When I was a child, like all children, I went through an inquisitive phase and no drawer or cabinet was safe from my prying eyes and hands. I recall looking up in awe at my father’s Masonic regalia as it hung in his closet, ready for his next meeting, wondering what possible occasion might require the wearing of such things.
It was during this period that I happened to go through my mother’s drawer in the camphor wood chest that we still have in the family. Among the bits and pieces there were two items of interest, seven manicure sets and a five hundred dollar note. It was the size of a face cloth. It wasn’t until many years later I asked my mother about these items.
It was after my father had passed away from a year-long struggle with stomach cancer and Mum was staying with us for a few days. She became very withdrawn and my wife and I did everything we could to keep her busy. Mum was very fond of our son, James, and he did his bit to keep her running about after him. It was during this period that, completely out of the blue, we started talking about her early days in Hong Kong.
Mum, Jean Miller Whyte, was 14 when her family arrived in Hong Kong in the early 30s. Her parents were brought out to the colony by the Royal Naval Dockyard. Mum was born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Her father, Samuel Howard Whyte was 38 and had previously been posted to the Engineering Department, Portsmouth. Her Mum was Bessie. I called her Gammy, when I was old enough to talk because I couldn’t pronounce, Gran, or Granny, and the title stuck. Mum’s brother, David was 9 years old. They were evacuated along with my mother before the invasion. My Grandfather, Samuel, was interned in Stanley and died on 13 December 1943 of chronic nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys).
Like my father, Mum went to the Central British School in Tsim Sha Tsui, which was the forerunner of King George the Fifth. The Central British School building may still be seen on Nathan Road, as it is one of the few ‘listed’ buildings in Hong Kong and is, I believe, the Antiquities Office. At one time or another, all of the Sloans attended KGV. I was once asked to give my opinion of the school which I left in 1969 after completing my O Levels. I likened it to a drab grey pile of bricks that I had no intention of ever setting foot in again (nuf said).
My father, Charles (Chucky) McConnell Sloan was born in Hong Kong in 1914, the son of John Sloan, an employee of the Taikoo Sugar Refinery who had come to Hong Kong with his wife, Jane, in 1908. For a short time his brother, James and his wife also lived in Hong Kong, but when James’ wife passed away he left for Australia with his children. His family still lives there.
After completing his education Dad joined, what was then the Hong Kong Hotel Motorbus Company as an apprentice (later it became the China Bus Company). It was here, he assured me, that he spend his first year learning how to make tea and sweeping the workshop floor.
When they thought they could actually trust him with anything more complicated that a broom they put him on the night shift with an older apprentice. His work on these shifts, when he wasn’t making tea or sweeping the floor, was to help prepare the buses for the next day and go out with the retrieval team and bring back any buses that had broken down.
It is hard to believe in modern day Hong Kong, but during those times Western District still had farms in it. One particular day towards the early evening, one of the buses knocked down a pedestrian. Any vehicle, whether it was a bus or a car was treated with distrust and it was common for a vehicle involved in an accident to be vandalised by the local residents. This particular bus was no exception. The driver had run for his life as soon as he realised that he’d hit someone and the local residents proceeded to break every window they could find.
When my father and the retrieval team arrived they found the body of the person that had been hit, still underneath the bus. Apparently he wasn’t a local resident so no one had bothered to come and rescue him. They pulled the body out from under the bus and deposited it inside, managed to start the engine and drove off. They didn’t get far. One of the locals had heard their arrival and came out to investigate. With no street lighting and the headlights of the bus being smashed, they didn’t see this black clad gentleman and knocked him over. They leapt out of the bus to find him alive, but unconscious. Quickly, before anyone else came to investigate, they placed him in the bus alongside the corpse and drove off as fast as they could.
My father went on to become one of the first Rolls Royce qualified engineers in the Far East and finally retired from, what was then, Gilman Motors, in 1972.
Mum and Dad were married in 1939, not really an auspicious year. Following the wedding and a night of nuptial bliss in the Hong Kong Hotel (which incidentally was at the foot of Pedder Street in Central in those days), they boarded a Blue Funnel Steamer headed for England and their honeymoon.
After six weeks of travel via Singapore, Malacca, Penang, Port Said, the Mediterranean and Gibraltar they finally docked in England, completely oblivious to the fact that World War II had broken out. My father was given the opportunity of staying in the UK and joining the British Army, or returning to Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Volunteers, which he was already a member of. As their lives and family were in Hong Kong they decided to return.
They enjoyed almost two years of peace before the war caught up with Hong Kong in December, 1941. By then Mum had been evacuated to the Philippines and from there to Australia. During that time my brother Jim was born and he was almost five before he met his father for the first time.
I don’t want to go into the hardships they both endured during those years; that is for another day, but whilst Mum was in Australia, Hong Kong fell to the invading forces and my father was eventually sent to Japan as slave labour. ( Please see https://stewartgoeswalkies.com/2021/04/24/hong-kongs-dark-history-part-one-dad-the-invasion-of-hong-kong-and-prison-camp/ and -https://stewartgoeswalkies.com/2021/04/28/hong-kongs-dark-history-part-two-dad-and-my-uncle-pows-in-japan/ )
At the end of the war he and his fellow prisoners were shipped to the Philippines and from there to Canada where he travelled across that country by train to the east coast. From there he was transported to England to be reunited with his family.
It was while Mum was telling me this that I remembered the manicure sets and the enormous five hundred dollar note in her drawer. Dad, she told me, was never the most romantic of husbands and could never think of what to buy her for her birthday, so every year he bought her a new manicure set. The five hundred dollar note, she told me, was her ‘escape money’. She had never forgotten having to leave Hong Kong with only what she could carry.
Once again, I hope you found this post interesting. And as the title suggests, it was a dark and terrible period in Hong Kong’s history. If it proves anything, I believe that it reveals that the younger generations alive today would not have had the courage and fortitude to survive the hardships that my parents and their generation endured. Also, once more I would like to express my appreciation to my sister, Carol and my cousin, Alan for their valuable assistance.