The real story of Hong Kong's place in the second world war

Three military history buffs are determined to bring the true story of Hong Kong's participation in the second world war to the city's younger generation

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 April, 2015, 6:36am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 April, 2015, 11:02am

Gathering at the Star Ferry in Tsim Sha Tsui, Rusty Tsoi Yiu-lun and Dennis Cheung Tsun-lam eagerly point out parts of the clock tower hit by shrapnel during the second world war.

These are barely visible as the damage has been plastered over, but Cheung says the area had come under heavy shelling during the war. The tower had been part of the old Kowloon-Canton Railway terminus, and armaments arriving by sea would be offloaded onto trains at the pier to be sent to the Chinese hinterland.

Cheung and Tsoi are military history buffs. Together with fellow enthusiast Kwong Chi-man, they have been working to unearth details of Hong Kong's experience during the war and share their research with the younger generation of Hongkongers.

"Many local students don't realise that Hong Kong was involved in the second world war," says Tsoi, a history teacher at Mu Kuang English School.

They know Japan attacked China and occupied the country, but no one told them Hong Kong was [invaded], too."

This part of Hong Kong history is not included in the school curriculum and parents and grandparents seldom discuss it with the younger generation, he says.

Cheung, who regularly visits bookshops in search of new war history titles, finds there is a frustrating dearth of material about the Battle of Hong Kong, when Japanese troops attacked the territory in December 1941.

"There are books on the Battle of the Pacific and the Battle of Midway. But there are none on the Battle of Hong Kong and there should be more attention about it worldwide," says Cheung. "It's not just about Hong Kong, but the Pacific theatre and the whole of the second world war."

But by scouring archival material and recently declassified documents, the trio, who are all in their early 30s, have gained a greater understanding of military strategies adopted then, as well as personal stories of the people who defended Hong Kong.

About 1,500 allied soldiers died trying to fight off the Japanese invaders before Hong Kong fell, but their names are rarely remembered, unlike those who were victorious in battle, Cheung says.

"Maybe historians don't want to talk about them but they deserve some respect."

Tsoi became interested in local military history while in secondary school after reading Ruins of War, historian Ko Tim-keung's guide to battlefields and wartime sites in Hong Kong. Not only did he explore haunts such as the old Pinewood Battery on Hatton Road, he continued to pursue this interest at university, where he wrote a thesis on the Japanese occupation, extracting information from government records and war diaries.

Cheung, a research assistant at Baptist University, has been interested in all things military since he was a child, even signing up for a youth training camp run by the PLA at Whampoa Military Academy.

He and Tsoi became fast friends after meeting at a class on military history at the university, and got to know Kwong, now an assistant research professor, while the latter was conducting his doctoral research. The three men have been close since - Tsoi and Kwong were Cheung's ushers at his wedding last month.

Kwong, who focuses on East Asian military history, says Hong Kong was important for many reasons.

"It was not just a commercial city before 1941 - it was the local headquarters of the Royal Navy, and it was a shipbuilding and financial centre. That's why the Japanese were so interested in taking the city."

He challenges the belief that the British colonial authorities did not fight hard enough to defend Hong Kong: "They were outnumbered and lacked firepower and air support. Their plan was sound," he says.

Two Canadian battalions had arrived to reinforce the Hong Kong garrison a couple of months before fighting started and had some time to prepare. They were "actually quite good" in battle, Kwong adds, but lacked some of their heavier gear, including armoured cars and other vehicles.

When the Japanese surrendered, there were only 4,000 tons [one month's supply] of rice left in Hong Kong
Kwong Chi-man, history enthusiast

The equipment was still on a ship in Manila when war broke out - two days' sailing away.

Moreover, although war seemed likely, Kwong says the Japanese military had been dithering over its plan of action: the attack on Pearl Harbour was already conceived in November 1941 but the air strike took place on December 7.

"They were indecisive until the last moment. You can't blame the British for being unprepared - they knew it would happen, but weren't sure when."

The Road to Liberation, Kwong's new Chinese-language book, will shed more light on the wartime occupation, using Japanese archival material on Hong Kong's black market, property sector and trade with its neighbours. Set for release in June, it follows three other Chinese titles on different aspects of Hong Kong's military history.

"When the Japanese surrendered, there were only 4,000 tons of rice left [in Hong Kong]. That was only enough to feed the population - about 500,000 at the time - for a month," he says.

Towards the end of the occupation, Guangzhou was held by the Kuomintang and parts of China were facing famine but the British were already planning for the post-war reconstruction. They received intelligence that food was running low, and organised ships to bring in supplies from Australia, Burma and India under Operation Armour.

"Without that operation, there wouldn't have been any reconstruction, but chaos," Kwong says.

Accessing archival material that the Japanese Defence Ministry placed online, he was able to read a range of combat reports and war diaries.

The notes the Japanese naval commander in Hong Kong made of events between December 1941 and March 1945, in particular, ran counter to the common perception: "He recorded the air raids, the attack on Hong Kong, the damage done, shipping activities, submarine attacks and guerilla attacks," Kwong says. "Guerillas in Hong Kong claimed to have caused trouble for the Japanese but, according to Japanese records, that wasn't the case."

The challenge now is for the history buffs to try to verify the accuracy of these writings.

Recollections of the surviving veterans from the Battle of Hong Kong (fewer than 20) are not entirely reliable, Kwong adds, because of their advanced age (some are in various stages of dementia) and memories may have changed.

"That's why I like to have archival sources," he says. "The Japanese documents were meant only for the Japanese - they didn't know someone else would read them 70 years later."

Besides, the group can wait for more documents to be declassified as they are still in their 30s, Tsoi says.

For example, when the late Hong Kong University historian George Beer Endacott was trying to write a book during the '70s on the city's military history, he was unable to get access to several government papers because they were still sealed. "But five years ago Kwong was able to read them and that's how he and I wrote Exposed Outpost and Eastern Fortress," Tsoi says.

In reviewing the wartime occupation, Tsoi argues: "The Japanese lost in the end because they didn't know how to rebuild Hong Kong [after their invasion]."

The power plant was destroyed and they had to rebuild tunnels and piers. There were corpses lying in the streets but the Japanese didn't allow them to be picked up, leading to an epidemic. Only then did they allow the British to clear the streets, Tsoi says.

"There were similar examples of the Japanese failure to rebuild in Singapore, Manila and Burma. They realised this too late and were defeated by the US."

While Kwong is focused on military strategy and the overall picture of the war, Tsoi is more passionate about the personal stories that help give a more rounded picture of what befell Hong Kong during the war.

He was particularly taken with the writings of S.D. Begg, a volunteer in the Hong Kong Defence Corps: Begg and his wife were separated after being captured by the Japanese, and she was murdered the day after Hong Kong surrendered.

Students, Tsoi adds, often have a misunderstanding about history. "They think it's boring, but to me it's stories. It helps us to imagine what happened and understand what they faced."

The history teacher hopes more will be taught about Hong Kong's war period in schools so that students will have a better picture of history.

"They need to know local history and Chinese history, the good and the bad, to learn why China suffered after the Qing dynasty. They may criticise the Communists, but they need to know what happened to avoid mistakes in the future."