Brits in HK – book review 2

I recently acquired some of Blacksmith Books’ latest. They have a common theme: British people who came to Hong Kong (and in one case went elsewhere in China). Here’s the second…


It Won’t Be Long Now: The Diary of a Hong Kong Prisoner of War by Graham Heywood

Graham Heywood was born in Britain in 1903 and came to Hong Kong in 1932 as a meteorologist in the Hong Kong Observatory. This was back in the days when they physically hoisted storm signals. He served until the 1950s.

In December 1941, with the Japanese thought to be far away but approaching, he and a colleague drove to a ‘Magnetic Station’ in the New Territories to retrieve equipment. They walked straight into enemy soldiers and he ended up in Shamshuipo prison camp – an old army barracks on reclaimed land, across from Stonecutters Island. (As a civilian, he should have been in a different camp on Hong Kong Island, but the Japanese treated him as a military prisoner.)

This is not a diary in the sense of a daily record, but an account drawn from whatever writings (and fine sketches) he managed to keep over nearly four years.

If it wasn’t exactly four years of hell, it was not far off. By the infamous standards of the Japanese, the regime does not sound especially cruel. At first, a few civilians bartered supplies across the fence and some prisoners escaped, but after a while the place became more disciplined. Other than roll-calls, late-night inspections and organizing manual work assignments (at places like Kai Tak runway) the Japanese largely left the prisoners to run themselves.

Essentially, they rotted in their huts. Everyone starved. Some prisoners died of malnutrition or disease. At one stage Red Cross parcels supplemented the poor diet and lack of medicine, but then they stopped arriving. The prisoners grew some vegetables in the dirt; it didn’t help that the author had an aversion to rice, believing that it was not suitable for Western stomachs.

The one serious escape attempt failed, and non-participants like Heywood were collectively punished with cuts in rations. There wasn’t really anywhere to escape to.

Amazingly – and this perhaps makes the biggest impression on the reader – Heywood managed to see things in a positive light. This doesn’t seem to be spin added to the memoir after the war, but a genuine personality trait. Prisoners taken off to work in Taiwan and Japan had it worse, he felt, as indeed did many of the civilians struggling to survive outside the camp (work details saw corpses on the Kowloon streets). The inmates organized lectures and plays, and Heywood even ran a Boy Scout troop comprising younger soldiers.

Despite being a short read, the book conveys the essence of the title – the dragging of the years, and the rise and fall of rumours of the war’s end as US planes started to be seen but then vanished. The prisoners had no way of knowing what was happening, and the last year, with Hong Kong in collapse and Japan clearly headed for defeat, must have been a soul-destroying eternity. It’s a wonder they stayed sane.


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10 Responses to Brits in HK – book review 2

  1. An alternative to Jack Edwards agonizing? I never got round to asking Jack if there was any difference between his dangerous underpaid half-starved life as a Welsh miner with Winston Churchill and murderous troops above ground waiting to shoot him if he went on strike and his life in Taiwan mining for the Japanese. There was of course but not as much perhaps as he made out. The Japanese in his case certainly won. He never smiled.

  2. Red Dragon says:

    Mr. Adams,

    Had you actually got round to asking Jack Edwards (whom I knew reasonably well), he might very well have told you that the events involving Winston Churchill to which you allude took place a good seven and a half years before Jack was born.

    It is also false to say that Jack never smiled. He did.

  3. Joe Blow says:

    I have always been puzzled about ‘war heroes’ like old Jack. He didn’t sacrifice his life, he didn’t perform any heroic acts, he didn’t win any major battles etc. He just got taken prisoner. And we had to hear about forever and ever.

  4. Good for you Red Dragon. All the rest of us saw was a miserable naff expat in a safari suit living in the past and whipping up hatred against Japan.

    You too can get a doctorate.

  5. dimuendo says:

    Joe Blow

    Jack Edwards, like the vast majority of those who “just got taken prisoner”, sufferd greatly as a result of his treatment. Like all those, he dealt with it as best he could and saw fit.

    A former neighbour of mine dealt with it by never speaking of his captive experiences but banning anything from Japan being bought by his fmily or entering his house.

    My father, who spent the war years in Burma and was not taken prsioner, hardly ever spoke of the war but had nothing but contempt for the Japanese conduct during WW2. From the mid 60’s he dealt with Japanese, travelled to the place , made contacts and some of them, or their children, are now friends of mine. But it did not change his view.

  6. Tai O Bloke says:

    And you, Joe Blow, what’s your claim to defame?

  7. Joe Blow says:

    @Tai O: I had been waiting for that one all morning.

    My claim to defame ? I once ate 3 Big Macs in one go. Maybe I’ll write a book about one day and I’ll flog it at various Christmas fairs around town for the next 20 years.

  8. Diane Butler says:

    I can well imagine Jack Edwards sitting in a fairly cheap gwai-lo pub with Kevin Sinclair, doing the old china hand thing and boring each other to death with tall stories that were mostly made up, while comparing notes on their safari suit tailor in Miramar Mansion.

    Just as I can imagine myself sitting on the patio of Verra with my best BFF Bonnae, sipping pink champagne and exchanging vicious gossip about everybody, but not you people.

    It’s a small world.

  9. Red Dragon says:

    Oooooh, George! You have a doctorate?

    You’ve certainly kept that quiet.

    Such modesty. Very becoming.

  10. I like Joe. He sounds like a cross between Patsy (Abfab and NTSCMP) and Evelyn Waugh.

    Tell people what they expect to hear and they will love you for it. Tell them something unexpected and they will hate you for it.

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