The village of Homantin lay several miles northeast of Tsimshatsui in a stretch of rural land nestling within gentle hills. The Hakka farmers who lived there were content, the soil fertile and productive, their vegetable plots so symmetrical they looked like quilts spread out in the sunshine. Swathes of greenery swept across the landscape filled with a· wondrous variety of fruit trees, shrubs and tropical flowers, notably soft scented Camellias and red-blood Hibiscus that enhanced the idyll of Homantin.
In the intervening years a scattering of urban houses and flats sprang up in rural Homantin populated by middle-class Macanese families who lived in companionable harmony alongside the local farmers and bought their produce – eggs, vegetables and fruit. However, the exuberant escapades of the children of these families during the school holidays exhausted the farmers' patience. As evening cast its shadow over the land the children crept surreptitiously into their orchards bent heavy with fruit and plucked them. Chins dripping, they scurry away like rats when detected, skilfully avoiding the open pits of night soil in their hasty retreat. The hapless farmers were, of course, no match for the nimble youngsters who subsequently regaled their friends with exaggerated stories of near capture.
This idyllic way of life was shattered when the Japanese attacked Hong Kong on the morning of 8th December, 1941. Out of the clear blue sky aeroplanes swooped down at tree top level raining bombs on Kai Tak Airfield, Kowloon. Japanese planes strafed the Shamshuipo Barracks, the Police Station and nearby residential buildings then continued south towards Hong Kong Island bringing in their wake rampant death and destruction. Thus the citizens of Hong Kong were faced with the grim reality that nothing would ever be the same again; their world as they knew it had disintegrated overnight.
The aftermath of the aerial attack on Hong Kong and Kowloon created monumental chaos. People panicked and within a matter of days, rice, tinned goods and fresh meats and vegetables vanished from stores and market stalls. Residual canned goods could be purchased at extortionate prices.
A deceptive calm descended over the ground floor flat of No.23 Homantin Street. In the hush of dawn the crushing events of 8th December seemed remote and unreal save a lingering sense of unease that hovered like slow death upon this once peaceful and beautiful hamlet of Kowloon.
HettyClick on the SEARCH icon and enter her ID number (10783) to be taken to her personal page had always been an early riser, a routine that stemmed from her convent days as a schoolgirl. She drew back the curtains to let in the morning light and the window reflection of a Flame of the Forest tree in the garden that from February to April proliferated in a canopy of scarlet blossoms on the upper portion of the tree, luscious and magnificent, giving the appearance of a tree afire. Hetty is happiest in the garden. She is a woman who loves the smell of freshly cut grass, the coolness of morning dew, the exquisiteness of asparagus ferns of arching branches.
It promised to be another mild December day. Hetty dressed with care and wore a short sleeve cotton dress of blue and white flowers then added a delicate gold watch that glinted on her wrist. She gazed down at her infant son asleep in his cot and smiled, wistfully stroking his soft cheek so that he stirred and opened his sleepy eyes a second then closed them again.
A serene woman, she took pride in the notion that she had married Arthur, a Marine Engineer, a loving husband and devoted father to their four children: Shirley, twelve; Gerald, eleven; Hilda, eight; and, lastly, Arthur an infant of seven months and a miniature version of his father with wisps of black hair and eyes as dark as iris blossoms.
The family led a charmed life, lived in spacious accommodation, owned a car and employed servants to help with the general running of the household.
Hetty went from room to room to check on her children as they slept. Gerald had his own room. Leaning against one side of the wall was his beloved Phillips bicycle, a present from his father on his tenth birthday. He loved it dearly, and kept it in pristine condition, oiling its chains with meticulous care so that it was always primed for rides to La Salle College at Boundary Street. But those halcyon days were gone with the wind and her son could no longer cycle to school or play with his classmates in the green fields and gentle hills that surrounded Homantin.
It was an extraordinary time, a time of great trepidation especially for tens of thousands of women whose husbands had left home in defence of King and country. Suddenly women from all walks of life were left to fend for themselves and raise their children alone without protection or money. Hetty was among the unfortunate majority, her husband was already at sea in the Merchant Navy at the outbreak of hostilities and for the first time since their marriage she felt fear at his absence.
There was something subtly different about the morning, it wasn't anything palpable she could see or touch, just an echoing silence that pervaded the atmosphere. The absence of familiar sounds, the tinkling of teaspoons against china teacups and the clattering of cutlery, unsettled her. Hetty stepped into the dining room and looked around, no one was about. Passing through the passage to the kitchen conscious of her own footsteps on the polished floor, she was surprised to find the servants' quarters deserted except for a detritus pile of discarded clothing, rusty hairpins, a pair of old clogs and a broken comb with tangled hair clinging to it. She could no longer ignore the gloom that infected her tinged with something very close to fear.
She went in search of Ah Ng, her loyal servant and general factotum, calling out her name. There was no response. An uncomfortable thought crossed her mind. Could it be that Ah Ng had left as well? Her heart beat faster. She re-traced her steps, opened wide the long windows of the dining room that led to the porch and the back garden. In a wedge of light from the half open door of the garden shed she recognized the figure of Ah Ng hunched over something she could not quite discern. With instant recognition a positive sense of relief overwhelmed her. Ah Ng had not left!
She approached her servant "What are you doing?" she asked, her soft voice quivering with curiosity. Ah Ng spoke only Cantonese, the indigenous language of domestic servants in Hong Kong at the time. Being Macanese (Portuguese from Macao), Hetty understood her language well.
"I have wrapped your British Passports inside this oil cloth" Ah Ng replied, lifting a tidy packet tied with string to show Hetty. "I will hide this in the urn of manure," she explained. Then hesitating a moment as if contemplating the wisdom of her next disclosure she continued, "My people they say things not good for the British and soon Japanese they march into Kowloon." The Chinese were better informed than most of the progress of the battle raging in Gin Drinkers' Line in the New Territories. Their ubiquitous "bamboo radio", its ripple effect like stones dropped into a pool spread in ever increasing circles, the news echoing out – word-by-word, minute-by-minute.
"When the Japanese come, and they will come," Ah Ng asserted, "they will search your house. If they find your British passports, you will all be thrown in jail but they will not look in here," she chuckled, pointing to the urn of night soil, the absurdity of its spurious location appealing to her sense of humour.
"Did you know that Ah Mui and Ah Sing have run off? For one terrifying moment I thought you too had abandoned me." Hetty whispered, close to tears.
"No Missy, I will never leave you not while the Master is at sea" Ah Ng replied reassuringly. She was fond of the family. She lived with them, helped run a household, cooked and served them meals, brought up her own child within the shelter of the household and eased the three elder children into sleep in earlier years, she knew the character of all of them as well as their parents.
On 12th December cocooned in the relative safety of her home, Hetty dressed early with the intention of paying her utility bills and queuing outside the bank to draw money.
"Ah Ng, will you look after the children while I go to the bank?" Hetty asked.
Ah Ng stared at her incredulously, the woman must be mad she thought. 'No, no, you mustn't leave the house,' she insisted, 'It is very dangerous outside. The British they run away to Hong Kong side. No more policemen in streets to help you. Looters run around like crazy with choppers and knives. They will surely rob or even kill you. " Hetty noticed the inflection Ah Ng had placed on the word 'Kill,' miming the slitting of her throat and secretly wished she would refrain from theatricalities that frightened her.
"But what will happen to us?" Hetty wanted to know unable to keep the alarm out of her voice. "I must draw money from the bank, stock more food and buy milk powder for the baby," she insisted.
"Have you got any money in the house?" queried Ah Ng.
"Better you no go alone, we go together. We take children with us."
Returning to the house still concerned over the need for extra cash, the women set about preparing the children's breakfast. With the future uncertain and fraught with danger, the thin thread, fragile as gossamer, between mistress and servant disappeared altogether. They were just two women dependent on one another in their struggle for survival.
Whilst discussing ways and means of coping with their dilemma, an ominous sound like the deep rumble of thunder could be heard from the street outside. The noise grew in intensity until it reached a deafening crescendo of wild shouts and screams.
"What's happening?" Hetty turned to Ah Ng trembling. The children, sensing their mother's fear, clung to one another.
Ah Ng was a formidable woman who had lived through difficult times and though somewhat too direct and tactless for a domestic she was, nonetheless, indispensable in a crisis. Her pragmatism and innate commonsense were about to be sorely tested.
Tramping footsteps reverberated along the corridor and Ah Ng knew instinctively that looters had arrived at their doorstep.
Thereafter everything happened in swift rapidity. She shouted to Hetty to take the baby and hide then, grabbing Hetty's handbag from the sideboard in the parlour, she removed the dollar notes and stuffed these into the hidden pocket of her black trousers. Hurriedly, she thrust the handbag under the cushion on the sofa then, composing herself, she smoothed down her white shirt with her hands, patted the bun at the back of her head and gathered the children around her coaxing them not to cry.
The inevitable happened. The front door was in danger of being smashed to pieces under the heavy hammering. Amid the rising hysteria Ah Ng implored the looters not to smash the door down. She was going to unlock it. Immediately she opened the door, she was pushed aside unceremoniously by a band of six looters armed with choppers and knives.
"We want money now!" shouted their leader, an obnoxious swarthy coolie turned looter, his predatory eyes dark as a coal pit and equally as cold.
He began by mouthing obscenities at Ah Ng, sweat shining on his forehead. "Where is your mistress?" he demanded, dark eyes smouldering.
"She is away and I am looking after her children for her," Ah Ng replied calmly.
The silence was absolute and he sensed she was lying which incensed him. In a flash of rage he grabbed a crystal vase on the sideboard and hurled it. Shards of glass rained down the bare wall. This irrational behaviour served somehow to placate his appetite, at least temporarily, from further histrionics. He ordered his men to search the premises. Amid much slamming, opening and shutting of cupboard doors, broom cupboards, and other possible refuges, they soon found Hetty cowering in the walk-in larder clutching her baby. Two looters manhandled her into the sitting room. At the sight of their mother the children started wailing partly in relief but mainly in fear.
Time was optimum for the looter who made no attempt to conceal his impatience. Suddenly he seized Shirley from behind in a tight grip around her neck brandishing a chopper to her throat, his breath stank. Shirley swallowed hard and shut her eyes.
"Either you show me some money or I'll slit her throat." He threatened the women menacingly.
Ah Ng watched helplessly enduring with cold rage the bullying tactics of this menacing looter. On the verge of answering belligerently, she paused. She noticed the abject terror in her mistress's eyes and with a resigned gesture pointed to the sofa. The looter tossed the cushion aside, rummaged through the leather handbag and withdrew a stack of envelopes. He ripped open the envelopes; inside were twenty-dollar notes reserved for utility bills. Pocketing the money, he tossed the envelopes in the air, littering the floor. "More," he roared, "you must have more!"
"Get out that's all we have," Ah Ng shouted back defiantly unable to restrain her pent-up anger any longer. She knew, from his accent, that they came from the same village across the border and she reminded him of this fact amid a torrent of vituperation.
For a second the looter stood stock-still stunned by the audacity of her tirade then, tilting his head back, he laughed long and hard, he liked a woman with spirit and had met his match in Ah Ng.
However, the looter had more pressing business at hand, the business of robbing defenceless civilians. Satisfied that there was no more cash or jewellery in the flat, he turned to Hetty and was about to snatch the gold watch from her wrist when he met Ah Ng's contemptuous gaze and stopped. The looters finally left en masse slamming the door behind them, their receding voices raving and ranting in the distance.
Their sudden encounter with the looters left Hetty so traumatised that she did not have the strength to hold the baby properly as he fidgeted and whimpered like a puppy. She handed him to Ah Ng and groped unseeing for the sofa, her legs beginning to give way. Slowly, she sank into the solace of the sofa. It was then the silent tears cascaded down her cheeks, trickling on to the hands that were now trembling in her lap. Sensible for her young years, Shirley handed her mother a handkerchief and held her tightly.
Several hours later with calm restored, Hetty telephoned her longstanding friend, Mrs. Camilla BrownClick on the SEARCH icon and enter her ID number (38101) to be taken to her personal page<, and recounted the family's harrowing experience. Camilla told her to pack a suitcase, leave the flat immediately, and proceed to the residence of the Portuguese Consul, Mr. Francisco SoaresClick on the SEARCH icon and enter his ID number (17445) to be taken to his personal page at No.2 Liberty Avenue. She explained that scores of women in similar circumstances had abandoned their houses and taken refuge in the Consul's house on the premise of safety in numbers. Hetty thanked Camilla and began packing immediately.
In the bedroom the two women attempted to deal with the bewildering and difficult task of working out what to take. They spread the bed linen on the floor and selected a few pieces of essential clothing tossing these into the sheet then, gathering the four corners, tied a knot at the top to secure the clothes inside. Hetty retrieved the family's passports and collected her jewellery that lay hidden in the false bottom drawer of the dresser in her bedroom and vacated the flat forthwith.
Hefting the cloth bundle over her shoulder like a dispirited refugee, Ah Ng accompanied Hetty and her children to the Consul's house situated in a prestigious area of substantial detached houses. Mr. Soares, the Portuguese Consul, welcomed them although the extreme weariness in Hetty's eyes did not escape his notice. They were shown into a large reception room that held an inordinate number of men, women and children.
Some people were sitting or lying on mattresses that skirted the edge of the room and others were chatting in small groups out on the veranda. Reluctantly, she released Ah Ng's hand turning her face away from her gaze, tears very near the surface. Inherently taciturn, shy and diffident, the prospect of living in propinquity with complete strangers for an indeterminate period filled her with dread. Ah Ng promised she would visit soon then disconsolately left without a backward glance.
Hetty's encounter with the harsh reality of communal living began on her first evening in the Consul's house. Her children slept in their clothes over mattresses on the floor. Food, a vital commodity in wartime, was rationed carefully. The children were hungry despite having eaten their quota of horsemeat in a bowl of soggy rice only a few hours earlier. Little Arthur, normally a placid baby, began to cry relentlessly.
From somewhere in the vast communal room a repugnant Macanese young man, who should have known better, shouted: "Can't you keep that brat quiet?" his strident voice thundered across the room.
Loath to draw attention to herself in a place where people live in the midst of fear, where conflict becomes a part of everyday living, Hetty gathered little Arthur in her arms and ran towards the gazebo in the back garden. It was frightening. There seemed no way of quelling his pathetic crying. She paced up and down the garden path rocking him in her arms until he fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.
The light was changing: evening deepened and darkness filled the garden. A soft wind swayed the aerial roots from the trunk and branches of the banyan tree. In the gazebo Hetty sat motionless staring vacantly into the darkness with little Arthur fast asleep in her arms.
Alone with her thoughts she felt her heart grow heavy. She wondered whether she would ever see her husband again. She needed to share her worries with him but he was not there. She tried to imagine what she would do if he did not come back. Perhaps she could get a job teaching, but the main thrust was not about looking after herself and the children it was the notion of being without Van – her pet name for her husband – indefinitely. She could not live without him.
The following afternoon when Ah Ng came to visit she was appalled at the dishevelled appearance of her mistress. Hetty had obviously been up all night. The distressing events of the night before compelled the women to come to grips with this untenable situation. They decided that Ah Ng would take the baby to her modest but fortified hut at the foothills of Lion's Rock and keep him overnight with her, returning him to his mother the next day. This unorthodox arrangement seemed, for the interim at least, the best solution open to the women.
Towards the end of January the temperature plunged. On a cold, bright morning Hetty was in the garden hanging out the washing and it was only when she bent to retrieve a fallen peg that she noticed with alarm her handbag on the ground beside her had vanished along with her money and jewellery. She turned around to see if there was anybody about but there was no one in sight. An anguished cry stuck in her throat. The culmination of suffering since the outbreak of war was a lesson in values for Hetty. She learned that she could do without a fine flat, servants, a car, and good food, even un-ironed clothes. With everything she possessed ruthlessly swept away she realised that she could not give way to despair if she wished her children to survive this terrible war.
The Consul was a compassionate man with an impressive ability to master details. It was not long before he heard of the theft of Hetty's handbag and bristled with indignation. He had the deepest respect for this slim, attractive woman, soft spoken and uncomplaining. A former schoolteacher she had a perceptive mind and an unquenchable zest for hard work. He would try his utmost to help her.
One morning he sent for her and when she entered his spacious oak-panelled office he graciously offered her a chair opposite his exquisite rosewood desk. He began: 'Mrs. van Langenberg how would you like to live in Macao? I can guarantee safe passage for you and your children.'
The question startled Hetty, her hands trembled slightly and she gripped the edge of her chair. 'But I haven't any money and what money I had has been stolen from me,' she protested. 'I know of no one in Macao who would provide for my family. Here in your house we feel safe and protected. If I have offended you in anyway or contravened the rules of the house I will make amends" she apologised, the implications of. his question loosening her normally succinct tongue.
The Consul shook his head in astonishment. This was not the reaction he had expected. He saw with amazement and embarrassment that the poor woman was close to tears and had completely misunderstood his kind intention. "No, no, my dear, you misunderstand me' he said, half rising from his seat. 'This offer is for your consideration' he said reassuringly then sat back in his leather chair. 'The women who live here choose to stay because they have husbands or sons interned in Shamshuipo Camp whereas you are free of such commitment. Hong Kong has become an extremely dangerous place to live and I'm not sure how long I can continue to protect the people under my roof," he said tentatively, voicing his thoughts. He paused a moment, then continued: "Every day waves of our people are fleeing Hong Kong for the safety of Macao. The Portuguese Governor is sympathetic to our plight and regards us as one of his own. Your children will be sheltered and looked after by the Portuguese government in Macao. The British Consul resident in Macao, Mr. John Reeve, has access to overseas news and will be better placed to make enquiries of your husband's whereabouts."
Hetty's tension eased. She felt calmer now and accepted Mr. Soares's offer with alacrity, grateful for his kindness. It was with surprise and delight when, on 6th February 1942, she and her four children were accompanied by staff of the Portuguese Consul to the Ferry Boat, The 'Fat Shan,' bound for Macao. Her relief was marred by the necessity of separation from her loyal servant. But Ah Ng had family responsibilities of her own to contend with, a daughter of eight and an elderly mother. However, Hetty clung to the unfaltering belief that somehow, somewhere, they would meet again.
Macao, peaceful and tranquil, was the antithesis of Hong Kong under Japanese domination. Food rations in the refugee Centre were adequate albeit not plentiful. No one starved furthermore it was safe to walk the streets and stroll along Praia Grande in the cool evening air without fear. In answer to her prayers, fresh news soon arrived from the British Consul. Her husband was alive and well. In fact he was commissioned to the rank of Sub Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve that entitled her to a commensurate rise in subsidy. Thus Hetty lived through three long and lonely summers in Macao and raised her four children in relative peace along with other displaced families in a refugee centre.
However, by this time, unconfirmed reports of an allied victory refreshing as the first breath of spring swept over Macao's red roofed houses, cobbled streets and ancient churches. In 1945 Japan capitulated.
One fine day in 1946 a stalwart officer in full British naval uniform arrived in Macao calling at No.16 Rua do Formosa to claim his family. His son Gerald, now 15, glowed with a pride he had never felt before and it seemed as if the buttons of his new shirt (cut out from a tablecloth) would pop, which in reality was not possible because in four years he had grown taller but, at the same time, skinnier and more dishevelled than ever. He held on tightly to his father's hand. It was the proudest day of his young life.
Looking down at him with a smile his father said: "Son, let's go home."
In peacetime Hetty's thoughts strayed variously with a sense of remembered pleasure to the serenity of this Portuguese enclave, possessed of an old world charm and steeped in centuries of tradition that faded with the passing years, never to be recaptured.