In a nice (but very cold) afternoon in July this year, I met someone important in the National Gallery in Canberra, Australia. She was Ellen Tulip, my very first oral history interviewee.
The story goes back to November 2013, two months after I had started my MPhil thesis on the evacuation. A teacher at HKU learnt about my project. Knowing that I hadn’t been able to find any surviving evacuee, he was kind enough to put me in touch with Dr. Ellen Tulip. And that’s how I got to know Ellen. When I visited Canberra in September 2014, Ellen kindly offered to pick me up from the airport, and it turns out I picked the right time to visit: her elder sisters Margaret, who lives in Tasmania, and Allison, who lives in WA, were both visiting her. So in just one trip, I managed to see all three of them. We had Australian BBQ lunch, dinner and saw the Australian War Memorial together. But more importantly, I also held a group interview with Ellen and Margaret, and another individual interview with Allison, in which I learnt so much more about their family’s past.
Daughters of Prof. Gordon King (then a prof at the medical school at HKU) and Dr. Mary King, Allison, Margaret, and Ellen left Hong Kong with their mother in July 1940 with 3,331 other evacuees.
In many ways, their experience was not a typical evacuation story. Mary later also took the responsibility of looking after Jean Gittins’ two children. As Jean, daughter of Sir Robert Hotung (a prominent Eurasian tycoon in HK), and her husband were both Eurasians, she and her two children were not included in the evacuation scheme. With the White Australia policy, she couldn’t bring her two children to Australia. As Jean was working as Gordon’s secretary, he kindly offered that her two children could stay with his family. And so during the war years the two children stayed in the King household, until Mary had to go to China to support her husband’s war relief work. Most exceptionally, their father Gordon escaped from Hong Kong to free China in early 1942; the King family could remain in communication during the war. On the other hand, the majority of evacuees remained out of touch with the men in Hong Kong who were kept in camps there.
However exceptional their experience may be, their story still helped me – as a historian, as an outsider, as someone who had never lived through a wartime emergency – to understand what it was like for evacuees to start a new life in Australia. Their story told me how hard it was for the evacuees, many of them knew nothing about Australia, to just decide on where to disembark for the next few weeks (which ended up being years, and in many cases even decades). The Kings almost ended up in Perth in Australia: Mary was attracted to Perth in Australia, because ‘she came from Perth in Scotland and she thought Perth in Australia might be the same’. But as her friend was from Melbourne she decided eventually to go to Melbourne. Their story of rushing out to find somewhere to rent allowed me to understand evacuees’ anxiety from trying to find a home without knowing their bearings in Australia. Their narratives of their school lives suggest how it was relatively easy for children to adjust to life in Australia, as it was part of the British Empire. Their vivid recollection of the first reunion of their father seven years after the evacuation shows me how long-time separation disrupted parenthood and affected the evacuated families in a very personal way. Even though they could stay in touch with each other during the war, the three little girls that left Hong Kong in 1940 had become teenagers – it was Gordon and Mary’s first time seeing Margaret wearing lipstick!
After the war Gordon stayed in Hong Kong to help with the reopening of the University, and eventually became the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at HKU. The King girls moved to Scotland for schooling with their mother. Hoping to study medicine and be closer to their father to make up for lost time in the war years, Margaret and Ellen eventually moved back to Hong Kong and finished their university education there.
I am very lucky indeed to have made friends with the three of them, who brought me so much closer to the history that I was studying. This post is written, to the good health of the three King girls.