Monthly Archives: January 2016

Towards a Theory of Collaboration and Resistance: Some Preliminary Reflections


As far as I know, only one member of the defeated British community in Hong Kong refused to collaborate with the Japanese:

Marius Livingstone [real name: Lionel Lammert]…was a stiff, proud young fellow….After the surrender, a Jap officer had accosted him in the street and commanded him to bow in passing. Livingstone refused. The officer insisted. A group of Chinese looked on from a safe distance. Livingstone tried to pass by but the Jap held him back with his sword. “You bow. You bow,” the little man shouted, jumping up and down in rage. The pale young Englishman stood still, looking lazily at the Jap. Then he said very slowly, “You go straight to hell. I’ll never bow to a dirty little bugger like you.”

“I give you to count to ten. You no bow, I kill you.” The Jap waved his sword frenziedly. “I chop off your head.”

Livingstone lit a cigarette and leaned against the building looking disdainfully at his antagonist.

The Jap began to count. “One-two-three-” At the count of ten, Livingstone had not moved. He was smiling faintly. The Jap looked about and saw the solemn, averted gaze of the Chinese. He raised his sword and with a single terrific blow brought it down on the Englishman’s neck. The sword completely severed the neck. The head fell off. The body was supported for a few moments against the building, it fell slowly forward. Blood spurted from the neck drenching the Jap. Very slowly the Chinese walked away.[1]

That account was written by repatriated American Wenzell Brown. In his memoir of the war [Hong Kong Aftermath], Brown was already honing the skills that would lead to his transformation from university lecturer to popular novelist – the book is gripping because Brown made much of it up! Nevertheless, other sources confirm that something like this story of defiance and execution did indeed take place.[2]

This case of the courageous Lionel Lammert, who refused a single act of collaboration and sent a signal of resistance to others (the watching Chinese), underlines a simple fact: after a surrender, everyone collaborates. Take one of my heroes as an example –  Charles Hyde, an HSBC banker who remained uninterned in 1942 and 1943. Hyde was a benchmark of resistance: I don’t think I’ve found a single type of illegal relief work, espionage or other covert operation he didn’t have a hand in. But most of the time he collaborated. When he walked around Hong Kong, he bowed to the guards at the many Japanese check-points – we know this because if he hadn’t, sooner or later he’d have ended up like Lammert. Unless his experience was unique, he was sometimes searched, given orders, told to wait – the same reasoning tells us he obeyed.

My intention of course is not to criticise in any way this remarkable man. He was one of the first characters from the Hong Kong war I heard about; my father was changed for life by the experience of being with Hyde’s wife on October 29, 1943 when her husband was executed close to Stanley Internment Camp. The Japanese never discovered all the ‘illegal’ things Hyde had been doing, but they extorted enough through torture to make his execution, from their point of view, imperative. My father rarely spoke about his time in the war, but he did tell me about the death of Charles Hyde.

These days it’s a cliché for historians – both of the European and Pacific wars – to tell us that we must go beyond a simple (and moralistic) opposition between ‘collaborators’ (bad) and ‘resisters’ (good).

In a thesis on the role of the Chinese elites in occupied Hong Kong and Singapore, C. Y. Wong distinguishes ‘unconditional’, ‘tactical’,  ‘conditional’  and ‘passive’ collaboration.[3] Looking at the other term of the binary, one group of historians, writing about the German Occupation of the Channel Islands, has divided things up into the categories of ‘protest’, ‘defiance’ and ‘resistance’ and stressed that it’s wrong to focus excessively on ‘the military value of resistance’.[4] In any case, most people in the Channel Islands and elsewhere in occupied Europe, formed, they believe, a ‘muddled majority’ who didn’t fall neatly into the categories of ‘resisters’ or ‘collaborators’.[5] Others distinguish ‘collaboration’ (necessary to stay alive and avoid punishment) from ‘collaborationism’ (helping the occupier out of ideological sympathy).

All this is welcome and provides plenty of useful ways for looking at the actions of the people (of all nationalities and ethnicities) both inside and outside the camps during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. But the case of Lionel Lammert shows that after the surrender there were in fact three and only three choices: speedy death, collaboration, or collaboration with some resistance as well.

This means that collaboration in occupied Hong Kong requires no special explanation other than the human desire to stay alive in most circumstances- and not everyone who refused to carry out such an elementary act as refusing to bow to a Japanese officer (and thus to signal submission to the new order) would have been certain of a relatively speedy death. Or could have died feeling confident their relatives would remain unmolested.

All the debates about why the Chinese and Eurasian elites, for example, generally chose to work with the Japanese are beside the point: Were they badly treated by the British? Did they fail to develop a ‘patriotic’ Chinese outlook because they were provincially focused on Hong Kong? Did they fall for Japanese ‘Asia for the Asiatics’ propaganda? Or is a Marxist interpretation in order – perhaps they simply acted according to their economic interests?

Such questions can add to our understanding, but only if they’re seen to concern strictly subsidiary issues. They collaborated because if they hadn’t what happened to the courageous and principled Lionel Lammert would have happened to them. No doubt less visible forms of resistance than Lammert’s were possible, and most people in occupied Hong Kong got away with what they could. But, in the final analysis, those who didn’t do what the Japanese wanted them to – whether it was turn up to work at the docks or to play  a part in running Hong Kong – faced starvation even if they avoided imprisonment and death.

But why did some people resist as well? Given the hideous risks? And why, when one lot of European resisters had been arrested in the spring of 1943 did a second ‘cohort’ of Europeans step forward, knowing they were likely to meet the same fate? Why did any Chinese defy the Japanese when they were well aware that, if captured, their treatment would be worse than that meted out to the ‘whites’?

These are the real questions posed by the occupation. While it’s possible to suggest many kinds of social, political and psychological motivations that might have contributed to these decisions, I have come to suspect that such questions are unanswerable.


[1] Wenzell Brown, Hong Kong Aftermath, 1943, 75-76.

[2] George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 94.

[3] Cheuk Yin Wong, The Politics of Collaboration, 2010, 6-10. (

[4] Gilly Carr, Paul Sanders, Louise Wilmot, Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands‘, Kindle Edition, 2014, Location 296.

[5] Carr et. al., Location 383.

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