Hong Kong's second world war history

Unsung warriors set up in Sai Kung: the Hong Kong guerrilla fighters who battled the Japanese in WW2

On December 8, 1941, Hong Kong became one of the first battlegrounds in the Pacific campaign of the invading Japanese. On the same morning as the attack on Pearl Harbour, Japanese forces attacked British Hong Kong without any prior declaration of war. Japan's act of aggression was met with fierce resistance but the colony fell after 18 days of intense fighting. For three years and eight months, the people of Hong Kong lived under Japanese Occupation. This is one of a series of stories in remembrance of the Battle of Hong Kong and the dark days that followed.

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 August, 2015, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 August, 2015, 2:33am

Even as the British colonial government surrendered after 18 days of fierce fighting in the Battle of Hong Kong in December 1941, a group of young men and women refused to bend.

Barely two months after the surrender, the Hong Kong and Kowloon Independent Brigade was formally set up on February 3, 1942 at Wong Mo Ying Chapel, Sai Kung. It was put together by the Chinese Communist Party, then an uneasy ally of the mainland's ruling Kuomintang in the fight against the Japanese.

The brigade was later designated as the local branch of the East River Column, comprising Communist guerillas who hailed from Guangdong during the war. Many of the Hong Kong recruits were young Hakka villagers from the New Territories.

Watch: Hong Kong guerrillas during World War II - East River Column: Part 1

According to East River Column, a book written by former Sai Kung District officer Chan Sui-jeung, the brigade had nearly 5,000 full-time soldiers by mid-1943. 

Their familiarity with local geography and the ability to speak the Hakka dialect enabled them to rescue an estimated 800 people, including Chinese intellectuals and Allied prisoners of war.

They provided intelligence to the British Army Aid Group (BAAG), a British military intelligence unit then active in southern China. With firearms bought mostly from the black market, they fought against the Japanese.

Lee Kwai, 89, a New Territories resident from the former Man Yee Wan Village in Sai Kung, which was relocated in the 1960s to make way for the High Island Reservoir, was in the marine detachment.

"I had just finished school when the war broke out in the winter of 1941. About two weeks later, Hong Kong fell, so I escaped to our ancestral home of Wuhua, Guangdong and stayed with my uncle. In early 1942, the marine detachment was recruiting for rescue actions in Sai Kung. I was 16. I didn't have a school to go to anyway and I felt very indignant at the fall of Hong Kong. So one day when I met Wong Hong, a Hakka man serving in the marine detachment, I told him I wanted to join the brigade," Lee recalls.

He started as an assistant to the detachment’s leader, and was assigned to military training four months later.

In the summer of 1943, he had a close brush with death.

“It was some time past 9am. We were on a wooden ship and dropped anchor at Heiyanjiao, Dapeng Peninsula in Shenzhen. Suddenly a Japanese metal ship came and robbed fish from fishermen. Some of our soldiers spotted them. There were about 20 to 30 of us. We immediately landed and ran up the hill. Unluckily I slipped and badly hurt my right knee. Our squad leader Wong Yee helped me get up.”

"We fought fiercely for about two hours. Both sides shot… Wong tried twice to shoot but it didn't work. Then I took his rifle, shot and hit the metal ship and he shot again … Finally the metal ship retreated." His injury led to Lee being transferred to the column's duties collection point in Nan'ao, Guangdong.

After Japan surrendered to the Allied powers in 1945, the column decided to retreat to Yantai, Shandong province. "There were limited places. Many comrades who could not go dared not return to their hometowns on the mainland for fear of capture by the Kuomintang. So the unit asked me to take them to Sai Kung and find jobs there. Eight went with me," Lee says.

Lam Chun, 80, executive vice-president of the Society of Veterans of the original Hong Kong Independent Battalion of Dong Jiang Column, estimates that about 100 column soldiers and child messengers are still living in Hong Kong. She was among the "little devils", as they became known locally, who relayed messages during the war.

Chan says the local guerillas contributed to the war effort in three main ways: the rescue of Allied fighters who fell into Japanese hands; the rescue of war refugees; and sabotage operations.

"Over half a dozen American pilots who bombed Hong Kong, or were shot down or parachuted into Hong Kong - all of them, except one or two, were captured by the Japanese and rescued by them [the column] which helped them move into free China," she says.

Watch: How "little devils" helped prevent a US Tiger Pilot from being captured by the Japanese - East River Column: Part 2

Those who escaped by long walks from Tai Mo Shan to Yuen Long, from Tsuen Wan to Tai Mo Shan, or across Lion Rock to Sai Kung, received food, water and protection from guerilla members. Those unfit to walk were even carried on sedan chairs.

An example of the guerillas' sabotage actions was the bombing of a railway bridge on Argyle Street. They also killed Chinese collaborators to cut off the enemy's intelligence sources.

The brigade's contribution in the war got little attention during colonial times, but it has become more widely known in recent years amid recognition and publicity by the post-1997 government and pro-Beijing groups.

Chan, 82, a former British colonial official, says: "The British Hong Kong government was anti-Communist so they never recognised [the East River Column] except for a very brief period."

Intriguingly, the Communist regime on the mainland was also reluctant to recognise the column until the late 1980s.

"Chairman Mao accused them of localism from 1951 onwards. In December 1983, on the 40th anniversary of the founding of the East River Column, their commanding general Zeng Sheng gave a speech at a celebration ceremony in Guangzhou. He openly said: the country and the government both let us down. There was a loud echo from the audience," Chan says.

It was only in the late 1980s, after some surviving column veterans appealed to then Communist Party leaders Hu Yaobang and Xi Zhongxun, father of the incumbent Chinese President Xi Jinping, that the column was completely exonerated.

WATCH: East River Column - Hong Kong guerrillas during World War II