Category: China

Memories of my father as a POW in Hong Kong

Memories of my father as a POW in Hong Kong

Hilary’s father (Brian Baxter) was a Prisoner of War (POW) in Hong Kong during the Second World War. In the planning of this gap year we included Hong Kong so that IMG_9886Hilary could visit for the first time where he was held captive and where so many of his colleagues died. Here she writes about this experience…

As I knelt by the Memorial Plaque, I reflected on what might have been. If my father had succumbed in the POW camps to starvation or malaria, I wouldn’t be here today.

First some background.

On 8th December 1941, the Japanese launched their invasion of Hong Kong. My father, who had been working as a civilian in Hong Kong since 1937, volunteered to join the Hong Kong Dockyard Defence Corps along with some 180 other civilians. They had just one afternoon of training on how to use a gun.

The fighting was swift and savage with heavy casualties on both sides; the Allies losing 6,113 men and women. The Japanese made three offers of surrender terms, the third of which, to avoid further casualties, was accepted on Christmas Day 1941.

So my father was put in two POW camps for the next 3 years and 8 months of his life.

Dr Tony Banham is the acknowledged expert on the battle of Hong Kong and the experiences of the POWs, and author of three excellent books: “Not the Slightest Chance”, “We Shall Suffer There” and “The Sinking of the Lisbon Maru”. Luckily, we were able to meet up with him, and his work superimposing the old 1945 camp layouts on the landscape of today, (see took us to where my father’s two camps, Sham Shui Po and Argyle Street, actually were.

Hilary chatting with Tony Banham in our hotel

Today nothing remains of the camps, but there is a poignant memorial plaque at Sham Shui Po Park in Kowloon. As I knelt beside it for a photo, it was moving knowing that my dad had been here, suffered and survived.

Dad was always quite positive about his POW experience, since he said that although they suffered starvation and neglect, and 20% of the prisoners died, they weren’t abused like those in the Japanese POW camps where the death rate was much higher.

Since my father was one of the youngest (and presumably fittest) civilians, my key question for Tony was “Why hadn’t my father been sent to a Japanese POW camp?”. Tony said that the Japanese had a consistent selection process, which was simply to choose those who were the fittest on the day. My father had ongoing bouts of malaria, so presumably he must have been suffering from this when the six selection times came, possibly saving his life.

Tony has since let me know that Dad, after liberation, sailed home to the UK on the USS Joseph Dickman, which left from Manila and came into San Francisco in October 1945. He then took a train across the Canadian Rockies, which Dad told me was the journey of a lifetime, before a ship back to Southampton.

Suffice to say my father, who died 14 years ago, never held anything against the Japanese. He saw the end of the Pacific War when over 10,500 of his comrades died from fighting or disease, and he went on to make a real success of his life in naval architecture.

We also visited the beautiful war memorial and cemetery in Stanley on the southern end of Hong Kong island. Many of the gravestones were hand chiselled by other POWs
Travel Tips 15 – Sending postcards

Travel Tips 15 – Sending postcards

We’ve been staying in touch with family and friends using a combination of Facebook, FaceTime, What’s App, Skype, Google Hangout and email. But it’s the regular postcards to our children that’s given us the most fun, and got the best responses.

The montage above shows us posting them at the summit of Mount Fuji, the top of Shanghai Tower, and just now in Hong Kong.

Perhaps it’s because the young don’t send and receive postcards anymore. Or the realisation that this little bit of card has physically travelled around the world.

They are: hand-picked from a tourist shop, covered with our handwriting, touched by others and machines on route, transported in postal sacks on several planes, sorted at various post offices, walked around on foot, and then actually posted through their letterboxes.

To our kids that’s probably more amazing than an email or an Instagram.

Our son is putting them all in a frame to hang on his wall, and our daughter has them pride of place in her bedroom.

This is one of our occasional tips for middle aged gap year travellers. To see the others, click below on the link – Travel Tips

At the Happy Valley races

At the Happy Valley races

Right in the centre of Hong Kong island lies the world’s most unlikely racecourse. Surrounded by massive skyscrapers on all sides, it’s impossible to believe there is a racetrack there until you pass through the turnstiles.

Thousands descend on the Happy Valley Racecourse every Wednesday night, and being keen racegoers in the UK, we decided to join them. It was a great evening of six races on grass all between six and ten furlongs.


Given the Anglo-centric nature of all the race meetings we watch, it was slightly incongruous to see Chinese jockeys and owners and to hear a Chinese commentary. But it was a pleasant surprise to be watching racing wearing shorts, rather than shivering at an English national hunt meeting. Caucasians comprised perhaps 10% of the audience but drank much more than 10% of the alcohol.

It’s all about betting, apparently an unbelievable amount of money. We were told that more money is bet at Happy Valley Racecourse in one evening than in the entire UK Flat Race season, and that the Hong Kong Jockey Club contributes 12% to Hong Kong’s entire GDP. So it’s easy to see why the racecourse still exists.

We couldn’t fathom the betting system (which is centralised like the Tote in the UK) and therefore failed to win any takings to off-set the gap year. Though we did enjoy trying to predict who would win from studying the super glossy race horses in the paddock. Hilary lost that contest to Roger.


High-rise middle classes

High-rise middle classes

In London, high rise living is polarised between the rich elite and the poor underclass. Between the shiny new apartments at Nine Elms and the many run-down “Grenfell Towers”.

In China, things are so different. It’s the ordinary urban dweller who lives 22 stories up, in a small two bedroom flat with a narrow corridor, on a massive new housing estate.

With Hilary revisiting sites in the centre, Roger travelled on the Hong Kong metro to the eastern suburb of Hang Hau, to explore just one estate and take some pictures. He wanted to see how hundreds of millions of Chinese live.

Everywhere, including the lifts was impeccably clean, with no graffiti anywhere. These are tower blocks with security and concierge services, attractive water features, children’s playgrounds and next door a vibrant shopping mall.

In Britain the landscape of the middle class is leafy and semi-detached – in China it’s tall, concrete and utilitarian.


Into Hong Kong

Into Hong Kong

We took the train from Guangzhou direct to Kowloon, then the ferry to Hong Kong Island.

20 years after Britain handed back the colony, it still feels a bit like a border crossing: you get stamped out of China at Guangzhou, Facebook can be accessed again, and the massive skyscrapers of Shenzhen give way to the rural remoteness of the new territories.

Currently, the journey takes 1 hour 53 minutes, in a year or two, when the high-speed link opens, it will come down to just 43 minutes. See this as a metaphor for the creeping “mainlandisation” of Hong Kong.

After five previous massive Chinese cities, we hoped Hong Kong would feel different, but unfortunately it didn’t. In fact, we found ourselves simply wanting to escape the ubiquitous noise and crowds, and everything we liked about Hong Kong was a reflection of its past: the Star Ferries, the Lugard Road walk around Victoria Peak, the quietness of Stanley Beach, and sitting on the top deck of a historic “ding-dong” tram.

When we leave Hong Kong, we’ll miss the Chinese people, but we are in need of some peace and quiet.

The view of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak
Stanley Beach on the south side of Hong Kong island
One of our views from the Star Ferry crossing the harbour
Reflections on China

Reflections on China

Leaving the Chinese mainland firewall behind, here are some thoughts on what we saw and learnt during our 16 days in the cities of south east China.

  • A brief chat with a woman in Hangzhou revealed that everyone is worried about going against the “system”. Keeping your head down and not stepping out of line is the only way to live here. A book Hilary read whilst out here (Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China by Alec Ash), suggests “Western democracy wouldn’t work in China, it is too messy”. We can say China isn’t democratic, but maybe, in the West, we spend too much time and energy debating stuff we ourselves have no power over; the illusion of democracy.
  • In a country of 1.3 billion people, the “system” is creating amazing change. Everything here seems to happen faster; the scale and growth of the new cities, the building of the high-speed train network etc. It’s like everything happens here four times faster than in the west, and a generation lasts only five years. And ironically our Western short-term thinking contrasts with the Chinese government’s planning mindset of decades and centuries.
  • China has seen the largest internal migration in human history with millions of young adults moving from the countryside to the cities over the last thirty years. Two phrases linked to escalating property prices have become common parlance, ant tribes: those who commute long distances and rat tribes: those who live underground in the big cities.
  • The “system” doesn’t get in the way of being an independent traveller. We could go anywhere we pleased, never felt targeted or watched, and could dress and behave as we wanted. However, it would have been a very different story if we stood on the street corner shouting “Down with the Party”.
How the Chinese promote their socialism – difficult to argue with these values, but what about the reality
  • The reality in China is often deeply at odds with conventional wisdom. The Chinese are renowned for their hard work ethic, but the younger generation of “mini emperors” are condemned for laziness and arrogance, we saw plenty of illustrations of this on the buses and metro. Although the “system” is the religion, and millennials are meant to be very materialistic, there’s a lot of  interest in Buddhism, which is “approved” by the current state as it reinforces China’s cultural heritage. And by the way, Christianity is the fastest growing religion here.
  • There appears to have been a huge change in public standards since Hilary’s last visit here in 2010. Then, it was all spitting and smoking and the person who shouted loudest got the seat/ticket/table. Now people are more considerate, especially of foreigners. We were given seats on several tubes, specially waited on at restaurants and one woman even bought train tickets for us when we had no change. We learnt that the Shanghai authorities had issued a guide to all its citizens on how to behave in public.
  • There was ready access to the internet at our hostels and cheap hotels. But whilst we could see the BBC and Fox News, The New York Times was blocked. Likewise, Facebook, Twitter and Google search were offline. But we were fine with Yahoo search (remember that) and What’s app. One interesting aside, at least to Roger, was the personalisation of Apple maps here, showing China’s ownership of the South China Seas.
Faces of the future

Faces of the future

What do we see in these pictures? Young children regimented in the morning heat, being prepared for “the system”. Or, a focus on equality, discipline and ambition, so that opportunities for all are realised.

Much of what Roger saw at the assembly would mirror a school assembly in the west: certificates awarded for outstanding work, group singing, a talk by the head. Yet, there was an unmissable Chinese twist. For instance, even though many of the children looked close to passing out in the heat, teachers walked between the ranks admonishing any child not standing to attention with arms straight down at the side.

But China is in the business of winning. Winning the economic trade war. Winning the future of technology. And winning the fight against rural poverty affecting so many. It sees education as a way to propel the future of the country, rather than shape the lives of individuals. This seems to us the fundamental difference.

And one final thing to point out. In China, the school day starts early and ends late. The buses and pavements are full of uniformed kids at 7.00am and 6.00pm.

If you have children of school age, remember these pictures. The kids in them will probably be in the same queue as yours for the new global jobs.


Travel Tips 14 – Photography on an iPhone or iPad

Travel Tips 14 – Photography on an iPhone or iPad

Roger is a keen photographer, knowing all about lovely cameras and lenses. But, he decided it just didn’t make sense to take a cumbersome SLR camera around the world, to some fairly high-crime areas.

“Of course it would be brilliant to have a Canon or Nikon with me, but using an iPad still allows me to get some great pictures whilst being much more convenient to pack” says Roger. “The iPad camera is excellent (but it would be better to have the iPhone X announced yesterday!), the screen big enough to really examine the image, the picture enhancing software works well, and of course the files are all ready for uploading onto the blog. But I recognise the iPhone or iPad is not for everyone, especially if you need lenses to get close to nature”.

Here are Roger’s technical tips for using the iPhone or iPad as your gap year camera:

  • Make getting to the camera quick. Adjust the settings so that, even when locked, a quick left swipe, will bring up the camera.
  • Get in the habit of manually focusing. Simply touch the screen at the place you want to be sharp. Also, hold down for a second or two to create depth of field effects on close ups.
  • Always adjust the exposure before you take a shot. After setting the focus, drag the sun icon up or down to achieve the right overall exposure.
  • On the iPad, accept that you can’t use the zoom too much. If you do, the quality of the final image just isn’t good enough. So see this as a challenge to get closer to subjects. On the latest iPhones you have the advantage of the dual lens.
  • Use the panoramic feature to give yourself a wider angle shot. If you hold the iPhone or iPad vertical, and just perform a smallish panorama, you effectively have a lovely wide-angle lens.
  • Always consider reframing your images. Invariably, cropping a bit to the 16:9 format that comes with the software makes for a cleaner shot.
Taken on the gap year – some of Roger’s favourite shots

And a couple of thoughts about file management:

  • Edit as you go along. If you are not ruthless, over the course of the gap year, you will end up with far too many photographs to handle. So, at the end of every day, I tend to have a session deleting duplicate or poor shots.
  • Think about back-ups. The great thing about the iPad/iPhone is that if you have an iCloud account, all images are automatically (when on wifi and charging) uploaded as a back-up. But also use a Sandisc connect drive, available from any Apple shop, to get an additional USB back-up which you can post home.

This is one of our occasional tips for middle aged gap year travellers. To see the others, click below on the link – Travel Tips

Anyone for table tennis?

Anyone for table tennis?

Walking in the main park in Guangzhou, we came across a table tennis area and locals playing with skill and fanaticism.

And they were very good, hitting the ball from several yards behind the table. Remember, at the Beijing, London and Rio Olympics, China won all the possible gold medals, so perhaps it’s in their blood.

Before we knew it, the players held out bats in our direction – we were being invited to join in. This was a bit worrying. Although we regularly played each other in our back garden, we hadn’t played for nearly a year.

At first, Roger couldn’t get a serve over the net, and couldn’t handle the devilish spin, but eventually played quite respectably. Meanwhile, Hilary’s initial opponent was content to just keep firing shots back rather than going for the big win.

We played several different players, but after an hour it was time to leave, since we were both dripping with sweat and incapable of playing on. Our guests disguised their disappointment in our playing skills with charm and smiles.

Such an enjoyable experience and one of those travelling moments when people from different backgrounds and continents, despite having no language in common, can be united by the love of a common pursuit.



The amazing Canton Tower and the 7th tallest building in the world make a statement. Today, just like the last 2200 years, Guangzhou is a city built on global trade.

This historical terminus of the maritime Silk Road is the 7th biggest city in the world with a population of 14m. And the River Pearl Delta’s greater conurbation of 57m people is the Factory of the World. Wikipedia tells us, nearly 5% of the world’s goods were produced in here in 2001.

We enjoyed walking around Shamian Island, the old British trading enclave. This was acquired by Britain after the Second Opium war in 1856 and it wasn’t until the Japanese surrendered in 1945 that China got it back. Most tourists seem to get excited about the Starbucks there
Elsewhere the city resembled much of what we have seen elsewhere. Whole blocks of third-world housing and street markets, next to completely redeveloped blocks with upscale shopping malls and tall apartment buildings
We’re not above doing childish things. Whilst most of the other boats in Yuexiu Park were skippered by tiny Chinese children, Hilary took the wheel of ours. No muscle power needed, we paid ¥10 extra to get an electric powered one and enjoyed trying to navigate around the children