Unofficial Histories of Hong Kong
In yesterday's post A Child Learns History in Hong Kong, the point was that Hong Kong children have to read a lot of unofficial history (野史) in order to supplement their knowledge. Here I will show some examples about what some of these unofficial histories might look like. Please be mindful that these pieces of history come in many different forms besides history books: radio drama series, television drama series, movies, cartoons, comic books, novels, teahouse story tellers, Cantonese operas, etc.
My examples will be drawn from a series of paperbacks published in the 1980's with titles like "Back To Hong Kong." These are collections of short essays originally published in Hong Kong newspapers. Is the information accurate? I cannot vouch for everything, but the items that I am personally familiar with are fair and accurate.
Is the selection of information biased? None that I can detect, and I will give a couple of examples. The first example is directed against the British colonialists and the second example is directed against the pro-Beijing 'patriots.'
When Hong Kong first became a British colony, flogging was a common practice used to punish criminals. The instrument was the notorious Cat O' Nine Tails (aka Regulation Cat). The maximum number of strokes was 150, and were carried out in three separate occasions of 50 each during the first six months of the prison term. Flogging may also be used by prison officials to punish the prisoners for disciplinary reasons at the jail.
At first, both European and Chinese prisoners were flogged in a racially equal way. In 1866, the European named John Thompson was sentenced to 3 years and 150 strokes for breaking into a house to commit robbery. The western community rose up to protest the cruel and inhumane punishment. Although the government did not respond to these protests, no other European was ever flogged afterwards. Flogging became the exclusive domains of the Chinese and Indians.
In 1877, the new governor Hennessey took office and immediately faced the problem of two Chinese prisoners dying after being flogged. According to the records, the first prisoner was named Wong A-Kai, and he died from tuberculosis two weeks after being flogged; the second prisoner was named Mok A-Kwai also died from tuberculosis after being flogged. At the time, the Chinese community was incensed: "So inhumane! This is murder!" "They can't treat the Chinese like that!" "The Governor must be held accountable!"
Hennessey immediately commissioned a group of doctors to investigate the causes of death. On April 27, 1878, the famous "Appointment of Medical Committee on the Physical Effect of Flogging in Hong Kong" was released to the public. Its conclusions were:
(1) The tuberculosis of the two deceased was not a result of the flogging;
(2) Although flogging caused great physical pain to the body, there is not much impact on the psychological or physiological state of the prisoner;
(3) The same type of physical punishment has been recorded in Chinese history (i.e. "this is no big deal").
At the time, the English press also sided with these findings. A reporter for the Hong Kong Times said that he witnessed a Chinese prisoner being flogged, and he believed that the prisoner acted like as if nothing happened; if anything, the prisoner should have been flogged a few more times. But if we read the Commission's report today, we see that Mo A-Kwai was separately flogged by his jailers on August 4, October 6 and December 13, 1873 for the offense of "making a noise." One must say that this was quite inhumane.
In 1967, China was engulfed by the Great Proterarian Cultural Revolution. A series of labor disputes in Hong Kong led to the leftists to take up armed struggle against the British colonial adminstration.
The leftists began to leave bombs everywhere. Since these bombs were homemade devices, people named them "native pineapples." The explosive power of the bombs were derived from the black powder in firecrackers and fireworks, and this explains why firecrackers are no longer allowed in Hong Kong afterwards. The bombs were usually placed in the street, with a piece of paper that said things like "Compatriots, stay away!" or "Left for the white-skin pigs."
Here are the statistics. Between May 11 and October 28, 1967, a total of 214 bombs exploded and another 779 bombs were found but did not explode. There were probably ten times that number of false alarms (e.g. a paper bag with a rock inside and a warning message outside). A total of 44 people died from the bombs and 694 were injured.
So what do these books of unofficial history have to say about the three years and eight months of Japanese occupation of Hong Kong?
On the subject of the "comfort women," it was noted that the Japanese military brothel system was segregated. The "comfort houses" were for the common soldiers, and the women were captured from the various occupied countries. However, the military officers cannot be seen sharing the same lowly women as the common soldiers, so they had their own exclusive brothel known as the "My Wife's House" which had Japanese-speaking women from Japan and Taiwan.
In August, 1942, the Japanese military governor decided to establish a red-light zone in Wanchai for the "comfort houses." The Japanese soldiers blocked off Locke Road with a show of force, waving bayoneted rifles at the passerbys and firing their rifles into the air. Then the soldiers banged on the doors of the apartments and ordered the residents to clear out in three days. Very quickly, the residents left with as much as they could carry. There would be several hundred "comfort houses" on Locke Road.
On the subject of torture, it was noted that the Japanese miiltary police went about arresting people for suspicion of being "Chongqing agents" or "allied spies" and torturing them. The cruelest torture was the "water torture." The victim would be tied faced down on a board with the face covered with a handtowel. Water was then pumped continously through the nose and mouth. When breathing got the difficult, the victim opened up his mouth and nose even further, allowing more water to be poured in. Within minutes, the entire body is bloated with water and the victim looked and felt just like a bloated floating corpse. But the torture would stop and then jump on the bloated stomach of the victim, causing the water to eject from the mouth, nose, ears and even eyes of the victim. An even more painful torture replaces the water with vinegar mixed with hot chili sauce, and that added a stinging burning sensation as well. For this reason, the people of Hong Kong referred to the Japanese military police headquarters as the Water Pump House.
The second cruelest torture was the "airplane ride." The victim is strung up with steel wires around the thumbs and pulled up so that he is standing on the tip of his toes. The entire body weight is thus carried by the thumbs and the big toe, even as the bones of the rest of the body are cracking with pain. The stronger the person, the heavier the weight. It is rare that anyone can last more than 5 minutes before passing out.
Did these things happen under Japanese occupation? I certainly haven't seen disputes or dissent that the Japanese did very bad things during that time.
These are the kinds of unofficial history that are circulated among the people of Hong Kong through any number of mainstream and minor media. Most of the population today had never lived under the Japanese occupation, and they don't seem to have revenge on their minds with any sense of priority. Whether the Japanese leaders had apologized or not is immaterial, as this whole thing occurred sixty years ago. Japanese brands are favorably received in Hong Kong, and Japan is a popular tourist/shopping destination. So where does this current wave of anti-Japanese sentiments come from? Well, you pick up the newspapers and you read that the new Japanese history textbooks say that the Hong Kong people should be grateful for the Japanese to have "liberated" them from their British colonial masters and then introduced them to an era of economic co-prosperity. How do you reconcile this 'liberation' with everything that you have learned?