The Fall of Hong Kong: Britain, China, and the Japanese Occupation

The Fall of Hong Kong: Britain, China, and the Japanese Occupation

by Philip Snow

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The definitive account of the wartime history of Hong Kong

On Christmas Day 1941 the Japanese captured Hong Kong, and Britain lost control of its Chinese colony for almost four years, a turning point in the process by which the British were to be expelled from the colony and from East Asia. This book unravels for the first time the dramatic story of the Japanese occupation and reinterprets the subsequent evolution of Hong Kong.

“Magnificent. . . . The clarity of mind Snow brings to his labor of storytelling and contextualizing [is] amazing.”—John Lanchester, Daily Telegraph

“Beautifully written, with many telling anecdotes.”—Lawrence D. Freedman, Foreign Affairs

“Very good. . . . [Provides] a much more nuanced picture than has appeared before in English of life among Hong Kong’s different communities before and during the Japanese occupation.”—Economist

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300103731
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 07/11/2004
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 524
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Philip Snow is an orientalist educated at Oxford University. The son of the writers C. P. Snow and Pamela Hansford Johnson, he is author of the acclaimed The Star Raft: China’s Encounter with Africa.

Read an Excerpt

The Fall of Hong Kong

Britain, China, and the Japanese Occupation
By Philip Snow

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2004 Philip Snow
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0300103735

Chapter One

A Late Victorian Hill

Pre-war Hong Kong: the British and their subjects

One September evening at the beginning of the 1930s the novelist Stella Benson was entertained by the Governor, Sir William Peel, at Government House in Hong Kong. 'After dinner', she confided to her diary, 'Lady Peel talked to me a long time in a flurried way about white ants.' Ninety years after its annexation from the enfeebled Manchu dynasty, this British trading colon), off the coast of south China was a soporific place. Ultra-modern in the late nineteenth century, when it was celebrated for its early acquisition of electric lighting and trams, it remained one of the principal business centres in the Far East and one of the top half-dozen ports in the world. But it had, none the less, been eclipsed by the glittering rise of Shanghai, the great Chinese city up the coast to the north, where Jardine Matheson, doyen of the renowned Hong Kong trading houses, had moved their head office. In 1931 the British invested around 130 [pounds sterling] m in Shanghai, compared with a mere 35 [pounds sterling] m in Hong Kong. While majestic piles arose on the Shanghai waterfront, the city of Victoria on Hong Kong Island had almost no buildings of more than four storeys, apart from the grand new headquarters of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, completed in 1935 with an Art Deco interior under the prodding of the Bank's general manager, Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, and duly referred to by the British colonists as 'Grayburn's Folly'. On the other side of the harbour the broad, tree-lined avenue built in the early years of the century by Governor Nathan ('Nathan's Folly') ran through the middle of Victoria's sister city of Kowloon, which was little more at this period than a quiet residential suburb dotted with market gardens. Beyond Kowloon the New Territories, the rural hinterland which the British had acquired from the Manchus on a ninety-nine-year lease in 1898, were still haunted by bandits and the occasional tiger.

Hong Kong ranked among the less distinguished postings for officers of the British Colonial Service. One contemporary referred to it as 'the dumping ground for the duds'. There was so little to do there that even such dignitaries as the Governor and his right-hand man, the Colonial Secretary, spent large amounts of their time attending to trivial matters which might have been left to their juniors. But for both the officials and the merchants who constituted the bulk of the expatriate population, Hong Kong was a place where the clubbable could enjoy a very pleasant, and very British, existence. There was polo and golf and tennis and racing at Happy Valley and diving from launches by moonlight in secluded bays. Governor Peel rode to hounds with the Fanling Hunt, splashing through the rice paddies in pursuit of the civet cat. For the ladies there were fetes and bazaars and a dogs' home and 'bridge luncheons' that continued for seven hours. On Twelfth Night, 1930, the community gathered at the recently opened Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon for a St George's Ball at which nostalgic declamations were made from Wordsworth while the Somerset Light Infantry played 'The Roast Beef of Old England' and a company of Beefeaters stood by in full regalia. To an acid outsider like Stella Benson, an associate of the Bloomsbury Group, Hong Kong was the acme of provincial philistinism, where life revolved around sport and gossip and the ladies displayed their 'cultchah' by sending a servant down to the library with a chit instructing the librarian, 'Please give bearer two books'. In short, 'an island of tenth-rate men married to eleventh-rate women'. But the majority of the British who lived in Hong Kong appear to have seen little reason for changing their lifestyle. It was, remarked an official of the Colonial Office in London in 1934, 'the most self-satisfied of all the colonies, except Malaya.'

Everyone did their best, seemingly, to look down upon anyone different. The officials were scathing about the expatriate merchants, whom they regarded as uncouth Scotsmen. They had little more use for the rest of the British professional classes. One Governor remarked of Sir Henry Polluck, a veteran lawyer, 'He is rather exceptionally stupid, but he is an honest, straightforward gentleman whom I have always found eminently reasonable when matters have been fully explained to him.' The merchants and other professionals took an equally scornful view of the officials, whom they considered to be fresh-faced tinkerers with a minimal grasp of local realities. Officials and merchants combined in despising the seedy expatriate policemen who came from the wrong sort of background and were to be found drinking samshu, a Chinese rice spirit, in Upper and Lower Lascar Rows. And all the British exhibited disdain for the various lesser breeds who shared the colony with them, jumpers on the bandwagon of Empire, the sprinkling of Eurasians and Portuguese, Parsees and Sindhis, Jews and Armenians, Frenchmen and other disreputable Europeans. They even appear to have taken a somewhat lofty attitude towards the 500-odd Americans. Sir Vandeleur Grayburn of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank is said to have commented, 'There is only one American in the Bank and that is one too many.' But in particular they looked down upon the 98 per cent of the population who happened to be Chinese.

They looked down upon them in a very literal sense. The most senior British officials and the leading merchants, the taipans, made their homes on the Peak, the cool heights overlooking Victoria, while the Chinese masses congregated below. Residence on the Peak was debarred to Chinese by the Peak District Reservation Ordinance of 1904, which provided that no Asiatic could rent property there, and by the Peak District (Residence) Ordinance of 1918 which, less explicit but more comprehensive, laid down that all applications to live there should be approved by the British authorities. No Chinese could so much as visit the Peak unless they had been invited or were delivering goods. Those invited to visit could take the Peak Tram, the spectacular cable car which led up to the heights, provided they had no objection to using a separate waiting room; but labourers delivering goods had to climb up on foot. And except when delivering goods, no Chinese whatever were permitted to ascend beyond a certain point on the Peak Road.

Numerous other measures, partly legislated and partly informal, kept the Chinese population below and apart. No Chinese could belong to the Hong Kong Club or the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club or the Hong Kong Golf Club at Fanling. The Matilda Hospital, completed in 1916, was whites-only; so were the Botanical Gardens; so were some of the lounges at the Hong Kong Hotel. On the Star Ferry, crossing the harbour, no Chinese could travel in the first-class section, or any Europeans in the second and third. At one period when the ferries were scarce and overcrowded, a correspondent proposed to the China Mail that 'European ladies ought to be given the first chance of getting a seat and the Chinese allowed on afterwards, if there is room'.

There was, naturally, no thought of according the Chinese any kind of political representation. Hong Kong was a classic Crown Colony in which the Governor wielded supreme power, qualified only by the need to report to the Colonial Office in London. He had a cabinet, the Executive Council, but did not need to take their advice; he had a parliament, the Legislative Council, but the members were unelected and over half of them were officials obliged to vote as he saw fit. The only elected personnel in the administration were two members of the ten-strong Sanitary Board. Even the British expatriates were thus allowed only the smallest chance to make their voices heard in the formulation of policies; and the Chinese were effectively denied even that. The franchise for electing the two members of the Sanitary Board was restricted to jurors, which for practical purposes meant people literate in English, ruling out all but a tiny minority of the Chinese.

In 1894-6, and again in 1916-23, expatriate groups had badgered the Colonial Office for 'constitutional reform' in the shape of elections to the Legislative Council, with a franchise designed to convert Hong Kong into a self-governing democracy. But the democracy they had in mind was for Europeans only. And in any case the Colonial Office said no. In a high-minded sort of way they felt it would not be fair to permit a few hundred transient British merchants to exercise unlimited power over the Chinese majority. A few steps ahead, as they usually were, of expatriate thinking, they could also see the result would be lethal. Any right of election conceded to the European residents would have to be granted to the Chinese as well; and that would be the end of British Hong Kong.

Debarred from any share in the making of government policies, the Chinese were also excluded from almost any significant role in carrying policies out. The Cadets, the elite who obtained all the senior jobs in the civil service, were recruited entirely in Britain from persons 'of pure European descent'; and even the lowlier posts in many government departments were filled by Europeans.

The same pattern prevailed in the economic sphere. The British broadly occupied the commanding heights of the Hong Kong economy. They owned the chief trading houses and the three banks authorized to issue currency and the major insurance firms. In addition they owned the colony's handful of heavy industrial undertakings (three large shipbuilding companies, the Taikoo Sugar Refinery and the Green Island Cement Works); and they ran the tramways and gas works and other public utilities. They also operated a number of leading department stores such as Lane Crawford and Whiteaway, Laidlaw and Co. British business interests had a mouthpiece in the form of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, but no Chinese company was admitted to this. No Chinese could aspire to as much as a clerical job in the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. Some other British firms did employ junior Chinese staff, but such staff were kept well in their place. In 1924 the manager of the Lane Crawford department store circularized his employees,

The first customer to arrive in a department should be served by the No. 1 of that department. Subsequent customers should be served by the European assistants until all are engaged, when Chinese and other Asiatics will be brought forward to serve.

British supremacy was not, however, quite as all-encompassing as it appeared at first glance. Here after all were a few thousand Europeans scattered thinly among half a million Chinese. With the exception of the Cadets, who received special language training, very few of the British, even after thirty years in the colony, spoke more than a few words of Cantonese, the local Chinese dialect. Most were limited to communicating with servants and rickshaw pullers in the horrors of pidgin English. Total control of Chinese life was impossible under these circumstances, and the British made no attempt to achieve it. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards the government increasingly left it to the Chinese community to handle their own internal policing, adjudication, social welfare and medical care through an assortment of institutions they had developed themselves - the neighbourhood associations (kaifongs) and the Man Mo Temple Committee, the Tung Wah Hospital and the District Watch Force. By the 1920s the government's management of the Chinese in Victoria and Kowloon was largely confined to a monthly dialogue between a solitary British official, the Secretary for Chinese Affairs, and the fifteen members of the District Watch Committee - a body which, originally formed to supervise the operations of the District Watch Force, the private Chinese police, had assumed representative powers within the community sufficiently broad to earn it the wry expatriate nickname 'the Chinese Executive Council of Hong Kong'. British control of the countryside was still more vestigial. The British dealt solely with the village headmen: as one District Officer put it, 'We just accepted the natural leaders we found.' There was no one in charge of agriculture, and the peasants were left to struggle along at the subsistence level (or sometimes below it). In a sense, then, the British presided over Hong Kong as all-powerful rulers; in another sense they barely ran it at all. And pushing forward within the framework of their own self-contained world the Chinese were starting in various ways to pose a steadily growing challenge to British hegemony.

In seizing Hong Kong for themselves the British had also created an admirable environment for Chinese merchants, who could pursue their calling in the comfort of an orderly city, protected by laws and free from the harassment and extortion they had endured at the hands of officials in mainland China. Within little more than a generation the results were beginning to show. By the mid-1870s it had been discovered that Chinese firms rather than the great British trading houses were handling the bulk of the entrepot trade through which the colony made its living. By 1881 it had further emerged that seventeen of the twenty highest ratepayers in the colony were Chinese, and that the Chinese contributed over 90 per cent of the colony's revenue. (This was one of the factors which helped to persuade the Colonial Office that they could not fairly accede to the expatriates' calls for a whites-only franchise.) Half a century later Chinese business interests were visibly eating into the old British-dominated sectors of the Hong Kong economy. Powerful Chinese-funded banks had begun to make their appearance, for example the Bank of East Asia, which was founded in 1918 and operated out of one of the few office blocks to compete in stature with 'Grayburn's Folly'. China Underwriters, launched in 1924, had joined the ranks of the British insurance firms, and the China Merchandise Emporium had risen up to compete with Lane Crawford. The public utilities which the British ran had Chinese shareholders, and so did the British-owned Green Island Cement Works: in 1924 a Chinese businessman, Li Tse-fong, one of the founders of the Bank of East Asia, was propelled on to the board of Green Island by a shareholders' revolt. Chinese entrepreneurs were displaying their ability to tackle heavy engineering projects: in 1912 Ho Kai and Au Tak formed a partnership to fill in the north end of Kowloon Bay, where the reclaimed land was in 1928 developed as Kai Tak Airport. And in the meantime the Chinese were making their own a newly emerging sector - light industry. In 1914 Jardine Matheson had given up on climatic grounds an attempt to operate a 55,000-spindle cotton mill, and the machinery had been moved to Shanghai.



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