When my father and his brother, only 12 and 13 at the time, returned to their home in Happy Valley, Hong Kong, their own mother didn’t recognize them. They caught her by surprise and they were so thin, with long hair and ragged clothes, that she mistook them for teenage boys going door to door selling firewood. In fact, they were coming out of hiding, since the War had finally ended.
It had been three years since their mother sent them away, with orders to hide in the countryside, where day after day they witnessed violence and fought starvation while trying to avoid capture by Japanese invaders.
My father’s account of this homecoming was among the most powerful anecdotes I read in his journal. After his death from cancer in 2006, my mother was cleaning out our Winnipeg home and from the study’s desk drawer gave me 90 typed pages in a ringed binder, with handwritten additions—some in English, some in Chinese—penned by my father, David Chee Yee Kaan [BSc/56, MD/60, DipAnaes/66].
He was an anesthetist who lived an ordinary life in Canada, earned his medicine degree from the U of M, enjoyed travelling, going to church and listening to music. Despite the terror he experienced, there was little evidence of this early trauma beyond an impatience for anyone who complained about mundane things. He wrote in a plain, matter-of-fact way, with no drama. The drama is in the facts.
His memoirs inspired my first book, The Water Beetles, which describes the impact of the Japanese invasion on Hong Kong as seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy. It tells the story of a wealthy family living a pampered life in the British colony, until Dec. 8, 1941, when the Japanese attack, and eventually gain control. After that, the family is essentially imprisoned in their house due to the violence and repression in the streets, venturing out only to collect rations. The matriarch of the family is ultimately compelled to split her family up and send the youngest children into the surrounding rural areas.
Of the 60 to 80 million people who died in the Second World War, and the many more who were disabled, displaced or impoverished by it, half were in Asia. Yet the Asian stories from the most lethal and violent event in human history remain relatively unknown in the West.
My father’s experience was one of hope and survival, though he did not emerge unscathed either. Part of my intent in writing this novel was to expand our understanding of the scope of the War, and how it continues to be the personal memory of many people who still walk among us.