In 1941, Tan Kheng Yeang is a student at the University of Hong Kong as the maelstrom of war engulfs the Pacific Theatre. In December, after many days of brave resistance, the colony of Hong Kong finally falls to the Japanese, and Yeang is unwittingly caught up in that horror that ensues.
In this personal memoir, Yeang shares the hardships suffered by the people of China during World War II as the result of Japanese militarism. With a poignant narrative style, Yeang details the brutality of invading forces that seemed to know no bounds as they massacre, rape, and loot-turning a splendid city into a region of misery destroyed by the constant humiliations inflicted by Japanese soldiers. As the atrocities continue and the death toll climbs, Yeang details how he and his classmates made the fateful decision to flee to mainland China. As they embark on a compelling journey of human endurance and determination, the refugees struggle across China and face difficult climate conditions, unreliable modes of transportation, and primitive living conditions-all while fearing further pursuit and attacks by the enemy.
Dark Days shares an unforgettable glimpse into how rampart militarism forever changed the lives of ordinary people.
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Dark DaysReminiscences of the War in Hong Kong and Life in China, 1941–1945
By TAN KHENG YEANG
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2011 Tan Kheng Yeang
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBefore the Pacific War
Before the great port of Hong Kong fell into the hands of the Japanese aggressors in 1941, it had never formed the scene of any warfare from the day it started off its career as a British colony in 1841. In a matter of weeks, a splendid city became a region of misery and glad were its inhabitants to shake its dust from their feet and disperse themselves over the cities and villages in Free China. I lived there for years as a student of civil engineering at Hong Kong University; I saw the battle for the island, and for months afterward I witnessed and endured its terrors.
Hong Kong is situated just south of the Tropic of Cancer and is therefore a subtropical region. Its land, having a total area of nearly four hundred square miles, comprises the island of Hong Kong, which is only twenty-nine square miles in extent, a number of other islands in the vicinity, Kowloon on the mainland opposite, and the New Territories. It is the island, or rather the city, of Victoria located on its northern side that constitutes the important section of the colony. Hills on the island rise sheer from the shore toward its center. Kowloon is flat land, but it is ringed by mountains that extend to its hinterland of the New Territories.
How peaceful life was before the Pacific War! The daily round, the common task, possessed a charm that perhaps was not adequately appreciated, as men seldom realize keenly the value of what is taken for granted in the same way that presumably birds do not regard their gift of flight as wonderful. It was good to breathe then. It was pleasant to watch the teeming streets, the red buses swallowing and disgorging passengers as they paused uneasily, impatient to hurry on, the glitter of neon lights, the vessels of all nations in one of the finest harbors in the world, the panorama of tiers upon tiers of laughing lights before the spectator as he sat in a ferry launch crossing over from Kowloon to Victoria. There was an abundance of the necessities and conveniences requisite for the maintenance of a vast population, and prices—though they rose slightly under the shadow of war in other arenas—were reasonable.
Hong Kong possesses a pleasant climate; summer alternates with winter, but the former is not too hot nor is the latter too cold. Its scenery is glamorous. What view could be more enchanting than the rippling waters of Repulse Bay? What sunset could rival that as viewed from the Peak, the large, crimson sun low on the horizon, elfish enough to set in vibration the lyrical strings of even the hardest heart? What could be more exhilarating than a ramble through the New Territories with its pines and coves?
The only natural phenomenon that is grievous is the typhoon, which tears through the place and is liable to wreak extensive damage; ships in the harbor can be thrown on the rocks, and houses in the city have their roofs driven in and windows wrenched off. But natural calamities are never as disastrous as those engendered by man. There were then no scowling sentries holding grim bayonets to molest passersby and to deform the smiling face of the fair countryside. Barbed-wire barricades, in all their ugliness, and multitudinous prohibited areas were unknown. Everyone was free to roam where he pleased and gaze at any beautiful scene that took his fancy.
Numerous people flocked to the beaches in summer to enjoy a dip in the sea, for the place was bespangled with swimming resorts. Bathing pavilions were much in evidence. The populace took to swimming as their chief recreation. Even when dragon boat races were being held on the fifth day of the fifth moon to commemorate the death of a great historical hero, Ch'u Yuan, there was sure to be a crowd of boys and girls floating around near the piers, where the boats arrived to the clamorous accompaniment of drums, not guns. Launch picnics to the neighboring islands were popular. Nothing could equal the happiness of the participants as they stood, basket in hand, waiting for the arrival of the boats. One could also go for long rambles among the hills and trace the courses of the enticing streams.
The people of Hong Kong were nearly all Chinese, the preponderant majority being Cantonese. For the greater part, they or their forefathers came from the neighboring province of Kwangtung, to which the colony originally belonged. Their way of life and their ideas were basically Chinese and only superficially Western. They could go to Canton and easily slide into its society; they wouldn't find that they would be a square peg in a round hole in respect to anything. There was free movement between China and Hong Kong, and there were those who traversed the border regularly. Cultural compartmentalization was not likely to develop.
Hong Kong was primarily a commercial metropolis, and the people's lives centered on the earning of a livelihood and the acquisition of wealth. There was nothing to stir their interest in other directions. They left politics alone, being apparently quite content with their exclusion from all say in affairs of state. They experienced no yearning for cultural activities, and they produced no philosophers, scientists, or literary figures. They were pacific and would not know how to fight, for they had not received any military training.
Capitalism, pure and simple, constituted the basis of the economy. A few became rich, and there was a small class of professional men and a bigger class of small businessmen, but the majority were laborers who barely scratched a living. This urban proletariat was, however, not given to struggling for the realization of a communist society. It felt no urge to unite with the workers of the world.
Hong Kong was a free port devoted to the promotion of commerce, the import and export trade being its lifeblood. Its emporiums and shops sold goods from any part of the world, from Europe and America as well as China and other parts of Asia. Prices were cheap compared to those prevailing elsewhere. Swiss watches, Kodak cameras, carved camphorwood chests, radio sets, leatherware, carpets, embroidered fabrics, electrical appliances, silks and woolens, blackwood furniture, ceramics, antiques, ivory curios, jade carvings, jewelry—whatever merchandise was wanted by any person, resident or tourist, it was available.
The life in the streets was intense. Two-decker trams rattled along Des Voeux Road, red buses traveled everywhere, and taxis and cars claimed the same narrow streets as rickshaws and bicycles. Pedestrians jostled on the pavements, and crowds walked up and down the stepped streets. As one strolled along, one could see gray-headed fortune-tellers in skullcaps and long gowns revealing the mysteries of the future to anxious clients, craftsmen carving ivory balls with painstaking industry, calligraphists inditing scrolls, and shoe-shine boys happily plying their trade and running after potential clients. Open-air markets existed in certain streets, the stalls piled with vegetables, fruits, sausages, eggs, and a whole host of other comestibles, and customers moved around, among them girls carrying babies in crimson slings on their backs.
As the roads of Victoria were hacked out of the hillside, they were rarely straight or level. In the heart of the city, main streets could be joined by steep lanes constructed as flights of steps, these "ladder streets" the preserve of pedestrians. Until I became more accustomed to it, I felt it odd to stand on one road and look down on the roofs of the houses below. The jumble of streets presented a picturesque scene.
The buildings were a mixed lot of Eastern and Western styles of architecture, a phenomenon quite common in the cities of the Orient of the twentieth century. Multistoried apartment stores reared their concrete structures in all their straight starkness, and banks of gray granite built in the Victorian Age displayed their dreary respectability. Rows of brick shophouses flourished in all their congestion. Fine, spacious villas set in blossomy gardens were visible. So too were tenement houses of a few stories, containing cubicles choked with sweltering humanity. They had verandas from which protruded poles hung with washing, fluttering like flags in the breeze. Then there were the stalls in the streets in all their disarray, constructed of all sorts of flimsy materials, from timber to canvas.
To see the sights one could pay a visit to Victoria Peak, otherwise known simply as the Peak, which towered above the Central District to a height of more than 1,800 feet. This place was used not merely for recreation with a few houses perched here and there (as with so many hills in other parts of the world), but as a residential area containing the best mansions in the colony. Ascent up the steep hillside was in trams hauled up by steel cables. From the terminus, about 1,300 feet high, a splendid view of the city, the harbor, Kowloon, and the mountains of the hinterland in the distance saluted the enraptured spectator. One could go to Repulse Bay engirdled by green hills, the blue water lapping a glorious beach of fine white sand. There were other good beach resorts, such as Deep Water Bay, South Bay, Stanley, Shek O, and Big Wave Bay, but this was the most popular. Then there was Aberdeen, a fishing village for more than a century, situated on the southwest corner of the island, with a great assemblage of thousands of boats rocking in its narrow harbor, the homes of families for generation after generation.
The harbor, with its area of twenty-three square miles surrounded almost entirely by land, was justly celebrated. It was as picturesque as it was busy. Vessels sailed into it from the east through the Lyemun Pass, the name of a narrow strait between Shaukiwan in Hong Kong and the New Territories. The harbor was never free of ocean liners, freighters, launches, junks, and sampans in all their seeming disarray. It was a splendid sight by night or by day, and it was not necessary to go close to it to get a view, for one could look down on it from the hillside streets of the island.
One could cross over to Kowloon and the New Territories. A considerable area of Kowloon adjacent to the sea was flat land, but it was backed by hills. The original Kowloon, still remaining, was a walled town where the last of the Sung emperors fled from the pursuing Mongol barbarians. Not so busy as Victoria, Kowloon had a fine, lengthy street, Nathan Road, through which it was a delight to stroll. Boundary Street, a couple of miles from its tip, marked the commencement of the New Territories, a mountainous region devoted to agriculture and where the farmers' way of life remained unchanged for centuries. At Castle Peak on the west coast, it was delicious to sit and watch the junks returning in the evenings, the golden sunlight glinting on the sails and dancing on the blue water of the bay. At Shatin was a noted monastery known as the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery, located on a hill, and devotees had to climb innumerable steps to reach it. The so-called Amah Rock in this area was supposed to be the metamorphosis of a woman vainly watching for the return of her husband, a fisherman.
The conflict was ravaging its neighbor, China, which was engaged in a life-and-death struggle against the brutal assault of a militaristic power, and affected Hong Kong but mildly. Living within its peaceful confines, it was difficult to realize that not far away an epic struggle was being waged, a struggle between a poorly armed people, whose desire was to live at peace with all the world, and a horde of pillagers, insensate with the fury of militarism. The ceaseless streams of refugees from ruined cities—from Shanghai, Amoy, and Canton—formed the principal reminder of the war. The population rose to over a million and a half, and houses became congested. Destitute were many of these unfortunate refugees, as they fled pell-mell out of occupied territory. The many movements underway to collect funds for the Chinese cause also served to bring home the reality of war to rich and poor alike.
When the next scene in the tragedy opened, when the deluge swept over the European continent, Hong Kong naturally came to be officially at war with Nazi Germany, whose criminal action in attacking Poland lifted the curtain. But the island was too far away for Hitler even to dream of molding its destiny. It maintained the even tenor of its existence with hardly any change.
No doubt that existence was somewhat precarious. At any moment a fit of madness might seize the despoiler of the East and precipitate an attack. The colony was, as it were, perched on the brim of a volcano liable to be engulfed by boiling torrents of lava. The inhabitants lived in an atmosphere of illusive security, though they knew well enough their danger. At times excitement rose to fever pitch and nerves were strained. Several times the assault seemed imminent. On the evening when news reached Hong Kong of the fall of Canton, when the papers issued a special edition to announce the fact, war was brought perilously close. After the unexpected collapse of France, the Japanese assumed an exceedingly arrogant attitude. Being the opportunists they were, they massed troops on the border and threatened to launch their invasion. The populace thought that zero hour had come, and a deathly silence reigned in the city. The booking offices of the shipping companies were crowded, those who could afford it fleeing over the waters to a haven of refuge. Strangely enough, when the bomb actually burst, the inhabitants least expected it. After so many false alarms, they found it difficult to believe that this time it was true. In spite of repeated counsel from the government urging evacuation, few people departed.
The life of the students at Hong Kong University was enviable. Established by the public, with aid from the government, this institution of higher learning was designed to promote cultural understanding between East and West. From the start, it was intended not just to serve the local populace but also to contribute to the cause of education in general. Its nucleus was the Hong Kong Medical College, from which Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China, was the first to graduate. It attracted Chinese persons and those of other races from all over the Far East, from China, Annam, Java, and more especially from Malaya, which, including Singapore, contributed more than a third of the total number of names in the enrollment register in 1941.
The buildings occupied elevated ground in Pokfulam in the western suburbs of the city. The main buildings were located near the road, while the houses of the staff and most of the hostels were constructed at a higher level. Three of the hostels were run by the university and were built on terraces cut out of the hillside; they were placed one below the other. The highest was May Hall, named after a former governor of the colony. I resided there and, from my window, I enjoyed a superb view of the city below, the gleaming sea and its ships, and Kowloon, backed by towering peaks, softly blue in the distance. It was good exercise to tread the steps daily to attend lectures or go to town, but constant repetition made one fail to consider it as such; familiarity blunts perception.
The grounds with their woods and gardens, their winding and stepped paths, presented a fine spectacle. The trees and plants put forth lovely flowers, and the birds sang blithely as they flitted among the branches. The shrill music of the cicadas sliced through the air. Owls and bats could be seen on the wing at dusk. Nothing could be more enchanting than standing at some vantage point at twilight and seeing the day fade to its close. The golden light lingered on the trees while birds slowly wheeled in the sky above. The shadows lengthened, and one walked away in a mood of serenity, joy, and pensiveness.
The principal worry of the students was not imminent war but the imminent examinations. They were for the most part zealous in the prosecution of their studies, doubtless actuated by a worthy desire to enter the heaven of scholastic knowledge but just as certainly by the threat of sitting in anguish in the hell of failure at the annual tussle. When the critical period was due, a profound hush fell over the hostels. Soon after the meals were over, each person could be found in his cubicle, buried deep in his books and notes. They burned the midnight oil or, rather, consumed more watts of electrical energy far into the night, endeavoring to keep themselves awake by imbibing prodigious amounts of potent coffee. They were not interested in Hitler's stagy perorations, nor were they even remotely curious about Japanese culture.
Excerpted from Dark Days by TAN KHENG YEANG Copyright © 2011 by Tan Kheng Yeang. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Contents1. Before the Pacific War....................1
2. Those Eighteen Fateful Days....................8
3. Under Japanese Rule....................16
4. Exclusive Exploitation Sphere....................24
5. The Ugly Face of Conquest....................30
6. Discourses and Conversations....................37
7. Later Events....................44
10. In a Train....................65
11. The Sino-Japanese War....................71
12. Life in Kweilin....................78
15. An Inland Journey....................98
18. War's End....................118
19. Return Journey....................125
20. Hong Kong Again....................132