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This article appeared in the October 2005 “Casa de Macau Australia Newsletter”.

‘We have come here as conquerors - You will do as we say’
Stuart Braga

By flickering candlelight in the early evening of Christmas Day 1941, in the darkened Peninsula Hotel, Kowloon, Sir Mark Young, KCMG, Governor of Hong Kong, became the first British colonial governor to surrender to one of His Majesty’s enemies, the victorious Imperial Japanese Army. It had taken less than three weeks for the British garrison to be overwhelmed following the Japanese attack on 8th December.

There followed forty-four months of severe hardship for the population, most of whom were Chinese, with a small elite group of British administrators and business people. More fortunate were 3,474 British women and children evacuated to Australia in July 1940 following the Japanese occupation of French Indo-China. Many, including the present writer, made their homes permanently here. Another large group of people escaped the prisoner-of-war and internment camps that awaited British soldiers and civilians. This was the sizeable Portuguese community. They or their forebears had left the old Portuguese colony of Macau only 60 km away for the greater opportunities offered by the stronger economy of the nearby British colony.
Lieutenant G. Albert meets a Japanese envoy on the quarterdeck of HMS Swiftsure in Hong Kong Harbour, 30th August 1945

 

In the early months of 1942, most of them returned to Macau, which remained precariously neutral throughout the war. In addition, there were almost 10,000 British subjects, 1,000 American citizens and smaller numbers of other Europeans. Despite economic stagnation caused by the war, they were at least safe, even if hungry and under-employed. There were also several hundred thousand Chinese refugees, whose sufferings were pitiful and many starved to death. However, essential services never failed, and no-one suffered at the hands of a cruel invader. Remaining in Hong Kong were 7,000 British prisoners of war, crammed into an army barracks in Kowloon, while another 2,300 British civilian internees were crowded uncomfortably into a boys’ school at Stanley on Hong Kong Island. Internees found three things hardest: the lack of food, the lack of news and the lack of privacy.
St Stephen’s College, Stanley, Hong Kong. Some 2,300 civilian internees were crowded into this boys’ school and its surrounding buildings from
1942 to 1945.
Hong Kong Fellowship Newsletter No. 1, March

The unluckiest prisoner at Stanley was Hong Kong’s Colonial Secretary, Franklin Gimson, who took up office only the day before the Japanese attack. Gimson felt the wrath of other internees, who blamed the government for many shortcomings in Hong Kong’s civil defence. No matter that he had not been there; as head of the Civil Service, he had to take the blame, though the ‘colonial lethargy’ that marked British behaviour in pre-war Hong Kong had more to do with it. It took Gimson much of the next three years to establish his authority as he and other senior officials began to plan for the day when war ended. They did not doubt that Hong Kong would return to its pre-war status as a British colony, although they expected that there would be constitutional reforms giving the vast Chinese majority some role in public affairs.

In Macau the administration of Commander Gabriel Teixeira trod a delicate path. Portugal was neutral in this war, though its other Far Eastern possession, East Timor, was occupied by the Japanese. In Macau, the British consul, J.P. Reeves, kept the flag flying. It was the only Union Jack between India and Hawaii apart from that at the British embassy at Chungking. Reeves gave tacit consent to a well-developed underground resistance movement, the British Army Aid Group, led by an Australian, Lindsay Ride, Professor of Physiology at Hong Kong University. He was supported by anglophile members of the Portuguese community. Prominent among them was J.M. (Jack) Braga, who had already begun to collect a significant library on the activities of the Portuguese in the Far East. The war put a stop to his acquisition of books, but instead he began to record the life of the large English-speaking community in its efforts in these extraordinary conditions to maintain a vibrant cultural life.
Jack Braga 1936

 

By mid-1945 it was obvious to local people that the war was coming to an end as the growing number of air raids told of increasing American air supremacy.

Braga began to collect newspapers, including the English edition of Renascimento which, by mid-1945, was able to give accurate information about the collapse of Nazi Germany. Now in the National Library of Australia, these papers tell a dramatic story of rapidly growing excitement.

Renascimento, 11th August 1945. Japanese surrender was imminent.

Nevertheless, the collapse of Japan came with bewildering suddenness. The Emperor’s rescript announcing the surrender was broadcast on 15th August and read to a stunned Japanese garrison in Hong Kong next day. At Stanley there was an immediate and dramatic improvement in the attitude of the guards. Franklin Gimson sought an interview with the prison governor, who confirmed the news, ending simply, ‘You’ve won; we’ve lost.’ Who would control Hong Kong now?

No-one in Hong Kong or Macau knew that the world had been divided into combat theatres. The South-West Pacific Area was commanded by an American, General Douglas MacArthur, and extended from Australia to the coast of China. The China Command was held by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and included Hong Kong. Naturally, the Chinese government wanted it back. Just as naturally, the British, ingloriously defeated and humiliated in 1941, wanted to return with a show of as much strength as they could muster. That required the consent of America, because the British Pacific Fleet, stationed in Sydney, came under MacArthur’s command. The issue had to be resolved at top level and went to the desk of the new US President, Harry S Truman.
Vice Admiral Ruitako Fujita, commander of the Japanese South China Fleet, arrives at Government House, Hong Kong, for the surrender ceremony, 12th September 1945.

President Roosevelt, who died in April, believed that Hong Kong should revert to China but, by August 1945, Truman had lost confidence in Chiang. Busy with the occupation of Germany and Japan, Truman left it for the British and Chinese to work it out.

With a large British fleet under Rear Admiral Cyril Harcourt steaming from Sydney, Chiang backed down. He, too, had higher priorities: the re-occupation of Manchuria and the cities of Peking, Shanghai, Nanking and Canton. Hong Kong would have to wait, but to save Chinese ‘face’, it was arranged that Harcourt would accept the Japanese surrender on behalf of both Britain and China.


Meanwhile, Gimson had taken matters into his own hands. He told the Japanese authorities to give him a bus, drove into the city with a busload of senior officers, and had the Chief Justice, also an internee, swear him in as Acting Governor. He set up a token administration in a building near the headquarters of the Japanese. They were in the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building, the largest and most prestigious in the colony, but Japanese officials, still the de facto rulers of Hong Kong, had to walk up a pathway to see Gimson. Although this was a symbolic humiliation, his was literally a skeleton government, with a handful of emaciated and ragged British officials in bare offices trying to restore a semblance of the old colonial government.

On 28th August Gimson announced on Radio Hong Kong that an interim British administration had been installed. Two days later the British fleet sailed slowly into the harbour, preceded by six Australian minesweepers which happened to be already in the Philippines, and joined Harcourt’s fleet. Harcourt wanted no repetition of the Dardanelles debacle in 1915. Over the next days and weeks, British military administrators took command and business slowly resumed. The first was the South China Morning Post, the major English-language newspaper. Jack Braga, still in Macau, collected a copy of each issue. They tell a remarkable story of how power was transferred to British control.

South China Morning Post 7th September 1945. Japanese Military Yen was still the only currency in circulation. Internees were desperate to get out of Stanley camp.
A Medical Officer had the impression that ‘the people are better than we expected, but not as well as they think they are.’

It was two weeks before British forces could take over from the Japanese regime. Admiral Harcourt took the Japanese surrender on 12th September at Government House on Hong Kong Island. Some days later, Captain J. Eccles of HMS Indomitable, sat in the Peninsula Hotel, Kowloon, where Sir Mark Young had surrendered in 1941, to accept the Japanese surrender on the mainland, but the Japanese officers were late, and the ceremony was postponed. Next day they were punctual, but an annoyed Eccles told them firmly, ‘We have come here as conquerors. You will do as we say.’

The evacuation of Stanley camp also took several weeks. The South China Morning Post, initially printed in a very small edition, and still paid for in Japanese Military Yen, was produced chiefly for this community. They had been ordered to remain there, because there was nowhere else to go. The newspaper recorded the frustration of people desperate to get away. In Macau, too, the British refugee population, much larger than that of Stanley camp, was told to stay put by the British consul through announcements in Renascimento. Not until the troopship Empress of Australia arrived in mid-September with 3,000 troops could most of them get away.

In the next few months, a new set of colonial administrators came to replace those whose vitality never returned following their long internment. Political and constitutional reform, much spoken of during the war, never eventuated. Eccles’ admonition to the Japanese, ‘You will do as we say’, was applied to the Chinese population as well. Yet within forty years, in 1984, the British Government was obliged to reach agreement with the Chinese Government to return Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. In 1945, Franklin Gimson won the race to fill the immediate power vacuum but, in the long run, the Chinese claim for legitimacy was to prevail.