Hong Kong After The Japanese Attack in December 1941

I set out below a translation of part of an essay that the Chinese writer Sun Dian (孙钿) wrote for a book of reminiscences of Hu Feng entitled ‘Hu Feng and I’. ‘Hu Feng and I’ was edited by Hu Feng’s daughter Zhang Xiaofeng (张晓风) and published in 1993 by the Ningxia People’s Publishing House. Sun Dian’s essay is entitled ‘A Shared Fate with Hu Feng’ (‘与胡风同命运’).

This excerpt is taken from pages 280 to 283 of Sun Dian’s published essay. I chose this section to translate because it describes in dramatic terms the atmosphere and circumstances of Hong Kong in the early weeks after the Japanese attacked on 8th December 1941, and in particular the impact on mainland writers and intellectuals like Hu Feng who were living there at the time. Sun Dian (1917-2011) was born in Shanghai. He was a poet, essayist and novelist who became involved in revolutionary activities while still in his teens. Some of his poems and essays were published in Hu Feng’s journal ‘July’ during the late 1930s. He became a member of the Communist Party of China in 1937 when he was 20 and was sent to Hong Kong not long after to do underground work for the Party under the direction of Liao Chengzhi.

Part of Sun Dian’s work for the Party in Hong Kong involved looking after Chinese writers and intellectuals who moved from the mainland to Hong Kong during the war years. Hu Feng was one of these writers. He arrived in Hong Kong early in 1941 with his wife Mei Zhi, their seven year old son Xiaogu and baby daughter Xiaofeng. According to their own memoirs, Hu Feng and Mei Zhi found it difficult to adapt to life in Hong Kong. It was not easy for them to find adequate accommodation, especially for their two young children. They also found it hard to understand Cantonese and make the adjustment to the local food, having previously lived in Shanghai, then Wuhan and Chongqing. After a period of life together in Hong Kong, Mei Zhi took the children to Shanghai where her mother lived. She left their daughter Xiaofeng in the care of her mother and returned to Hong Kong with Xiaogu. The excerpt from Sun Dian’s essay starts with events that occurred not long after Mei Zhi’s return.

Sun Dian/孙钿

Excerpt from Sun Dian’s essay ‘My Shared Fate with Hu Feng’

It was several days later before I was again able to visit Hu Feng in his run-down apartment building.  When I met up with Yang Gang and Ye Yiqun at the Wensha Restaurant in Hong Kong’s Queen’s Road, I asked them about Hu Feng.  Yiqun said that Mei Zhi had returned from Shanghai.  The next day, in the afternoon, I took the ferry from Central over to Kowloon to see Hu Feng, Mei Zhi and Xiaogu.  Mei Zhi had left their daughter Xiaofeng in Shanghai. Their small flat was filled with the happy sounds of a family reunited after a lengthy absence. I said: “You should find another place to stay.”  Hu Feng replied: “Let’s wait a few days and we’ll think about it then.  A Chinese businessman from Singapore who I am hoping will invest in ‘July’ [Hu Feng’s literary journal] is due in Hong Kong soon.  If we move, I am afraid he will not be able to find us.”  

I never imagined that just a few days later war would break out in Hong Kong.  On the 8thof December 1941, with shells flying about and bombs dropping all around, the city rapidly descended into chaos.  I was rushing about everywhere trying to deal with this new situation.  Liao Chengzhi and Lian Guan came to see me very early the next morning.  They decided that for safety’s sake we should move the mainland writers and intellectuals who were living in Kowloon to Central and arrange for those who were already living in Central to move to other accommodation there.  We decided what each of us should do and immediately set to work.  The trams and buses were not working, so we had to rush about the streets on foot.  There were people scurrying back and forth everywhere.  At one point I happened to see Liao Chengzhi in a sea of people; we nodded to each other from a distance but a moment later he was lost in the crowd again.  A shell suddenly came flying down, everyone rushed to take cover in nearby buildings, and I scurried into the front door of a bank.  The shell exploded on the ground, and I waited until things had quieted down before I went back into the street.  There were corpses lying about soaked in pools of blood.  

I took a ferry over to Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon.  I first went to see Ye Yiqun in Prince Edward Road to tell him what had happened.  I then went on to Hu Feng’s place to tell him and Mei Zhi to get their things in order as fast as they could, and that Yiqun would come by to get them and Xiaogu.  I also asked Hu Feng to go and see Song Zhidi and Gao Shiqi who were staying nearby, to make sure they were also ready to move and let them know Yiqun would be along to get them.  I then took a ferry back to my own place in Central. There I burned all my documents and letters and got my clothes and manuscripts in order.  I packed my internal Party documents into my suitcase in readiness to leave.  By evening time, the power was cut off and my small flat was a total mess.  Sounds of shells reverberated on and off.  I was exhausted and lay down on my bed, only then remembering that all day I had drunk only a few cups of water and had nothing to eat.  

Early next morning my maid arrived, and I told her she would not need to come to work again.  She said her hometown was out in the countryside and she wouldn’t be able to get back there right away.  She had a six-year-old son and asked me to take him along with me.  This woman had been assigned to work for me by the Party and had been with me for me for two years.  In the interests of their own safety, I thought it was best for them both to stay behind.  

I had no time for breakfast but left as soon as I could to look for another place to stay.  Around midday enemy planes flew over again and again on bombing raids.  I was worried that Yiqun may not have been able to help everybody move from Kowloon over to Central.  I saw there were still ferries running, so I took one back over to Kowloon.  The streets of Kowloon were a scene of desolation, with very few pedestrians about.  There were only a few people who looked like hooligans, wearing shorts and with their hats askew.  All the shops had closed their doors.  

It was a long walk from Tsim Sha Tsui Dock to Prince Edward Road.  I first went to Hu Feng’s place to see if they had been able to move over to Central, but they were still at home waiting for Yiqun to arrive.  Yiqun may have missed them, or he may have asked another person to help them move and that person had forgotten.  I told Hu Feng and Mei Zhi to go over to Central immediately and meet me at the offices of China Business News.  I also went to Song Zhidi’s place, but there was no-one there and Gao Shiqi had also left. 

I then walked back to an apartment house at Tsim Sha Tsui to look for Yiqun.  This was a place where writers and intellectuals from the mainland used to gather in Kowloon, but that too was empty.  By now it was dusk, and I remembered that Ge Yihong’s place was nearby.  I had had no previous contact with him, but I went to look for him in case he might have been missed out.  I saw his tall frame standing at the window, all alone.  He told me calmly that he was waiting for Yiqun to arrive to take him over to Central.  I told him he shouldn’t wait any longer and we should take a ferry together over to Central.  He quickly got his luggage together and we went to Tsim Sha Tsui Dock, only to find the ferries had stopped working.  As it gradually got darker, we walked along the water’s edge.  I was happy to pay the high price demanded to hire a small wooden boat.  The boat was buffeted about by the waves and the seawater soaked our clothes as we crossed the harbour.  In the end the two of us safely got to the other side and we went ashore at Central, with the sounds of bombardment all around us.  I found a place for Yihong to stay and then hurried on to the China Business News offices.  There I found Hu Feng, Mei Zhi and Xiaogu along with two oversea Chineses, a sister and brother from South Africa.  They found some small rooms nearby to stay overnight, but I told them I would do what I could the next day to find them a proper place to stay.  I then went back to my own flat, where my maid and her son were waiting for me to come back for dinner.  

That night was filled with the sounds and turmoil of aerial bombardment, artillery shells and anti-aircraft fire.  Early next morning, I realised that after these past few days of anxiously rushing about, I had not been able to sort out new accommodation for myself.  I first got in touch with the Party and then went to find Hu Feng.  I told him I was worried that I had not yet been able to find a place for him.  Mei Zhi said a friend of hers had some lodgings that were empty, so she and I went over to Wan Chai to have a look.  We managed to get the property owner’s agreement, as well as the Party’s, and then we all moved into this temporary refuge.  Luckily it was a big space and fully furnished; we were able to divide it into front and back rooms using wooden boards.  Hu Feng, Mei Zhi and Xiaogu occupied the front room, and I took the back one with the two overseas Chinese plus my maid and her son.  There was a bed for each room.  I shared the bed in the back room with the South Africa fellow, while my maid, her son and the South African girl shared a makeshift bed on the floor.  Hu Feng and his family had the use of a wardrobe, a dressing table, a large bed and a sofa.  This was evidently the property owner’s own residence.  We were extremely lucky to find such a good place to stay amid the turmoil and chaos all around us.  I was also aware that the owner and his wife were staying in an attic room overlooking the street, which cannot have been easy for them.  

I warned Hu Feng that he and Mei Zhi should not go out unless they had to go to an air raid shelter.  My maid and I went out to buy food for us all.  We were able to get rice flour and some tinned food.  I reckoned our running water might well be cut off, so we bought orange juice and soda water to drink, also cigarettes and charcoal.  The atmosphere in the streets around us was tense and frightening.     

To disguise our true identities, we decided to set ourselves up as a business family.  We changed our names and agreed on fictitious relationships between ourselves, so we would be prepared for whatever might happen.  As the days passed, the war became more and more intense.  One night the air raid alarms sounded, we heard the roar of antiaircraft fire, and the skies were filled with spiralling enemy aircraft.  We all groped about in the dark and took cover under the stairs.  There were some nights when we had to crawl out from under our quilts two or three times and rush down the stairs.  During the day, from the window of our front room we could look out at the mountain foothills in the distance and see British and Japanese troops fighting at close quarters with small arms.  The British soldiers were pulling a Red Cross flag behind them.  The soldiers wearing their light green uniforms and the nurses in white uniforms were the size of little fingers in the distance.  We could not hear the reports of their gun shots, we could just see the flames from the muzzles of their guns flashing in the distance.  

The Japanese army had disembarked.  Hu Feng spent the days smoking to relieve the tension, puffing out smoke and blowing smoke rings and delighting the children.  Our water had been cut off and we had used up our stored water.  Even the water in the toilet cistern was finished, so we had to use orange juice and soda water to cook our food.  We were cooped up in our rooms and in no mood for conversation.  I often played chess with Hu Feng and we sometimes played poker with the children.  Xiaogu had a grown-up way of speaking for his age, so we called him ‘grandpa’.  Meanwhile, Mei Zhi prepared three meals for us all every day.  Surrounded by the flames of war we dragged out a miserable existence. 

Two nights before Christmas Day it was unusually quiet; there were no sounds of shelling and no bombing raids, just the occasional sound of people running in the streets, sporadic gun shots and shouting.  The war had arrived in the streets of Hong Kong.  Early in the morning of Christmas Eve, looking out from the third storey window over the street, we saw a large number of army horses on the grounds of the racecourse across from us, as well as a Japanese flag and soldiers.  The city had been occupied by the Japanese.  

During the morning of Christmas Day, we heard knocking at the door.  Mei Zhi, the girl from South Africa and my maid went straight to the pile of firewood in the toilet off the kitchen that we had earlier prepared as a hiding place.  Hu Feng was sitting by our round table, as if we were in the middle of playing a game of poker.  I opened the door.  A Japanese soldier carrying a sword came in, along with a Chinese collaborator who was wearing shorts.  The collaborator had a piece of cardboard in his hand bearing images of a pistol, a food jar and a couple of watches.  He showed the cardboard to me and Hu Feng and speaking in Cantonese said: “Quick, open your drawers and let the Imperial army soldier have a look.  Do you have any of these?”  He pointed at the images scrawled on the cardboard.  I pointed to the image of the pistol, saying: “None of those! None!”  Hu Feng also shook his head to indicate we had no weapons.  The Japanese soldier went into the inner room and rummaged through the opened drawers, groaning through his nose.  He then walked over to the door, his eyes smoothly scanning all around.  I hurriedly picked up a tin of cigarettes and a tin of food that I gave to the collaborator.  They both then left.  I closed the door behind them, and Hu Feng and I both heaved a sigh of relief.  Xiaogu was hanging about behind his father and said: “It was just like seeing a movie!”  Hu Feng laughed and gave him a shove saying: “Quick, go and get your mother and the others to come out.”   

My comments on this passage

This is an account of a number of capable people scrambling for safety in the midst of the chaos after the Japanese invaded Hong Kong in late 1941. They managed to change their accommodation and were not badly harassed by the Japanese. They did not remain long in Hong Kong after the events described here. Hu Feng and his family moved on soon after to Guilin in Guangxi Province, and from there back to Chongqing where he and Mei Zhi had spent the early years of the war with Xiaogu. Two things stand out for me:

  • Hu Feng was 39 in 1941 and Sun Dian was 24. Neither was involved in combat roles (thought Sun Dian did have numerous roles in the military during his career). I have read elsewhere that Chinese intellectuals like Hu Feng were generally not expected to take up active military roles, whether for the Party or for Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Government. There were exceptions to this, but that appears to have been the norm at the time. Hu Feng was of course also getting on in years, with a young family to look after.
  • Mei Zhi is described as preparing three meals a day for the group of seven people who were occupying the apartment she had been able to find. Meanwhile her husband and Sun Dian played poker and smoked (while keeping the children amused!). This is consistent with other accounts I have read about the lives of Hu Feng and Mei Zhi over many years. Mei Zhi was a highly intelligent woman who published children’s literature in China, plus a number of memoirs after Hu Feng’s death in 1985. She was devoted to her husband and their children, and she was also well aware of her husband’s extraordinary talents and historical importance. She must, however, have been frustrated at times with the subsidiary role she had to perform. Hu Feng relates in his own memoirs that he once returned home in Chongqing during the war years to find a note Mei Zhi had left for him, telling him that his behaviour was intolerable (a mild translation of the characters he used). Life in China between the 1920s and 1950s cannot have been easy for anyone, but for women it was indeed harsh.

Michael Ingle – michaelingle01@gmail.com


About Michael Ingle

Retired lawyer studying the Chinese language and history of the mid-20th century
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