Old Hong Kong

Escape over Cloudy Hill

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 February, 2015, 6:42pm

Tucked away in the scenic ridge behind Tai Po, Cloudy Hill forms one of Hong Kong's more popular hiking tracks. Now part of the Wilson Trail, outdoor enthusiasts head here every weekend to enjoy a peaceful escape from the city.

But a visit here wasn't always so tranquil: life-or-death experiences once lurked behind every turn in the path. Seventy years ago on January 31, in conditions as bitterly cold and dank as those of the recent Lunar New Year, three young men made a daring escape from Japanese captivity over Cloudy Hill. Theirs was the last authorised (by a commanding officer) wartime escape - subsequent breakouts from Hong Kong brought serious repercussions to those left behind.

The leader of the party was Tony Hewitt, a 28-year-old cap- tain in the 1st Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. Hewitt had come to Hong Kong in mid-1937, when his unit was posted here from Singapore to reinforce the local garrison after the all-out Japanese attack on China that summer. A keen hiker, he became familiar with the trails around the Kowloon hills and beyond.

After the British surrender, on Christmas Day 1941 (Hewitt was the officer who tied the white flag on to the pole amid heavy fighting in Wan Chai), he was imprisoned - along with the rest of the garrison - in the Middlesex Regiment's former barracks, on the Sham Shui Po waterfront.

Departing late on a moonless night, their route took them by sampan from the waterfront, across to Lai Chi Kok, and then over the Kowloon hills, via Golden Hill to the old Tai Po Road, and then up Cloudy Hill. Instead of meeting parties of rowdy hikers, the group encountered bandits who attacked them. Hewitt was injured - and one of the bandits probably killed - before the escape party got away. Not long afterwards, they met some friendly communist guerillas who guided them to safety - and eventually on into Free China. Hewitt was awarded a Military Cross for this daring exploit.

In retirement, Hewitt and his wife, Liz, lived near my parents in Queensland, Australia, and we became friends. In the 1980s, he wrote a gripping account of his escape from Hong Kong. Enhanced by a foreword by his brother-in-law, film star John Mills, Bridge with Three Men remains, arguably, the best first-hand account of an escape from occupied Hong Kong.

The couple came to Hong Kong in 1996 and, while Cloudy Hill had been revisited on previous trips, they had never returned further north. We resolved to revisit the scenes of his escape the next year. And in late 1997, we did. Over some days, we drove from Shenzhen to Huizhou on the East River, where the escape party reached safety. Eventually we passed through beautiful scenery further up the East River, and arrived at Shaoguan, Guangdong's wartime capital.

There we visited the former Methodist Mission Hospital, where Hewitt was treated for the wounds he received on Cloudy Hill. We dined with the hospital director, an elderly wartime nurse was found to meet Hewitt and everywhere we went, from Shenzhen to Shaoguan and back via Guangzhou, we met only friendliness and enthusiasm for this remarkable man, then in his mid-80s.

Hong Kong's wartime generation has almost completely gone now. Hewitt died in 2004, aged 90, and Liz a few years later. With their passing, the heroism, sense of adventure and just-get-on-with-it spirit that generation possessed passed from memory into history. But, somehow, a long cold tramp on Cloudy Hill brings them back again, if only for a few hours.

Cloudy Hill straddles stages eight and nine of the Wilson Trail, a 78-kilometre hiking route named after former governor of Hong Kong Lord Wilson of Tillyorn and Fanling.