Written by Chi Man Kwong.

On 30 August, 1945, a combined fleet of British, Australian, and Canadian vessels entered Victoria Harbour of Hong Kong, led by Cecil Harcourt, a British admiral. Expecting the fleet ashore at the Naval Dockyard (modern-day Admiralty) was a cheerful crowd of Hong Kong Chinese and a number of emotionless Japanese soldiers.

British, Indian, Canadian, and Dutch POWs and internees scattered across the ex-British colony were rescued by British and Commonwealth troops, some of them led by a Canadian Chinese officer William K. L. Lore. The above event was known as the “Liberation of Hong Kong” (重光), and 30 August was a public holiday until 1997.

The transfer of Hong Kong’ sovereignty to China changed the focus of war commemoration in Hong Kong: it shifted from the suffering and deliverance of the people of all ethnicity to the local resistance against the Japanese, especially the actions of the communist-led patriotic movements before the war and the underground resistance campaign of the East River Column. Many of the narratives of the war experience of Hong Kong tend to focus on local issues and often risk detaching Hong Kong from the larger scheme of things, namely the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Allies’ war against Japan. The transnational feature of Hong Kong society before and during the war is sometimes left out as well. The seventieth anniversary of the liberation is perhaps a good opportunity for us to review some aspects of the war experience of Hong Kong and rethink the transnational nature of the city.

International Strategic Importance of Hong Kong

As Hans van de Ven, Rana Mitter, and many other academics who work on the Second World War in Asia have convincingly argued, the China-Burma-India Theatre was much more than a sideshow in the war against Japan. Hong Kong, sandwiched between the CBI Theatre and the Pacific theatres of war, had a special role in the eyes of the Japanese decision makers. After the fall of the China coast to Japan in 1937-1938, Hong Kong was the only major port along the China coast that allowed strategic supplies to be sent into mainland China. Equipped with excellent port and repairing facilities, Japan could also use Hong Kong to establish firm control over the South China Sea, Japan’s gateway to Southeast Asia.

Countering the Japanese attempt to turn Hong Kong into a strategic springboard was an Allied air and naval campaign fought by both Chinese and American flyers and US Navy submariners. In Hong Kong and the nearby Guangdong and Guangxi provinces, there was a multinational underground resistance campaign participated by the British Army Aid Group, the Nationalist regulars and guerrillas, and the Communist East River Column. Although these forces were not always cooperating effectively, the combined Allied resistance prevented Japan from fully exploiting Hong Kong’s strategic potential.

This failure, in turn, hindered Japan’s effort to tap the resources of Southeast Asia, and partly explained the Japanese Army’s decision to launch the Operation Ichigo in 1944, a large-scale offensive that almost destroyed the Nationalist regime and helped shape the political history of China for decades. The Ichigo Offensive also swept the Nationalist forces and guerrillas away from Guangdong, unwittingly prevented a Nationalist takeover of Hong Kong when Japan surrendered. The strategic importance of Hong Kong as the only major seaport in South China did not end with the surrender of Japan; when Harry Truman, the US President, decided to allow the British to retake Hong Kong in August 1945, he was expecting the Nationalist troops could use Hong Kong as a springboard to reach North China and Manchuria. Thus, although international military operations are often left out in narratives of Hong Kong history, they were actually instrumental to the changing fate of this city.

At the local level, the “British” garrison of Hong Kong that resisted the Japanese invasion in December 1941 consisted of servicemen from the United Kingdom, the British Raj, Canada, Australia, Portugal (Macau), Philippines, and even France. Many of the members of the local Volunteer Defence Force were Eurasians. More than a thousand local Chinese served in the British forces as seamen, gunners, sappers, and infantry. Some of them escaped captivity and later fought in Burma as a unit. These “Anglo-Chinese” soldiers were highly diversified; students of the University of Hong Kong and London-born Chinese with a Cockney accent were put in the same unit with Hakka sappers from the New Territories. If one only focuses on the local Chinese resistance or suffering one may lose sight of these international dimensions of the conflict.

Complexity of Identity and Collaboration

By 1945, close to half a million Chinese fought on the Japanese side; hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese and Koreans served in the Japanese military; these remain thorny issues nowadays. The problem of collaboration and allegiance in Hong Kong is no less complex. The experience of Gan Zhiyan in Hong Kong is illustrative. Gan, an Anhui native, was a Nationalist officer who was caught in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion. He avoided certain death only because he was a classmate of a Japanese naval intelligence officer. Gan gained a fortune by working under the Japanese, and eventually commanded a “Coastal Defence Force” that helped the Japanese to control the islands between Macau and Hong Kong such as Lajiweidao. However, he also maintained peace and fed the inhabitants of those islands. When the Japanese surrendered he turned to Zhang Fakui, the Nationalist general who took over Guangdong, and kept his base and his little amphibious force until 1949. Gan then left for the United States and died in 1998.

The issue was particularly problematic to the Eurasians, who were by no means fully accepted by the Chinese and British communities before the war. A number of them turned to the Japanese and even rose in ranks as members of the notorious kempeitai (憲兵隊 or Military Police Corps); others joined the Allied resistance effort. The case of Sir Robert Kotewall, the Eurasian member of the Legislative Council, is worth mentioning. Urged by British officials to help taking care of the population when the British surrendered, Kotewall became a member of the “Chinese Representative Council” formed by the Japanese. Kotewall was accused of being a “Quisling” but was acquitted and silently withdrawn from public life.

Even the identity of the dominant local Chinese population was by no means clear-cut. There were westernised urban dwellers, villagers of the New Territories who claimed their ancestral root to the Song Dynasty or further back, migrants from other provinces, overseas Chinese, and refugees who fled from different parts of China. Contrary to the common view that Hong Kong was a migrant society, a sense of Hong Kong identity also prevailed among at least some of the locals. A Japanese official who was responsible for the forced migration of residents from Hong Kong to China noted that some of the Hong Kong Chinese had little or no connection with mainland China and saw Hong Kong their ancestral home. In short, one risks over-generalisation if one overlooks the transnational nature of the Hong Kong society when assuming all Chinese in Hong Kong shared the same identity and allegiance.

Restoration of a Transnational City

The years between 1937 and 1945 left a considerable mark on the transnational character of Hong Kong. Because of the influx of refugees from different parts of China after 1937, the industry of Hong Kong witnessed a considerable boom before the Japanese invasion. Population pressure also forced the colonial government to pay more attention to hygiene, education, housing, and labour issues. The fall of Hong Kong led to another large-scale movement of the Hong Kong population as residents were forced by the Japanese Occupation Government to leave for mainland China; an unknown number of them died along the way. The end of the war, however, brought another influx of population as the original residents returned and people from different parts of China moved in, partly as the result of the unstable situation in China. The Portuguese, Indian, and Eurasian communities all survived the war. These developments left a permanent mark on the diversity of the population in Hong Kong.

The experience of defeat and captivity also left some long-term impact on the colonial governance. Racial barrier, if not entirely demolished, was loosened after the war. Local Chinese, especially those who had participated in the resistance with the British such as Paul Tsui, entered public service and eventually rose to high ranks. More Chinese representatives were appointed in the legislative and executive councils. The colonial government tried to invite the Chinese population to participate in governance through increasing franchise, although comprehensive political reform in the form of the Young Plan was shelved in 1949. The general attitude changed from one of almost complete segregation to “Co-prosperity of Chinese and British,” as the slogan on the commemorative stamp of the liberation of Hong Kong in 1946 wrote.

Often overlooked, the quick restoration of the international economic importance of the city within months after the end of the war laid the foundation of rapid development for decades. The abrupt end of the war against Japan on 15 August led to a period of chaos and uncertainty in Asia. Compared to the Nationalist reoccupation of mainland China and Taiwan that led to numerous tragedies such as the 228 Incident, Hong Kong was fortunate enough to experience a much less turbulent process. When Japan surrendered, the city was on the verge of starvation and its infrastructure mostly destroyed. Harcourt’s fleet was followed by convoys that brought technicians who restored the infrastructures in days and food that sustained the population and prevented outbreak of unrests. As the head of the British Military Administration admitted, however, the resilience of the residents played perhaps an even more important role in the quick recovery of Hong Kong.

Seventy years after the end of the war, the complexity of the war and its long term impact on Hong Kong are now more clearly understood. Hong Kong was an important international battlefield and its fate was closely related to the Second Sino-Japanese War, the general war in Asia-Pacific, and to a lesser extent the war in Europe. The diverse war experience of the people of different ethnicity and class in Hong Kong is also a strong reminder of the transnational character of this city.

Chi Man KWONG is a Research Assistant Professor at the History Department, Hong Kong Baptist University. One of this latest publications is Eastern Fortress: A Military History of Hong Kong, 1840-1970 (co-authored with Tsoi Yiu-lun) (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2014). Image Credit: CC by BiblioArchives/LibraryArchives /Flickr.