One man's story of life during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in the second world war

  • Lee Kam-mok was a resistance fighter for the East River Column when Japan ruled the territory from 1941 to 1945 
  • YP cadet Joshua Lee spoke to his grandfather about being asked to execute a suspected traitor, and being shot at
Joshua Lee |

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(L-R) Lee Kam-mok and his wife, Ho Yam-kui, whom he married during the occupation.

Life as the war began

I was 19 when the war began. As Japanese forces moved closer towards Hong Kong, I worked in the city, loading hundreds of bags of rice onto ferries on Hong Kong Island every day.

Allied forces had already retreated to Hong Kong Island and were holding up against waves of air attacks from the Japanese invasion, who already occupied Kowloon and the New Territories. I stayed on the island, protected by Victoria Harbour, the only thing standing between us and Japanese troops. Although the war was close, income was steady, and we always knew where the next meal was coming from.

But when Japanese troops landed on Hong Kong Island, I fled in fear, boarding one of the many ferries headed for Tsuen Wan. Then began the long walk back to my home town in the safety of the Sai Kung countryside. But life in the villages was far from secure.

GALLERY: One man's story of life during the Japanese occupation

Devastating hunger

Our small community of villages was surrounded by fields, which we used to grow rice, vegetables, and where cows could graze. We had some food – but it wasn’t enough to survive, and with the Japanese forces in control it was dangerous to go into the city to buy anything else.

The hunger was unbearable; at times we got desperate, and we resorted to picking leaves from trees and drying them in the sun before eating them.

Lee's passport photo from the late 1940s/early 1950s.
Photo: Courtesy of Lee Kam-mok

Joining the resistance

After a year of enduring food shortages and near-starvation, I decided that I had no other choice but to join a small group of resistance fighters, known as the East River Column. Joining meant food.

My cousin, Kwai Choy, was the only other person to join the guerrilla fighters from our village – no one else was brave enough.

We spent several months training in a field in Tin Liu village. Our training was intense – consisting entirely of running laps around the field for hours and hours. We ran from first thing in the morning right through afternoon and into the night, with just two short breaks in between. Although everyone was given a food ration, this still wasn’t enough; and combined with our training we were exhausted and hungry.

Danger on all sides

Despite training, many of the resistance fighters were woefully unskilled and inexperienced. I was running around the field one morning when I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my leg. I stopped and pulled up my trouser legs to see what was causing it. To my horror, I saw my lower leg was completely covered in blood, with a bullet embedded into the flesh just above my ankle. I turned to find that a fellow guerrilla fighter, Lau Sam, had fired a shot, which had ricocheted off a wall and straight into my leg.

There wasn’t a single medic in any of the villages, and practically no medical supplies, so my eldest brother rushed through the hills to find a doctor in Kowloon – a journey that would have taken at least a day. After hours of excruciating pain, he returned with a doctor willing to treat me.

Without any anaesthetic, the doctor proceeded to remove the bullet from my leg using a pair of tweezers. He succeeded on his second attempt. It took an agonisingly long time to pull out the bullet and stitch up the wound, which was an extremely painful process. But it didn’t take long to heal.

Lee and Mr Lau, the nephew of Lau Sam - the man who accidentally shot Lee during training - visit Tin Liu where resistance fighters once lived
Photo: YP cadet Joshua Lee

Living in constant fear

Japanese troops patrolled Sai Kung, terrorising villages as they searched for members of the East River Column.

We had messengers that ran from village to village, shouting: “The Japanese are coming! The Japanese are coming!”

All of the villagers would panic. Those who were brave stayed; others ran to hide in the mountains.

Soldiers would march in and line all of the villagers up, holding them at gunpoint – dare move an inch and you’ll be shot, they threatened. The patrols ransacked people’s homes looking for any evidence of resistance fighting. Soldiers even checked people’s hands for hard skin, a sign that they had held a gun.

Once, as the entire village was rounded up by Japanese patrols, I was singled out by a soldier, and taken away. The soldiers must have suspected something – they were going to shoot me. I was terrified. They took me to the next village and stood me in a field. All of a sudden all the Japanese took off into the hills. They had seen a boar on the other side of the field, and gone to investigate, leaving me standing alone in the field. I went back to my village once the patrol had left. That single boar saved my life.

Others were not so lucky. One villager had his house searched by soldiers, and after they left he found that his precious watch was missing. He assumed the soldiers had taken it. Furious, he ran after the Japanese patrol, accusing them of taking his watch. He began searching the soldier’s belongings to find the watch, but he couldn’t find it anywhere. The soldiers immediately grabbed him and he was taken to Kowloon, where he was killed. I never understood why that man was so defiant; it was only a watch.

The site in Cheung Muk Tau Village where Lee Kam Mok was taken by Japanese troops, but later released when they spotted a wild boar – now developed with houses and a road.
Photo: YP cadet Joshua Lee

The threat of traitors and spies

There was a constant fear of informers and spies within the East River Column. Captains of the resistance fighters’ groups conducted investigations into suspicious members. Those suspected of being traitors were executed.

I was once ordered to execute a suspected traitor. Being very superstitious, I was naturally unsettled about the idea of killing another man, especially as I wasn’t even sure if he was actually a traitor. To avoid having to execute him, I pretended to be sick and stayed at home. Luckily the captains believed me, and someone else, Ngau Lo, volunteered to execute him instead. I have never killed or hurt anybody, even during the war.

Direct combat

We travelled as a group into Sai Kung town, when we were suddenly ambushed by Japanese soldiers. An informer must have given away our location, and the Japanese patrols had come looking for us. We ducked behind rocks and trees as bullets flew right over our heads. We were all very scared, and shot back. There were bullets everywhere. We exchanged fire for almost an hour, but we were no match against the well-trained Japanese army. Eventually we retreated, running into the hills to set up camp there.

Leaving the East River Column

After nearly two years in the East River Column, I left because I couldn’t fight anymore – the bullet wound in my leg had become worse over time, making it painful to run. But leaving the resistance movement didn’t end my involvement with the guerrilla fighters.

Soon after leaving the group, several members of the East River Column approached my house and pulled me out. They accused me of being a deserter, and began investigating my background to find out who I really was.

I was anxious, what if they thought I was a traitor and had me executed? Thankfully, once they found out that I was genuinely unable to run and was not an enemy, they left. But I was still afraid to do anything in case the captains forced me back into the movement. The resistance fighters were very cruel, and often went round villages to serve “justice” by beating suspects with whatever they could lay their hands on. I was more terrified of the East River Column than of the Japanese forces.

A temple in Kwun Hang, where the Japanese had set up a base.
Photo: YP cadet Joshua Lee

An ambush gone wrong

After leaving the East River Column, the Japanese had set up a base next to a temple in Kwun Hang, a village not far from us. The captains gave orders to ambush the base. The resistance fighters waited until most of the soldiers had left the base before attacking. But as they attacked, they realised there was still one soldier at the base. Someone tried to shoot him, but the gun failed to fire. Worst still, the soldier saw them, and fired back. They all tried to fight back against just one Japanese soldier, but failed. Fearing for their lives, they ran away as fast as they could.

Not long after the failed ambush, the Japanese patrols came to the village in search of the culprits. They were much more aggressive than usual – I cannot imagine what they would’ve been like if they had actually killed him. Everyone was rounded up and ruthlessly searched, but the soldiers didn’t find anything.

Knowing the consequences if the Japanese found out who was responsible for the attempted ambush, everyone in the East River Column ran for the hills, hiding in the forest near Ma On Shan. As an ex-member, I too feared for my life, and joined them as they fled the village. Our stay in the forest wasn’t easy. I was afraid to move for fear of being captured, and we didn’t have any food to eat.

One night the soldiers left. Seizing our chance, we scattered in different directions. I went to the nearby Sai Keng village, and stayed in a kind stranger’s home for the night. It was in this stranger’s house where I first met my wife, Ho Yam-kui, more than seventy years ago.

A small window of happiness

I got married in the traditional Hakka tradition – with a feast. The Japanese forces never bothered us in our daily lives; they only cared about resistance fighters. But the feast was basic, without any chicken or duck. We were still worried about the military noticing us, so we couldn’t light firecrackers. Despite the fear of the Japanese there was a brief period of mass celebration as the villages joined together for the feast. We even had a sedan chair for the bride.

Lee and his wife, Ho Yam Kui, sitting in their old house after its renovation.
Photo: Courtesy of Lee Kam-mok

Given all the hardships that we had been through, I felt overjoyed to forget about the occupation, even just for a day. Although we were poor, my brother paid for the whole wedding, even buying the food from Tai Po Market. Despite the chaotic and violent occupation, we all enjoyed a peaceful, happy day.

Life after the ERC

But leaving the resistance movement meant the return of hunger and desperation. All the villagers were forced to take it in turns to walk the 12-hour round-trip to Choi Hung to collect the rice ration for the entire village, allocated by the Military Government.

I went to collect the village’s rice once a month. The journey was long and treacherous. Worse still, I had to wait behind crowds of people, all waiting to get their small portions of rice. While queuing I was constantly beaten by Japanese soldiers wielding batons and sticks, for no reason other than because they could.

Tolo Habour in Nai Chung, where Lee Kam Mok and other villagers went fishing.
Photo: YP cadet Joshua Lee

We couldn’t buy food to eat, but our crops and rations weren’t enough to live on. We were extremely lucky to be living next to a sea full of fish. I would row a small sampan out into the Tolo Harbour and catch fish with a spear. Without those fish we would surely have died of starvation.

One winter was extremely cold, colder than it had ever been before. Heavy snow fell across Hong Kong, for the first time in many years. Thick frost covered all of our crops, killing all the vegetables – including our sweet potatoes.

It was so cold that even the fish suffered. That winter it seemed as though there was no food to eat. We resorted to going out in the sampan to collect the half dead fish that had floated to the surface. I was able to collect dozens of catfish for our meals this way.

Forced labour

After leaving the resistance fighters, Japanese troops came around the villages to recruit people to become labourers, building fortresses and digging tunnels for the Japanese. None of us had any choice; we had no money and the work offered one bowl of rice a day – which was a lot of food at that time.

Those who refused to work would have their mosquito nets burned down by Japanese soldiers – a strong warning against non-compliance. We went out of fear, and out of necessity.

My wife went to work building their fortresses in the hills during the day. In the evening we would switch shifts, and my brother and I had to dig tunnels through the night.

The end of the war

Those three years and eight months were hard. Thankfully though, the suffering eventually came to an end.

When we first heard about the Japanese surrender, we all celebrated by lighting up the village with hundreds of firecrackers, turning the village into a sea of red.

As soon as the war was over I headed back into the city. I got a job for the Hong Kong Water Works, checking and fixing meters. As soon as I had a job and steady income, our suffering was over and life finally got better.

I still live in Sai O village, the same village today that I lived in during the war more than 70 years ago. Every year I always remember to visit the memorial for the Sai Kung freedom fighters during the second world war, to remember and honour those who were killed during the long occupation. Looking back, I don’t have any regrets about joining the East River Column. How can I regret something when I had no other choice?

Today Lee, seen here outside an old storage hut, still lives in Sai O village.
Photo: YP cadet Joshua Lee


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