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Prof. Stuart Christie
Professor, Department of English Language and Literature

   
Stuart Christie teaches English literature at Baptist University where he has been working since 1999. He is the author of two books, Worlding Forster: The Passage from Pastoral (Routledge, 2005) and Plural Sovereignties and Contemporary Indigenous Literature (Palgrave, 2009).


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Remembering Hong Kong’s War Dead
2009-11-23 09:54:12.0 網誌分類: 生活分享
 

On 11 November each year, Remembrance Day is celebrated throughout Britain and the Commonwealth countries. (Before these countries were called Commonwealth nations, they were called crown colonies or dominions and were part of the British empire.) Citizens of former colonies, such as India and Sri Lanka, also observe this tradition. Hong Kong, formerly a so-called ‘dependent territory’ and crown colony of Britain, ceased observing Remembrance Day after the return of sovereignty to China in 1997.

Nevertheless, throughout October and the first part of November every year, many of the people in these ex-colonies and former Commonwealth countries continue to wear red poppy pins to commemorate the fallen war dead, in memory of the appalling loss of life during the First World War (1914-1918).

So I was pleased to see this image taken last week in Hong Kong (credited to: © Daniel Sorabji/AFP/Getty Images). Apparently, some Hong Kong citizens (perhaps including those who hold British or other Commonwealth country passports) are showing support for the tradition, even though no official government–sanctioned ceremony exists.



Whenever I see the red poppies, I think of the Canadian war poet, John McCrae. McCrae, who died of pneumonia in Flanders (the ancient, Flemish-speaking region including parts of modern-day Belgium and northern France) in 1918, wrote the famous lines:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row.

Why doesn’t Hong Kong commemorate Armistice Day? With the end of colonial rule, perhaps there is some justification for the non-observance. Perhaps the Chinese nation does not view the wars involving colonizing Europeans on their soil as strictly their own when contrasted, for example, with the comparatively far higher number of Chinese non-combatants and soldiers the Japanese Imperial Army killed throughout all of non-colonized China during the same period. And it is certainly true that those foreign servicemen and women who died in fighting Japanese aggression were not fighting on behalf of Hong Kong’s independence but of the colonial status quo.

Still, recalling the sacrifice of the Canadian regiments (the Royal Rifles and the Winnipeg Grenadiers) during the battle of Hong Kong that raged between 8 -24 December 1941, I want to remember the 554 Canadians killed (including those who eventually succumbed to injuries) and the over one thousand wounded. The intense fighting began, first in the New Territories and then on Hong Kong Island, as the Canadian and other British dominion troops retreated and the Japanese 38th division slowly and irrevocably encircled the island.  http://wwii.ca/page42.html

Why, you may well ask, does this kind of remembrance matter to me? After all, I am an American citizen born to a Canadian mother.

I don’t choose to remember because I have nostalgia for the colonial past or because I was once a soldier.

I don’t and I wasn’t: colonialism and imperialism are clearly wrong, and wars fought to justify these are debatable ethically. And just for the record, I think war is the height of all evil and only justifiable—and even then, it’s a tough choice—when another evil even greater than war (Hitler, for example) presents itself. Unlike my mother’s generation, I was never called upon or even compelled to serve. Unlike some among the younger generation, now serving in today’s conflicts, I’ve never chosen to fight.

Nor do I choose to remember the fallen because I had relatives fight in both of the last century’s major wars, although both of my great uncles—my grandmother’s two older brothers—survived them.

As a very young man of only eighteen, my great uncle, Andrew Fraser, fought against the Germans in Flanders, or possibly northern France, in World War One. (We can’t be sure of which location, because this information was censored in case the Germans intercepted the mail. Uncle Andrew’s two letters to his littlest sister Bessie, my grandmother, Mary, have dark ink blotting out sensitive information.)
Wherever he fought, this area covered much of the same land and the same scene that John McCrae and the other war poets (such as Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, and Siegfried Sassoon) also wrote about in their poetry.

His youngest brother, my mother’s Uncle Charlie (and also my grandmother’s favorite brother), was building dams in the United States when the Second World War broke out. Instead of returning to his birthplace in Canada to enlist, he enlisted in the Construction Battalions (CBs, commonly called “Seabees”) of the United States Navy and helped to build airfields throughout the Pacific when the Americans began to push back after Pearl Harbor. Because they came from experienced building and engineering careers, the Seabees recruits were considerably older, at an average age of 37, than the fresh, green conscripts (see the free-access image below). Uncle Charlie fit this demographic exactly.

Sadly, Uncle Charlie survived the war against the Japanese only to die, several years after the war ended, of a disease he had picked up while in the tropics. He was only in his early forties when he died, and he was sorely missed by my grandmother and mother.

Even with all of this family history, I don’t choose to remember the Canadians who died in Hong Kong—along with the Scots and the English, the Irish and the Australians, the Welsh and the New Zealanders, the Indians (Punjabs and Rajputs) and the Ghurkas— because of my family’s wartime service.

Rather, I want to remember these soldiers, doctors, and nurses foremost as individuals. They died far from home, in a foreign place, away from their families, in the name of something so abstract—defending the British empire against Japanese aggression—that it may have barely seemed worth it. (I don’t know this for a fact; perhaps empire did mean a great deal to some of them.) What I can be more certain about is that the last century’s wars, like just about any wars fought until only very recently, were not generally fought by well-paid professionals choosing warfare as their life’s calling.

Wars are typically fought, instead, by men and women ranking among the statistically lowest in income, education, and life prospects. It is their blood we most often spill in the name of abstract ideologies such as nation and empire. They are the most patriotic among us, and, as only one specific segment of our broader society, they pay (in proportional terms) the greatest price in defending us.

And, of course, I wouldn’t ever ask my Chinese colleagues and students to remember the Canadians and other soldiers of the empire defending Hong Kong in December 1941 if they’re not comfortable doing so. It’s probably true: these Canadians, when presently fighting for their lives against hopeless odds, likely weren’t even aware of (or dwelling upon) the fascinating complexities of Chinese culture and its many proud traditions. In this sense, the Canadian service men and women probably weren’t fighting for a Chinese Hong Kong at all. They were just fighting to stay alive. Perhaps in the fiercest moments China and the British Empire were the farthest things from these people’s minds.

But still they bled and still they died. The Canadian and other soldiers must have been very brave, and most probably very scared, when their commanders refused to surrender—twice—to an overwhelmingly superior force and then ordered them to fight to the last man standing. (And many of those soldiers who survived the actual battle suffered an even worse fate—that of torture and starvation at the hands of the Japanese at a formerly British army base the Japanese had commandeered in Sham Shui Po. The civilian Westerners were interned at Fort Stanley. Thanks to Tim Hamlett for bringing this to my attention.) As the website I consulted reads, “In all, more than 550 of the 1,975 Canadians who sailed from Vancouver [British Columbia] in October 1941 never returned.”

I hope that we who call Hong Kong home, whether foreign-born or Chinese, can take a brief moment to remember the Hong Kong war dead. I hope that we might consider honoring the Canadians and other soldiers who defended Hong Kong alongside the many Hong Kong Chinese people who suffered and died during the Japanese occupation that followed.


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