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How a Hong Kong wartime diary sparked an unlikely friendship that spanned decades and continents

David Bellis first visited Hong Kong as a tourist in 1989. He certainly didn’t expect to find himself living there more than three decades later.

“I was supposed to be going to Australia on a working holiday with a friend back home – (but he) fell in love so he didn’t want to go anymore,” says Bellis.

Rather than let his pal’s romantic life derail his plans, the 24-year-old Wales native decided to carry on with the trip, but with a quick stopover in Hong Kong.

He ended up staying in the city for eight months.

Bellis can’t pinpoint the exact moment he fell in love with Hong Kong, but says he enjoyed it so much that he decided to learn Cantonese while he was in Sydney.

After his one-year working vacation in Australia, he returned home to Wales and worked to save up enough money to make his way back to Hong Kong in 1992 – and he’s called the city home ever since.

More than 60 years earlier, Barbara Anslow was experiencing her own introduction to Hong Kong. Her reaction was very different from that of Bellis.

At nine years old, in the summer of 1927, Anslow boarded a steamer to make the long journey from England to Hong Kong with her family. Her father, an electrical engineer for the Naval Dockyard, had been relocated to the city, which was under British rule at the time.

In honor of the occasion, she wrote a poem in her diary. Judging by this excerpt, it wasn’t love at first sight.

“If I stay much longer I shall be in tears.”

Thankfully, Anslow eventually came around.

Her family left Hong Kong in 1929 but returned in 1938 when Anslow was 19 years old.

Anslow’s 20s would prove to be a tumultuous time. She witnessed the Japanese invasion and the Battle and Fall of Hong Kong in 1941. She spent more than three years in an internment camp in Stanley, now a tourist-friendly seaside area of Hong Kong.

The dedicated diarist documented her daily life in the camp.

“Mum would tell us how (life at the camp) was ‘a bit boring really’ and how she put on plays for the young children and wrote her stories on any paper she could get her hands on to pass the time,” shares Maureen Rossi, Anslow’s other daughter.

After the war, Anslow vowed to never return to Hong Kong again. It didn’t last. She moved back to the city to start a job as a stenographer and, in 1948, married a fellow Stanley internee. The couple had five children – all born in Hong Kong.

The family eventually moved back to the United Kingdom in 1959 – for good this time.

Anslow’s former home became a distant memory for her. But little did she know, her wartime diary would lead to an unlikely friendship with another Hong Kong resident – Bellis.

David Bellis returns to Hong Kong

When Bellis made a permanent move to Hong Kong in 1992, he was thrust into a sales job instead of working in programming – his true passion. But it was at that job that he met his wife, Grace, a local Hong Konger.

“She was a client before she became my co-worker,” says Bellis.

“When we started dating, I asked her which flowers she likes and she told me ‘turnip’ (she meant ‘tulip’). I bought her a turnip (loh baak) that she took home. Her mum had been a vegetable hawker for many years and approved that I knew how to pick a good loh baak, not knowing it was the last one for sale on the market stall.”

Bellis says he’s always loved wandering off the traditional tourist trail, giving him greater opportunities to meet locals and learn about the city’s history.

In 2002, he decided to start a blog with his friend Ross to document their lives in Hong Kong.

“But it turned out that Hong Kong’s history was a lot more interesting than my experiences,” says Bellis.

When he wrote about the fascinating historic sites he saw, readers would respond by sending him their own old photos to share on the blog. Eventually, he decided to shift gears and, in 2009, founded Gwulo, which means “old” in Cantonese.

Today, the website has a huge cult following made up of Hong Kong travelers and history buffs who share fun facts, stories and photos of the city. There are more than 50,000 pages of content and around 30,000 of photos – one of the biggest crowd-sourced digital photo archives of old Hong Kong.

“I thought it’d make me rich but that didn’t happen either,” Bellis laughs.

Donations have kept the site alive but it’s mainly fueled by his passion for the city. Bellis also sells prints and has written six books about the old Hong Kong photos and tales he gathered over the years.

The Wartime Diaries project

It was Gwulo that led Bellis to Anslow.

“I’d been following a Yahoo group forum for people who had been to the Stanley camp. Some of them were posting diaries. One of them was Barbara Anslow,” he says.

Bellis had an idea. He decided he would ask if he could use her entries in a daily newsletter for Gwulo’s readers, with each diary entry corresponding to the day’s date.

“I was a bit cautious about reaching out to Barbara because – why would I be bothering an elderly lady? Then she posted this lovely message one day about how valuable the group was,” Bellis recalls. “She said she’d do all her chores with the promise that when she finished, she could sit down, have a cup of tea and a biscuit, turn on the computer and see what new messages had come today.”

He says she agreed to his proposal right away, telling him “No problem. You go ahead with that.”

For years afterwards, he would “pester” Anslow daily.

“Every time I posted a new entry, I’d have questions. ‘You talked about this. Can you explain?’ Each time, she’d come back and say, ‘Oh yes, I remember that,’” says Bellis.

“She had a lovely and sharp memory, so we were able to fill out the gaps in the entries. She was a modest and generous lady. She was such a role model.”

He called the project “Wartime Diaries” and today counts it among one of his proudest Gwulo endeavors.

Bellis and Anslow remained pen pals for years.

“I subscribe to the Wartime Diaries myself, so I’d still come up with questions when I get the diary (entry) of the day. She would always answer. Sometimes she’d write to me and say, ‘Oh, I thought of something extra you might be interested to know,’” says Bellis.

He even visited Anslow a few times whenever he made trips to the UK.

“I remember David coming when she had moved in with us and he was so thrilled to speak to her and struck by her astounding memory and attention to detail,” says her daughter, Rossi.

“David was a very good friend of mum’s, he was so interested in her stories and all her memories it was like meeting a kindred spirit. Mum was so unassuming and thought people may be a bit bored with all the details but he was never bored and always full of questions, which she answered in full.”

Over the years, Bellis even hosted Q&A sessions with Anslow, in which she’d answer questions from Gwulo readers.

“You would not guess she was almost 100 years old. She was so full of energy,” he says. “We’d had lunch one time and her daughter said, ‘David, there’s the next train for you at about two o’clock…’ I thought Barbara was probably getting tired and needed a nap. Then, she continued to say, ‘…cause mum has to be off for her card games.’”

Anslow’s diary isn’t the only one featured on Gwulo.

Those who sign up for the newsletter receive snippets of entries from multiple diaries from the same date during the war years – starting from the beginning of the war in 1941 to the end – three years and eight months later.

It offers a glimpse of what daily live was like for different people at the camp – from exchanging exciting news about a runaway tiger, to the sounds of bombing or the day’s meager food supplies.

Connecting people on Gwulo

Bellis visited Anslow for the last time in 2019, with his whole family.

“She died later that year at the age of 100, still with a perfect recall of her life until the very end,” says daughter Maddison.

“All through our childhood she would recount endless stories of her time in Hong Kong, particularly in Stanley camp during the war. As children we were not very interested, but as adults we were fascinated by her diaries.

“We are all so proud of our mother. She had a great sense of humor, and was always completely straight forward and honest. Because of her experiences in the war, nothing ever fazed her.”

Anslow didn’t slow down in her later years.

In 2015, she was asked to read a poem at a commemoration ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII in Asia. She was also invited to visit various places, including Buckingham Palace, to share her stories.

In 2018, Anslow’s diaries were published in a book, “Tin Hats and Rice: A Diary of Life as a Hong Kong Prisoner of War,” by Hong Kong publisher Blacksmith Books. The followup to “The Young Colonials,” which she published in 1997 about her life in Hong Kong, it also includes remarks and notes from Bellis and Anslow’s exchanges.

“I always remember she said in her diary she’d like to be a teacher or an author,” says Bellis. “Then, the war years came along and got in the way of all that. But in her 90s, you know, she was still teaching us about old Hong Kong and she had (another) book published. So, there you go – never too late.”

Bellis’ Gwulo posts have helped others reconnect with friends and loved ones, too. These include old class photos, or random family travel photos that he found on eBay.

He calls it a “happy side-effect” of his work.

“I have no great plans for my website – but that’s what I love about it,” says Bellis.

“You may post a photo of your younger sister but someone else would be looking at the model of the tram in the background. Everyone may look at the same information but will get different stories out of it.”

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