74 years ago: Hong Kong's wartime diaries

Submitted by David on Sat, 12/05/2015 - 11:26

December, 1941.

74 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, 74 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. Then 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."
Extract from Barbara Anslow's Diary
Extract from Barbara Anslow's Diary: "war had been declared"
  • 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."
Notice from SCMP, 26 December 1941
Notice from SCMP, 26 December 1941
  • 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.

Also on Gwulo.com this week:

What do current subscribers to the Wartime Diaries say?

This is the fifth year we'll run this project. Here are comments from some of the readers who've subscribed to previous years:

  • I always read all the war diaries entries, as they all take me back to that life we lived for 3 yrs and 8 months, which wasn't all misery or hopelessness.
    I was in my twenties then, and despite the hardships (at least 5 in one room, only camp beds, poor food, no hot water to wash self or clothes, anxiety about our future etc) we did often enjoy ourselves.
    Barbara Anslow, England. (Barbara's diary is one of the main sources for the daily emails.)

  • I read the diaries daily.  Actually I watch my clock daily, they usually show up in my email around 2pm. 
    What keeps me interested is the fact I have never actually read my Aunt Barbara's diaries, in fact have never even seen the diaries.  However, I grew up knowing the entire story and have never ceased to be amazed about what they went through and managed to survive.  In this day and age, I doubt that I could have endured what they went through.
    I always question my mother (Mabel Redwood) about various events as I see them in the diaries and she continues to fill me in on various recollections that she has. What I also enjoy is seeing the diaries of others who went through this same experience.  It is so interesting to see another perspective of the events that unfolded.
    I am so proud that I came from this fantastic stock of amazing women.
    Janet Hayes, USA. (Janet's aunt is Barbara Anslow)

  • Keep up the good work, a moving historical account from life's participants is to be treasured.  My parents were lifelong friends with Barbara Anslow's sister Mabel Large (nee Redwood) and my grandfather Arthur Jeffreys spent the war in Shamshuipo, whilst my father Leslie and grandfather Henry Millington worked out their time in work camps in Japan. I was born at Kowloon Hospital in 1947 and my father in 1918.  I left finally in 1970 and have lived in Adelaide off and on ever since. 
    Christopher Millington, Adelaide, Australia

  • It's a fascinating way to find out about Hong Kong in World War 2.
    Anonymous, KS, USA

  • I taught school at St. Stephen's College, Stanley, 1961-62. I wish I had been more aware of the history then since I was in the colony only 15 years after WWII ended. I have picked up bits and pieces from these daily readings that makes me realize that the place I happily worked had been hell just a few years earlier. I was also housemaster for the Martin Hostel where some of the atrocities had taken place.
    Pegram Johnson III, Virginia, USA

  • I read your amazing Wartime Diaries email every single day! They are absolutely fascinating and I really look forward to them, so thank you very much indeed for all your hard work in keeping us educated and entertained. Your inspirational venture has encouraged me to read around and engage more fully with this aspect of our history, which I feel deeply connected to having been born in and grown up in Hong Kong. All your references are extremely helpful if you want to pursue a particular event or source.
    The daily experience of time travel back those 70 odd years is both humbling and thought provoking. Having a bad day at work and then reading what it was like for people living in the Stanley Camp certainly puts things into perspective. I enjoy the “once-a-day over several years" format, because it brings history alive and makes it accessible in small pieces every day. Literally “living history”.
    As we approach Christmas 2014 reading what it was like for those internees who share the same seasonal and cultural patterns we do, but who experienced them in such a different context, creates a powerful connection. And I think you balance the personal diaries with the chronological events brilliantly. The tiniest of details that these diaries give us makes me feel I am there with them.  When the girls squabbled viciously over a miserable little bun and then wept together in shame, it touched my heart. I thought about their hunger and their hopeless situation all day.
    These are all the things that keep me riveted. 
    Brenda Grace, England

  • I read them daily for the personal details of real people, the minutiae of daily life under difficult circumstances and occasionally coming across names of people I knew in my youth in Hong Kong, eg the Maryknoll sisters, the Woods twins, Dr Shields who after the war set up in dentistry and was my sisters' dentist, etc. Things like these are not available in history books where you get the big picture only.
    As the time passes and incarceration seems endless, the accounts become less detailed and hopeful - one can sense the frustration and even losing of hope that the war will end soon. The monotony of the days seem to be taking their toll.
    It's amazing how people adapt to such changed circumstances and one sees how some rally and become stronger, while some fade and even die. The tone when dealing with these devastating circumstances remains matter of fact, and optimistic. A good insight to character.
    Rosa Ross (nee de Carvalho)

  • I like the format a lot. It's a quick read giving one a real feel for how the individual was feeling at the time. Love the feeling of learning directly from the individual's experience.  
    Over time the diary writers come alive in your mind. The additional links encourage you to explore the website and learn more. You note how people were less expressive in their entries than a person might be today....although it might have been that they feared being found out by the Japanese.  
    Kirstin Moritz, MA USA

  • The real time effect conveys the boredom as well as the excitement. The names are evocative of my youth, especially of the medical ones. My father having been a medical officer from Jan 1946 to 1970.
    Stanley prison to me is the Prison Officers club,Saturday full moon bbqs on the beach, never on a Sunday sung in Cantonese with a cockney twang. Japs never mentioned, war never mentioned, HK full ahead, then no water in the 60's when China turned the tap off, Macau for fun, the wonders of Lan Tau and the missionary huts, beer wrapped in SCMP sheets by Tai Tam reservoir, butterfly hunting while walking to school in Kowloon (KJS), the bell boy in the Pen calling you to the phone, standing on the front of the car ferry.......
    Tom, UK

  • I like the feeling that I also "lived" through that period that my parents went through.
    TW, Hong Kong

  • The daily emails let me absorb small chunks of information gradually over a longer period of time and keep me interested. I gain a better feel for what it was like for the internees this way. For anyone interested in this time, the access to the primary data in the transcripts makes it possible for you to interpret the data in your own way.
    Andrew Hill, Melbourne, Australia
  • My parents (and sister) were 3rd Nationals in HK during the war and didn’t talk much about it. As I’m writing a genealogy blog to leave to my grandkids, I wanted to read the emails to see if I could add more information to the page I have about the Japanese Occupation.  I found Harry Ching’s diary extremely interesting as he talked about the cost of rice and other things which would have affected my parents.
    I find it quite touching to read about what was happening in HK on the same day 72 years ago, and imagine that anyone who is interested in HK during WII would find these daily emails of great interest.
    Nona Langley, Australia

  • I read them most days!  I am writing the biography of Percy Nettle who was in the Stanley civilian camp for the entire time.  He lived in China from 1907 to his passing in 1964 and held a great love for the Chinese. I have his diaries of the times and he shared similar experiences to your diarists.
    Rod Nettle, Melbourne, Australia

  • I enjoy reading the ongoing little pieces of people's lives - what they choose to record, how things are going for them… 
    I like the way each entry corresponds to the actual day you're reading it, rather than reading a book in one go - I think it's more tantalising watching events unfold. 
    The special thing for me is that they are real people making live entries from Stanley - with historical asides from other people in different parts of the colony offering outside information on what they're experiencing (e.g. Harry Ching) - I find Barbara Anslow particularly human with her young woman's concerns.
    Alison McEwan, UK

  • The stories are interesting in a sense that they often brought me back to an unknown world some 70+ years ago.
    Paul Wan, Hong Kong

  • What keeps me interested, apart from a general interest in Hong Kong’s history, is I suppose what has always interested people in following serials – waiting to read what happens next. A few minutes spent out of a busy day looking back at the past is also far easier than finding the time to wade through a large tome.
    "Emtee", Hong Kong

  • I keep interested because I can follow hardships, tragedies, hopes and moods in virtual "real time", as things change day-to-day.  The central players (ie diarists) slowly reveal their characters, just like in a good novel. Fascinating !
    I also like that you have included both women and men diarists, and that there are, at least, some comments from Chinese (or Eurasian) citizens.  I like to see the differences/similarities in personal priority of mutually experienced daily events - as accorded by various diarists.
    HBW, Canberra, Australia

  • As a long-time resident (going onto 24 years) and a history 'nerd', I really appreciate these daily glimpses into Hong Kong's history. These often mundane details provide a very interesting context for the larger historic picture for me. Like traveling through a parallel universe, I am following this timeline of the past.
    Carsten Schael, Hong Kong

  • Growing up in Hong Kong some years after the war, we were only lightly aware of the events of those years, although many of our favourite places - such as the Stanley Club, where there was a barbecue on the beach every year at the Moon Festival - had been scenes of horror, and some of our neighbours had been interned in the camps.
    Most of us become interested in the past as we grow older, when it is usually too late to ask questions of those who were there at the time. Preserving and sharing first hand accounts is an invaluable service to posterity.
    Such accounts are fascinating to read as a daily diary,and in parallel to our own lives an absorbing and thought provoking exercise. I was particularly interested in, first, during the battle for Hong Kong, Patrick Sheridan's valiant attempts to provide bread for the fighters, and, secondly, Harry Ching's account of conditions outside the camps -  the contaminated food supplies, the changing regulations and their ability to collect information.
    JG, Born in Hong Kong in 1957

  • I called HK home for a long time and I find the daily reminders of the trials, the shortages, the spirit and the locations of a completely different chapter of its history fascinating. I like the format best of all as it expands and contracts with the importance or scarcity of the news of that day. My father was in Burma while this was happening in HK, which makes it all the more poignant to me.
    JRFM, UK

  • Having known nothing about my family members in Stanley, the daily emails give some insight into how they lived and survived, along with others, under the Japanese during internment.  Some days are more descriptive than others, but still interesting. 
    JB, Australia
    PS: It was through checking "What's New"  every few days on Gwulo I found an entry relating to one of my family members.  From here I was able to make contact with the person concerned and received some memorabilia regarding their internment in Stanley. These items have been donated to a heritage gallery at St Stephens. 

  • I make a point of reading “72 years ago” every day. I keep them all – no deletions.
    What keeps me interested? The day-to-day record of their moods, their food, their births and deaths – always remembering that they did not know how it was all going to end. Sometimes I long for an account of friction between the internees, there must have been a great deal but little is revealed. Was it a sense of decency? A sense of duty?
    I’d like to think that we would all behave with the same reticence if we were in a similar position today but I find myself doubting this. Were they simply a better bunch of people? If so, why have we lost those qualities?
    Neil Maidment, Hong Kong

  • I read them from a need to know what the first five years of my life were like and my mother and older sisters how they managed to keep us safe and well. Must have had some help.
    Thomas Eager, USA

  • I read the Wartime Diaries every day. I think this format of coordinating all the diaries to a once-a-day over several years is infinitely better than reading the diaries individually. It allows the reader to 'share' their experience/journey during the Japanese occupation.
    My father and over 10 members of his family managed to escape to Macau during the first year of the occupation, but several members of the family were unable to leave and remained in Hong Kong. It was a very dark period for those caught up with the fear, hunger and despair whether it was in Hong Kong or in Macau. The experience affected their lives and their attitudes, so its significance should not be underestimated.
    Thank you for your work in preserving as much of Hong Kong's history as possible.
    Yvonne Willis, England / Hong Kong

Thank you!

Thank you to the subscribers for letting me post their feedback. Also thanks to everyone who has contributed diary material to this project and helped with typing and posting the material. Finally, special thanks to Alison, Barbara, Brian and Tony, who got us started:

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.