Three years, eight months
Written By Haven Lo
From December 1941 to August 1945, the British Colony of Hong Kong was under occupation by Japanese forces. During these three years and eight months, Hong Kongers faced constant hardship and radical change. Hong Kong was integrated into the greater Japanese Empire, and forced to embrace Japanese culture. While under occupation, a quarter of all houses in Hong Kong were ravaged. The population dwindled from over a million to six hundred thousand.
Some of those who stayed behind were the Tanka people, boat dwelling fishermen who were considered outcasts even though they were native Hong Kongers. Many of them lived in the port of Aberdeen, where fishing and trading helped keep them alive during the occupation.
三年零八個月。Three years, eight months.
They did not leave in an instant, but compared to the previous three years and eight months, it seemed like the blink of an eye. Leading to that day, the Japanese were already departing in great numbers. Aberdeen was one of the few places in Hong Kong with a harbor deep enough to anchor Japanese ships, and those of us who were still around risked poking our heads out of our houses to take a peek at the commotion.
The soldiers, in their mud yellow uniforms, were all lined up along the dockside. From my family boat, I was able to make out their facial expressions: some nervous, some exhausted, and all grimacing, as they headed onto the transport ship waiting for them. Unlike the towering destroyers which sailed into harbor shortly after the fall of Hong Kong, these ships were quite plain, looking almost ragged. It was as if they were taken from the drydock in a scrapyard.
One of those who left the latest was Han. Han was not his real name, and was not even Japanese. He was drafted from Korea, and it was after his ethnicity which we locals decided to nickname him.
From the day he arrived in Hong Kong, it became apparent that he was a misfit. He had no friends in the troop, no doubt due to his ethnicity. His physical appearance did not help him either. He was scrawny and lanky, with curly hair unlike those of both the Japanese or ourselves. His smile was a bit dorky, with one corner of his mouth always seeming to be slightly higher than the other. His head must have been a bit misshapen as well, as his cap never stayed perfectly on his head. The bayonet on his back was rusty.
Later, he tried making friends with us locals, and he did indeed succeed. However, it wasn’t always this way.
It was in the first few months of Japanese occupation when the incident occured. My eldest sister was out at night, trading for medicine after my father got sick. The curfew was in place, but she had no choice but step out into the dark to help stop my father’s high fever. She ducked into dark alleyways whenever she saw patrols along the main road, and managed to keep to the shadows for much of the way back home.
She was only a few metres away from the dock when a figure stepped out from the shadows. The voice spoke a simple word: Yamero. Stop.
My sister froze. She was within arms reach of our boat, and I almost called out to her before my brother put his hand over my mouth. We all knew what happened to women, especially young unmarried women who were caught out at night. Yet, we were powerless to do anything.
The figure stepped out of the shadow. Although we only saw his backside, Han’s unmistakable curly hair gave away his identity.
He pointed his bayonet straight at my sister’s chest. “Speak. Why you here. Speak now!” He demanded in broken Cantonese.
“Han…” My sister started. It was the first time we have heard anyone directly speak to him using that nickname. “Stop lying to yourself. You’re not one of them. We know that just as well as you do. Yes, you can turn me over, but what good would that bring? Would that make you sleep better at night? Perhaps the praise you would win in the short term from your officer would make you feel proud, but can you live with the guilt of turning me over in the long term?”
Han faltered, but he stood up straight once again. “I do not care. We go now.” He grabbed my sister by the wrist, but yet she remained calm.
Before any other soldier noticed the ruckus, my sister opened her hand. “This is medicine for my father. He has an incredibly deep fever. Think of your own family. What would you do if your own father was dying before your eyes?” She spoke bleakly, but her body was shaking.
Han hesitated, and let go. He did not exchange anymore eye contact. “My name is not Han.” He simply stated.
A few months later, we spotted Han with a bunch of officers and soldiers by the dock. They were gathered around the edge, with Han at the very edge flanked by two soldiers.
One of the officers was there, projecting his voice to the group gathered. Locals gazed from a far distance. “We will not tolerate any form of disloyalty here.” He began. “We are Japanese soldiers, fighting for crown and country, and any person within our ranks who disobeys will be disciplined!” The gathered group of soldiers roared.
“Today, we have a soldier here who needs to have that done to them.” He snarled into the ear of Han. “Into the harbor!” He said while raising his fist.
“Into the harbor! Into the harbor!” The soldiers echoed, and Han was brought to the very, very edge. Like a bomb from a plane, he plunged deep into the water. The soldiers cheered and left.
“We’ve got to save him!” My sister cried. “He can’t swim!”
Quickly, my brother undid the ropes tying us to the shore, and my father turned the boat around towards the edge of the harbor. It was not very hard to spot Han as he flailed in the water, a foreigner to the water as much as he is a foreigner to this land.
With great effort we pulled him up and out of the water. Before we even had a chance to speak to him, he already spoke himself: “I know you’re going to call me Han.” He smiled. “Call me Han then.”
Han left Hong Kong only a day before the Japanese surrender. My sister was bawling, and Han’s cheeks were red. He spent the entire walk up towards the ship looking back towards us.
This time, he didn’t fall.