Hong Kong's second world war history

150 pillboxes and counting: Hong Kong historians want city's second world war relics conserved

As events marking the 70th anniversary of the war come to an end, historians want to turn our attention to physical reminders of our history

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 September, 2015, 2:17am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 September, 2015, 4:38pm

Events this month marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war have revived interest in the city's history - but heritage experts say that, while it's right the commemorations focuses on the people involve, it's also time to pay serious attention to places.

While some military sites and facilities sited in urban and rural area have been officially recognised, they say much more needs to be done to conserve hardware that testifies to the city's wartime history but has been largely neglected in the decades since.

The defensive structures were the scene of fierce fighting during the Battle of Hong Kong in December 1941, which culminated in a Japanese occupation that ended with surrender seven decades ago this week.

A total of 53 military sites, buildings or structures have been declared monuments or listed as historic buildings, of which 45 are connected to the second world war, according to the government's Antiquities and Monument Office.

But members of the public looking to find out more are likely to be left frustrated and perplexed by lax official record-keeping. While the city's 108 declared monuments are listed and mapped on the website of the Antiquities Advisory Board, details of 1,444 historic structures on the same website are vague. Some 58 such entries are simply referred to as "military facility", followed by the year in which they were built.

Watch: 150 pillboxes and counting: locating Hong Kong's pre-WWII military emplacements

In Stanley alone, eight are listed as "military facility within Stanley Peninsula", built between 1936 and 1941 and now given a grade two historic rating. Unlike monuments, buildings with historic gradings are not protected from development.

Now, experts and enthusiasts are trying to fill the gap in research and education on the city's tangible military heritage. Many of their efforts are focused on the conservation of pillboxes, of which scores were built before and during the second world war.

Pillboxes, in military terms, are concrete emplacements with small openings from which guns are fired. By the time of the Japanese invasion, the British had built a series of pillboxes stretching from Kwai Chung in the west to Port Shelter, Sai Kung in the east to form what is known as the Gin Drinker's Line, intended to protect the Kowloon Peninsula from enemies advancing from the New Territories. Other pillboxes were built in Kowloon and on Hong Kong Island.

The majority are left unattended. Researchers even found one occupied by squatters, who kept dogs there. Most are in the countryside and have been damaged to varying extents.

The lack of a comprehensive official record means the exact number is unknown. The Antiquities and Monument Office could not answer questions filed by this newspaper as to how many pillboxes there were in Hong Kong and how many remained intact. It did say that seven pillboxes were graded historic buildings, either on their own or as part of a wider structure, while 28 more were being studied for their historical significance.

Since 2000, a research team from the University of Hong Kong has carried out a large-scale project on military heritage, mapping out 150 pillboxes territory-wide, with 93 along the Gin Drinker's Line and about 60 on Hong Kong Island. The team pooled expertise across different disciplines - history, architecture and surveying. By putting together bits and pieces of war remains, the experts are reconstructing Hong Kong's defensive history during the second world war. They are now shooting a documentary that they hope will pass the story on.

"Our research found that only three pillboxes along the Gin Drinker's Line still remained intact or near intact today," said Professor Lawrence Lai Wai-chung, an expert in heritage planning on the research team.

The majority of pillboxes were damaged either during the war or later by scavengers hunting for steel and bricks, Some were even demolished in the course of development. But three that survive in good condition offer a rare chance for people to visit and visualise the city's wartime defence.

The most intact pillbox, bearing the number 315, is located near the main dam of the Kowloon Reservoir. A path leading to it is hidden behind a metal gate on Tai Po Road, Piper's Hill. Three signs are fixed onto the gate, one with the location, one warning "no unauthorised entry", and another stating it was a "private road". Drivers along the road, passengers standing at the bus stops and visitors to Kam Shan Country Park on one side and Lion Rock Country Park on the other would miss it.

This is a very strategically placed pillbox. It's guarding ... a strategic road

Anyone wishing to visit the pillbox would have to defy the signs, walk through a narrow path next to the gate, fumble through some bushes and pass a vacated Water Supplies Department staff residence - as the researchers and the South China Morning Post did in May.

On the visit, structures including the roof, ventilation trunks, openings through which machine guns would be fired and even metal rings that for supported bunk beds on which soldiers slept were all in good condition. No major fighting had taken place there, said Dr Stephen Davies, a historian on the team.

"This is a very strategically placed pillbox. … It's guarding the approach up from Shing Mun Reservoir … at the same time it is guarding the crucial strategic road over Sha Tin Pass," Davies said of the importance of Pillbox 315. The durability of the construction and the invisibility of the position with a roof covered by earth were living evidence of how Hong Kong was defended, he said.

Pillboxes accorded historic status are at Wong Nai Chung Gap, the Shing Mun Redoubt and the observation posts and pillboxes in Luk Keng and Cape D'Aguilar Battery. An old pillbox in Diamond Hill, now removed to make way for public housing, will be relocated into a new park.

However, not all war relics are treated the same. Despite its strategic position and sound structure, Pillbox 315 has not been officially recognised. Instead of signs giving directions explaining its historical significance, visitors only see the "keep out" notices.

The two other relatively well preserved pillboxes along the Gin Drinker's Line are No314 along Golden Hill Road and No426 between Shing Mun Reservoir and Wo Yi Hop Road in Kwai Chung, according to the team's findings. But the brick tunnel to 314 had collapsed after post-war scavengers removed the bricks, while 426 was fenced off by squatters to keep several dogs, Lai said.

He called for better preservation of the structures to prevent them from the threat of development and to educate the public about the history they represent.

"As all are on government land in the countryside, [there are] no private property resumption or land supply issues. Those surviving are in favoured/popular picnic areas. The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department should be given the necessary resources to rehabilitate and manage them," the academic said.

Lai cited the department's Shing Mun Country Park Visitor Centre as an example of how it could be done. The centre houses a holographic model of Shing Mun Redoubt - a nearby series of pillboxes linked by tunnels, which, famously, carry the names of London streets.

Another historian, Tim Ko Tim-keung, has been researching Hong Kong's historic military sites since the 1990s. He said a lack of interest from the government and developers in preserving pillboxes had led to some making way for new buildings.

"One pillbox below Baguio Villa was demolished together with a nearby searchlight position in 2001 during construction of Cyberport," Ko said. "Another one at Windy Gap on the way to Shek O was demolished by the Highway Department in December 1997 for the alignment of Shek O Road. They could easily avoid the pillbox during the work but they didn't. Both demolished pillboxes were relatively intact. It's a pity that no one really cared about these things then."

Most of the pillboxes are in country parks. These two ... are easily accessible

And it's not only academics putting in the effort to promote the conservation of military installations. Hongkongers from other walks of life are also keen on preserving the city's history.

Henry Wright, a swimming coach who visits Repulse Bay beach every weekend, started an online petition called "Save Repulse Bay's important WWII history" in April. He aims to secure the future of Pillbox 017, which stands on a quiet corner of the beach, and the searchlight position of Pillbox 016, between Repulse Bay and Deep Water Bay.

He is calling for any necessary restoration work to be carried out, and demanding that educational signs be erected so people will no longer pass by the structures unaware of what they are.

"Most of the pillboxes left are in country parks… I chose these two pillboxes because they are easily accessible. They can become tourist attractions. People who visit the beach can benefit from some education about the Battle of Hong Kong during the second world war," he said.