In most of the Western literature concerning the battle of Hong Kong, 99% focuses on the actions involving the British and Canadian forces. The role played by the local Chinese in the war effort remains a mystery to the majority, with only very few academics and historians having significant knowledge. Due to the limited space within the Osprey’s Campaign Series 263: Hong Kong 1941-45- First strike of the Pacific War, there was only time for a brief introduction on the roles played by the local Chinese in the 1941-45 war. This article provided me with the opportunity to elaborate more on the subject and give credit to these unnamed heroes.
As Shanghai and other cities gradually fell to the Japanese, the role of Hong Kong as a gateway to China’s war effort became increasingly important. In the early 1930s as the Sino-Japanese war progressed, more and more key Chinese institutions began relocating to Hong Kong. Banks, trading houses and even the government departments had offices in the colony. It began as a trickle but the fall of Shanghai to the Japanese in 1937 turned it into a tsunami. Not wanting to be left out, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also established a liaison office in Hong Kong, under the guise of “Canton China Tea Company” located at 1/F 18 Queen’s Road Central after obtaining permission from Ambassador of China Sir Archibald Clark Kerr. Appointed as head of missions was a Mr. Liao Chengzhi, a name that would play a big role in the East River Brigade movement. Liao, who was fluent in Japanese, went on to become a central figure of the Sino-Japanese relationship in the post war era and he was also the head of China’s New China News Agency, the official mouthpiece of the People’s Republic of China.
The disparity between the Chinese Nationalists and the Communists was startling. Backed by significant funds and resources, the Chinese Nationalists party (KMT) were able to openly recruit members in Hong Kong, using such innovative methods as the “member get member scheme” where upon the successful enrollment of new party member, the recruiter was entitled to a reward of 5 HK$ (A Catty of Rice (0.6 kg or 1.3 lbs) cost 0.15 HK$ in Dec 1941, compared to 6 HK$ for the same weight in 2014). The KMT membership in Hong Kong grew to in excess of ten thousand members. To put this in perspective, the total population of Hong Kong in 1941 was just 1.6 million. By comparison CCP memberships were in the lower hundreds, but the Communists were much better at mobilizing public support and played a significant role in carrying the fight to the Japanese doing what the Chinese Communists did best – in today’s language “Asymmetrical warfare”. In contrast, despite their numbers, the Nationalist members did very little to support the overall defense of Hong Kong during the 18 day war, and there were virtually no large scale sabotage/guerilla activities during the occupation era, with the exception of the exploits of Admiral Chan Chak and his small team.
As well as the resistance highlighted in Hong Kong 1941-45, many local Chinese also participated in and supported the defense of the colony – by joining locally raised units of the British Armed forces in all three service branches. Those joining the army could expect to be attached to the Hong Kong Chinese Regiment, Royal Engineers, Hong Kong Volunteers Defence Corp, Royal Artillery, Royal Army Service Corp, Royal Army Ordnance Corp or Royal Signals. The naval branches taking on Chinese volunteers at this time included the Royal Navy and Hong Kong Royal Navy Volunteer Reserves. The Royal Air Force too took on a number of Hong Kong residents. Those not drafted into armed service joined local support groups such as St. Johns Ambulances, Air Raid Precaution Wardens, police (auxiliary and reserve), fire fighters and a variety of governmental sponsored auxiliary services. These included the Communication Services, Civil Pay and Accounting, labour, Medical, Nursing, Ordnance, Quartering, Public Works, Supply, Transport, Rescue and Demolition and the NAAFI (Navy Army Air-Force Institute). Due to the strict necessity for volunteers to be bilingual, speaking both Chinese and English (as most if not all of the leaders of such organizations were British/European expatriates) participation in the war effort was largely limited to those few with higher education. As the fighting drew to an end, many of the Chinese members of the armed forces and the auxiliary uniformed bodies were told to disrobe, melt into the refugee pool and go home to find their families. Many who did went to mainland China with their families and quite a few went to join with either the BAAG or even further to British India to join the fight there alongside the British Army. This pool of Chinese soldiers was further reinforced the release of Chinese POWs in September 1942, less than a year after their internment which was part of the Japanese attempt to win the hearts and minds of the population.
One particularly famous group, made up of mainly army personnel but bolstered by some civilians, Police, ARPs and auxiliary services personnel, went on to form the Hong Kong Volunteer Company within the Chindits Second Expedition Force (which took place in the famous March 1944 Operation Thursday) under Brigadier Mike Calvert. Officially it was known as the 142 Company, 77th Indian Infantry Brigade. Its main roles were brigade HQ defence and overall support functions, and consequently various medical staff and veterinarians were also attached to the company. Before BAAG was founded, many who escaped to China had nothing to do; morale and discipline became a problem. Later, odd jobs were found and idle time was filled by training and guard duty for various British personnel institutions in “free” China. A proposal was made to send some of the men to India, but before that became official, many of them, bored from a lack of work, went by themselves to find jobs. Some went to serve with the 14th Air Force, others to British organizations; in the end less than 200 went to India. Finally, 127 men volunteered for service with what was to become Hong Kong Volunteer Company. Of these 127 volunteers, 40 were found to have no formal military training, 13 were from the Hong Kong Chinese Regiment, 32 were regular army from the Royal Artillery, 31 were ex- Royal Engineers, and 11 served with HKVDC.
1 Chindits Standard laid up in Litchfield Cathedral in 2009. Hong Kong Volunteer Company is featured on the RHS column third from bottom.
Nine Hong Kong Chinese served with another section of the Chindits as part of the DAH Force under Lt-Col. D.C. ‘Fish’ Herring. This force consisted of 74 men; Herring, his second in command, Captain Lazum Tang and ten Kachins of the 2nd Burma Rifles, Major Kennedy of the Poona Horse, Captain Nimmo of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, a 19-strong detachment from the Royal Corps of Signals under Captain Treckman, a 27-strong defense platoon from the South Stafford Regiment under Captain Railton, a demolitions expert, Sgt Cockling, an American liaison officer, Captain Sherman P. Joost and lastly, Private Williams, a medic who looked after the sick and the wounded.
The Chindits were disbanded in the beginning of 1945 and this, Hong Kong’s band of brothers, was split up. In 1946 many eventually returned to Hong Kong leaving behind their new homes and lives, and some even found jobs within the garrison, but by 1948 most if not all decided to return to civilian life.
The East River Column (ERC) Force was another facet of the Chinese resistance force in the Sino-Japanese War that is largely unknown to the West, whose origins and notable actions are covered in Hong Kong 1941-45. Undoubtedly the most remarkable activity of the ERC was the daring rescue and aid in E&E of Allied POWs. Unofficial estimates state that the ERC rescued 111 non-Chinese POWs from Japanese captivity: 42 British (including Lt. Col Lindsey Ride, who went on to found the British Army Aid Group -BAAG), 54 Indians, 3 Danes, 2 Norwegians, 1 Filipino, and 8 downed US airmen. They were also pivotal in the rescue of over 800 members of the Chinese social elites (literary figures, actors etc.) who were sheltering in Hong Kong after fleeing the war in China when the Japanese attacked in 1941.
A few key persons in the ERC played a critical role in these rescues. Raymond Wong was one, and he has the distinction of being the only Chinese Communist Party member ever to be awarded the MBE for “services to the Forces during military operations in South-East Asia prior to 2nd Sept 1945”, on 27th June 1947. Raymond was one of the few in the ERC that spoke fluent English and because of this he was tasked with liaison work, acting as a crucial bridge between Chinese and foreign forces. Raymond and his father, with assistance from the BAAG, established a General Store by the name of Guang Heng in Shamshuipo Portland Street as a front for his ERC activities. After the War, Wong went on to establish the New China Agency (NCA) in London and later transferred back to Hong Kong in 1949 to head the organisation from there. Tragically, Wong was mistakenly killed in an air crash on April 11th 1955, by Nationalist Chinese spies who placed a time bomb on the Lockheed L-749A Constellation (known as the "Kashmir Princess") he was travelling in. The target of the assassination was the Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, who was attending the Asia-Afro Bandung Conference in Indonesia. Zhou had switched planes at the last minute.
Another notable ERC member was Yuan Geng, a rare asset to the ERC because of his formal military training. Yuan had been an officer cadet in the Nationalist Army but quickly became disillusioned and left to join the Communist camp. Yuan became a key leader in the ERC and was assigned as a personal guard to Zeng Sheng, the head of the organisation, as well as a number of downed US airmen. Yuan was a formidable fighter and became something of a legend: his feats well remembered by those whom he helped to rescue. In 1987, more than forty years after World War Two, a special ceremony was held by the US Consulate in Hong Kong at which Yuan was the guest of honour. Yuan therefore has the somewhat ironic honour of being the member of the ERC most celebrated and praised by the Americans. In the 5 telegrams that the US military sent to the ERC during the war, Yuan was personally named and commended for his actions in three . Yuan was also a key negotiator with Admiral Harcourt after the conflict had ceased, and played an important part in highlighting the role of the ERC during the war. Indirectly, his lobbying eventually made James Callaghan MP raise the issue of compensation for ERC resistance fighters and their families in the British Parliament in London. To coordinate the aid, Yuan established an ERC office on the second and third floors of 174 Nathan Road in Kowloon. This place eventually became the Miramar Hotel, a name that still stands in Hong Kong today, albeit in a modern building. Later in life Yuan became the head of the Hong Kong Branch of the China Merchant Group, a large Chinese commercial / industrial listed corporation at the heart of the Shenzhen special economic zone. In the space of ten years, Yuan turned this 120 million RMB business into a 200 billion RMB commercial giant.
Last but not least are two very important members of the ERC, the first one being LIU Pei who almost single-handedly established the ERC's marine branch. More than half of the escaping POWs went by sea at one stage of their escape and Liu’s boat was paramount in making these escapes possible. Besides fighting the Japanese, Liu also fought pirates that were common in the seas of Hong Kong at that time. By tackling these threats the force gained popular support from farmers and fisher folk, without which the ERC, like any guerilla force with strong ties to the local geography and community, would not have survived (they used Sai Kung, the eastern part of the New Territories as their “home base”). While Liu was the main leader of the marine force it was Liu Jinjin, better known as “black boy Liu”, who became the ERC's most formidable operator on the land. Liu excelled in conducting raids deep into occupied Hong Kong, and due to his small stature often disguised himself as a female in order to infiltrate Japanese Camps and offices to conduct raids. One particular raid, blowing up the railway bridge between Kowloon and Kai Tak Airport, became widely known as the work of “Black Boy Liu”. Liu Jinjin was able to survive the war and lived to participate in the last stages of the Chinese civil war, including the epic Huai Hai Campaign. Liu Pei lived until 2002 but “Black Boy Liu” was killed in a shootout with Nationalist Forces after the war. His deeds were not forgotten however, and in 2009 the sons of USAAF pilot Flight Lt. Donald Kerr, Donald Jr and Andy laid a wreath at the grave of “Black Boy Liu” for his role in saving their father while he was escaping from the Japanese.
Although few in number and constantly starved of resources, the ERC made significant contributions to the war. Both the British and Americans praised their deeds, and the ERC/ CCP was the preferred partner of the Allies during the Second World War, and even a year after, ahead of the Chinese Nationalist party (KMT). It was only when the Cold War descended, causing the split between East and West, marking out “Red” China as the opponent, that the name of the ERC came to be buried for 50 years."