Chinese Culture · Photo and film scanning · Photo History · Stories of WWII

Force 136 like you’ve never seen them – in living colour

I’m super excited to share today’s post with you.

Last week, I told you there would be a big surprise. HERE IT IS. Val Erde chose this photo to bring to life. Her research, talent and artistry literally brought tears to my eyes. It felt like the next best thing to actually being there behind the camera lens.

In this post I’ll give you 2 views of it.

If you’re new to my site and would like to see the history of this picture, and my discovery of my uncle’s secret life as a commando spy, I invite you to check out The James Bonds of Chinatown and Force 136 goes to London.

From B&W to colour and back again

I just love this slideshow – it’s like the Wizard of Oz when Judy leaves bleak, black and white Kansas and steps into the magical land of Oz. As much as I love black and white photography, Val’s rendering of the colours make the contrast of the lighter-coloured elements stand out. For example, I didn’t realize everyone – Dick, Willie, Herbie, Leonard and Bud – is smoking.

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Here are both photos again, before and after.

A photo of 5 of the men of Force 136, London, UK. Abt. Mar 1945.
“On the move again! Just before we left London. Cor. Wimpole and Cavendish Street. Marybrough District. Near Regent Park, City Centre.” [Photo is stamped “Unit Censor T89] Pictured from top left are Dick Yip, Willie Chong, Herbie Lim, (front row from left) Leonard Lee, Bud Quon. Marylebone, West London, UK. Mar 1945. © 2019. Past Presence. All rights reserved.
Force 136 in London - colour
Colouring work by Val Erde.

And here is a picture of that same corner – the intersection of Wimpole and Cavendish Street.

Wimpole at Cavendish, London, Jun 2019. Google streetview.
Corner of Wimpole and Cavendish Streets, London. Jun 2019. Google Streetview, available at link.


I feel incredibly awed and grateful to be gifted with the memories of my family. Without these collections of photos, most of these stories would be lost to history. Scanning an archive is a painstaking, time-consuming task, but in my view the effort is more than worth the results. If you’d like to learn more about how I did it and the lessons I learned along the way, here’s a story about my first archiving project in 2013.

As well, a huge shout out of appreciation to Val Erde, whose work is featured here. Literally, she has given me an entirely new way of looking at the past.

The originals

I thought you might like to see just how small some of these photos are. By scanning them at very high resolution, we are able to see details that escape the naked eye. In some ways it’s like we are seeing them for the first time.

It’s my honour to have connected with some of the descendants and friends of Herbie Lim, Willie Chong, and Leonard Lee. I’d still like to find information about Bud Quon. If you are connected to any of these men, I’d love to hear from you.

A collection of black and white photos

Your memories

What do you think? Do you have some old photos buried in a shoebox under the bed? It might be time to dust them off and see them again thanks to flatbed scanners and some sympathetic post-processing.

26 thoughts on “Force 136 like you’ve never seen them – in living colour

  1. I love your slideshow, too. I had one with my photos changing from b&w to colour on my original home page, now it’s in the blog footer – it really does give a great idea of how a photo can look in colour compared to its original.

    I remember when I first started scanning my own family photos (most of which are the same size as yours) and was astonished at what I began seeing in them. They do have to be halfway decently shot in the first place, even with the best will in the world, a photo that’s been shot out of focus will not benefit much from high resolution, but yours looks great enlarged.

    I enjoyed colouring this – and some of the memories it brought back of my old home town. 🙂 Thanks, Linda.

    1. I’ve been sharing select finds – documents and scanned photos – with members of my family. By far the most satisfying are the reactions of my older relatives. Some of these picture were hard to see when eyes were young and sharp – their reactions at seeing them anew, on a big screen and with a sympathetic touch of sharpening, balancing and other processing – well, it’s priceless.

  2. Do you know, one thing that’s just occurred to me, comparing my colouring with the streetview screenshot, in our time there are lights on in the windows of the buildings. That wouldn’t have happened then: if anyone had put a light on during the day they’d have closed the curtains. Aside from wartime considerations (though mostly at night when they had blackout), people were very money conscious.

      1. Yes, probably. And the building on the corner on the left has what looks like blinds down over the lower windows.

      2. Val – I had a question from someone from the Facebook group for the SOE “Behind Enemy Lines.” He said, “Hello, what software was used to colorize this superb image?”

      3. Sorry, Linda, I only just saw your question from the person on Facebook about the software (and there isn’t a reply button beneath it, so I’ll reply here).I use Photoshop Elements – an older version than the current as – like you, I believe! – I can’t see the point of buying new software when it’s not needed. 🙂

  3. What a wonderful colouring. Would you have any information about the significance of Wimpole st for Force 136 (except being in the vicinity of Baker street)? Was there a F136 house there? kind regards,

    1. Hi Thomas. I don’t have a lot of information for you – really just a hint. Dick wrote on the back of another photo in the same area, “Across the street from where we stayed.” I was thinking a F136 billet. What do you think?

  4. I had no idea the originals were so small! I read the background post last week, so it was fun to see the big reveal today. Val did a fantastic job of bringing the scene to life.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! It was fun for me, too, thinking how best to tell the story behind the picture, then the story of the picture. What I’ll never know is where have these photos been? Were they tucked into army kits? How did they survive? They’re in remarkable shape.

    2. Thanks, Liz. I do hope some more people find their way over – Linda’s put so much effort into all of this, it would be a shame if she didn’t get more attention for it.

      1. Thank you for the lovely well wishes. I’ve been sharing select pieces amongst the Chinese community sites as well but have yet to get approval on two of my shares. I know it’s volunteer-run and I’m happy to wait, because their reach is phenomenal.

      2. I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to my own blog…. I even turned off search engine access (have written about that somewhere on the blog) and I don’t have many other accounts online, so for me it’s mostly word of mouth and a few links here and there. I do think you deserve a wide reach for your writing and work.

    1. Me too! Now to figure out how to make it bigger… or at least full screen…

      1. You should be able to get it to nearly the width of your main content area, but beyond that you’d have to choose a new theme with a full width. I used to know how to do it (though on so I don’t know if the same instructions would apply?)

      2. Yes… that’s what I was afraid of. Theme change. Have you done it? I’m afraid of losing things or breaking links, as much as I’d like to play with the format.

      3. You’re self-hosting, I think, aren’t you? I’ve only done it on the platform but yes, I’ve done it countless times. You will lose some things and not others. What you could do is get yourself a account and free blog, import your full blog content into it (make it private first so only you can see it) and then play around with different themes to your hearts content. Then if you find one you like that works you can look around for one that is similar for your self-hosted site. 🙂

      4. I upgraded to WP Business and then bought another year because it was cheaper than paying a year at a time. It’s not cheap – I forget how much, but it’s hundreds/year. I did it b/c I have a second site I designed, on a good, inexpensive host, and keeping that one updated is so much trouble. By comparison, this one on WP is bulletproof. Fooling around in the back end of sites, upgrading tools and plugins, all that stuff is really not my forté. I’ve crashed my other site 3x updating plugins. Now I’m scared to do it. Fortunately, my hosts are good and responsive but all in all I’d rather someone else did it and pay them the money! 🙂

      5. PS. You should already be able to make other images (other than the slideshow) bigger, by having them open in a different window, like I do. You just need to find the image-resize controls and make sure that the ‘open in a new window or tab’ (or whatever it’s called) is checked.

  5. That’s cool how you did that so that we can watch the photo change into color. What beautiful colorization work. I love your blog, btw.

    1. Thank you! I loved that effect too – none of it possible of course without the magic of Val’s colouring.


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