“I’ve just been playing that silly game of being sorry for myself”

On 19 April 1941, George begins his letter to Hilda: 

“It’s 6 o’clock Saturday evening, and I’m writing in the office while waiting for my lads to come back – yes, I’ve been working this afternoon and now it’s nearly time to pack up.

“I’ve just been playing that silly game of being sorry for myself – I pictured my going home presently, spotting you as the ferry neared the pier and then the walk home together, some supper and then off to the pictures somewhere – well, I probably will do those things except the seeing and meeting you.”

In 1941, letters were the only source of communication between the men in Hong Kong and their families evacuated to Australia.

The separation caused by the July 1940 ‘evacuation crisis’ following the threat of invasion from Japan had not turned out to be ‘short-lived’ as most in the colony had envisaged. By April 1941, the evacuees had been away for nine months.  

There was no texting, or instant messaging back then – not even phone calls possible across the distance in 1941. Pen and paper were the only option.

And for the men left behind in Hong Kong, separation was growing ever more poignant, surrounded as they were with the constant reminder of places and the memories of when shared with wives and children.

There was a fine balance to achieve in letters. There was the need to support wives thousands of miles from home, suddenly thrown into having to bring up children on their own, and against a backdrop of the home country at war and tension in the Far East rising. But there was also the need to give vent to their own feelings at times – albeit, aware of the constant presence of the censor looking over their shoulder.

And once written, sealed in the envelope, stamped, and posted – that was it. There was no going back on or changing what was written. And it could take weeks for letters to reach Australia, weeks for a reply to come back. Weeks and weeks in which to worry whether the right tone had been achieved, the right words said.

George’s letters are an extraordinary eyewitness account of an extraordinary period, describing Hong Kong in the 1940s and its mixture of cultures, and the 18 months as the colony was sliding towards war. But they were also the lifeline between him and Hilda, and his children. They capture his thoughts, his fears, his hopes – his dreams.

In his letter of 19 April, George follows up his opening of imagining Hilda waiting at the ferry terminal for his return from work, and the evening at the cinema:

“Yes, I know that’s a most unprofitable game, but we must indulge in dreams sometimes, even if the coming to earth is hard afterwards and, Oh! my dear, how I want it to be true.”

“How I value those things now, just our usual Saturday night trips, and the Lord knows they were sober enough as a rule, and yet looking back they were lovely evenings – did we know then?

“Yes, I think we did, on most occasions at any rate and I know we will on all those evenings in the future that await us round that corner.”

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