"Accept the thing to which Fate binds you. And love the people with whom Fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart."

(Marcus Aurelius)


WITHIN THE ELECTRIFIED WIRES of Weihsien Civil Assembly Centre was a community of 2,000 internees who were indeed a microcosm of any modern metropolis.


         After the departure of the bulk of the Americans and Canadians for repatriation, and the transfer to Peking of the majority of the Catholic priests and nuns, as well as the arrival of our Chefoo community, there was a new "mix" of race, age and social grouping. Sixty per cent were British, twenty per cent American, the remainder being a number of minority groups such as Belgian and Dutch. Later we were to be joined by a hundred Italians after their country had capitulated to the Allies. Regarding them as "dishonourable Allies" in contrast to ourselves, who were "honourable enemies", the Japanese placed them in a camp within a camp. They were interned in a block of houses behind the guard room, and at first were not encouraged to mix with the rest of us, but as the months went by the difference in status was dropped.


         By profession and occupation there was first of all a large missionary community representing the entire spectrum of Protestant and Catholic missionary traditions; then there were top executive business men, and their families, employed by the major industrial and commercial companies, a group previously enjoying a high standard of living in Peking and Tientsin. Largely from Peking were educationists and language students who had come to camp from the cloistered walls of university and college. Last but not least, the camp included some of the drop-outs of Western society, who had run away from their past in a more sophisticated environment to enjoy the wine, women and song of North China's underworld.


         A well-known group in Far Eastern society consisted of White Russians whose parents had fled from the 1917 Communist rising in Russia, stripped of land, wealth and status in the revolution which swept their motherland. In China they were a pathetic stateless people with little economic or social security. Many Russian women found security in marrying British and American business men. Some of these were in the camp. Fearful of revealing their earlier background of poverty and manual labour, they were loath to turn their hands to some of the less attractive tasks which camp life demanded, while the wives of British and American top brass executives readily did so; but it was quite foreign to their easy-going life before the war.


         There were other internees of mixed blood-half Chinese, half Japanese, half Filipino. There were four American Negroes who had been bandsmen in a Tientsin nightclub. Among the various races were prostitutes, drug addicts and alcoholics, who found their particular moral weaknesses severely cramped in the Weihsien style life.


         Inevitably in such a community a few individuals stand out in my memory for their foibles and peculiar personality traits, or their uncommon saintliness and integrity.


         There was a little Eurasian boy known as "Cesspool Kelly". His father had gone out from Britain to the Mongolian border as a missionary, working eventually as a Bible Society agent. In middle age he had married (some said bigamously) a Chinese woman who bore him four children. Miles from civilisation Kelly "went native", wearing Chinese clothes, eating Chinese food and speaking the Chinese language. Coming to camp, he and his little family kept aloof from the social and religious life of Weihsien, and lived in this cosmopolitan community the same peasant life of pre-camp days.


         At strategic points throughout the camp were cesspools into which the latrines ran and dirty buckets of water were emptied. Playing near the cesspool by the bakery with his sister, Johnny Kelly fell head first into its dirty waters, and Mary let out wild shrieks to attract urgent assistance for her unfortunate brother. Johnny went up and down four times in the filthy pool to be rescued timeously by a burly British seaman who skilfully applied artificial respiration. The lad recovered from the accident, but for the remainder of the duration was dubbed "Cesspool Kelly".


         Then there was the "Vulgar Bulgar", a vivacious extrovert with sparkling eyes and ready humour. This plump shrewd Continental came belatedly to camp. For several years he had successfully dodged internment by producing the right passport at the right political time. He had five different passports in his name, and was carrying on his nefarious trade currency deals in North China successfully until the Japanese caught up with his tricks, imprisoned him and then sent him to our select society. Here he found his niche in the memorable order of black marketeers.


         Queuing up near this Bulgarian in Kitchen 1, we invariably heard snatches of black market prices in French, Russian or Greek, and then we saw the quick movement of money into his pockets. For all his dishonesty and greed for profit, the "Vulgar Bulgar" was a pleasant member of the community, always passing his fellow campers with a friendly smile and a greeting in some Eastern European language.


         Father Scanlan was an Australian Trappist priest among the four hundred Catholics who moved to Peking before my arrival. Though I never met him, stories about him abounded as we chatted in the evenings, reminiscing on the earlier years of the war. In some lonely caves outside Peking and under a vow of silence Scanlan had been living in solitary meditation before the outbreak of war. Herded by the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, with other priests of various religious orders, he had come to Weihsien. Receiving from his bishop a special dispensation to speak, he was soon making up for fifteen years of silence with his storytelling, jokes and vivacious conversation.


         Scanlan was one of the pioneers of the Weihsien black market. Moved by different motives from those of the "Vulgar Bulgar", he looked on the smuggling of food over the walls as a humanitarian mission, and being celibate he heroically preferred being arrested rather than the father of a small family to be. He became a legendary camp personality. On one occasion he was bringing a basket of eggs over the wall when a guard turned the corner. All the precautions I have previously described must have broken down. Keeping his pressence of mind, Scanlan quietly took down some laundry hanging out to dry on the line, spreading it over the basket. He continued pulling down vests, shirts and socks until the unsuspecting guard had gone again.


         On another occasion he was standing just inside the electrified wires ready to receive some parcels of food when the Japanese guard arrived unexpectedly. He crossed himself, let out some Latin chants which served to warn the Chinese peasant to keep out of sight, and then proceeded to count his rosary. The last thing the guard wanted was to be embroiled in his religious rituals.


         One evening he was caught black marketeering, was arrested and taken towards the guardroom for questioning. Realising that he had a lot of money in his pocket from his nefarious activities, he staged a fall into the public toilet. Out of sight for a moment from his captors, he shed the white gown he had been wearing and with it his funds, and emerged from the W.C. in the black gown he had been wearing under his white one. What was more, he was now surrounded by other internees, also emerging from the toilet. The guards lost sight of him in the crowd with his sudden change of uniform.


         But on a subsequent occasion that elusive character was well and truly arrested. At the guardroom, surrounded by angry guards, his Trappist vows suddenly came into operation again, and all questionings brought no replies. Sentencing him to six months solitary confinement, they put him in a room in the Japanese officers' quarters at the opposite end of the camp.


         The vows of silence were strangely waived once again. As tired Japanese policemen tried to sleep after long hours of vigil in the camp, during the early hours of Scanlan's first night he began chanting loudly in Latin. By daybreak he had been reluctantly released.


         I have left the most outstanding Weihsien personality to the end. Eric Liddell, an educational worker in the London Missionary Society, was in the forefront of the religious activities in the camp. Much of his spare time was spent in coaching maths and science, and organising sports for the youth.


         He was in his early forties, bald, quiet spoken and with a permanent smile. Born at the turn of the century of a missionary family in China, and educated at Eltham College (a school for the sons of L.M.S. missionaries) and Edinburgh University, he had returned as a young man to the land of his birth, first to teach at the Anglo-Chinese college in Tientsin, and latterly, as the Sino-Japanese war was beginning, to do evangelistic work in the L.M.S. stations scattered on the North China plain.


         Eric Liddell was the finest Christian man I have had the privilege of meeting. When given the opportunity to preach at the camp church services his discourses were invariably on either the Sermon on the Mount or St. Paul's Hymn of Love (1 Corinthians 13). His life seemed an embodiment of these two passages.


         One evening he addressed a youth group (which I chaired) on his earlier athletic career. With a quiet humility which deeply impressed us he recounted how he had played rugby and run in the Olympics for Scotland. Two incidents he recalled that evening have stuck in my memory. In 1924 he went to Paris to run the hundred-metre race for his country. But on arrival, scanning the athletic programme, he learnt to his dismay that the race for which he had strenuously practised was to be run on a Sunday. This was contrary to his religious scruples. Nothing and nobody could make him change his mind and agree to run. Thereafter he switched to the 400 metres, which he won with flying colours.


         Years later when teaching in Tientsin he was asked to run at the Dairen Athletic Meet. On arrival in Dairen he found that his 400 metres race was due to be run half an hour before the departure of his boat back to Tientsin. Resourcefully he arranged for a taxi to be waiting at the tape, he would jump into it and be rushed immediately to the docks. On the day of the race all went to schedule, except that after having alighted from the taxi at the docks, he had to jump over numerous crates and packages to reach the wharf. By now the boat was steadily moving out. Liddell was successful in throwing his bags on to the moving ship, took a running leap, just reaching the deck and grabbing firmly to a railing.


         In Weihsien Camp Liddell gave his unqualified support to every worthy cause, religious and social. If there were a call to preach, to coach, to help, to advise, he was there, however busy or tired he might be. Though he spoke of it only to his closest friends, internment for him was a painful separation from his wife and three children who were in Canada, the last child having been born after their separation through the war.


         This daughter he was never to see, for he died of a brain tumour in February 1945. The news of his passing came as a shock to the entire camp community, in which he was greatly beloved and respected. The Edwardian style church was packed for the funeral. Moving tributes to his life were paid by leaders of the camp. When his last mortal remains were borne to the quiet cemetery in the Japanese officers' quarters, I had the privilege of being in the guard of honour with other young people.



End of Chapter.