Britain, China, and the Japanese Occupation

The Fall of Hong Kong: Britain, China, and the Japanese Occupation

Nicholas Evan Sarantakes

The Fall of Hong Kong: Britain, China, and the Japanese Occupation by Philip Snow. Yale University Press (, P.O. Box 209040, New Haven, Connecticut 06520-9040, 2003, 528 pages, $40.00 (hardcover), $22.50 (softcover).

Philip Snow’s account of the Japanese occupation of the British colony of Hong Kong is an exceptionally impressive study that many, many people should read. Why? Well, it is the product of extensive and multilingual research in the archives of the United Kingdom, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong itself. Snow has used his findings to provide a wide, comprehensive, but also nuanced history of what happened in this territory during World War II. In well-rendered prose, he argues that the Japanese occupation weakened the British hold on the colony in the postwar years both internally and externally as the native peoples of Asia acquired political power and colonial empires collapsed.

As the title suggests, Snow shows his readers the fairly obvious confrontation between the Japanese and the British. The battle for control of the island was a relatively brief event in the last month of 1941, with the British and Chinese Nationalists floundering against the able and well-prepared advance of the Japanese 23rd Army. Snow, both of whose parents were writers, shows a novelist’s attention to colorful detail. Readers learn that after an 18-day siege–planned to last for three months–Governor Sir Mark Young became the first man to surrender a British colony since General Lord Cornwallis lost America in 1781. After making his decision, Sir Mark vomited in disgust.

The bulk of the book, however, focuses on the topic of the subtitle. Snow shows how officials of the two imperial powers worked together to maintain order in the colony after the transfers of power that marked the beginning and ending of World War II. The British police stayed on duty in the early days of the occupation before the Japanese had the manpower to establish their own authority. The emperor’s soldiers reciprocated in 1945 as the king’s men returned to power. But Snow goes farther and deeper, explaining how factions within the Imperial Japanese Army and the triangular rivalry between the army, navy, and Kempeitai (secret police) shaped occupation policies. China was also rife with internal differences as the Communists and Nationalists resisted the Japanese but made ready with more energy and intensity for the coming civil war with one another. Preparation for this pending showdown resulted in both Chinese political parties deciding to tolerate the return of the British rather than see the territory come under the sway of their domestic enemy.

This study also covers the experience of the subject peoples of Hong Kong–what they went through varied significantly from group to group. The Chinese majority profited little from their new colonial overlords. Despite their pan-Asian rhetoric, the Japanese seemed more intent on simply replacing the British than on liberating Hong Kong from foreign exploitation. By the standards of the Imperial Army, the Japanese ruled with a light touch during their first year and a half in power. AS the occupation continued, however, Japanese officials began to plunder the colony for all it was worth, using progressively harsher tactics to suppress resistance to their rule. Although no group enjoyed immunity, the Japanese were particularly severe in their treatment of the Chinese. Indians benefited from the new regime as the Japanese, in an attempt to foment unrest on the subcontinent, gave them a favored status they had never known in British Hong Kong. British expatriates found themselves at the receiving end of stern but proper treatment.

Snow includes two lengthy chapters that discuss the reinstitution of British sovereignty. Britain held on to the colony for another 50 years but with a much weaker grip than the one it exerted before 1941. A number of circumstances–the weakness of China as well as ideological and military concerns of higher priority in Beijing rather than the strength of the British empire–accounted for Hong Kong’s continuing colonial status.

Many people in the US armed services and the Departments of State and Defense–or at least those individuals assigned to military-occupation duties–should put this study on their reading lists. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Although one finds significant differences between the armies of Imperial Japan and the United States, the problems that Americans have encountered in Iraq are similar in many respects to those the Japanese faced in Hong Kong. For example, the criminal element took advantage of the initial chaos that followed the collapse of British authority. The Japanese conducted scant administrative planning to deal with problems after the military victory. One organization replaced another after virtually ignoring food shortages, and electrical power and public utilities remained inoperative. This confusion did little to endear the Japanese to their new subjects. Unlike Americans in Iraq or in other US occupations, the Japanese could and ultimately did resort to violence and terror to maintain order. As a result, they had to do less to resolve the problems they encountered.

Although an exceptionally good study, The Fall of Hong Kong does have some flaws. The most important shortcoming is the rather excessive use of passive voice. Phrases like “is said to have been” abound on the pages of this book. Although this comment might strike some readers as trivial, it reflects a more significant issue, insofar as Snow often uses the passive to introduce rumor into his account. This type of construction also weakens the thrust of his narrative, particularly when he does have evidence in hand. Despite these minor blemishes, this study will stand as the authoritative account on this topic for several generations. For that reason, people tasked with occupation duties in other locales can profit from reading The Fall of Hong Kong.

Dr. Nicholas Evan Sarantakes

Maxwell AFB, Alabama

COPYRIGHT 2005 U.S. Air Force

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group