Mission accomplished - telling the tale of a dash for freedom

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 February, 2015, 6:39pm

Former BBC journalist Tim Luard talks to Jason Wordie about the project that resulted in his recent book, Escape from Hong Kong

When did you come to Hong Kong?

I first came in 1974, having just graduated from Edinburgh University where I studied Chinese. I wanted to make use of the language, and in those days the choice was basically Taiwan or Hong Kong. For seven years I worked as a journalist for the Star newspaper, and then joined the BBC and had 23 years with them. I was the Beijing correspondent - including that tense time during the Tiananmen protests - so that got me down to Hong Kong a lot. And my wife Allison was a Hong Kong girl.

How did your story develop?

My father-in-law, Colin McEwan, was one of the members of the 1941 escape party, when a group of Hong Kong government officials, intelligence officers and others - led by Chinese admiral Chan Chak - made a dash for freedom on Christmas Day, just after the British surrender. After his death, we discovered his wartime diaries. These were eventually published in the journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in Hong Kong. Other families whose fathers' stories were involved eventually started to come together.

How did the idea of a 1941 escape re-enactment come about?

Over Christmas 2008, my wife and I set out from Nanao (on the mainland side of Mirs Bay) with the intention of walking - as far as possible - to Waichow [Huizhou], about 80 kilometres away. Waichow was the closest major town to Hong Kong that was not occupied by the Japanese, and this was where the escape party eventually ended up. In doing so, we looked for landmarks that may have survived - and there weren't many. We talked to people about the 1941 journey. Some older people remembered hearing about it, but for most it was an adventure story from another time - barely credible. People were amazed we had any interest in history at all, even involving something that recent.

What does your HERO organisation stand for? Hong Kong Escape Re-enactment Organisation. Not long after we finished our initial walk to Waichow, in early 2009 we met in England with Sheena MacDougal, the daughter of [escape party member and post-war colonial secretary] David MacDougal, and some of the other descendants, and things moved rapidly from there. Interested individuals were scattered all over the world, so Skype was a great help in bringing people together.

What was the main point of connection?

The internet really speeded up the process. Richard Hide, the son of Stephen 'Buddy' Hide [a naval stoker who took part in the escape] had created a website about his father's experiences in 1997 and gradually others became connected through this and other websites. Donald Chan [son of Chan Chak], Ted Ross, who actually took part in the escape, and others who had not been in touch at all gradually became connected. Eventually about 70 to 80 people from 20 families were involved.

What were the main stumbling blocks?

Admiral Chan Chak, whose escape from Hong Kong was the central theme, was of course a Nationalist, and the official narrative these days tends to downplay their role in the resistance against Japan. The guerilla groups who helped escape parties from Hong Kong were communist - or at least leftist - in affiliation, and naturally they tend to take centre stage.

How were these issues resolved?

Getting the required permissions was a tortuous process. Eventually it was determined that official recognition of the Christmas Day escape was 'a good thing'. They weren't all that keen on an actual re-enactment - it was good Chinese political theatre they were after, banquets and speeches, and a few surviving guerillas lined up and carefully primed to say the same thing. But we persisted.

And the book itself?

The escape was such a gripping adventure story that it had to be written. The more I probed, the more information that came to light. Eventually Escape from Hong Kong: Admiral Chan Chak's Christmas Day Dash, 1941 was the result.

Was it an important project to undertake?

In my career I always dealt with current affairs. But that focus has shifted for me. You come to realise, as time goes on, that what happens today depends very greatly on what happened yesterday, or the day before that, and so on into the more distant past.

What comes next?

I promised my wife I wouldn't do another project like this one. I loved the research ... but cramming it all into a manuscript of 130,000 words was a stressful process. But who knows? I might change my mind.

An exhibition on the subject, 'Escape from Hong Kong: The Road to Waichow', can be seen at the Museum of Coastal Defence, Shau Kei Wan, until June 30