By Wilson Lo, Barrhaven East Councillor
While Canada’s contributions in wartime Europe, Korea, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and to peacekeeping, are far greater and receive more widespread recognition and education, I often focus on our involvement in a place closer to my heart—Hong Kong.
In late-1941, Canada sent 1,975 soldiers from the Royal Rifles of Canada (Québec) and the Winnipeg Grenadiers (Manitoba) to reinforce Britain’s Hong Kong garrison. The soldiers had little field experience and lacked vehicles and major weapons.
The intention was to fully supply, train, and prepare the soldiers for active defence after they arrived in November 1941, but just three weeks later, on 8 December 1941, the Japanese, who already occupied surrounding Chinese territories, invaded.
Allied forces, mostly Canadian, British, Indian, and locals were to hold the mainland portion of Hong Kong for three weeks until reinforcements from Singapore could arrive. Quickly overwhelmed while fighting an experienced invading force four times its size, they retreated to Hong Kong Island by 13 December 1941.
Two weeks later, Hong Kong fell with Governor Mark Young’s formal surrender on Christmas Day 1941. Thus began three years and eight months of Japanese occupation lasting until Japan’s surrender in August 1945.
Anecdotal and confirmed accounts of the occupation, known locally as the “Three Years and Eight Months,” told countless stories of the brutality of Hong Kong under Japanese rule.
People lived in constant fear, were subject to rations, abuse, and forced deportations to an unknown fate by the Japanese authorities.
My grandmother, who was an infant when it began, has sparingly shared family stories of the occupation. Stories like her father having his legs broken for delivering flyers to a wrong address and having to beg a Japanese soldier to spare the life of her younger sister (an infant near the end of the occupation).
We’ll never know all the stories internalised by those not willing to relive their experiences.
During their invasion, the Japanese executed an estimated 10,000 Hongkongers with countless more tortured, raped, or mutilated. The colony’s population fell from 1.6 million in 1941 to 600,000 when the British retook possession of Hong Kong in 1945.
Allied soldiers faced similar cruelty during the invasion and following the surrender.
There were multiple accounts of massacres, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, wounded soldiers bayoneted, soldiers killed after surrendering, and the storming of a field hospital.
While this is certainly a story of the Japanese invasion and occupation of Hong Kong, it is also the story of what Canada and its allies fought against.
When we hear “they fought for our freedom,” the sense of what that freedom is sometimes gets lost, but we only need to skim the surface of recent human history to remember that there is no guarantee of peacetime comforts in Canada.
Take a moment on Remembrance Day to pause and commemorate the courage and sacrifice of soldiers past and present. We are here because they fought for us over there.
Canada lost 290 soldiers with 493 injured defending Hong Kong during the invasion. Another 267 died from abuse, disease, hard labour, and neglect in captivity.
Two hundred twenty-eight Canadian soldiers are interred at Sai Wan War Cemetery, in Hong Kong, a site maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Japan formally apologised in 2011 for its treatment of Canadian soldiers and POWs.
Lest We Forget.