Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Writing On the Wall: Hong Kong, 1938

Hong Kong in 1938 was a rather strange city. It was bordered to the north by a China under relentless attack by better armed and equipped Japanese forces. It had been forced to accept a huge number of refugees streaming into the Colony from across the border, and had turned away far more for want of resources.

Yet the Colony's economy, after being affected by the global depression of the 1930s, was rebounding strongly, partly due to armaments, munitions and supplies sales occuring in the territory. For the Hong Kong establishment, it seemed almost business as usual; all of them, whether the British or the senior Chinese, clung tenaciously to the belief that the Japanese would never dare actually attack the British. Back in London, after all, the politicians had all assured their far-flung citizens that this was not an eventuality that would be likely to come to pass. The only way that the Japanese could succeed, after all, was if most of Britain's armed forces were engaged in a European War. And had Neville Chamberlain not obtained "Peace for our Time"?

But if one regards the tension at the Chinese border as the Japanese overran KMT positions in Shenzhen, the blatant disregard for British territorial sovereignty seemed rather significant. Was the writing not on the wall? It is difficult to judge events separated from us by a broad gulf of over six decades. But let us read this Police Report from 1938 together, and I shall let you be the judge:
On October 13th, the Kowloon-Canton highway was closed, and on October 15th the railway service beyond Shum Chun [Shenzhen - Ed.] was discontinued. The frontier, however, remained quiet until November 24th; it was then estimated that approximately 20,000 refugees had passed over into British territory. Railway trucks were used as additional refugee camps at Fan Ling and Cha Hang.

At 8 pm on November 25th, about 200 armed Chinese soldiers crossed the border at Lin Ma Hang blockhouse and surrendered; they were detained at Ta Ku Ling.

On November 26th, fighting became general along the border from Shum Chun and near Sha Tau Kok. The Shum Chun wireless station was shelled by the Japanese; one shell landed in Liu Pok village, British territory, wounding three persons, one of whom subsequently died. Many Chinese soldiers crossed the border during the day and were detained, and a further large number were later rounded up at Un Long.[Yuen Long - Ed.]

During the Japanese advance on Lo Wu [yes, where you source your pirated DVDs today - Ed.], bullets fell freely in British territory, round the Lo Wu blockhouse; two police officers narrowly escaped death when a shell exploded near their motor cycle. On two occasions, Japanese detachments crossed over into British territory but retired after representations were made by British police and military authorities. Shum Chun was finally captured by the Japanese at noon on November 26th. From November 25th, the influx of refugees increased tremendously to an estimated total of 80,000 persons; many emergency refugee camps were established in the New Territories by various Hong Kong charitable organisations to care for these people.
I shall leave the narrative there, although it continues, a miserable litany of suffering by the southern Guangdong citizenry and a swaggering, arrogant Japanese military.

Yet the British persisted in believing myths about the Japanese not being able to fly planes or shoot straight due to their Asiatic vision; that they would never dare challenge the might of the British empire. All these were strongly held beliefs of another Imperial Power, Russia; held, that is, until their ignominious defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. But then, sometimes reality is so hard to contemplate, illusions, fantasy and the suspension of reason are the only way for people to get on with life.

Let us hope we should not be so blind should, heaven forbid, such times ever come again.


Madame Chiang said...

The British administration seriously underestimated the Japanese threat fpr both Singapore (the "impregnable fortress") and Hong Kong.

Dave and Stefan said...

You are right Madame C., indeed they did - although I suppose by 1941 Churchill was sanguine enough to realize that "Hong Kong could not be held, but must be defended."