Legacy of war in Asia

Hong Kong genocide educator’s race against time to document some of the darkest episodes in human history

From the Nanking massacre to Unit 731’s lethal human experiments, to the Khmer Rouge to the Holocaust, Simon Li, director of education at the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre, collects and recounts survivors’ tales

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 December, 2017, 7:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 December, 2017, 1:12pm

Although Gao Xiongfei was only four when the Japanese Imperial Army bombed his hometown of Yongan, the wartime capital of Fujian province in eastern China, he still has vivid memories of the trauma.

On November 4, 1943, Gao and his mother were having lunch at home when air raid sirens went off, but it was too late to take shelter – a 226kg bomb exploded just metres away from their home and flying shrapnel sliced off both their right arms.

A neighbour helped them to a hospital, where doctors operated for three hours without any anaesthetic. Now 78, Gao’s earliest childhood memories are of blood, bombs and fire.

Gao has learned more about what happened that day through old newspapers – 135 bombs were dropped on Yongan, killing more than 500 civilians. He also tracked down his surgeon to thank him.

It is such horrific memories that Simon Li Ka-ho collects to share with others. Li, 36, is director of education at the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre in Shau Kei Wan.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Nanking massacre in what was then the Chinese capital, today named Nanjing. Estimates of the number of fatalities vary widely, from 40,000 to 300,000, as Japanese troops stormed the city, killing, raping and looting. It marked the beginning of the Sino-Japanese war, and was one of many atrocities in China.

As a genocide educator, Li interviews survivors of crimes against humanity. “For me the emotional part is the experiential impact – [the victims] are still living with it every day. If we don’t tell these stories, history will be forgotten. They want their suffering to be acknowledged, and I’m a witness to their suffering,” he says.

Li has travelled to Europe to meet second world war Holocaust survivors and visit concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. He has also been to Cambodia, and to South Korea and China to document the atrocities that victims suffered at the hands of the Japanese during the second world war.

“Some comfort women in Shanghai are still living in what used to be a brothel for Japanese soldiers,” says Li, adding that the ticket booth for admission, now a rusted metal shell, remains outside the compound as a painful reminder.

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One of the women explained why they continue living there: if they leave the building, Japanese design features on the walls may be destroyed and evidence that the troops had been there could be lost.

Li says that when he interviews survivors of such atrocities, whether Jewish, Cambodian, Korean or Chinese, they all speak with the same sense of purpose.

“When they talk to you, they really want to say so many things at once, because they don’t know how much longer they will live. Afterwards, they are emotionally exhausted. It has been particularly difficult for Chinese and Korean comfort women, because their families are so ashamed of their past as sex slaves that they don’t take into account that they were victims too,” Li says.

For Hong Kong-born Li, the road to becoming a genocide educator began in Canada 10 years ago while he worked as a host for a Chinese community radio station in Toronto. He reported on four “comfort women” from China, South Korea and the Philippines, who travelled to several countries, including Canada, to tell their stories and demand an apology and compensation from Japan.

In 2008, a year after he returned to Hong Kong, Li taught journalism and humanities courses at Yew Chung Community College. Every year he took students to places such as the Killing Fields Museum in Phnom Penh, and to Nanjing to visit the house of “good Nazi” John Rabe and the Nanking massacre Memorial Hall.

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Li has a particular interest in biological and germ warfare because of its contemporary relevance. “People know about Nuremberg,” he says, referring to the trials of Nazi war criminals, “but not about what happened in China.” He cites the example of Unit 731 in Harbin, where the Japanese conducted lethal biological experiments on Chinese men,women and children. “The masterminds behind germ warfare were never prosecuted,” he says. They were secretly given immunity by the United States in exchange for data on human experimentation.

Li met Fang Jiabei, 86, and his wife Ye Saizhou, 89, in July this year. They still live in Quzhou city, Zhejiang province, which was attacked over two years by the Japanese using biological weapons such as cholera, lice, plague and anthrax.

Ye recalls October 1940, when she was 12 years old and saw planes making two passes over the city, dropping parcels. Residents thought they were food and other supplies from the Red Cross, but they were canisters of lethal toxins. Days later, Ye saw dead rats everywhere and people started becoming ill – they had the plague.

Li says the city had a population of about 300,000 before the war. Some 40,000 died and practically every one else was infected, resulting in lifelong health problems.

For me, to talk to a witness is to become a witness. It’s a moral responsibility to educate others
Simon Li

Fang has a long gash on his leg caused by an anthrax infection. It started with a yellow blister that grew and then burst, releasing pus. For decades he was in terrible pain and had difficulty walking; itching and blistering compounded the problem. Fang wanted doctors to perform a skin graft, but his skin was so brittle that if it was accidentally brushed against it would bleed.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that doctors figured out a way to treat his injury. He is one of the lucky ones; others who contracted “rotten-leg disease” suffered such extreme pain they were driven to suicide.

Fang’s family of eight, including five siblings, moved to Quzhou in 1942. Less than a month later, only he and his father had survived the bombardment. Fang remembers seeing bodies every day, and hearing victims crying at night.

When Li talks to students about these atrocities, it isn’t the numbers, or the causes of war he recounts, but the personal stories.

Another is that of 89-year-old Ai Yiying. She was only nine years old when she saw a Japanese soldier kill two villagers near Nanjing in the winter of 1937. Ai ran home to tell her father, who instructed her, her younger brother and mother to flee at dawn the next day and promised they would see each other again soon.

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They hid out in the mountains for a few months, where Ai’s heavily pregnant mother gave birth to a baby girl. However, they didn’t have enough food to feed themselves and had to abandon the baby.

When they returned to the village in the spring, she found her father dead from bayonet wounds and covered in blood, along with her two uncles and a cousin.

Li says few students he talks to know anything about these atrocities. “Many of them say, ‘How come I didn’t know about this when I was growing up?’,” he says. Many are shocked, and in some cases shed tears.

Due to the disturbing nature of the topic, Li says, he also talks about heroic individuals whom he describes as the “light in the face of darkness”. They include John Rabe, “the good Nazi” who helped set up a safety zone for Chinese refugees of the Nanking massacre, and American missionary Minnie Vautrin, who saved thousands of women and children.

Every year, the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre tries to bring a survivor to Hong Kong, but they are now all in their 80s and 90s.

“How are we going to educate the next generation when these witnesses are dying? We are now talking about the post-survivor stage. For me, to talk to a witness is to become a witness. It’s a moral responsibility to educate others,” Li says.

The Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre is sponsoring two events at the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre in Admiralty.

On December 8 is “Remembering Nanjing: 80 Years Later”, where there will be a presentation by China scholar Rana Mitter.

On December 9, there will be a workshop for history and humanities instructors on teaching the subject of genocide. For more information, go to