resident, to explore the experience of internment in Hong Kong as a British national. George was born in Hong Kong’s Stanley Internment Camp in 1942 and went on to become a successful bio-tech entrepreneur and was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s 2008 Birthday Honours.

A former internee looks  back at Stanley Internment Camp. Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia.

When Past & Present sat down to talk to George Cautherley about his family’s connection to China and the first three years of his life spent in Stanley Internment Camp, we soon sensed his keen attachment to Hong Kong and his deep understanding of its past. George’s passion for history has recently found voice in the University of Bristol’s ‘Hong Kong History Project’, where he sponsors a PhD scholarship, and on the issue of an Archival Law for Hong Kong, one of many policy issues that have caught his attention in recent years. His enthusiasm for Hong Kong is hardly surprising considering his progeny: George is the fifth generation of his family to live and work in China. George’s mother, Dorothy Cautherley (née Campbell), was a descendent of the Heards, the family behind the famous trading firm ‘Augustine Heard & Co’ who have been active in China since the early 1800s. Dorothy herself was pioneering and headstrong – born in Shanghai in 1912, she was one of the first women to work for the Hong Kong Bank (HSBC), meticulously checking letters of credit. George’s father, George Hunter Cautherley (George Sr.), came to Shanghai from Britain in 1927, also to work for the bank. His family first arrived in Hong Kong in the 1860s, when descendent James Gregg worked for HSBC (Gregg was one of eleven members of the family to hold senior positions in the firm). George describes himself as a ‘Hong Kong Bank kid’ and remembers visiting his father in The Peninsula Hotel, which was for a time home to the only HSBC branch in Kowloon.

Dorothy and George Sr. met in Shanghai, fell in love, got married, and moved to Hong Kong in 1938, where they lived a comfortable life. However, the couples’ serene existence was soon torn apart when Japan invaded Hong Kong in December 1941. Their home, situated on The Peak, was destroyed by the British Army during the defence of the colony and their possessions wiped out. Dorothy, who had not been evacuated to Australia with other British women in 1940, volunteered as a nurse at Bowen Road Hospital, while George Sr. worked and slept on a camp bed at the bank headquarters. He was asked to help operate the bank while hostilities raged outside its doors. When Hong Kong fell after a brief but intense period of fighting on 25 December 1941, all British and Allied nationals were told to assemble at the Murray Barracks parade ground and were marched to the hotels of Western District before being transferred by boat to Stanley.

George recounts his mother’s confusion amidst the chaos of those early days: ‘when we got to the hotel we looked round the facilities and we said – we couldn’t find the dining rooms, and so we asked the staff there, ‘where are the dining rooms?’ and they said: ‘it’s not that kind of hotel’!’. Dorothy soon realised that they had been taken to a brothel. In the bleakness of war, the couple decided to try to regain some control of their fate by starting a family. George was conceived in the brothel and nine months later was born in Stanley Camp’s Tweed Bay Clinic, where he was delivered as a typhoon struck the Island. Dorothy struggled through a difficult labour. Anaemic and suffering from malaria, she almost died but was saved thanks to a risky blood transfusion. During Dorothy’s recovery, newborn George was cared for by a coterie of British women, among them Lady May Ride, the wife of Professor Lindsay Ride who escaped internment in Sham Shui Po military camp and set up the British Army Aid Group which gathered intelligence and assisted P.O.W. escapees. George spent the first three years of his life living in an alcove with his devoted parents. Life in camp was monotonous: much time was spent waiting in line for food from the canteen (often hot congee or rice served in tin cups) and attending roll call. George played with other children in camp, sometimes on Tweed Bay Beach, where internees were permitted to swim. George never had any shoes – he received his first pair after the war – and suffered from dysentery at least once. But in many ways, life in camp was better for children than it was for adults, who bore the burden of survival. George reflects that ‘we had the best of it, family made sure you got whatever food there was, my mother told me she sold whatever jewellery she had over time in order to buy food for me’. The years spent in Stanley left its mark in other ways. One of George’s most vivid childhood memories is when his mother frantically ran outside to take him back to the safety of the alcove. He believes this happened in the aftermath of the accidental bombing of a bungalow in the Stanley complex by American forces.

The Union Jack is raised after the surrender of Japanese forces. Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia.

When Stanley was finally liberated in 1945, George was taken from camp with his mother to a ship destined for Southampton, in England, while his father temporarily stayed behind to help rebuild the colony and the bank. It was the start of George’s transient life shuttling between Britain, where he was educated, and Hong Kong, where his parents resided, before he permanently settled in Hong Kong in 1964 to work for his uncle’s medical products business. He has remained here ever since, developing the company to new heights and working as a successful bio-tech entrepreneur. Like many children of internment, George is keen to connect with others who shared his experience of detention. He has attended numerous reunions organised by historians and former internees, the most recent was held in 2015 to commemorate the camp’s 70th anniversary. George estimates that he has met at least twenty former internees, including Dennis Clarke, a hotelier also born in camp. Now, as the only generation left who remembers Stanley, George feels a keen sense of responsibility to preserve the memory of Hong Kong’s P.O.W. camp. He has shared his recollections with historians and journalists, and now, after an oral history interview with HKHP, researchers can access his story in our archive, too.


Hong Kong Diary: 1941 (part 2)

As mentioned in a previous blog post, I’ve come across a diary which reveals the social, political and economic life of Hong Kong in 1941, including attitudes towards the evacuation scandal, the treatment of British and Canadian soldiers, refugee humanitarianism and race relations between the Chinese and British in the period immediately preceding the fall of Hong Kong. The diary was written by a British expatriate who had previously worked in Shanghai.

Below you’ll find the second diary extract, written on 15 – 16 November 1941, which describes a social event for the Hong Kong Volunteers, the eerie beauty of a blackout, and social work undertaken on behalf of Chinese refugees. As you’ll see below, the author expresses a fear, common at the time, that generous social welfare schemes would ‘encourage’ more Chinese refugees to settle in Hong Kong.

Last night we had one of our periodical blackouts. I went to see the 7:30 showing of the film ‘Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary’ with a friend – a delightful fellow who is in charge of the Government Radio Workshops here – and we had a quiet meal and a chat after. On returning home I saw one of the most wonderful star-lit skies that it is possible to imagine …

When I finish this page I will be going to the annual dinner of the No. 1 Machine Gun Company of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps, of which I am a member. I was still in the training cadre when last year’s dinner was held, and I am looking forward to this evening when I shall be sitting next to congenial friends.

(The writer goes on to detail his social committee work).

At present the only other committee is in connection with free food kitchens for feeding refugee and destitute Chinese. At present there are four of these kitchens (2 on the Mainland and 2 on the Island) which between them provide over 4,000 mid-day meals daily and it is expected that this will be greatly increased in the near future.

The govt. social services are, to European eyes, inadequate but it must be remembered that any improvement in the conditions here would probably mean an influx over the border of many thousands of refugees without any certainty that they would remain to become an asset to the colony after their health and education has been looked after. At present there is no adequate primary education, and the boys’ and girls’ clubs have to provide an educational programme instead of supplementing existing education as is done in London and elsewhere in the British Isles; these clubs are open in the evenings and the daytime many of the youngsters try to earn a few cents as newsvendors and boot-blacks.


Blogroll: Recommended Reads

In recent years, more and more blogs have appeared online exploring the historical and political context of the refugee plight, both then and now. There has also been an increasing interest in the history of Hong Kong, especially via nostalgic Facebook groups or politically active Twitter accounts.

Here’s a few of my recommended (online) reads:

Refugee History

This blog boasts an impressive panel of experts seeking evidence-based solutions to the current refugee crisis. Blog posts cover book reviews, news about forced migration and probing historical essays. Recent articles include: ‘Victims of Decolonisation? The French Settlers of Algeria’ and ‘Belonging and Alienation in the Greek Return to Imbros’. You can follow Refugee History for conference highlights and other academic updates via @RefugeeHistory.

The Refugee Research Network

This excellent and wide-ranging Canadian blog covers several bases, from educational courses on offer around the world (certificates and PhD programmes), a scholars network to an excellent and user friendly research database which pools articles from all corners of the web. Articles are wide-ranging and cover the plight of refugees and displaced persons in Gaza, Kenya and Lebanon, among many other places.

The Hong Kong History Project

Not to be confused with The Hong Kong Heritage Project, this excellent resource should be a first port of call for both budding and experienced Hong Kong history enthusiasts. It features a comprehensive historiography compiled by historian Vaudine England, much of it focused on race and identity, as well as guest blogs from PhD candidates around the world.


This blog has been a staple for Hong Kong history researchers since it was first launched in 2006 by the indefatigable David Bellis. With thousands of pages of research sourced and uploaded by David and his team of volunteer netizens, this blog has been invaluable for my own research, too. Highlights include census lists, GPS maps, oral histories and much, much more.

Far East Currents

This blog is the brainchild of Dr Roy Eric Xavier, whose aim is to: ‘understand the roles that Portuguese-Macanese people played in the development of Macau, Hong Kong and other regions of southeast Asia, and their migration to other countries after World War II’. Roy has interviewed hundreds of Macanese, Portuguese-Eurasians and others who have lived or worked in Macao. Many of these interviews are featured on his blog or are available on YouTube.

China Rhyming

I’ve been a fan of Paul French since having read ‘Midnight in Peking’, his bestselling investigative thriller about the murder of a 19 year old English girl in Beijing’s ‘bad lands’. Paul’s blog, China Rhyming, covers a ‘gallimaufry of random China history and research interests’, and is well worth a read. As French (and Twain) say, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme’.

And finally …

Here’s a few of my favourite Twitterstorians you might want to follow:

@jypersian is an active Twitterstorian, based in Australia, who posts mainly about post-war migration to Australia. @petergatrell is a giant in the field of refugee studies. He regularly posts about his work and other developments in the field. @hongkonghistory, The Hong Kong History Project’s Twitter feed, is a valuable resource for Hong Kong related conferences and general Hong Kong related news and info. Finally, @vischina, administered by Professor Robert Bickers at Bristol University, gives a glimpse into the collection of 20,000+ digitised images of China (1850 – 1950) which have been painstakingly collected by the Visualising China team.

The Parsees: Hong Kong’s Disappearing Community

This article was originally written for the Hong Kong Heritage Project’s Past & Present magazine in 2019, and chronicles the history of the Parsee community in Hong Kong. I’ve also previously written about Hong Kong’s Indian and Portuguese communities on this blog.

Hong Kong has always been home to an eclectic mix of people and cultures; a quick survey of the city’s history will show the valuable contributions of numerous ethnic and national groups from all corners of the globe. One of the first settlers to arrive in Hong Kong after it was occupied by the British were Parsees from India who pioneered trade routes along the China Coast. The Parsee community originally came from Persia but were forced to flee and subsequently built businesses in the booming ports of Bombay and Calcutta. They acted as middlemen to the British and became successful bankers crucial to the early success of HSBC and the Chartered Bank of India. The Parsee contribution to Hong Kong far outweighs the small size of the community. Among their lasting legacies are road names (Mody Road, Kotewall Road and Bisney Road) the Star Ferry (founded by Mithaiwala Dorabjee Naorojee), social clubs and the University of Hong Kong. Parsees have even influenced Hong Kong’s linguistic heritage with the widespread use of the word ‘Shroff’; a Parsee family name. Today, Hong Kong’s Parsee community, a distinct ethnic and religious group, stands at an estimated 200 people. With only 100,000 Parsees worldwide – their numbers rapidly diminishing – this illustrious community is at risk of dying out. In 2009 The Hong Kong Heritage Project spoke to Ruby Master, the community’s first female trustee in Hong Kong, to find out more about her life story and the wider history of Parsees and Zoroastrianism in Hong Kong.

Ruby Master was born in Hong Kong in 1926. Her family history reflects the general pattern of Parsee settlement in Hong Kong, which started as an offshoot of the older Canton settlement. Ruby’s grandfather established a trading company in Canton in 1910 trading silks and spices while her granduncle worked for the law firm Johnston Stokes and Masters. Ruby’s father was brought into the family business in 1917. When the family office relocated to Hong Kong in 1925, he migrated south along with his young wife who became the youngest Parsee woman in the colony. The family lived on Wyndham Street, known as ‘Malacca’ by the Chinese for its ubiquitous Indian presence. Ruby remembers that the houses on Wyndham were much like the shop houses in Singapore today, ‘you would have your office on the ground floor or shop on your ground floor and you lived on the upper floors’. Ruby attended the Italian Convent School, today’s Sacred Heart Canossian College, with other Indian, Portuguese and Chinese girls. When the Japanese invaded Hong Kong on 8 December 1941, many of her school friends fled Hong Kong. After the British surrender, the Indian community, along with the Portuguese, Eurasians and other neutral and Axis nationalities, were not interned in civilian camps but were instead free to live ‘at liberty’ as Third Nationals, sometimes in their own homes. This proved to be an illusory freedom as economic collapse, rampant inflation, scant rations and American bombing raids made life hard on the other side of the barbed wire fence.

Ruby, who was fifteen at the time of the invasion, reflects that ‘we had shortages of food, fuel everything.  It was hard … all our bank accounts were frozen and if we managed to live through the four years it was by selling bit by bit whatever valuables we had’. For a time Ruby was able to continue her schooling, though the Italian Convent School was soon closed by the Japanese. Life ‘in town’ was dominated by a strict curfew and Ruby rarely ventured outside the Wyndham Street area, though she spent afternoons at the Ruttonjee and Schroff households, who lived close by. Ruby’s war was mostly experienced from inside the family home, where she would help with housework and bake chapatis and bread, which were not freely available on the outside. Many Parsees were active during the Japanese Occupation. Jehangir Ruttonjee and his son Dhun were arrested for the help they gave to oppressed people in Hong Kong, other Parsees were arrested for the help they gave to the British. Several Parsee homes, most notably that of the Pavris family, were used to house Parsees who had been deprived of their own homes. In 1945 Ruby heard that the war was coming to an end thanks to a cousin who owned a (banned) shortwave radio. When the Japanese surrendered, she was jubilant. The Master family joined the crowds and watched Admiral Harcourt and his fleet land at Blake’s Pier at the end of August: ‘we were all on the waterfront waiting to cheer them, oh that was a wonderful day’.

Hong Kong victory celebrations 9 October 1945
Hong Kong Victory celebrations, October 1945. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

After the war Hong Kong became the largest centre for Parsees in the region when Parsees from Shanghai joined Shanghainese entrepreneurs and others leaving China. In the 1940s and 1950s Ruby worked for her father’s firm exporting cotton yarn to India and Pakistan. Along with other young people in the Indian community she enjoyed an active social life as Indian Regiments were stationed in Hong Kong and the ships of the Indian Navy hosted parties and galas from 1945 onwards. Charitable work has always been an important part of the Zoroastrian religion and Ruby became more deeply involved in the wider community with active roles in the Indian Women’s Club, where she was one of the first members to join in 1957, and the Hong Kong Girl Guides. In the 1980s and 1990s the demographics of the community changed again as Parsees came from overseas to work in large multinational firms. Many longstanding Parsees sought British citizenship and relocated to second homes worldwide as the 1997 Handover approached. Ruby decided to stay put in Hong Kong and was invited to the Handover ceremony on 30 June 1997 when ‘the heavens opened up’. She watched the parade in sodden shoes as the rain pounded the ceremony, her cheeks flecked by tears. ‘We’ve prospered here, we loved Hong Kong and this was our only home’. Today, Ruby’s home is still Hong Kong, where she lives with her extended family. The Parsee community remains close knit, and members meet for Navroze, the Persian New Year, or other festivals at the Zoroastrian Building in Causeway Bay. Ruby believes this sense of community is vitally important, especially as their numbers dwindle. ‘Once a year or so we even have little trips to Shanghai or to Macau or wherever … this way we get the community together’.

Special thanks to Ruby Master for sharing her life history with The Hong Kong Heritage Project.




World Refugee Day 2018: Refugee Voices

My sister, an engineer, kindly invited me to an event hosted by her firm to mark World Refugee Day on 20 June 2018. The event aimed to ‘humanise and individualise the stories of those who have been displaced’ and featured three speakers of different nationalities and backgrounds, crossing generational and religious divides. All had suffered from the reverberations of displacement, either directly or indirectly, and each spoke about the complexities of the notion of home, described as a ‘landscape of the heart’ by the keynote speaker, a Syrian refugee.

The first presentation was given by the daughter of a German-Jewish refugee, whose father sought a refuge in Britain after the violence of Kristallnacht and his incarceration in a concentration camp. Once in Britain, he was interned as an enemy alien, possibly on the Isle of White, where most Germans and Austrians were detained. She was raised in a ‘culture of silence’ and described her quest to piece together her family’s past. Although a second-generation refugee, her father’s exile influenced her life, which has been marked by transience. ‘I am not a tree’, she remarked. ‘I have no roots’.

The second speaker escaped the civil war in Bosnia as a child in the early 1990s. She recounted how, aged seven, she and her mother evaded snipers to reach the last UN convoy to leave besieged Sarajevo. They embarked on an uncertain future as refugees, firstly in Croatia, and finally in Italy, where she spent her childhood. Displacement was compounded by a sense of isolation and deep loneliness as mother and daughter struggled to contact relatives back home. Years later, she was eventually reunited with her father, whose experiences of war left him a deeply changed man. Today, living and working in Britain, she reflected on her understanding of home. Where is home? She asked. It is nowhere, and everywhere, laying in the cracks of the places she had fled from and to: Bosnia, Croatia, Italy and Britain.

The final speaker was a prodigious young architect from Syria, one of the few to be granted asylum under the government’s Syrian Resettlement Scheme (it is hoped that 20,000 will be resettled by 2020). He spoke of the repression wrought by the Baathist party, early hopes for the Arab Spring and Syrian uprising, and his six-week detention in a 25 square metre cell, shared with 75 other detainees, many of whom died. He reflected on his personal struggle as a diaspora-activist-architect, his feelings of loss and helplessness, but also anger at the failures of international institutions, including the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, to help Syria and its people. He has tried to find meaning in exile and displacement. What does it mean to be a refugee? As shown by the three speakers, exile transcends language, culture, nationality and religion. As John Berger has written: ‘Ours has been the century of departure, of migration, of exodus – of disappearance, the century of people helplessly seeing others, who were close to them, disappear over the horizon.’