Hong Kong in WWII17 min read

How war changed a city and exposed its colonial lies – James A. Clapp

Somewhat in the same manner that fire anneals metals, terrible historical periods seem to have a way of hardening the resolve of cities. The conquered and occupied city must find new ways to survive in the face of subjugation and exploitation. When they do prevail, there is usually a new reality and understanding. In the case of Hong Kong during World War II, the British were no longer the great protecting overlord. When the local Chinese saw their rulers overrun and paraded in ignominy through the streets and into Japanese concentration camps, and that it would take the Americans to finally subdue the Japanese, and that a new China was emergent, there was indeed a new reality. War changes things, nations, people and cities. The British imperium in Asia was doomed. Two years after the end of the war the “jewel” in Victoria’s imperial crown was gone.

December 7, 1941, is a day that will always live on in infamy. Most Americans probably have no knowledge at all that just eight hours after Pearl Harbor, Hong Kong was invaded by Japanese military forces, an act that in the West almost fell into obscurity. But in contrast to Hawaii, the Japanese didn’t just come to bomb and torpedo the British fleet in Hong Kong (which had absented itself) – they came overland, and to stay. Hong Kong was in orbit of Japan’s “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” populated mostly by Chinese (and some Japanese spies) and defended by the empire on which the sun allegedly never set. Hong Kong had the double disadvantage of being a largely Asian enclave and the Crown colony of Great Britain: Japan’s enemy by way of its membership in the Axis powers. Japan was picking off the South East Asian jewels in the British crown – Malaya, Singapore and Burma, in addition to its treaty ports in China – and the “Fragrant Harbour” of Hong Kong was not well-defended. With the German Wehrmacht armed forces parked twenty miles off the British coast, the Brits had other pressing needs for its ships, and withdrew them from Hong Kong.

On December 8, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Army, in conjunction with its assault against Pearl Harbor, invaded the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Hong Kong. It took only eighteen days of battle for the superior force of two battle-hardened Japanese divisions to overwhelm the weak, undermanned Hong Kong defenders (a force of just 14,000) despite the intense resistance composed of the British Army, Navy and Air Force, Canadians forces, Hong Kong’s own defense force, and the Indian Army, as well as many civilians. There was a fierce land battle, with long range artillery and intense combat at the “Gin Drinkers Line,” a sort of Oriental Maginot Line in the New Territories, as well as the battle of Wong Nai Chung Gap on Hong Kong Island where a handful of defenders took on an entire Japanese regiment.

Yet some account must be given to the fissures underneath the colonial social foundations of Hong Kong. Philip Snow, who in The Fall Of Hong Kong (2003) has written the most comprehensive account of the fall of the crown colony, remarks that prior to the war:

“For the first time resentment of British rule was becoming detectable in the ranks of the gentry. Wealthy Anglicized Chinese and Eurasians were embittered to find, when they returned to Hong Kong polished by the best education Britain could offer, that whatever their qualifications and whatever their talents, there was a level in the local professions above which they would never be permitted to climb. The scales would be tilted against them: if they set up as lawyers, for example, they knew they would have a struggle to win their cases because their British opposite numbers would always be able to hobnob with the British judges in the seclusion of the Hong Kong Club.” (p.20)

Wherever the British stretched the boundaries of their empire, they brought their obsessive class system with them. ooked down upon by their brethren back home, Hong Kong British were able in turn to look down upon the Chinese (as well as their Indian, Burmese and Malayan subjects), subordinating them, as they did for example, with such practices as confining them to the lower decks of the Star Ferries. It is reasonable to expect that these and other racial mistreatments led some Chinese to welcome the British being humiliated by an Asian military. Yet the Japanese behaved with even more abominable racism toward the Chinese.

December 7, 1941, is a day that will always live on in infamy”

The American presence in Hong Kong during the war was minimal. The US administration at the time was in the thrall of the Soong sisters – especially Soong Mei-ling, Madam Chiang Kai-shek, and hence the Kuomintang. Since the KMT were fighting the Communists as well as the Japanese, the US preferred backing the corrupt Chiang, a decision that would haunt Sino-American relations for decades.

That decision would also impact Pan American Airlines, who had been instrumental in 1933 in the establishment of a partnership with the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC, which Pan Am owned 55% of), a small fleet of aircraft that operated routes in southern China from its Hong Kong base. As recounted in China’s Wings by Gregory Crouch (2012) the fleet, often flown by daredevil American pilots, became instrumental in flying supplies into Kunming and Chongqing, scraping over the Himalayan “Hump” and jungle canopies to avoid marauding Japanese Kawasaki and Nakajima fighters. Along with the Flying Tigers they became the stuff of aeronautical legend.

CNAC turns up again when newly-married writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn were on a honeymoon journalistic-espionage assignment in Hong Kong. Gelhorn, a celebrated journalist on assignment for a national news magazine, was at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airstrip getting ready to board a CNAC DC2 airplane in the early in the morning of February 25, 1941, just two days after their arrival, to fly up into China. Hemingway remained behind in their Hong Kong hotel where he preferred to booze and schmooze with the local Brits. The famous author was supposedly on a spy mission for the US Government, although at this point his “intel” appeared to deal mostly with the improper disposal of night soil – at this time Hong Kong had no sanitary sewer system – and a local cholera break out, especially among the coolies and undernourished.

It is unlikely that the two well-known war correspondents would have been US spies, given the other sources of information available. Yet, being celebrities, when they did make a trip together into China they got to meet Chiang Kai Shek and his wife, as well as Zhou Enlai (not at the same time and place, naturally), and so were likely debriefed on their return home. Espionage always adds some spice to a story. In fact, the Gelhorn-Hemingway marriage was already on the rocks by the end of the trip, thanks in good part to his alcoholism, such that they returned separately before the fall of Hong Kong to the Japanese.

Hemingway was supposedly on a spy mission for the US Government”

Southern China was a universe of its own in the years leading up to and during the war, with enough encounters, cross-connections, adventures and intrigues to fill shelves of memoires and novels. One of those adventure-seekers attracted to Hong Kong at the time was American expat Emily Hahn, who had just come from spending a year in China’s wartime capital of Chongqing. Hahn is author of such celebrated and acclaimed works as The Soong SistersChina to Me, and was a long time New Yorker contributor. In Hong Kong Holiday (1946) she recounts the long months from the Japanese capture of Hong Kong until she was finally returned to the states on an exchange ship.

“Holiday” might at first seem a peculiar term for a story set in a city under the brutal boots of the Japanese military, but Hahn was a China hand experienced at outrunning the Japanese, from Shanghai to Chongqing and finally to Hong Kong, and her chronicle at times seems surprisingly placid and casual. Her descriptions of the daily lives and deprivations of the local Chinese, rich and poor, are rendered at times almost with insouciance, although there were segments of the Western and Chinese population that seemed not overly inconvenienced by the occupation. Despite the dire circumstances, Hahn could write of her lecturing at Hong Kong University:

I was in the middle of a fairly credible English lecture next afternoon …  [and] the three rows of pudding faces had resolved themselves into the usual group of Chinese students, earnest and attentive and just a little inhuman at the beginning of term. Spectacled or spotty, tall or short, all students look alike for about three weeks, and then I begin to know them. By the end of a few months the picture has become more detailed. There is the shy, clever one, the brazen, stupid one, the one who thinks he is not getting his money’s worth, the one who writes in and asks for a photograph just before the final examination. Some of them cheat. A lot of them are still under the impression that they are in a Chinese-style school where unpopular professors are tossed out on their ears and there is a mad faculty rush for popularity by way of giving good grades. (p.185)

By the time she was repatriated by ship from Hong Kong, Hahn had a two-year-old daughter by the British pre-WWII chief spy in Hong Kong. Unconventional, self-possessed and widely traveled, with a cool-headed knack for survival in perilous circumstances, she might well have become the model for Western women in Hong Kong during and indeed after the war.

Perhaps it was that Western women in Hong Kong had to watch their men march off to POW internment camps that inspired some romantic narratives of life in the occupation years. Elizabeth Darrell’s (the penname of Emma Drummond) 1993 novel Concerto exhibits a familiarity with the subject that comes from her father, who was a member of the British Army stationed in Hong Kong at the time, where Drummond spent the early years of her life. Concerto is a love triangle hung up on not just on the interruptions of wartime, but that classic British obsession with social class. Australian Dr Rod Durman meets Sarah Channing, an accomplished concert pianist (hence the title, although Darrell doesn’t write much about the music) who is volunteering at the clinic at which he works. He is about the get a divorce from a marriage gone bad, which adds to the complications of his being of a lesser class and from a commonwealth. Still, love conquers all. The third point of the triangle is a dashing British playboy-wastrel. This might be any period romance set in a corner of the British Empire, and eventually the war conveniently clears away the obstacles to a long-delayed happy denouement. The romance itself can be set aside in favor of the context that the roles of each of the characters provides, particularly the state of health care in wartime Hong Kong, the deplorable conditions in Stanley POW camp, and the split worlds between those of the “occupied” and incarcerated.

The piano also figures, if only gratuitously, in The Piano Teacher, a 2009 novel by Janice YK Lee. In this story, Claire Pendleton arrives with her husband in Hong Kong in the 1950s to teach piano to the child of a wealthy Chinese couple, and falls in love with their driver, Will Truesdale. Will, a handsome Briton who had arrived in Hong Kong in 1941, had in turn fallen in love with Trudy Liang, the glamorous daughter of a Shanghai millionaire and a Portuguese beauty, but their idyllic romance was disrupted by the Japanese invasion when Will was interned and Trudy resorted to collaboration with the enemy. None of the characters are particularly interesting or endearing, but the novel is a speculation on how war and occupation can seek out the flaws in people, especially in privileged colonials and wealthy locals who are brought down when roles are reversed.

Western women in Hong Kong had to watch their men march off to POW internment camps”

Hong Kong Chinese called Japanese soldiers law pak tau, the Cantonese for “turnip heads” and not the most compelling of epithets. When it comes to exposing the paradoxes and perversities of human relations and the reciprocities of causes and effects, there is nothing quite like war in forcing them out into bright light. The Japanese might have justified their East Asian conquests with their supposed concerns for removing Western colonial influences and possessions from their “Co-Prosperity” sphere, but they were deeply racist in their attitudes and the brutal and contemptuous treatment of their fellow Asians. One need only research the Rape of Nanking, or accounts of the atrocities at Unit 731 in Manchuria, to appreciate this.

Nevertheless, war makes for curious political alliances. In addition to local spies for the Japanese and other 5th columnists, the Hong Kong triads were also allegedly ready to slaughter all Westerners once they were removed from power. (Many of these triad members were in turn hunted down by the Lam Yi Dui, Chaiang Kai-shek’s secret police, themselves little more than thugs who executed triad suspects in Hong Kong alleys.) British military were put to the sword, starved, beaten and humiliated for three and a half years before the tables were turned and it was the Japanese who were marched in shame through the streets of Hong Kong.

Yet wherever they were and whatever their circumstances, the British could not help being British. One of the more amusing accounts of the British obsession with social class comes from Prisoner Of The Turnip Heads, by George Wright Nooth (1999), which reports that there were some 390 American also incarcerated by the Japanese. The author, a former Hong Kong police officer, writes:

The Americans seemed the best organized entity with a commendable tendency to work together. They buckled down to immediate cleaning up tasks whereas the British community, more divided by class, occupation and prejudice, spent too much effort and energy bickering or complaining. Not untypical of their attitude was the remark of the rotund British matron who, as she watched a group of Americans repairing a store, remarked, “Isn’t it fortunate that the Americans have so many members of the working class in their camp?” (p.89)

During those difficult years there were, as there often are in times of war, stories of bravery and heroism as well as atrocities and betrayals. It was no anodyne thing to resist the Japanese military – especially its military police, the kempetai but some did. Martin Booth’s brief novel Music on the Bamboo Radio (1997), of a young British boy separated from his parents and adopted by Chinese villagers conducting guerilla operations against the Japanese in the New Territories, may or may not be based on actual events, but it conveys the dangers and fears that prevailed in the outer reaches of the Crown Colony. The protagonist, Nicholas Holford, becomes a hero while coming to manhood conducting smuggling and sabotage raids with the local Cantonese resistance.

The war also did not show the British in the best light with respect to their treatment of their own commonwealth comrades. There were instances of stupidity, poor judgment and class bias with regrettable consequences. Notable among these were the ways in which the British – practiced at sending commonwealth members into the most difficult military positions, such as the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACS) in the failed WWI Gallipoli campaign – called up ill-prepared Canadian troops to buttress the thinly protected geographic components of Hong Kong.

“C” Force to Hong Kong: A Canadian Catastrophe, 1941-1945, by Brereton Greenhous (1997), recounts what British commanding officers and the British War Office called a “no military risk” campaign, only to face disastrous results. The book reinvestigates the formation of the Canadian “C” Force and its departure from Canada to Hong Kong, where it arrived just three weeks before the Japanese attack. It outlines the course of the battle from December 8, 1941, until the inevitable surrender of the garrison on Christmas Day. Despite questionable command decisions by British officers, it was claimed by British officers that the Canadians “did not fight well,” an unfair allegation that author Greenhous counters with access to first-hand accounts of battle.

After three years and eight months of Japanese occupation, Britain accepted the formal surrender of Japan on September 16, 1945, and Rear Admiral Sir Harcourt sailed into Hong Kong on board the cruiser HMS Swiftsure to reestablish control over the colony. Now the tables had been turned, and it was the Japanese who were being marched down Queen’s Road in defeat, and who were incarcerated in Stanley Jail. War crimes trials, adjudicated by military courts, began in March of 1946. Surprisingly, aside from some notable exceptions, many Japanese war criminals were given rather light sentences, and others simply disappeared.

The sun was setting on the British empire, beginning with the side of the world where the sun rises”

The end of the war raised the question of the future of Hong Kong. Franklin D. Roosevelt had favored decolonization, but that notion appeared to end with his death in April 1945. Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek might have succeeded in reclaiming Hong Kong for China, as he did with Taiwan, but his hands were still full fighting the Communists. In the end the British got their Crown Colony back for another half century. But the sun was setting on the British empire, beginning with the side of the world where the sun rises. Rebels in Malaya and Burma had sided with the Japanese against their colonial overlords, and India was partitioned and cut loose two years later. Hong Kong Cantonese had seen their colonial masters brought low and humiliated, and it was the American atomic submission of Japan that came to the rescue, not mother Britain. The Japanese had not been successful in their imperial ambitions, but the war had produced one result in demonstrating the weakness of the West, and resistance campaigns by indigenous Asians had established a latent force for independence.

Because of unresolved matters on the mainland of China, Britain managed to hold onto its colonial rock. Yet while there was no leftist insurgency or popular movement that took advantage of their weak position, the underlying ticking clock of land tenure of Kowloon and the New Territories ticked on toward the reckoning of 1997, when Britain’s 99 year lease, signed in 1898, was up. For the time being, though, Britain would hold a tenuous grip on Hong Kong for another fifty years, playing and prospering on its role as the West’s backdoor access to the new People’s Republic of China.

Wars change cities. They are a periods of trauma in their life cycles that alter their identities and leave lasting effects. Little remains of the physical reminders of the war in Hong Kong. If one searches there are some gun emplacements and bunkers, or a bullet or shrapnel gouge in a building that has survived the island city’s obsessive land use. Time will further attenuate the city’s memory of the war, and only old men will gather in tea houses to recall it through the lens of their boyhood days, or recount their parents’ stories. The Japanese military are long gone, and now the British are as well, leaving the city in yet another conflict over its long struggle with its own identity. ∎

Under review:
Concerto, Elizabeth Darrell (1993)
The Piano Teacher, Janice Y.K. Lee (2009)
Hemingway On The China Front, Peter Moreira (2006)
Hong Kong Holiday, Emily Hahn (1946)
China’s Wings, Gregory Crouch (2012)
Prisoner Of The Turnip Heads, George Wright Nooth, with Mark Adkin (1999)
The Fall Of Hong Kong, Philip Snow (2003)
Music On The Bamboo Radio, Martin Booth (1997)
“C” Force To Hong Kong: A Canadian Catastrophe, 1941-1945, Brereton Greenhous (1997)
Header: Japanese troops parade in Queen’s Road, Victoria, Hong Kong, December 1941 (public domain).