ONE picture. A thousand stories, let alone words, from a rich tapestry of connections woven from people and events spanning 135 years of Papua New Guinea’s history.
That’s what’s come from this single photograph of a group of tennis players taken in post-war Rabaul in 1951 or 1952.
An avalanche of information was sparked by the sharp recall of a former Rabaul resident who celebrated her 88th birthday on Friday.
It was followed by a blizzard of information on Facebook– some from people who wouldn’t exist except for the incredible tales of survival and heroism of their forebears in World War II.
The photo is from the collection of my mother, Mary Louise Uechtritz. She was Mary Lou Harris then and is the young, blonde British woman second from the right in the back row.
When the photo was taken, Mary Lou was teaching at the Rabaul Chinese School and running the local girl guides.
The Chinese girl guides would soon be in the guard of honour at her wedding at Francis Xavier Catholic Church, just down the road, to my father, Alfred Max Parkinson Uechtritz.
When I dug out the photo and emailed it to Mary Lou a few days ago, she hadn’t seen it for decades. But as quick as her 1950s forehand return, she identified several of the players for certain and some as educated guesses.
Two were her fellow teachers at the Chinese school – Thomas Mow (second from left, front) and Jean Sargeant (second from left, back).
Her good friend Col Parry (middle back row) went on to a stellar career in the combined Royal Papuan Constabulary and New Guinea Police Force; Samson Wong (far left, front) forged a distinguished commercial career in Lae; and the two other women at the back, were immediately identified on Facebook by their nieces Claudia Chan and Wendy Cheungas as Lillian Squires (neé Leo, third from left) and Pauline Leo (third from right).
The Leo family went through great privations in a Japanese internment camp during the war and one of them – Linda – would have died if not for the actions of Lillian who later married copra inspector Alan Squires (far left, back).
But to the man standing next to my mother on the far right at the back.
He’s Dr Eric Wright who Mum describes as “a caring, innovative energetic and courageous man” who believed passionately in equality and a cause.
He was her doctor and that of the Chinese community. She described how he’d been a medical orderly or liklik dokta in pre-war Rabaul and put himself through medicine at Sydney University.
Wright returned to Rabaul post-war to set up a private practice and take up residence among the Rabaul Chinese. It was said there wasn’t a Chinese appendix he hadn’t removed!
Wright married his receptionist, Shirley May Chan Lou, and Mum delights in telling how informal they were – they even had their baby’s cot in the surgery.
Wright’s Australian Dictionary of Biography entry reads in part:
“Wright had rejoined the Department of Public Health in 1958 as assistant director of medical training. One of his first achievements was to see to fruition plans for the establishment of a nursing school in Port Moresby, at which he did much of the teaching.
“Under his authority a second school of nursing was established at Rabaul in 1959. As a foundation member (1964) of the Nursing Council of Papua New Guinea, he insisted on a thoroughly professional training for the country's nurses.
“Wright was largely responsible for the establishment of the Papuan Medical College in 1960 to train indigenous doctors (previously educated in Suva), enrolling its first 20 students in temporary accommodation. Wright was appointed principal.
“Despite the lack of buildings and equipment, he was able to attract motivated and dedicated staff. He acquired the nearby Boroko newsagency and used some of the profits from the business to supplement government funds for the construction of the college's permanent buildings that were opened in 1964.
“Wright became the mentor and advisor to a young nurse called Josephine Abaijah who went on to become the first woman elected to the PNG House of Assembly in 1972. He guided her health education career, helping her accumulate her overseas qualifications in London, India and the Philippines.”
Abaijah – with Wright as her campaign manager – founded and led the separatist Papua Besena movement, which agitated unsuccessfully for Papua to become a completely independent country instead of being linked with New Guinea.
They both got under the skin of Michael Somare and Gough Whitlam in the lead-up to independence – and, on the cusp of that event, Wright was deported in August 1975 for his “deemed interference” in the affairs of an emerging nation.
Sadly, Wright died of cancer four years later. My mother believes his last wish – that his ashes be spread off Port Moresby – was blocked by old guard Australian apparatchiks, the same colour-conscious folk who’d dubbed him “Nigger Wright” for choosing to live and work among his indigenous friends.
His protégé went on become Dame Josephine Abaijah. Her biography, A Thousand Coloured Dreams, was co-authored by Eric Wright. It was reviewed by Phil Fitzpatrick on PNG Attitude in 2011. You can read it here.
Mum vividly remembers the immense respect in which everyone at the Chinese School held Thomas Mow (formally Thomas Yuk Kwan Mow also known as Mow Sin Sung), who taught Chinese history and culture.
I am indebted to an article published by Gideon Kakabin in 2012 for information about Thomas Mow’s escape from Rabaul after the Japanese invasion. It is taken from an essay about Chin Hoi Meen MBE in A Book of Stories by Eric Johns:
“The invasion caused panic in and around Rabaul… Chin was taken prisoner along with many other Chinese and they were allocated houses at Chinatown in Rabaul…
“Some Chinese women and children, including Chin’s wife and three-year-old son Larry, had earlier moved south to Adler Bay to escape the invasion. When Chin informed the Japanese of this they allowed him and two friends, Thomas Mow and T C Wee to leave Rabaul.
“Some New Guinea men helped them on the trip to Adler Bay, but Wee was drowned while crossing the bay in a canoe.
“Mow and Chin joined their families at Sum Sum plantation. Japanese soldiers were camped on the plantation and at nearby Adler Bay but did not bother the families. More Chinese arrived at Sum Sum and there were 21 people crowded into the house.”
Sum Sum was my parents’ plantation, where their first six children – including me - were taken home after being born in Rabaul.
My father and his stepmother had been evacuated on MV MacDhui in December 1941, just before the Japanese invasion of Rabaul.
I doubt very much that – when the photo was taken – Mum knew that ‘Mr Mow’ had taken refuge at the place she would soon call home. Shades of separation!
I am not sure if Thomas Mow’s son Paul Mow (pictured second from the right, front) also spent the war at Sum Sum, but it makes sense given his age.
Chin Hoi Meen became a war hero, risking his life to help Australian coastwatchers against the Japanese and assisting two American airmen, downed near Sum Sum, to escape to a waiting US submarine.
As Eric Johns wrote: “If the Japanese had discovered these actions, they would almost certainly have executed the Chinese at Sum Sum and anyone helping them”.
Wendy Cheung tells a story – both poignant and chilling - about her family which illustrates how precarious life was for those civilians rounded up by the Japanese and interned in camps.
Wendy’s mum was Linda Fook Lin Seeto. Her auntie – the one in the photo – was Lillian Yuk Lin Leo. Wendy writes:
“The Leo family was interned [probably at Ratongor] by the Japs. Aunty Lillian, being the youngest, saved my mum’s life. She had dysentery so bad that the Japs put her out in a kunai hut to die.
“My grandmother bought a bottle of Maggi sauce from the black market, boiled water and made like a beef broth. Aunty Lillian was only tiny and the Japanese soldiers let her through to feed mum the broth.
“Mum didn’t die. She survived and had seven children and passed away at 58 years. I think her body was weakened by being in the Japanese camp.”
How many descendants would never have been born if tiny Lillian hadn’t got through to revive Linda with the Maggi sauce broth?
The other girl in the photo was Pauline Leo née Cheong. She married the eldest of the Leo boys, Leo Hong Wah.
Another Leo boy – Leo Henry Hong Ching – returned with the US Army at the end of the war. He was with the Red Cross and also did surveillance work, says Wendy.
Her father and grandfather (Seeto Chim) also escaped Wau just ahead of the Japanese with Chim’s good friend, the famous Horrie Niall, in 1942. They missed linking up with the Yanks and were lucky to picked up by missionaries and taken to Port Moresby then Sydney.
Someone who tragically did not escape the Japanese was the father of mum’s friend Colwyn ‘Col’ Parry, the blonde guy at the back of the photo.
Reginald Arthur Parry was the Senior Medical Assistant at Kokopo Hospital. Only weeks from the Japanese invasion, his wife Annie Barbara was evacuated on MacDhui with other wives and families (including my Dad who was aged 12).
Reg stayed on to look after his patients and was arrested by the Japanese after they landed 75 years ago this coming January 23.
He was one of the 1,053 Australians – civilians and soldiers – who perished on the prison ship Montevideo Maru while being taken from Rabaul as forced labour to Japan.
The ship was sunk by mistake by an American submarine and it has the grim title of being Australia’s greatest maritime disaster. Victims included the uncle of former Labor Party leader Kim Beazley and grandfather of musician (Midnight Oil) and former politician Peter Garrett.
I was privileged to be on the committee – with Keith Jackson, Andrea Williams, Elizabeth Thurston and my cousin Chris Diercke - which eventually got recognition for the victims of the Montevideo Maru in the form of a parliamentary resolution and a special memorial in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial.
Col Parry was born at Bitalovo near Kokopo in 1928 – two years later and in the same place my father had been born. He served post-war with the Royal Australian Navy then returned to the Treasury Department to run the government store at Rabaul.
Col was part of a big group of friends – including pharmacist Don Clarke and my Mum – who played tennis and socialised together. He was also at my parents wedding in 1952, the same year he was invited to join the combined Royal Papuan Constabulary and New Guinea Police Force.
He served at Lae, Madang and Port Moresby with three more stints in Rabaul. He acted as Commandant of Bomana Police College and as Assistant Commissioner of Police. Col was officer-in charge of the RPNGC Reserve before retirement to a property, ‘Bitalovo’, near Buderim in south-east Queensland. He died in 2014 aged 85. (Obituary information courtesy of Maxwell Hayes and E Sanders.)
The dashing young fellow front left in the photo was Samson Wong (Samson Yuk Chong Wong) who, like my parents, went to Lae in the 1960s. He established a very successful camera and electrical goods shops, Samsons, in 4th Street and later retired to Brisbane.
When the photo was taken, little did Mum or Samson know that their yet-to-be-born sons would end up at The Southport School in Queensland. I was in the The Southport School Class of 1976 with his cousin Derek Wong.
The person in the middle of front row is Chan Yuk Ping – identified by John Lau and Charles Yip. He owned a taxi service. Donna Harvey-Hall remembers Paul Mow “and his beautiful wife Diane”.
Adam Peripatus Liu has interviewed many people and provided a wealth of information on the Chinese community of PNG. It’s heartening to hear of his efforts given that so much PNG history is unknown, unrecorded or forgotten. He’s provided extraordinary detail on the formal Chinese names of many people.
This story started with Mary Lou Uechtritz née Harris so here’s a final note on her own story and contribution to PNG.
Mary spent early childhood (from 1929) with her English parents on Biwa plantation in New Ireland then went to boarding school and university in Britain before, aged 21, returning post-war to Rabaul with her mother. They lived in New Britain until 1960 and in Lae from 1968-90.
Her PNG story is supplemented - though far from defined - by her husband’s ancestry of Parkinson grandparents and Queen Emma, dating back to 1882 in New Britain and 1878 in the nearby Duke of York Islands.
Mum contributed enormously to numerous PNG communities through teaching (Rabaul and Markham Valley) and at senior national levels in the girl guides movement and St Vincent de Paul, for which she was honoured by the PNG government.
She is passionate about PNG, its people of all backgrounds and its rich history.
Just one photo shows how rich, varied and volatile, wonderful, fascinating and fraught that history is – and how much more needs to be recorded before it’s too late.
One last thing. This photo could only reveal a mere sliver of history. By virtue of its vintage and the social settings and straitjackets of the time, it does not include indigenous faces.
Thankfully, thousands and thousands of historical photographs that do pay due credit to the PNG people are now being found and published in places like Gideon Kakabin's New Guinea Islands Historical Society and Peter J Tate 's Taim Bipo photo history of PNG.
Now the stories are being discovered, told and recorded.