"Weihsien ― the test ― whether a man's happiness depends on what he has, on what he is; on outer circumstances, or on inner heart; on life's experiences ― good or bad ― or on what he makes out of the materials those experiences provide."

(H. Hubbard)

WE WERE SOON TO LEARN the story of how Weihsien Civil Assembly Centre, as the Japanese officially described it, came into being.


         Six months before our arrival in Weihsien, Allied personnel from all over Japanese-occupied North China had been rounded up to go into internment.' In Peking and Tientsin the Chinese populace lined the streets to witness the strange spectacle of hundreds of British and Americans of all ages and backgrounds struggling through the streets, dragging the luggage allowed them in the official circulars just sent out. It was a deliberate act of humiliation by the Japanese.


         They were from all walks of life ― lecturers and professors from Peking Union Medical College and Yenching University, missionaries of the London Missionary Society, the English Methodist Society, Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, officers of the Salvation Army, business executives of the British & American Tobacco Company, priests and nuns from North China and Manchuria.


         Some two thousand of them came by cart and train, converging on Weihsien, tired, apprehensive and ill-prepared for the manual labour and hardship which were in store for them. Their relatively easy life in these Far Eastern communities with plenty of servants and a high standard of living had come to an abrupt end.


         The deserted compound to which they had been brought, in size 200 yards by 150 yards, had been a flourishing Presbyterian mission centre, which included a church, hospital, rows of tiny rooms (9 feet by 12 feet) for the housing of Bible students, tuition buildings, and, at the farthest end from the main gate, staff houses for the American missionaries, teachers and doctors.


         In its very earliest days two now well-known American personalities had been born here ― Henry Luce, editor of Time and Life, and Pearl Buck, popular authoress of novels based on Chinese life and customs.


         The new arrivals had found the premises in very bad condition; after the missionaries and Chinese student body had left, the property had been looted by Chinese bandits, and then occupied by Japanese soldiers; afterwards vacated and left to deteriorate further. The roads were strewn with rubble, the toilets choked, and the remains of desks and tables lying around, having been broken up for firewood.


         These first internees had set to work with that resourcefulness and determination characteristic of the human race when looking for the basic comforts of life. They cleared roads, cleaned the rooms, opened up three big kitchens (Kitchen I for the Tientsin community, Kitchen II for those from Peking and Kitchen III for Tsingtao internees), each feeding five hundred people. Catholic priests from Belgium, Holland and America, mostly in their twenties, cleared the toilets and erected large ovens for the camp bakery.


         A well-organised community was soon running its own affairs, each person with his or her own specific duties. At the top of the organisation chart was the Japanese commandant, and under him the camp representative. He was in turn chairman of a Council of Committee leaders, covering general affairs, discipline, labour, education, supplies, quarters, medicine, engineering and finance.


         How fortunate we were in that by the time we arrived in this self-contained community all was running smoothly and efficiently. The administrative machinery was most impressive. The Quarters Leader allocated us dormitories, the Labour Leader gave us forms to fill in with crosses to put down to indicate how much experience we had had in teaching, engineering, cooking, baking and other spheres.


         It was quite evident that the four hundred Catholic priests and nuns had made a great impact and profound impression on the internee community. They had turned their hands to the most menial tasks cheerfully and willingly, organised baseball games and helped in the educational programme for the young.


         But inevitably romances had been formed between admiring Tientsin and Peking girls and celibate Belgian and American priests from the lonely wastes of Manchuria. Anxious Vatican officials had solved the delicate problem by careful negotiations with the Japanese, as a result of which all but thirty priests had been transferred to an institution of their own in Peking where they could meditate and say their rosaries without feminine distractions.


         Their departure had left a vacuum in effective manpower for such tasks as pumping, cooking and baking. Thus the arrival of our Chefoo community aggravated the situation further, for out of the three hundred of us only about two dozen were potential camp workers, the remainder being school-children and retired missionaries.


         But for ourselves coming to Weihsien proved to be the opening up of a new world, after the cramped and monotonous life at Temple Hill. Here in Weihsien were well-informed scholars, missionaries of other traditions, business men with a variety of backgrounds. Adult education was provided in Chinese, Japanese, Russian; book-keeping, shorthand and philosophy. There were concerts, pantomimes, plays, baseball matches and many other community activities.


         Soon life in this new camp was running smoothly and we were feeling very much part of this new social environment. I was housed with other boys of the school in Block 23, an attractive building at the far end of the camp, superior to the small blocks of rooms in which the families were housed. The Labour Representative placed me in a kitchen shift of Kitchen I that fed some six hundred people.


         Our mode of life was simple and primitive. The day began with filling buckets at the pump for purposes of cooking and washing. Firewood was collected from trees and bushes, and used in the stove in the middle of the room. From this, water was heated for shaving and washing, and at a later stage for cooking breakfast, that is whatever we had privately for supplementing the official rations. We queued up in Kitchen I for a ladle of bread porridge and some bread. Into our mugs was poured black tea ladled out of a bucket. Back we went to the bedroom to mix the kitchen issue of food with our own dwindling resources in the most enjoyable combination possible.


         Then followed washing of dishes, cleaning of rooms, hanging our mattresses in the sun in a bid to kill the bed bugs, washing our clothes, hanging them out to dry, and so on.


         By this time the roll-call bell would ring. We would wait in four groups in different parts of the camp for the Japanese guards to inspect us, count us and make provision for those who were on special duties. While waiting for the guards we read books, studied languages, shared camp rumours and speculated about the future.


         In addition to the limited resources of the official camp kitchens, there were other sources of supplies. There was the White Elephant where cigarettes, soap, peanut oil and other provisions could be purchased. Internees without ready cash brought books and clothes which they bartered for food.


         Cash for buying these commodities came from "Comfort Money", brought by the Swiss Red Cross representative, Mr. Eggar, who took all kinds of risks to visit the camp regularly. Internees had to sign a promissory note, undertaking to repay the money after the war. In Chinese dollars the amounts received monthly sounded large, but with the rapidly rising inflation they in fact bought less and less.


         Another factor in the battle for survival was the black market. I watched this delicate operation in full swing. Going to chop wood for fuel in an out-of-the-way part of camp, I stumbled on it quite accidentally.


         In between electrified wires were three Chinese, busy passing over the wall below the wires boxes of eggs and some crates of bigar (wine). On this side of the wires were some Tientsin business men receiving the provisions and piling them behind some loose bricks. The operation depended on the vigilance of another internee a hundred yards away on Rocky Road, who was on the look out for any movement of Japanese guards either from their residences in one direction or from the sports field in the other. Farther away another man was posted on the main road, watching for any movement at the guardroom just inside the main gate of the camp. If one guard appeared on any front the man watching blew his nose ostentatiously. The same gesture followed down the line, and within half a minute black market operations came to a standstill till the all clear was given once again.


         Through this adventurous exercise families with small children were able to get eggs and other items not available at the White Elephant, while thirsty bachelors could drink the bigar to drown their sorrows. Initially the goods were bought for hard cash, but as the war progressed I.O.U chits were signed undertaking settlement after the war.


         Early one morning I walked past the sports field to see the corpse of a Chinese black marketeer hanging on the wires. The authorities left it there for a while as an object lesson. On another occasion a group of Chinese traders was caught and all were beaten up by the Japanese. On the whole the marketing was carried out without such repercussions.


         My only dealings with the black market were unique and perhaps amusing. Pa Bruce, the headmaster, came round taking orders for eggs. I asked for two dozen, and paid cash for them, leaving just a few coppers in my purse. Two weeks later he returned with the eggs.


         I awoke the following morning ready for a feast. Around the stove in the centre of the dormitory I gathered a good supply of twigs and cardboard for fuel. The fire was lit, the frying pan placed on the stove. Into it went some hair oil, all I had for frying. Into a mug I broke an egg ― it was black and green. I emptied it into a bucket and started again with another egg.


         But all were bad. I had hardly thrown the shell of the last egg on to the ash tray when Pa Bruce entered. Sizing up the situation over-hastily, he shouted, "If you are going to eat all your eggs the first day, I won't order any more for you." He was gone before I could explain. I had put all my eggs in one basket in more ways than one.


         Another source of nourishment in the early period of internment was the parcels received by the missionaries from their stations in Peking, Tientsin and other places. Catholic nuns and priests received what seemed to us wonderful luxuries on a grand scale. Protestant missionaries did not fare nearly as well.


         Soon after I had become a roll-call warden, charged with the task of counting the personnel in Blocks 23 and 24, I was taking the guard along a line of internees outside Block 24 when Aunt Lilian (an American Presbyterian lady missionary who had known my parents at Shunteh) asked to see me after roll-call.


         When I found her she said with a tone of uncertainty in her voice, "Norman, I received some Golden Syrup from my mission station, but a rat fell into it as soon as I opened it. I've put it in the garbage box behind the building. If you're interested, take it."


         I rushed to the box, grabbed the tin, and went to my dormitory with the valued spread. While there was usually plenty of bread in the camp, spreads were hard to come by. The rat was duly removed, the syrup was boiled for several hours over the stove, and then three of us spread it sumptuously on our bread for some weeks afterwards.


         For those were the days when the Lord's Prayer had to be amended to read, "Give us this day our daily bread, and some jam to spread on it."



End of Chapter.