72 years ago: Hong Kong's wartime diaries
Late November, 1941.
72 years ago tensions were high as war with Japan seemed inevitable. On December 8th, those fears were confirmed when Japanese planes attacked Kai Tak, and Japanese soldiers crossed the border into the New Territories. The fighting continued until the British surrendered on Christmas Day.
The end of the fighting marked the beginning of the Japanese occupation, a time of great hardship for Hong Kong's residents. They would have to endure for three years and eight months, until the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, and Hong Kong was liberated shortly afterwards.
What was it like?
Let the people who lived through these times tell you themselves.
We've collected several wartime diaries, and split them into their day-by-day accounts. Each day we send out an email message containing all the diary entries written on that day, 72 years ago.
How to sign up to receive the daily messages?
Please click here to subscribe.
You'll be taken to another screen marked Feedburner (they're the company we use to send out the daily email messages) and asked to enter your email address. Once you've completed that screen, you'll be sent an email message, asking you to confirm your subscription. Click the link in that message and your subscription is activated. Each day you'll receive an email message with today's diary entries.
It's free of charge, your details stay private, and you can unsubscribe at any time.
What do the daily messages look like?
Here are sample extracts from the messages you'll receive:
- 30 Nov 1941: "Topper says we are as near war now as we have ever been, that Japan with her militarist Govt. can't very well back down now."
- 1 Dec 1941: "Government advising further evacuation. Only hope seems to be that Japs now say they will keep on talks with USA in hope that USA will change viewpoint - that isn't thought likely."
- 7 Dec 1941: "There must be something in the wind, G.H.Q. staff are preparing to move into Battle HQ, a huge underground structure just behind the Garrison Sgts. Mess."
- 8 Dec 1941: "I started my birthday with a war. Kowloon bombed about 8AM."
- 10 Dec 1941: "Sid has been wounded. Bullet through shoulder. He told Hospital to phone Mum at the Jockey Club and she went to see him."
- 13 Dec 1941: "We hear rumours that the Mainland is being evacuated and that the Royal Scots, Middlesex Regt. and the Indian Regts. are fighting a rearguard action back to Kowloon."
- 14 - 15 Dec 1941: "Raids most of daylight hours, and shelling day and night.
Central Police Station bombed badly in afternoon, several killed. Felt the concussion even in the tunnel."
- 16 Dec 1941: "The 9.2 guns at Stanley and Mount Davis have been firing salvoes all day and all through the night, the noise is deafening. It keeps me awake most of the night so I was up at 4.30a.m. and got quite a bit of paperwork completed working behind a blacked out screen."
- 17 Dec 1941: "What a contrast from a week ago. Plenty of signs of bombing and shelling. Damaged buildings, wrecked cars and lorries everywhere. The tramline wires are strewn across the road. Some dead bodies lie about on the roadways and not a living soul in sight."
- 19 Dec 1941: "Hammond and Tuck stand guard outside while Kingsford and I and the Naval man enter the house. We find about 15 people wounded, mostly Naval men, some civilians, and two women, one a Chinese shot through the chest, the other a European was dead."
- 21 Dec 1941: "The Canadians are fighting a losing battle against the Japs on Stanley Mound, and the neighbouring peaks. The Japs have superiority in numbers."
- 23 Dec 1941: "We returned to the Exchange Building where Hammond, Edgar and I were joined by a Russian musician. He decided to take over the driving of the big Bedford van. We set off and ran into a series of shell explosions on the way. It was now obvious that the musician could not drive a wheelbarrow not to mind the Bedford, besides he was also shivering with fright. I tried to take over the wheel but he would not move over, and it was too dangerous to stop. However, we reached the Bakery which was up a very narrow passageway. He jammed the van in it so in the end I had to use the butt of my rifle to make him let go."
- 24 Dec 1941: "8.50PM heard the rattle of tanks on Island Rd as they approached the village (Jap). 2 knocked out by anti-tank gun & hell broke loose. Everything opened up on them & the Jap troops with them who were urged on by peculiar cries from their Commander."
- 25 Dec 1941: "While I was sitting on floor beside Sid, Mrs Johnson a friend who was helping the wounded, came over to us and said 'I have bad news for you - we've surrendered.' She was half-crying, and wouldn't look at us."
- 26 Dec 1941: "Although capitulation is not so good it feels nice to know that the likelihood of being shot or blown apart is gone."
- 8 Jan 1942: "Brushwood on hillsides [south] of Prison set alight today. Heard ammunition exploding."
- 9 Jan 1942: Captain Tanaka, at the time Japanese head of communications, gives permission to Thomas Edgar and other bakers to start making bread for the hospitals. They open the Chinese-owned Green Dragon (Ching Loong) Bakery in Wanchai. They are also allowed to bake for the Allied civilians in the hotels and later at Stanley. Barbara Anslow's diary establishes that the bread - one slice for each internee - began to arrive on January 12.
- 19 Jan 1942: "Fire opposite us in the night - very near thing. There were just sooty sparks at first, but later the fire really got going. All the gongs in the neighbourhood were beating as alarms, several huge tongues of fire blew over in our direction."
- 21 Jan 1942: "In morning, we were given a quarter of an hour to pack and get out of the hotel, then marched down Des Voeux Road. Then boarded top-heavy Macau steamer and set out for Stanley. It could have been lovely - such a beautiful day. Our boat too big to go right up to the jetty at Stanley, so we had to clamber over the side of the ferry on to the side of the junk - then jump into the body of the junk. Poor Mrs Grant who weighed over 15 stone, cried from the side of the ferry that she just couldn't make the transfer, but somehow she did."
Please click here to subscribe, and start receiving daily diary entries by email.
What do current subscribers say?
This is the third year we've run this project. Here are comments from some of the readers who subscribed last year:
- MH from Australia: I love to read the "71 years ago" every day......I find them SO interesting. They give me much insight into a part of my Father's life that he never spoke about. My adult children also are finding out about their beloved "Pa" and what his life was like during his time in "Stanley". Everyday "snippets" are most interesting......they give you a rich , human side to such a time of great suffering experienced by the internees...... but also mingled in are glimpses of humour and great courage.
- John Bechtel: My father, also named John Bechtel, was in Stanley Prison but we could never get him to talk about it. I took him back to Stanley several times but he found it difficult to discuss details with me. Your "71 years ago" has been incredibly helpful and informative. Thank you so much for including me in your mailing. I have printed most of the pages and I now am able to knit together the facts with his experience and life. Wish he could have read the information before he passed in 1981. Thank you so much.
- Robert Millar: I read the diaries every day. I don't contribute to the daily chats as being only 16 months old when I went into camp with my mother Doris and sister Gillian, and coming out soon after my 5th birthday I don't unfortunately have much to offer. However from the diaries and also from various books I've been reading I have gained a lot of information about what went on around me in my early life. I shall look forward to continuing to read the diary entries over the next year(s).
- Professor T W Wong: I'm interested in history and how this sector of the population experienced during the war. A pity though that there aren't any diary-type records from local ordinary Chinese citizens on how their lives were affected. These are accounts reflecting truly how the prisoners and others felt. Very precious!
- Anonymous from Hong Kong: I read the diary every day. It was quite interesting since it was taken from many available diaries, and the history of the war years was written from every writers' perspective. The experience of reading the diary was like reading a serial novel printed everyday on a newspaper. I will tell you if you don't sign up, it will be your loss!
- P.G. from Stanley/Lungwha: I was in Stanley from Jan 1942 until Dec 24, 1942 when I and 35 others were shipped out to Shanghai, so my interest in Stanley is limited to that period. I read the diary messages daily, and am disappointed when some are missed. What keeps me interested is the memories of what happened which are sometimes brought up.
- Paul Wan: I read the emails most days, as I am interested in history and real people's real account.
- Kirstin Moritz, from Massachusetts, USA, former resident of Hong Kong: Since I lived in Stanley, the entries from prison days interest me as I can "see" the environment of the prisoners. More importantly, I am 71 and so I am reading about the days which correspond with the days of the first year of my life. It is fascinating to get direct information on the progress of the war and realize what my parents were hearing, etc. My father was in the Army Air Force a bit later in the war, but I know that my family was of course very concerned each day.
Since the entries are very short, they are very easy to read. You get to know the characters writing and it seems very direct, like a daily update you might get from a friend. I might tire of reading an entire book and not finish it but the daily emails give you a very real human experience.
The emails have encouraged me to do more reading on Asia during WW2 and so my knowledge base has expanded. This is real history and a great window into the lived experience of this war which coincided with my own birth and impacted the lives of my family so greatly. The process makes history real and compelling. Thank you for doing this. It is a unique way of presenting history using the technology of the 21st century.
- John from Pokfulam: I read the emails almost every day. Most aren't very long and the longer ones are generally interesting. I have been subscribing from the beginning and have enjoyed it. Most days nothing really happens and things are rather mundane, but you do get the feeling that time passes slowly as it did back then and the diary entries really humanise the whole experience. Then people and events pop into the narrative that add a certain excitement because you recognise them such as the sinking of the Lisbao Maru and the desert war in 1942. In some respects it is like a real-life soap.
- Jim, Hong Kong: I read your e-m daily, as I live in HK and am interested in those dark days. A few of my friends were ‘guests of the Japanese’ and one in the BAAG.
- Jack H.M. Kwaan M.D., F.A.C.S.: The invaluable picture documentation of old time Hongkong under the British, the true stories of internment camp, many of the inmate connected with the University I am familiar. Their lives and some, their tragic death would not have been known without your wartime diaries.
- Hallie Sullivan, great niece of Walter Scott (Deputy Commissioner, Hong Kong Police Force), executed by the Japanese, Oct. 29, 1943 on Stanley Beach, Hong Kong: The diary entries are absorbing and make me feel like I am right there with those who experienced the war. They make me want to read more about this extraordinary time in history. I think that anyone with a relative in World War II would find this website historically relevant and full of new information. I like the diary style of your posts and think new members would as well. Thank you for such an interesting format.
- Ian: I read it every day, and find the format is much better than reading a whole book.
- Geoff Wellstead: I read the posts daily - interested particularly as my grandmother spent her whole internment (initially with shrapnel induced injuries) in the French Hospital, where my grandfather died from TB in April 1942. Also I come across references occasionally to people I knew, or knew of, when I was a kid in HK after the war, without particularly having known their wartime histories.
- Geoffrey Emerson: I read it every day, without fail. One never knows what might crop up, or whom might appear.
- Tricia Fyer, New Territories, 1958 to 1964: I read every post and enjoy them all, it's given me a real sense of the area I lived in in the 50s and the terrible trials the people went through. I enjoy getting an insight into the past, and the insight into human nature under deprivation and stress, the concerns and rare delight shown in such stressful times. If you know and love Hongkong, you will see the past of the place you are so familiar with in a whole new light.
- Doug Price: I read them every day. What I find interesting is all the rumors that circulated in the camp,and how they were figuring at this early stage that Germany was almost defeated-how discouraged they would have been to know they would be prisoners until late '45.
- Dorinda Cass: The emails give the richest account that I have ever read about the invasion of Hong Kong and subsequent internment. Some of the details are almost unbearably sad, but give you a vivid picture of what people suffered. The real life story that unfolded about one of the diarists was incredibly moving. I have saved some of the emails to use as background in my own story/novel writing. Short of sitting in a room and chatting to these people, you won’t get a better, more comprehensive picture. And of course there are all the references to other documents which would be invaluable to anyone doing research into that period. An amazing collection. I’d tell readers that they will be agog at what they find out from these diary entries, and will eventually feel as if they know these people personally as they get involved in all their stories.
- Chris Sparrow, Wanchai: The entries are not long; they are easily readable on the bus on the way to work, and keep me in touch with this interesting part of HK history. The diary entries have the fascinating effect of providing a very different insight into how people thought about and lived through the war in Hong Kong; everyday life, rumours, hopes…
- BT from Hong Kong: I'm interested to recognize people and events I have experienced. I'd encourage readers to subscribe and learn about a fascinating period of history, especially for those who lived it, and to be able to connect to this historical period.
- Barry from Greece: I do read the messages most days (sometimes, I have to say, just scanning!) and enjoy the ‘detail’ that could not be included in a book account of the period. I especially like the gossip, intrigues, back-biting and pettiness that is inevitable in a closed community struggling to survive. This contrasts well with the positive aspects; helping each other, the acts of kindness, the continual theme of hope and looking on the ‘bright side’ which I find incredibly moving – especially as we know it is early days yet! Above all, this format conveys the daily ‘grind’ perfectly. I especially like the occasional ‘comments’ – what happened to a particular person (the escapees, for instance), events, personalities, unravelling contradictory statements etc. I believe it is a wonderful way to help people understand life in HK and particularly Stanley at that awful time. It also, to a certain extent, cuts out the ‘middle man’ – the historian (with all their encumbrances) and we experience life in the raw. Nothing against historians, by the way, so long as you know where they are coming from!
- AW from Hong Kong: The 3 years and 8 months was the dark age in HK. It took courage, perseverance and luck to survive. The diaries described so vividly the people's joy, sorrow, horror and thoughts. The feelings so real and places so familiar to share. Highly appreciate the authors' efforts and faith in life. Cannot miss the romantic love story of Mr Jones and the unbelievable discovery of the diary by his daughter. And a good piece to teach us to appreciate what we have and not to take life for granted.
- Alexis Tse: I read them most days to immerse myself back on the piece of my standing land in WWII. If you subscribe, you may experience how the POW felt inside the camp. There were even love stories, etc developed and discovered after these people passed away.
- Alan Scott (HK Administrative Service 1971-87, retired as Dep Chief Sec on appt as Governor, Cayman Islands): It is a very good way of helping us to remember those dark days and the suffering of Hong Kong people. I read it every day.
Thank you to everyone who has contributed diary material to this project, with special thanks to Alison, Barbara, Brian and Tony, who got us started:
- Alison McEwan typed up the R E Jones' diary, and made it available via the Stanley Camp discussion group. (Alison's father Colin McEwan was one of the members of the group described in her husband Tim Luard's book: Escape from Hong Kong: Admiral Chan Chak’s Christmas Day Dash, 1941.)
- Barbara Anslow lived in Hong Kong in the 1940s, and was interned in the Stanley Camp. She has very generously shared her diary with us.
- Brian Edgar has already shared details of his father's time in Hong Kong during the fighting and occupation. He's also doing a great job of providing commentary using his extensive research into this period.
- Tony Banham is the local expert on Hong Kong during the fighting and occupation. He has written several books about the topic, and the timeline approach he's used so successfully is the inspiration for this project.
Are there more diaries out there?
I hope we can add more diaries, to get a broader range of viewpoints. If you know anyone who has family diaries covering Hong Kong between 1941-1945, please could you ask if they are willing to share them with us?
Thanks & regards,
PS That subscription link again: Please click here to subscribe, and start receiving daily diary entries by email.