News of Hong Kong in England (3): December 16, 1941

Note: I’ve taken another look at Phillip Snow’s The Fall of Hong Kong and corrected my earlier statement that the relieving Chinese force was ‘a fantasy army’. As will be seen below, the army was real enough, although almost all descriptions of  its progress were imaginary, and many Hong Kong residents came to believe it had never existed, and at least one writer claimed to have made it up


On December 16 the Mirror provided some Hong Kong background and a war report for its readers.

Daily Mirror, Tuesday, December 16, 1941

Page 2

 Britons and Chinese Defend Hong Kong Together

 HONG KONG is in greater peril than Singapore. And less well protected. This small 32 square-mile island is our furthest Empire outpost — and the closest to Japan.

If we can hold it, it might well prove (failing Vladivostok) our best base for a Counter attack on Japan.

Esme Hartson goes on to explain that in spite of the work done since the Japanese denounced the Treaty of Washington in 1937 the bulk of British efforts have gone towards reinforcing the defences of Singapore, not Hong Kong.

 Then she offers this grim but realistic forecast:

 UNLESS fighter reinforcements can be spared from Singapore, unless Chiang Kaishek can speedily regain Canton – Japan’s nearest air base – Hong Kong will suffer grievously from the air.

 She tells the readers of ‘great tunnels’ built into the hillsides – one of which ‘will hold 10,000 people – but stresses that for Hong Kong to ‘transform itself an Alcatraz’ (presumably an island that is at once stronghold and prison) will be a last resort.

 Before that there will be a massive multi-national fight – British, Canadians and Chinese – to defend Hong Kong. Not surprisingly, that now familiar Chinese army marching to the relief of Hong Kong is invoked:

 Even now, 100 miles to the north-west, General Chiang Kai-shek is fighting desperately to relieve the island.

 Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) did declare war on the Japanese when they attacked Hong Kong, and was making preparations for an attack on the Japanese rear, but his army was never in a position to make any significant contribution to Hong Kong’s defence in the time available.[1] According to Captain Freddie Guest, he and others invented the rumour of a large Chinese army fighting its way down to Hong Kong on about December 17 to relieve the depression caused by news of the sinking of the battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales off Singapore.[2] But Phillip Snow, following Oliver Lindsay, believes that the rumour was created on December 12.[3] The early appearance of the rumour in the British press bears this out.

Then the article moves on to its main theme: the willingness of the Chinese to defend Hong Kong:

 Hundreds of seasoned regulars, interned in Hong Kong since their escape there from Japan’s first onslaught on Canton, have now been released to add to our fighting strength.

Over a year ago, the Chinese were volunteering eagerly to be trained in all A.R.P. services.

 Here and elsewhere the author tries to give a picture of the Chinese flocking to Hong Kong’s defence and being warmly welcomed by the authorities. In fact, the British seem to have been reluctant to take advantage of whatever willingness there was, and, in the words of a modern historian, ‘The large pool of Chinese manpower was not used to any serious extent’.[4] The BritishWar Office only agreed to accept Chinese volunteers in October 1941 and even then imposed standards of height and weight that meant only 35 out of 600 applicants were accepted.[5]

 The writer goes on to describe some of the contributions being made by Chinese fighters – working as sappers and miners and manning the MTB boats, for example – and goes on to ask:

 But why do they volunteer to save a tiny portion of our Empire?

Well, here’s one pretty good reason. Out of Hong Kong’s 2,000,000 inhabitants, fewer than 20,000 are British . . . the Chinese there are defending their own families and homes.

 There follows an idealised portrait of the racial order in Hong Kong. First the author hints that the Chinese themsleves wouldn’t expect complete equality:

 There are a dozen social grades among the Chinese themselves, from the coolie class—who work in the dockyards, run rickshaws, act as “housemaids” —- the street pedlars and small shop-owners, the clerical and professional grades . . . right up to the millionaire merchant, whose myriad courtyard house (sic) is more palatial than any a European out there could afford.

And anyway some of them are ‘more equal’ than the Brtitish:

 Several well-known Chinese families in Hong Kong could buy out most of the British residents.

 Money breaks down barriers, says the cynic. Well, there are remarkably few social barriers in Hong Kong to prevent white and yellow mixing freely.

True, the upper part of Hong Kong’s mountain peak is a European reservation but the University is open to all.


There are highly respected doctors, dentists, lawyers, engineers. There is a native optician so famous that the British go to consult him rather than one of their own race.

There follows a fantasy of female racial equality, in which exotically beautiful young girls grace European tea dances while their mothers – agile old ladies with feet long-since unbound – head off to play mah-jong with their European friends. There certainly was some private socialising of the kind Hartson describes, and she might well have come from an unusually liberal family, but the reality as far as public gatherings were concerned – attested by a multitude of other sources[6]– is described by Phyllis Harrop who was asked, ‘Would you be embarrassed to be seen in a public place with a Chinese?’[7]

 My point is not to excoriate the racism of the dead, nor do I write with the slightest sense of superiority, but to record the facts. Elsewhere on this blog I’ll try to show the change in the attitudes of the British community towards other races that were brought about by the shared experience of war and suffering.

 The article moves on to a picture of racial equality at the cinema, the racecourse and on the sports field, and then to a dramatic conclusion:

 YES, the Japs may go on releasing their bomb loads and their anti-British leaflets. But I’m betting my bottom dollar that the Chinaman in our Hong Kong garrison will be as tough in its defence as he has proved on his own mainland these past four years.

 And I ought to know. I was born and brought up in Hong Kong. My father has lived there over forty years. My mother is one of the very few British women who still remain in this beleaguered island fortress.

 Esme Harston

On page 8 there is a report of the fighting:

JAPANESE forces were last night bombarding Hong Kong with land artillery and warplanes.

But outside Canton, which the Chinese are attacking to ease pressure on Hong Kong, the Japanese have been forced to retire from some of their positions.

At the same time, a savage Chinese attack is making progress in the Samsui area, north of Hong Kong.

British troops are being withdrawn from Kowloon, on the mainland, to Hong Kong, it was stated authoritatively in London yesterday.

The Japanese are using very, powerful land, air and sea forces, but the British front lines are now less vulnerable to attacks and are better protected by artillery and planes. They extend now along the world-famous water-front facing the mainland, where the Japanese have captured 300 square miles of the leased territories.

Japan claimed that Fort Moh Sing Ling at Hong Kong had been destroyed

Rearguard Action

The Japanese have got little, however, for the British destroyed everything that could possibly be of use to the Japanese.

After fighting with the utmost gallantry a slow rearguard action and inflicting terrible punishment on the Japanese, the British forces, including Scots, Canadians and Indians, strengthened with 2,000 local defence volunteers, are now digging in on the island in accordance with plans laid down as far back as August, 1938.

The British womenfolk are remaining on the island. All have been conscripted into the nursing services and there is an unending supply of Chinese volunteer labour.

A glance over at the Express reveals a thoughtful page 1 article:


Hongkong, besieged and under shellfire

last night, sent this radio to London:



Express Military Reporter MORLEY RICHARDS

 FROM besieged Hongkong, shelled all day from short range and bombed without respite, this message was

flashed last n i g h t : ” We all thank you most sincerely for your heartening message. We intend to do our best.”

The message came from Hongkong’s Governor, 54-year-old Sir Mark Young . In reply to Mr Churchill’s message ‘We are all with you’.

 Tokyo radio yesterday predicted that the fate of Hongkong would be “decided in a matter of days”

 The Express is more realistic than the Mirror about the prospects of relief from the Chinese Army:

 Marshal Chiang Kai-shek’s offensive in the Canton area, though gaining ground, is still a long way from directly affecting Hongkong’s besiegers. It is directed more to harassing the enemy’s flanks.

 The paper reports that the Japanese are occupying Kowloon and predicts (wrongly of course) that they’ll try to take Hong Kongby siege and bombardment rather than direct assault:

 The enemy can draw on heavy reserves free from interruption and may decide that his best plan is to blast the garrison into submission while attempting a strict blockade to produce eventual starvation. Frontal assault would inevitably mean staggering losses to the Japs, and not necessarily success.

 There is an optimistic assessment of the Colony’s water supply now that the reservoirs have been captured. It seems to me that the Express is doing well at trying to be both informative and upbeat. This is going to be an increasingly difficult task.

[1] Phillip Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, 74-75.

[2] Escape From The Blooded Sun, 39.

[3] The Fall of Hong Kong, 370.

[5] John M. Carroll, A Concise History of Hong Kong, 119.

[6] Gerald Horne’s Race War! gleefully assembles evidence of the racism of pre-warHong Kong and suggests ways in which it helped weaken the colony in the case of the Japanese.

[7] Hong Kong Incident, 61.


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