'Bombs dropped all along the harbour': my grandmother's brushes with death during Japanese occupation of 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 the first of a series of stories in remembrance of the Battle of Hong Kong and the dark days that followed.
The shorelines of Hong Kong have changed so much with reclamation work that I find it hard to pick out where my grandmother once lived.
The 90-year-old matriarch Chan Ngan was born and lived on a boat - a mid-sized wooden junk - until she married my grandpa. The Chans also owned a little sampan, which they moored on one of the many piers at Sai Ying Pun.
Just before the war, the family made a living transporting goods and people from piers to the tugboats and large cargo ships anchored in the deeper waters in the middle of Victoria Harbour.
Every day, grandma said she’d stand along the piers, waiting for customers looking for a ride out to their vessels anchored further out.
All that rowing was done for just three cents.
"It was a rolling sound of bombs dropped all along the harbour," she said, gesturing with her hands to show how fast the bombs dropped into the sea. "It went on and on. Very loud, waves flying and wooden splinters. And then it stopped."
Thus began the occupation, and grandma learnt to hate the Japanese.
While given orders to treat locals with decorum during the takeover, "few of the troops remembered that they were supposed to go easy on the ordinary Chinese population", wrote author Philip Snow in the book, The Fall of Hong Kong.
Snow said more than 10,000 Chinese women were raped during the sacking of Hong Kong and that killings went on - even after it stopped for the Europeans in the city.
Grandma said she learned to run fast or to jump into the ocean if she saw any “turnip heads” – a term the locals gave to the Japanese soldiers – out on the streets.
During "three years and eight months" - the term my grandma would use for the Japanese occupation - she and many others carried contraband on their little sampans, skirting and shimmying through myriad harbours and larger boats to deliver the stolen goods to other locals.
They stole from the Japanese. Bits of food, or clothes, sometimes weapons.
Grandma never stole, she was merely a courier, she told me.
The boat people were poor, but they were a community, said grandma.
"The Japanese probably knew, and so they would target us boat folks," said grandma. "There was one time near the North Point pier, when a group of Japanese soldiers pointed at me and started shouting.
"I jumped into my boat and rowed with all my might. They ran after me. Then I slipped my boat behind a bigger one tied to a pile, tied a rope [which was attached to the boat] around my ankle and jumped into the water.
"I swam down and held on to the pile underwater. I could see the bullets they were shooting, piercing through the water around me. I held my breath and clung to the pile like it was life itself until they stopped.
"That was my close brush with death," she said with a chuckle.
Grandma went on to marry my grandfather not long after the war and had nine children. Most of them went to universities overseas. The two are also grandparents to 13 grandchildren, now living in the city and all over the world.
Till this day, she tells this story with a lot of hand gestures and the gusto of a proud survivor to any of her grandchildren.
Grandma said there was a time when the Japanese bomber planes dropped their bombs all over the Yau Ma Tei boat shelter, where many of the boat people would anchor their homes.
“We heard the loud screeching of the bombers, and saw them come down – BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! – and the boats, some of them were pretty big, just splintered into driftwood. My mother and I steered our home quickly out of the most dangerous spots.
"Luckily we weren't hit. Afterwards, we took the sampan out from among the wreckage. There were people lying around, some trying to cling to the wooden boards, some were stiff from cold. It was wintertime and the water was freezing.
"We saw an old woman, whom we knew, with her two little granddaughters and we rowed over.
"They were ice cold. I said to my mother: 'Ma'am I think they are gone!' But my mum said: 'No, it's alright, pull them up, quick!'"
My grandma and great-grandmother then brought the victims to their bigger boat, stripped off all their wet clothing and rolled them up in thick blankets. Then they stocked the three wood-burners and kept the room warm.
They saved the lives of that elderly woman and her granddaughters.
When the two girls grew up and got married, they brought gifts and wedding invitations to my grandmother.
After the initial attack and the early days of the occupation, grandma said things quieted down a bit. But sometimes people disappeared, with whispers that the Japanese had taken them away to be beheaded.
Some of these stories turned out to be true.
Grandma's father was one of these who disappeared, around two years into the occupation.
“[People] came to us one day and said: ‘Your father’s been taken away! He’s been taken away!’ I didn’t know why. We didn’t hear from him for a few days, and then people told us the news – that he is dead.
"The police said he committed suicide but that's impossible. Others said he was pushed off a building ... the Japanese back then didn't need a reason for killing someone. So my mother and I went to find his body."
They had to look among piles of bodies strewn around what my grandma called a "mass grave pit" in Jordan, near what is now the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
“Outside Elizabeth there used to be this big field.
"We had to find him there. We eventually did - I took one look at his hands and I knew it was him," said grandma. "All I needed was one look at his hands, and I knew that was my father."
She fell silent and her eyes misted over.
They took the body away on a wooden cart and buried him somewhere, with "hills and greenery around".
From then on, my grandma was her mother’s only support, and a second mother to her younger siblings.
Days became harder for the family. My grandma left Hong Kong to work as a housemaid in Macau towards the end of the Japanese occupation.
“I cleaned people’s houses,” she said. “I saved enough money to buy a big sack of rice, sugar and other foodstuffs. Then I ran to the harbour and found a ship sailing for Hong Kong. There I met a sailor – he was from my ancestors’ hometown and we shared some mutual acquaintances – and I begged him to bring the things back to my ma. I begged so hard that in the end he said okay.”
She waited eagerly for the ship to come back. When it dropped by Macauagain, my grandma went to find the sailor only to find that the shipment of goods was “lost”.
“I asked him: ‘Did my mother get the rice?” He said: ‘No, it was lost.’
“I cried all the way back that day. Then I cried some more,” said grandma. She used the term haam chaan sei – which in Cantonese means “cried like one was dying”.
“What happened after that,” I asked.
“Well, I used up all my money for the goods. So I worked really hard again until I had enough money to buy another batch,” said grandma.
When she did, she bought another big sack of rice, sugar and foodstuffs and took them to the same sailor. Grandma then begged him again till he was willing to bring the food back. This time, the things were delivered to her mother at home.
“When I was told she received the rice, I cried all the way back again and cried some more,” grandma said.
She returned home “after peace” – what old Hongkongers’ called the liberation of Hong Kong from the Japanese.
She sailed into Victoria Harbour, got off and went home. Seeing her mother on their wooden boat, grandma ran straight into my great-grandmother’s arms.
“There we stood, both mother and daughter holding tight and haam chaan sei – cried our eyes out,” she said, and tears rolled down the corners of her eyes and into the crevices of her wrinkles as she passed her hand over them and gave a soft chuckle.