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  • Dec 20, 2014
  • Updated: 10:30am

A rare glimpse into our forgotten past

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 July, 2009, 12:00am

Ever since the publication in 2005 of Fung Chi Ming's Reluctant Heroes: Rickshaw Pullers in Hong Kong and Canton, 1874-1954, scholars and other readers have been well served by a series of works on Hong Kong history, published by Hong Kong University Press and supported by the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Since then, more than half a dozen other books have appeared that otherwise would never have seen the light of day. The rickshaw book, for instance, was originally a thesis presented at the University of Hong Kong in 1996. The esoteric nature of the subject probably meant it would only have been available to a handful of scholars.

And now comes the latest instalment of history, East River Column: Hong Kong Guerrillas in the Second World War and After, by Chan Sui-jeung, whose father, Chan Kwok-wing, was a member of the British Army Aid Group. The BAAG was a clandestine group founded by Hong Kong Volunteers reservists who escaped to southern China during the second world war.

The younger Chan is a former civil servant who, as a child, witnessed the Japanese invasion and 'the atrocities inflicted upon the people in Hong Kong' and who, while a district officer in Sai Kung in the 1980s, met many East River Column veterans.

Few today know about the East River Column, a guerilla group whose members - many of whom were members of the Chinese Communist Party - played a leading role in smuggling escapees from prison camps in Hong Kong to China.

This book also sheds light on the early years of communist activities in the then-British colony. By the mid-1930s, Chan says, there were about 650 party members under the direct control of the Hong Kong Municipal Committee of the Communist Party, and another 50 among the communist-led Hong Kong Seamen's Union.

In mid-1941, the British actually enlisted the aid of the communists to sabotage Japanese military facilities in China. An accord was reached in December but never implemented because, on December 8, Japanese troops invaded Hong Kong.

The East River guerillas were not directly involved in the war against the Japanese. However, they were able to move into Sai Kung and maintained a strong presence throughout the occupation, moving with ease in the rest of the New Territories. The guerillas were also able to direct allied planes to drop their bombs on the right targets by firing flares and tracer bullets, supplied by BAAG agents, into the night sky.

The guerillas worked closely with the triads, who were most knowledgeable about escape routes and means of evading the Japanese. This may well explain why Tao Siju, the minister of public security, said in 1993 that some triads are 'patriotic'.

Indeed, according to Chan, all of the roughly 100 British officials, American air force personnel, Indian soldiers and other non-Chinese prisoners who escaped were able to be repatriated to 'Free China' because of the guerillas. 'Not one escapee,' he wrote, 'could have survived the journey without the guerrillas' assistance'.

After the Japanese surrender in 1945, it was a little delicate for the British because London had diplomatic relations with the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. Nonetheless, when the guerillas withdrew to China in September 1945, the British accorded them full honours by reviewing them on parade. The British government went so far as to publicly thank the East River Column for their services rendered 'in assisting persons escaping from Hong Kong'.

Over time, however, the work of the East River Column was largely forgotten. The story of Hong Kong's resistance to the Japanese focused on the British forces, which surrendered on Christmas Day, 1941.

The Royal Asiatic Society and Hong Kong University Press deserve credit for publishing these titles. Hopefully, more will appear.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. frank.ching@scmp.com


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