Defending the Indefensible – Hong Kong II

The Royal Navy cruiser HMS Swiftsure, entering Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, through North Point on 30 August 1945.

The document of surrender was signed by Japan on 16 September 1945 in Hong Kong.

Collaboration took different forms and assumed various levels of intensity. As soon as the Japanese flag was raised in Central District on December 27, Japanese flags appeared all over the area, and Hong Kong’s new rulers had no trouble finding recruits for their administration. Some Chinese may have believed in Japan’s rhetoric of “Asia for the Asians,” but most people in Hong Kong, relieved that the invasion was over, collaborated simply to get by. For the Eurasians who were recruited for the same kinds of clerical and secretarial posts that they had held under the British and had nowhere else to go, collaboration must have seemed a rather logical choice. The writers for the Hong Kong News, which had been published before the war by Japanese businessmen and was revived by the occupation authorities, were mainly Eurasians and Indians. Many Eurasians and Portuguese became brokers between the Japanese administration and the Chinese population, running various black or gray markets. The Japanese also tried hard to win over the Indian population, promising to help them drive the British out of India. Some Britons also worked with the Japanese; for example, high-level bankers chose to collaborate to ensure some level of financial stability. Similarly, P. S. Selwyn-Clarke, the former director of medical services, worked with the Japanese for the sake of the Chinese community and the interned Europeans and prisoners of war.

To consolidate their rule, the Japanese tried to recruit the same community leaders who had worked with the British. On January 10, 1942, two weeks after the British surrender, Lieutenant General Sakai invited some 130 of the leading Chinese and Eurasians to a formal luncheon at the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon. Sakai insisted that the war in Hong Kong was against Britain, not China, and that the Chinese and Japanese should work together for the prosperity of all the races of Greater East Asia. Lieutenant General Isogai Rensuke, who became governor later that month, established two councils consisting of Chinese and Eurasian leaders for managing the Chinese population. On the Chinese Representative Council were Robert Kotewall, the chair; Lau Tit-shing, manager of the Communications Bank and chairman of the Chinese Bankers’ Association; Li Tse-fong, manager of the Bank of East Asia (which had maintained extensive contacts with Japanese firms before the war) and former unofficial member of the Legislative Council; and Chan Lim-pak, who had once been comprador to the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank in Canton. The Chinese Cooperative Council, whose 22 members were selected by the Chinese Representative Council from the leading professionals, was chaired by Chow Shouson.

Some Chinese leaders were enthusiastic about working with the Japanese. Lau Tit-shing, for example, was president of the Chinese-Japanese Returned-Students Association and, according to sociologist Henry Lethbridge, was “very pro-Japanese,” having been “thoroughly brainwashed by his early education in Japan.” When Lau died in April 1945, he was honored by the Japanese governor. Chan Lim-pak had been arrested by the British during the Japanese invasion on charges of “defeatist talk” and aiding the enemy. He was killed in 1944 by an American bomber while en route to Japan. But most Chinese and Eurasian leaders probably collaborated with the Japanese in the same way the majority of Hong Kong’s population did: “with reluctance and misgiving, and as a matter of physical survival.” Fear and pragmatism were no doubt strong reasons for collaborating, as was preserving their own class interests. And many collaborated with the Japanese to help the local community. Indeed, three colonial officers testified after the war that they had met secretly with Chow Shouson and Robert Kotewall shortly before the fall of Hong Kong and requested that they cooperate with the Japanese to protect the interests of the Chinese community. That there was so little Chinese resentment toward the two Chinese councils during the occupation suggests that most Chinese understood that the Chinese and Eurasian leaders had to cooperate.

Just as collaboration during the Japanese occupation took many forms, so did resistance. As they had under the British, many Chinese simply ignored the regulations and proclamations issued by the Japanese authorities. Chinese staff in the governor’s office often failed to show up for their mandatory Japanese classes; clerks at Chinese-run department stores refused to sell goods to Japanese, pretending that they were out of stock; and entire schools moved to unoccupied parts of the mainland rather than comply with the new curriculum. By summer 1943, people in Hong Kong realized that the war no longer favored the Japanese. By 1944, Chinese and Eurasian leaders started to avoid their duties on the two Chinese councils.

Given Hong Kong’s urban nature, most organized resistance occurred in the rural New Territories, especially along the Chinese border. Led by Lindsay Ride, a professor at the University of Hong Kong and a member of the Volunteer Defence Corps who had escaped from the Sham Shui Po prison camp, and with help from local Chinese such as Paul Tsui, a recent graduate of the University of Hong Kong, the British Army Aid Group (BAAG) helped European and Chinese residents escape from Hong Kong, gathered intelligence, and rescued Allied airmen shot down by the Japanese. Based in Guilin in southern China, the BAAG was technically a noncombat unit of the Indian Army. By late 1942, the Chinese Nationalists had revived an underground movement, while the Communist guerrillas of the East River Column were active in the New Territories and in the urban areas of Hong Kong. Despite the mutual suspicions among the British, Nationalists, Communists, and their respective agendas, this joint resistance helped to break down racial divisions between Britons and Chinese and to create a “camaraderie unimaginable in the pre-war years.”


British planning for postwar Hong Kong began almost immediately after the fall to Japan, which, compounded by the loss of Singapore and Malaya, was a terrible blow to British morale. As the Colonial Office began to reassess the British failure to defend Hong Kong, one of the conclusions was that the British should have relied more on local Chinese and accepted help from Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces. Some wartime planners argued that the invasion might even be a chance for the British to start afresh in Hong Kong after the war by building a better sense of community between the British and the Chinese, including by opening higher-level government positions to local Chinese. They were especially eager to prevent the type of anticolonial nationalism that had erupted in India and would eventually lead to independence in 1947.

The British plans for recovering Hong Kong, however, faced opposition from both China and the United States. With help from American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (whose grandfather had been a partner in the American firm of Russell and whose mother had once lived in Hong Kong), in January 1942 Chiang Kai-shek became the supreme allied commander of the China-Burma-India Theater. Chiang hoped to use the war to recover Hong Kong and to end the embarrassing unequal treaties. Supported by the United States, in mid-1942 Chiang’s Nationalists approached Britain to give up Hong Kong, or at least the New Territories. In late 1942, Sino-British negotiations began for abolishing extraterritoriality in China and revising the status of the New Territories after the war. At the Cairo Conference of November 1943, Roosevelt promised to help Chiang recover Hong Kong if he agreed to help the Chinese Communists fight the Japanese.

Even while wartime planners in Britain were committed to restoring Hong Kong to British rule after the war, they also realized that the Chinese Nationalists’ demands would have to be taken seriously and that conditions in postwar Hong Kong would have to be different. Although the Nationalists suddenly aborted their campaign to recover the New Territories—content for the time being with the agreement that China would reserve the right to raise the issue at a later time—some British officials believed that Hong Kong might have to be surrendered for Britain to focus on its other possessions, especially India and Egypt. Realizing that many American officials supported China, some British officials even suggested giving up Hong Kong before the United States applied pressure on Britain to do so. In mid-1942, the Colonial Office conceded that Hong Kong might have to be surrendered after the war. Even in late 1945, George Kitson, head of the China Department at the Foreign Office, suggested that Britain return Hong Kong for both symbolic and practical purposes: as a token of gratitude for China’s help in defeating Japan, as a gesture of friendship in a new postwar world, as proof that British colonialism was entering a new phase, and as a preemptive move to prevent possible confrontation with China over the region.

As the war turned against Japan’s favor, however, by early 1943 the Colonial Office resolved to retain Hong Kong after the war. The Colonial Office became particularly optimistic in February 1944 when Li Shu-fan, a prominent Chinese surgeon who had made his way to London, assured the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office that most members of the Chinese upper classes would prefer British rule to Chinese rule after the war. That summer, the Hong Kong Planning Unit was established under Frank Smith, the former colonial secretary. After 1944 the unit was led by David MacDougall, a Hong Kong cadet who had escaped during the Japanese occupation. By mid-1945, Winston Churchill realized that Chiang Kai-shek could not try to recover Hong Kong without support from the United States, which now considered the continuation of the British Empire vital to its own interests in the postwar world. As victory became imminent, in the summer of 1945 the Hong Kong Planning Unit and the China Association, a powerful lobby representing British business interests in China, began to consider various proposals for constitutional reform, among them giving a greater role to local Chinese. Churchill now declared that Hong Kong would be removed from the British Empire “over my dead body.”

As the British planned for recovering Hong Kong, the problem of what to do with the old business and professional elite arose. The British needed a local support base, but some of the Europeans interned during the war had criticized leaders such as Robert Kotewall and Chow Shouson for being too compliant with the Japanese. Yet the returning colonial government would have great difficulty finding anyone to replace these old leaders. Furthermore, there was the problem of convincing the local Chinese population that Britain, rather than Nationalist China, deserved to rule Hong Kong after the war. This explains both why the British, who could not afford to lose the people they had depended on for so long, decided to keep the old leaders and why these leaders worked so hard to restore British rule. The Colonial Office eventually decided that Chow and Kotewall had been acting in the colony’s best interest.

Just as victory against Japan became certain, a more immediate challenge arose. Japan surrendered on August 14 1945, earlier than most British military planners had predicted. American and Nationalist Chinese troops were making progress in China, getting closer by the day to Canton. Knowing that Roosevelt wanted Chiang Kai-shek to accept the Japanese surrender as supreme commander in almost all of the China Theater, the British feared that Chiang’s troops would try to accept the surrender in Hong Kong. Although Chiang assured them that he would not try to retake Hong Kong after accepting the surrender, the British dispatched Rear Admiral Cecil Harcourt from Sydney with a fleet to reach Hong Kong first. When Britain and China asked the United States to help them resolve the matter, Chiang proposed delegating surrender authority to a British official in Hong Kong, but only if Britain agreed not to accept the Japanese surrender until after Chiang had formally accepted the surrender for the China Theater. Britain agreed, and on September 16 Harcourt accepted the Japanese surrender on behalf of Britain and China in the presence of a Chinese and an American official.

This arrangement briefly soured Sino-British relations, but it was as pragmatic as it was symbolic. It also helps explain why Hong Kong remained a British colony after the war. Although there were loud calls in China for recovering Hong Kong and although he had almost sixty thousand troops within three hundred miles of Hong Kong when the Japanese surrendered, Chiang realized that Britain would not give up Hong Kong easily and that a failure to recover Hong Kong would discredit him in China. Furthermore, he needed the support of both the United States and Britain to be a major player in the new world order. Preoccupied with recovering northern China and keeping Chinese Communist troops from recapturing Japanese-held territory, he did not want to provoke the Communists into entering the race for Hong Kong, especially since their East River Column was closer to Hong Kong than were his own troops. Concerned about the postwar order, the United States had now softened its stance toward colonialism. Harry Truman, who became president after Roosevelt died in April 1945, was less committed than his predecessor to restoring Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, while General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific, supported outright the continuation of the British Empire in East Asia. The British realized that they could not prevent Chiang’s troops from recapturing Hong Kong and that the United States, regardless of its new attitudes toward colonialism, would not help the British resist such an attempt. They also realized that such an arrangement would play out better among the Chinese population of Hong Kong, some of whom, proud of China’s new status, thought that this might be a chance to get rid of the British.

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