Saturday, November 29, 2008
William Allister, PoW and painter (1919-2008)
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 29, 2008
An actor, artist, novelist, filmmaker, and scriptwriter, William Allister’s creative impulses were stifled but not extinguished during 44 months of wartime mistreatment by Japanese captors.
Imprisonment demanded painstaking ingenuity. A pilfered swatch of canvas, a paintbrush improvised from a whittled stick and shoe-brush bristles, and a smear of crankcase oil secreted from an Japanese truck were the materials that allowed him to create surreptitious paintings of his Hong Kong concentration camp.
Camp overlords were known by nicknames, some hinting at their particular cruelties — Piston Fists, Little Napoleon, the Kamloops Kid. The latter was a notorious tormentor whose childhood experience of racism in British Columbia had left him with a dark heart and evil intent.
Mr. Allister suffered much deprivation and several beatings. Once, a Japanese officer unsheathed a sword, threatening to cut his head off. Mr. Allister’s defiant riposte — “Tell him my boss doesn’t want his men working without their heads” — was deliberately ignored by a fellow prisoner serving as translator, likely saving his life.
The brutal treatment brewed a hatred still simmering more than three decades after his release. Memories of punishments endured and friends lost to treatable diseases could not be erased.
“Starvation, beatings, illness, insults, psychological wounds,” he wrote in a memoir. “Hostility and anger ran deep in my blood.”
In 1983, the impulse to resolve these feelings lured him to the Japanese shipyard where he had been forced to labour in appalling conditions.
During a month-long visit, he immersed himself in a culture of a people he had come to loathe but in whom he now found much to praise. A son of one of the camp guards spent a week as a guide in Tokyo. At a precise moment, as a ceremonial dancer removed one kimono after another, Mr. Allister felt his animosity evaporate.
The journey unlocked a vision of how he could reconcile a simmering hostility with a new-found admiration.
“As an artist, I would paint toward peace, paint as I’d never painted before, stretching to the limits, soaring, exploring new forms, new harmonies,” he wrote. “Visions of giant canvasses marrying East and West unfolded before me.”
Remarkable for their bright colours and expression of an exuberant spirit, his works can be found in collections around the world. He had more than 30 one-man gallery shows.
This transformation became the subject of a 1995 Canadian documentary film. “The Art of Compassion” offers parallel portraits of the artist and a Japanese-Canadian architect who had been interned during the Second World War. Both men found inspiration from their painful wartime history.
Mr. Allister detailed his own imprisonment in “Where Life and Death Hold Hands,” a 1989 memoir remarkable for recapturing the stilted life of prison camp in which the veneer of civilization has been all but stripped away.
“Forget — no. But forgive — yes, if forgiving could encompass disapproval. To really understand was to forgive, to grasp the nature of the illness, the historic path of the virus in the bloodstream of a nation,” he wrote. “Open the gates of war anywhere, and hellish monsters roam the earth.”
Born to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants at Benito, Man., a village on the Saskatchewan border, he grew up in Montreal, where he graduated from Baron Byng High School. He had major roles in productions by the Little Theatre, a prominent amateur group affiliated with the Young Men’s Hebrew Association.
“Growing up in the hectic and colourful Montreal of the Thirties,” he said, “I was swept up in the stormy winds of art, politics and racial conflict.”
In April, 1939, Mr. Allister won a regional acting award at the Dominion Drama Festival. He portrayed a shell-shocked veteran in the one-act play “Road of Poplars.” He could not have known his own promising life would be consumed by another dreadful war in a few months.
Having “tasted the sweetness of early recognition,” as he put it, the young actor joined a touring repertory company, performing zany comedies for audiences in the Catskills. The Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village offered a venue for satirical sketches.
With steady stage work and having had performances aired on the CBC radio network, Mr. Allister pursued advance studies in drama in New York City.
He abandoned his classes to return to Canada in 1941, enlisting in the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals.
He underwent basic training at Huntington, Que., and Debert, N.S. An arduous regimen left him capable of transmitting eight words per minute in Morse code, a woeful rate about half the top speed of even a third-class signals operator.
He sailed to Asia aboard the liner SS Awatea after volunteering for a mission in which he joined other raw recruits in bolstering the garrison in the isolated British colony of Hong Kong. The thrill of so exotic a posting, in which the brazenness of the gambling and prostitution shocked even a Montrealer, was soon lost with the Japanese invasion.
In the chaos of the attack, he witnessed his own side summarily execute a coolie suspected of being a fifth columnist.
Surrounded by the enemy, he fired back with his rifle.
“A figure was dead centre in my sights ... silhouetted against the sky as I pulled the trigger. He dropped. The thought vaguely registered that I had just killed a man. And so (itx)easily.(enditx)”
He compared the experience to a duck-shoot booth at a country fair.
The hunter soon enough became the hunted.
Other comrades chose suicide over surrender. In retrospect, it might have been the wiser decision.
The Canadians and other allies captured began to waste from a starvation diet and the subsequent diseases that thinned the ranks — dysentery, diphtheria, beri-beri, cholera.
Beatings were common, and delivered on whims so as to be almost unpredictable. The prisoners bravely expressed their outrage through vulgar though dangerous stunts, the most notorious of which involved urinating into a teapot used by a man they called Little Napoleon.
The Allister family in the Mile End neighbourhood of Montreal endured a year from the fall of Hong Kong before learning the fate of their son. The capture of the signalman warranted a brief article in the Canadian Jewish Review.
Some time later, Mr. Allister received mail from back home.
“I opened the letter with trembling fingers and stared uncomprehendingly at the first sentence: ‘We were overjoyed to know you are a prisoner of war.’ Overjoyed! There I sat — in shit up to the eyeballs, half dead, crawling with lice, exhausted, starved, disease ridden, jolted by electric feet, a bloody walking skeleton — and they were overjoyed? Had they all gone balmy? It took a while to see it their way.”
In January, 1943, about 700 prisoners were ordered into the hold of a rusty freighter. The men used buckets as latrines, were fed rancid rice, and got only scant seconds of fresh air on deck in the four-day journey to Japan. They were to be slave labourers at the Nippon Kokan Shipyards at Kawasaki.
The men filled out forms detailing their civilian employment. The wily Mr. Allister listed librarian and painter. The unlucky translation of the latter placed him “on a thin plank suspended over the Pacific Ocean, painting the side of a ship.”
At one point, his true calling became known to his captors, one of whom established Mr. Allister in a stockroom with a supply of fresh paints and canvases. Happy to be painting and not eager to return to the deadening monotony of meaningless work, Mr. Allister painted with deliberation, calling on his showman’s instincts to turn his procrastination into a performance.
The ruse ended when the would-be patron realized the painting depicted the prisoners as kindly and their jailers as fiends. The canvas was smashed to the ground and the painter ordered back onto the scaffolding.
In March, 1945, he was moved to another camp that was “decrepit, small, uninviting, in a coal yard on the outskirts of Tokyo beside a rail ramp.” Only good fortune and a timely end to the war prevented them from being bombed by their own side.
Mr. Allister learned of the end of the war with the Emperor’s announcement of a surrender. The odds were just as good the guards were prepared to execute their charges. Six days passed before an Allied aircraft flew overhead. The prisoners cheered and shouted, waving bedsheets while using mirrors to reflect sunlight to attract attention. The pilot dipped his wings in acknowledgement. Mr. Allister remembered it as “the most magnificent symbolic salute ever received.”
The memoir offers an unsparing account of his own behaviour in those lawless days, as he joined colleagues in search of prostitutes. They entered a factory staffed by women workers, most of whom fled in fear. Mr. Allister confronted a woman in her small quarters. When she pushed past him, however, he did nothing to restrain her and returned to camp, having contemplated, but not committed, a crime.
In his favour, he saved three young Japanese guards from being executed by a trigger-happy American soldier.
Mr. Allister kept a diary throughout his ordeal, even though detection of the forbidden notes would mean a beating, or worse. Some was lost when he absentmindedly left a jacket behind in a latrine for a few moments. The rest did not survive when a friend nonchalantly threw the pages into the ocean on the way home.
In 1946, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career suspended by the war. He took bit parts in such movies as “Berlin Express” and “Joe Palooka in the Big Fight.” He did not stay long, finding “the jungle values of Hollywood were lower than the jungle values of prison camp.”
He turned to writing and painting, earning a living as a commercial artist and scriptwriter in New York. He composed a first draft of a novel in a Brooklyn graveyard, a rare place of solitude for a budding author with a young family — he had married a model from Ottawa — in a rumbling metropolis. A stint as an executive for a Montreal advertising agency financed a decade of revisions.
The completed book, “A Handful of Rice,” published in London by Secker & Warburg in 1961, describes the tribulations of Canadian prisoners captured at Hong Kong. The men endure the tortures of their captors and the dangerous selfishness of their own officers. The novel, which won a minor literary prize, was translated into Dutch and Norwegian.
Mr. Allister moved his family to San Miguel de Allende in 1962, seeking in Mexico to explore an abstract style. He proved to be prolific and his works popular, he once told the author John Virtue, generating jealousy among more established painters, though he himself did not think much of his own efforts.
“They weren’t too good, but they were all different, experimental. ‘This is the kind of stuff we’ve been looking for,’ people told me. Unfortunately, I outsold all the pros, the seasoned artists and teachers.”
While in Mexico, he completed a second novel, “Time to Unmask the Clowns,” which went unpublished.
The Allisters were also the subject of a short film by Jack Zolov that aired on the CBC television program “Focus.”
He returned to Canada before the decade ended, writing film scripts and radio plays, as well as documentaries. He won an Author’s Award in 1986.
The return journey to Japan resulted in the publication of his vivid memoir in 1989. The Globe critic William French praised the book, which he said “offers graphic evidence of the corrupting influence of war on traditional moral and ethical values, and affirms the remarkable resilience of the human spirit.”
“Where Life and Death Hold Hands” won a prize for the promotion of intercultural relations. The memoir was translated into Japanese in 2001.
Mr. Allister was active in the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association, where he would be joined by Jan Solecki, an associate professor emeritus from the University of British Columbia. Mr. Solecki, who had been born in Inner Mongolia to a Russian mother and a Polish father, had been an artillery gunner when captured at Hong Kong. His spirit in prison camp inspired Mr. Allister to not give up hope.
Mr. Allister’s home in the Tsawwassen neighbourhood of the Vancouver suburb of Delta, about a block from the United States border at Point Roberts, provided a peaceful setting for contemplation, including the frequent presence of eagles.
His paintings received wide praise, including a showing at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo, a building designed by Raymond Moriyama, the architect featured in “The Art of Compassion” documentary with Mr. Allister.
“Striking from across the room, Allister’s canvases first apear to be sizzling Zen calligraphy,” Robert Amos, a painter and art critic for the Victoria Times Colonist, wrote of a 2003 show. “As you approach nearer, his free play with colour kicks in. Up close, you’ll find a wealth of narrative and illustrative detail worked into the imagery.”
Some of his prison camp paintings survived the war. Two works, one depicting a Japanese sentry and the other a ship sunk in Hong Kong harbour, were sewn inside the pant leg of John Burton, a fellow prisoner from Toronto. A daughter took ownership after his death. They now hang on the living-room wall of her home in Prince Edward Island, a silent reminder of beauty amidst depair.
William Allister was born Oct. 5, 1919, at Benito, Man. He died on Nov. 2 at his home at Delta, B.C. He was 89. He leaves his wife, Mona (nee Gurland); daughters Dorrie and Ada; and, a granddaughter. He was predeceased by two brothers and three sisters.