East River Column

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 September, 2009, 12:00am

East River Column
by Chan Sui-jeung
Hong Kong University Press HK$250

There is a popular - and erroneous - supposition that as far as Hong Kong is concerned the second world war began with the Japanese assault on December 8, 1941, and ended with the ignominious British surrender on Christmas Day. Fast forward to the arrival of the Royal Navy in August 1945, the restoration of colonial rule and the conclusion of an unsavoury, to say nothing of unprofitable, chapter.

As Chan Sui-jeung's riveting East River Column: Hong Kong Guerrillas in the Second World War and After makes clear, this was not the case. Hundreds of guerillas - offshoots of the resistance fighters in mainland China - carried on a valiant struggle against the invaders, concentrating their efforts in the New Territories and outer islands, putting to good use the weapons and ammunition left by the retreating Allied forces and shooting a volley of thorns into the sides of the brutal Japanese.

Age was no barrier: youngsters known as Little Devils acted as sentries and couriers. Some guerillas were politically motivated, others simply took up arms to repel the enemy from their homeland. And in addition to the Imperial Japanese Army, the East River Column also had to contend with collaborators, bandits, triads and informers in a Hong Kong that turned increasingly feral as the war progressed and the rule of law - such as it was - became increasingly elastic.

For the Allied internees and prisoners of war the Column was something of a lifeline, facilitating escapes (even though few) and delivering messages to the camps towards the end of hostilities.

This is a story that has been waiting to be told. While the Cenotaph occupies a proud position in Central, Hong Kong's resistance fighters are commemorated by a much less prominent memorial in Sai Kung. Chan formerly served as district officer for Sai Kung and met many resistance veterans during his time there. More poignantly, his father was a member of the British Army Aid Group stationed in Kunming, and flew into Hong Kong in September 1945 to assist in tracking down traitors and other ne'er-do-wells.

Amply qualified for the task, Chan the younger has not simply told the East River Column's stirring tale, but put it deftly in context, explaining the political situation in China as Communists and Kuomintang battled together, as well as what happened to the guerillas after the war - many retired to the PRC - when Mao's doctrine took hold across the country.

For the Hong Kong reader this compelling and excellently written slice of history works on several levels. First, it is the untold story - in English, at least - of ordinary men and women who put their lives on the line against a much stronger aggressor. Second, it paints the larger picture of the war that swept across China for a large part of the 20th century. Third, there are such shocking revelations that Japanese soldiers tortured and killed civilians on what is now a pleasure beach in Mui Wo several days after the war had officially ended. East River Column is their fitting memorial.