Grace McNeil

Memories of “Uncle Eric”. – written in Spring 2012

My name is Grace McNeill, and I am the oldest in a family of three children. My parents were Scottish, Dad came from Dunoon on the River Clyde, and Mum came from Glasgow. Dad had a variety of jobs after he left school. My mother was a nurse.

Both of them, independently, became missionaries in China – in fact they met for the very first time on the docks in Shanghai! They married in a city in the north east of the country. I was born about 18 months later.

So, all my early years were spent in China, and my first language is Mandarin. I didn’t really learn any English until I was 2 years old, when we had a short visit back to Scotland.

We had moved around in China quite a bit, most of which I don’t remember, although I do remember Shanghai during the second time we lived there! After that we lived in Tientsin (now called Tianjin) where my brother was born. We had a house with a garden and just outside the back door we had a lovely grape-vine, which meant in season I would take grapes with me to school to eat at play-time. I attended a Chinese school.

I also remember the day the Japanese army walked in to Tientsin, and suddenly we were not able to move outside the city. All the foreigners (us) were treated the same way, and we were given red arm bands to wear when we were outside of our homes. I still have mine.

The Japanese took over many of the homes where the non-Chinese were living. And it was at that stage that Eric Liddell was one of the people who came to live in our house. I cannot give the exact date when that was – remember I was a little girl then. Mrs. Liddell had by this time returned to Canada with their two daughters, and a third one was born not long afterwards.

Then, it must have been some time later in 1942, we were told that all women and children had to leave the city and move down south leaving my father in Tientsin. By that time there was my mother, my little sister (who had contracted polio in July) and my baby brother (born at the end of July), and me – still very young. So I guess my parents decided that we couldn’t go. How could my mother cope with two children who could not walk, and little me? We stayed on in Tientsin. By now, my family, Uncle Eric (as we called him), and another family lived in our house. Between us all, life was as normal as the grown-ups could make it. This meant that we had a few more adults to take care of us!

It was at the very end of March the following year that we had to leave Tientsin.   That memory is still very clear. We were going to an internment camp – to be ‘out of the way’. We were allowed just one suitcase per person, and it was Uncle Eric who did the packing for our family. Maybe he helped others as well?

How did we travel? It was night time, women and children and luggage rode in rickshaws, and the men walked. We went to the railway station, our family in two rickshaws – mum and the baby in one (I think my brother travelled in a wicker basket with plenty of soft bedding to keep him warm) and they probably had some luggage tucked in with them – and I went with my sister in the other rickshaw, also with luggage tucked in with us. Dad walked.

We travelled through the night. I remember one train but someone has since reminded me that we had two trains. Then we were picked up at Weishien (now Weifang) in an open lorry and driven to what was to be our new home. We didn’t know how long that would be for. By now this was the start of April 1943. We left in the autumn of 1945, having been released by a group of American airmen who flew overhead and told us we were free! (Although that didn’t happen as soon as VJ Day was announced, but a few weeks later.)

Weishien was previously a compound used by a missionary society. Now we were housed there, along with almost 2000 others. When I see drawings of the layout of the place I can hardly believe so many of us lived there! There was in the camp a hospital, a building we used as a library, central kitchens, and a church as well as many rows of one-story level rooms. Couples and families with two children had just one room. However, because we had three children in our family, we had two rooms. Single people lived in a kind of a hostel.

There were several nationalities in the camp so there was plenty of scope to learn a new language without having to go through grammar and vocabulary! You just learned it – and I did. I was able to chat away in a number of languages with friends of my own age.

Because some of the internees were professional people, they tried to continue with that profession. Therefore, we had doctors and nurses, and school teachers, and…..

Teachers? In the camp was the whole of a school which had been brought down from a seaside town on the north east. So we had the teachers and we used the church building for our lessons. I can vividly remember being taught math and if we made a mistake, we had our ears boxed by the teacher! I could tell you her name – it was difficult to forget that – but I don’t think I should! Maybe that is why I became a banker when I grew up!!! I could count! I also remember learning Latin when I was only eight years old!   I met my Latin teacher several years after we came back to England, I could recognize him even then!

Uncle Eric taught some of the older children, I think it was to do with science but I was too young for that.

We also used the church building for concerts. After all, some of the internees were musicians and others could entertain. They must have somehow been able to bring their instruments with them. It’s possible they did not have the same restrictions for luggage as we had so these people got together and produced concerts for the others in the camp. Sometimes one of the guards would come in to the building during the concert and so I am told, the internees had a sort-of code word to tell the audience that there were other spectators in to watch!

For us younger people there were other activities, like the Scouts and Guides, which were a means of keeping up with normal living, as far as we could.

In Weishien there was a large playing field, and it was there that all sorts of sports took place and Uncle Eric was obviously involved in that. He was a great sportsman, and loved to see others enjoying themselves as they kept fit.

It was early in 1945, January or February I think, that Uncle Eric became ill. He was in our hospital for a little while with a brain tumour. It was not something we expected, but very often that is the case. The day he died was awful. Everyone in the camp loved that man and to think he would be no longer with us was too dreadful to even think about. We all knew we had lost a very special man. No one was ashamed to cry. He was buried at Weishien just a few months before we were liberated.

A few years ago now, a group of people returned to Weishien and put up a proper headstone at his grave.   This was something we couldn’t do in 1945.

His memory lives on, and I am so glad I knew this gentle man.