A move to commemorate Japan's past aggression to Chinese is gaining ground

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 August, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 August, 1999, 12:00am

WHEN he was a teenager, Law Sau-chun put his life on the line resisting the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. He and other young natives of the New Territories did not hesitate to tip off secret underground guerillas about the movements of Japanese soldiers or carry out grenade attacks on their enemy.

The 71-year-old remembers well the risks and severe hardships he and others went through during the 44-month occupation. Like others, his wish is that those wartime days will never fade from people's memories.

Despite more than half a century passing since the end of World War II, people like him feel the repercussions are far from over.

Compensation for elderly women forced to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese army and demands for a formal apology from the Japanese Government still hang in the air.

And lately, there is a new issue - the building of a museum detailing the historical facts surrounding Japan's aggression against China and Hong Kong between 1937 and 1945.

The 60 members comprising the Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands favour the museum idea, as do at least 20 legislators and municipal councillors, and war veterans such as Mr Law and their children.

'All of my six children heard from me about my past involvement with the guerillas. I started to talk about the war days when the whole family sat together,' he explains at his three-storey ancestral home at Nam Chung, near Sha Tau Kok.

He describes the day - which he refers to as the March 3 incident - when he and two other fellow teenaged villagers trekked up a hill to inform some guerillas about the approach of Japanese soldiers looking for them.

'It was in 1943,' he recalls, 'but the Japanese arrived before us, and surrounded us. The guerilla members fled and one shot dead a Japanese soldier.

'We were held hostage,' says Mr Law. Luckily, the teenage gang had their lives spared after they came up with the excuse that they were merely looking for a lost cow.

Unionist Lee Kwok-keung believes it is time for today's young generation who have grown up in comfortable circumstances and cosseted with Japanese comics and video games to learn more about the past. He is preparing to petition the Government over the museum idea in the next two weeks.

Aged 43, he has no personal experience of war, but the influence of his father, Lee Kin-kwong, a staunch fighter for the Kuomintang army, is so strong that he firmly believes in the need for a formal memorial site.

'The British Government might not want to have anything to do with the war issue given its involvement in the Opium War, but now that the colonial era is over, we should think about having a war museum.' As a child, he often mingled with the children of other former war veterans who were his father's mates. The bravery and deep commitment of the men greatly impressed him.

'There has been little patriotic education in Hong Kong, and few activities marking the Sino-Japanese war,' he remarks.

If Mr Lee gets his way, the museum will be located at a key leisure and cultural site - the planned Civic Square in the proposed Central-Wan Chai reclamation area.

'It will serve an important educational purpose,' says the veteran unionist. 'Japan's aggression will remain an issue as long as it refuses to apologise formally and give compensation to the numerous Asians who served as comfort women during the war and people who suffered heavy losses for the military notes they were forced to buy under Japanese rule.' At present, two memorial sites dedicated to the unsung heroes who fought against the Japanese in Hong Kong can be found in Sai Kung and Wu Kau Tang in Sha Tau Kok. What Mr Lee and others want to see is a re-make of war museums found elsewhere.

Mr Lee's favourite is the National War Memorial at Canberra in Australia, a copper-domed building featuring an archive, a centre of research and galleries displaying relics, documents, photographs and related art objects.

'It has detailed and real depictions of what happened during the war,' says Mr Lee. 'A torch fire there signifies the living spirit of the war heroes.' Naturally, the number of war veterans in Hong Kong is on the decline. In the Hong Kong and Kowloon Trades Union Council which Mr Lee heads, only several thousand of its 28,000 members are ex-soldiers, all of whom fought in the mainland before coming to Hong Kong in the late 1940s.

One such veteran Ng Kwin, 77, thinks there should be no further delay in setting up a commemorative site. He served in the military throughout the eight years when Japanese troops swept across China. A native of Henan province, he voluntarily left his family to join the Kuomintang army which took him to fight as far as Chongqing. Only after 1945 did he realise that his father had been starved to death and his sister raped and killed by Japanese soldiers. His mother and two younger brothers barely survived under severe food shortages.

'It was a very, very tough time fighting against the Japanese. We have lost the Sino-Japanese War Victory Day holiday, why can't there be a museum to commemorate that important part of history? 'When people like us die, no one will mention what happened during the war any more. The information about that period should be passed down to future generations, there should be books and it'd be even better to have a museum,' adds Mr Ng, who is also a Diaoyu activist.

Mr Law, whose sister was sold to a family in Tai Po, is equally wary of any sign of revival of militarism in Japan.

'Any growth of militarism in Japan will be harmful to neighbouring countries like ours. I don't care whether it is only a small minority of people who want militarism back or not.' A spokesman for the pro-Diaoyu Island movement, former legislator Tsang Kin-shing, is adamant that a museum should be built either with government money or private donations.

'It is easy for people to lose sight of the possibility of a revival of militarism,' says Mr Tsang during a street campaign to collect signatures protesting against an attempt by some Japanese lawmakers to hoist the Japanese flag on the disputed islands.

Some feel the museum may also help with the Government's goal of enhancing cultural tourism in the SAR.

However, winning government approval may not be easy. Having sent letters to all legislators and municipal councillors seeking their support for the museum idea, Mr Lee says he has received only 20 positive replies so far, 10 from legislators.

'It could be a long-term fight,' he says. 'The public may favour the idea when more legislators openly support it.' But one wonders how many would put their weight behind such a move.

Last September, the Legislative Council voted to scrap the Sino-Japanese War Victory Day - the third Monday in August - in favour of a holiday commemorating Buddha's Birthday.

Museum sceptics cite concerns about the hefty cost of building such a monument, which could affect Sino-Japanese relations.

'I support the idea of any history museum. But why single out the Sino-Japanese War?' says Tsang Yok-sing, chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong.

'There are many other important incidents in this century too, such as the May Fourth Movement in China early this century [a massive student-led anti-imperialism movement in Beijing].' Secretary-general of the Hong Kong Japanese Club, Yoshioka Yoshiyuki, says he is annoyed by the idea.

'I might leave Hong Kong if the museum was built. It could drive away Japanese tourists too. First there was the Diaoyu Island dispute and now this idea of a war museum.

'There won't be any more militarism in Japan; people in Japan today are highly educated. If they want to go to a war museum, they can go to the ones in China.' Another Japanese resident, 36-year-old Kenichi Watanabe, is unsure how many Japanese tourists would visit the museum even if there were one.

'They come mainly to shop and eat. Few Japanese people are interested in the war,' says the reporter for Hong Kong Post, a weekly newspaper for the local Japanese community.

However, he himself would go.

'When I was in school in Japan, we were taught much about its war with the US, but little about what it did to China and Hong Kong.

'I would like to know the whole truth.' The value of such a museum also lies in its potential to bring to light a special era in the history of Hong Kong, says chairman of Hong Kong University's History Department, Professor Adam Lui Yuen-chung.

'There are plenty of materials that can be used.

'Several of my friends of a similar age as me still have poignant memories about that period.

'Economic rather than political pressure was strongest in those days.' Although only a small child then, Professor Lui vividly remembers the rationing system, the abject poverty and a curfew that was a way of life under Japanese rule.

'The really rich ones stayed overnight inside the nightclub where my father worked. They danced and placed bets on wooden horse races inside.' He says the museum project is needed, especially when existing school textbooks only briefly mention the extent of atrocities committed against the Chinese.

'We should not try to instil hatred between nations but we should make a fair presentation of historical facts.'