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.

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