My Most Unforgettable Moments, A Hong Kong Experience
A Reunion Address to her Yenching Class (c1976)
by Katharine Hsü Kan
One day we spotted three brown figures waddling in the woods in Caroline Hill. We knew for sure that the Japanese had already landed, although the specials of the Hong Kong newspapers still gave reports that both Chinese and British reinforcements were approaching the island.
Because of Grandfather’s indulgence, my two boys, aged 6 and 7, had made-to-order replicas of the Chinese army uniform. Deeming it too dangerous to keep such things at home now, we ordered the servant to throw them away. No sooner had the servant returned to the kitchen from outside, when three Japanese soldiers followed her in. One of them pointed a pistol at my husband’s chest and demanded Chinese currency and valuables such as fountain pens and watches. We women happened to be in the next room. My mother-in-law hid my two boys and me under the big double bed.
The Japanese soldiers then did not understand the value of different currencies. They threw down the Hong Kong money my husband gave them and kept calling for “Kuo Pi” (Chinese currency). A sudden brainstorm gave my husband the idea of tactical détente, and he told the soldiers that if they followed my brother-in-law, he would get some “Kuo Pi” from my mother-in-law’s flat down the terrace. Then we could have time to get some “Kuo Pi” out from the hiding place. These soldiers were simple minded and lusted for quick riches, and they followed my brother-in-law out without question. He took them up and down the terrace several times to gain time for us to get money out. After a while, the soldiers became impatient and went some other way to look for a quick harvest. Thus we were spared.
That evening more Japanese soldiers came from the Gendarmes’ Office “inviting” my husband to a meeting on the Pacification of the Colony. He never came back. Days passed by without any news of his whereabouts and how he was. We were greatly worried, but no one could supply any news.
Everyday we lived in fear, especially when Japanese soldiers and grooms roamed the streets looking for women and wealth. As our flat was dimly lighted with self-made oil lamps, even shadows looked threatening.
The impending danger made me seek refuge in God and I have become a devout Christian ever since. Every night before I went to bed, I dared not go to sleep without kneeling down in front of my bed with my two boys beside me, praying for divine guidance and protection, and singing hymns softly. My most favorite hymn was “Abide with Me”.
One night while I was praying for Divine Guidance, with tears streaming down my cheeks, I seemed to hear a voice saying to me that I should go to the Japanese Army Headquarters at the Hong Kong Hotel to look for my husband. At first my in-laws strongly opposed the idea, but upon my repeated insistence they relented. A nephew and his Japanese speaking athlete friend would accompany me on my adventure.
One early morning we three set out on foot, for there was no means of transportation then. I prayed silently all the way. As we walked along the bund, we saw corpses floating in the water. It was a gruesome sight. At every sentry post, we had to salute and bow, and turn around to be searched. I felt outraged and humiliated when those dirty hands touched me, although I was wearing thick clothes.
We arrived at the Hong Kong Hotel around 11am. At the entrance the guards pointed their bayonets at us to make us halt. I told them my mission and a Captain came out to see me. He asked me to follow him in, but kept my two companions waiting outside. I told him that I wanted to see the Commander of the Japanese Occupation Force in Hong Kong to find out whether my husband was with them. He told me that my husband was there but I was not allowed to see him.
I was in despair and wished to cry, but God seemed to put courage in me. I spoke boldly saying, “The Japanese occupation of Hong Kong does not necessarily mean that Japan has won the war over China. Suppose one day your army should be defeated…” Before I could finish my sentence, his face reddened with rage, and he pulled out his sword out of the scabbard and banged it on the table, screaming, “Japan will never be defeated!”
I cut him short saying, “Nobody can tell now. Suppose you are captured one day by the Chinese, do you think that you won’t expect your wife to come to visit you and that we Chinese admit her?”
He was daunted by my unusual courage and gave in. Thereupon, he said he would take me to see my husband for only 20 minutes during which we were allowed to talk about family affairs and nothing else, and that I was to have no liasons when leaving, and that I would be followed.
I had stayed in the Hong Kong Hotel many times, and had helped stage charity balls many times. I knew all the back stairs, elevators and nooks and corners. But the Captain had difficulty finding the way. He took me round and round, going through corridors and up and down stairs. His heavy army boots clacked and the scabbard of his long sword clanged in the silence. I could only follow him with my heart in my mouth, praying silently. Finally we came to a corner room on the fifth floor with a sign on the door, “Manager’s Office”. Two guards were standing at the door. The Captain kicked open the door. There was my husband. He was so startled at seeing me that for a few moments he was speechless.
We were left alone to talk briefly. We whispered to each other, for fear that there might be a tape recorder hidden somewhere in the room. My husband told me who else was confined in the hotel and what should be done under certain circumstances. After we had talked for about 20 minutes, the Captain returned and took me out. We went home safely. The trip was exhausting and nerve-racking, but rewarding as I could report to my in-laws that their son was safe in what was a “first class concentration camp.”
About two months later, the puppet government in Nanking found out who was in that camp, and tried to induce some of them to join their regime to bolster its morale and prestige. My husband was one of those earmarked for special treatment as a measure of inducement. I was allowed to visit more often, even with my boys, and had hearty meals there together. The children were happy to share the foreign food with their father, although the meat and chicken were half spoiled because there was no electricity to run the cold storage at Dairy Farm. Finally, after 102 days of confinement, my husband was released.
Knowing that the puppet government in Nanking wanted him to serve in the foreign service, my husband immediately asked the Japanese to arrange for us to leave Hong Kong for Kwangchow Bay, with the intention of escaping himself after we had left. He only told me about his plan, not even his parents and children lest it should be divulged inadvertently. So we left Hong Kong with heavy hearts aboard the Hagukin Maru.
When the steamer docked at Kwangchow Bay, I took a rickshaw to a friend’s place where we hoped to pass the night. After half an hour’s bone breaking ride over the unevenly paved streets, I finally arrived, but my heart almost froze within me when I saw what used to be a house now just a heap of rubble with crooked windows and broken doors. I took the same rickshaw back to the wharf where my folks were waiting. As the hotels were packed with refugees, I went from one to another to look for accommodation. Finally, I found two dingy rooms in a third class inn. It was better than sleeping on the street which many refugees did.
On the third day, my husband came in heavy disguise. My children and in-laws looked at him with open mouths, as we could hardly recognize him. He wanted to contact a man from the Chinese Government’s Intelligence Bureau in Chungking, the wartime capital, but forgot his name, or rather the name he used, for most of people of some importance in those days never used their true names. We decided to cross the Chuan Chin Chiao (Inch of Gold Bridge), separating French controlled Kwangchow Bay and Chinese territory, the following morning, regardless whether we could find the contact or not.
But while we were repacking our baggage from the steamer, now scattered on the floor of the inn so that the coolies could carry smaller 80-catty bundles on their poles, the man for whom my husband was looking came running in to look for us. He brought the alarming news that when the Japanese Army Headquarters discovered my husband had escaped, they dispatched Marines in pursuit and these Marines were some 20 li (about three “li” to one mile) behind. He said that we must leave Kwangchow Bay immediately.
In great haste and confusion we completed repacking and hired a number of sedans and coolies. As it was late, we were lucky to be able to get enough of them. We left with heavy hearts with soldiers in pursuit, not knowing what we would encounter at the bridge, where the border officers were well reputed for their greed. But as it was long after office hours, there were no customs officials at the bridge. The moment we crossed the bridge, we were finally safe on free Chinese soil.
A U L
P H O T O G R A P H Y
all images © 1995-2006 Paul W.H. Kan
Hong Kong, SAR
People's Republic of China