1941 Hong Kong : the Harrison Forman Collection of photos

Submitted by David on Thu, 09/11/2008 - 09:00

I was very excited when I stumbled across the collection of photographer Harrison Forman. There are over 300 photographs taken in Hong Kong in 1941!

It is very diffcult to find photos from this period, as it was just before the Japanese invaded in December 1941. Much of Hong Kong's photographic record was destroyed during the fighting and the years of hardship that followed.

The result is that if you go searching for photos of this time, the same few turn up again and again. But I don't recognise any of these! Although the photos are very well indexed, and the website is easy to use, I think they are hidden from Google, and so have kept a low profile.

The records give the year of the photos as 'circa 1941', but don't give any more exact date. I guess he must have stayed in Hong Kong until fairly late in the year. Some of the photos show buildings with sandbags piled up outside, so they certainly knew that trouble was coming. After a bit more searching, we think they were taken during Sep - Nov 1940, and in Sep 1941.

The photos themselves are good quality, as Forman was a professional photographer. Of immediate interest to me are over 20 photos of Air Raid Tunnels in various stages of construction. So that immediately more than doubles the number of photos of the subject I've been able to find. But the photos cover all topics and areas of Hong Kong, so I think anyone with an interest in 1940s Hong Kong will find them well worth a visit.

Here are the photos Harrison Forman took in Hong Kong in 1941.

The collection is part of the American Geographical Society Library collection, held at the University of Wisconsin. Here is their description of the collection:

The Harrison Forman Photo Collection contains over 3,800 prints and over 300 negatives. This is a fraction of the total Forman collection, sized at 98,000 images, most of which are in 35mm slide format. While the geographical coverage between the slides and photo collections is similar, the photo collection contains Forman’s early work including his Tibet imagery, the Sino-Japanese War, Chinese Civil War, the Henan Famine, and the Blitzkrieg of Poland.


Submitted by
OldTimer (not verified)
Sat, 09/13/2008 - 14:14

O, 1941, it was the best of time and the worst of time (sorry Dickens). My parents got married and looked forward to their bright future. Three days later, Japan invaded Hong Kong and turned people's life there up side down.
With these photos, I reach back to those poignant days but can only imagine; for they show the people my parents saw and walked by, the streets they walked on, and the buildings they would have touched.

Submitted by
OldTimer (not verified)
Sat, 09/13/2008 - 14:17

Impressive memory and methodical notes,thanks Moddsey.
Photo 245: I can't find Luard Road on the map so I wonder if it is the junction of Landale and Johnston. Somewhere and likely at this location, I saw similar types of stores, exterior signs, and the rarely-found blocked-up half-walls by the curb.
Photo 61 and others: That track and the iron gates survived a long time. About two decades later, I walked past them to take an American President liner for America.
Photo 277: Though not as impressive as the one on the Kowloon side, the clock here and the huge half-circle glass window bring back warm memory.
Several photos on the web page list them as parade, when they were in fact funeral processions. I remember in the old days, the more money you spend, the more bands you can hire and more workers to carry the flowers. The scaffolding outside one building was used to carry out the coffin, as either it was more ceremonial, or the stairs were not wide enough.

Old Timer you are right. Photos 245 and 250 would be at the triangular junction of Landale St, Johnston Rd and Hennessy Rd near the area of Tai Fut Hau (DaibutsU). It used to be a well-known area of Japanese curio and antique shops.

Photo 241 is Johnston Rd looking east towards Luard Rd and Ship St. The pawn shop building at the corner still stands and has been renovated by the the Urban Renewal Authority. It is leased to a restaurant called of things "The Pawn"!

The 'Load' here in #173 & #174 was a coffin, what we Cantonese called it the four and a half pieces (四塊半).  It's actually made out of five huge pieces of wood, being chopped into the correct size by workers by axes.

The American Asiatic Underwriters (Asia Life) Building stood on Queen's Rd Central at the corner with Zetland Street. It was later known as the American International Building. Note the Parisian Grill, next door which was an up-market fine-dining restaurant in its day.

Submitted by
moddsey (not verified)
Mon, 09/22/2008 - 09:53

In reply to by moddsey (not verified)

The National City Bank of New York, forerunner to Citi Bank stood on Queen's Rd Central between Ice House and Duddell Streets. Battery Path can be seen in the background.

They have helped clear up a little mystery.

Some time ago I received an email suggesting there were Air Raid Shelters dug under Southorn Playground. It seemed a bit unlikely to me, but I'd filed it away at the back of my mind.

Then on Monday I spent some time in the HK Museum Resource center, browsing their old photos. Photo P87.19 is titled: "Air raid shelter at Johnston Road, Wanchai", and someone has added the note "(today's Southorn playground)". The photo shows the mouth of a tunnel under construction, and it is clearly the same tunnel shown in Forman's photos 2 & 3.

So I guess other people have seen photo P87.19 over the years, and the story that there was a shelter at Southorn Playground  gradually becomes accepted as a fact. The tunnel in the photo was actually dug into a hillside, and so obviously wasn't at Southorn (which is on reclaimed land). However maybe the description of it being in Wanchai adds to the idea it was  one of the tunnels from network 3?

The photo itself looks like it came from a book, magazine, or newspaper. The caption under the photo is in English, together with the name 'Tien Hsia'. Does anyone recognise that as the name of a photographer or publisher?

Tien Hsia is the Mandarin pronunciation of 天下, it is the name of a Chinese magazine.

Moddsey sent an email while the site was down:

If you look closely at photo 116, I think those structures (pen shelters?) ringing (although not completely) Sothorn Playground suggest perhaps there were indeed shelters there. Forman's photo was to show the structures in the foreground rather of the Playground itself.

Well spotted! They are definitely pen shelters. If you zoom in to the shelter wall just to the right of thtree in the foreground, you can see the words 'shelter' and 'persons', just the same as the shelter in this photo.

Any guesses which direction we're looking in this photo? I'm guessing it's looking across the playground to the junction of Luard and Hennessy Roads.

And I wonder if it was taken from a tram? The photo is taken looking slightly down onto the shelter roofs, and it could be part of the same tram journey where he took photo 241.

Raymond, thanks for the info on Tien Hsia. If anyone ever spots the original photo, I'd be interested to know in which book / magazine it was published.

MrB,you have to read it from the mircrofilm in the Hong Kong Central Library.You can ask someone who can read chinese to help you.
Or,I scan the news article later this week and e-mail it to you.

Well, the mystery is not cleared up after all. Raymond Lo has kindly sent along these two clippings from local Chinese-language newspapers. Both are dated 31 Aug 1940:

Tunnels under Southorn - clipping
Tunnels under Southorn - clipping

MrsB translated them (they are basically the same, so I guess there was a Government statement they are referring to), and I made these notes. Feel free to correct them!

  • There are plans to build more Air Raid Shelters.
  • The first will be on the Eastern side of Southorn playground, to hold up to 200 people.
  • It will be underground, and the layout will be like two E-shapes connected together.
  • It will be 20 ft deep, cover 800 sq ft, and have top & side walls 3 ft thick.
  • You'll enter via a slope down to a 6-ft wide entrance. 
  • There are air ventilation pipes located at entrance, that led up to the open air. They can be sealed in case of gas attack.

So, did they ever progress beyond these announced plans? Or did the cheaper, easier to build pen shelters in the photo replace them?

I wondered if the English papers would cover the same story. I checked the HK Telegraph for 29-31 Sep, but there is no mention of this.


T & Raymond, thanks for the extra info. There's a piece on page 12 of the 8-Sep-1940 HK Sunday Herald that talks about the plans for air raid shelters on HK Island:

The proposals of Government are, of necessity, dependent on finance, and involve the construction of large numbers of concrete pen shelters in open spaces and wide roads; the boring of tunnels to be converted into air raid shelters; the construction of trench shelters in open spaces; the blocking up of spaces between pillars on the ground floors of buildings; and the division of the Island into "shelter areas."

So I wonder if these underground shelters at Southorn are an example of the 'trench shelters'?


Hi there,

I found a map showing a draft of location for sand bags, Air Raid Shelters/Trench Shelters here:


Please take a look at photo 031.  The map was drawn entirely in Chinese, but you could still have an idea.  I'll if I could get you an English overlay later.

Best Regards,



Hi T,

I'm afraid that most of the pictures, if not all, in the link that you mentioned, are copied from the book by 高添強, "香港 日佔時期", 1995, ISBN 962 04 1254 0.

What makes it worse is, the illustration of the soldier on the right, is from the book by Mike Chappell, "The Canadian Army at War", 1985, ISBN 0 85045 600 2.  It also appears in "香港 日佔時期".



Hi there,

I have not read the two books you mentioned so it would be difficult for me to identify them when I first bumped onto the link.  Just checked the www.hytd.com domain and the whois record is a bit murky.......... Traceroute at DNSStuff.com showed the site is very likely to be behind firewalls, sort of unable to trace.

Thanks for pointing it out, however.

Best Regards,


Hi T,

I would be surprised if those people could have access to HM government's archives.  Indeed, some of the pictures are very obvious, post #199 "return of the governor Sir Mark Young", tables in post #62 & #73... all are scanned from the book.

Sometimes, I would get excited when unearthing a new site, espcially if the information is original.  But, it does not go perfect everytime.

"香港 日佔時期" is still available from good book stores, "The Canadian Army at war" is currently out of print.

高添強, needs no further introduction.

Mike Chappell is a renowned author & illustrator on military subjects.  He has his own publishing house: Wessex Military Publishing.



Harrison Forman was my gramma Ida's brother, and my great uncle. They had another brother Ben, who died in the great influenza epidemic, and a sister, Rose and another brother Joe.  I vividly recall meeting "Uncle Harry" as a young child, and he had a presence that was larger than life.  My mother said that even as young man he was restless to see the world, and was always more comfortable traveling than at home in Milwaukee, Wi.  I became close with his wife Sandra Carlyle in her later years, and at that time she was seeking a permanent home for his photo collection.  It was very important to her that it be spiritually correct as well as historically correct.   I met his daughter, Brenda, my mother's first cousin, and she was very strong and brilliant like her Dad.  Although he left humanity the legacy of his photos, there was also a price to pay for his wife and daughter, who had a world wandering husband/father.   I still have a lovely silk skirt from China that had belonged to my mother from her uncle Harrison.  

Just been through the lot.  Absolutely amazing photos.

The extra photos do give better dates as to when HF was in Hong Kong as seen from movie posters and headline news. Nice pictures of the Bowrington Canal air raid sheters, the hollow (Mimi Lau) blocks, more street scenes and the downed Mitusbishi MC 21 that crashed on the Kwanti Racecourse on 5 September 1940.

David - it would be wonderful if the new photos could be added to Gwulo.

The aircraft that crashed at Kwangti racecourse was actually a German built Junkers Ju86 of Manchukuo Airlines (MKKK) ie Manchurian, operating for the Japanese army. Three of these aircraft had set out from Taiwan for Canton but this one crashed in Hong Kong. Two of the crew were hospitalised for 3 and 4 weeks. The wreck was taken by rail to Kowloon and shipped on the 'Heiyo Maru' back to Dairen. MKKK had several JU86s that had been acquired in a barter arrangement with Germany for soya beans. The picture caption for this aircraft wreck in the book Wings over Hong Kong that identifies it as a Mitsibishi MC21 is incorrect. Something that was known shortly after the book went to print but impossible to correct unless it is republished.  

In one of the related pictures of the crash can be seen the young Hei Kei Watt who in 1935 was the first Chinese aircraft ground engineer graduating in Hong Kong. He later rose to become the Principal of the Far East Flying & Technical Training School at Kai Tak until his retirement in the 1980s.  


Hi, yes I contacted them when we uploaded the earlier batch, and we have the ok to show them here. (They're shown here, but the images are displayed from the University's servers, ie we don't copy any of their files.)

If you'd like to add the newly added photos here so we can identify them, these instructions should still work.

Regards, David

With the expanded photo collection, the probable reference locations on page one are no longer correct. I suggest to delete them.  Updates to the photos are currently being made.

Thanks Moddsey, you're doing a great job adding in these photos.

I've hidden that earlier 'probable reference locations' comment as you suggested.

I've got an idea why these photos are all square shaped instead of the proper rectangle, and will take a look at fixing that over the next week or so.

Regards, David

David -Looks like the HF Photo Archive has gone through a revamp. The photos that were added previously and cross-referenced do not appear anymore on gwulo. Plus the reference URL that was near the title of each photo is no longer there.

Ouch. The connection to the original copy is still there, but there's no obvious way to show the photo. I'm not sure what's the best workaround - any suggestions?

Regards, David

Unfortunately, no. At least, I haven't heard back from UWM, and I can't see any easy way to display an image from its reference URL.

I have been thinking about how to handle these. My current plan is to convert them to ordinary 'Image' pages, but move the reference url into the text. That still won't show the photo, but at least it will keep all the notes and make it more obvious how to click through to the UWM site.

For the best photos it will be possible to download a copy from the UWM site and upload it to the Gwulo page so it displays again.

Not the best solution, but that's the best I've been able to think of. It's on the to-do list, but still 2 - 3 months away.

Regards, David