Harry Ching's wartime diary: View pages | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

Harry Ching's wartime diary: View pages

Very early this morning the telephone rang. Bill O'Neill, Reuter's Hongkong manager, a lovable, happy Irishman. "The balloon's gone up," he said quietly. "They'll be here for breakfast."

I heard the youngsters moving in their room. I called to them, "No school to-day." Then I telephoned the Headmistress and told her the bad news. "Yes'" she replied resignedly, "Perhaps they had better not come to school to-day. I suppose things will be a little disorganised for a while."

The invaders came for breakfast as Bill had predicted, and we had our first air-raid alarm. I drove myself to work as usual. Explosions and big smoke across the Harbour at Kai Tak. People hurried purposefully about. They were shopping - and I realised that the hoarders were busy. More alarming, such shops as had opened were closing again; the shutters going up everywhere. I telephoned my wife and she rushed to a department store, where she managed to get some tinned stuff, including a small case of Australian beef.

Shell-fire drew us to the office windows in Wyndham Street, to gape at half a dozen planes high over the west end of the Harbour, gleaming yellow in the pale sun. Our first thrilling sight of puffs of flack. It wasn't very accurate, didn’t go high enough and, though one plane turned away, the intruders were not incommoded. No defending fighter planes went up - there was none.

Nerves were tightening. People from Kowloon crowded the ferries to Hongkong, and the evening communique warned, "Members of the public are advised that it is safer on the Kowloon peninsula and that congestion in the crowded streets of Hongkong will inevitably lead to unnecessary casualties." Police were posted to the ferry wharf, and permits to cross became necessary.

A complete black-out tonight. A night unexpectedly quiet.

There was thankfully a heavy fog and drizzle to-day, which reduced visibility; but there were seven air raids. 

The rice shops closed. The Government ordered them to reopen. The rush to buy food continued, with prices rising steeply and shelves becoming mysteriously empty. There were complaints of shortage of currency. There were many $100 notes about, but the nimble tens and fives were scarce and the shops would change the large denominations only at a heavy discount. To help the poor, communal food kitchens have been opened everywhere.

The Chinese newspapers caused some hopeful excitement, announcing that Canton, lost to the Japanese in 1938, has been retaken!

Shattering news that the Royal Scots have been driven from the important Shing Mun Redoubt and Golden Hill, threatening collapse of the whole Gin Drinkers' Line. Also supply lines to the front line are breaking down. It is apparent that withdrawal from the mainland is imminent.

Except for some heavy long-range artillery bombardment the night is quiet, broken in Happy Valley only by the ping of a rifle bullet as a curfew breaker is chased home. The Japanese planes made no night raids.

The day dawned in an atmosphere of foreboding. 

The European police on the Island have been withdrawn from duty and sent over to Kowloon as militia. A volunteer police reserve is assisting in keeping order; but the Government's Chinese advisers reported an alarming fifth column plot to seize the Colony, and further precautions were taken. Admiral Chan Chak is the official representative in Hongkong of the Chinese Government. At the Hongkong Government's request he has organised a corps of street guards composed in part of Chinese refugee soldiery.

The position on the mainland has become hopeless, and Kowloon has had to be abandoned. The withdrawal commenced tonight, with an impressive artillery chorus providing background music. The telephone connection between Island and mainland remains unbroken. Our friends phoned us urgently and in whispers. Kowloon has become a no man's land. Bands of men, some in cars with flags flying, are appearing everywhere and boldly entering and ransacking the homes. In the foreign residential districts a few brave spirits armed with shotguns have tried to organise a resistance and to drive the marauders off, with mixed results.

A day of readjustment, alerts and nuisance shelling of the Island, without much damage. The communique announcing the withdrawal from the mainland declared, "We have retired within our fortress, and from the shelter of our main defences we will hold off the enemy until the strategical situation permits of relief."

Driving myself home at sunset I had my first taste of shell-fire. Two whistled and crashed in the Naval Dockyard as I dodged a military vehicle coming fast on the wrong side of the road. 

We are now besieged in our fortress - but we do not feel very impregnable. The Kowloon hills have become mysterious and menacing. Normally the friendly horizon, they are now the hostile limit of our mental vision. The gates of hope have closed, and beyond them is a receding universe. Claustrophobia lays a probing finger upon us.

The day closed in an atmosphere of tension and depression. I parked the car and removed the rotor arm as instructed. There will also be a fifth column on the Island. It is a fairly quiet night, enlivened by pistol and revolver shots as suspect prowlers are chased home; but about 11 p.m. a great explosion.

Uneventful. The reason became clear; the enemy are in full control of the mainland and hope to have no further trouble. They sent a peace mission over, to demand unconditional surrender - or else. The party of three Japanese officers came in a Yaumati ferry launch bearing at its bows a white sheet with the words "Peace Mission". One of the aides carried a small white flag on a stick. These signals were not immediately seen, and as the launch pulled out from Holt's Wharf at Kowloon it was fired upon but not hit.

The Governor replied that he was not prepared to enter into any conference or parley on the subject. Their demand having been rejected with formal contempt, the callers left after handshakes and salutes. There had been some muttering that in the hopeless circumstances Hongkong should never have been defended; but we are proud of our defiance. Resumption of shelling in the afternoon caused temporary suspension of the tram and bus services. The night deadly quiet.

Church services had a more than normally solemn atmosphere. There were heavy artillery exchanges throughout the day. There were signs that services were breaking down, and anxiety was expressed about the water supply. Supply is rationed and people are urged to conserve. The scavenging service is failing, and garbage is piling up everywhere in the streets where ever-individualistic householders are dumping it. Much of the Island is without flush closets, and the bucket removal service is made impossible by shelling in daylight and black-out at night. People are told to burn their rubbish and bury what will not burn. Thefts are increasing. Destitute and hungry laan tsai are snatching food in the streets.

There is still a shortage of currency, so Chinese notes got from the Bank of China were overprinted - HK$1 on Chinese $5. The food kitchens are functioning well, but serving only 100,000 people of a population of a million. Many rice shops have not obeyed the command to reopen, pleading no transport to deliver their supplies to them. The Government began selling rice from its stores, and free distribution to the poor was begun. The chemists were requested especially to resume trading. Other shops are open, doing a cautious business through their door grilles or portholes in their shutters. The fear of looters is intensifying.

The Government requisitioned all motor-cars, and private motoring has ceased. The shelling increased, the Naval Dockyard and battle headquarters area above it receiving much of the attention. It is now difficult to reach town through the barracks area, and I am permitted to remain at home and work by telephone.

The Japanese seen concentrating small craft in Kowloon Bay. They were shelled, and several were hit. The shelling continued through the night.

Heavy shelling again in the softening up of our waterfront. I am local stringer for The Times, London. We correspondents have religiously filed daily throughout the first week, but the pressure was heavy and few messages have reached our newspapers. A trying day, with a continuous showering of shells and bombs. Anxiety deepening by the hour; but morale still holding. Some of the cinema theatres are carrying on, with shows at noon and 2 p.m. subject to abandonment without notice. 

A Chinese newspaper, the Wah Kiu Yat Po, tendered to its readers some advice on "How to Comport Yourselves in the Street". According to the Wah Kiu, "Chinese wearing foreign clothes should not put both their hands into their trousers or coat pockets. Those wearing Chinese clothes should not put their hands into their sleeves or into the back of their gown when they walk. They should walk with their hands out hanging by their sides. The Police yesterday stopped many pedestrians and warned them of these factors."

A firewood racket was exposed and deplored. The poor are actually selling their free ration at a profit. Perhaps they know that soon there will be blackwood furniture to burn. Official notifications about food still envisage a long siege. In the defence preparations, siege rations had been got ready - for the last of our days, salt fish and hard biscuits made from powdered peanuts. The latter are now appearing. The Government urged people not to throw away the thin red skins of peanuts "which contain far more of the anti-beri beri and anti-pellagra vitamins than does Marmite or yeast". The population was chided, "It is unpatriotic and disloyal to eat more than your daily ration." We are urged to grow our own food as much as we can. This is old advice; many of us already have vegetable gardens on our flat roofs, Government having suggested it a few years before when the Japanese occupation of the Canton area caused supplies from there to dwindle.

A domestic problem presented itself. With my sister's family of six, our household already numbered fifteen. Now my wife's sister-in-law telephoned. Her district (Tai Hang) has been heavily shelled and she and her son wished to join us. We agreed; but a large party of her neighbours came too, and our flat is crowded, with a total of about thirty people. They sleep where they can, in the hall and on the stairs; but they have brought their own food and give no trouble.

The authorities had hoped to induce the homeless and the displaced to disperse into the Island's rural districts, where they would be safer. But people prefer to keep close to the nerve centre and to the Government. There, they assume, food supply and police protection will be better. The Central district would probably be the last place to be lost and looted. Anyway, there is no transport. Accordingly, in the Central district, people are now living in the arcades and corridors of the large office buildings. They seem to lack all sense of sanitation. The hotels are also crowded with displaced residents and with the nervous who have left their homes to be as close as possible to the conventionally safe centre of this unprecedented typhoon.

In the air raid shelters similar conditions obtain. From the beginning hundreds of Chinese, mostly poor, had taken up residence in the tunnels, preferring of course to squat near the entrances. There are no sanitary conveniences and the shelters have quickly become filthy; the authorities daily send squads of coolies to cleanse and disinfect them and the big office arcades.

Breakfast this morning was eaten to the thunder and rattle of a heavy bombardment, directed mostly at the Central district. The Hongkong and Shanghai Bank was hit, also the Gloucester Hotel

The shelling paused again while the Japanese sent over their second peace mission. Announcement: "The Governor received to-day a letter from the Japanese military and naval authorities repeating the suggestion that he should enter into negotiations for surrender. The Governor informed the Japanese authorities in reply that he was not prepared to receive any further communications on the subject."

The heaviest shelling and bombing so far. The Island's waterfront was declared out of bounds to all unauthorised persons. It has been just a week since Kowloon was abandoned; and the final crisis is at hand. In the eleven days there have been 53 air raid alarms. This day a stick of bombs fell across Queen's Road Central, and one of them went through the roof of the South China Morning Post Building, exploding in the lift machinery.

Harder to bear, shells or bombs hit the oil stores of the Asiatic Petroleum Company (Shell) on the waterfront at Whitfield near North Point, and started a great fire. A huge column of black smoke rose high and has blown slowly spreading - a depressing pall as the sun went down. Heavy shelling has continued into the night, then becoming intermittent accompanied by heavy machine gun fire.

Cloudy and rainy, helping the smoke pall to blanket the eastern districts. A friend phoned early, in whispers. He is serving in the rice depot at the Lee Theatre in Percival Street, and one of his staff this morning saw a couple of Japanese soldiers at the Causeway Bay junction nearby, apparently reconnoitring since they went away. Later in the morning an Australian friend went by our back door and shouted, "They landed last night. Three hundred of them, at North Point" - a mile away eastward from us.

It was an understatement. Contrary to expectations, they had crossed the eastern end of the Harbour the night before in great strength. It was a dark night, and the smoke pall from Whitfield had further reduced the visibility. In the afternoon the battle in the hills seemed to have quietened. We saw a long file of soldiers, probably Canadian, walking from the west slowly along Stubbs Road high above us, reinforcements for the battle raging at Wongneichong Gap. The upper end of Happy Valley has become a no-man's land. The telephone still works, but all sign of government has vanished except for the street guards. The electricity supply has ceased. 

A very foggy morning, brightened by the appearance of a hawker selling milk. We did not ask its source. Distantly, the battle in the hills went on all day, but it is a strangely quiet night.

It is now difficult to get food. A hawker sold bread at $1.50 a pound and a little pork could be got at $5 per pound limited to a quarter pound to each customer. The newspapers noted that there is no fresh fish in the central market, only dried fish. Firewood is also hard to get, and the Food Control is distributing cooked rice. 

A shop up town which had been hit by a bomb was looted. The police fired on the looters and killed several of them. Government has warned that in future the police will shoot to kill on sight. A police reservist called, presented a requisition and took our motor-car, in which a load of street guards immediately began a local patrol around the district.

Our neighbours all had the same thought in mind and asked the same question: what will happen when the final moment comes? The looting at Kowloon is taken as a warning; it would also be our lot on the Island. A neighbour and I went into frequent council of war. We would bar doors and windows. What else? He revealed himself a man of property; he has two new pistols and has given me one, with two tins of ammunition, all disguised as a tin of biscuits.

All the furies broke loose. The battle at Wongneichong Gap has reached decision point. We have now to expect shelling from two directions, from Kowloon in the north and Quarry Bay in the east. Above our flat, high but not too far away laterally, the road through the Gap is an obvious target. A burnt-out truck stands gaunt at the corner to remind us of that.

A lively bombardment of the road began. The first shells hammered the road, but successive missiles fell short until they were landing about our ears. My wife took the terrified children down to the ground floor, where an Indian family lived. Our guests joined them. I went on the front verandah to take a look at the road, and a shell exploded on the corner of our roof, some fifteen feet away, shaking me severely. I retreated, went to the back of the flat and decided to close the shutters. As I leaned out to clutch one, another shell took a corner off the back of the building, again a short five yards away and again rattling our hero. I scuttled downstairs where they told me I looked as green as I felt. The women prayed and moaned and would not be heartened, and the children cried while the house bounced again and again. But quite suddenly the protracted ordeal ended.

At sunset a grimly silent procession passed our back door going up Shan Kwong Road - mules with Indian soldiers carrying five mountain guns. These were emplaced on an empty lot at the corner of Village and Sing Woo Roads, almost under the noses of the Japanese in the hills above. The Indian gunners opened up on the Japanese, and they peppered our district furiously in reply.

The day opened mildly for us. An air raid alarm for breakfast; but they have been sounding so frequently and are so mixed with the all-clears that they have become meaningless. We fed as we could. Plates have become impractical; we eat with spoons from rice bowls. With these we are mobile, can duck quickly when the crashes surge near. The lull did not last for long. Another terrific bombardment around us and away up in the hills. Another shell on our roof destroyed some of my tomatoes. There were again great fires on the mainland - big smoke near Tsun Wan. The remaining oil tanks in the installations there had been shelled and set alight.

A dud shell which had hit a house in King Kwong Street behind us, lay yesterday in the gutter there. This morning it had been moved to the gutter at our own back door. We took an indignant view. A coolie wandered along and looked at it. We asked him to take it away, and he demanded forty cents which we paid. Later in the day the shell was back at the door of our next neighbour. The same coolie wandered along and looked at it. We decided to ignore it and him.

For several days we had with binoculars been watching a sentry near Warren's Castle on Broadwood Ridge across the Valley ((Happy Valley)). He was usually an Indian, and always reassuringly he was looking intently towards the hills. This morning he was looking the other way and he wore a conical steel helmet; he was a Japanese.

The impending conquerors sent aloft in Kowloon a huge captive balloon, drab green, with wide streamers hanging from it. These bore big Chinese characters in red, exhorting the Chinese on the Island to rise against the British. The Japanese propaganda was always naive.

Later in the forenoon a new clatter in Village Road drew us to the front verandah - troops who had climbed down from Wongneichong Gap through Fung Fai Terrace opposite us; they hugged the retaining wall of the terrace and disappeared up town. In the afternoon, a silent file of soldiers walked slowly down Shan Kwong Road behind us - some wounded, with white flesh showing through torn uniforms, one with a boot gone and a bloodily bandaged foot. Dejected, they symbolised all the frustration and tragedy of our useless little war.

The water supply failed. To complete the severance a shell has hit the meter on the pavement at our front entrance.

At dusk suddenly a fireworks show. The enemy just above the Jockey Club stables at the top of Shan Kwong Road, firing a machine gun with tracer bullets down that road into the racecourse, past our back door. The mountain guns went past again, leaving us, and disappearing towards Central.

Again out of bread, and no hawker around. We noted without enthusiasm that some of our neighbours are leaving the Valley to take up residence in a Central office building.

We had to do something about water. Among its preparations, the Government had made ready concrete slabs to be fitted into the nullahs which perpetually carry mountain spring water to the sea, thus to form little local reservoirs. One deep nullah runs past our front door. The slabs are there, but no one put them in position. The water anyway is not usable. The nullah is carpeted with garbage, and on this now rests a corpse. We explored our own flush water well, but oil from the pump had fouled it badly. Our neighbour was more fortunate; the water in his well was clear and sweet, and we drew from there.

In the afternoon, from a back window, we saw the Japanese coming over Broadwood Ridge near Warren's Castle, to Broadwood Road which would bring them down into the Valley. They offered a good target, and I phoned the defence headquarters. Then we watched to see our shells arrive. But none came, and the Japanese continued to pour over the ridge and move swiftly along Broadwood Road towards its junction with Sports Road. Sounds of battle came from Leighton Hill, at that end of the Valley. In the twilight the Japanese guns systematically shelled the civil servants’ quarters on Leighton Hill and set them afire. Then they methodically and very accurately shelled all the houses high up on the western side of the Valley above the cemeteries. The houses below Morrison Hill next received a hammering, and soon green flares went up at the Police Recreation Club corner.

We went up to the roof to ease our tension. The Japanese are in full possession of Broadwood Ridge, and flashes behind it tell of their guns firing across the racecourse to Mount Parish and Morrison Hill. Their guns in Kowloon are also firing, starting several fires in the headquarters area. Glares of older fires in Kowloon balance the awful picture.

The uproar quietened and we came down to hear the B.B.C. news. Then strident war cries as the enemy charge across the racecourse. In the large Jockey Club grandstand is a relief hospital to which civilian wounded and sick have been removed from other hospitals. My sister Flo is working there as an auxiliary nurse. There are about 150 patients. The building has been under artillery and machine-gun fire all day.

Heavy boots down Village Road, past our front door, early in the morning. Some rifle and machine-gun fire. Then horses galloped past - race ponies from the Jockey Club stables at the top of Shan Kwong Road. We sneaked to the roof to reconnoitre, to find that a shell had hit the building next door and strewn its penthouse all over my garden. At about noon the noises swelled again, and later we had our first close view of Japanese troops. A score or more of them in close formation up King Kwong Street towards our back door, their steel helmets festooned with leaves. They swung left at Shan Kwong Road and went uphill towards the stables.

We ate our Christmas lunch (bully beef and some oranges) walking about nervously, while distant bombs, shells and machine guns rattled on. About 4 p.m. the telephone rang, and hurriedly a discreet voice said, "It's all over; we've surrendered." I phoned the office to tell Ben Wylie. Unbelieving, he snooted indignantly. "Sounds like fifth column talk," he said. I assured him cautiously that it came from a most reliable quarter. Later, he phoned and apologised, warning also, "Keep out of sight. I've been talking to a friend. He says you're on the black list." The friend was an English journalist who had been employed in a Japanese news agency. Gunfire and explosions continued, however. Then suddenly our district became full of Japanese troops, tough looking, cocky, a few bandaged, one carried on a stretcher. I had one more thing to do. I had telephoned an editorial that morning, exhorting our readers to a final display of spirit. Now it had to be scrapped, and in its place we put some soothing syrup, accepting our fate and advising calm and restraint. 

All quiet at sundown. We rested in blessed relief from the shelling. We planned our conduct as far as we could, speculating when their Kempetai would come for me. My wife borrowed a Chinese gown in which I was to disguise myself. But in it I looked less Chinese than before, so abandoned it. We heard the B.B.C. informing the world that the position in Hongkong had become obscure. The children had their first good sleep in weeks.

Boxing Day dawned fair and quiet. I peeped through a back window shutter to discover a machine-gun post at the Shan Kwong Road corner, fifty yards away, with a young Japanese soldier keeping silent guard. To avoid seeming furtive, I banged open the shutter noisily. The wrong thing to do; he sprang into action and swiftly brought his rifle round to cover me. I grinned; he turned to his pals and laughed, and I breathed again.

At the front of the house an amusing little scene. A Portuguese neighbour, an air raid warden, sauntered up and down the roadway, in full uniform and smoking a cigar. I called to him. Had he not heard that the battle was over? He had not, had just come on duty from his flat further up the road. He registered indignation and doubt. I assured him it was unhappily true. Suddenly realizing his position, he shed his equipment and scuttled off home.

Later in the morning many Japanese soldiers appeared in the streets. Some Chinese youths helped them to start up cars parked in the streets, and they set off on joy rides. They perched all over the cars, laughing gleefully, and some sitting in the open boots. Their progress was a crazy jerking and swerving. In the middle of the road was a small shell hole, a foot deep, and most of them hit it with a terrific bump and much hilarity. They soon tired of their fun. Some of the men looked clean and neat, but some were shabby and dirty as though they had been campaigning for months. Some were very young. Some urinated shamelessly in the gutters. Then with a clatter of hooves more soldiers went by, coming from the stables, mounted on race ponies and army mules which they had found at large.

Two soldiers knocked at our street door, and the family panicked. I took my wife and the children upstairs to join the kind Chinese family there. The callers, one a decent-looking young officer, the other a ruffianly ranker, inspected the flat. They helped themselves to cigarettes, a tin of tomatoes, a cake of chocolate and the last of our oranges. We had carefully put all watches, cameras, fountain pens out of sight. They went upstairs, where the householder gave them a fountain pen and let them take a valuable watch in exchange for their own cheap one.

We still have to solve our water problem; the neighbours have begun to resent our drawing on their wells. There is still no electricity, and we made an oil lamp using peanut oil and candle ends. There is also the garbage menace. It is now over a foot deep in the streets all around us and is continuously being augmented despite our shouted protests. A great pile of it graces our front entrance. The flies are becoming a disturbing nuisance. In addition to their rubbish, our neighbours are discarding everything that would connect them with our fighting forces. Steel helmets are being thrown away and sent clattering down the streets. In the nullah in front was the complete outfit of a European police officer - spiked helmet, puggaree, cap and all.

In the afternoon, three more soldiers called upon us. Surly and suspicious, they brushed me aside. To our anxiety a young Russian woman who had been living with the Indian family downstairs had decided that our flat seemed safer. Fair and attractive, she sat on our sofa, pretending to read a book but nervously trembling, while we hoped for the best; but the Japanese ignored her. One helped himself to a pair of my socks, leaving his own stiffly filthy pair in exchange. Another went down the hall to the kitchen and the servant's room. I followed, but one of the trio with his rifle barred my way. In a little while the first man returned, and later our amah came in muttering and telling her beads. She would not say what had happened.

Soon afterwards, a better type of caller presented himself - a bright young Japanese, self-conscious in a brand new uniform. He asked for the Chinese resident upstairs, who had apparently at one time worked in his father's firm. He gave the Chinese resident his card and promised him protection, adding that the foraging might continue for ten days more. On leaving, he stuck a paper on the front door downstairs so that we would not be further bothered.