Stephen and the Lake Monster is a dream writing project for me. It is for this story that I am currently enrolled in the Douglas College Creative Writing program. I want to able to tell this amazing tale which is based on my father’s experience as a little boy in a Japanese-held prison camp in Shanghai, China. I am writing with a middle school aged child in mind. Here is an excerpt from one of my many revisions:To: Mr. J. Henry and family 719 Rue Retand, French Concession Shanghai, China
By military necessity you and your family are hereby ordered to live in the Civil Assembly Centre. Necessary preparations shall accordingly be made….
At first it seemed unreal, like a bad dream. Before the invasion, Stephen and his family knew a much easier life in Shanghai. He was eight and half years old when the Japanese captured the city on December 8th, 1941. Though miles away, the explosion of bombs around the city’s river front could be heard from Stephen’s flat in the French Concession which was a French governed section of Shanghai.
That night, when the lights went out, Stephen and his sister Josephine hid under their bed. Ah-Ching, their kindly old amah, had slipped some pillows and blankets down to them. It made them feel somewhat safer being bundled up in the blankets under the bed, they watched Ah-Ching’s tiny bound feet pad over to the little altar to her ancestors. She stiffly crouched down on her knees, lit some incense, and as the smoke gently spiralled upwards, she began to whisper prayers.
The brass bed frame rattled every time a distant bomb hit its mark. Between the explosions, their home was eerily silent. Stephen lay still as he listened to his amah’s murmurs and his parents’ tense voices in the other room.
“What are we going to do now, Joe?” his mother asked. Her voice sounded shaky.
“Damn it, Lilian, I don’t know. The Japanese closed in faster than even the bloody government anticipated. Bloody hell, if only I could’ve got us a boat out of Shanghai in time,” he said.
Stephen’s mother sighed. “I heard that they’ve also attacked Pearl Harbour in Hawaii this morning. You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself, Joe. Even the Americans were taken by surprise.”
Over the following year, the occupying Japanese gradually took total control of Shanghai. As British citizens, Stephen’s parents were forced to wear armbands marked with the letter ‘B’. Stephen and Josephine would sometimes find their usual route to school cut off by a blockade of stoney-faced Japanese soldiers. His father found it increasingly difficult to withdraw money from the bank, and his mother worried about the growing scarcity of food.
Then in the spring of 1943, a notice arrived. It was an order for all Americans, Europeans, and British living in Shanghai, such as Stephen’s family, to surrender their homes and prepare to be moved to prison camps. Stephen’s parents were instructed to pack up all their essentials and leave all valuables behind. They were given four wooden trunks that Stephen’s mother packed with many items including canned food, clothing, mosquito nets, kettles, metal enamel plates, saucepans, a sewing kit, a wash board, soap, a broom and mop, and gardening tools. his dad also bought a card table, folding chairs, and metal-frame beds.
Josephine was excited at first. “It’ll be just like a camping trip,” she said.
Stephen was a little excited too, but his parents’ pinched and anxious faces made him worry.
About a week before they had to leave for the camp, Stephen and his family made their tearful farewells to Ah-Ching, at the train station. She was going back to the village where she was born. On a previous night, she had begged his parents to take her to the camp with them, but the Japanese were firm; no Chinese were allowed. Their family servant had not only been Stephen and Josephine’s amah, she had also been their father’s as well. Ah-Ching had always been part of the family.
“Here,” said Stephen’s mother, as she pressed a small cloth drawstring bag into Ah-Ching’s hands. “It’s yours…for emergencies. Keep it somewhere safe.” A couple nights ago, Stephen had witnessed his mum taking all her gold jewelry out of her precious teak jewelry box and place it into the little cotton bag. He now watched with an aching heart as Ah-Ching and his mother sobbed in each other’s arms. His father’s lips trembled as he hugged his old nanny. Ah-Ching clasped each of Josephine’s and Stephen’s hands into her own knobby warm ones and looked into their eyes. “Be brave, little ones.” She then stiffly picked up her bag and hobbled up to the train where, surprisingly, a young Japanese soldier standing near by, helped her up the steps. She did not look back but Stephen knew she was crying.
On the night before they had to leave, Stephen stood by as his scowling father pasted a banner diagonally across their front door. It read:
By the order of His Imperial Majesty,
This impounded property is now under the sole ownership of the Empire of Japan.
Early the next morning, Stephen and his family arrived with all their provisions at a Shanghai country club which was set up temporarily as an assembly point. They found themselves amongst a bustling crowd of fellow foreign nationals who were also waiting to board the buses to the camps. His dad was lucky to find a couple empty club chairs for the family to sit on. Stephen and Josephine squeezed in together in one large armchair and their mother sat down in the other.
“There’s going to be a bit of a wait so we might as well be comfortable,” said his father as he put their carry-on bags down at their feet. “There are some missionary ladies here serving tea. I’ll go fetch us some cups,” he said to their mother. He looked hard at Josephine and Stephen. “Stay put, you two, understand? I don’t want either of you getting lost. We all need to be together when our bus comes.” And he disappeared into the crowd.
Stephen felt squished and started elbowing his sister right away. “Quit hogging the chair, Josephine.”
“Beast.” Josephine elbowed her brother back.
“Mind your manners, you two,” their mum warned.
Stephen fidgeted as he sat. He recognized a girl from his class from Shanghai British School. He tried to wave but she didn’t see him as she and her family threaded their way through the throngs of people.
A woman’s sharp voice came up from behind them. “Excuse me, but do you mind?”
Stephen and Josephine turned around to see a woman in a fur coat and a fancy feather-trimmed hat staring down her nose at their mother. Beside the woman was a boy with chestnut hair and bright blue eyes, about Stephen’s age, in an exclusive boys school uniform. There was also a blonde teenaged girl standing behind her whose face was flushed bright red. The girl rolled her eyes as her mother continued to speak.
“Chinese are not permitted to use these seats, you know.” The woman sniffed. “You see, I am a member of this club and that is one of the rules here.”
Stephen’s mother looked fiercely at the rude woman. “But we are not Chinese, we are British.”
Stephen knew that was half true. They were Eurasian, a mixture of Asian and European. His mum’s mother, his beloved grandma, was Chinese and his grandpa was British. The same went with his dad too; British father and Chinese mother. Stephen and Josephine were second generation Eurasians. But even so, the Henrys were British citizens. The boy in the uniform crossed his eyes and made a goofy smile at Stephen. Stephen let out a muffled laugh.
“Well, I don’t think—” the woman was about to say. She looked down at her son and gave him small slap on the back of his head, “You behave, Thomas,” she said curtly.
“We are not moving. Find your own chairs,” Stephen’s mother said, her eyes narrowed.
The teenaged girl stepped forward. “Come on Mother, stop making a scene. You’re embarrassing us.” She tugged at her mother’s arm. “Look, Dad’s found us some extra seats over there, see?”
“Those people should know their place,” the feather-hatted woman grumbled as she finally allowed herself to be led to the other chairs. The boy smiled back at Stephen and gave a small wave.
When Stephen’s family was assigned to their bus, it was already so crowded inside that Stephen had to sit on his father’s lap.
“But Dad, I’m too old to sit on your knee,” he complained. He was nine years old now, after all.
His father gave Stephen a warning rap on his thigh. “Quiet, Steve. This is not the time or place to start whining.”
Josephine who had a window seat beside their mother smiled at Stephen and silently mouthed, “Serves you right, you beast.”
For the rest of the journey, Stephen clung miserably to the leather soccer ball his mother had recently given him. He was glad that uniformed boy from the club was on another bus and couldn’t witness his humiliation.
The one hour bus trip took them out past Shanghai and into the countryside. They drove by many small villages and expanses of rice paddy fields. In the distance, Stephen spied a familiar landmark. He turned to his father and pointed out the bus window. “Look Dad, it’s the Lunghwa Pagoda.” Stephen’s class had once gone on a school field trip to see the ancient Chinese tower. The tall column-like structure was several stories tall. Each level had a curved slope of roof jutting from it which was typical in classical Chinese temples or palaces. It reminded Stephen, somewhat, of a giant centipede standing upright with it’s many legs flayed out; preparing to attack it’s prey.
Stephen’s father nodded absently. “Yes, son. The camp that we are going to was actually named after the pagoda.” Stephen’s dad then turned and stared out the window until they finally drove through the gates of the Lunghwa Civil Assembly Centre. As they stepped down from the cramped bus, they saw hundreds of other camp internees waiting to receive the new arrivals from a distance. Japanese soldiers briskly marched towards the new arrivals and one Japanese man in civilian clothes shouted in English, “All new internees are to follow the guards to the assembly hall to be registered!”
As they made their way across the square to the hall, Stephen gazed out in awe at the crowd and the soldiers. He then realized that he had forgotten something. He tugged at his mother’s coat jacket. “I left my ball on the bus!” And he ran towards the door of the bus.
As he bounded over to the vehicle, he was abruptly halted in front of the door. A young tall officer, with a scar across his nose, faced him. A few steps behind the officer, stood a stocky cold-faced guard. The officer stared Stephen up and down with hawkish eyes as he fingered his katana, a long sword which hung from his belt. In his other hand he held a long thin bamboo stick which he now pointed at Stephen’s face.
“Idō…go,” he said sweeping the bamboo stick towards the building the other internees were being led to.
“But I j-just-” Stephen stammered.
“Go! You stupid konketsu-ji!” the man shouted, his face turning red.
Startled, Stephen turned and ran over join his mother, father and sister up ahead. They stared, wide-eyed at him and the officer.
As Stephen and his family quickly made their way to the assembly hall entrance, he heard the man, he would soon come to know as Commandant Hoshu and the guard, laughing loudly behind him as they repeated, “Hurry, little Konketsu-ji! Stupid little Half-breed! ”
Stephen felt his face burn with anger and humiliation. This bad dream was his new reality. He and his family were now prisoners of the Empire of Japan.