Renowned amateur Hong Kong historian Chan Sui-jeung dies at age 84
Former civil servant was an expert on wartime Hong Kong and known for his book on famed resistance group the East River Column
Chan Sui-jeung, an amateur historian who helped lay the foundations for research on wartime Hong Kong and wrote about the Chinese guerilla forces who continued the fight against the Japanese occupiers in the second world war, has died at the age of 84.
The former civil servant, known as “SJ” to his friends and “Sir Chan” by younger researchers, died on January 27 in Queen Mary Hospital. He is survived by his wife, May.
He was known for his book on resistance group the East River Column and was one of the first Hongkongers to study the city’s suffering under the Japanese wartime occupation. He also wrote a book on the Jewish community in Kaifeng, a city in central China, in the early 1980s.
“Sir Chan laid the foundations for research on Hong Kong’s history during the second world war, especially the part about the East River Column,” said Kwong Chi-man, an assistant professor at Baptist University specialising in modern military history and the British military presence in Hong Kong.
“He was also one of the Hongkongers who was most familiar with the Jews.”
The East River Column was a Guangdong guerilla squad organised by the Communist Party during the war to resist the Japanese. The column had a local branch called the Hong Kong and Kowloon Independent Brigade, consisting of about 10,000 fighters.
Chan’s book, East River Column: Hong Kong Guerillas in the Second World War and After, was published nine years ago and distilled his decades-long study on the force.
A Requiem Mass for Chan will be held on Saturday at 9am at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Caine Road, Mid-Levels.
The seeds of Chan’s interest on local history were sown in his war-torn childhood.
Chan, born in 1933, wrote in the preface of his book that his “defining experience” was being “a child who has witnessed the Japanese invasion and their atrocities inflicted upon the people in Hong Kong in 1941-42”.
His father Chan Kwok-wing took up arms to defend Hong Kong, and later moved the whole family to Guilin and Yunnan in mainland China, where he served in the British Information Attache’s Office and the British Army Aid Group, an intelligence organisation, respectively.
In the first week of September 1945 – two weeks after Hong Kong was liberated – Chan’s father flew back to the city, with a task to “identify, locate, apprehend all traitors, collaborators and enemy agents”.
Chan said he gradually became interested in the war years in Hong Kong as he resumed his interrupted primary schooling back in his hometown.
Some 35 years later, Chan was brought close to his subject of research when he was appointed district officer of Sai Kung in 1980.
Under the encouragement of the governor, Edward Youde, Chan started his research in the town where many column veterans lived, and continued it with the help of important witnesses including Reverend Alastair Todd and former chief secretary Jack Cater.
Todd used to be Hong Kong’s defence secretary as well as private secretary to Mark Young, the first civilian governor after the war. Cater was a member of the military administration from 1945-46 and later served as defence secretary when the city was rocked by riots in 1967.
One of Chan’s most significant legacies was being a pioneer in “highlighting the international importance of Hong Kong during the second world war”, Kwong said.
“His research showed us the big picture of underground revolts carried out by various forces, ranging from the East River Column and British Army Aid Group to the Kuomintang.”
Subsequent research by others “found that such resistance existed because Hong Kong was strategically important to Japan as the country’s logistics base during the war, which was neglected by many local people previously,” Kwong said.
Kwong remembered Chan as both a highly capable researcher and a “generous and considerate” senior. The University of Hong Kong alumnus had been an honorary research fellow of HKU’s Centre of Asian Studies for more than 20 years.
“He was never glued to one set of materials. Instead, he made use of all kinds of documents – which were in different languages – that he could find. He was very fair and wouldn’t tilt his research for other purposes,” Kwong said.
“What Sir Chan knew about the history can hardly be found in any book or archive.
“For example, stories and interpersonal relations among members of the British Army Aid Group – this is the unpublished information that can help researchers connect the dots.
“He wouldn’t give it a second thought when he lent other researchers books or materials that were collected only by him.
“And he gave me a lot of advice on my research on Hong Kong’s history during the second world war, such as whether some descriptions in the archives matched the reality.”
Christopher Munn, an honorary associate professor of history at the University of Hong Kong and a friend of Chan’s for more than 30 years, said Chan’s pioneering research in the 1980s into the ancient Jewish community in Kaifeng inspired a new interest in the history of the Jews in China.
“It also led directly to the founding of the Jewish Historical Society of Hong Kong,” he said.
Munn said Chan was a kind and generous man with a great love of life and many interests. He had “a huge and very detailed knowledge of Hong Kong” and “a great sense of humour”, Munn said.
“His memory stretched back many decades and never seemed to fail him.”