The Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence is fascinating. Despite what the British said when they arrived in Hong Kong many years ago, the island is not just a pile of uninhabited rocks. There’s a lot of history here. Hong Kong has been settled for 30,000 years and ruled by many dynasties and fought over many times.
A former fort (Lei Yue Mun), the Museum of Coastal Defence is perched high up a hill. From the top, there’s a great view of Victoria Harbour. (We took an elevator to the top, we didn’t walk.) Lei Yue Mun used to refer to a narrow harbour channel.
Walking off the elevator and onto a paved path, the first thing we came across was a 64-pounder RML (Rifle, Muzzle Loading) gun. It’s a piece of British artillery and fired a 64-pound projectile. It was first put into service in the British Colonies in 1864.
We stopped in the Central Battery: Underground Magazine on our way towards the museum building. Ammunition for a 64-pounder RML gun was stored in here. Now the display is the rammer, worm and sponge used to fire the gun. The rammer pushed a cloth cartridge and shell down the barrel. The worm removed debris after the gun was fired and the sponge extinguished any smouldering pieces of cloth so the gun was ready to be reloaded.
25–Pounder Mark II Field gun: one of the most famous pieces of Second World War artillery. The gun was used in mid-1940s. The gun and its ammunition trailer could be hooked to a vehicle and moved easily.
Once in the museum, there are exhibit rooms of various periods. In each gallery, the history of the battles that went on during that time is told via artifacts, drawings, photos, video and storyboards.
As a coastal city, Hong Kong has had its share of fights: from the Ming Dynasty, through the First and Second Opium Wars, to the Battle of Hong Kong during the Second World War. Lei Yue Mun Fort was built by the British in 1887 and became an important battlefield in 1941.
Gold brocade Qing armour. The armour was made with gold thread, layers of cotton padding and gilded studs. Qing Dynasty was in place from 1644–1842.
Britain wanted China’s tea, silk and porcelain in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries. China wasn’t interested in trading with Britain because it had nothing China wanted. But opium was a form of payment that the two decided would work. (China used it medicinally for stress then.) So opium was brought to Hong Kong from India (British-occupied Bengal) by the Brits for exchange. However, there became a surplus of opium and it became a problem. In 1821, the Qing government banned it and started the First Opium War between the Qing Dynasty and the British.
The Treaty of Nanjing ended the First Opium War. The treaty leaned heavily in favour of the British and China ceded Hong Kong. Britain later asked for China to renegotiate the treaty, legalizing the opium trade (among other things). That started some conflict.
The Chinese government seized a ship (The Arrow) flying the British flag and took it down. This happened near Canton on the mainland. That caused a lot of trouble and the U.S. got involved. Around the same time, France teamed up with Britain and together they attacked Canton (now Guangzhou) on the mainland. Russia joined the conflict as a British ally in the Second Opium War from 1856 to 1860. Part of the Convention of Beijing ending the conflict included a perpetual lease over the Kowloon Peninsula for Britain.
Memorial records tallying how much opium was destroyed in 1839 by Commissioner Lin Zexu – about 1.2 million kilograms. Lin wrote Queen Victoria asking her to stop the opium trade. His message never reached her but it was published in the Times of London.
Opium trade wares: 1. Pipe, 2. porcelain dispensers, 4. a ladle used in the preparation of opium.(Number 2 is a lamp.)
Kowloon Walled City was demolished in the 1990s and now is a park. The Walled City started out as a salt outpost in the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Then it became part of fortifications against the British in 1847, followed by being handed over to the Brits in 1912 and then occupied by the Imperial Japanese forces in the Second World War. The Japanese army took parts of the wall down. After Japan left, the city became a haven for drugs and crime up until 1994.
Life of a British solider in the late 19th century. He shares a room with 30 men, hasn’t been home for years and it’s freaking hot and humid. He has to make his bed every day.
December 8-25, 1941 Battle for Hong Kong. Lei Yue Mun is the site of fierce fighting involving British Hong Kong troops as well as Canadian, British and Indian units against the Japanese Imperial Army. Japan was the aggressor and attacked Hong Kong without declaring war against the British Empire. Fighting took part all over Hong Kong, including Wong Nai Chung Gap.
Captain Howard Bush, Winnipeg Grenadiers, quoted in Brereton Greenhous’ “C” Force to Hong Kong: A Canadian Catastrophe (1997), published by Dundurn Press – “The position was being fired upon from all sides. It might be compared with the lower part of a bowl, the enemy looking down and occupying the rim. The main road running through the position was cluttered for hundreds of feet each way with abandoned trucks and cars. The Japanese were using mortars and hand grenades quite heavily.”
The Imperial Japanese army struck on December 8, 1941 a few hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. Japan started in Hong Kong with the shelling Kai Tak Airfield, razing it.
After 18 days of intense fighting, the order came from Britain to surrender. On the afternoon of Christmas Day 1941, Hong Kong surrendered to Japan.
From the memoirs of Tsui. Soon after the battle finished, Tsui would join the British Army Aid Group, smuggling supplies, information and personnel between occupied Hong Kong and Free China – “On Christmas Eve, I went to the Cathedral for midnight Mass. It was well attended. After Mass, I returned to my sister’s house at Mosque Street. Soon thereafter, rumours came our way through the bamboo wireless to the effect that the then Governor, Sir Mark Young, was about to broadcast a Surrender. I did not believe it at first, and I was not sure whether it was true or false. We noticed that the artillery bombardment seemed to have thinned down if not actually stopped. We went to bed quite peacefully that night. When we woke up early next morning, we heard a lot of noise. It was the noise of people. Yes hundreds of people […] looted the houses of the rich and the famous up at the Peak area or in the Upper Levels of May Road, or Conduit Road and above.”
Click here for more stories of people who lived through the surrender of Hong Kong to the Imperial Japanese army.
Japanese military officers at the Kowloon Docks Headquarters in 1942. Around 1,975 Canadian troops were sent to Hong Kong to help defend it. Their efforts were valiant but they surrendered to the Japanese Imperial Army. Seizing Hong Kong was the first major World War Two victory for Japan.
Prisoners of War (POWs)
Two Canadian battalions, the Royal Rifles and Winnipeg Grenadiers, were among the soldiers taken prisoner by the Japanese Imperial Army. Japan never ratified the 1929 Geneva Convention. The Convention laid out guidelines for POW treatment. Hong Kong POWs “lived” in horrendous conditions and were treated terribly.
Sketch of the Stanley Internment Camp by J. E. Richardson. Japan apologized to Canadian Veterans in 2011. However, some didn’t accept it.
POW notebook. Around 9,000 POW were interned in camps around Hong Kong.
A letter from Jaroslav Krofta to a loved one, 1944. He tells her he doesn’t need any clothing and glad to hear she’s ok.
Take care, you are the only one I have.