War, Occupation, Regeneration

February 15, 2010 — 恭喜發財! Gong Xi Fa Cai! Happy Year of the Tiger. Today is the second day of the new lunar year and the holiday break has finally given me the opportunity to sit down and finish long-overdue projects, including this blog. This is my first entry of 2010 and the most recent since I returned from a two-week holiday in the Philippines over the winter break. I had meant to write something shortly after I came back to Hong Kong in the first week of January, but the semester began a few days later and since then work and other demands have kept me busy. Unlike last semester, I am now teaching in addition to my other duties. My course is an upper-level history survey of the British Empire. I have fourteen students enrolled and we are already in the fifth week of classes. The course itself covers different aspects of British overseas expansion from the early Elizabethan settlements in Ireland to decolonization in the latter half of the twentieth century. I am enjoying the class and the chance to get to know some of the undergraduates at my host university. In many ways they remind me of my students at Lewis & Clark but they also bring a different perspective to the study of history than I have experienced with American students. It is interesting to get the Chinese perspective on such topics as the Opium War and western imperialism in China. Our course will end, fittingly, when we examine the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. I am curious to see how the study of the British Empire will change the way the students view themselves as Hong Kong Chinese, if at all.

Last fall, as the winter break approached, I decided to take some time away from Hong Kong and experience a different part of Asia. Except for a brief trip to London for a conference in September, this would be my first time outside of China since I arrived here at the end of August. The chilly, damp, and overcast weather of Hong Kong in winter, combined with the urban intensity of this place, made me partial toward selecting a warmer destination and something a bit more off the beaten path. I thought about Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam but eventually decided on the Philippines. My friends who have been to the Philippines have consistently described it as one of their favorite countries and many insist that it is among the most underrated travel destinations in Asia. So with two weeks off and nothing to do in HK I decided that was the place to go.

My first reaction when I stepped out of the airport in Manila was of being in an environment completely different than Hong Kong and yet immediately familiar to me. In less than two hours flying time I had journeyed from one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world into a typical megalopolis of the “developing” world. Manila is a crowded, polluted, and vibrant urban sprawl of eleven million people with teeming slums, open-air markets, posh suburbs, shopping malls, office towers, and dreadful traffic. As my taxi inched through the gridlocked streets from the airport to my hotel in Malate near the waterfront I looked out the tinted windows at the scene outside. Dozens of motor scooters weaved in and out between rickety, overloaded and smoke-belching trucks. Street vendors, mostly children, walked alongside the columns of stopped cars peering into the windows to hawk their wares. Street-side stalls were selling newspapers and hot food to sidewalk pedestrians while stray dogs wandered around aimlessly. Above the traffic were billboards in Tagalog advertising home appliances, banking services, and luxury condos. These showed happy Filipino families enjoying the trappings of a lifestyle well beyond what most of the people on the street below could ever expect in their own lives.

In short, this was exactly the environment I have experienced many times before and in which I have spent years of my own life: a Third World metropolis. It reminded me instantly of Mexico City, Delhi and, most recently, Nairobi. Even the local transportation had a familiar feel. The streets of Manila are crowded with silver elongated jeep vans called “jeepneys.” These cost only a few pesos to ride and are packed with commuters, schoolchildren, and shoppers who jump on and off at each stop for the few seconds that the driver slows almost to a complete stop. The jeepneys are painted bright colors and festooned with decorations, portraits of famous people, and the occasional Bible verse. They reminded me a lot of the buses in India and Mexico and, especially, the “matatus” of Nairobi. While the matatus I saw sported pictures of Barack Obama, Kofi Annan, and Nelson Mandela, the jeepneys of Manila display images of Catholic saints and local pop stars and athletes. But the most common jeepney mascot, by far, is Manny Pacquiao—or “Pac-Man”—the international boxing sensation from Mindanao.

This immersion back into a world less sanitized and safe than what I have become used to in Hong Kong was something I found strangely invigorating. I could feel my levels of adrenaline and vigilance increasing by the moment, but I was excited about once again traveling in a new and unpredictable country. My first night there I stayed at a very pleasant guesthouse converted from a Spanish villa and that evening I walked around the old section of Manila. The next day I boarded a flight for Cebu City and once I arrived there it was another three hours by bus through palm glades and farmland to Malapascua Island to enjoy six days of scuba diving and relaxing by the beach.

Malapascua Island is situated in an inland sea surrounded by the larger islands of Cebu, Leyte, Negros, and Luzon. Diving in these waters was extraordinary. Each morning my dive group would depart from the beach on a large outrigger called a bangka and head off to the nearby reefs and islands. The marine life in these reefs is incredibly diverse and in twelve dives over a span of six days I managed to see dozens of new species including thresher sharks, sea snakes, and moray eels. Malapascua itself is a quiet white-sand, palm-fringed paradise and in the evenings after diving I would dine with the other divers at one of the beachside restaurants. On Christmas Eve I attended the standing-room-only vigil mass at Nuestra Señora Virgen de los Desamparados (Our Lady of the Forsaken), the local Catholic parish. The congregation made a great effort to welcome visitors and, although I was away from my family, it was a wonderful way to celebrate Christmas. Overall, the people of the Philippines were among the kindest and friendliest I have ever met anywhere in my travels.

The second part of my dive excursion was on Busuanga Island just north of the larger island of Palawan, which is a long thin section of the Philippines that stretches southwestward almost to Borneo. It is the least developed region in the country and one of the most spectacularly beautiful places I have ever seen. Jagged peaks rise hundreds of feet straight up from the sea and form a maze of inlets and coves. These giant rocks are covered with vegetation that from a distance makes them look like they are coated in dark green velvet. The colors are all the more vivid when set alongside the ribbons of white sand beaches and azure water. Even before we landed, as I stared down from the window in the propjet on the flight from Manila, I was amazed at how verdant, rugged and undeveloped the island seemed compared to Luzon and Cebu.

In Busuanga I stayed in a fishing village called Coron Town, a coastal hub that serves as the departure point for diving nearby wrecks—a local attraction that brings in divers from around the world. In the waters around Busuanga are the sunken hulls of at least a dozen Japanese warships. Most of these were sunk on the same day, September 24th, 1944, as the fleet tried to sail out to sea from the shelter of Coron Bay. The ships were relocating to support the Japanese defense of Manila but had hardly made it more than a few miles out from their anchorage when they were struck by repeated air attacks from the US Navy. The planes were part of Carrier Task Force 38 commanded by Admiral Halsey which had been waiting for the Japanese to sail out of Coron. Most of the ships lost were auxiliary supply vessls. The fact that they were sunk so close to shore means that the wrecks now rest at depths shallow enough that they can be reached by advanced open water divers.

In the six days I was in Coron I made eleven dives and saw eight different wrecks. These dives were deeper than my earlier reef dives, and the visibility and diversity of marine life was not as good, but in their own way they were an even more awe-inspiring experience. On these dives I was part of a group of four or five other divers accompanied by a local dive master. As we descended, the water became greener and murkier but when we neared the bottom the hull of the sunken ship would come into view. It was a breathtaking sensation to see these enormous hulks gradually appear in front of us. Some of them were resting on their keels while other lay on their sides. Their superstructures, cranes, and deck guns protruded from the hulls and some of the cargo holds still contained vehicles and oil drums. I had a particular interest in seeing these wrecks since earlier in my life I spent several years in the navy, most of that time on a destroyer as the ship’s DCA (Damage Control Assistant). It was a bit eerie to see firsthand these ships that had actually been sunk in battle; their watertight hatches and doors blown open by explosions or the force of water pressure and the riveted sections of the steel bulkheads pulled apart or crushed. Our group of divers seemed tiny as we swam above and alongside these wrecks and, in a few cases, even inside the open cargo holds.

The impact of seeing these wrecked vessels up close is hard fully to describe. In one instant I was conscious of the forces of nature and history, the passage of time and the humbling insignificance of human affairs when set against the leveling power of the sea. These warships, once the pride and terror of the Pacific, now lie powerless and prostrate on the bottom of the ocean, slowly being reclaimed by nature. Their enormous hulls are encrusted with corals and anemones while schools of fish glide effortlessly through the twisted and rusting steel (see below). It was an odd feeling, both calming and eerie, to swim above and into the wrecks, the silence punctuated only by the slow rhythm of my breathing and the bubbles coming out of my regulator. It reminded me of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” that staple of high school English classes, about an ancient potentate whose monuments to his own vanity centuries later stand as forgotten ruins in a vast desert.

"Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

As an historian, I found the ghosts of the Second World War especially present throughout my journey in the Philippines, although maybe this is because I made it a point to seek them out. Apart from the wreck diving in Coron, I also visit the island of Corregidor and the section of Manila called “Intramuros,” the heart of the old Spanish colonial capital. Corregidor, in particular, was somewhere I had long wanted to visit and it was indeed a fascinating and haunting place. I took the early morning ferry out there and spent the day touring the ruined barracks and batteries along the hillsides of the island. The tour included entry into the underground command center and hospital used during the defense of the island as well as the Filipino-American war memorial and the Japanese cemetery. The views from the highest point were spectacular, especially northward toward the Bataan Peninsula. Even the small pier that Douglas MacArthur used for his evacuation in March 1942 has been left untouched. The Philippines park service has done a nice job preserving Corregidor. They have made just enough improvements so that the entire island is easily accessible for visitors but have otherwise left it alone and not spoiled it.

In Manila, the main war memorial is in Intramuros (literally “inside the walls”). This is the oldest section of the capital and was once a walled city similar to the ones that the Spanish built in San Juan, Havana, Cartagena, and St. Augustine during the height of their empire in the sixteenth century. Before the war, it was one of the great cities of Asia whose palaces, convents, and cathedrals distinguished it as a Madrid or Toledo of the Orient. When the Japanese invaded in 1942 they made Intramuros the center of their occupation government and it became the site of their last stand in 1945 as the Americans completed their campaign to retake the Philippines. The liberation of the Philippines, which began in Leyte in October 1944, finally ended the following February with the fall of Manila. The battle to retake the city resulted in a fierce Japanese defense by tens of thousands of soldiers (who fought almost to the last man) and one of the most punishing allied bombardments of the war in the Pacific. In the end it was among the bloodiest single campaigns of the entire war and resulted in a staggering 100,000 civilian casualties. Intramuros was almost completely destroyed (in the entire war only Warsaw fared worse in damage than Manila among major allied cities). Yet as I wandered through the pleasant streets of Intramuros I thought to myself that there is, strangely, no lasting sign of the war. There seems to be no remnant there like the cratered foundation of the Valletta Opera house in Malta, the skeletal dome of the industrial promotion building in Hiroshima, or the blackened spires of the cathedral in Cologne. In fact, old Manila has been rebuilt, but in a way that has never approached the splendor of its prewar existence. Historical photo displays along the streets of Intramuros show sobering before-and-after views that confirm this reality. Some local historians even suggest that psychologically the city never recovered from the war and that sixty-five years later there is only a squalid, second-rate Asian capital remaining where once stood one of the most beautiful and cultured cities in the world.

Whether or not Manila’s best days are behind it is of course debatable, and I am hardly in a position to judge, but there is no doubt that, by comparison, Hong Kong’s trajectory has been heading steadily upward. My first few days back in HK after two weeks in the Philippines reminded me of this reality very quickly. Yet this city too has had its dark days and, while it was spared the agony and battering of Manila, the experience of Japanese occupation in Hong Kong during the war was an ordeal as severe in quality, if not in scale, as far as the suffering of its people was concerned. Today, however, amid the prosperity, energy, and self-confidence of Hong Kong it is difficult to find any remnant of the experience of the war. The Hong Kong Museum of History and the Museum of Coastal Defence do an admirable job educating their visitors about what happened in the war, but the public memorializing of that experience is virtually non-existent compared to what has been done in places like London, Dresden, or Manila. There may be several reasons for this. The first is that the loss of Hong Kong was a bitter humiliation for the British Empire that was only exceeded in the East by the fall of Singapore a few months later. The second is that during the occupation the territory’s most energetic resistance came from Chinese communists. The third and most significant reason may have to do with the fact that British colonization in Hong Kong, as elsewhere in Asia, rested on the rarely questioned presumption of cultural and racial superiority of westerners over Asians. This presumption was completely demolished during the war and it could never again be believed.

The fall of Hong Kong began when Japan attacked the territory on December 8th, 1941 (this was actually the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor since Hawaii and China are on opposites sides of the international dateline). Japanese land forces smashed their way across the border into the New Territories and within days had moved south and taken Kowloon. The British army units on Hong Kong Island had earlier been reinforced by Indian and Canadian regiments and they managed to hold out for two weeks, but the constant air attacks, the prospect of high civilian casualties, and the knowledge that they were outnumbered three to one and would not be relieved anytime soon forced them finally to surrender. The capitulation took place on Christmas Day 1941, just a few months shy of the one-hundredth anniversary of British rule over Hong Kong. Britain’s great trading center and flagship colony in East Asia was now lost to the enemy. To add further insult, the governor of the colony, Sir Mark Young, was forced to sign the surrender document in the lobby of the posh Peninsula Hotel—a symbol for the British and Chinese of Hong Kong alike of the former’s prestige, power, and racial exclusivity.

The three and a half years that followed were the harshest in the history of Hong Kong. British soldiers and civilians were rounded up and put into prison camps in which many perished from disease and malnutrition. Chinese residents of the territory lived in fear of the mercurial cruelty of their new colonial masters. Japanese soldiers randomly killed civilians in the street for no apparent reason other than to ensure that the population lived in a state of constant terror. Women and girls of all ages were randomly raped for the same purpose as well as to allow Japanese commanders a way to indulge the baser instincts of their battle-hardened troops and to keep their morale up. Those civilians who escaped such direct brutality were forced to submit to food rationing that often reduced them to near-starvation. They were also made to exchange their Hong Kong dollars for Japanese occupation currency whose unstable value caused sudden hyperinflation crises. The forced currency exchanges helped pay for the occupation but resulted in the widespread loss of personal savings for rich and poor alike. Fuel and medicine shortages meant that flu outbreaks and winter dampness carried away even more of the weakest and hungriest people, mostly children and the elderly. Japanese-run schools and newspapers attempted to indoctrinate residents with a sense of loyalty and respect for the new rulers of East Asia, meanwhile thousands of unemployed Hong Kong civilians were deported to distant parts of China to work as forced laborers throughout the Japanese-occupied areas.

Resistance throughout the occupation was minimal but small bands of partisans did manage to hide out in the wooded hills of the New Territories and wage sporadic attacks on Japanese military and government facilities. Most of these people were communists and operated independently of any support from the British, Americans, or nationalist Chinese. Japanese reprisals for partisan activities were directed against the civilian population but the attacks did not stop, nor did they have any significant effect on Japanese control over Hong Kong. The combined effect of the massacres, starvation, illness, and deportation over three and a half years resulted in a loss of more than half the population. Even the growing prospect of a Japanese defeat as the war progressed did not guarantee a return to the status quo ante for Hong Kong. The nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek made no secret of his desire to see Hong Kong returned to China immediately after the war and President Roosevelt seemed willing to concede this to America’s ally, the generalissimo. When the Japanese surrendered in August 1945 the British fleet in the Pacific made a beeline to Hong Kong at full speed in order to prevent the Americans from arriving there first. British soldiers liberated their fellow countrymen and women and as well as what was left of the Chinese population. The Japanese occupation governor of the territory, General Takashi Sakai, was brought before the Allied war tribunal and executed in 1946. In the end, British rule in Hong Kong was restored, but their image would never be the same.

Understanding the experience of the Second World War in such places as Hong Kong and Manila does help put a lot of things in perspective. The resilience of human beings is indeed extraordinary. Manila’s death toll in 1945 of 100,000 is more than thirty-three times the total number of people killed in the September 11th attack on the United States. Today Manila is a vibrant and energetic metropolis, although, admittedly, the recovery was slow and perhaps never fully complete. In Hong Kong the postwar recovery was remarkably swift. The apparatus of British administration was reestablished within a few weeks of the Japanese surrender and economic prosperity returned so quickly that within three months all rationing and price controls were ended. Much of the prewar colonial racial segregation ended as well. The spectacle of British humiliation at the hands of an Asian power ensured that any assumptions of western racial superiority were gone forever. Whites-only beaches in Hong Kong were abolished and Chinese people were allowed to buy property anywhere in the territory, even in the old colonial enclave of Victoria Peak.

Today there is virtually no evidence in Hong Kong of the Second World War. Maybe time does indeed heal all wounds—including physical as well as psychological ones. And maybe this can happen more quickly in a place like Hong Kong, with its relatively short history and its orientation toward the future rather than the past. Here the old is constantly being torn down to make room for the new and it may be easy to forget what happened in the war. The one exception to this is the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence set inside the remains of the old harbor fortress built in 1887 by the British at Shau Kei Wan. For decades this massive redoubt on Hong Kong Island guarded the eastern entrance to Victoria Harbor and today its pillboxes, bunkers, and heavy artillery are preserved for tourists to wander around (see below). The Canadian war cemetery is located nearby on a quiet hillside facing the water. It is only a short distance from the ubiquitous traffic and high-rise buildings of the city, which even here can still be heard and seen in the distance. Yet, like the walled villages of Fanling or the fishing settlements on the outlying islands, it preserves well the history of Hong Kong for those with the patience to search it out.

Wreck of the Okikawa Maru, sunk 24 September 1944
Off the coast of Coron, Palawan, Philippines

Coastal battery at the Shau Kei Wan Fortress on Hong Kong Island
(currently the HK Museum of Coastal Defence)