Hong Kong history: the tunnels where Japanese hid from air raids in wartime – exploring one of the last vestiges of 4-year occupation

Australian-born history buff Robert Lockyer leads tours of tunnels dug into Lamma Island by villagers the Japanese executed afterwards to keep their location secret; his explorations have also uncovered a Qing dynasty fort

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 March, 2018, 6:46pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 March, 2018, 8:05pm

Exploring second world war tunnels with guide Robert Lockyer comes with a couple of warnings.

“It’s addictive. Once you start, you’ll want more. And you’ll have nightmares for the rest of your life.”

It’s 9am on a Thursday and we’re gathered at the Yung Shue Wan ferry pier on Lamma, Hong Kong’s third-largest island just 3km from Central district. Lockyer, a bush boy from Victoria, Australia – he grew up on a cattle farm – has called Lamma home for four years and knows most of its 14 square kilometres like the back of his sun-wrinkled hand.

Today he’s briefing the latest group: Hongkongers Ming Chan, who recently returned after living in Canada since 1972, and Jasmine Yeung, a dentist who likes adventure. Anitta Hiekkanen from Finland, a Hong Kong resident of 1½ years, has also joined.

“I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve explored tunnels on Lamma,” Hiekkanen says. Maybe there’s some truth in that addiction warning.

Lockyer has shunned office jobs, opting instead for occupations to match his wandering spirit (think diving instructor and cattle herder). Today he fills multiple environmental roles at non-profit Aquameridian Conservation & Education Foundation, and also works at HK125coastal, a job that involves organising rubbish clean-ups around Hong Kong’s coastlines. “My goal with the beach clean-ups is to be out of work,” he says, laughing.

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He’s also a confessed explorer and recently started tunnel tours as a hobby. Word spread fast, and he now hosts up to four a week. “On weekends I can take between 50 and 150 people.”

Domestic workers looking for a fun way to spend a Sunday are among regular sign-ups.

“About 150 helpers joined one tour,” he says.

The tunnels are one of the few remaining signs of the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong from December 1941 to 1945. Lockyer says they served various purposes, from air-raid shelters to explosives stores, and he knows of 21 on Lamma.

For weeks at a time, soldiers and sailors would have slept in here, ate in here, cooked in here, gone to the toilet in here … They lived 24 hours a day inside the tunnels
Robert Lockyer

Like many war stories, the story behind Lamma’s tunnels is stained with blood, sweat and tears. According to local lore, Lamma residents were paid in rice and cash by Japanese soldiers to dig some of the tunnels. When completed, they were executed to keep the locations secret (an estimated 10,000 Hong Kong civilians were executed during the 3½-year occupation).

After 20 minutes walking on a paved path we go off road, bound for Sok Kwu Wan, a bay on the east coast of the island with a handful of seafood restaurants. The route is popular with weekend hikers. “And popular with snakes, so keep your eyes peeled,” Lockyer says.

Blackened hillsides line much of the route, scorched by fires that ravaged the island in October. Lockyer points out a small entrance to our first tunnel, about 50 metres up a steep hill. We put on our hats to protect our heads from gravel and, as we later discover, from “alien-looking” centipedes, one of the (thankfully) few creatures inhabiting the tunnels.

“This is one of the new tunnels opened up and rediscovered since the fire. These tunnels were used for communication up and down the island, by the Japanese navy during 1944 and 1945, when they were in fear of the allies coming back to reoccupy Hong Kong.”

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Head flashlight secured, the most surprising thing is how big the tunnel is – about 1.5 metres wide – with enough room to stand. It’s also surprisingly hot and humid considering it’s a cool 12 degrees Celsius outside. The thought of being inside in the middle of summer is nauseating, but that’s what Japanese soldiers did.

“For weeks at a time, soldiers and sailors would have slept in here, ate in here, cooked in here, gone to the toilet in here … They lived 24 hours a day inside the tunnels, except for when they came to the entrance to observe flag signals from tunnels in front of them. After two months they moved – to another tunnel.”

Occasionally the light picks out a centipede. Measuring about 20cm, the creatures have long spindly legs, the front ones having evolved into venom-injecting fangs. They are frightening.

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The next tunnel is bigger and more difficult to access. Stick in hand, Lockyer scratches a rough layout of its design on the ground, showing a kitchen, sleeping area and officers’ quarters. The tunnel follows a zigzag design to block off any light inside. He says one section is under about 10cm of water following rain earlier in the week.

In his other hand is a long piece of rusty metal, a tool, he explains, that was used to dig the tunnels. It’s one of many war relics, including a lamp, that Lockyer has discovered, and he talks passionately about one day setting up a museum on the island to preserve them as exhibits.

Inside, he explains the tunnel’s functions. “We are now in the officer’s quarters, and the reason we know that is because of this little dug-out hutch here, where they would have kept their firing orders, or the commands, or the instructions that the officers had to pass on to their troops.”

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He then points out a little kitchen nook. “This is where they would have had a little table and the food for the whole station of troops. The food would have been prepared in this little area.

“And this is where they would have stored their rifles. At the entrance of each of these tunnels is a little nook, where they would have had their rifles close to the exit so they could grab them on their way out. That way they weren’t carrying cumbersome rifles up and down the passageways.”

It’s been five hours since we set off, and the next stop is the kamikaze caves. Many Hongkongers will have heard about these easily accessible caves, which were blasted into the hillside and used to hide suicide boats – fast solo-driven motorboats equipped with up to 300kg of explosives.

Only four caves are accessible, says Lockyer, and we explore two of them, one home to a colony of about 50 bats. Bats comprise almost half of the mammal species in Hong Kong, and 14 species live in caves. The colony hangs quietly upside down at the back of the cave, sleeping before they fly out at night to feed on insects.

Near the caves is the partially abandoned village of Lo So Shing. A sign says the village is more than 300 years old, the early settlers were mostly farmers. It’s only school closed in 2004 due to a lack of students. The path passes an open kitchen filled with pots and pans, and a rusty bike tangled in weeds. On a wall of a village house is a giant, purple graffiti-art pig.

On the way back to the ferry Lockyer talks about other discoveries he’s made, including a Qing dynasty fort at Yuen Kok, on the far southern and uninhabited side of the island, untouched since 1945. “It’s buried under jungle and looks like concrete under trees and vines … it will be a few weeks before it’s accessible to anyone,” says Lockyer, who is currently trying to unearth it.

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He says if we had more time we could have explored a cave that was used for shelter by Vietnamese refugees from the Skyluck, a 3,500-tonne Panamanian-registered freighter that carried 2,700 Chinese and Vietnamese boatpeople fleeing Vietnam four years after the fall of Saigon. The ship entered Hong Kong harbour in 1979 but the refugees were not allowed to disembark. The ship was forced to the south coast of Lamma, where a stalemate ensued for more than four months before the ship ran aground and sank, the refugees jumping ship.

On one adventure near the cave, Lockyer says, he found various items including the remains of a faded flag belonging to the Viet Cong, the guerilla force that, with the support of the North Vietnamese Army, fought against South Vietnam (late 1950s – 1975) and the US (early 1960s – 1973). He also found a medal bearing the words “Chong My Cuu Nuoc” (Oppose American Save Country Decoration). “This was one of the most common medals given to Viet Cong soldiers during the war against the US,” Lockyer posted on Facebook after making the discoveries.

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There’s also a nine-storey-deep cave at Yung Shue Wan believed to have been used by Cheung Po Tsai, a notorious South China Sea pirate during the late 18th century. The cave was one of many around Hong Kong believed to have been used by Cheung to hide his treasure. Lockyer says it was partly destroyed in the 1980s but has since reopened. You need ropes and climbing gear to access it, he says.

“And there’s a load of sea caves and sea tunnels that you need kayaks or boats to access if you ever feel like a kayaking adventure.”