An Indian Company in Occupied Hong Kong: The Abdoolally Ebrahim Group

This post can be read with footnotes at http://brianwedgar.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/an-indian-company-in-occupied-hong.html

In my last post I discussed the resistance activities of BAAG agent William White, one of which was listening to the news on a secret radio at the request of Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation banker Luis Souza. Souza himself was given a 15 year sentence (reduced to 10 years some time in 1944) for listening to a radio with fellow HKSBC employee Charles Hyde (for Hyde’s wide-ranging resistance work and eventual execution see https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2012/04/20/charles-hydes-resistance-work/).

I don’t know how many radios the HKSBC staff had, but I’ve recently learnt that one of them – perhaps the only one – was hidden in the headquarters of the Abdoolally Ephraim company, Abdoollaly House at 20 Stanley Street (Central).

The Abdoollaly Ebrahim group, which deals in textiles and other commodities, is one of the oldest companies in Hong Kong, its origins going back to the year after the Colony’s founding in 1841. It now claims to be the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation’s oldest client.

Involvement with radios was probably the most dangerous thing of all in occupied Hong Kong: it led to the torture and execution of courageous men in the POW camps, in Stanley and in the city itself.

Early in the occupation the administration decreed that all radios in town should be handed in to an authorized technician to have the short wave section removed – ‘castrated’ was the popular word – so that they could not pick up Allied broadcasts from London or Chungking. Some people hid their sets and continued to listen, as they were desperate to get reasonably accurate news of the progress of the war. This doesn’t seem to have been too much of a problem in 1942, but in 1943 and again after the D Day landings in June 1944, possession of such sets were to have dreadful consequences. It seems that Hyde and Souza were amongst those who kept an intact radio and, realising that it was too dangerous to hide it in the bankers’ hotel (the Sun Wah) they asked their clients and perhaps friends at 20, Stanley Street to keep it for them.

The Abddoolally Ebrahim Company also lent money to the bankers for much-needed food and medicine to be sent into Stanley and the POW camps. Hiding the radio meant death if it was discovered, but even making a loan was dangerous – a Turkish restaurant owner and his wife were brutally tortured after incriminating documents were discovered. A quick thinking Abdoolally employee ate a promissory note from HKSBC man Hugo Foy when he realised the Kempeitai were entering the premises. The account book kept by the HKSBC ‘cashier’ S. Perry-Aldworth survived the war – hidden in the roof of the Chinese banker Ho Wing – and settlement was made after liberation on the basis of these records, so hopefully the fact that the original note was no longer available made no difference!

A letter to the company’s Bombay office dated September 25, 1945 implies that a number of staff members experienced ‘life under Gendarmes in a cell’ but singles out ‘Mr Saleh’ as having spent 17 months in Stanley Prison. I believe this to be Saleh C. Ebrahim, who became a BAAG operative in 1944. His code name was Shanghai Taipan (the firm had an office in Shanghai) and his agent number was 130. He joined the resistance network during 1943 at the same time as George Samuel Ladd (‘Fat Boy Next Door’, number 128) who was probably Eurasian, and they formed part of ‘K’ Group alongside Jimmy Kotwall (number 120), who certainly was.

When the three of them agreed to work as a group, Kotwall was the one who was responsible for actual contacts with Waichow. This was in April or May 1943, and the three courageous men were joining the resistance at a time when many of its existing agents were being rounded-up by the Kempeitai. One of those arrested was George Kotwall, Jimmy’s brother, who was executed on October 29, 1943.

Using code, the team sent a wide variety of intelligence to BAAG Field HQ at Waichow, detailing, for example, the movement of ships through Hong Kong harbour, damage caused by American bombing, conditions at Stanley, and the activities of the pro-Japanese Indian Independence League – it seems safe to assume that Mr. Ebrahim gathered the information about the League. Confirmation that they were sending valuable intelligence came in an early reply from Waichow: ‘Good work carry on along same lines’.

All went well until December 1943 when a Chinese agent they’d been working with failed to return to Hong Kong from Waichow. The agent remained missing until February 1944 when he arrived in Hong Kong with an unconvincing explanation of his long absence and it seems that he had betrayed the group to the Japanese, as they were all arrested on March, 26, 1944 and at one point in their interrogation confronted with the message that the agent had been taking to Waichow when he disappeared – he had claimed to have swallowed it when arrested by the Japanese on suspicion. Mr. Ladd’s questioning took place at the Happy Valley Gendarmerie, and it’s likely but not certain that Mr. Ebrahim’s did too. Brutal interrogation put the Japanese in possession of the full details of the group’s work.

After 38 days, the Gendarmes had finished with them, so they were handed over to the military authorities at Stanley Prison on May 3, 1944. They were kept there in great suspense, twice being called for questioning by a military attorney. On August 29 they were tried by a military tribunal, and Jimmy Kotwall was sentenced to death. Mr Ladd and Mr. Ebrahim received sentences of eight years, while a Chinese associate, Lau King Sing, was sent to prison for three. Mr. Kotwall was executed two days later, and Mr Lau died in the prison hospital on September 4, 1944. The two survivors were released on August 23, 1945.

I can find no indication of what happened to Mr. Ebrahim after the war, but George Samuel Ladd remained in Hong Kong and gave evidence at war crimes trials. He’s described as an accountant in the list of witnesses.

I’ve seen a number of references to the activities of Indian men and women in relief and resistance, but far too little is known about them at the moment– the heroism of Captain Mateen Ansari is well-documented, and some material is available relating to the work of the Ruttonjee family, but I suspect that what I have so far managed to uncover about the contribution of the Abdoollaly Ebrahim group is part of a much wider story both in relation to the Group itself and to the community they were part of.

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