My father, Leo Landau, was born in 1913 in Bangkok where his parents, Aaron and Amelia, had a small hotel. In the 1920s, the Landau family moved to Shanghai and started the first Jimmy’s Kitchen there. In 1928. they settled in Hong Kong and opened Jimmy’s, first in Wanchai and then in the Old China Building in Theatre Lane, Central.
Although he was not British, Leo volunteered for service in the British army as the threat of war approached Hong Kong. Like many Hong Kong civilians he felt that it was his duty to protect his home. He was captured by the Japanese, while actively fighting, on Christmas Day 1941 (“Black Christmas”) and spent the next three and a half years as a P.O.W. His diary, which he kept hidden throughout his captivity, is an honest and factual record of his experiences. It also contains interesting contributions, including drawings, by his fellow prisoners.
My grandfather Aaron, his Chinese companion Nancy Yip, Uncle Emile, Aunt Rosie and their two young sons, Harry and Alex, all spent the war years in Hong Kong. Other family members — my grandmother Amelia, her daughter Polly and granddaughter Dolores — were in a prison camp in Shanghai.
After a period of detention at North Point, Leo found himself, like so many of his comrades, at the Sham Shui Po camp. This was a place of utter desolation — a former military base which had been thoroughly looted. The huts lacked windows, doors, furniture, light fittings and indeed anything portable. In his diary, Leo notes that to begin with there were no beds and no water supply. However, he was never bitter about his Japanese captors and he attributes these hardships to the chaos of wartime. Eventually Red Cross parcels began to arrive and many lives were saved as a result.
Most of the prisoners’ troubles centered on a lack of food. The everyday diet consisted of boiled white rice and a few vegetables. The diary notes, with despair, that “two fine cabbages” were stolen one night and that the meagre food supply required a special guard. The Red Cross parcels did provide a little meat and some tobacco. Leo used to tell me that he would trade his tobacco for an egg; of those who bought more tobacco with their protein supply very few survived. On special occasions the basic diet would be augmented. Thus the diary records a special Passover dinner of curry. The thirty who attended this event are not named but the good and hard-working Dr. Solomon Bard would surely have been present. The 1942 Christmas dinner included such luxuries as tuna, boiled potatoes, sugar and ginger; on the back of the menu Leo and his great friend Leon Weill wrote: “A couple of Yids (i.e., Jews) celebrating a merry Xmas”.
Inevitably there was a high mortality rate among the P.O.W.s and diphtheria and beri-beri were prevalent. Serious cases were sent to the Bowen Road Hospital and Leo describes the harrowing death of a friend there. Insects (bed bugs, mosquitoes, flies, red ants) were a constant annoyance. More seriously, the diary is full of references to “the draft”, the transport of thousands of Allied P.O.W.s to Japan. Leo was rightly nervous: one draft of almost 2000 prisoners sailed for Japan on the Lisbon Maru, which was torpedoed and sunk by an American submarine when a few days out from Hong Kong.
One advantage of the Sham Shui Po camp was its size. Prisoners could generally keep away from the Japanese guards and on several occasions Aaron and Nancy appeared at the perimeter fence and were able to hand over food parcels and news. There was always a risk of punishment, however. Minor offences were dealt with by repeated face slapping. Escapes (and attempted escapes) were another matter altogether and were dreaded by the remaining men since they resulted in the withdrawal of the vital Red Cross parcels.
For some time Leo worked as a labourer at Kai Tak airport during its expansion by the Japanese. This was gruelling work but it meant a little extra food and even a few pennies in pay.
Leo’s diary entries for 1945 become less frequent but also more hopeful. On 14th May he records the death of his friend Leon Weill but also writes: “Feel war will be over by AUGUST 1945”.
My father’s prediction was remarkably accurate and he walked out of Sham Shui Po camp on Friday, 17th August. What were the qualities which allowed him to survive? He was physically small (5 ft. 1 in.) and accustomed to an Asian rice diet. He had some knowledge of nutrition and avoided beri-beri by eating brown rice whenever he could. He had a knack of getting along with people, even with some of the Japanese guards (he joked with them and taught them “cowboy” songs). He was a skilled trader and negotiator and, significantly, he worked in the camp kitchens. He maintained a positive attitude when many others simply gave up. And he was lucky.
What will make this diary special for the people of Hong Kong is that Leo saw himself as a citizen of Hong Kong. This was the home he fought for and this was where he belonged.