Frances Osborne

Lilla’s war with China

Frances Osborne on how her great-grandmother fought Beijing for 30 years and finally won, aged 100

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Little old ladies with bottles of ink, mounds of writing-paper and firm hands have long been the bane of government officials. There’s even a name for them: ‘Angry of Tunbridge Wells’. My great-grandmother, Lilla, whom I remember living in that venerable Kentish town, was Super-Angry. She was so angry that at the age of 100, after an extraordinary exchange of correspondence lasting 30 years and consuming many sheets of Basildon Bond, she succeeded in extracting a cheque from none other than the communist government of China. And when I was writing Lilla’s Feast, the story of her remarkable life, I discovered how she did it.

Lilla had long been tough. In the 1930s she ran two businesses in a colonial trading port in China called Chefoo. When the Japanese half starved her in a concentration camp during the second world war, she defiantly spent her three years’ imprisonment writing a cookery book. When, in 1949, Mao’s Red Army separated her again from not just her home but her embroidery factory and five little rental houses — worth £20,000 then (the equivalent of half a million pounds today) — she returned to Britain and vowed not to let go of life until either Japan or China had given her something back.

She started with the Foreign Office, which appeared to be helping everyone else with war reparations. She typed out long lists of the personal possessions she had lost, including her Steinway, her gramophone and 300 crystal glasses. She copied the Japanese army rice-paper receipt she had been given for her 1938 Ford Sedan, confiscated a few days after Pearl Harbor, and its accompanying letter from a Colonel Shingo, promising to return it after the war. She itemised the crates of embroidered bedlinen, tablecloths, napkins and handkerchiefs that had vanished from their Chinese warehouses. She detailed the hatstands, newspaper racks, bridge tables, jelly moulds and even trays for visitors’ cards with which she had meticulously furnished the five houses she had built and rented out to the families of visiting US servicemen. Then she attached a 1in by 2in black-and-white photograph of each house and sent them to the Foreign Office with a series of letters asking whether she was entitled to compensation from Japan or from China.

The Foreign Office’s replies to this onslaught would have made Sir Humphrey proud. It was still too early (in 1951) to think about making a claim against Japan. ‘The peace treaty with Japan has not yet been ratified.’ However, it could give Lilla advice about her real estate in China. It was extremely simple. All she needed to do was to register it with the Chinese authorities ‘either in person or through an agent’ — oh, and this registration had to happen in China itself.

As both the Foreign Office and Lilla knew, this sounded simple but was utterly impossible. Lilla had experienced not a little difficulty in escaping the communist takeover of China in 1949. Her two nephews who had been with her had been interrogated for three months before being finally granted exit permits. A German national had been casually shot while being questioned. Lilla, fast approaching her 70th birthday, could not return to China. Nor would any Chinese person have dared make contact with a Westerner. But Lilla, still leafing through photograph albums of Chefoo and her houses there, was not going to allow civil war, revolution or even unsigned peace treaties to impede her.

The next stop was the Chinese embassy in London. Lilla sent them another copy of her lists, receipts and photographs. Not without reason did the term ‘Mandarin’ originate from China. The embassy’s commissars fired off a response that would have thrown most people. It would be more appropriate, they replied, if Lilla were to write to them in Chinese. But, like all good great-grannies, Lilla was far from ordinary. She had been born and brought up in China, chiefly in the hands of Chinese-speaking amahs. A Chinese version of her missive was shortly winging its way back.

Without the slightest hint of embarrassment, the commissars replied in the Queen’s English. A thousand years of bureaucratic experience made it clear where they believed responsibility lay. After the outbreak of the second world war, Mrs Casey’s property was confiscated by the Japanese authorities occupying the city. Part was destroyed by them. After the end of the war, the property was occupied by Chiang Kai-shek’s soldiers, who completely destroyed it. Therefore the Casey property had long ceased to exist during the liberation of Chefoo.

Now, Lilla knew that this was not quite true. One of her nephews had sneaked around Chefoo after the communists had arrived and had seen that all her houses were standing, although anything removable, including the plumbing, had been ripped out. She wasn’t prepared to give up. As she rounded the corner into her eighties, she followed up every reported nuance of Far Eastern foreign policy, sending letters off to the Chinese embassy, Japanese embassy and the Foreign Office. When she hit 90, Lilla’s distinctly healthier identical twin, who hadn’t spent several years being half-starved in a concentration camp, died of old age. Then Lilla’s own children, both in their seventies, also went. But Lilla, keeping to her vow to win something back before she died, stormed on, pen in hand.

Eventually, in the early 1980s, the tide turned. After 30 years of isolationism, China needed to borrow money from the West. Before it could do this, it had to show that it could honour its debts. It turned to face its most determined foe — the 99-year-old Lilla.

Her writing a little shaky by now, Lilla asked her grandson to fill in all the forms. He attached yet more copies of all her lists, receipts and photographs and sent them off from his ministerial office (he was secretary of state for energy). Lilla began to plan her funeral.

Then the British government department dealing with these claims against China wrote back to Lilla’s grandson. It said that of course it would be happy to process Lilla’s claim but there was one small administrative problem. This was that Lilla’s British passport, issued in 1939, no longer made her British. Along with tens of thousands of other British people whose families had furthered the British empire’s interests abroad, Lilla was discovering that now there was no more empire, Britain didn’t really want its colonials back.

In order to claim under the arrangements with China, Lilla had to provide her birth and both of her marriage certificates to prove her nationality and changes of name. Though she had survived the Boxer Rebellion, two world wars, two concentration camps and the Red Army’s ‘liberation’ of China, these documents — funnily enough — weren’t to hand.

Lilla’s grandson, who had inherited some of her letter-writing skills, wrote back pointing out that these were documents that couldn’t possibly be available. Six months later, in May 1982, Lilla heard that her claim had been approved. ‘Now I can go to Heaven,’ she wrote, and went. Luckily her departure was prompter than the arrival of the cheque. For when it came, instead of returning the half a million pounds she was expecting, it was for £1,400. She had been paid just one fifth of the 1935 value of her houses alone. If Lilla had been around to discover that, she would have been so angry that I think she would still be alive today.

Lilla’s Feast is published by Doubleday in hardback at £18.99.