December 8, 1941, is the date when – according to most histories – the Pacific war came to Hong Kong. That was the day when Japanese forces finally invaded the British colony from the north. After intermittently heavy fighting, Hong Kong was decisively captured less than three weeks later, and the British surrender was signed on Christmas Day. But historical events “begin” long before they actually “occur”. Hong Kong had been on a precarious war footing for more than three years by the time the Japanese crossed into the New Territories, and a couple of hours later bombed Kai Tak airport. Potentially hostile forces had been on the border since October 1938, following the capture of Canton, and from then, everything in Hong Kong life – however much the threat of impending war was ignored and wished away by those who were able to do so – became geared towards eventual conflict. The “China Incident”, as the Sino-Japanese war was euphemistically labelled, started in earnest in July 1937. Like the Spanish civil war raging at the same time on the other side of the world, the conflict in China provided a dramatic backdrop for literary and journalistic tourism, and this cavalcade continued almost until Pearl Harbour. After the Japanese blockaded most of coastal China, Hong Kong became the usual entry point, and remained a haven of peace and relative normality for those returning from active war zones, Japanese-occupied areas, or the strange half-life that prevailed behind the enemy lines in “Free China”. Like many others, English poets W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood passed through Hong Kong on their way to China; their travel book, Journey to a War (1939), written in prose and verse, was the result. Auden’s poem Hong Kong took sharp aim at pompous mercantile types, and their pretensions to gentility and grandeur: The leading characters are wise and witty Substantial men of birth and education … Here in the East, the bankers have erected A worthy temple to the Comic Muse. It also noted the real reason for their visit: […] off-stage; a war. Thuds like the slamming of a distant door. War profiteering has been a noted – if distasteful – activity since ancient times. Extraordinary profits are possible in the lead-up to conflict, should the more astute and flint-eyed decide to capitalise on the likelihood of what most others wilfully deny. When international tensions are running high, “the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers”, as George Orwell memorably wrote, and regional and global political rhetoric becomes shriller and more absurd by the day. But one constant remains – quick profit is the dividends of the likelihood of war. Hong Kong, 80 years ago, was no different. The Japanese war machine in China was fully mechanised, completely dependent on imported oil, and without adequate supplies, they would need to invade new territories to secure it. The major regional producer was the Netherlands East Indies (modern Indonesia), with extensive oilfields in eastern Sumatra and eastern Borneo. Lightly defended – the Netherlands had been overrun by the Nazis in May 1940, with a government-in-exile in London – they continued to supply strategic materials to Japan until March 1941, when a full embargo was implemented. American firms stepped in – very profitably – and a crisis was temporarily averted. War became inevitable in September 1941, when an American ban on POL (petroleum, oil and lubricants) exports to Japan was imposed. Hurriedly and belatedly, the local garrison was strengthened with reinforcements from Canada, public buildings around the business district were sandbagged, and virtually every war correspondent in the region descended to report “the story” that was about to unfold. A couple of months later, when Japanese bombs began to fall, Hong Kong’s war was no longer “the slamming of a distant door”.