- Wartime Experience, Collective Memories, and Hong Kong Identity
A Rounded Picture of Wartime Hong Kong
This is a large book of just over five hundred tightly printed pages, the most comprehensive work written in English on Hong Kong under Japanese occupation during the Pacific War. Author Philip Snow starts with an Introduction that distinguishes three approaches in the existing literature on the topic. (1) The memoirs and histories written by the British largely ignore the fate of the vast majority of the Chinese and other Asian populations and explore mainly the European side of the experience: the defense of the colony; the "heroic resistance" and "stoic endurance" of Westerners in the internment camps; and "the daring escapes, the brave underground work and the savage Japanese reprisals." (2) The memoirs written by Dr. Li Shu-fan and Jean Gittins (Ho Tung's Eurasian daughter, who broadly follows the British account) are two exceptions to the wealthy Anglicized local elite, who have largely kept a "profound silence" (as many of them had [End Page 229] collaborated with the Japanese). (3) Popular histories and memoirs written by Chinese journalists and writers who fled the Colony in the early months of the Japanese takeover "tend to overlook the real dilemmas and pressures faced by the local Asian leaders"; they portray all Japanese as "uniformly fiendish," "ignoring the humanity that was shown by some individuals and the occasional efforts made by the occupation regime to pursue a relatively moderate or constructive line of policy" (pp. xxv-xxvi).
In contrast to the preceding approaches, Snow attempts to offer "a rounded picture of wartime Hong Kong from the viewpoint of all the communities": the British, the Chinese and other Asian minority groups, and even the Japanese. This extraordinarily well-researched book uses a large amount of primary source material in English, Chinese, and Japanese, including government records, newspapers, correspondence, diaries, memoirs, and interviews conducted by the author. Elegantly written and heavily documented with eighty-nine pages of endnotes in very small print (too small for my eyes), Snow's work is a narrative that offers many anecdotes and detailed descriptions of Hong Kong under Japanese rule. This eminently readable book published by a major university press has one technical defect, however: written for both scholars and a popular audience and containing hundreds of names spelled in Mandarin, Amoy, Cantonese, and Japanese, it badly needs a glossary of Chinese and Japanese characters. Without a glossary, it is like a tourist guidebook missing a map.
The Complexity and Intricacy of Nationalism
Chapter 1, "A Late Victorian Hill," provides a historical setting of prewar Hong Kong in fifty-two pages. First, it relates the uneasy relationships between the British colonial masters and their distrusted Asian subjects. The British cultivated and co-opted the "gentry-merchants," the little elite of wealthy Anglicized Chinese and Eurasians who came to play an intermediary role in the colonial relations. But the author is less well informed about some other aspects of the history of Hong Kong prior to World War II. For instance, he uncritically treats the accidental bread-poisoning incident of 1857 as evidence of Chinese nationalism against Britain, stating that "a Hong Kong baker named Cheong Ah Lum had attempted to poison the entire British community by putting arsenic in their bread" (p. 6). The fact that the baker's own family members were also poisoned by partaking of the bread was a powerful argument against any political motivation on the part of the baker.1
Similarly, under the rubric of nationalism, the author makes this observation on the 1925-1926 general strike and boycott against the British: Responding to the May 30th Massacre in Shanghai, "the Hong Kong Chinese struck back with one of the longest campaigns in industrial history. A hundred thousand Chinese workers, a fifth of the population, walked out of Hong Kong altogether. . . . The second, and more devastating, step was a total boycott of...