Posted by: Sam Olsen | November 15, 2011

Remembrance Sunday in Hong Kong

WOII John Osborn VC, WInnipeg Grenadiers, who sacrificed himself by falling on a grenade

Sunday was Remembrance Sunday in Hong Kong, exactly as it is elsewhere in the world. 

Although it perhaps doesn’t mean as much to the general population as it does in Britain, Canada etc, it still is an important date in the calendar. As you might have noticed on our tweets, Aggie and I did some poppy selling on Saturday morning and we reckon raised about $3,000 (c.£242) in 3 hours, with at least 75% of the contributors being Chinese. (The other 25% were mainly British, but Americans, Canadians, Aussies, Kiwis, Indians etc all gave, with the noticeable exception of the dozens of French that passed us by. Not a single Gallic penny went into the pot.)

The reason why Remembrance Sunday continues to be an important day is because of what HK went through. The local population, both white and Chinese, made a relevantly significant effort to the First World War, with many locals serving aboard Royal Navy and Merchant Navy vessels.

Come WWII though, and it is a very different story. For HK itself was invaded, a mere 8 hours after Pearl Harbor.

The garrison here had no chance. The Japanese, with 52,000 battle-hardened troops, outnumbered the 14,000 British, Canadians and Indians – backed up by the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Force – 4:1. The vast majority of the defenders had no field experience: most of the Canadians had only been in the colony for 3 weeks following am arduous posting to Jamaica. And there was no air or naval cover. Add to this the fact that most of the heavy equipment being shipped over for the defence of Hong Kong had been diverted to other territories, and the defenders were in a pretty tight spot.

Nevertheless the battle raged for 17 days (longer than France did against the Germans, it must be said) until final surrender occurred on Christmas Day 1941. (Interestingly, the final fighting was not wrapped up until two days after the official surrender, taking place in in an ammo bunker at the centre of the island, which has now been turned into a wine store. According to local legend, the defenders of the bunker, a mix of whites and Chinese, so impressed the Japanese with their bravery that they were let go after the battle and not interned.)

Both attackers and defenders had lost around 2,000 men each. Many of the defenders were slaughtered after surrendering, including the military hospital at Stanley where all the patients were tortured to death; the nurses raped and killed; and the young orderlies, many of them only 15, 16 or 17, herded together and then bayoneted or pushed off a cliff.

The local Chinese really suffered too, with 4,000 of them dying during the battle. But worse was to come. Four brutal years of Japanese occupation followed, which saw the population of HK drop from 1.6m to 600,000 as a consequence of forced repatriation and murder. An estimated 10,000 Chinese women were raped by the Japanese garrison. It is therefore no surprise that the commander of the Japanese occupation was executed after the war.

So for the local Chinese, Remembrance Sunday commemorates an absolutely awful period of their history. Each year therefore an 11am memorial is held at the Cenotaph, an almost exact replica of London’s original.

This year only Aggie and Lawrence could go, so at least the family was well represented. Apparently it was slightly different to a ceremony held in Britain, with it all starting with a two-minute silence, followed by prayers on behalf of the Christian community, then Jews, then Muslims, then Hindus, then Buddhists, then Taoists, then all the rest. With each prayer held in a different language it seemingly went on for quite a while. And then, to finish, the Chinese National Anthem was played. All different now.

If any of you come over to HK you really should try to see the Stanley Military Cemetery, which is one of the most peaceful places on the Island. A memorial to a horrific and thankfully past event.

Stanley Military Cemetery, home to 598 WWII burials


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