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Eurasians in British Asia during the Second World War: Joint Winner of the Sir George Staunton Prize

  • FELICIA YAP (a1)


One of the most important minorities in the British colonial empire in Asia consisted of those of mixed European and Asian parentage and/or ancestry, or Eurasians, as they were widely known. It is perhaps surprising that despite the voluminous literature written about British colonial communities in the East, relatively little scholarly attention has been paid to Eurasians and their histories. A closer examination of the members of this marginalised colonial category is nevertheless crucial as they stood at the problematic boundaries of racial politics and identity, and are therefore vital to our understanding of the tensions of empire. The few existing studies of Eurasians in British Asia have tended to focus on the experiences of Eurasians either before or after the Second World War, neglecting the period of Japanese occupation as a significant epoch in the evolution of these communities. In reality, if we intend to unravel the multi-layered history of Eurasians in this region, we must examine the critical position of these colonial communities during this tumultuous period. The nuances of their intriguing wartime relationships with both the British and the Japanese also merit serious attention. With these aims in mind, this article will investigate the compelling experiences of Eurasian communities in Japanese-occupied British Asia, with an especial focus on those who were incarcerated by the Japanese in civilian internment camps in Hong Kong and Singapore.



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1 The term ‘Eurasian’ has been used by the British to refer to people of mixed European and Asiatic parentage/ancestry since the nineteenth century. There is some evidence to suggest that the term was invented in the 1800s by the Marquis of Hastings, the governor-general of India, to describe the progeny of unions between white fathers and Indian mothers. See Lee, Vicky, Being Eurasian: Memories Across Racial Divides (Hong Kong, 2004), p. 2. The Malayan Eurasian Union (Straits Times, 19 April 1949) defined Eurasians as anyone so declared “of mixed European and Asian descent whose father, or anyone whose progenitors in the male line, is of European descent”. It seems that this definition was generally followed by census authorities. See Eng, Chan Kok, ‘Eurasians of Malaysia’, Quarterly Journal, Institut Teknoloji Mara, 5, 1 (March 1973), p. 7.

2 Some key writings about Eurasians in colonial Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaya include Lee, Being Eurasian; Braga-Blake, Myrna and Ebert-Oehlers, Ann, Singapore Eurasians: Memories and Hopes (Singapore, 1992); Daus, Ronald, Portuguese Eurasian Communities in Southeast Asia (Singapore, 1989); Stephen Fisher, ‘Eurasians in Hong Kong; A Sociological Study of A Marginal Group’ (unpublished M. Phil. thesis, University of Hong Kong, 1975); and Crabbe, C.H., Malaya's Eurasians – An Opinion (Singapore, 1960). There is a comparatively larger body of research literature on the Eurasians of the Dutch East Indies. Some key texts include Taylor, Jean Gelman, The Social World of Batavia: European and Eurasian in Dutch Asia (Madison, WI, 1983) and Bosma, Ulbe and Raben, Remco, Being Dutch in the Indies: A History of Creolisation and Empire, 1500–1920 (Singapore, 2008).

3 Blackburn, A.D., ‘Hong Kong, December 1941–July 1942’, Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 29 (1989), p. 79. For ease of nomenclature, this article uses the term ‘Changi internees’ to refer to the western civilians incarcerated in Singapore although the internees were eventually transferred from Changi to Sime Road in May 1944. Some 3,175 internees were liberated from Sime Road at the end of the war. See ‘Annual Report of the Medical Department, Colony of Singapore, 1946’, Straits Settlements Records (Federated Malay States Annual Reports), Singapore National Archives, R.M. II D/43, pp. 6–7.

4 The Eurasian family of Barbara Clunies-Ross were regarded by the Japanese as ‘enemy aliens’ as her father and brother had served in the Singapore Volunteer Corps: “they took arms up against the Japanese, so therefore they were enemies”. See Barbara Clunies-Ross interview, Singapore National Archives (SNA), Oral History Department (OHD), 2742, p. 6.

5 E.G. Henty, ‘Details of Number of People and their Nationalities’, Australian War Memorial (AWM), PR 91/174.

6 Lethbridge, Henry J., ‘Caste, Class and Race in Hong Kong before the Japanese Occupation’, in Lethbridge, (ed.), Hong Kong: Stability and Change: A Collection of Essays (Hong Kong, 1978), p. 176.

7 Ho Tung was reputed to have been of Dutch (or possibly Belgian) and Chinese descent. He was appointed as chief comprador to Jardine Matheson in the 1880s and became Hong Kong's first millionaire by the age of thirty due to some judicious interventions in the sugar trade. See Lee, Being Eurasian, pp. 28–30; Snow, Philip, The Fall of Hong Kong: Britain, China and the Japanese Occupation (New Haven and London, 2003), p. 10.

8 Nathan, Eze, The History of Jews in Singapore, 1830–1945 (Singapore, 1986), p. 16.

9 Bayly, Christopher and Harper, Tim, Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941–45 (London, 2004), p. 61.

10 Alabaster, C.G., ‘Some Observations on Race Mixture in Hong Kong’, Eugenics Review, 11 (1920), pp. 247248, quoted in Lee, Being Eurasian, pp. 22–24.

11 Lethbridge, ‘Caste, Class and Race in Hong Kong’, p. 176.

12 Bayly and Harper, Forgotten Armies, p. 34.

13 Rudy Mosbergen interview, SNA, OHD, 510, p. 6. A census conducted in the Malayan state of Selangor in 1931 revealed that 249 out of 541 employed Eurasian males in the state were clerks, office assistants, typists and draughtsmen; others were mechanics, shop assistants, railway workers and subordinates in the medical services. See Butcher, John G., The British in Malaya, 1880–1941: The Social History of a European Community in Colonial South-East Asia (New York, 1979), pp. 186187.

14 Captain P.J. Rivers, in Mohamed Yusuf Bangs interview, SNA, OHD, p. 111.

15 Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, p. 11.

16 Crabbe, Malaya's Eurasians, pp. 4–5.

17 Lee, Being Eurasian, pp. 32–34, 112.

18 Gittins, Jean, Eastern Windows – Western Skies (Hong Kong, 1969), p. 11. Ann Laura Stoler has argued that colonial social universes with significant numbers of mixed-blood individuals were especially prone to personal and household-level tensions and anxieties about who belonged in the elite, and who did not. See Stoler, Ann Laura, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley, 2002), pp. 4178.

19 Lee, Being Eurasian, pp. 126–127; Mosbergen interview, pp. 11, 32.

20 Gittins, Eastern Windows, p. 64.

21 Heinrich Arbenz, in Crone-Arbenz, Annelies, Singapore Saga (Canberra, 1988), p. 289.

22 Lethbridge, ‘Caste, Class and Race’, p. 176; Lee, Being Eurasian, p. 24.

23 Lee, Being Eurasian, p. 14.

24 Lee, Being Eurasian, p. 16; Clarke, Russell, An End to Tears (Sydney, 1946), p. 165.

25 Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, p. 11.

26 See also J. Carroll, ‘Empires’ Edge: The Making of the Hong Kong Chinese Bourgeoisie’ (unpublished PhD thesis, Harvard University, 1998), p. 121.

27 King, Frank H.H., The History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Vol. III, The Hongkong Bank Between the Wars and the Bank Interned, 1919–1945: Return From Grandeur (Cambridge, 1988), p. 286; Lee, Being Eurasian, p. 16.

28 Quoted in Lee, Being Eurasian, p. 15.

29 Dew, Gwen, Prisoner of the Japs (New York, 1943), p. 83.

30 Dower, John, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York, 1986), p. 277.

31 Quoted in Horne, Gerald, Race War!: White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire (New York, 2004), p. 197.

32 H. Schweitzer-Iten, ‘Experiences of a Delegate (Unrecognised) of the International Committee of the Red Cross during the Occupation of the Japanese of Singapore and Malaya, 1941–1945’, Imperial War Museum (IWM), 90/2/1, p. 8.

33 Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, p. 104.

34 Farleigh Oehlers interview, SNA, OHD, 421, p. 27; Hong Kong News, 8 May 1943; Edward Sykes, (president of the Eurasian Welfare League) testimony, Noma Trial, The National Archives: Public Record Office (TNA:PRO), WO 235/999, p. 137.

35 ‘Malaya Under the Japanese’, U.S. National Archives and Administration (NARA), RG226, Box 1472, 128585, p. 4.

36 Hong Kong News, 31 January, 14, 17 and 20 February 1942.

37 Arthur Alexander Thompson interview, SNA, OHD, 143, p. 24; Oehlers interview, p. 54; Vincent (Brother) interview, OHD, SNA, 468, pp. 167–168.

38 Oehlers interview, pp. 52, 54–5, 137; Eric Paglar interview, SNA, OHD, 299, p. 28.

39 Bayly and Harper, Forgotten Armies, p. 215.

40 Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, p. 104; Hall, Peter, In the Web (Heswall, 1992), pp. 146147, 149–150.

41 Hahn, China to Me, pp. 345–376 and Hong Kong Holiday (New York, 1946), pp. 165–169.

42 Hahn, Hong Kong Holiday, p. 167; Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, p. 68.

43 Hahn, Hong Kong Holiday, p. 167; Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, p. 119; Lee, Being Eurasian, p. 67.

44 In Java, Japanese policies on Eurasians were similarly ambivalent during the early occupation period, although attempts were made by some Japanese officials to inveigle the Eurasians away from the Dutch side. Many Eurasians initially remained at liberty if they could prove they had Indonesian forebears. See Touwen-Bouwsma, Elly, ‘Japanese Minority Policy: The Eurasians on Java and the Dilemma of Ethnic Loyalty’, in Post, Peter and Touwen-Bouwsma, Elly, Japan, Indonesia and The War: Myths and Realities (Leiden, 1997), p. 36.

45 Lee, Being Eurasian, p. 147; Lindsay, Oliver, At the Going Down of the Sun: Hong Kong and South-East Asia, 1941–45, 2nd edition (London, 1982), p. 34; S. Selwyn-Clarke report, 20 October 1945, Hong Kong Public Record Office (HKPRO), HKRS 163/1/104, p. 3; John Stericker, ‘Captive Colony: The Story of Stanley Camp, Hong Kong’, Hong Kong University Library (HKUL), MSS 940.547252 S8, Chapter IV, p. 3.

46 Brown, Wenzell, Hong Kong Aftermath (Sydney, 1943), p. 59.

47 John Anthony Snodgrass interview, SNA, OHD, 4, pp. 62–63; Thompson interview, p. 37.

48 G.C. Allen diary, 4 January 1944, IWM, 96/19/1; Oehlers interview, p. 163; Kennedy, Joseph, British Civilians and the Japanese War in Malaya and Singapore, 1941–45 (Basingstoke, 1987), p. 140.

49 Changi Guardian, No. 70, 2 June 1942, p. 208; Dally, Ann, Cicely: The Story of a Doctor (London, 1968), p. 187; J.S. Smith diary, 24 September 1942, IWM, 84/30/1; Allen diary, 23 May 1944.

50 As Touwen-Bouswma has noted, large-scale raids occurred all over Java in January 1945 and a large number of male Eurasians were subsequently herded into camps. According to Hamaguchi, the Japanese head of the Eurasian Affairs Office, the Japanese had expected an Allied invasion of Java and accordingly believed that it would be dangerous to permit “Eurasians who had refused to cooperate with them to remain at large”. See Touwen-Bouswma, ‘Japanese Minority Policy’, p. 45.

51 Smith diary, 22 March 1945. In April 1945, some Eurasians at Bahau were removed from the settlement and interned at Sime Road in Singapore. The group included a number of Eurasians of German descent and a few Eurasians who had previously been granted parole from Changi by the Japanese. See Oehlers interview, p. 149; Clunies-Ross interview, p. 11; Thompson interview, p. 40.

52 Hahn, Hong Kong Holiday, pp. 253–254; Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, pp. 121–122.

53 Hahn, China to Me, pp. 38–39, 392.

54 Thompson interview, pp. 36, 41.

55 Some wealthy Hong Kong Eurasians like Robert Ho Tung were able to seek sanctuary in Macao at the outbreak of the war. See Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, p. 51.

56 Oehlers interview, pp. 52–54.

57 According to C.P. Paglar's son Eric, Mamoru Shinozaki had regarded the Association as a means to protect the Eurasians in Malaya and Singapore and win their co-operation. It had a cultural troupe which performed dances for Japanese troops at the Alexandra Hospital and the Victoria Memorial Hall, and in conjunction with Japanese celebrations. Some of its members also joined a volunteer labour force. The Association provided clothing, medicines and money to Eurasians in need, and assisted them in obtaining jobs within the new administration. See Paglar interview, pp. 31, 35–37, 39, 40. Mamoru Shinozaki was called up as a star witness by the prosecution at the trial of C.P. Paglar, and testified that Paglar was merely acting on his orders during the war. Shinozaki also observed that “the newspapers at that time were very much against Dr Paglar, and that the main point of the prosecution was that Dr Paglar gave a speech on the occasion of the Emperor's birthday, and that he congratulated the Emperor and so forth. This was considered treason”. In the end, the trial was postponed until Paglar's ‘natural death’, and Paglar was accordingly freed. See Mamoru Shinozaki, ‘My Wartime Experiences in Singapore’, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Oral History Programme (Singapore, 1973), pp. 114–116.

58 Oehlers interview, pp. 92, 137, 145.

59 Bayly and Harper, Forgotten Armies, p. 412.

60 La Brooy, Muriel, Where is Thy Victory? (Singapore, 1987), p. 114.

61 Rudy Mosbergen interview, SNA, OHD, 3051.

62 The Eurasian doctor van Cuylenberg wrote that life in Bahau was “one continous struggle till we were liberated”. As he added, “it was said of us at Bahau that every settler except one Christian brother had contracted malaria”. See van Cuylenberg, John Bertram, Singapore: Through Sunshine and Shadow (Singapore, 1982), pp. 211, 216; Oehlers interview, pp. 53–54, 88–92, 99, 105, 114, 119, 137, 139; Thompson interview, p. 41; Robert Chong interview, SNA, OHD, 273, p. 101; Clunies-Ross interview, p. 10; Shinozaki, ‘My Wartime Experiences in Singapore’, pp. 80–88; Bayly and Harper, Forgotten Armies, pp. 411–413.

63 Oehlers interview, p. 165.

64 These fears were exacerbated by rumours among the Eurasians in Singapore that the Japanese had massacred almost the entire Eurasian population of the state of Johor in Malaya. See van Cuylenberg, Singapore: Through Sunshine and Shadow, pp. 133, 151, 173–176.

65 Li, Hong Kong Surgeon, p. 141.

66 Gittins, Stanley; Behind Barbed Wire, pp. 39–41; Oehlers interview, p. 165.

67 Lucia Bach interview, SNA, OHD, 184, pp. 148–149; Thompson interview, p. 41.

68 Dally, Ann, Cicely: The Story of A Doctor (London, 1968), p. 187.

69 J.S. Smith diary, IWM, 84/30/1, 28 May 1942.

70 Gittins, Jean, Stanley: Behind Barbed Wire (Hong Kong, 1982), p. 39.

71 Gladys Tompkins, ‘Three Wasted Years: Women in Changi Prison’, 1977, IWM, 66/254/1, p. 33.

72 Hayter, John, Priest in Prison: Four Years of Life in Japanese-Occupied Singapore, 1941–1945 (Worthing, 1989), p. 118.

73 Freddy Bloom diary, 22 March 1942, in Dear Philip: A Diary of Captivity, Changi 1942–45 (London, 1980), p. 29.

74 Horne, Race War!, p. 3.

75 Hahn, Hong Kong Holiday, pp. 101–102; Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, p. 142.

76 Lee, Being Eurasian, p. 145.

77 Gittins, Jean, ‘Stanley: Behind Barbed Wire’, in Matthews, Clifford and Cheung, Oswald (eds), Dispersal and Renewal: Hong Kong University During the War Years (Hong Kong, 1998), p. 254; Stanley: Behind Barbed Wire, p. 27.

78 Changi Guardian, No.81, 20 June 1942, p. 240.

79 Butcher, The British in Malaya, p. 186.

80 Lancelot Forster, ‘Ernest Brown’, Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House Oxford (RHL), Mss.Ind.Ocn.s.177(5), pp. 8–9.

81 The Eurasian writer Han Suyin expressed this stereotype aptly when she wrote, “I am Eurasian, and the word itself evokes in some minds a sensation of moral laxity”. See Han Suyin, quoted in Lethbridge, “Caste, Class and Race”, p. 177.

82 Brown, Hong Kong Aftermath, p. 128; Lee, Being Eurasian, p. 21.

83 R.H. Oakeley, ‘A Short Account of His Internment by R.H. Oakeley, February 1942 to September 1945’, IWM, P437, p. 47; Dally, Cicely, p. 177. Constance Sleep similarly alluded to the presence of “Eurasian and native girl friends of some of the Nips” in the Sime Road camp and noted that “we have quite a number of such amongst us”. See Constance G. Sleep, letter to ‘Hugh’, 17 May 1944 and 21 March 1945, RHL, MSS.Ind.Ocn.s.130, pp. 13, 19.

84 Allan, Sheila, Diary of a Girl in Changi, 1941–45, 3rd edition (Pymble, NSW, 2004), p. 167.

85 Joseph Alsop, ‘Starvation is Torture Too’, The Saturday Evening Post, 16 January 1943, HKPRO, HKMS 100/1/4, p. 42.

86 A.M. Duncan Wallace, ‘Diary of a Civilian Internee in Singapore, 1942–45’, 1 and 9 November 1944, Royal Commonwealth Society Collection, Cambridge University Library (RCS), BAM XII/5/17, pp. 146, 148.

87 Tompkins, ‘Three Wasted Years’, p. 57.

88 ‘Vimmy’, letter to ‘Donnie’, 1 August 1942, in D.H. Grist papers, IWM, 88/63/1.

89 Sleep, letter to ‘Hugh’, p. 5.

90 Lee, Being Eurasian, pp. 147–148.

91 Stericker, ‘Captive Colony’, chapter IV, p. 4.

92 John Pennefather-Evans, ‘Interim Report on the Hong Kong Police, 1 October 1943’, Hong Kong Police Archives (HKPA), p. 36.

93 Franklin Gimson, ‘Diary, 1 June, 1943–15 August, 1945’, 15 and 17 November 1944, RHL, Mss.Ind.Ocn.s.222.

94 Kenneth Ballhatchet's work on Victorian India demonstrates that regulation of sexual behaviour was central to colonial governance; as he argues, Anglo-Indian intermarriages which “threatened the social distance between the ruling race and peoples of India” were “sternly discouraged” by the British authorities. See Ballhatchet, Kenneth, Race, Sex and Class Under the Raj: Imperial Attitudes and Policies and Their Critics, 1793–1905 (London, 1980), p. vii. Philippa Levine has noted that marriages between civil servants and Asian women were not officially prohibited in pre-war Hong Kong, but there were an abundance of disincentives to “forestall all but the most determined”. See Levine, Philippa, ‘Sexuality, Gender and Empire’, in Levine, (ed.), Gender and Empire (Oxford, 2004), pp. 138, 139.

95 Forster, ‘Ernest Brown’, p. 9.

96 George E. Baxter, ‘Personal Experiences During the Siege of Hong Kong, December 8th-25th, 1941’ (Hong Kong, 1941), p. 35.

97 Gittins, Stanley: Behind Barbed Wire, p. 144.

98 Stericker, ‘Captive Colony’, Chapter VI, pp. 1, 7.

99 Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, p. 200.

100 Allan, Diary of a Girl in Changi, pp. 3, 77, 107; Katherine de Moubray diary, 23 December 1942, IWM, 10756, Con Shelf, p. 69.

101 Lee, Being Eurasian, p. 155. In the Dutch East Indies, some interned Indo-Europeans and Eurasians were similarly able to resort to family members or acquaintances on the outside. See van den Heuvel, Jacco, ‘Crime and Authority within Dutch Communities of Internees in Indonesia, 1942–45’, in Hack, Karl and Blackburn, Kevin (eds), Forgotten Captives in Japanese-Occupied Asia, (Oxford, 2008), p. 200; Lee, Being Eurasian, p. 155.

102 ‘Note on Stanley Internment Camp, March 1942’, NARA, RG 389, Box 2121, p. 19; ‘Notes on Stanley Internment Camp, March 1942, Report No. 1 by Wright, Customs Officer’, TNA:PRO, CO 980/53, p. 17.

103 L.A. Collyer, ‘A Diary 1st January 1945–9th September 1945 Kept By L.A. Collyer whilst Interned by the Japanese in Stanley Internment Camp Hong Kong’, 12 February 1945, HKUL, MSS 940.547252, p. 22.

104 Gittins, Stanley: Behind Barbed Wire, p. 66.

105 Geoffrey C. Emerson, ‘Stanley Internment Camp, Hong Kong, 1942–45: A Study of Civilian Internment During the Second World War’ (M.Phil. thesis, University of Hong Kong, 1973), p. 52; Lindsay, At the Going Down of the Sun, p. 108.

106 ‘Brief Statement Concerning Rations and Nutrition in Military Internment Camp, Hong Kong, January 1942 to May 1944’, HKPRO, HKRS 42/1/6.

107 Stericker, ‘Captive Colony’, Chapter VI, p. 8; Gittins, Jean, I Was at Stanley (Hong Kong, 1946), p. 12.

108 Dean A. Smith and Michael F.A. Woodruff, ‘Deficiency Diseases in Japanese Prison Camps’, in Medical Research Council Special Report Series, No.274 (London, H.M.S.O., 1951), p. 39.

109 Gittins, Stanley: Behind Barbed Wire, p. 66; Birch, Alan and Cole, Martin, Captive Years: The Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong, 1941–45 (Hong Kong, 1982), p. 46.

110 Ambler diary, 1 April 1944.

111 Ernest Hodgkin, ‘Changi Diary: A Civilian Internee's Account of Imprisonment in Singapore (February 1942 to August 1945)’, AWM, 2 April 1945, PR91/174, p. 44.

112 Oakeley diary, pp. 46–47.

113 De Moubray diary, 27 March 1945.

114 Sleep, letter to ‘Hugh’, p. 5.

115 K.M. Anderson, ‘Notes on Kindergarten and Transition Classes for Children of 5 to 8 Years of Age at Stanley Internment Camp, Hong Kong, September 1942 to July 1945’, RHL, MSS.Ind.Ocn.s.110, p. 5.

116 Bangs interview, p. 36.

117 Bloom, Dear Philip, p. 29.

118 Rafael, Vincente, White Love and Other Events in Filipino History (Durham, 2000), pp. 6364.

119 Brownfoot, Janice N., ‘Memsahibs in Colonial Malaya: A Study of European Wives in a British Colony and Protectorate, 1900–1940’, in Callan, Hilary and Ardener, Shirley (eds), The Incorporated Wife (London, 1984), p. 201.


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