One of the downsides of having a boyfriend with a history degree is that he is prone to parroting “interesting” history facts whenever we’re out and about town (to be fair, I do the same with Disney trivia and Girls Aloud lyrics, so I shouldn’t complain). Having put off a trip to the dryly-named Museum of Coastal Defence for practically as long as we’ve been going out, I finally capitulated last week.
Someone in HK’s marketing department is clearly missing a trick, as the place would much better (if not entirely politically correctly) be named Hong Kong’s Wartime museum, hence instantly snagging an instant demographic of 7-14 year old boys (or just boys in general… the two twentysomethings I went with loved it). Built around Lei Yue Mun fortifications, the museum details how Hong Kong has defended itself from various attacks, invaders and general baddies over the years. It’s a little short on actual exhibits because the exhibition is the place itself; get your walking boots on if you plan on exploring every caponier, ditch, underground magazine, battery, gun, jeep, cannon and ruined wall with visible bullet holes in. (The torpedo station is well worth a look though and the views, as seen below, over Lei Yue Mun and across the harbour are stunning).
What did strike me is that, despite HK’s frequent attempts to make itself ever newer and shinier (as evidenced by the many front page stories of the government trying to tear down historical buildings), history really is all around. The museum details the remains and ruins of all the other fortifications around Hong Kong that are around if you care to look. OK, it’s not the palaces, country houses and spectacular cathedrals that Britain excels at and exist even in some of the sleepiest of villages but seeing and touching the bullet holes in that wall still sent a shiver down my spine. A 19th century hand-drawn map of Hong Kong is also startling in revealing how history exists in what’s not there – coastlines in today’s HK have been entirely redrawn as land has been reclaimed.
After a couple of less-interesting rooms about how Hong Kong defended itself from pirates in ye olden days (with an exhibit of embroidered armour made from silk and reinforced with ummm… cotton – looked beautiful, can’t imagine it keeping the arrows out), you hit the good stuff – World War II and the Japanese occupation (if by good stuff, you mean rivettingly horrifying). Connected to this is a special exhibition called Escape to Waichow, a truly amazing story that I knew nothing about and which more than justified the visit.
It’s a story that’s itching for a Band of Brothers television mini-series at least, if not a big screen epic. It’s a tale of the kind of unparalleled courage, bravery, fighting spirit, doggedness and sheer good luck that just doesn’t seem to happen these days. The actual exhibits are by-the-by (newspaper clippings, uniforms, medals) but it’s a story so remarkable that it could be written in Morse code and still remain enthralling. Time for some details (excuse factual inaccuracies, I’m working largely on memory)…
As the Japs were attacking and the surrender of Hong Kong looked inevitable at the end of 1941, an escape plan was put together to smuggle out some senior officers. Even before this party got on the boats, the route was fraught – their car was stopped by Japanese soldiers several times and they were only able to proceed thanks to one Henry Hsu, whom you’ll hear more of later, shouting ‘Banzai! Long live the Emperor!’ in Japanese. On reaching the harbour, they were told the MTBs they were supposed to have taken had left so they then had to rush to get sixteen gallons of petrol to power the ship that they could find (HMS Cornflower). I remember reading that some officers has been told to leave without the Chinese contingent but refused. Once they finally took to the sea, the barrage began – rifles, machine guns, shells.
They had to bail out. One was shot in both legs, another killed outright, another shot and drowned – Admiral Chan Chak only had one leg to start off with! As he handed someone else a lifejacket, he was shot in the wrist. As Henry Hsu removed his artificial leg (where he had HKD$40 000 stashed away) so Chan wouldn’t be weighed down for the swim, Chan shouted, ‘What should we do?!’ Hsu’s answer was ‘Pray to God!’; Buddhist Chan replied, ‘If we make it out of here, I’ll convert to be a Christian!’. Needless to say, one-legged Chan (with the help of Hsu, who was conveniently a champion swimmer too) made it ashore, became known as the Nelson of the East, was awarded a KBE and duly converted. My friend would also like to point out: ‘One leg, one arm = auto badass’. No prizes for spotting him in the photo above.
David MacDougall, of the Ministry of Information, was shot in the shoulder. He practically bellyflopped in, was unable to swim for long on his front, kicked his shoes off after nearly going under twice and managed to reach the shore – fully clothed, with a pistol strapped to his waist – on his back. Another of his colleagues swimming to shore heard one of their colleagues drown noisily behind him. All this while still subjected to ceaseless gunfire from the Japanese. [Another crew member who couldn’t swim and remained drifting on the boat even managed to get rescued – talk about lucky!]
Upon reaching China, they still had an arduous journey aided by guerrilla Chinese – through the jungle, some not wearing shoes, many suffering from injuries and illness, freezing at night. When they reached Waichow, they were treated to a hero’s welcome although it would be four years and many thousands of miles until some of the British finally made it home. The famous photo of the 68 escapees from all the boats (shown below), invaluable in tracking down descendants and piecing together the story of this ‘great escape’, was taken with the photographer’s last glass plate – luck again!
I’ve not even done this incredible story justice. Many of the survivors went onto great things in high office – mayors, governors, Hsu in the International Olympics Committee. Another became arguably the most famous Coastal Forces Commanding Officer of WWII. The majority of the Cornflower party led long lives, with many only dying in the last few years, in their late eighties and early nineties (Hsu in 2009). I’m not a great believer in faith, as can be evidenced by my reluctance in joining in my school’s prayer meetings (they occur in Chinese, I was once told we were praying the air conditioning got fixed – excuse me if I think God has bigger things to worry about) but you can say that someone out there wanted these men to survive. Wonderfully for us, they survived long enough to leave detailed accounts of their amazing lives – some in diaries and letters, others in audios that you can listen to in the museum and others simply by living long enough to procreate and produce sons, daughters and grandchildren who can also share their memories and are keeping their ancestors’ legacy alive (they retraced the journey last Christmas).
I couldn’t help but wonder what would be left of our generation now the paper trail has dried up. Seems unlikely a Google cache of my blog will still be about – will all that’s left of me be the worksheets I’ve made for kindergarten?! Then again, do we have anything worthy enough to write about that could warrant an exhibition?
Anyway, the Museum of Coastal Defence is well worth a visit, especially whilst Escape to Waichow is on (hopefully they will make it permanent). It’s a story too incredible to not learn about. Entry is just $10 (free on Wednesdays) and the whole shebang will take a good 2-3 hours if you read thoroughly and intend on exploring the fortifications (so a nice day would help). The charmingly amateur café would make England’s cultural bods shriek – hand-written signs on scraps of paper, plastic garden chairs, one bloke hand-cooking everything in the kitchen – but everything else is informative, professional and well… not as boring as expected. And at least I can now pre-empt some of boyfriend’s history trivia with a few sneaky facts of my own!
Museum of Coastal Defence, 175 Tung Hei Road, Shau Kei Wan, +852 2569 1500. Open 10am-5pm. Entry $10, free on Wednesdays, closed on Thursdays.
Check out this website, run by one of the survivors’ son and from where I got the pictures of the escapees, for more about the incredible (yes, I feel I haven’t used that word enough) Escape to Waichow.