There is an other worldliness about Hong Kong that emphasises its distance from the UK. The sights and sounds of a city packed with millions of a busy and predominantly young population give the place an energy I have not experienced anywhere else.
Why go there? I suppose the major appeal was to be somewhere totally different from Europe while having a sense of Britishness remaining despite the end of the colonial era. My wife and I wanted our kids to have an adventure in to a completely different culture where they would be very much the minority. Whether you can really achieve anything like that in a week is a moot point. But there were a few moments out in the New Territories, staring out across paddy fields, when home really was a very long way away.
It was through these very fields that the Japanese advanced following their invasion on 8th December, 1941. Conquering all of Kowloon took a matter of days as the British decamped to defend Hong Kong island. There had never been any real hope that the somewhat haphazard ‘Gin Drinkers Line’ would offer any threat to the much larger Japanese forces and they duly arrived at the harbour as the remnants of the garrison scudded across the water to temporary safety. As with any Japanese advance, the civilian population suffered a litany of rape and murder. The British began to learn that the Geneva Convention was a worthless ideal as captured troops were slain.
Meanwhile, the police managed to avert a massacre of the white population by the Triads.
Holding on to Hong Kong was essential to London. The governor, Sir Mark Young, was left in no doubt there could be no surrender. Every day the garrison held out would buy time elsewhere as the Japanese octopus spread it’s tentacles across the Pacific.
Once the Japanese landed in force on the island it was just a question of when, not if, they would win. The British did not surrender until Christmas Day, a cruel date for any western heart and by then the murder, rape and massacres had reached horrific levels. The survivors endured years of captivity, where many more died in terrible circumstances.
When you read the bare facts of Japanese brutality it is easy to see why, for some, it remains a raw memory and how strong bitterness can linger. We have our Japanese cars, cameras and electronic goods and the modern nation is our friend. It is important to remember this because when reading Tony Banham’s book it is easy to get very angry indeed. The impressive thing is he completely avoids any superfluous comment or over emphasis on a grim facet of the slide to capitulation. This is not tabloid stuff.
Just as important was the deterioration in relations between some Allied commanders, something which the Canadians have played on to some extent in recent years.
This superb book brings the whole nightmare to the fore, often in the most minute detail. The agonies of every day of the invasion period are brought out in the form of a diary with an overview and detailed casualty lists. What one is left with is an intense admiration for the British, Canadian, Chinese and Indian troops who fought so hard to keep the Japs at bay. Woefully under equipped, without air power or armour, they took on a much bigger force with a mix of obsolete or inadequate weaponry. That they held on for so long is a testament to their courage.
The endurance of the civilian population, and I emphasise not just the Europeans was put to the strongest of tests. Our histories tend to centre on our ‘own’ people and it is essential to remember the plight of the Chinese at the hands of the brutal invaders. Without the large Indian presence in the garrison, the defence would have folded even earlier. When you read the daily casualty lists it is plain that the racial contempt for them on the part of the Japanese was immense. So many Indian and Hong Kong Chinese soldiers simply disappeared.
On Christmas Day, just before General Maltby surrendered, the Japs arrived at St Stephen’s College which housed a British hospital. The doctors were murdered, patients bayoneted in their beds and the nurses raped and mutilated. Elsewhere they murdered other PoWs and threw their bodies into the sea. There are too many horrible events to recall, but the point is, no matter how harrowing these events are to us now, there were other incredible acts of bravery and resolution which make the story so much bigger. The garrison themselves accounted for hundreds of the invaders.
This is a book you must read from both ends to take advantage of it’s comprehensive notes. Tony Banham has written a gem and I cannot recommend it highly enough. From the moment he moved to Hong Kong, the author hit the battlefield trail and continues to gather huge amounts of information about the Japanese invasion and occupation which might otherwise be lost. His website is a testament to his diligence and devotion to a subject we do not tend to know much about. I only wish I had read the book before I had visited the cemeteries at Sai Wan and Stanley because many of the names would have meant so much more. But I’ve caught up, to a degree, and the British war in the Far East now carries a great deal more resonance. So, the author has succeeded and he would, I hope, be pleased.
Published by Hong Kong University Press. ISBN 978-962-209-780-3.
While the book is ostensibly out of print, it is available from Amazon or similar sites at varying prices. I paid £20 for mine. Visit www.hongkongwardiary.com