December 8 marked the 75th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Hong Kong. Early in the morning of December 8, 1941 – just hours after Pearl Harbour – the Japanese military crossed the Chinese border and attacked the city, dragging it into the chaos and brutality of World War Two.
On this landmark anniversary, we take a look at ten of the memorials and markings dotted around Hong Kong. Of course, these historic sites are only the tip of the iceberg, with hundreds of surviving pill-boxes, bunkers, and air raid shelters to be explored – each acting as a poignant reminder of the sacrifices made by those who fought to defend the city.
A Brief History
The surprise element of the attack on the city worked well for Japan, and it took just 18 days for the defending British, Indian, Canadian, and Hong Kong forces to fall. The invading forces took control of Kowloon and the New Territories during the first few days of the battle, and on December 18 crossed Victoria Harbour to take Hong Kong Island. Just seven days later, Hong Kong surrendered, signing the official document on December 25, 1941 – aka Black Christmas.
10 Historic Landmarks
1. The Gin Drinkers Line and Shing Mun Redoubt
The Gin Drinkers Line was the major line of defence in the New Territories, with 18km of trenches, pill-boxers, and bunkers stretching from Gin Drinkers Bay in Kwai Chung to Port Shelter in Tai Po Tsai.
Along this defence line, you’ll come across Shing Mun Redoubt – a network of underground tunnels to be used by the defenders of Hong Kong to protect Kowloon. To ensure that the Japanese couldn’t easily navigate the underground maze, the tunnels were named after London streets, such as Shaftesbury Avenue (pictured above left) and Regent Street (pictured above, bottom right). Strand Palace Hotel (pictured above, top right) was the code name for the Shing Mun Redoubt military headquarters. Unfortunately, when war broke out there were only around 30 Royal Scots soldiers able to guard the area. As a result, the Redoubt was taken hours after the Japanese invaded – a major victory for the Japanese.
If a day of historical sightseeing in the New Territories takes your fancy, we recommend packing BBQ supplies and enjoying a post-adventure feast at the public Shing Mun BBQ pits, which overlook the picturesque reservoir. Click here to find out more.
How to get there: Take the MTR to Tsuen Wan, head out of exit A1, and catch minibus number 82 to Shing Mun Reservoir. Hop off about 20 minutes later and walk along the main road to the BBQ pits. Take the right hand path up the hill – after about 10 minutes you’ll see the tunnels.
2. The Peninsula Hong Kong
Perhaps best known today for its delicious afternoon tea, The Peninsula Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui also holds great significance for the Battle of Hong Kong.
Firstly, the third floor of the grand, colonial building was taken over by high ranking Japanese officers during the battle. Perhaps most importantly, however, it was here that Hong Kong Governor, Sir Mark Aitchison Young, surrendered to the Japanese, signing the official document by candlelight at 7pm on December 25, 1941.
The Peninsula Hong Kong, Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui
3. The Cenotaph
Originally built to commemorate those who fought in World War One, The Cenotaph monument now also honours those who sacrificed their lives for Hong Kong in World War Two. Inscribed with the words “may their martyred souls be immortal, and their noble spirits endure”, this listed monument is the go-to if you’re looking for somewhere to have a moment of historical reflection.
While you’re in the area, see if you can spot any of the bullet holes in the Court of Final Appeal Building, which stands next to Statue Square on 8 Jackson Road, Central.
The Cenotaph, Statue Square, Chater Road, Central
4. City Hall Memorial Garden
Just across the road from The Cenotaph is the City Hall Memorial Garden. Take note of the copper gates at the entrance of the garden, which bear the emblem of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps and Royal Hong Kong Regiment.
In the centre of the Memorial Garden is the Memorial Shrine, which houses plaques listing the names of the units which fought in the Battle of Hong Kong. To say that the garden is so central, it is surprisingly calm and peaceful.
City Hall Memorial Garden, 5 Edinburgh Place, Central
5. HSBC Lions
It’s pretty difficult to pass by the HSBC Main Building without catching sight of the two majestic, bronze lion statues which have guarded the Des Voeux Road entrance since October 1932, when the building officially opened.
Upon closer inspection, you’ll see bullet holes in both of the statues, fondly known as Stephen and Stitt, which were caused by downtown fighting during the Battle of Hong Kong.
The lions’ war tale continues, as they were then kidnapped by the invaders and shipped back to Japan as scrap metal. Fortunately, they were saved from such a fate by an American soldier who spotted them in Osaka, and in the autumn of 1946, Stephen and Stitt were returned to their rightful places.
“In the dead of last night the two bronze lions … crept back to their pedestals and this morning looked as comfortable and unconcerned as if they had never moved” – SCMP, October 18, 1946*
HSBC Main Building, 1 Queen’s Road Central
Read more! Check out Multicoloured Pride of HSBC Lions Shows Support for Hong Kong Pride Movement
6. Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence
Formerly the Lei Yue Mun Fort, the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence marks the point where the invading Japanese forces crossed Victoria Harbour to launch their attack on Hong Kong Island. Nowadays, the former fort is a haven for those with an interest in local history, with artefacts and historic objects up to 500 years old on display.
Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence, 175 Tung Hei Road, Shau Kei Wan, (+852) 2569 1500
7. Sai Wan War Cemetery
Over 1,500 soldiers who died during the Battle of Hong Kong were laid to rest at the Sai Wan War Cemetery, including Brigadier John K. Lawson – the most senior soldier to die during the war.
The Memorial Shelter stands at the entrance of the cemetery, bearing the names of an additional 2,000 soldiers who have no grave. Next you will see the Stone of Remembrance – a white monument inscribed with the words, “Their Name Liveth For Evermore”.
Rows upon rows of striking, white gravestones fill the hillside, with a walkway running though the centre, leading to the Cross of Sacrifice. Set against the brilliant green of the hills and the downtown mass of skyscrapers, the Sai Wan War Cemetery is a truly humbling sight.
Sai Wan War Cemetery, Cape Collinson Road, Chai Wan
8. St Stephen’s College
St Stephen’s College, south of Stanley on the Tai Tam Peninsula, was subjected to a horrifying attack on the morning of December 25, just hours before Hong Kong surrendered. The invading Japanese forces stormed the makeshift hospital, torturing, raping, and killing injured soldiers, doctors, and nurses, in the bloodiest massacre of the battle.
A communal grave of the victims can be found on site, which states the names of five people known to have been killed, and pays honour to the ‘many unknown Chinese, Indian, Canadian, and British ranks of various units’ who also lost their lives.
St Stephen’s College, Wong Ma Kok Road, Stanley
9. Stanley Military Cemetery
Next to the college, you’ll find Stanley Military Cemetery – the resting place of nearly all the fatalities of the local Hong Kong and British forces. During the 3 year and 8 month-long Japanese occupation, this cemetery was used as a prisoner-of-war and civilian internment camp. You’ll be able to spot some of the headstones which were created by these prisoners, using granite which they found on site, and inscribing the messages by hand.
Stanley Military Cemetery, Wong Ma Kok Road, Stanley
10. Hong Kong Park
The white colonial-style building in Hong Kong Park, Flagstaff House, was occupied by four Japanese admirals in the years after the Battle of Hong Kong, when Japan controlled the city. Nowadays this is the site of the Museum of Tea Ware.
Just before you reach Flagstaff House, you will see the figure of a soldier holding a rifle. This commemorative statue is in honour John Robert Osborn, who was awarded the prestigious Victoria Cross for his role in the Battle of Hong Kong. The plaque goes on to honour “all those men and women, service and civilian, of every race and creed who performed acts of gallantry and sacrifice in the defence of Hong Kong in December 1941”.
Hong Kong Park, 19 Cotton Treet Drive, Central, (+852) 2521 5041
*Source: HSBC Archives
Join a Tour!
Jason Wordie Walks
Prominent local historian and writer Jason Wordie (pictured above) is a popular choice when it comes to WW2 tours – and for good reason. Overflowing with passion and expertise, Wordie will capture your imagination and bring these historical sites to life.
You can sign up for the Battlefields Full Day Walk, or shorter 3-hour sessions which focus on one specific location. The upcoming Reservoirs & Redoubts tour on December 29 is a must for those who want to learn more about the Gin Drinker’s Line. Click here to see the full schedule of upcoming tours.
How much: Prices start at $395 per person
Crown Wine Cellars
For those with a mutual love of local history and wine, the Crown Wine Cellars tour is the obvious choice. On the third Saturday of each month, at 11am, this private wine cellar and members club hosts a free, one hour-long, guided tour of the WW2 bunkers, guardhouse, and sentry box on the Shouson Hill site, which were built British back in 1937. You then have the opportunity to enjoy lunch in the clubhouse for a discounted rate.
Be warned that securing a spot requires some forward planning, with tours typically filling up 3 to 4 months in advance. Click here to reserve your place.
How much: Free
Walk Hong Kong
Walk Hong Kong arranges WW2 Battlefield Walks of Wong Nai Chung Gap Trail, Pinewood Battery, Stanley Heritage Trail, Shing Mun Redoubt, and Devil’s Peak upon request. The tours are between 4 and 5 hours long, with a minimum of 2 hours walking.
How much: $500 per person (includes transport)
Read more! Check out 12 Festive Things To Do in Hong Kong This Christmas or find out what’s on in The Weekend Ahead.