Japan’s invasion and occupation of Hong Kong has been extensively – exhaustively – explored. Less remembered is its sizeable pre-war commercial and social presence.
Already a major industrialised nation at the outbreak of the first world war, in 1914, Japan made great economic gains from the lengthy conflict. With British, French and German industrial output largely redirected towards wartime production, export shortfalls to Asia were met by increased Japanese production. From India to the Pacific, all manner of consumer goods – bicycles, sewing machines, kerosene stoves, flashlights, matches, pots and pans, crockery – were imported from Japan.
Many items were well made and durable, but others were “cheap and cheerful”. In that respect, Japan’s manufacturing reputation was much like that of modern China; increasingly high standards in certain areas but, overall, a mixed bag in terms of quality. Japan’s international renown for high-quality production, especially for technology, is largely a post-war phenomenon.
After years of growing closeness between Britain and Japan, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was signed in 1902.
During the first world war, the Japanese navy escorted Australian troop transports crossing the Indian Ocean and took over some roles from the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. But with peace came renewed commercial rivalry, and the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was not renewed in 1922.
Japan boasted a sizeable commercial community right across Asia, with extensive plantation and mining interests in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, and significant industrial presence in China. Japanese general-trading companies, shipping lines and small businesses such as barber shops and curio sellers abounded across colonial Asia, and Hong Kong was no exception. Through its colony of Taiwan, Japan controlled a sizeable proportion of the world’s natural camphor, which was a principal ingredient of celluloid film. Japanese photographic shops could combine high-quality work with significantly cheaper prices than their Western competitors.
Japanese restaurants were widespread, especially in Wan Chai. While sushi and sashimi were less common – largely owing to lack of adequate refrigeration – sukiyaki parties were popular with pre-war European residents; restaurants would send staff, food, plates and implements to prepare the food at customers’ homes.
Massage establishments were also commonplace. While many were legitimate, others were fronts for vice operations. These were staffed by karayuki-san, Japanese sex workers who had been migrating in their thousands since the 1880s to port cities across maritime Asia. Karayuki-san were popular owing to the open Japanese attitude towards sex – which they regarded as a normal bodily function, like eating or bathing – and they were apparently better at it. By the 1920s, however, Japan’s industrial boom meant poor rural women were generally absorbed by employment in factories and textile mills, and the export sex industry declined.
The Japanese occupied a curiously ambiguous “interracial” category within colonial society. Given Japan’s alliance with Britain, they could not be regarded as a subject race, but while they were admitted to European clubs in colonial Asia, they were not especially welcomed. As Kipling noted, the Japanese were not natives, yet neither were they sahibs.
In Hong Kong, the Nippon Club was established in 1872, in Central, and operated until the Pacific war.
Unsurprisingly, the Japanese were fully aware of, and deeply resented, their ambiguous status. Many memoirs indicate resentment of racial slights directly contributed to the wartime ill-treatment of European captives.
Hong Kong’s sizeable pre-war Japanese community is reflected in the large numbers buried in Hong Kong Cemetery, in Happy Valley. An entire section contains obelisk-like Japanese gravestones and stone lanterns on the paths to guide the spirits to their resting place, so far from their homeland.