Rare tales of war

War sur­vivor Betty Barr pro­vides a rare glimpse into life in the Longhua in­tern­ment camp in Shang­hai dur­ing the Ja­panese in­va­sion of China

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By LI XUEQING in Shang­hai


It is in­trigu­ingly how the for­eign con­ces­sions in Shang­hai were some­what stuck in a time warp dur­ing the Ja­panese in­va­sion of China in 1937. While build­ings were dec­i­mated and bod­ies were strewn all over the streets af­ter the Bat­tle of Songhu in Shang­hai, which ended in De­cem­ber 1937, life in these ex­pa­tri­ate quar­ters was largely un­af­fected.

Bri­tish Betty Barr and her fam­ily were vis­it­ing her grand­mother in Dal­las, Texas when they re­ceived news that their home in Shang­hai had been de­stroyed by the Ja­panese. They nev­er­the­less re­turned to Shang­hai as her fa­ther John from Glas­gow, Scot­land, wanted to re­sume his teach­ing work at Med­hurst Col­lege. The fam­ily soon found a new flat and Betty and her el­der brother re­sumed their ed­u­ca­tion.

De­spite the war rag­ing out­side the borders of the in­ter­na­tional set­tle­ment they were in, Barr could still at­tend clas­sic con­certs. She re­called that Shang­hai had a good sym­phony or­ches­tra dur­ing those times. Barr had also man­aged to learn bal­let.

But the frag­ile peace would soon be shat­tered sev­eral years later.

On De­cem­ber 8, 1941, a day af­ter the Ja­panese Im­pe­rial Navy launched a sur­prise mil­i­tary strike on a US naval base at Pearl Har­bor, the Amer­i­cans de­clared war on the Ja­panese.

“I went to school on that day as I usu­ally would. When I ar­rived, the teacher said, ‘The war has started, go home,’” re­called Barr, who was born in the Coun­try Hos­pi­tal (now Huadong Hos­pi­tal) in 1933 and was brought up in the Hongkou dis­trict (for­merly known as Hongkew).

Ex­pa­tri­ates in Shang­hai first ex­pe­ri­enced trou­ble draw­ing their money out of the bank. Then, the sup­ply of im­ported food was stemmed. On April 10, 1943, the Barr house­hold was forced to en­ter the Civil Assem­bly Cen­ter in Longhua (for­merly known as Lunghwa) , or the in­tern­ment camp as the ex­pats called it. Barr was tagged with the num­bers 22/228, a ref­er­ence to her be­ing the 228th per­son in the 22nd group to en­ter the camp. The Longhua site was the big­gest in­tern­ment camp of all, hold­ing 1,756 peo­ple, mostly Bri­tish.

Barr’s mother Ruth wrote in her di­ary that each per­son was only al­lowed to take four parcels of per­sonal be­long­ings into the camp. Be­cause the Ja­panese did not stip­u­late just how big each pack­age could be, Barr and her fam­ily had their beds wrapped up as gi­ant parcels.

The fam­ily were as­signed a north­west cor­ner room in the G block in the camp and be­gan their two-and-a-half years stay in the com­pound sur­rounded by barbed wired. Sin­gle peo­ple shared dor­mi­to­ries with lit­tle pri­vacy.

The self-dubbed “Hongkou girl” said that for the adults, be­ing sep­a­rated from the other fam­ily mem­bers and the un­cer­tainty of the fu­ture were the hard­est things dur­ing this pe­riod of de­tain­ment.

“No­body knew how long they would be there or what would hap­pen at the end of the war,” said Barr.

These de­tainees were al­lowed com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the out­side but even then things were strictly con­trolled — they could only oc­ca­sion­ally write on Red Cross let­ter forms that had a max­i­mum of 25 words.

“You were sup­posed to write only about per­sonal news. You were not al­lowed to write any­thing bad about the Ja­panese,” said Barr.

Peo­ple were not al­lowed to pos­sess a ra­dio or take photos ei­ther. Deirdre Fee from Ire­land, a pain­ter who was a friend of Ruth Barr, re­sorted to draw­ing and paint­ing.

Adults in these in­tern­ment camps were as­signed me­nial jobs which in the past had been done by their ser­vants. Chil­dren were lucky enough to re­ceive ed­u­ca­tion in the camp, but they had to work in the sum­mer. Barr’s job was to look af­ter the goats.

Food and wa­ter were brought into the camp by trucks. As the war went on, food and drink­ing wa­ter be­came scarce. There was not enough wa­ter for wash­ing clothes. Many peo­ple be­came ill. Some died be­cause of the lack of food, re­called Barr.

Betty Barr,

Some peo­ple man­aged to es­cape from the camp. Those who re­mained in the camp were pun­ished in var­i­ous ways, such as be­ing given less food and more re­stric­tions.

“We were not al­lowed to go out of the build­ing in the very hot sum­mer,” said Barr.

The peo­ple in the Longhua camp de­pended on a soli­tary cow for milk. One day, Barr was asked to get a cup of milk for her sick brother. As she had not drunk milk for such a long time, she took a sip. But what she got was not a dose of much needed nutri­tion. It was guilt.

“Ever since then, I have felt very bad. I feel guilty be­cause I took milk from my brother,” said Barr.

Life for the Chi­nese out­side these in­tern­ment camps bore a stark dif­fer­ence. There was hardly a sys­tem in place to look af­ter their wel­fare. Wang Zheng­wen, Barr’s 88-yearold hus­band and a Shang­hai na­tive, can tes­tify to this.

“Their life was much bet­ter than ours,” said Wang, who lost sev­eral mem­bers of his fam­ily dur­ing the war. Barr agreed. She re­called hav­ing re­ceived parcels from the Red Cross and her friends in the city who were not de­tained.

From Jan­uary 1943 to Au­gust 1945, more than 6,000 ex­pa­tri­ates from Ja­pan’s en­emy states, in­clud­ing the US, UK, the Nether­lands, Canada and Aus­tralia, were taken into cus­tody in nine in­tern­ment camps across the city, said Xiong Yuezhi, deputy pres­i­dent of Shang­hai Academy of So­cial Sciences.

Based on Xiong’s study, for­eign­ers from other in­tern­ment camps suf­fered a worse fate. In 1945, the year the war ended, the Ja­panese had moved de­tainees in a camp in western Shang­hai to mil­i­tary fa­cil­i­ties, us­ing them as hu­man shields against Amer­i­can bomb­ings. For­eign­ers who were deemed hos­tile to the Ja­panese dur­ing the war were moved to the Bridge House.

“I have a friend now in Scot­land whose fa­ther was in Bridge House. He said his fa­ther never spoke about it af­ter­wards. I sup­pose it was some­thing too ter­ri­ble,” said Barr.

The hap­pi­est mo­ment for most peo­ple in the Longhua camp was the day Amer­i­can planes formed a smoke trail re­sem­bling the let­ter “V” (for vic­tory) in the sky. Ev­ery­one was ex­cited be­cause they knew the Al­lies had won the war in Europe. Barr re­called that be­tween May and Au­gust 15, 1945, more and more Amer­i­can planes were bomb­ing Ja­panese po­si­tions in Shang­hai.

“They flew very low over the camp. We could see the pilots. And they knew where we were,” Barr said. The planes also dropped parcels con­tain­ing pro­vi­sions and this made her mother very proud, be­cause she was one of the few Amer­i­cans in Longhua.

The camp was lib­er­ated by the Swiss on Au­gust 15, 1945 when Em­peror Hiro­hito an­nounced via ra­dio broad­cast that Ja­pan was sur­ren­der­ing. How­ever, it was not un­til Novem­ber that all the peo­ple in in­tern­ment camps were evac­u­ated, said Xiong. Barr and her mother went to the US, but re­turned to Shang­hai half a year later.

As part of the com­mem­o­ra­tion ef­forts of the 70th an­niver­sary of end of this war, ar­ti­facts from these in­tern­ment camps in Shang­hai are now be­ing ex­hib­ited at the Me­mo­rial Site of the 4th Na­tional Congress of the Com­mu­nist Party of China. Fee’s il­lus­tra­tions of wartime life in the camp can also be found in this ex­hi­bi­tion which will run from Au­gust 14 to De­cem­ber 31.

To Barr, the most mean­ing­ful ar­ti­fact on dis­play is the let­ter which she sent to her grand­mother from the camp.

“It sym­bol­izes the con­tact with my mother’s fam­ily in Amer­ica,” said Barr.

De­spite hav­ing gone through those try­ing times, Barr does not bear any re­sent­ment to­ward the Ja­panese.

“That was part of the war,” she said. “What I do know is that it’s very im­por­tant to know this part of history and to be care­ful to en­sure that another war doesn’t hap­pen.”



by Deirdre Fee from Ire­land, a friend of Betty Barr's mother, de­pict­ing life in the in­tern­ment camps in Shang­hai.

Betty Barr talks about life in a camp in Shang­hai.

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