Thursday, 1 January 2009

We Made It....

From the pagoda  at Kew to the pagoda in Waichow - for those of you who got our Christmas card - full circle! Walking to Waichow? Well, not quite - though we think we did 60-70 miles on foot over the 7 days,  while also taking advantage of buses, taxis, tuk tuks, motorbike taxis and bicycles when the roads were just too grim or the way Pop walked had disappeared under the building frenzy that is China today.

Let me introduce - and thank - the Walking Party:

Tim, without whose patient deciphering of old war maps of China in tandem with the written accounts - and using detective skills in turning old phonetic Cantonese into modern written Mandarin - none of us would have been able to retrace the route so accurately - and for his whole-hearted support for an idea I got while transcribing my Pop's diary that we should do the same journey;
Francoise, our Cheung Chau friend for many years and a keen walker who had signed up for the trip before we decided to do it - supplier of dried fruit and with a good (French) nose for a hidden path; 
And Serene - our new friend and truly invaluable fixer, translator, unfailingly cheerful Cantonese, Mandarin and - most important - Hakka speaker who opened doors that might otherwise have remained shut (thanks Duncan H, for the Jack Ma contact!!);
To the families of Ron Ashby, Alexander Kennedy, David Legge, David MacDougall, Ted Ross, Buddy Hide and Chan Chak for their generous sharing of their parents' records;
Thanks also to Russ for his feedback on his own trip,  to SJ for his waistcoat and everyone else who helped us see  a long-held ambition finally become reality ... 

Having been seen off on Christmas morning by Dan and got the train to Shenzhen and bus to Namou,   where the escapers landed,  we went in search of Koutit, the tiny village just up in the hills where they spent the first day hiding ... only to be told it was now under a reservoir.   (note from Tim, at risk of being a pedant: it's  Nanao and Gaotie in mandarin  but we'll stick for now to the slightly eccentric  Cantonese spellings used on the escapers' original map  that we put up on the blog earlier).    We did find a  semi abandoned village nearby which an older Hakka woman we were introduced to (who was from Koutit) said was similar - she remembered Japanese atrocities but unfortunately not any British escapees. We walked up a little path to see the reservoir, then back to Namou as the sun set pinkly over Pingchau - always very clearly visible from this coast.  An elderly man showed us how Namou used to be configured,  with the original fishing village at one end and farming village at the other, both now set back from the new, reclaimed waterfront behind a line of modern blocks of flats and hotels - 

Below  is the harbour itself,  where they scuttled their motor torpedo boats and came ashore, piling up their stores on what was then a lovely beach... 

It's still a busy fishing port and a popular holiday resort in the summer with lots of dried seafood stalls. We attempted to make our way  along the coast, as the escapers did after venturing out by night from their hiding place in the hills. This proved quite a challenge and very slow going in places with a lot of rock scrambling as there's been massive development along the beachfront with private beaches barring the way...we persevered with the help of an offshore fisherman who pointed 'up' 'down' and 'forward' helpfully when we stood completely baffled as to whether to retrace our steps or attempt to hack our way forward. 
One of our trickier moments - in the end we decided against the ladder...there was quite a fall below!

We finally struck inland to Wang Mu and found the Kuan Yin temple being energetically restored and enlarged 
 we also found a fortune teller 
 who had heard tell of the Hong Kong party spending the night on the temple floor. We spent our night rather less peacefully  in the old town, just across the flyover, in a hotel which (like the previous night's one in Namoa)  featured a nightclub with very loud karaoke....the fortune teller omitted to mention that Francoise would be run down by a motorbike on our way out to dinner; although the bicycle has given way to the motorbike and car in China,  traffic manners haven't altered to accept there might be more danger in disobeying road signs.  I'm glad to say she was only bruised and the offender was extremely apologetic.... 
On the 27th we visited Da Peng Suo Sheng - the old fortress and former HQ of the guerillas/bandits/pirates and a lovely example of an old walled city which has become a living museum. Not a single tourist there though (we didn't see another foreigner the whole week) -  and well worth including on next year's agenda.

Then a rather frustrating time trying to find the start of the mountain path - we eventually tracked down the beginning of the second ridge (near Kingsam) only to run into the reservoir police who are not at all keen that we attempt it and try to put us off with stories of snakes, impassable growth and the fact that no one has done it 'for a very long time'.
Serene works her magic and we get an introduction to a local bee keeper from the same police.  He looks pretty much like a bandit guerilla himself AND strikes a hard bargain,  but he eventually agrees to lead us over the mountains  tomorrow. We'll need 9 hours, plenty of food and water and he'll need a second man to help him hack through the jungle......
We turned up bright and early the next day to find Mr Chan from HK - the son of one of the East River guerillas - who had decided that as our fathers had walked these routes together we should too.   
 By chance he and I both had our 'Good Morning' towels in true HK style.. Mr Lee the bandit/bee keeper meanwhile offers us his winter honey-water (delicious) and turns out to be the grandson of one of the KMT soldiers who dynamited the hills in this area to stop the Japanese advance. So almost all the various groups are represented and we're all quite excited as we set out on what was by general consent the toughest day of the whole escape.
In fact we did it in about 4 hours. A bit of machete work was called for but not much - and no great heights were reached as we passed over the saddle between the two larger mountains.
 It is a lovely walk, though, and again would be well worth doing on next year's bigger re-enactment.   You get a real feel of the sort of trekking they were doing in 1941 and for much of the time  you are actually on the same old stone paths - the route is  true to the original as far as we know and Bee keeper Lee confirmed that,  telling us whenever we did small detours. 

I have to say at this point that a lot of the walking we did later on wasn't as nice as that - sometimes it
 involved going along major highways, feeling quite nervous about the thundering traffic or else plodding along the packed mud of building sites or new roads being constructed in dust and drizzle.  I'm not optimistic we'll find much more of the original route that's walkable. When faced with the horrors of yet another highway or construction site we occasionally tried to strike slightly off-route to find back-streets and  byways - often delightful - coming across old villages with duck ponds and old temples and ancestral halls; but sometimes getting slightly lost and probably covering more ground than strictly necessary.
The old smugglers' path across the mountains comes down to what is now yet another reservoir.  We lunched on top of the dam, just behind the village of Tong Pow where my pop says they had their lunch (Lettuce Village it looked like - I've never seen such neat lettuce beds or so many of them!).
On from there to another village mentioned in the diaries, Ho Shue Ha, where we stopped to make enquiries at  the village cafe (the old blacksmith) - though the only pensioner we found had no memory left. You begin to appreciate just how hard the life of the peasant is in China - even in the comparative wealth of the south. We saw people burdened with loads of vegetables that would earn them very little for so much work - yet, like my Pop and the fellow escapees, we were met almost unfailingly with friendliness, courtesy and an old fashioned hospitality. (And a lot of curiosity!) 
Alison heads off  for a well-earned snooze, leaving Tim to confess that we cheated on the next bit - crossing the river - because we reckoned that if we'd actually waded through it as they did, holding their rifles over their heads, we'd have caught some fairly serious disease. The water is shallower, perhaps, than it was then but is a blackish, bluish grey in colour and sludge-like in consistency. Besides, there's now a bridge.
 Cheun Shue Pow on the other side is an endless mass of huge factories ... in what was described in the escapers' diaries as open moorland. 
  We then came to the part where tensions ran highest of all in 1941 because they had to cross a road that was thick with Japanese soldiers who were garrisoned at the nearby town of Tamshui.   That small country road is now  a six-lane expressway.  In the event,   just as they avoided the Japanese motorcycle patrols, we managed to avoid getting run over by the cement lorries - by the simple means of going under the flyover.  
On then to the orchard near Kopow where the escapers finally bedded down at 2am under the apple trees on a bitterly cold night, after being told by an apologetic Chinese farmer that he couldn't ask them in as he had already been visited three times that day by the Japanese ... who were likely to burn his house down or worse if they found he'd been sheltering members of the British armed forces.
That orchard now appears to be part of the Palm Island Resort, a country club for the sort of people who want to escape from Hong Kong  today (to get away from the office rather than a POW camp). It helps if they can afford  fees running into tens of thousands of dollars. The grounds  include three nine-hole golf courses designed by Jack Nicklaus Junior,  using the finest imported Bermuda grass. There's even an assault course to improve leadership skills.  Perfect for Commander Gandy ...   
At Sanhue they rested at the local school - a predecessor of the one where we were very warmly welcomed by a headmaster called Kevin. Through the pass and down a lovely country path to Chanlung, where we spent the night at a hotel that was free of karaoke but had lots of policemen and girls in high heels popping in and out of bedrooms equipped with mahjong tables .... By now our boys in 1941 were seeing Nationalist Chinese troops rather than just guerrillas, and even got to spent the night in the military HQ in the local yamen (magistracy).
We think we may have found that -- we certainly found a fine old Dream of the Red Chamber - type walled compound...and got quite excited by the "Death to the Japanese" slogans on the wall till we realised they dated only from the shooting of a war movie a few years ago.   By now we'd rented bicycles, as that was how many of the escape party completed the final stretch into Waichow. 
  Progress was slowed though -- both then and now-- by large holes in the road.Theirs had been made by the Chinese to stop Japanese tanks and other vehicles; ours were part of the endless building of ever bigger roads,  to encourage more vehicles of every description.
  And so, a final stretch on foot, stopping at a wayside stall, as Colin did, for a bun (or beng) or two.  

Again like them, we mainly lived well off rice and vegetables and green tea. But  they did also have some Navy-style  tins of bully beef. Having failed to bring our own, we persuaded Francoise to overcome her scruples and took her to a McDonald's.

Our final triumphant march through the streets of Waichow didn't quite get the reception of cheers and firecrackers that was accorded the Admiral in his sedan chair and the British sailors in their by now very ragged clothes and marching formations. But we did manage a white ensign of sorts - and a mouth-organ.
We all (It's me again, Alison) loved Waichow and Tim had earmarked a great old Chinese hotel actually on the West Lake, in the centre of what was the old town - we found pockets of old streets with their colonnaded shops gearing up for Chinese New Year and more of the sweetest little tangerines we had been eating  all along the way. My Pop commented on them too! We had our own celebratory banquet with roast suckling pork, salted eggs (to replace the pigeons' eggs) and vegetables in a little restaurant where the owner went off specially to find the roast pork when he'd heard our story....
We spent New Year's Eve morning sorting out all the religious missions with Serene's help before she had to leave us - the tangled web unravelled with the help of Rev. So who we visited (still very much alive)
- Rev.Wong  proudly showed us the photos you'd given them, Russ (signed also by Donald and Duncan Chan) - and we then had a most fortunate encounter with retired Mr Cheung of the People's Hospital as we stood in the former Wai On compound staring at old photos and trying to orientate ourselves...

We ended up with a pretty good mental picture of the Wai On 7th Day Adventist Mission during the war years - with hospital, church and other buildings where the HK escape party were housed (and finally bathed) and which my Pop later frequented in his BAAG days.  The last vestiges - a crumbling building housing the BAAG mess that was visited by Elizabeth Ride just a year or two ago -  had  been removed just a month ago, we were told.  Thank you, Elizabeth, for all the BAAG information you gave us, which helped enormously in Waichow.
There was also the Catholic Mission, based quite nearby, where the new church still flanks the old church (now used for storage and meetings). They also had a hospital in those days, and we were shown where the old Rectory was by a resident nun - it was another BAAG base but is now housing the toilets! Their site - unlike Wai On - appears to have been much reduced in size. It had been a Franciscan order but we couldn't confirm if it still was.
Finally the Baptist Church of the Rev.So -  although a new church building - stands on the site of the earlier Baptist Mission (they had no hospital that we are aware of) and it now represents  3 Protestant churches that used to exist in Waichow.
Of course all these churches had a hard time during the post war years and there's a long gap where any church activity had to be clandestine so it's difficult to find people who hold the links - so what luck to find Mr Cheung!

And so to New Year's Evening in Waichow - Francoise had carefully carried some Cuban rum the whole way so, like my Pop, we were able to bring in the New Year with a tot of rum and some amazing cocktails our hotel had created - even Auld Lang Syne on the banks of the West Lake...

The sharper eyed among you may note that's a bottle of 1999 Great Wall red wine rather than rum and cocktails - this was how our evening started. The local Dragon'8' beer played a part too....but at least we didn't shock the locals by breaking the odd glass as my Pop admitted doing. 
Along the way I thought often of how he and the others must have felt. For him and some of the others based in HK the terrain might have seemed quite familiar - I certainly kept getting flashes of my childhood when we spent days in the New Territories...  For some of the men, there must have been a huge culture clash to go with all the other clashes  (adds Tim finally).  China may have copied us and caught up with us in many ways, but it's still very different and very special and always will be. Meanwhile we have a few more days  here in HK , looking for  anyone else with any information on the escape, since many of those we met on the mainland said this was where their families had tended to move to after the war.


Pin said...

I can hardly believe you've done it! Sounds the most incredible trip and I can't wait to hear about it in detail. Congrats to all!

Carmela said...

Now I can see why you would rather I read the would be quite impossible to describe the whole experience and the emotions over ma lai go!

What a remarkable journey!

Great pics too!

Francoise said...

Safe and sound, back in HK after hiking from Nanao to Huizhou, through mountains and valleys, across rivers and old villages - and some mind-boggling industrial developments. I had a whale of a time!

I had been eagerly waiting for this for almost two years when Tim and Alison first told me of their plan to re-enact Alison’s father’s Escape. I thought it was a fantastic idea and I really wanted to be part of it.

So off we went on Christmas day! The hike was made easy thanks to Tim who had done an extraordinary job with the route map, spending days and days perusing maps, old and new, reading over and over the Escape diaries and comparing various (and at times erratic) transcriptions of Chinese places to figure most accurately the escape route, taking into account new reservoirs and roads. Being there, I can appreciate the difficulty of the task.

It was at times quite moving to step on paths which the escapees had trodden upon some 67 years ago. We indeed pioneered what may become ‘The Escape Trail’ as Mr. ‘Ruffian’ Lee (as Mr. ‘Beesman’ Lee was nicknamed for a couple of hours due to his hard bargaining) revealed that the old guerilla path which he guided us upon had not been used for many years.

I won’t get into the detail of the hike itself as Tim and Alison have told it better than I would, but I want to thank them for having me in the team. And cheers to Serene, dauntless, generous and indefatigable interpreter!


Carrie Gracie said...

Congratulations to one and all. Never was a bottle of Great Wall red so richly deserved. Great writing and pictures. When do we get the movie? Love Carrie xx

Guy Peterson said...

Having problems posting comment but trying again.

Quite sensational and fascinating. Who would believe my next door neighbours in Hackney could turn my childhood world over 30 years on by going past Peng Chau, which was the end of my world. I am very, very impressed.

Is the Chinese Rec. Club the old U.S.R.C. in Kowloon?

This should have been a documentary - series even!


ip said...


mister bijou said...


Many congratulations to you all!

Awesome, just awesome.

mister bijou said...
This comment has been removed by the author.