An Empty Library

What do you do when you are given a Library that has no books?

And suppose this library was surrounded by miles and miles of nothing but rice paddies? And nobody but your immediate compatriots could speak English, or if they did, it was pidgeon with very few words.

Well that was what faced me when I was transferred to a Radar Base in Hong Kong.

1950 Hong KongNot the Hong Kong of shiny buildings and jazzy night clubs, but the Hong Kong of the New Territories, nose to nose with the Chinese Communist Army. Thirty miles of hairpin mountain roads, so narrow that sometimes vehicles had to stop at a wide part so people could drive past you. At least an hours trip on a nasty dirty un-airconditioed bus with Chinese, chickens and small pigs..The only source of recreation was the NAAFI, the group that took care of the off duty servicemens. They managed the canteens, sold cigarette and beer and what ever other things you might need like pens and paper, shoe polish et al. At this Unit it was bare, just one Quonset hut as a canteen come pub, no tables or chairs, not even a dart board. One little hatch in the wall where everything was purchased.

It was Summer with the temperature as high as 110 degrees so the working hours were from 5 am to noon, at which time we were supposed to take a siesta. Our sleeping and living quarters were also Quonset huts, no radios, air conditioning, TV or any other amenities. The CO had seen my RAF History and noticed my past as Librarian in a couple of bases and so he was delighted to foist the title in to me. What he didn’t mention that the Library was a divided off part of the canteen. All it consisted of were a couple of chairs, a table, and bookshelves. Empty!

“Where are the books,” I inquired.
“Don’t know old boy, suppose you’ll have to drum up that part yourself.”
And that was that.

My first try was at an Army Base quite close, but all I got there was that Army Materials could not be transferred to the RAF without permission and they weren’t about to put themselves out about that – too much paperwork. Apparently the RAF was not liked by our boys in Khaki.

I tried Headquarters at Kai Tak and their answer was that we were a Transit Unit and not entitled to Books. Transit meant a base where you would be shuttled to and wait for your next assigment, but this place was definitely not that.

If anything it was the RAF’s “Fort Zinderneuf”.

I had noticed a Police Station on the way in so I considered a stab at that. The Chief Inspector was Scottish, with all his personnel Chinese. Quite a number of these spoke pretty good English (with Scots accent) but none were much help. He was a very amiable chap and was delighted to talk. Apparently the Military has little use for the Civilian Police and made no bones about the fact so my visit was a treat for him too.

“See Laddie, when I need something I pop down to Kowloon or the Island and pick up what I need there. How much did they give you to spend?” Now that was a shock! Money. Of course I needed money.

“Tell you what,” suggested the Scot, “suppose we take a run down to Kam Tin and see if theres any thing there.” So off we went to the nearest town, accompanied by two Constables. Not for protection but to talk to the storekeepers. The Inspector told me he could speak quite good Cantonese, but he rather kept it under cover. Better the natives didn’t know what the Gwi Lo (Foreign Devils) understood what they were talking about.

He told me that the Police had a pretty easy task in the Territories. “Basically the Chinese run everything themselves, so what crime there is, they look after. Murder is about one of the few items we hear of, and probably only a fraction of those.”

Well the town was a wash. Yes there were books, but all in Chinese. Even if they did have any in English they would want money. But the Ian, the Inspector was very helpful though. He offered to drive me down to Hong Kong anytime. “It’d be a great excuse to get away and my Bosses would give me a pat on the back for helping you boys out. Be fun for you to get a good look around too, just getting jerked off the plane and being sent up here.”

Well back at the base the Adjutant was less than helpful. “The only money we have is from the Canteen Profit’s and we only do that once a month. The men decide what to do with them and I can assure you that books would be the last thing they would vote for.

Generally it goes for the monthly booze up.” Another bombshell! Then came another surprise. I was walking by the Guard Room when the Station Police Sergeant called me in. “What’s you game then,” he demanded. I explained my mission to him and ended up with another problem. The RAF Intelligence Branch would often use the cover of the Education Branch to insert an agent onto a base where there were a hint of irregularaties. When I mentioned “Library” his face changed. From being authorative he retreated into amiabilty. “Well get about your business, Airman,” he said, with abroad wink. “Don’t forget we’re here to help you.”

Now I didn’t understand the big turnaround, but never look a gift horse in the mouth I say. But as I met the other Airmen I gradually got the idea. Most looked at me as an officer and were very circumspect. A few didn’t on the basis I just wasn’t stupid enough to be in Intelligence. It didn’t help matters when I was called to the Guardroom to take a phone call.

“There’s a Police Officer looking for you,” announced the sergeant. I picked up the phone and recognised the voice immendiately. “Hello Ian, what can I do for you.”

It turned out he had made some calls and wanted to drive me to Kowloon and meet some people. “Well let me ask my CO if it’s ok and I’ll call you back,” But before I could finish the conversation the sergeant waved at me. “I can handle that Airman. Just tell the Inspector that he can pick you up whenever he likes.” I passed on the information to Ian and we set up the meeting.

I don’t know how the American Military works, but with the British you had to have a leave pass to get off camp. Usually they were easy to get if you had a good reason, but you couldn’t just walk off. What ever doubts the Sergeant had were now dispelled. Airman didn’t just go round talking to Police Inspectors by their first names.

When I first arrived in Hong Kong all I saw were a few glimpses from the back of a truck. But in Ian’s car it was so different. The mass of people, buildings, the big American Cars. Most Hong Kong Taxis were either American or Mercedes Benz Diesels. It was overwhelming. “It knocks ye back a wee bit doesn’t it,” Ian laughed. I agreed, it really did. Hong Kong as a wonderland.

YMCA, Malcolm Club (Privately owned RAF Recreation Facility), Toc H. Club. We even went to the Book Section of a Department Store, where the prices staggered me. All the books came in from Britain and the Shipping Charges were enormous. We finally ended up at the Peninsula Hotel, the Place for Europeans (and Americans). The place was loaded with obviously affluent people, including quite a few Chinese. Ian introduced me to one young Chinese who spoke excellent English, with an American accent.

“Call me Tommy, Tommy Chou. Ian says you are in the RAF?” I assented and he got into raptures about flying. He was a Member of the Hong Kong Auxilary Air Force and had been to my base a couple of times. “Awful place,”he commented. “So you’re here for a bit of leave?” I told him my sad tale end he laughed. “A library with no books? How embarassing.” “Nice enough to cheer you up,” I retorted, “you don’t have to find them.” He looked a bit downcast for a moment and then said, “Let me make a call.”

He waved to a waiter and seconds later a phone was placed on our table. In seconds he was talking, in Chinese, to some one on the other line. Several some-ones, for you could hear from his voice as he changed his tone to the different listeners. Finally his voice changed and he was obviously talking to some-one important. He kept semi-bowing his head as he spoke, and then he seemed to cheer up and his tone became very friendly. He put the phone down “Well, I think I might solve your problem. Come, we meet my Grandfather.”

Before I could say a word, Ian interrupted. “You are going to see the Sir?” He said, obviously awed. “Oh yes, you can come too, if you want.” Ian nodded and off we went. But not in Ian’s car. As we left the Hotel a Rolls Royce glided to a halt. “Come on,” said Tommy, “the Hotel supplies them.” Apparently The Peninsula had a fleet of Rolls that were at the beck and call of any VIP.

We were driven to the Ferry across to Victoria, the Capital of Hong Kong, and then to a large office building. A young woman came forward and we followed her into an office, where a man, very old and Chinese, wearing traditional robes sat at a couch. Sitting everywhere were younger Chinese, more females than men, and all silent unless spoken to. Tommy was bowing low and Ian did the same so I followed.

“Grandfather, this is the man I spoke to you about. Mr Brian Webster of the Royal Air Force. He is the Librarian.” “Mr. Webster, this is my Grandfather, Sir Shoushon Chou.”
Grandfather nodded to me. “So you wish books?” He asked. “To read for pleasure or for learning.?”
“Both, Sir.” I had no idea how to address him.
“My people have no Recreational or Educational facilities. If they at least had something to read or learn it would relieve the tedium.”
He smiled at me. “Let me talk for a moment.”

He turned and started to talk in Chinese to the others in the room. There was quite a bit of chatter from several for a few minutes, and then he put up his hand and it stopped.

“I have been Honored by our King, and, by his actions my family was saved from the Japanese during the War. It is his orders that now protect us from the Communists. I can do nothing less than support you in your efforts. My Grandson Zhu Ma Chou”, he nodded at Tommy, “will attend to the details.” I tried to thank him, but he waved me away. He spoke in rapid Chinese to Tommy as the girl who led us here backoned Ian and I to leave.

Afterwards Tommy arranged for funds with the people at the Department store and I would go there and make whatever selection I wished, up to three hundred books. Then another thousand or so would be supplied from British Charities and Sir Shoushon Chou would pay for the shipping an delivery.

That’s almost the end of the story but I must add that I did create a lot of new book readers. A few men in the Camp enjoyed a good book and before long most of the camp had joined them.

At last they had something to fill their time.

1944 Quonset Library - Gilbert Islands, WW2
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  • Great story!

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  • What a wonderful story, Brian. Thanks so much for sharing it.

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  • That’s an awesome story. Books can go a long way and help fill some tough hours in the military.

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