Alumin Photo

William Allister (BBHS ’36)

1919, Benito, Manitoba – 2008, Delta, British Columbia

William Allister, born to Ukranian-Jewish immigrant parents, was raised in the Mile End neighborhood in Montreal.

After graduating from BBHS in 1936 he won a regional acting award at the Dominion Drama Festival in 1939. He portrayed a shell-shocked veteran in the one-act play Road of Poplars. He wents on to join a touring repertory company, performing comedies in the Catskills. The Village Vanguard club in Greenwich Village offered a venue for satirical sketches and he had performances aired on the CBC radio network. During this time Mr. Allister pursued advance studies in drama in New York. In 1941, he returned home to enlist in the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals and underwent basic training at Huntington, Quebec, and Debert, Nova Scotia. He was posted to the British garrison in Hong Kong. Captured after the fall of Hong Kong, he was a POW from 1943 to 1945. He detailed his brutal imprisonment in Where Life and Death Hold Hands, a memoir he wrote in 1989, which won a prize for the promotion of intercultural relations. The memoir was translated into Japanese in 2001.

After the war Allister moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. He took bit parts in such movies as Berlin Express and Joe Palooka in the Big Fight. He then pursued writing and painting, working as a commercial artist and scriptwriter in New York and as an executive with an advertising agency in Montreal. In 1961 his book A Handful of Rice, describing the life of Canadian prisoners captured at Hong Kong was published in London by Secker & Warburg, The novel, which won a minor literary prize, was translated into Dutch and Norwegian.

In 1962 Mr. Allister moved his family to San Miguel de Allende to pursue his painting career. While in Mexico, he completed a second novel, Time to Unmask the Clowns, which went unpublished.

Returning to Canada by the end of the 60s, he wrote film scripts and radio plays, as well as documentaries. In 1986, he won an Author’s Award from the Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Letters.

In 1983, he returned to Japan to confront the feelings he had as a result of his brutal experience as a POW. The month long experience inspired his art and lead him to write his memoir, Where Life and Death Hold Hands. He became the subject of a 1995 Canadian documentary film, The Art of Compassion directed by Peter Campbell. The film offers parallel portraits of Allister and a Japanese-Canadian architect who had been interned during the Second World War. Both men found inspiration from their experiences.

His paintings are featured in collections in Canada, Japan, Mexico, South Africa and the United Stated. Allister often employed acrylic paints on canvas to portray historical events. Several of Mr. Allister’s prison camp paintings survived the war, and most of them are destined for the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Mr. Allister was active in the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association.



Hawthorn, Tom. “William Allister, POW and Painter.” : William Allister, PoW and Painter (1919-2008)
Allister, William. A Handful of Rice. London: Secker&Warburg, 1961Allister, William.
Where Life and Death Hold Hands. Toronto: Stoddart, 1989
Walmsey, Dee. “Artist, Author, Actor.” Senior Living Nov. 2007: 22.
The Art of Compassion. Director. Peter Campbell. Gumboot Productions, 1995
Tom Hawthorn’s Blog, Special for the Globe and Mail, 29 Nov. 2008