This is the first of a four-part series on ageing Hongkongers whose personal history is interwoven with that of the city since the second world war. Our first story features unsung heroes of the guerilla forces organised by the Chinese Communist Party during the war to resist the Japanese occupiers.
Over the coming weeks we will also feature former chief secretary David Akers-Jones, who spearheaded the development of new towns in the New Territories in the 1960s and 70s, Martin Lee Chu-ming, founding chairman of the Democratic Party, and Hilton Cheong-Leen, the first ethnic Chinese chairman of the now-defunct Urban Council.
Through their recollections of the history of Hong Kong, they offer us valuable insights and lessons for now and the future.
Lam Chun was just eight years old when she became a child messenger for the local branch of the East River Column, a guerilla force put together by the Chinese Communist Party to fight the Japanese during the second world war.
Lam, who joined the Hong Kong and Kowloon Independent Brigade in December 1943, is the youngest of almost 60 surviving veterans of the group.
“When the Japanese army invaded Hong Kong in 1941, I was just a kid of around six years. It was my elder sister who got me to join the guerillas,” Lam said.
Witnessing the ordeal of her elder sister, Lam Chin, at the hands of the Japanese army sparked the decision to enlist.
Following the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in December 1941, the Communist Party had directed Lam Chin to go underground and infiltrate any enemy unit she could. She found a job as a cleaner at Japanese military quarters in Kowloon.
There, a Japanese officer tried to rape her. She resisted and her would-be rapist accused her of theft. Several Japanese soldiers then escorted her home and brutally beat her.
“My sister’s arms were all swollen and her clothes were torn apart,” Lam Chun said. “I could do nothing but stand behind my mother.”
Unable to prove her guilt, the Japanese eventually released her sister. “After the Japanese soldiers left our home, my sister told my mother she had joined the guerillas.”
After the incident her mother enlisted herself and Lam Chun in the guerilla group.
Lam Chin worked alongside Wong Chok-mui in the brigade’s international liaison unit. Wong, also known as Raymond Wong, was awarded a military MBE by the British in 1947. He had been a student at Queen’s College before the war, and was later appointed a senior aide to premier Zhou Enlai.
In 1949, Wong became director of the Hong Kong branch of Xinhua News Agency, Beijing’s de facto embassy in Hong Kong during British rule. The branch was the predecessor of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong.
Lam Chun was among the “little devils”, or child messengers.
“I was so small when I joined the army there wasn’t much for me to do,” she said. “They [the soldiers] asked me to take messages to places within a day’s travel.”
The brigade was formally set up on February 3, 1942 at Wong Mo Ying Chapel in Sai Kung.
According to a book on East River Column written by former Sai Kung district officer Chan Sui-jeung, the brigade had nearly 5,000 full-time members by mid-1943. They provided intelligence to the British Army Aid Group (BAAG), a British military intelligence unit then active in southern China. With firearms bought mostly on the black market, they fought the Japanese.
Lingnan University historian Lau Chi-pang said the brigade rescued many Allied prisoners of war and helped the Allied counteroffensive against the Japanese in the final years of the war.
“Compared with the British and Canadian soldiers who defended Hong Kong during the war, the East River Column is not given the recognition they deserve. It is probably because they seldom directly confronted the Japanese army,” Lau said.
Lam Chun later worked in a mobile hospital set up by the brigade to care for wounded guerillas.
“Many of them had bullets in their body that needed to be extracted. But they had to endure the operations without anaesthesia,” she said. “We were at war, and lacked all kinds of resources.
“But the most serious problem was we didn’t have enough medicine, especially anaesthetic.
“Their screams were terrible. So we gave them towels to put in their mouths as it could distract them from the pain.”
Lam is president of the Society of Veterans of the original Hong Kong Independent Battalion of the Dongjiang Column.
Most of the brigade members were villagers in the New Territories who spoke the Hakka dialect. Society vice-president Law King-fai, 89, was one of them.
“I was very upset when the Japanese army invaded Hong Kong. We strongly felt there was a need to join hands to defend our hometown,” said Law, who was born in a village in Sha Tau Kok.
He joined the brigade in March 1943 and was assigned to its marine detachment, which ambushed Japanese warships and stopped bandits from robbing fishermen. Law, who was 13 at the time, served as the bodyguard of the detachment leader.
In August 1943, Law and six other fighters took part in an operation against a Japanese warship in Xichong in Shenzhen.
“But our guns were no match for the Japanese. Two of us were shot dead,” he said. “But we later sank their ship with home-made explosives.”
Eleven members of Law’s family joined the brigade.
The society is planning to turn Law Uk, a house built by Law’s family in 1930 in Sha Tau Kok, into a museum on the anti-Japanese fighting. The house was rated a grade three historic building in January 2010.
Law Wai-fong, whose late father was a core member of the brigade, said they planned to organise exhibitions on the history of the group and her family’s role in the fight.
Liu Shuyong, senior research fellow at Lingnan University’s Hong Kong and South China historical research programme, and an adviser on turning Law Uk into a museum, said the exhibition was expected to be held at the renovated house in September.
This article Fighting for the future: the history of Hong Kong through the eyes of those who lived it first appeared on South China Morning Post