Monday 10 December 2018

Eugenie Zaitzeff - Description of life in Japanese Occupied Hong Kong

I first became aware of Eugenie Zaitzeff when I read a file note from an interview with Hong Kong Government official David MacDougall dated December 1943. The file note is held at the Public Records Office in Hong Kong. She had been repatriated from Hong Kong with other Canadian citizens in September 1943 as part of a civilian internee exchange which had been agreed with Japan. A similar exchange involving US citizens had taken place in June 1942. Eugenie arrived in New York on the MS Gripsholm, a Swedish passenger liner, that had been chartered by the US Government to bring home Canadian and US citizens from internment in Asia. The Gripsholm sailed to Goa in India carrying Japanese civilians who had resided in North and South America. In Goa, she moored close to the Japanese troopship Teia Maru which was carrying Canadian and US citizens from internment camps in Asia, but some civilians, like Eugenie Zaitzeff, had not been interned. In her case, she had avoided internment on the grounds of her Russian descent. Also onboard was Emily (Micky) Hahn, the glamorous and unconventional American writer and traveller. She too had avoided internment on the grounds that she had been married to a Chinese national. Eugenie had struggled to survive in Japanese occupied Hong Kong, where food was desperately short, and theft and snatching was commonplace, not to mention the brutality of the Japanese gendarmerie and soldiery.
   The prisoners were exchanged. The Teia Maru sailed to Yokohama, and the Gripsholm sailed to New York. One can imagine the relief as the American and Canadian civilian internees boarded the neutral Swedish ship. The Japanese civilians, perhaps with some exceptions, were not happy to be going back. Many had made America their home, and Japan may have seemed like a foreign country. The Teia Maru stopped in Singapore and Manila on the way back to Japan. At these ports, the Japanese military recruited some of the passengers to help the war effort by serving as interpreters and translators. There was probably little choice.
   Whilst reading a file at the Imperial War Museum, I saw this press cutting with a centre photo of Eugenie and her eldest daughter Ann. The news report stated that she was a Russian lady born in China who had married a Russian-Canadian from Vancouver. She and her family had been part of the Russian emigre community who had fled to China following the Bolshevik revolution. After the Sino-Japanese war began in 1937 many Russians had left Harbin, Shanghai and other cities in China and had taken up residence in Hong Kong.

Press Cutting from Vancouver Daily Province Dec 1943 (IWM) 
Her husband Anatole Zaitzeff worked for the Canadian Government in Hong Kong. He had joined the HKVDC and served in No. 1 Battery. This battery was equipped with two 4-inch  coastal defence guns located at Cape D'Aguilar. After the battery was evacuated on 19 December 1941, the personnel were moved to Stanley where they fought as infantry during the close quarter fighting around Stanley Village. Anatole Zaitzeff was incarcerated at Sham Shui Po Camp and would not see Eugenie until after liberation in 1945.
   David MacDougall worked with the Ministry of Information in Hong Kong when war erupted in December 1941. He escaped with Admiral Chan Chak, the senior representative of the Chinese Nationalist Government, and the crews of the five remaining motor torpedo boats following the surrender on Christmas Day. Three of the original eight MTBs had been destroyed during hostilities. MacDougall had been posted from the UK to North America and returned to Hong Kong in September 1945, just after the war ended, in the rank of Brigadier serving as Chief of Civil Affairs in the military administration under Rear-Admiral Harcourt. Eugenie's debriefing provides a very interesting description of life in occupied Hong Kong. MacDougall wrote that she was a very useful source of information on what was happening in Hong Kong.
 A highly intelligent observer, able by reason of her Russian extraction to claim exemption from internment, Mrs Zaitzeff was by far the best informed of the Hongkong party. From the day of the surrender to her repatriation, she was lodged in a block of flats in May Road   (Abemore Court), reserved by the Japanese for foreigners. Such consular officers as remain in the Colony were housed in the same building. Mrs Zaitzeff was permitted to walk freely about Hong Kong and in spite of the unpleasantness, took every opportunity to do so. 
She described how the paths towards the university were lined with skeletons, which she thought were either those of British soldiers killed in the fighting or of Chinese civilians who had died of starvation. The Japanese lacked either sufficient food or the willingness to supply it to the Chinese, other than in lieu of wages. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese were forced to return to Southern China and POWs at Sham Shui Po Camp recall seeing huge columns of Chinese heading north to the border by way of both Castle Peak Road and Tai Po Road. They were prey to bandits, and many were robbed and or killed on the perilous way.
   Although burial parties of British POWs were sent out after the surrender to locate the British dead and conduct burials, many of the bodies could not be found and were left unburied. Somebody once mentioned to me, that a letter to the SCMP written after the war complained that there were still skeletal remains in the gulley opposite the AA position at Stanley Gap. Many of the Chinese population, especially the refugees from China, were unable to find work in Japanese occupied Hong Kong, and without the money to buy food, starvation became common. There were even reports of cannibalism, with flesh being cut away from dead bodies on the street. Eugenie noted that between four and six new corpses were to be seen most mornings on Old Peak Road leading from May Road to the Centre of Town.
Acute shortages are everywhere apparent. Flour and rice are scarce, and long queues are the order of the day. Necessities are obtainable only by ration tickets which are in turn obtainable only on proof that the individual is employed on work contributing to the establishment of the New Order and approved by the Japanese. The whole population is thus caught in the dilemma – they must either work for the Japanese or starve.

It is no longer safe to walk about with a handbag or parcel, even in the centre of the city. The handbag is snatched, and the parcel is stolen, and its contents are eaten before the eyes of the owner. 
She described how the Cricket Club in the centre of Victoria was used as a Japanese recreational club. Tennis tournaments and fencing (or perhaps Kendo) matches were held there. Hong Kong had been stripped, cars, metal railings, statues, and anything of value had been shipped back to Japan. Gas stoves were unobtainable, and electricity was scarce, and those that had access were rationed to a meagre amount of electricity. Eugenie described how most people sat in the dark with a candle if they could obtain one. Public transport was at a minimum. By September 1943 there were few buses, and the trams ran irregularly. They were crowded, and Japanese in uniform were excused payment and had priority. The Star Ferries still ran every half hour. There were very few civilian cars on the street given the shortage of fuel. Government House had been demolished, and the new building was under construction in 1943 in what Eugenie described as an exaggerated Japanese style of architecture. She was critical of Sir Shou Son Chow and Robert Kotewall
Kotewall and Shou Son Chow, who seem to vie with each other in pro-Japanese fervour and anti-British advocacy are two rare exceptions (to the no one runs a car rule). These two gentlemen are very much in the public eye. The Kotewall girls are among the few women who seem able to shop for anything save the bare necessities of life.

The police have been reinforced by fresh Chinese contingents drawn apparently from the North. Since the first American bombings, the Indian Police have grown markedly more polite to foreigners. At first, they were hostile. Cinemas are open in town and show either Japanese films or pictures of the triumphs of Wang Ching-Wei. When the show is frankly propagandist, admittance is free to all.
Many posters have been affixed to buildings in busy parts of the town; these depict a Chinese mother standing in an attitude of protection over her children while glancing fearfully at the sky. The caption reads  -Remember that it is American planes which are killing innocent women and children – the bombings are in fact welcomed even when a near–miss at the Central Police Station killed upwards of 150 Chinese including children. The successful bombing of the oil tanks at Lai Chi Kok was a seven-day wonder in the town. 
She described how very few Japanese merchant ships entered the harbour and those that did often moored close to Sham Shui Po Camp thinking there was less chance of being bombed with the POW Camp nearby. The bombing increased significantly in 1944 and 1945. Few of the British built air raid tunnels were used. The one below Battery Path opposite HSBC was in use, and likewise, one in Queens Road East was in use, but both of these were restricted to Japanese only.

Eugenie worked with Doctor Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke whereby she and other ladies picked up parcels containing food and medicine and delivered them to Sham Shui Po Camp addressed to individuals as presents from friends. She also reported that the dependents of Volunteers still interned (some Chinese members had been released) who have hitherto been paid 50 yen a month with 30 yen for the first child and 20 yen for each additional child have been ordered to proceed to St Albert's Seminary on Stubbs Road, known as Rosary Hill, for internment. 

Eugenie was reunited with her husband after the war ended in 1945. They continued to live in Vancouver, Canada and had a second child, Kristina, born in 1947. Eugenie passed away in 2001 but left to posterity this interesting description of life in Japanese occupied Hong Kong. 



Interview on repatriation to Canada with British official D.M MacDougall  - Source:  HK PRO File HKRS 211-2-4

Files at IWM 


In September 2023 - I received the following email message from a reader in Western Canada:

I have just now been referred to your long ago published account of the life of Eugenie in the war years of the early 1940;s.  It is fascinating reading for me because Eugenie and her daughter and later her husband Anatole came to Vancouver following their experiences in Hong Kong to live, initially with my family in our family home, and then later
with my father’s parents in their home, also in Vancouver.  And what is particularly interesting to me is the fact that my parents took particular interest in looking after Eugenie and her daughter Ann on and after their arrival in Vancouver in, I believe, 1943 or 1944.  At that time I was perhaps 5 or 6 years of age and was taken about by my parents, including down to the CPR dock in Vancouver harbour to meet the ship that carried Eugenie and Ann.  On their arrival we travelled by my parents’ car to a south part of Vancouver where my parents’ house was located and where Eugenie and Ann lived for a while until they were taken to my father’s parents’ house in another neighbourhood to live more permanently and await Anatole’s arrival from what I believe was a POW camp in Hong Hong.  He did in fact arrive in 1945, I believe, and the Zaitzeff family was reunited there.  Eventually the Zaitzeffs acquired their own housing and my connection with them became more remote.
However the Zaitzeff family remained an important past memory and event in my life and to this day (I am presently 84 years old) I think Eugenie and Ann’s arrival is one of my earliest significant memories of life. Thank you for filling in some of the background. I believe that my parents interest in the Zaitzeffs arose through her husband Anatole who
I believe had attended Vancouver in the 1930s to become a student at the University of British Columbia where my parents were themselves students at that time and would have met Anatole then and there.  He obviously returned to Asia after his studies and was the conduit through which Eugenie and Ann came in contact with my parents. Ann remained in Vancouver and as she and I grew up and matured we would occasionally see and greet each other.  What has now happened to her I do not know.


  1. So fascinating...would make a great film

  2. A fascinating account Philip; thank you for providing it. The American journalist Gwen Dew, who was interned in Stanley before being repatriated, wrote an excellent book titled “Prisoner of the Japs” in 1943.
    She describes her repatriation “operation” taking place in another Portugese colony, Lourenço Marques - modern day Maputo.