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Hong Kong's second world war history

A hope for refuge turns to starvation and stealing: my grandparents' life under Japanese rule in WW2 in Hong Kong

On December 8, 1941, Hong Kong became one of the first battlegrounds in the Pacific campaign of the invading Japanese. On the same morning as the attack on Pearl Harbour, Japanese forces attacked British Hong Kong without any prior declaration of war. Japan's act of aggression was met with fierce resistance but the colony fell after 18 days of intense fighting. For three years and eight months, the people of Hong Kong lived under Japanese Occupation. This is one of a series of stories in remembrance of the Battle of Hong Kong and the dark days that followed.

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 August, 2015, 1:25pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 August, 2015, 1:47am

Watch: Bombing, torture and starvation: World War II in Hong Kong elderly couple's own words 

My grandfather and his parents left the mainland when he was just 10 years old in an effort to escape the Japanese. Little did they realise the Japanese would be in hot pursuit two years later.

"They came in the morning. Their planes started to drop bombs. Boom boom boom …" said my grandfather as I broached the subject with him tentatively, unsure if I would be wise to ask about their suffering.

"We had to hide in the mountains near Heep Yunn School. At night, we slept in the mountains because we were scared of the bombs. We didn't sleep at home because the bombing was indiscriminate and everywhere."

All my grandfather could remember from that night of madness was the sound of bombs, the aching fear in his stomach and running to the hills.

In that night of madness, all he could remember were the sounds of the bombs, the aching fear and the running

It was on December 8, 1941 that the Japanese invaded Hong Kong. My grandfather, Wong Ping-hang, was by then 12 and living near Pau Chung Street in To Kwa Wan.

He was born in Shanghai in 1929. His father worked for Chung Hwa Book Company, a large publisher based in Shanghai. When the Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1937, the firm had to relocate to Hong Kong, and my grandfather's family followed his employer. The journey by boat to the city took two days.

Like so many other refugees in Hong Kong, my grandfather's family thought they would be safe from the war living in the British colony.

But those hopes were shattered as Japanese bombs wreaked havoc in the city in 1941, and worse days were to follow.

My grandfather recalled how he only had groundnut oil cake mixed with porridge to eat. I was reluctant to ask him what that was but later found out it is meant to be a fertiliser - unfit for human consumption.

"I was always hungry," my grandfather said with barely a trace of emotion. It was a state millions found themselves in. My grandmother, Lau Kit-sheung, then living in a suburb of Guangzhou, ate only tofu residue.

People stole food regularly, and my grandmother was once a victim. One day, while walking to the city to collect salt and kerosene, "to sustain myself for the journey, I bought a fried dumpling, which I carried on my back. But someone grabbed it, and I starved for the rest of the day."

Both remembered the scenes of torture. They recalled a form of waterboarding torture used by the Japanese soldiers – their memory clashing so painfully with what I take for granted as a flagrant violation of basic human rights and dignity in this century.

"If you passed by the Japanese sentries on the roads and you didn't bow to them, they would call you over and beat you up. Even worse, they would pour water into your mouth until your stomach was full and step on you," my grandfather said.

But amid the depravity, he also saw acts of kindness.

"Some of the soldiers liked kids and gave us treats, knowing we were hungry. There were both good Japanese and bad."

Some liked kids and gave you some treats, knowing we were hungry. There were good Japanese and bad Japanese

But my grandmother, who met and married my grandfather after she went to live in Hong Kong when the war ended, shared no such sentiment.

"It's better not to talk about the Japanese," she said as she wiped her eyes. "It was a very rough time."

It was then that I paused. Despite my curiosity, I did not want to force them to wade through the bitter and painful past. Growing up in a middle class family in modern day Hong Kong, my upbringing had been the polar opposite to theirs.

They had sacrificed a great deal to raise four children including my mother, their youngest child. Hearing their stories, my respect and admiration for them grew stronger than ever before.

Despite their suffering, they were the lucky ones. Hong Kong's population shrank from 1.6 million to 600,000 in the three years and eight months of Japanese occupation. Some were deported, others died from hunger, abuse or illness.

We will never know the stories of these silent victims.

WATCH: The horrors of Japanese war turned my grandparents' hope for refuge into hunger, fear and sacrifice