Sunday, 3 January 2010

Huizhou to Hong Kong, December 29

Tuesday 29th
One important task remains: the recreation of the iconic Waichow photo, which captured the bedraggled but triumphant men of the escape on the morning of December 29th. The photographer used his last plate to take the shot, and it's been a key clue in identifying the members of the original party and tracing their descendants. This was the 1941 photo, and this is how we looked on the same date in 2009 outside what is now the People's Hospital.

Next it's on to look at a lovely old Catholic Mission, where our fathers received food and solace, and to walk around downtown Huizhou, both old and new quarters. Most of us resort to MacDonald's (even in Huizhou!) for a quick lunch before saying farewell to our Guangdong hosts and re-boarding the buses for the drive back to the Hong Kong border. Here we're unceremoniously dropped off to trudge across the border and take the metro back to central Hong Kong, which we reach with some relief despite the many high points of our mainland adventure.

Mike and I organize dinner for everyone's who's around at a favorite Italian restaurant, Cine Citta - a wonderful way to finish up an amazing week.

The HERO Committee, 'weary but relieved': Emma, Alison, Russ, Richard, Donald, Sheena and David.

NanAo to Huizhou, December 28

Monday 28th

After breakfast we check out of the NanAo hotel and head north for a morning of Communist history. First we visit the wartime command center of the East River Column guerrillas, housed in a handsome former Catholic mission in the village of Tuyang. We're honored to have had the son of their commander traveling with us since the Shenzhen welcome dinner. The Communist East River guerrillas were highly organized and did a lot of work to prepare the escape route for our party and later breakouts from Hong Kong POW camps. We learn more about their role as we go along, and enjoy viewing an exhibition in the old headquarters. Then it's on to another display on the same theme - the East River Column Museum in the town of Ping Shan. There's a good topographical model of their territory, but no guided tour and no English language signs to explain the exhibits.

It's another chilly day, and the low point for me comes when we're expected to have a picnic lunch with cold drinks (exactly the same inedible sandwich as the day before) on the buses in the carpark of the museum. I blow up at our mainland Chinese organizers, and though no local restaurant can apparently be found, we're offered a welcome cup of hot tea back in the museum. We drive on, unfortunately by-passing much of the escape route on modern highways, to an old Hakka walled village, Dashanxia. This is a gem, and was the very spot where the escapers spent a comfortable night, being generously fed by the local people, on December 28th. They were by this time within the lines of the Chinese army, safely beyond Japanese-held territory.

The countryside is still mountainous. The village is the second-largest walled village remaining in Guangdong province, some buildings are being restored but others are sorely in need of rescue.

We reach the city of Huizhou, Waichow to our fathers, in the late afternoon. We're being lodged at the West Lake Hotel - historically speaking, the wrong Huizhou hotel, as Tim reminds us, but it's quite luxurious compared to the NanAo Hotel and has lovely views of the West Lake. Here we prepare for a farewell dinner, which HERO will host for local officials and the representatives of the East River Column Society who've traveled with us. Philip Snow again provides invaluable help with writing and translating a speech for Rich: a task complicated by
several late additions of dignitaries to be thanked in the remarks. We're hoping for a more informal, buffet dinner but speeches are de rigueur nonetheless. We add a Scottish touch by having the Kennedy family pipe in the VIPs. To our delight, the chief Chinese guest is a smart woman from the Huizhou Foreign Affairs office, who's fluent in English.

It's a convivial evening, and everyone's wistful that our adventure is nearly over - though we won't miss 'fried bumblings' for breakfast! It's a fantastic group of people, all have entered into the spirit of the journey - reading their relatives' letters and diaries to each other on the bus rides, and sharing memories from their own families. It's extraordinary to put faces to the names I've known for years, and to make many new friends.

NanAo, December 27

Sunday 27th

Our hotel is right on the beach, and though the weather is overcast, the shape of Ping Chau can be made out not far away. After breakfast, we go by bus to Shell Beach, the next cove along. Here we're to meet a man in his nineties, who was a witness to the MTBs' landing in 1941. He says that 2 boats landed at Shell Beach, and 3 further along the coast, at the present day harbor, where we go next. In this photo, Donald and the elderly witness are pointing in the direction from which the MTBs arrived. There's much debate among this witness, the son of the head of the East River Column and the son of Chan's bodyguard, Yeung Chuen, about the events of 1941. They say that NanAo people at first thought that the MTBs were Japanese, and were ready with guns to fire at them, but that the boats raised white flags and were then welcomed as allies. Contrary to accounts that we've read, they deny that the Japanese took reprisals against the village for their help in sheltering the escape party. They say that the villagers exploded the wrecks of the MTBs (which our men had scuttled in shallow water) so that no traces could be seen. Much later, when the beach was concreted over to create the harbor in the 1950s, all remaining wreckage was sold for scrap and nothing remains now.

At the back of the village, we take an hour's walk into the hills through pretty orchards of star fruit and lychees. We're not sure that this trail was on the men's route, but it gives us a good idea of the terrain they encountered on heading inland. We have half an hour to explore the back streets and dried sea food market behind NanAo's waterfront - there aren't many old buildings left, and most of the newer ones are pretty dismal. On the edge of the village, there's some fancier new construction underway.

The weather is getting colder and windier so, instead of a picnic in the park, we take our packed lunches back to the hotel and eat at tables on the terrace. It's the worst packed lunch ever - Wonderbread sandwich with layers of fried egg, mystery meat and fish paste, small cookies, an apple, water and a can of Coke. At least we can get coffee from the barman. But we have a fascinating afternoon. Our buses take us up to Wangmu Temple, a few miles above NanAo. On December 26, 1941 the men had holed up for the day 2-3 miles inland from the coast in the sheltered village of Wong Mi Chi, then retraced their steps to NanAo and walked north along the coast and then inland through the evening hours, reaching Wangmu Temple. Colin McEwan said in his diary: "...we reached a large village where we had our first sight of guerrilla organisation - the temple taken over and the floor laid with straw - hot tea ready...."
The ancient Buddhist temple is on a beautiful, steep hillside, and its 'altar' is under a huge slab of granite. There's a well-worn stone floor in the central area, where we can imagine our fathers getting a few hours' sleep on the straw.

Our next stop is Dapeng Fortress, which was a naval base in the nineteenth century, and during World War II the headquarters of Leung Wing Yuen's guerrillas. In the mixed-up politics of wartime China, Leung, a bandit with Communist leanings, had at one time served under Chan, a Nationalist. Whatever the politics, he and his men were essential guides for the escape party, escorting them 80 miles inland to Waichow, and securing food and shelter along the way. The Naval Commander, Montague, said in his official report: "Owing to the masterly scouting of Mr. Leung's guerrillas we had crossed the Tam Shui-Shao - To Kok road without being detected by the Japanese" (this crossing into Free China would occur on 27th).

Dapeng Fortress today is a warren of old shop houses, grain stores and the compounds of wealthier Chinese - partly restored, but with much more work to be done to save the historic site. In one house, a calligrapher writes Roxie's name in Chinese:

We return to the hotel in the late afternoon. By now it's raining, and the hotel is chilly, but we've had a good day. Warwick interviews me for his documentary (most of the interviews were done earlier in England), and we all have dinner in the hotel dining room.

Ping Chau and into China, December 26

Saturday, Boxing Day

After last night's festivities, it's a struggle to be packed and ready by 8:30am to board buses to begin our foray into China. But we all manage it, remembering that, once the 'swimming party' was picked up by the 2nd MTB flotilla, the MTBs had had to motor through the night to make their getaway. In 1941 at least the weather was favorable: "It was one of the most beautiful nights I remember. The sea was calm and the wind was warm," Lt. David Legge wrote later. (His cousin, Susan Scott and her husband, Dermott are on this trip). In 2009 the shipping forecast is for more turbulent conditions, so instead of taking the 'wide circuit of Hong Kong' (Max's words) from Aberdeen to the south and then sweeping up into Mirs Bay to land on the coast of China, we've shortened up our boat trip. We've chartered a ferry to take us from Ma Liu Shui in the New Territories to the island of Ping Chau and back. It's an hour and a half each way - a scenic ride past the deserted hills and beaches on either side of the Tolo Channel and into choppier open waters.

The crescent-shaped island of Ping Chau comes into view through the mists. This most easterly point in Hong Kong territory is important to us because the 5 MTBs carrying the escape party dropped anchor here after midnight. Mike Kendall, the leader of Z Force, Henry Hsu, Chan's aide, and a couple of others went ashore, under cover of the boats' guns, to get local intelligence. The village headman advised that it would be safe to proceed to NanAo to make landing on the coast of Guangdong province. In daylight, NanAo is clearly visible from Ping Chau - now it's developed as a Chinese holiday resort, then it was a small fishing village. Today, we're offered a simple and very tasty lunch by the current village head, Jenny, granddaughter of the 1941 headman.

We have a little time to explore the island's old village, with its charming old houses, mostly crumbling but occasionally restored. From a peak population of 2,000, Ping Chau now has few permanent residents but is a popular spot for weekend day trips.

On our return to Ma Liu Shui we board new buses that will transport us across the border at Shau Tau Kok on the eastern edge of the New Territories. We have to actually cross the border on foot with our luggage, but all goes well. Some of the very young and very elderly members of the group take our bus straight to NanAo, where we'll be spending the next two nights. But most of us head off in the opposite direction to the city of Shenzhen, arriving there about 5:30pm. Our Chinese partners have organized an official reception for HERO with the Deputy Mayor of Shenzhen and other dignitaries at the Wuzhou Guest House. We 7 committee members are invited to a welcome ceremony with the Deputy Mayor before the larger dinner. As luck would have it, 3 of the committee are delayed on the second coach which has been in a minor accident in the crazy traffic of the metropolis. I suggest that we substitute a couple of our expert consultants for the missing members, and am told by a bright young official that "it's complicated". But this is eventually what we do, since the Deputy Mayor can be kept waiting no longer. We enter a long reception room, with armchairs formally arrayed down each side and grander chairs for the Deputy Mayor and our Chairman, Richard at the head of the room.

The D.M. treats us to a cordial but lengthy welcome speech, elaborating on the economic miracle that is Shenzhen, now a municipality of 13 million (extending to NanAo, our destination), then a small fishing port. Rich replies manfully, without the notes that Philip Snow had provided for the dinner remarks, and we are presented with an elaborate ornament and two scrolls (one for the American HQ of HERO!). We all go down to the cavernous banquet hall, where the rest of the party has been waiting, and after more speeches, we enjoy a rather good dinner. At the head table, I'm seated with the son of the wartime leader of the Communist East River Guerrilla Column, and a veteran of the Chinese army. The D.M. then Rich speak again, this time Rich has Philip Snow by his side to translate his prepared remarks. Rich presents our gifts of HERO silk banners. It's been a long day, but it's symbolically important that HERO has been given a grand official welcome to China. We pile back onto the buses for a two-hour drive to the NanAo hotel, and are glad to find our beds for the night.

Hong Kong, December 25

Friday, Christmas Day

Some of us who weren't out partying last
night (and even, impressively, some
who were!) meet at St John's Cathedral for the 9am Christmas morning service. We've been promised a mention of the men who escaped, and of those who lost their lives in the attempt. A somewhat dour Minister welcomes the HERO group at the beginning of the packed-out service, but later includes a lovely remembrance of the escape in prayers. The choral music is fabulous.

Back at our hotel, Mike and I meet up with the girls for a late breakfast, then open Christmas presents. We put out a card from Russ with a picture of a Christmas tree as the closest thing we have to the real thing! Mike has given me a gorgeous black silk dress from Blanc de Chine, which I'll wear tonight. We have a lazy afternoon, but Sheena (HERO coordinator, and middle daughter of David MacDougall) and Alison are not so lucky. They're still negotiating with our Chinese partners over our mainland itinerary - the last thing anyone wants to be doing on this very special Christmas Day. Mike and I put in our tuppence worth of advice, discussions continue...

We need to be ready in our finery at 5pm to take a coach and then a sampan over to the venue for HERO's celebration dinner, the Jumbo floating restaurant in Aberdeen Harbour. The Jumbo, a vast, ornate, multi-tiered restaurant and something of a Hong Kong institution, is moored in the very spot between Aberdeen and Ap Lei Chau where our fathers took to sea. We're gathering there at exactly the date and time when they set off in the Cornflower launch 68 years ago, only to be shot up by Japanese occupying Brick Hill. These were the survivors:

Mason Chan and Sheena have organized a wonderfully festive occasion. Remarkably, 100 HERO family members are present for this, our largest event. With many Scots among the families, there is plentiful tartan and kilts in evidence. After a cocktail hour, we're seated by family - our small group of four is joined by 4 McEwans, Rob Macmillan, and Helen and Lucy Hyatt (daughter and granddaughter of Harry Owen-Hughes). Donald and Richard welcome us and propose toasts to our forebears and absent friends. Warwick and Lindzay Chan act as MCs to go round the tables inviting a representative of each family to introduce themselves.

We are truly a global group, with members from the UK, Canada, America, Australia, Thailand, Hong Kong and elsewhere. No family is more international than the Chans, who have perhaps 30 members here tonight, from all over the world. In addition to his film for the Museum, Warwick has made a tribute to the men of the escape, which we watch before starting dinner. Photos of each escaper as a young man and in later life are set to music
- no words necessary - there's hardly a dry eye in the house during this powerful tribute.

Chan family members

We enjoy getting to know our fellow HEROs better over a twelve-course Chinese banquet, and later absorbing the night views from the lovely terrace of our private dining room. There's dancing to 1940s music, including the tune which famously played at Hong Kong society's last peacetime dance (at the Peninsula hotel): "The Best Things in Life are Free". We're all overjoyed to be here on a happier occasion.
Gina and Roxie, Christmas night

Hong Kong, December 24

Thursday, Christmas Eve

It's another sunny morning, and I find a couple of hours to finish buying Christmas presents in Pacific Place, just below the Marriott. Today's big event is the 3pm opening of "Escape from Hong Kong: The Road to Waichow" at the Museum of Coastal Defence in Shau Kei Wan. This unique museum was created from an old fortified position at Lyemun, overlooking the channel at the northeast of Hong Kong Island which the Japanese crossed to invade the island in 1941.

Roxana at the Museum of Coastal Defence entrance

We were thrilled that the museum agreed to host a special exhibition with HERO. We have brought together for the first time diaries, letters, old uniforms, medals and other memorabilia loaned by HERO families, to tell the story of the escape to a wider public. Everyone on the HERO committee has contributed to making the exhibition a success, but it's our museum liaison, Alison McEwan, and her husband Tim Luard, who've been absolutely tireless in working with the wonderful staff of the museum to create the narrative for the show and assemble all the items in it. Tim has put together a marvelous audio diary of the escape, traveling far and wide to record a dozen different descendants reading extracts from their relative's letters or diaries. Warwick Ross has created a stunning 12-minute video, which will run in the display area, and (as we soon discover) is also an enormous attraction. HERO Chairman, Richard Hide, has overseen the faithful construction of a scale model of MTB 07, another highlight of the show.

Committee members arrive an hour before the official opening to be available for the local press. We're delighted by the turnout of photographers and reporters - here I'm being interviewed in the tunnel at the entrance to our show by a radio Hong Kong reporter.

It's an exciting moment to get our first glimpse of the exhibition which we've been planning for a year. It'll be on display until December 31, 2011 and we hope that lots of people go and see it.

It's equally exciting to enjoy the opening ceremony among a large crowd of HERO members and the Hong Kong friends we've invited. Our 'officiating guests' are Neale Jagoe, the British Deputy Consul-General (who's been a great support all along), and Kay Collingwood, who at nearly 90 is the only first generation participant in the re-
enactment. Her husband, Lt. C. John Collingwood, was the captain of MTB 11. Joining them on the platform to make the opening speeches are HERO President, Donald Chan and the Chief Curator of the HK Museum of History, Esa Leung.

Opening ceremony in the redoubt

Guests stay long after the formal opening to explore the exhibition and chat. It's great to see old friends who've made a special effort on a busy Christmas Eve to come to our event, and it's also the first chance for me to meet HERO members like the Admiral's daughters, Paula, Anita and Diana.

We get taxis back to Central, and our family enjoys a Christmas Eve dinner at the Kee Club in SoHo - an exquisite meal. Then it's back to our temporary home at the Marriott for Mike and me to wrap presents and play Santa, while Roxie and Gina meet up with all the other young HEROs for a night of revelry in Lan Kwai Fong. The streets and bars are packed, with a heavy police presence to keep order, and everybody (so I hear) has a great time!

Friday, 1 January 2010

Hong Kong, December 22 - 23

Tuesday 22nd
I'm up early to meet up with Russ Joyce, grandson of Leading Seaman Les Barker, to head over to Aberdeen for a recce of the Holy Spirit Jesuit Seminary, where we'll be holding an afternoon of talks tomorrow. I feel as though I know Russ quite well from our months of planning together on the HERO committee, but this is the first time we've met in person. Father Peter Choy offered HERO the use of a lecture theatre for our introductory program, and the Seminary is perfectly situated: the historic Chinese buildings (above) are set in lush gardens overlooking the very spot in Aberdeen Harbour where Admiral Chan Chak and senior British officers (including my father) took to the water in a small launch to begin their escape after the fall of Hong Kong. It's hard to imagine in this oasis of calm that on Christmas Day 1941 the Cornflower launch was quickly put out of action by a barrage of Japanese fire from nearby Brick Hill. Two men were killed, others badly wounded and the survivors had to swim across the Aberdeen Channel under heavy fire to the rocky and inhospitable islet of Ap Lei Chau.

Today, Russ and I finalize arrangements for the talks, with help from the Seminary's technician. We then scope out viewpoints on Brick Hill for tomorrow's minibus tour, and get back to Central by noon. C H Tung, the first Chief Executive of Hong Kong SAR following the 1997 handover, has invited some of the Committee and our spouses to a private lunch at the Hong Kong Club. For many months, he has quietly encouraged our efforts to stage the re-enactment and over an elegant lunch he applauds us for remembering and honoring our forebears in this way. It's a wonderful reminder, amidst all the logistical headaches of planning long-distance for events in HK and mainland China, of the real reason we're here.

After lunch, I make a brief stop at Shanghai Tang to buy Mike's Christmas present - practically the only chance I'll have for shopping. Central is busy with Christmas shoppers but that ex-pat favorite Shanghai Tang is oddly quiet.

The whole Committee gathers for an early evening drink in the bar of the Marriott - pictured here are our President Donald Chan, son of the Admiral, and Russ Joyce. The first event of a week-long program is tomorrow, but much remains to be thrashed out, particularly for the mainland China portion of the program. We have an agreement with Chinese partner organizations to assist HERO to achieve our goals, but even at the eleventh hour we're still negotiating over the mainland itinerary. One of our major requests has been denied by the Chinese authorities: we had hoped to get permission for our group to land by boat at NanAo on the coast of Guangdong province, where our fathers landed in 5 MTBs in 1941. But this is not a standard entry point to the mainland, and we are required instead to cross a land border in the New Territories. Even that is not straightforward: we'll go back and forth with our partners until the morning of our departure for China on 26th about which border crossing we'll use, and who'll provide the onward transport.

Nonetheless, it's terribly exciting to finally gather (the first time the whole committee has met in one place) on the eve of our great adventure. The only sadness is that Donald's twin brother Duncan, our Vice Chairman, lost his battle with cancer six weeks ago and hasn't lived to take part in the events he helped bring to fruition. I was glad to have met him, with Donald and some of their family, in Hong Kong last year.

Mike and I and the girls go off for an excellent dinner at a Shanghainese restaurant with TIME's Asia editor, Zoher Abdoolcarim and his wife Shi-ying.

Wednesday 23rd

I take an early morning walk in Hong Kong Park, a favorite spot when we lived in Mid Levels, and sketch out my introductions for this afternoon's speakers. I've press-ganged Mike into giving one of the talks - about the battle for Hong Kong - and he's busy preparing it. At 1pm we come down to the lobby of the Marriott, and there's a throng of people there - our group, gathering for our first event.

We've arranged minibuses (two from the Marriott and one from the other group hotel, the Metropark in Causeway Bay) to take people to the Holy Spirit Seminary, following the route of the original dash from the Gloucester Hotel in Central via Pok Fu Lam to Aberdeen. The drive along Queen's Road is slower in today's traffic than it was on the day of the surrender, but we get into the spirit of re-enactment by telling tales of our fathers' wild ride. They were a dozen men, the core escape party, riding in Ted Ross' Buick and a soft-top Austin. Ted's son, Warwick Ross, an Australian film maker, tells how Ted spotted a notorious English bodyguard named Two-Gun Cohen on Queen's Road, offered him a ride but was told that he'd rather take his chances in Hong Kong. Warwick has a film crew on the bus, and will film our whole trip to produce a documentary about the escape and its re-enactment. Everyone quickly gets accustomed to having his cameraman and sound man around, unobtrusively finding the best shots.

We arrive at the Holy Spirit Seminary and get the afternoon's
program underway. Russ welcomes the group and snappily introduces each committee member. I introduce our three speakers: historian Philip Snow on "The Escape: a Historical Context", followed by Mike on "The Battle for Hong Kong" and HERO consultant Tim Luard on "The Men of the Escape". The three talks are a good mix: Philip, who wrote the standard work "The Fall of Hong Kong", explains the build up to war and why Chiang Kai Shek sent one of his trusted lieutenants, Admiral Chan Chak, to help the British defend Hong Kong. Chan put an extensive shadow government in place to help the British covertly, especially in suppressing uprisings among the local Chinese population. This paid off, though Chan was frustrated that the British wouldn't provide arms for his men until the eve of the surrender. Philip described the gentleman's agreement whereby the British command agreed to help Chan escape in the event of surrender - he needed the British to provide transport for a break out. This was the rationale for the Christmas Day escape which saved all of our relatives' lives. Philip notes that Chan was already in contact with guerrillas in Guangdong province, so he knew where the MTBs should land on the China coast.

Mike gives an overview of the three phases of the battle, as a segway to Tim's talk on "The Men of the Escape". Tim brings the cast of characters to life, showing wonderful period photos, and describing how the escape party came together and how they got away on Christmas Day. He talks about the role of Z Force (a division of the SOE) in planning and guiding the escape - Tim's father-in-law was Colin McEwan, a key member of Z Force and author of a diary on the escape.

We have a little time for questions, then it's on to look at the views down to the Aberdeen Channel from the Seminary gardens (pictured above), and to get back on the buses for a short drive along Nam Long Shan Road on Brick Hill. We stop along the narrow road near a bridge so that everyone can see where the Cornflower launch was disabled.

The shots came from a Pill Box (by then held by Japanese) a few hundred yards from our viewpoint. Despite the urbanization of Ap Lei Chau island, we can imagine the long and dangerous swim that the men took to reach its rocky shore, and their despair at ever finding rescue.

View from Brick Hill to Ap Lei Chau at site of swim

The buses get us back to the hotels around 5pm, in time for us to meet old Hong Kong journalist friends for dinner at the legendary Foreign Correspondents Club: Robyn Meredith of Forbes magazine, Guy de Jonquieres, ex-FT, and his wife Diana Fortescue, fellow-researcher into HK's wartime history (her parents and brother were interned in Stanley), and columnist Steve Vines. Our family enjoys the FCC's traditional Christmas menu, knowing that we'll be eating Chinese on 25th.