|Courtesy: Giffen family|
Erma Hadley, a pretty twenty-five-year-old Canadian girl from British Columbia, had saved up, together with her friend Betty Elder, for the trip of a life time to Hong Kong where they hoped to find work. They arrived in 1934 and Erma got a job as a secretary. She and George met at a beach party held in a mat-shed bathing hut at one of popular beaches along Castle Peak Road. They married four years later. The wedding marked a high point of one of the happiest periods of their young lives. They had arrived separately in Hong Kong to make a fresh start after, what had been for both of them, difficult periods in their early lives.
In July 1940, at a time of increased tension when war with Japan was considered imminent, the Hong Kong Government issued a Compulsory Evacuation Order, under which British women and children were required to evacuate Hong Kong. Only those women in essential services were allowed to remain. Some 3,500 women and children were hurriedly evacuated to Manila with most going on to Australia. After the state of tension reduced and nothing happened, there was considerable protest from the wives who wanted to return and from the so-called bachelor husbands who held vociferous meetings demanding that their wives be allowed to come back. The new military commander, Major-General Christopher Maltby, and the new Governor, Sir Mark Young, both arrived in 1941 to take up their duties, and, in order to set an example, they came without their wives and children. When war broke out in Hong Kong, George was relieved that Erma and Dianne were safe in Canada.
|Courtesy: Giffen family|
|Courtesy: Giffen family|
He had responded to an advert to work as a reporter in Hong Kong and, shortly after joining the Barking Gazette, he was interviewed at the Strand Palace Hotel by Ben Wylie, the General Manager of the SCMP/HKT Group. The opportunity to travel to the Far East was irresistible and at the age of twenty-two, George sailed for Hong Kong from the Port of London on 21st April 1933 on the Japanese liner the Suwa Maru. The ship was sunk some ten years later by an American submarine at Wake Island during the Pacific War.
|SS Suwa Maru (Courtesy: www.delcampe.net)|
When George arrived in Hong Kong, he found reasonably-priced accommodation at the YMCA and, like many other young men at that time, he joined the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps (HKVDC). He served in the ANZAC Coy which was made up principally from Australians and New Zealanders based in Hong Kong. Although British, George joined the ANZAC Coy to be with friends and colleagues, many of whom were Australian. The Editor of SCMP, Henry Ching was an Australian Chinese. George's best man at the wedding, Lionel Le Gay Brereton, was Australian, as were several other colleagues from SCMP and HKT, including Norman Stockton, Richard Cloake, Stewart Gray and Arthur Scholes. The photographs below show George training with the Vickers Medium Machine Gun and wearing an Australian style slouch hat that would have been worn by members of the ANZAC Coy.
|George in the foreground acting as No. 2 on the Vickers Gun (Courtesy: Giffen family)|
After the ANZAC Coy was disbanded in 1935, George transferred to a Machine Gun Coy, most likely No. 1 Coy.
|George Giffen at work (Courtesy: Giffen family)|
The Japanese invaded Hong Kong on 8th December 1941. After a week of fighting on the Mainland, the British withdrew to the Island fortress and by Saturday 13th December the last British troops had been evacuated from the Mainland in an operation that was tantamount to a mini-Dunkirk. Thereafter, the Island was heavily bombed and shelled as a prelude to the Japanese landings on the north shore of the Island between North Point and Shau Kei Wan on the night of 18th/19th December. During the period of hostilities, one bomb struck the Wyndham Street offices of the SCMP/HK Telegraph and another landed in On Lan Street almost opposite. The editorial staff and management continued to produce a daily newspaper throughout the fighting up until the Christmas Day surrender of British forces. The battle for Hong Kong had been short, bloody and brutal.
George and other members of the editorial staff of the SCMP and HK Telegraph had been 'camping out' at the Wyndham Street office for much of the period of fighting. After the British surrender, the Japanese took over the Wyndham Street offices and printed the Japanese-owned Hong Kong News. A few days, later British, American and Dutch civilians were rounded up for internment. George Baxter from United Press recalls in his memoirs that on 4th January they were notified to report to Murray Parade Ground for internment.
"The Editor of the Hong Kong Telegraph George Giffen had been at my apartment (in Duddell Street) most of the afternoon, and had been gone only a few minutes when he returned with a proof copy of an order which was to appear in the next morning's Hong Kong News, the Japanese sheet which supplanted all the English language newspapers I returned to the office with him and secured some snatch copies as well as verified the fact with the Japanese Editor."George and the other editorial staff turned up at Murray Parade Ground and were marched to the western area of town where they were locked up in cheap boarding houses, many of which had been brothels or short-time hotels. George was incarcerated with his colleagues in the Tong Fong Boarding House. On George's floor they had 142 people including men, women and children with only two squat-type toilets. The cubicles were crowded with four or five internees in a cubicle suited at best for two. The cubicles were dirty and vermin-infested. The internees were given very little food. After a few weeks, they were moved by ferry to Stanley Internment Camp where George remained until liberation.
In August 1945, George Giffen and Ben Wylie were among the first to leave Stanley Camp to try and take the newspaper back from the Japanese and re-start production of their newspaper. This was an uncertain and dangerous period between the Japanese surrender and the arrival of British forces. They proceeded to their old offices in Wyndham Street where they were joined by Henry Ching, physically weakened from the hardship he had endured. As a Eurasian with a Chinese father and Australian mother, he had not been interned but had struggled to survive in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong by selling personal items and household items to buy food. The three of them set about relaunching their newspaper. The first edition on 30th August 1945 was a one-page news-sheet with the headline "Fleet Entering."
In Stanley Camp, George was billeted in Block 8 which was the main building of St Stephen's College. He became good friends with Louise Mary Gill, known as 'Billie,' whom he had met before the war through the writer Emily Hahn.
Billie, born in 1916, was ethnically Chinese and had been raised in Shanghai in a Eurasian family with an English father, a Postal Commissioner, and a Chinese mother. After being educated in English schools in Shanghai, Billie worked for Reuters and a literary magazine called T'ien Hsia and was seconded to the Mayor of Shanghai after the Japanese attacked Shanghai in 1937. When Shanghai fell, Billie fled to Hong Kong with her colleagues and they worked for the Chinese Government Information Office in Hong Kong.
|Billie Gill (Courtesy: Ian Gill)|
In Stanley Internment Camp, Billie and Brian, now eighteen-months-old, were billeted in Bungalow B, a former teacher's bungalow close to the main school building. In May 1944, friends of Billie took Brian to Tweed Bay, where, in a tragic mishap, he drowned in a fresh water pool behind the beach. He was just short of his fourth birthday.
During the grief-stricken months that followed for Billie, George proved a stalwart friend, supporting her when she fainted and writing a poem in memory of Brian.
|George's poem offered solace to Billie. (Courtesy: Ian Gill)|
Their relationship deepened and, when Billie found out in mid-1945 that she was pregnant, it was a happy event. George wrote a poem to the "unborn baby of my unwed wife" for Billie's 29th birthday on June 14th. He also scrounged around for wood to make a cradle.
The war's end in August 1945, however, saw George moving to town while Billie waited in Camp. He wrote to say he was sorry he couldn't get away. On September 17th, Billie boarded the SS Empress of Australia for UK. However, the doctor told her she would need a Caesarian and, in Manila harbour, she was transferred by a small craft to the SS Mount Maunganui, a converted New Zealand hospital ship. Her son Ian was born in Lower Hutt hospital, near Wellington, New Zealand, on 25th October, 1945. George sent a telegram of congratulations.
After six months helping to get the newspaper up and running, George returned to Canada in 1946. He met his daughter Dianne, now nearly six-years-old, for the first time. In December 1947, Erma gave birth to their second daughter, Linda.
Erma was initially employed as a stenographer/secretary by Mr Henry Buxton, a merchant. Henry Buxton served in the HKVDC and was killed when Japanese troops over-ran his battery. In a double tragedy, his wife Alberta was raped and killed by Japanese soldiers when they broke into the hospital at St Stephen's College, Stanley where she worked as a nurse. After Henry Buxton's business experienced a slowdown, Erma left and was employed by the Hong Kong Government, working for Commander G.F. Hole, RN (Rtd) who at the time was Harbour Master. He was also a Member of LEGCO. Erma's friend Betty was employed as a secretary by Thorneycroft Co. Ltd.
Billie Gill joined the United Nations in Shanghai, starting a long career that ended with her being Assistant to the Personal Representative of the Secretary-General at the long-running disarmament conference in Geneva, Switzerland. After her retirement in 1976, Billie was awarded the M.B.E. for services to the United Nations.
In 1985, Ian, who was working in Singapore as a journalist, took his first trip to Canada and made friends with a man in Montreal who helped him find his father on Denman Island.
After a warm phone call to his father, Ian returned to Canada soon afterwards to meet George and Erma on Denman and Dianne and Linda at Victoria. Ian describes how he felt on finding the other side of his family.
"I discovered the missing pieces of my genetic puzzle and acquired another family, including two sisters. Dianne told me I was the son George had always wanted while she and Linda gained a brother."Remarkably, it was found that George and Ian had not only pursued the same career path but had worked in newspapers close to each other in England and had both wound up on newspapers in Hong Kong.
|George Giffen & Erma with their daughters, Dianne and Linda and Ian on Denman Island in 1997|
(Source: Giffen family)
"I attended the memorial service for George in Vancouver on 6th January, 2007, where I had been invited to give a eulogy. I handed out copies of the SCMP obituary and George’s family, who knew little of his pre-Canadian life, was amazed and proud to learn of his exciting life on the other side of the world over 60 years earlier."
|Tom Parkinson (centre) with Erma Hadley (Courtesy: Giffen family)|
The Officiating Priest - Rev. John Leonard Wilson
Mr & Mrs MacKechnie
|MV Jutlandia (Source: www.clydesite.co.uk)|
|Ian Gill's family with his younger sister Linda Sverdrup (centre) - 17th April 2014|
|The families of Ian Gill and his sister Dianne Fowler in Vancouver - 10th April 2014|