After we had dinner that evening I curled up in a comfortable armchair with Janey, a wonderful present from some friends of my parents who were returning to Britain. At six o’clock Gordon and I always listened to the Children’s Hour hosted by “Aunt Peggy” on the local radio station, RUOK (Are you okay?). That evening the final song was, Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day, sung in the falsetto voice adopted by male popular singers in the 1930s.
At seven, Amah came to take us up for our bath, just as the news was starting. It always began with a commercial for Jello. As we went through the living room door the American commentator, Carroll Alcott, started his news reading with the words, “Hello, Hello, Jello, Jello!” an introduction I always found hilarious. I went upstairs laughing and chanting: “HelloJello, HelloJello” over and over, just feeling the sound of the words. They seemed thicker than the jello, or jelly as we called it, that we had as dessert.
Amah explained that alleyway life reminded her of her village in Canton where they woke up every morning to the cries of roosters and the smell of the night soil wagon and small coal fires. Just as in the village, here hens scratched in the dirt, and coal burned in small tin containers to cook the breakfast of rice and pickled vegetables. The alleys, so different from the streets I knew, gave their residents all they needed for their lives in a few streets.
We walked around the compound and saw a street barber, his customer swathed in a pristine white sheet, and heard the cry of a nearby street food vendor dispensing noodle soup and fresh won ton dumplings to order. At the end of Ah Fok’s alleyway sat a scribe in a long black gown, reading a letter and then penning a reply – for a fee. Nearby sat a basket mender working away. A seller of toilet paper zoomed by on his bike, and a knife grinder wandered along calling out for knives to sharpen.
Amah and I passed various corner shops, one selling every daily need: offering everything from tobacco and currency exchanges to bed bug killer, and another tiny shop for sesame cakes only. Groups of people were chatting in front of the shops. At the rice store I saw several men queuing and holding large paper vouchers. Amah said they were rickshaw pullers too sick to work receiving free rice from the PMAA (Pullers’ Mutual Aid Association.) That was a revelation. I had always thought the coolies had no resources.
Here, the dust storms started. Then, the wind howled for hours. Each storm swirled grittily around the camp, holding us prisoner twice over. It created a fog of sand through which we could not see, a wall of wind through which we could not walk, a barrier of sound through which we could not hear. Stale-smelling dust flew through the porous buildings settling on and in everything. We cowered on our beds. It was strange that there were no dust storms when we lived our halcyon, pre-internment camp days just minutes away; but it seemed appropriate that we should be so tormented now. Outside the bushes would be green, and all the fields; but the bushes were dour and dusty, the hard ground dun coloured, here, in this desolate place.