A red-and-blue toy gun in his hand, five-year-old Giovanni Ng races around the small shelf in the hillside, pointing his weapon at the doors ahead. This is Station 10, where barely discernible storage rooms have been shaped into the rock face, some sort of defensive point maintained during the Japanese seizure of Hong Kong during World War II.
“I kill the bad guys,” says Giovanni, to no one in particular as he darts through the wooded space. In this particular place, the bad guys have been the Japanese, whose attack on December 8, 1941, through the verdant hills began shortly after the Pearl Harbour bombing. British, Canadian and Indian troops rallied until the city fell on Christmas Day, following 18 days of fighting against a vastly superior force.
“It was a hard time,” says John Ng, the boy’s father. “I have brought my son here to show him the history. We love Japanese culture but it is important to know both the good and the bad things.” This is one of the stops on the Wong Nai Chung Gap Trail that traces key points through ammunition depots, bunkers and firing positions in the Battle of Hong Kong, a battle that saw around 6,000 casualties on both sides.
Second World War history is writ deep in the woods and hills that girdle the heart of the bustling megapolis. Vertiginous towers and busy commercial complexes might be the best established leitmotifs of the city, but long before it became one of Asia’s economic tigers, Hong Kong was simply a British colonial town trying to hold out against a rampaging enemy.
“Today there is virtually no evidence in Hong Kong of the Second World War,” writes David Campion in an essay titled “The Colonial Past in Hong Kong’s Present”. “… It is a truism of Hong Kong that the old is constantly being torn down to make room for the new, and thus it may be easy to forget what happened during the war.”
According to a 2015 report in the South China Morning Post, the city’s flagship English daily, 53 military sites, buildings or structures here are considered historic, and of these 45 are connected to the Second World War. Not all are well preserved, says military historian Chi Man Kwong, who teaches history at Hong Kong Baptist University, but they need to be.
“To me, the most important reason for the preservation of these structures is that they encapsulated a crucial part of modern history: namely the history of the British Empire as well as the history of the rapid technological changes from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century,” he says. “Hong Kong is a curious place where you can find military structures built from the Victorian period to the Cold War. Together all these historical sites can be seen as one coherent group of historical structures reflecting that very turbulent age.”
A fortnight after the release of Dunkirk, one of the year’s finest films, it seems especially fitting to comb through Hong Kong’s role in the Second World War.
There are 10 stops on this hiking route and they can be visited on foot or by driving around. This trail really is the heart to understanding the impact of the war, with information points at each location in English and Chinese. For instance, Station 1 formed the entrance to the anti-aircraft battery while gun positions were located at Station 2 to defend the valley below. The hills are littered with “pill boxes” or concrete posts from which to fire ammunition. Near Station 10, the final stop, is a small memorial erected in honour of 58 medical staff of the St John’s Ambulance brigade who lost their lives.
On a sloping hillside that has several cemeteries, the Sai Wan War Cemetery is the main resting place for those who died defending Hong Kong or as prisoners of war. It contains 1,505 Second World War graves, including of 104 Indians, who formed the third-largest contingent. Before the cemetery unfolds downhill, the entrance hosts a memorial with names of more than 2,000 soldiers who died during the war but who have no known grave, including 287 from the Indian army. Hindus and Sikhs, who fought for Hong Kong and were cremated, have a separate panel cataloguing their names. The Indian soldiers’ graves are at the very end and some stand out with Urdu and Devanagiri engravings on their head stones. Some simply state in English, “A soldier of the Indian Army is honoured here.” The Indians buried here had served in the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps, the Rajput Regiment and the Hong Kong Singapore Royal Artillery.
The Stanley Military Cemetery and Hong Kong War Memorial is a ground maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. This is much smaller than Sai Wan and was originally set up in the mid-19th century after the British took the city; it features graves from the previous century as also of three soldiers who died in the First World War. It was reopened in the 1940s and contains 598 graves of Second World War servicemen, including those of five Indians.
Hong Kong University now comprises a warren of variously shaped buildings scattered on a slope, but its centrepiece is a baroque-style building that was completed in 1912. Inside, the main foyer contains a bust of a prominent Parsi businessman, H.N. Mody, who helped the university get off the ground. But when the war hit home in December 1941, this building served as a temporary hospital. It was significantly damaged during those years, its wooden ceiling ripped up and used as fuel. Classes resumed in October 1946.
The top is reachable by tram—which still curves ominously as it winds its way up. The building that now houses the restaurant was used as a guard post by the Japanese during the occupation. The Peak area itself was a posh residential enclave for the British shortly after the war. Nowhere is life on the peak more charmingly captured than through the eight-year-old eyes of Martin Booth’s narrator in Gweilo, his memoir of the immediate post-war years.