HK’s Wartime past still matters: Alternate histories

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp

Not content with a China v Japan narrative for September 3, some have taken matters into their own hands. Their focus is on the Hong Kong liberation – not China’s resistance.

 “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

China’s massive Sept 3 military display and nationwide celebration of the “victory of the Chinese people’s war of resistance” will encompass Hong Kong. But some here much prefer to focus on the Hong Kong experience.

By celebrating Hong Kong’s liberation and the sacrifice of local Hong Kongers and colonial era soldiers from Britain, Canada and India, they refuse to let Hong Kong’s wartime past be subsumed. For them, a unique Hong Kong remembrance helps build an independent identity for a proud Hong Kong.

Propaganda writ large

By the time of publication, the parade of over 10,000 Chinese troops and the People’s Liberation Army’s impressive arsenal to mark the “70th anniversary of the victory of the Chinese people’s war of resistance against Japanese aggression” will have long passed the doors of Tiananmen Square. 

The seats in the audience occupied by top leaders from Russia, South Korea, Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Vanuatu, and not many more, will have lost its warmth by then.

This self-congratulatory celebration is a massive propaganda effort that some suggest will whitewash out the KMT military’s participation and the American role in winning the war.

What will linger is the simple – but important –  idea that the Chinese people won “the war of resistance against Japanese aggression” 70 years ago. As Hong Kong takes a one-off holiday alongside the mainland to holds its own commemoration events and watch, in awe, the massive parades on live television, that same idea may propagate just as far and deep into the minds of Hongkongers.  

One local organisation has taken it upon themselves to make sure official commemorations do not monopolise Hong Kong’s focus on wartime history and downplay what happened here.


The last weekend of August saw a number of commemoration events held to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. Among the events was the Hong Kong Liberation Day Commemoration Ceremony, held at the Sai Wan War Cemetery in Chai Wan on August 30 by a group called Watershed.

“‘The measure of a society is how it treats its own past’,”
Brian Leung Kai-ping (梁繼平), founding member of Watershed.

While a bagpipe band from the Scout Association of Hong Kong played in honour of the fallen, over 200 members of the public, under the light rain, mourned the soldiers and civilians who gave their lives defending the city and were either killed during the Battle of Hong Kong in 1941 or under Japanese captivity.

The date of celebration and the identity of the organisers bear political implications.

August 30, 1945, marked the day the Royal British Fleet entered the Victoria Harbour, resuming the British administration in Hong Kong. Liberation Day, as it was later known, had been a statutory holiday until 1998, .

Watershed is formed mainly by graduates from the University of Hong Kong, with some of its core members being former chief-editors and editors of Undergrad. It is a HKU publication which was, ironically, popularised by CY Leung after he maligned it for promoting Hong Kong independence.

Brian Leung Kai-ping (梁繼平), founding member of Watershed and former chief-editor of Undergrad delivered the opening speech.

Mr Leung delivering his opening speech at the Liberation Day Commemoration Ceremony.

“‘The measure of a society is how it treats its own past’,” Mr Leung quoted in his speech. “If Hong Kong people are to become more mature and civilised,  they must learn about their local history in a more serious manner.

”The list of participants included representatives from Localist groups Hong Kong Indigenous and Youngspiration, and representatives from the Hong Kong University Students’ Union and the Baptist University Students’ Union.

No government official nor representative from the foreign consulates in Hong Kong attended the event. Caroline Wilson, the British Consul General, attended a Commemoration service at St John’s Cathedral instead, while Canadian Consul General Ian Burchett laid poppies at the statue of Sergeant Major John R. Osborn in Admiralty. (see P5, Reportage)

September 3: Another day to remember

After prolonged debate in LegCo, the Special Holiday (3 September 2015) Ordinance passed its final reading in July, and September 3, 2015 was designated as a one-off holiday. According to the administration, the holiday was proposed to facilitate participation in commemorative events for the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Chinese people’s war of resistance against Japanese aggression.

While CY Leung leads a 287-strong delegation, to attend the September 3 military parade in Beijing, the Acting CE John Tsang will attend an invite only, closed to the public, official ceremony at the City Hall Memorial Garden to commemorate the anniversary alongside some 700 people including “judicial officers, a member of the Executive Council, a representative of the Legislative Council, representatives of war veteran groups, members of the community, uniformed groups and students”.

“The Hong Kong Government is not paying attention to us,”
Roger Ching Yuen-ki (程源基), chairman of the HKOR Benevolent Association.

A spokesman for the Home Affairs Bureau said, “Through [the 70th anniversary] events, we hope that members of the public, especially the younger generation, will understand more about the history of the war and commemorate those who gave their lives for the motherland. We should always remember the Chinese people’s huge sacrifice in the war of resistance against Japan and also spread a peace-loving message.”

The holiday this year is a step up from the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress  decision to designate September 3 as the Victory Day of the Chinese people’s war of resistance against Japanese aggression. The Hong Kong Government followed suit in 2014, declaring that an official ceremony would be held annually in Hong Kong as well.

It’s all propaganda, here and there

It was no coincidence that the very first event held by Watershed was a discussion forum on Hong Kong’s wartime history. The event was held at the University of Hong Kong five days before the ceremony. Guest speakers included Dr Kwong Chi-man (鄺智文), Assistant Professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University Department of History, and Kwong Kin-ming (鄺健銘), a scholar who studies the history and administration of colonial Hong Kong and Singapore.

In his talk, Dr Kwong elaborated WWII history from Hong Kong’s perspective and how the harbour city fit into the greater strategic considerations in international politics.

“Hong Kong, with its geographical location lying at the heart of South China region, was seen as a focal point connecting supply lines stretching from the Strait of Malacca to mainland China and Japan. It was also a natural centre of shipping in the region with a number of ports one-tenth that of Japan in total,” Dr Kwong explained. “There was also an unfounded worry among the British leaders back in 1941 that if Hong Kong fell to Japanese hands without a fight, Chiang Kai-shek would soon surrender as well.”

Dr Kwong, who is the author of Old Soldiers Never Die: Hong Kong Chinese Soldiers in the British Forces and Exposed Outpost: the Battle of Hong Kong in the Pacific War, highlighted the role played by local Hongkongers and rediscovered their much neglected contribution throughout the war.

“The battle [of Hong Kong] itself was short-lived. But many ethnic Chinese Hong Kongers later joined the British Army Aid Group to gather war intelligence, some made their way as far as to India and Burma to assist the Chinese side in the struggle against the Japanese.”

The implication of reexamining Hong Kong’s history during the war is profound. As Mr Kwong – and George Orwell in his Nineteen Eighty-Four – pointed out, the shaping of history as a form of shared memory is itself a process of political deliberation.

“While Hong Kong’s textbooks still stick to the Chinese “century of humiliation” discourse, those in Singapore focus on how the British carried out their defense scheme and why the scheme failed, reflecting the city-state’s immense concern over national security in the geopolitical setting,” said Mr Kwong.

Paying respect

The question as to whom to pay tribute to for defending Hong Kong was also subject to political interpretation. Only war veterans from the Hong Kong Guerrillas under the Communist Party’s East River Column were reportedly invited to the military parade in Beijing.

HKOR Benevolent Association chairman Mr Roger Ching Yuen-ki at the ceremony.

Roger Ching Yuen-ki (程源基), chairman of the HKOR Benevolent Association, were among some 15 ex-colonial servicemen who attended the memorial event at Sai Wan War Cemetery on August 30. He revealed how his fellows were snubbed by the local authority, in contrast to the former administration that lies at the other end of the Eurasian continent.

“We used to join the WWII anniversary parade in Piccadilly Circus in London, in which we were cheered by spectators. We have no event like this in Hong Kong,” Chiang said. “The Hong Kong Government is not paying attention to us.”

Meanwhile, Alain Lau (劉勝華), also from the HKOR Benevolent Association, stressed that the group takes no political stance over the debate.

“We welcome and support all commemoration initiatives that pay tribute to those who fight for Hong Kong and that open to the wider public – be it August 30 or September 3.”

Interestingly, Lau’s remarks was echoed by Watershed’s Jack Li Kai-tik (李啟迪), who said commemoration events to mark the Liberation Day and the victory of the Second Sino-Japanese War (also known as the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression) are not “mutually-exclusive”.

The issue is thus not of two histories competing for the exclusive right to define Hong Kong’s identity, but of one, along with the lost souls it carries, being forgotten in the shadow of the other.

Ex-colonial servicemen paying tribute to their predecessors
Ex-colonial servicemen paying tribute to their predecessors

It’s not the same

During the LegCo debates in July, legislator Raymond Wong (黃毓民) was one of the only voices who opposed the proposed holiday. In a written argument on his website, Wong describes the holiday as “naked flattery to the Communist Party”, and criticises the lack of public consultation beforehand, as if “only one man’s voice counted”.

In July, Wong made an attempt to filibuster the bill, but his over 90 amendments were all rejected by LegCo President Jasper Tsang.

“Commemoration doesn’t require a day off. Activities can still be held without a statutory holiday,” Joseph Wong Wing-ping, former Government official.

Raymond Wong has reiterated the difference between the current designated holiday on September 3rd and Liberation Day, which had been a holiday in Hong Kong until 1998. Watershed has also bemoaned the fading memory of the holiday, saying, “After the transfer of sovereignty in 1997, however, the Liberation Day has been taken off from the list of statutory holiday, and its significance has become gradually forgotten.”

A public holiday since 1946, Liberation Day was replaced, along with the Queen’s Birthday, in 1998 by Labour Day and the Buddha’s Birthday in Hong Kong’s roster of statutory holidays. Joseph Wong Wing-ping (王永平), former Secretary for Civil Service, was the Secretary for Education and Manpower and represented the administration in the debate.

“Even though the third Monday of August starting in 1999 will no longer be a public holiday, the government has decided to designate the same day as the Sino-Japanese War Victory Day, and will continue to express our enduring condolences to those who sacrificed their lives,” said Mr Joseph Wong at the time.

Only natural

When asked of his memory on the decision at the time, Mr Joseph Wong argued, “There were no special political considerations. We purely needed to introduce these new holidays. Given the number of statutory holidays was capped at 17, two other ones had to be scrapped. The Queen’s Birthday and Liberation Day were natural choices.”

The retired Government official does not agree with Watershed’s argument that the one-off holiday has overshadowed Hong Kong’s Liberation Day history.

“Commemoration doesn’t require a day off. Activities can still be held without a statutory holiday,” said Mr Wong. “The public need not worry. People cannot be brainwashed that easily. It’s only a one-off anyway.”

Mr Joseph Wong believes, since Hong Kong is now part of China under the “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement, it is only natural we act in concert with the Central Government for these nationwide efforts.

Depraved policy

Choy Chi-keung (蔡子強), Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and Public Administration at Chinese University, does not agree. “Public policy should not be set solely in accordance with the Central Government,” he said.

“This form of policy making, on the level of public administration, is a kind of depravation (墮落),” Choy Chi-keung (蔡子強), Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and Public Administration at Chinese University.

“I’m not against encouraging citizens to find out more about their nation’s history, and nurturing an appropriate level of national consciousness,” suggested Professor Choy. “What I am against, is losing the integrity of local policy making for the sake of catering to Beijing’s politics. I believe Hong Kong has never seen a public holiday designated in a mere four months in its history.”

“This form of policy making, on the level of public administration, is a kind of depravation (墮落),” said the Professor.

While Professor Choy also disagrees this one-off holiday will be effective in turning hearts back to China, he questions the Government’s sincerity to commemorate Hong Kong’s unique history in its defence against Japanese aggression.

“I believe beyond the East River Column, there’s no denying that the Canadian and British troops played a large role defending Hong Kong,” says the Professor. “If the Government is sincere in its commemoration efforts, their coverage should be comprehensive. I haven’t seen that happen.”

A veteran’s perspective

94 year old WWII veteran Peter Choi Bing-yiu (蔡炳堯) is the chairman of the World War II Veterans Association. The war veteran fought the Japanese invasion under the British Military during the 18-day Defence of Hong Kong. He was stationed in Kai Lung Wan (now known as Wah Fu Estate) with the artillery division. Mr Choi was 18 years old and two months into his training when the invasion began. After Hong Kong fell, Mr Choi eventually ended up fighting the Japanese in Hui Zhou until the war ended.

When asked what identity he carried at the time the time of the war, Choi said, “I was a Hong Kong soldier. I was born in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong I defended Hong Kong; back in my country I defended my country.”

Earlier in August, Mr Choi was quoted criticising the Government for neglecting his fellow veterans. During the interview with HT, Mr Choi protested against the claims, saying he was misquoted.

“If the Government takes care of us well we’ll accept it, but if they don’t we will rely on ourselves,” says Mr Choi. “I won’t comment on it anymore.”

“Out of all the public holidays on our calendars, Liberation Day is the only one that belongs to Hong Kong’s very own history,” Dr Margaret Ng (吳靄儀) in 1998.

Mr Choi refused to comment on the merits of the one-off September 3 holiday over Liberation Day events. The war hero said he was not invited to the commemoration event organised by Watershed. Jack Li of Watershed told HT the omission was a mistake, and that Mr Choi and his organisation were originally on the list of invitations.

The war veteran has indicated to the media he welcomed the Government’s decision to designate September 3 as a one-off holiday but his association was not invited to the commemoration parade in Beijing. He did attend the event in Hong Kong led by John Tsang.

Hong Kong’s own

During the LegCo debate in 1998, then legal functional constituency legislator Dr Margaret Ng (吳靄儀) — who later joined the Civic Party — said, “Out of all the public holidays on our calendars, Liberation Day is the only one that belongs to Hong Kong’s very own history. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has been established, and we welcome new things. But beyond that, we mustn’t forget the past. To defend Hong Kong from Japanese invasion, countless courageous soldiers fell in battle on Hong Kong soil. Among them were soldiers and civilians of different races and nationalities, and they were our heroes. What we owe them can never be repaid. Their valiant and glorious tales will remain in our memories, but must be publicly commemorated.”

Those words still ring true today.

[starbox id=”mwharbourtimes,afharbourtimes”]