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Diary of wartime Shanghai gets modern airing

BETTY Barr Wang, a longtime Shanghai resident and writer of several books on China, has recently come out with a new volume — but this time the primary authorship honors belong to her mother.

“Ruth’s Record” is a diary written by her mother Ruth Hill Barr that recounts the everyday life between 1941 and 1945, including internment in a Japanese camp in Shanghai during the occupation years.

Her mother was a “feisty” Texan who came to China to study Mandarin in 1930. In Shanghai, she met and married Scottish schoolmaster John Snodgrass Barr.

In 1943, when Betty Barr Wang was 10 years old, the family was interned at the Lunghwa camp on the site of today’s Shanghai High School. They were detained in the same block as J.B. Ballard, author of “Empire of the Sun,” which was later turned into a successful Hollywood film.

Her mother began writing a diary in 1941 and secretly continued to pen her thoughts during internment. The diary revealed hardships of the war period that Betty Barr Wang didn’t know until she read the first-hand account. Like the sharp knife her mother hid under the young Betty’s doll bed in case of a need for self-defense.

“Ruth’s Record” was recently published by Earnshaw Books. It is available at Garden Books in Shanghai and also as a Kindle version on Amazon.

The diary recounts the foreboding of the foreign community in Shanghai as war began to encircle their lives, and then goes on to document the gritty determination of foreign internees to maintain as normal a life as possible in confinement.

“She probably sensed what was coming, so she started to keep a record,” says Wang, now 83 and living in Shanghai with her husband George Wang.

“Ruth’s Record” contains the full text of the diary, with annotations by her daughter.

Between 1942 and 1945, the Lunghwa camp housed nearly 2,000 Europeans and Americans, who tried their best to build a “community within confinement” and keep life as normal as possible for their children. Betty Barr Wang’s father took charge of the community’s kitchen, and her mother taught in the school. The community also maintained a library of books and phonograph records.

“The adults knew what was coming and had time to prepare,” Wang says. “As a child, life went on quite normally.”

Reading her mother’s diary years after her death refreshed Wang’s memory of those years.

“My mother was always very optimistic and well-organized, and she continued like that in the camp,” she says.

“It was a good thing Columbus discovered America,” her mother wrote, after receiving aid parcels from the American Red Cross near the end of the war.

The diary also contained poignant moments that adults in the camp kept from their children. It recounted the concerns of family and friends who failed to make it to a ship bound for home in 1942. Later that year, all foreign adults in Shanghai were ordered by the Japanese to wear red armbands making them as “enemies.”

“There is no place in this camp to go to weep,” Ruth Hill Barr wrote.

Wang’s own life is every bit as interesting as that of her mother.

Her husband Wang Zhengwen (George) was the son of a poor blacksmith. He pulled himself out of poverty by taking evening classes in English, accounting and any other subjects on offer in Shanghai. In 1988, he became an associate professor at Xuhui District Community College.

He met his first wife, a British teacher, at evening classes and they married in 1950. She died in 1983.

Betty Barr Wang went to the US to study after the war, but longed to return to China. She eventually found a teaching job in Shanghai. There, she befriended George and his wife. She returned to Britain and continued to correspond with George after his wife died.

In 1984 he proposed and she replied by telegram: YES!

They were married in the former Shanghai city government building and celebrated their nuptials over glasses of coca-cola in the city’s Friendship Store.

Their love story is recounted in a book the couple co-authored. “Shanghai Boy, Shanghai Girl” was published in 2002.

An interview with Betty Barr Wang

Q: Did you ever meet J.G. Ballard, who was also in the same camp as you and must have been about your age?

A: Jamie Ballard, as he was known in the camp, lived in the same block as our family and he was in the same school class as my brother Dick. My mother’s diary records that he was invited to my brother’s 15th birthday party. Since Jamie was a teenager and I was a mere 12-year-old girl, I don’t recall ever having had a conversation with him. My mother, however, records stimulating conversations with his father.

Q: The overwhelming perception of the Japanese in that era is negative, with stories of barbaric acts. What do you remember about that?

A: We were not technically prisoners of war, housed as we were in a so-called “civil assembly center.” There was a notorious place in Shanghai called Bridge House, where men, mostly suspected of being spies, were tortured. In the Lunghwa camp, the worst behavior I personally saw was a Korean man slapped about the face when his children failed to show up on time for a camp roll call.

Q: What are your feelings today about the war and the Japanese?

A: The 14-year war that started in Manchuria in 1931 was a disaster for China and one not readily known by many Westerners. Even today, I think the West does not fully appreciate the historical basis for the difficult relations between Japan and China. I hope that Japan some day will follow Germany’s example in expressing true remorse and offering full apologies for the horrific events that took place during the war.

Q: You were born in Shanghai. How were foreigners treated in China, and has that changed today?

A: Although Shanghai is my home, I guess I will also be somewhat of a foreigner. I don’t see any contradiction in that statement. As far as I recall, foreigners in China were treated in the same way as foreigners are treated in many other places — with both respect and resentment. As for today, it seems that young Chinese admire, if not worship, the West because of its advanced development. But at the same time, they are proud of their ancient heritage and the rapid rise of contemporary China.


 

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