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

Harry Ching's wartime diary: View pages

I had tired of keeping out of sight. So, there being strangely few soldiers about, took myself for a short walk, knee deep in stinking rubbish, and with flies pestering. At the first corner I came suddenly upon the corpse of a well-dressed young Chinese - perhaps a nocturnal prowler come to grief, or perhaps merely a body dumped to save funeral expenses.

There were some stalls in the street, selling a little food and a lot of valueless junk, mostly looted. There were also many public gambling booths, in shops, around the market and on vacant lots. Mostly they offered the dice game of Yankee Sweat, fan tan, and the Chinese card game pai kau. They were all reasonably cheerful and all well-behaved. I laid a small bet, lost and left it at that.

Looting of abandoned houses on the hills around us now openly in progress. The looters could be seen in long files like ants, climbing up the hillside paths everywhere on Broadwood Ridge, Stubbs Road and Blue Pool Road, and coming down again carrying furniture. 

In the early afternoon troops assembled on the racecourse; we heard their bugles and banzais. They were computed to number two thousand. This was part of the victory parade. 

From our roof later we could see horse lines and tents in the racecourse, and much activity in the blocks of flats overlooking it. More troops were being billeted, and the occupants are being evicted to find accommodation where they can.

Food is still scarce, and the fact presses heavily upon our spirits. The shops in our district are not yet reopening. In any case they would have little to sell; all commodity stocks have gone underground. We still have half a bag of rice and a modest store of tinned beef and fish, but no cooking oil.

Observing the looting and remembering Kowloon, not to mention our Japanese visitors, we contrive hiding places. We taxed our ingenuity. I used some banknotes to prop up the wobbly leg of a table, and we slipped single notes between shelf brackets and the wall. We discovered that the old-fashioned mantel in our bedroom was hollow; with a little skill the end panel could be removed, giving access to a long cupboard of nearly two cubic feet capacity. In here we put our tinned stuff. Under the stairs at our front door we made another cache, and later added to these.

Conditions are easing a little back to normal. To our joy, coolies appeared and began sweeping the garbage into large heaps. Then a Sanitary Department van with a European in charge came to take the rubbish away. To our disappointment, it made only one trip and the district stank as before.

Nephew Fred and I went to the racecourse stands to inquire for his mother, of whom we have had no news since the relief hospital was over-run on Christmas Eve. The place seemed deserted, but as we neared the gate a Japanese N.C.O. suddenly appeared. Hostile, he shouted at us, then beckoned us to approach. We tried in Chinese to explain our mission, but he showed no understanding. The more we tried the more annoyed he became. "Better beat it," I muttered to Fred, "he's getting nasty." But he would not let us go, and continued to shout as we stood silently before him. Then suddenly he said, "Spik Ingrese." We brightened and he grinned. We explained it all again in English. He pointed to a big closed door at the end of the stands. We pushed it open and went in. It was the hospital morgue, with three male bodies lying on tables. We quickly withdrew. He laughed and motioned to the main grandstand. This was deserted and in confusion, beds empty and blankets and furnishings strewn around. We thanked him again and offered him a cigarette, which he refused.

Near the cemeteries outside the grandstand we met Arthur May of the Public Works Department. He had walked across the Island from the Dairy Farm on the south side. He eased our anxiety, had seen Fred's mother at the Queen Mary Hospital.

At the Monument a scene of desolation presented itself. Smashed and burnt vehicles stood about. The buildings had all been peppered with shell-fire, and the Golf Club pavilion and Texas oil station are badly wrecked. Under a truck lay the body of a woman. Presently, a discordant clanking overtook us. Wrecked vehicles were being towed into the centre of the racecourse and dumped there. I failed to recognise mine among them.

Next the ping of rifle shots alerted us and we ducked. But the targets were far away, on the other side of the Valley. The Japanese were firing on the looters whom we could see scurrying for cover on Broadwood Ridge.

A newspaper appeared, in English - The Hongkong News. Principal news item was a report of Sunday's victory parade. It declared, "Great Britain's century-old base of aggression at Hongkong has now fallen, and one piece of the glorious settlement of the Greater Asian war has been successfully completed."

My sister and her daughter Florrie came home, escorted to the door by our Director of Medical Services, Dr Selwyn-Clarke. In the afternoon the smashed water meter at the gate began leaking, and with loud shouts we rushed with a rubber hose to siphon a bucketful. We were not disappointed; supply was being resumed.

We celebrated the New Year by buying some bread from a hawker. It was interesting, in two colours - off-white in the upper strata and near black at the base. It cost $1.40 a pound. We had about $500 in cash, but I had no income and small prospect of acceptable employment. 

Fears of New Year celebrations and excesses; the Japanese make much of New Year. We are nervous also about my borrowed automatic ((pistol)). Possession of arms is a capital offence. I made a hurried nocturnal trip and took it back to the neighbour, who said he would dump it, with his own, down a well.

Notice orders all enemy civilians assemble ((at)) Murray Parade Ground to be interned, must make own arrangements for protecting homes and take only personal belongings.

What to do? No-one we can leave in charge of our home. Debate exhaustively, and read notice over and over. "Enemy subjects in this order include British, American, Dutch, Panamanian and other nationals whose countries are at war with Japan, exempting Chinese and Indian." Japs could not possibly intern all British subjects. We decide do nothing. 

Smith family across the road of Irish ancestry. Father in Naval Dockyard, son a Volunteer and son-in-law a police officer - all now prisoners-of-war. Mother and daughter walk out bravely, abandon their flat, wave goodbye to us and step into rickshaws for two mile ride to assembly point. Back half hour later, advised call themselves Irish and thus neutral. 

Walk to town, no transport of any sort offering. Dead body under truck at bottom of Morrison Hill still there. Near Naval Hospital a dud shell partly buried in roadway – edged away as heavy truck rushed past. 

Queen's Road East lined from end to end with stalls selling all sorts of things. Much loot from abandoned homes. Then a stall that was different. A wooden bed supported on stools, and on it as though asleep an old woman, dead.

By Wellington Barracks and the Dockyard, great holes in the walls, drains blocked and water covering much of road. Beyond, more stalls on both sides of Queen's Road Central. Stalls had little of staples, and prices high. Sugar at 80 cents a pound, flour at $1.40. Peace-time prices a quarter of these. 

Whole city bedraggled, depressing. Buildings shell-marked but none seriously damaged. Large Jap flag at exclusive Hongkong Club, now naval headquarters.

Harbour empty except for vessels scuttled, and waterfront deserted. 

Visited Morning Post, greeted by dozen old staff. Japanese producing English paper there. Managing director Toshihito Eto and editor Ogura. Ogura cordial man, seemed decent. He publishing daily column wherein Europeans seeking missing friends or reporting own survival. 

Told about thousand civilians reported for internment ordered into small Chinese hotels. European staff of Morning Post and Hongkong Telegraph confined in company's building, no food supplied, then moved to Tung Fong Hotel. Three internees there allowed out daily to buy food.

The Commander-in-Chief of Japanese forces invites distinguished Chinese to banquet at Peninsula Hotel. Time being short, individual invitations not sent, but list of invitees published totalling 137. Followed list of Chinese Justices of the Peace. To my relief, I not included.

Hongkong money still being accepted. But this day Japs making yen available from depot at Chartered Bank. Queue extended from the bank to Gloucester Hotel corner. Only ten yen allowed each person at rate of two HK dollars for one yen. No change available, so high denomination HK notes not accepted. The over-printed Chinese notes also rejected.

To Tung Fong Hotel to see Ben Wylie. Chinese police guarding entrance. Ben appeared with Vincent Jarrett, John Luke and George Giffen. Dick Cloake typhoid. I gave Ben tin cocoa and tin milk. Jap soldier came along and motioned us clear out.

((Following text not dated:))

Notice in newspapers: "Except Chinese, all Third Nationals are required to have a certificate, otherwise they are prohibited to pass in the Colony. Such certificates can be obtained at the Civil Administration Office where the applicant will have to take an oath that he or she will obey any order or instruction given by the Imperial Japanese Army, and that no action of any sort which would benefit the enemies will be attempted." This appeared offer us a compromise as regards national status. But what was a "Third National"? We cautious and wait.

Nephews Charlie and Fred arrested. Chinese policeman came to say they at Wanchai police station. I went police station. Told return with chopped letter from reputable Chinese shop to guarantee. Failed see the boys.

Niece Florrie had more luck finding policeman who took her see brothers in cell with wet floor, nowhere to sit and no food supplied. Later took chair, some sacks, blankets, food and flask of tea.

Approached substantial citizens to beg for letter certifying nephews respectable and no political affiliations. No success. Finally, neighbour’s brother with shop agreed write letter and affix chop. Charlie and Fred released after lecture - "wash yourselves of everything British and dress and speak Chinese."

Before arrest were stopped by Japanese officer who questioned in perfect English -

"What sort of people are you?"

"Chinese," said Fred.

"What is your name?"


"How do you write it?"

"W - O - N - G," said Fred, spelling it in English.

((Following text not dated:))

We realise not possible maintain pretence of being fully Chinese. Indian friends urge upon us wisdom of becoming "Third Nationals". They have friend in Civil Affairs Bureau who can get us certificates. We agree. 

Pavements cluttered with vendors selling loot. Street stalls in Central brought under control. All moved to Stanley Street.

Hongkong notes have been legal tender only up to $10 denomination. To-day permitted to use larger denominations as temporary measure. Shops accept at half value. 

((Following text not dated:))

Sanitary Department truck appears with two Europeans. Their crew removed one great heap of garbage. With reduction of garbage, flies seemed fewer, but relief temporary. Neighbours continued dump in streets, and large heap forming at our front gate. 

Some of lesser banks permitted pay out to depositors. Only $50 per head. Hongkong and Shanghai Bank not included "because it has not yet completed returns of more than 18,000 savings accounts". I went to Chase Bank and got $50 in the Chinese $5 notes overprinted Hongkong $1. 

Post Office reopened; small sign of return normal conditions. 

10 p.m. air raid siren, first since surrender. Rumour two planes made reconnaissance over Kowloon. 

End of first month since surrender. Japanese ordered display of flags, which hawkers selling at $5 and $3. 

((Following text not dated, but probably refers to 29th Jan - see Brian's comments below))

More banks paid off to depositors, $50 each. Included Hongkong and Shanghai Bank and National City Bank. 

Central market and four district markets reopened, but without much fresh food to offer. In our district some Dairy Farm milk available at 30 cents a half pint - bring your own bottle. Eggs 25 cents each and potatoes $1.60 a catty.

((Following text not dated:))

Early February five and ten sen notes appeared, and shop prices quoted mostly in yen.

Warning notice that Third Nationals should not consort with enemy nationals and should not leave urban limits. Further notice stated Third Nationals without employment must register professions. Rumoured Japanese short of workers for Hainan naval base and elsewhere. Clearly bad strategy to report unemployed. I registered as "broker" - everyone not trying manufacture soap trying to buy and sell something.

Portuguese community, totalling estimated 1,100, receiving rice daily at Club Lusitano. Indians getting flour, beans and ghee, but no rice, once a week. One disadvantage of masquerading as stateless person is not included in any hand-out group.

Japanese announce rice ration for Central - half a catty a head daily at twenty cents, payment in advance for five days' supply. Rice ration also said available in Kowloon, and there some people also getting bread ration. 

Food prices rising daily. A pound of bread, eighteen cents before war, now $1.40. Loaves weigh only 12 ounces each and grey with adulteration. Markets have little meat of mysterious origin and at high prices. Fish also costly, but there is shark at $2 a catty. 

Officially estimated that by 1st February 450,000 Chinese had left. In first week of February a ship took to Macau first contingent of Hongkong residents. These mostly local Portuguese numbered 947, and a second contingent of about 400 followed next day. The ship made a trip later to former French port, Kwong Chow Wan. All French nationals advised go there. Those remaining in Hongkong estimated 70, including priests and nuns. One by one friends slipping out, mostly for Kweilin via Macau and Kwong Chow Wan. Each departure leaves us lonelier. 

Notification all English signs must disappear from streets by 21st February. 

((Following text not dated:))

Increasingly subjected to retailers' tricks. We bought bottle of kerosene for small makeshift stove, to find it so loaded with waste oil it would not burn. Neighbours reported purchasing flour partly rice flour, corn flour, and even lime. One shocked to find sugar purchase weighted with crushed glass. 

Fuel shortage another difficulty. Saddening to see looted blackwood furniture chopped up. Authorities threaten punishment for selling broken furniture as firewood. Also send police into hills to stop forest raiders.

We drew our rice rations for first time, half a catty per head per day as expected.

((Following text not dated:))

Household garbage again in streets, and fly nuisance increasingly hard to bear. Authorities becoming concerned, and newspaper published long list of areas set apart as rubbish dumps. These included Southorn Playground, Chinese Recreation Club, and in our district a vacant lot on Blue Pool Road.

But middle of February sweetest music was tinkle of rubbish cart bell, inviting us for first time in weeks to bring out our garbage.