The suffering of many interned by the Japanese in Hong Kong during World War II has finally been recognized due to the determination of an 83-year-old grandmother to reveal British racism at work. Adam Luck talks to Diana Elias
Diana Elias cannot remember the faces of the Japanese Imperial Army soldiers who pulled her from the bed of her Happy Valley home one warm December night, but she can remember the glint of the bayonets in the moonlight. Barely awake, the 17-year-old student was dragged with her brothers, sisters and parents just hours after the Battle for Hong Kong had reached its inevitable conclusion.
Forced into the back of an open topped truck in their bedclothes and bundled off to Stanley internment camp, Elias and her family were not just stripped of their dignity but their privileged and cloistered lives. All this because they had the misfortune to be on the list of British subjects handed over by craven colonial civil servants to the grateful Japanese military.
Nearly 65 years later, Elias appreciates the irony of her position then and now.
Only by facing down the successors to those bureaucrats and Tony Blair's government did the fragile 83-year-old grandmother finally call in the British government's debt of honor to all Crown subjects interned in World War II. In a damning verdict, Court of Appeal judges unanimously ruled earlier this month that the British government was guilty of racial discrimination when it determined that Elias was "not British enough" to be awarded compensation.
The way is now open for hundreds of other surviving civilian internees - denied ex gratia payments of 10,000 (HK$145,725) because they could not satisfy the British government's insistence on a "blood link" to the United Kingdom - to seek closure.
For Elias, the Court of Appeal victory has been tempered by a jumble of conflicting emotions.
Sitting in the dining room of a small terraced house in north London, the bird-like Elias looks too small even for her pink knitted jumper that falls so far that it leaves only the hem of her knee length black skirt showing.
When, however, Elias moves the clasped hands shielding her mouth she spits out the words: "After the Court of Appeal judgement I was angry and happy at the same time, but I was also exhausted by the struggle.
"I do feel bitter about my treatment by the British government. It has taken six years for me to prove that I was not a second-class British citizen, yet I have still not even received even so much as the courtesy of a written apology."
Born in Hong Kong in 1924, Elias' family were originally Iraqi Jews who had arrived in the Fragrant Harbor via Bombay. A child of the British Empire, her grandparents and parents were all British passport holders.
Her father became a respected Hong Kong businessman who worked for Sir Victor Sassoon and through his company became close friends with colleagues and fellow Baghdadi Jews Lawrence and Horace Kadoorie.
Elias said: "We were good friends with the Kadoories. They were well known to my father and they adored him. We were not allowed to go anywhere in those days without chaperones but the Kadoories would take us to their private beach. There were not many Jews in Hong Kong but the Sassoons, Kadoories and Raymonds were there."
The families would also mix at Happy Valley race course and the remainder of Elias' time was spent studying at the French Convent School.
Home was a rambling flat with a substantial terrace, family conversations in English, Arabic and Hindi, and Chinese servants who taught Elias plenty of Cantonese swear words.
"We had pictures of the King and Queen on the wall and we were all very conscious of the fact that we were British and proud of it."
Although her family was not overtly religious, Elias and her sisters nevertheless had their lives strictly controlled by their orthodox father and as a consequence had scant knowledge that this idyll was under threat. Her father apparently kept up the pretence among elder members of the family that evacuation was not practical because he wanted the family to stay together.
In reality, the British had drawn up plans for only those of European origin to be evacuated and this was probably a fiction to save the family face.
She said: "We were sleeping and all of a sudden there was this banging on the door. My father got up and the Japanese soldiers pulled him out of the flat. My father and brothers had to grab towels on the way out and the women and girls were just wearing our nighties. It was very dark and I do not remember the faces of the soldiers - just their bayonets. We were herded on to trucks with other families and driven to the camp. I was upset, angry and nervous."
Despite the best efforts of her father and eldest brother to shield the children from the full horrors of the camp, Elias was traumatized daily. But it was her mother Lilly who bore the brunt.
"My mother had a nervous breakdown and was never the same again. She just could not cope with the stress of trying to fend for her children.
"My father spent much of the time in hospital with dropsy, beriberi, typhoid and diphtheria.
"Everyone always knew if someone was about to die, including the patient, because they were given custard. I don't know why but this was a luxury you only got if you were going to die."
The military, police and civilians were assigned different living quarters but because they were in the same compound, Elias, along with her six brothers and sisters, was exposed to the full horror of Japanese brutality. One American was beheaded in front of everyone for unknown reasons.
Elias said: "Someone was caught with a radio and we had to watch while the person was being tortured. If you looked down you were beaten by the guards. It was frightening because everyday you did not know whether you were going to live or not."
Liberation, however, brought only temporary relief for the family. Elias' father was immediately evacuated on a hospital ship bound for Australia but did not survive the journey.
The remainder were refused permission to return to their home and instead were sent on the Queen Mary to Sri Lanka for "rest and recuperation" for several weeks before Elias and her brother moved on to stay with family in Bombay.
An arranged marriage followed swiftly but the birth of Elias' first son in 1947 brought no respite: "He was handicapped. I often wonder whether that was because of what my body had been through in Hong Kong."
Working as a successful travel agent Elias settled in India with her new family although each year she and her husband would spend a lengthy spell in the UK. This ferrying back and forth only came to an end when her husband Nissin died in 1976.
Elias followed her second son and moved to London permanently where she has continued to take care of her eldest son. One of the first things she did was to sign up with the Association of British Civilian Internees, Far Eastern Region, which had been campaigning for the British government to finally acknowledge its debt to British internees.
By 2000, rumors were rife among association members that the government was about to announce a compensation scheme, so when a package of 167 million was unveiled in November that year it came as no surprise.
Elias said: "I called the War Pensions Agency and asked for the forms. I filled them in quickly and sent them back. At no point was anything mentioned about a `bloodlink.' My parents and grandparents were British and so was I.
"When asked my nationality I simply wrote in `British Citizen' because that is what my passport says."
By February 2001, Elias had heard that the first raft of 10,000 payments was being made, yet she had received no word of her own application.
The alarm bells only truly started ringing when in March she received a form asking for details of her parents and grandparents births. "When I called the agency I was told that they were trying to establish whether my relatives were British Citizens or British Subjects. I told them that the Japanese made no distinction when we were locked away in the camp."
In May 2001, Elias received a letter informing her that the agency was trying to sort out "a definition of what `British' should mean."
"That letter left me in no doubt of what I was facing. It was racism," she said. When the government then confirmed that only those with a "bloodlink" to Britain were eligible more than 2,500 internees were disqualified.
"I was determined to fight them to the bitter end. I decided that the only course of action open to me was through the courts." With the help of renowned civil rights lawyers Bindman and solicitor John Halford, Elias launched a civil action.
In July 2005 the High Court in London ruled that the "bloodlink" was indeed discriminatory but the Ministry of Defence refused to accept the judgement and decided to take the matter to the Court of Appeal.
One of the key documents put forward at both hearings was a secret internal memo from junior official Alan Mayers in the War Pensions Agency advising another official how to deal with the rising tide of letter and protests from British MPs.
With Orwellian logic the memo reads: "It is true to deny we are being racist, but we are in fact including race as a deciding factor as part of our eligibility criteria."
On October 10, Elias emerged from the Court of Appeal in London's The Strand shouting victory after the judges unanimously backed her and awarded her an additional 3,000 compensation.
Lord Justice Mummery's lead judgement began: "This is no ordinary race discrimination case. There are grave allegations, responsibly made, of abuse of power and serious maladministration by the Secretary of State involving direct, as well as indirect, race discrimination." The irony is that Elias had already been awarded the 10,000 after the government reacted to the widespread political criticism by allowing people with 20 years' residency in the UK to become eligible for the compensation package.
Nonetheless the Ministry of Defence still saw fit to appeal her High Court victory. Elias said: "But why? Why did we have to go through all this when they could have settled this for a fraction of the expense and the anxiety?"
The compensation will be spent on her grandchildren, including one now married to a Korean woman, but despite encouragement from her family there will be no last visit to Hong Kong.
Elias said: "I went back to Hong Kong in 1972 or 73 because I got free flights with my job.
"I thought Hong Kong was lovely. I even went to Stanley to see the beach although so much had changed by then. I went back to see our house but there were people living in it and I could not bring myself to knock on the door. It would have been an intrusion."