The last remnants of Hong Kong’s bloodiest day of fighting are now hidden behind an Esso station on Wong Nai Chung Gap Road. Walk past the fuel dispensers and the mini-mart and you’ll notice a weather-worn path leading up to a group of concrete bunkers tucked into the thick vegetation of the hillside.
When Japanese forces invaded Hong Kong on December 8, 1941, this site became the West Brigade Headquarters for three Allied battalions tasked with defending Hong Kong – mostly Winnipeg Grenadiers from Canada. They were ambushed on the morning of December 19, when Japanese troops sprayed the bunkers with machine gun fire and charged at them with bayonets. Three hours later, the Allied troops were ordered to retreat, but all but two were gunned down as they tried to escape.
Today, this is one of Hong Kong’s better preserved wartime heritage sites, part of a collection of ruins along the World War II Battlefield Trail, which works its way through the Wong Nai Chung Gap, which connects Happy Valley and Deep Water Bay. Signs explain the significance of each bunker, pillbox and trench, and at least some effort has been made to keep the military structures from crumbling into dust. But there are many other examples of these ruins in Hong Kong.
Some are visible, like the graffiti-covered pillbox at Waterfall Bay, or the bunkers at Pinewood Battery, where public barbecue pits are scattered amidst spooky ruins. Many more are hidden deep in the bush of the city’s country parks. Each one speaks not only to Hong Kong’s position on the front lines of World War II, but to its role as a critical piece in the great game of British military interests in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when Asia’s land and resources were being carved up by competing European and Japanese empires.
“There’s old stuff around that nobody knows about,” says Stephen Davies, a naval historian at the University of Hong Kong. Just over two years ago, a group of students stumbled across a previously undocumented naval boundary stone not far from the Museum of Coastal Defence. It turned out to be 172 years old, making it the oldest of the stones used by the British to chart their new colony – the first time Hong Kong had ever been mapped in a detailed way. “Concern with the past has simply not been on anyone’s radar,” says Davies.
“In general, wartime heritage has been almost totally ignored,” says Ko Tim-keung, who researches Hong Kong history. In 1996, he wrote Ruins of War, a guide to Hong Kong’s military relics, along with Jason Wordie, another Hong Kong historian. Their book was the first effort anyone had attempted to document all of the pillboxes, batteries and other battlefield remnants that litter Hong Kong’s hillsides. “No one ever mentioned these places,” he says.
I first spoke with Ko and Davies about two years ago, when Quebec City’s Morrin Centre was preparing an exhibition on the role of Canadian soldiers in the Battle of Hong Kong. The curator, Patrick Donovan, asked me to write an article about the battle’s legacy in Hong Kong. Like many people in Hong Kong, I was vaguely aware of the city’s wartime past, and I had often passed by military landmarks like the Cenotaph. But there was no official day of remembrance, and I had no real sense of what had happened or why.
“Hong Kong was and still is a place for making money, and you can’t make too much money from knowing history,” Ko told me as we sipped coffee near King’s Park, where the Gun Club Hill Barracks have stood since 1863 – home first to British soldiers, and now a small contingent of soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army. Aside from a couple of ceremonial cannons facing Austin Road, the barracks are a discreet presence, and if it weren’t for the two sentries posted at its entrance, or the soldiers’ occasional game of football, you would think it was abandoned.
Hong Kong was prepared for invasion well before the start of World War II, but in its early years as a British colony, the perceived threat wasn’t Japanese – it was Russian. “Were Singapore or Hong Kong taken, each part of the empire would suffer in proportion to its India and China trade,” wrote military analyst and former navy captain John Colomb in 1879. A few months earlier, a parliamentary defence committee, the Milne Committee, stressed the importance of shoring up military facilities in Hong Kong: “Its importance, both as a coaling and refitting station for the ships of Her Majesty’s fleet employed in protecting the extensive British interest in these seas, and as a safe port of refuge for commercial ships, cannot be exaggerated.”
New batteries were built throughout Kowloon and the north side of Hong Kong Island to protect against an attack from the sea. Even after Anglo-Russian tensions subsided, Hong Kong maintained the largest and best-funded garrison in the empire; military historians Kwong Chi-man and Tsoi Yiu-lun call it “the most important British base in Asia until after the First World War” in their book Eastern Fortress: A Military History of Hong Kong, 1840-1970.
That changed with the advent of aerial warfare. Coastal defence installations were neglected. When Ko Tim-keung was a child in the 1960s, his father took him to Devil’s Peak, which is crowned by the ruins of two batteries and a redoubt. Troops from India, Hong Kong and Singapore were stationed there during World War II, but by the time Ko visited, there was little to indicate its significance. “I asked my dad what this was and he only knew it had something to do with the war,” he says.
Ko grew up in a Hakka family from Ngau Tau Kok – “My ancestors were all stonecutters,” he says. Although his grandparents lived through the Japanese occupation, they never spoke about it. It wasn’t until Ko became smitten with Japanese pop culture in the early 1970s that he began to learn about Hong Kong’s military history. “I was fond of making scale models of Japanese battleships,” he says. When he eventually read Lasting Honour, a book about the Battle of Hong Kong published by veteran Oliver Lindsay in 1978, Ko set out to see what traces were left of the war in Hong Kong.
One of the sites described in the book is the Shing Mun Redoubt, but his first attempt to visit ended in failure. “Reading the government maps was hopeless,” he recalls. Maps simply labelled military features as “ruins,” with no additional detail. “Even at 1:500 scale, you can’t find anything – yet even village gravestones are labelled,” he says. After another two tries, Ko finally made it to the redoubt, a warren of concrete tunnels and buildings with passeways named after London arteries like Oxford Street and Regent Street. “I was so overwhelmed,” he says. “Why was there such a massive structure here without even a signboard to mark it?”
Since then, the efforts of historians and activists like Ko have led to better signposting. With a good map and a bit of sweat, it is now much easier to visit some of Hong Kong’s most significant ruins, including the Shing Mun Redoubt and Devil’s Peak. Guided tours offered by groups like Walk Hong Kong offer you the chance to walk in the footsteps of the soldiers who once defended the city. Other sites have been fully protected, such as the Lei Yue Mun Battery, which is now the Museum of Coastal Defence, and Little Tai Hang, a former ammunition depot that is now Crown Wine Cellars. A former 19th century explosives magazine that was once part of Victoria Barracks was restored and converted into the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, a unique blend of military history and contemporary architecture by acclaimed duo Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.
But many other military sites are still vulnerable. “A huge number were destroyed in the immediate postwar period for development and the remainder are in areas where that is not going to happen, but they suffering from weathering and landslips and so forth,” says military historian Tony Banham, whose Hong Kong War Diary collects information about the Battle of Hong Kong. He chalks this up the government’s time-honoured aversion to heritage conservation, along with years of lackluster historical education.
“I would meet people when I was out in the hills looking at relics who knew very little about it – and in some cases didn’t even know Hong Kong had been invaded in World War II,” says Banham. “Today that has changed. There is a lot of interest, a lot from expats like myself, but especially from younger Hongkongers who are interested in their roots.”
In most cases, it’s up to the community to save and protect military ruins. In 2004, an accountant named Ivan Tse took part in a clean-up campaign on Mount Davis, whose thickly forested slopes are littered with abandoned batteries and pillboxes. “We wanted to make it clean so people could go there and have a picnic,” he told me two years ago. “But as we were cleaning, we found something quite strange. It was full of military heritage but the government didn’t do anything with it.”
The next year, Tse founded Friends of Mount Davis to promote the hill’s heritage. “Mount Davis was quite unnoticed in the past, but now a lot of people go there to play war games, take wedding pictures, take a tour,” he said. “We get a lot of enquiries from people who want to know the history.” The group has lobbied the government to protect and restore the military ruins, but the response has been cool. But public interest is not; last December, more than 500 people took in the 2017 Mount Davis Orienteering Competition.
Meanwhile, there are even more ruins to discover than anyone had once thought. A large swath of land along the border with Shenzhen was once part of the Frontier Closed Area, which was off limits to the general public. When the Closed Area was drastically reduced in size in 2016, Ko took the opportunity to explore this untouched swath of land. “I was quite surprised to find out there were some extensive defence structures built by the Japanese probably during the last year of war,” he says. There’s also a British defence system built to guard against Chinese invasion after the Communist victory in 1949. “Recently there was a hillfire near Tsiu Keng in Lam Tsuen which revealed the extensive trench system [and] observation posts,” he says.
Ko has a grand idea for Hong Kong’s military heritage. “They have world heritage value,” he says. Crown Wine Cellars won a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage designation in 2007, but Ko thinks the city’s relics are worth a collective honour. “If you link them up you can tell a fascinating story of colonialism, of the aggression of European powers and later Japan,” he says.
But for now, it’s the same piecemeal approach as always, so to explore Hong Kong’s military heritage, you’ll have to check a map, hire a guide or make your way through the bush behind a petrol station.