Review of the book Hong Kong Surgeon by Li Shu-Fan | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

Review of the book Hong Kong Surgeon by Li Shu-Fan

Hong Kong Surgeon by Li Shu-Fan, published 1964 by Victor Gollancz, London, 240 pages

The purpose of this review is to try to bring this remarkable book to the attention of visitors to the Gwulo website.

I have been a faithful follower of Chinese literature all my life (those translated into English and easily available). I have somehow missed this memoir and, with it, the specialist inside knowledge of day to day Chinese life at the highest level – in particular the detailed account of the author’s 19 months under Japanese occupation before his escape from Hong Kong in August 1943. This occupies 40% of the book.

By any account, his life is admirable. Awarded an Imperial Chinese Government scholarship and, later, further training as a doctor at Edinburgh University. He was the Minister for Health in Sun Yat-sen’s first cabinet in 1912. Later, he set up his own hospital in Hong Kong.

The portion of his memoirs of the Japanese occupation he titles “The Days of the Black Dragon”, starting with “Hell in Hong Kong”.

Every single word he writes of that time is valuable from a historical point of view because of its specialist knowledge. It ranks alongside other diary accounts on Gwulo. In fact it would be worthwhile for the whole book to be uploaded to Gwulo. I am only going to record a few incidents here, to catch the flavour of the times.

The book describes the day to day fear and terror of the local population and the utter contempt that the Japanese were held in by all the Chinese people.

There is a full account of the looting indulged in by all levels of the Japanese troops. Freighters on their return journey to Japan, loaded with expensive cars and works of art as the spoils of war. The “Squeeze” was in operation on every transaction at all levels of government. Rice for patients at the hospital suddenly became available, only if a present was offered.

Japanese propaganda spread around a system of Japanese values. The idea that the Japanese were the saviours of all Asians with their Co-prosperity Sphere, protecting them from exploitation by other colonial nations. There was a special hatred for all English-speaking peoples. The Chinese people saw through this hypocrisy.

At the same time, the humiliating SLAP was enforced, whereby any Japanese, no matter how low in status, could slap the face of a Chinese, no matter how eminent.

There is an episode in the book (page 160) that needs no comment:

I remember one occasion when the Japanese hierarchy in Hong Kong went to great lengths to win some goodwill from the Chinese leaders by arranging a sumptuous dinner at a fine hotel. The finest of wines and food were served, a speaker was brought all the way from Shanghai, and there were eloquent speeches about Japan’s respect for the Chinese people. Yet in the middle of it all a Japanese got up, walked across to a prominent table, and gave a Chinese leader a resounding slap for a reason too trivial to repeat. I know that every Chinese there felt that blow as though it had been dealt to him personally. A dozen banquets could not have wiped out that stupid, wanton humiliation.

The Japanese administration was a failure; and it failed because it lacked ethics and a sound co-ordinating policy. In the long run, ethics, perhaps, is the only sound foundation for any program, whether for an individual or country or federation of nations.

Revisionist historians have tried to make a case that the American forces were hated and resented in China, with snide comments about them showing off their wealth as they rode around with their “Jeep Girls”.

Similar envious comments were made about American forces in Britain during the war – “Overpaid, over-sexed and over here”. I was witness to the huge numbers of American troops billeted in my home town before D-Day. They were much appreciated by the local population for presents of chocolate and tinned peaches, and the dance bands they brought with them. “I say, Hi, to you, Lt Jolly, should you ever read this”.

On page 190, Li Shu-Fan records what he saw in Kweilin, China:

From the mouth of the cave I watched the blank sky and a few fleecy clouds. Kweilin was to all appearances a dead city with not a person in sight. Suddenly, with the third air-raid siren I heard the distant droning of Japanese planes, and the nearer thunder of American fighter planes, which in groups of three streaked like silver bullets through the high white clouds as they roared over Kweilin to meet the Japs. I watched a flock of thirty Japanese bombers and Zeros heading for the American airfield just outside Kweilin, but before they could reach it to bomb and strafe, a handful of American fighters challenged them and a dozen dogfights broke out. Three of the raiding planes went down in flames while the others streaked off in the direction of their Canton fields.

A government official standing next to me remarked that the American fighters always gave battle regardless of how hopelessly outnumbered they might be. He remembered, he said, seeing six P-40’s challenge sixty of the Japanese. Although the P-40 was heavier and therefore less manoeuvrable than the Japanese Zero, it had stamina and could take a lot of punishment. The Zeros, which looked so much better in the air and which the Americans called “fancy dans,” had no protection for the pilots; they were comparatively easy to shoot down by the Americans who courageously bore right through their rain of machine-gun fire to pour deadly bursts into them. Everywhere along my journey to Kweilin I had heard my countrymen express their profound appreciation for these young Americans. Against great odds the handful of Americans had been battling the Japanese in defence of a country not their own, though they fought for the same great cause - freedom.

There were quite a few G.I.’s in Kweilin at the time. On the whole they behaved admirably, if at times a little ebulliently; and the Chinese took to them because of their constant good humour and fun-loving ways. On one occasion I watched a holiday procession of thousands of people who carried lanterns representing dragons, fish, fruit, and various animals, marshalled by bands of gongs, drums, cymbals, and reeds. It seemed to me that all the G.I.’s in the city had joined or were joining in the gay procession, encouraged and cheered by the onlookers.

However, if you met a G.I. alone and tried to engage him in friendly conversation, he would almost invariably look at you with cold eyes and walk away. Evidently they had been carefully briefed about avoiding the Japanese spies who infested Kweilin.

There are many more reports of American behaviour in the book.

It is hoped that one day the whole of this book will be available online. The life story of a very remarkable man.


Thank you very much for the detailed review of Dr. Li's memoirs.  As you wrote, the information in the book about the battle and subsequent Japanese occupation is invaluable.

The book was translated into Chinese and published in 1965, but it was not for sale.  A second Chinese edition was published in 2019 by the Commercial Press and should be available in bookstores.  Proceeds go to charities.  I hope the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital will publish a new edition of the book in its original language, i.e. English.

The book mentioned two of Dr. Li's residences -- White Jade and Green Jade.  There is a multi-storey building named White Jade at 51 Stubbs Road, Mid-levels, and I suspect it is the site of Dr. Li's house.  Green Jade was probably somewhere on the coast near Castle Peak Road around Tuen Mun.

It's available for borrowing here.

HK Surgeon
HK Surgeon, by tkjho