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.
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.
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.