"Shit!" Reggie swore aloud. "What kind of crap place is this?" He gazed in disgust at the devastation around him. In peacetime Shamshuipo Barracks provided amenable accommodation for thousands of men particularly from The 1st Battalion, the Middlesex Regiment. More comfortable than most barracks, it was well equipped with neat rows of beds, proper toilets and hot and cold jets of water from the showers. Now, all that met his incredulous eyes was an empty shell of a hut that was to be his home for an indeterminate period. The compound was a shambles of shattered glass, stones, nails, grit and dust. Looters had stripped every hut bare of furniture, windows, doors, floorboards and hygiene facilities. Japanese air force and artillery had left potholes and craters in the flat sprawling area that was Shamshuipo Barracks.
God, but Reggie was tired! Exhaustion drained him like a wrung towel - every fibre of his body ached - bones, muscles and sinews. He was cold, he was hungry and most of all he was angry. He was incensed with the British for believing they could engage in battle with outmoded weaponry and a contingent of 14 thousand men against an overwhelming force of 30 thousand battle-seasoned Japanese troops. It was a slaughter, an absolute, bloody slaughter! He remembered the words of the kind limey corporal with a cockney accent who shared his ration of 'Spam' with him. He assured Reggie, his breath steaming before him in the cold wintry sunshine, that the Japanese were no match against the British. "How can these buggers shoot straight with slit eyes as thin as a pencil line?' he queried. Poor bastard! He soon got a sniper's bullet right between the eyes. Reggie crossed himself just thinking about him and the confusion on 25th December when the order was given to capitulate to the nearest Japanese commander, how units were intermingled: Portuguese volunteers fighting alongside Middlesex, Royal Scots, gunners, Canadians and Royal Engineers flung together in desperate comradeship.
Although Hong Kong had officially capitulated on Christmas Day 1941, the rattle of machine-gun and isolated rifle shots could still be heard. The sounds emanated from isolated bodies of men who had not received the order to surrender and, in the absence of instructions to do anything else but fight, they were doing just that. Throughout the fighting in Gin Drinkers' Line in the New Territories and the subsequent withdrawal of British troops to Hong Kong Island, it was apparent from the start that the soldiers were outnumbered and outgunned by the most lethal artillery resulting in a devastating loss of lives.
Reggie himself would admit to being neither tall nor particularly handsome or even athletic. In truth what he lacked in looks he more than compensated for in wit, charm and ingenuity. The humiliating 15-mile ordeal of the survivors of the conflict marching wearily and out of step that began at North Point in Hong Kong Island, across the harbour by ferryboat to Kowloon, along Nathan Road until the final destination at Shamshuipo Barracks, filled him with dread. One battle had ended and another was about to begin. Reggie was beset by anxiety of what captivity threatened. He had heard of atrocities committed on defenceless soldiers and knew with absolute certainty that his life was about to change dramatically that for him death was preferable to incarceration in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.
Reggie's motherClick on the SEARCH icon and enter her ID number (274) to be taken to her personal page died young and this loss had a lasting effect on his life. He learned at an early age the value of money, how to preserve and keep it safe at all times and this practice augured well for him in wartime. He guarded his possessions - money and cigarettes - with his life. By force of habit he seldom ventured anywhere without cash and wartime was no exception. Shortly before capitulation he had hidden his Hong Kong dollar notes tucked inside his thick khaki socks to evade confiscation by the Japanese.
The cigarette consumption of a soldier has always been prodigious - crouching in a pillbox under bombardment he wanted a cigarette; waiting to go into the attack with bayonet fixed he wanted a cigarette; immediately after being wounded he wanted a cigarette and he wanted another before he died. In the agonising hours waiting for an attack from the enemy, cigarettes were consumed at an alarming rate and became more precious than currency.
Among civilian spectators that lined Nathan Road to observe the parade of defeated soldiers the Tung Cheong crowd watched subdued as if they were witnessing a funeral procession instead of the incarceration of their loved ones. Pa Vio and CarlinhoClick on the SEARCH icon and enter his ID number (30116) to be taken to his personal page risked brutal retaliation from the Japanese guards as they tossed packets of cigarettes - Players, Gold Flake and Capstan - to the Portuguese contingent of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps as they tramped past Nathan Hotel and the Majestic Cinema along Nathan Road. Suddenly, the women folk, wives and mothers in bold desperation called out the names of the Portuguese men they recognised as they marched past.
Although the volunteers were tired, hungry, blistered, thirsty and filthy, the officers of their unit strove to maintain march discipline for the benefit of their loved ones watching and shouted out to their men 'Left-ri, Left-ri ... swing your bloody arms ... .look up 'Eyes left.' Drawing on some deep inner reserve, the Portuguese volunteers mustered the strength to respond to the command, marching with adrenaline-fired energy whilst fighting back tears of shame and sorrow.
Reggie settled down for the night in his greatcoat, brushing aside debris to make room on the damp cement floor. He had been trudging all day and at this point exhaustion overtook him and in an instant he fell asleep, impervious to the anguished groaning and sobbing around him. As dawn broke the sound of a discordant bugle woke him and he reacted with a string of obscenities at the premature disturbance of his slumber. "What the devil is wrong with these crazy Japs?" he thought, angrily. He turned over but soon got a boot in his side that caused him to double up in pain. The boot belonged to the Japanese Orderly Sergeant holding a duty roster for the working party in his hand. Apparently, the camp time was set at Tokyo time and with Tokyo, being two hours ahead of Hong Kong this meant that the prisoners would have to parade at 5 o'clock each morning.
The head count was chaotic, for the Japanese as for their prisoners, both parties were dazed from the arduous march the previous day to function properly. The Japanese had a heavy task ahead of them. There were over 6000 men to feed in a camp lacking the most basic amenities. Food provided by the Japanese consisted of a meagre diet of boiled rice with a sliver of spring onion floating in tepid water. Only the spring onion in that miserable swill appeared edible.
However, for the moment, Reggie was too engrossed in surveying the terrain to worry about unpalatable diet. His discerning eyes slowly scanned the expanse of the camp that reminded him of an airport, vast and sprawling. The Hankow and Nanking Barracks, were the official names of the two sides of Shamshuipo Camp and were separated by a tarmac road at the end of which stood a large building that served as a lecture hall, chapel and gymnasium. Consequently, the former British military barracks with hundreds of scattered brick huts conveniently provided the Japanese with a ready-made prisoner-of-war camp albeit in a state of collapse. The camp adjoined the main road separated by ramshackle barbed wire fences wherein large holes gaped forlorn and where in places barbed wire clung limply to sagging posts. There were sections that had collapsed and lay flat on the ground indicating that at some stage fleeing looters had trampled over them.
All the while that Reggie was hammering nails into fence poles in his first week in captivity, his thoughts turned anxiously to escape to the exclusion of everything else. His devious intention, and the dangers it posed, instilled in him a habit of watchfulness. He thought of one or two places where escape might be possible. Time was of the essence, he needed to get his act together and soon while security was lapse and certainly before the Japanese began to recognise faces and some semblance of law and order prevailed. He also realised that it was only a matter of weeks before the barbed wire fence would be rebuilt.
Providential inspiration stared him in the face. A horde of hawkers, tolerated by the Japanese because of many closure of shops, squatted near the fence enticing prisoners to buy their homemade buns at outrageously inflated prices. In time the prisoners nicknamed the buns 'dysentery buns.' An opportunistic hawker, his shallow wicker basket piled high with sticky buns, sidled close to Reggie and tried to catch his eye. 'Could the man be bribed?' Reggie wondered. He tried to think of some way to phrase his offer. In the pocket of his Khaki shorts, he had a wad of notes given to him by his aunt before he left for battle. He learned at an early age to preserve and keep money safe at all times and seldom ventured anywhere without cash; wartime was no exception. Shortly before surrender, he had kept his Hong Kong dollar notes tucked inside his thick Khaki socks to evade confiscation by the Japanese.
The Chinese are renowned for their inscrutability. Even a lowly hawker might be offended by a crass proposal and make trouble. He knew he could not afford to waste any more time pondering about his approach. He had to speak now. "Will you sell me your clothes?" he asked in fluent Cantonese. "Tiu!" the hawker swore. "Are you crazy or what?" He retorted bristling with indignation.
I'll give you HK$100 for them." Reggie interposed immediately.
The hawker stared at Reggie for a moment and scrutinised his features for a trace of sincerity. Satisfied, his eyes lit up and he smiled with pleasure. Here was the opportunity to make some easy money. The prisoner, who spoke to him with nonchalant indifference, did not fool him in the least. There was a hint of fear in his eyes. However, for some reason the hawker felt a bonding with this unfortunate prisoner who looked Chinese and spoke their language like a native, yet he recognised a Macanese when he saw one.
The hawker was born in Hong Kong. His father was a coolie who had spent most of his miserable life eking out a living pulling passengers ensconced at the back seat of his rickshaw, sweating and straining his heart muscles in all kinds of weather. And yes, he could distinguish the subtle differences between a Macanese and a Chinese. The former lived in proper houses and were conversant in English and Cantonese giving them an edge over the hardworking Chinese. The Macanese were a mixture of Portuguese and Chinese through generations of intermarriage and their ancestry could be traced back to the Portuguese settlers who were the only Europeans, barring the British, indigenous to Hong Kong.
Without hesitation, Reggie dug into the pocket of his Khaki shorts and showed him the dollar notes in his hand. The hawker looked about warily, 'The man's mad,' he thought. Suddenly, like a light bulb switched on in a darkened room, he understood why the prisoner wanted his clothes. Then making light of the situation he chortled: 'For that kind of money you can have my underpants as well.' Turning to a fellow hawker nearby he asked him to mind his basket for him then rose from his squat wooden stool and left. The suspense was unbearable. It was the longest twenty minutes of Reggie's entire life. The hawker reappeared with a kung yun sam (peasants' clothing) neatly folded and slipped the attire under a gap at the bottom of the fence. Reggie was elated. He paid the hawker, thanked him profusely and smiled to himself as he sauntered back to his hut with his precious acquisition wedged under his arm. He did not hear the parting shot of "Good luck" from the hawker.
Sometime before midday the following morning, the sun shone upon a restless crowd. The anxious relatives of the prisoners surged towards the perimeter fence in order to catch a better glimpse of their loved ones on the inside but were shouted at and prodded by Japanese guards armed with bayonets, to back away. Reggie's eyes misted as they fell upon his spinster auntClick on the SEARCH icon and enter her ID number (285) to be taken to her personal page craning her neck among the jostling throng for a glimpse of him.
This plain, diminutive woman raised him and his siblings when their mother died and his father left Hong Kong to join the Merchant Navy. She had walked five miles for this moment. He dispelled all thoughts of her and concentrated on the immediacy of escape. Opportunity and time were of the essence. It was now or never.
On the lookout for a familiar face in the crowd he spotted his former neighbour, Henry OsmundClick on the SEARCH icon and enter his ID number (30122) to be taken to his personal page, the 'Loner' of Tung Cheong building standing solitarily across the street, arms crossed, watching the chaotic scene with a bemused air of detachment. Sweating and trembling, Reggie began to wave his arms frantically and shouted to attract his attention. Recognition when it came was instantaneous. Henry responded by shaking his head, he felt perilously conspicuous in his isolation. However, there was something desperate and pathetic in that strained dry voice, something that made him hesitate for a moment; he changed his mind and advanced, his alert eyes never leaving sight of the Japanese guards to his left. Reggie cried out in patuá (a hybrid dialect peculiar to the Macanese) that he needed help to further distract the Japanese. Henry nodded in comprehension.
Breathing hard, Reggie made a mad dash into his hut. It was deserted. He slipped into his Kung Yun Sam and ran back to where Henry stood waiting. The transformation was incredible. Henry could not conceal his amusement for Reggie in Chinese work clothes, his black hair smoothed back, bright shiny eyes, tawny skin and small stature, was the personification of a Chinese hawker. Several fellow prisoners of war, informed in advance of his intended escape, milled around keeping a vigilant eye out for the Japanese guards. To his immense relief he noticed that Henry had organised two groups of men, Reggie's brother, PacoClick on the SEARCH icon and enter his ID number (3287) to be taken to his personal page, among them. One group proceeded to push and shove and as the crowd swelled, the ebb and flow of the masses created a commotion verging on chaos. The other group stepped back at a discreet distance and waited with Henry.
Reggie pointed to a spot about a hundred yards ahead where thick clumps of bushes partially obscured an area he knew to be isolated. He had chosen his ground well; those precious hours of observation and timing now presented him with opportunity. At the all clear from his comrades, Reggie started to run trying desperately to keep pace with Henry and his friends on the outside. However, exhaustion and malnutrition had taken their toll. Midway, he stopped abruptly and bent over, hands on his knees, gasping for breath. "Jesus!" Henry cried aloud, stunned by this unexpected tum of events. He cursed in frustration. Suddenly, Reggie's irrepressible sense of humour got the better of him he started laughing, a great heaving, snorting laugh. He could not contain his laughter and the angrier Henry got, the louder Reggie hooted. They continued running, albeit at a slower pace, the momentary pause giving fresh energy to his tired legs. At the first break in the fence, Henry stretched out his hand and grabbed Reggie's arm from under the curled barbed wire of the shoddy camp. Within seconds of escape, Henry's companions surrounded and shielded him. Together, this motley of young men strolled leisurely in the direction of Nathan Road and freedom.
In the latter part of January 1942 guarding this large, crowded and dilapidated camp with poor fencing, proved difficult for the Japanese and a number of prisoners (mainly Chinese) were able to slip under the wire fence at the outskirts of the town to freedom. Later, two Macanese prisoners of war, Alberto Xavier and Damso Aquino also escaped from Shamshuipo Camp.