There’s an interesting article in today’s Sunday Morning Post about Wang Jingwei, the wartime Chinese leader who collaborated with the Japanese to set up a puppet government in Nanjing, and who has been reviled by Chinese ever since as a traitor. Indeed, his very name carries the same derogatory associations as ‘Quisling’ in the West. It seems that Wang’s calligraphy and artworks, shunned since his death in 1944, are now becoming collectables for the first time.
Peter Hui — the subject of our book King Hui: The Man Who Owned All the Opium in Hong Kong — had a different view of Wang. Hui saw Wong Ching-wai (in the Cantonese pronunciation) as doing his best to ensure a stable life for the Chinese under Japanese occupation. Of course, Hui was a collaborator too. Here we print an excerpt from King Hui covering the fall of Hong Kong in 1941.
As soon as we knew the Japanese were going to invade we thought there would be chaos and looting. It seemed inevitable. But nothing like that happened. The first thing everyone thought of was to get money out of the banks and to buy food. By the time the Japanese invaded everyone had prepared themselves as far as they could. Now, we just waited. We didn’t know how long the battle would last or how long. I think we all knew the Japanese would win but we expected the fight to be very hard and long. Actually, Hong Kong fell very quickly. The sound of explosions stopped. We waited. We had no idea what was going to happen. Most of the people hated the British but they also hated the Japanese. Maybe the British were better. Maybe the Japanese were better. Who could say? On the one hand the Japanese were Asians like us. On the other hand, they were famous for being very cruel. The massacre at Nanjing was still a recent memory. What would they do to us? Everyone stayed indoors and waited to see what would happen.
On Kowloon side the Japanese quickly pushed the British back. The Peninsula Hotel was the command headquarters for the British generals. But there were many civilians there too. My brother-in-law’s colleague, Tsui Tim, was the Chinese superintendent of the hotel. As soon as he saw the situation was getting worse and that the fighting was getting closer he ordered the British flag to be pulled down. The British commanding general was furious. He ordered Tsui Tim to put it back up again but Tsui refused. He told the general: “If we have the flag up the Japanese will aim their guns at this building. There are women and children here. Also I am responsible for the safety of the hotel staff. I think for everyone’s sake this is the sensible thing to do.” And so the flag stayed down. That’s why the Peninsula Hotel was not damaged by gunfire.
The Japanese rode into Central a few days later on horseback. They immediately took over the Hong Kong Hotel as their headquarters and put the staff quarters under their control as well.
For the majority of the people of Hong Kong food became the big problem. Some people were starving on the streets. The poor people had nowhere to live and no money to buy rice. But it was no problem for my family. My brother-in-law was the Superintendent of the Hong Kong Hotel. Naturally, we had access to all the food supplies in the hotel. We had caviar, salmon, steak, lobster — anything we wanted. We just went into the food store and took it. My father and the rest of my family didn’t like western food so much so he would choose food to make Chinese dishes. And there was plenty of wine and brandy. My father was always a heavy drinker and by this time so was I. Every night we had a feast. Each of us drank two or three bottles of brandy a day. My father liked Hennessy. That was the best in those days. The brand he liked had an axe-head on the label. I remember that. As soon as the invasion started, Ho Tim had closed the hotel up and told all the staff that because of the emergency they were all being made unemployed immediately. There was no possibility of paying them off because there was no money on hand. He told them they were welcome to stay as long as they wanted at the staff quarters but from now on they would have to find their own food. If they ate in the canteen they would have to pay for it. He advised them to go back to China. What else could they do?
China was better for two reasons. First it was under the control of the puppet government of Wong Ching-wai which had been set up by the Japanese. It was therefore more stable and it was possible to do business there and get work. Also, if anyone went back to their home village in the country they were always certain of getting some simple food at least. Anyone could plant some sweet potatoes. Hong Kong was just a port. It had little food supply of its own: some vegetables and pigs. All the rice and most of everything else had to be imported. So, gradually, over the next few months, the staff quarters emptied. Not all at once as some couldn’t afford to go straight away and others wanted to wait and see what would happen in Hong Kong. We expected violence but there wasn’t any.
My father had a safe at the hotel which he had needed for his business. Here he kept money that he had made from the lottery business and other property. I remember we had some jewellery in there including a piece of jade. When I think of this jade piece my heart breaks. It was pure green colour. The very best colour of jade. It was one inch wide and three inches long. Not long after the war it was worth about $300,000. I was so poor in those early days that I had to sell it for how much? Guess! Only $700. Within a year it was worth 500 times as much. If I had just that one piece of jade now I would be rich. I could buy one or two flats at least. But I had no choice. I had to sell it to buy food for my wife and children. I had to pay the funeral expenses of my father. I tell you. My fate has been a hard one. But this was later. Now, at the time the Japanese invaded, I had no problems. I was eating well. I was drinking a bottle of brandy every day and I was making a lot of money.
When everything had settled down a bit, maybe a week after the Japanese arrived, I set up a gambling table in the street just outside the entrance to the staff quarters. I was the only one in Central though I heard that triads were operating tables in other districts. Immediately I started to make lots of money. The reason was simple. People who didn’t have enough money were hoping to make a big win and so be able to buy a ticket for China. Other people were just bored because there was no other entertainment. There was nothing to do at all. Other people had most of their hot cash in their pockets so they felt rich. Chinese are gamblers. We love gambling. I just had one set of dominoes so we played ‘pai kau’. It’s quite a complicated game but everyone knows how to play. I paid a few of the hotel staff to look after the table and many of the other staff bet at the table. Some were lucky and got what they wanted but there is one simple rule of gambling: the banker must win and I was the banker. Another group of people who had some money in their pockets were the Taiwanese interpreters who came to Hong Kong with the Japanese. They were quite well off. They also liked to gamble.
Don’t think I just made money from the hotel staff. I helped a lot of people at this time. All the hotel staff knew me. They called me ‘Kei gaw’ – ‘gaw gaw’ means ‘elder brother’. Even though I was younger than them they called me elder brother out of respect. They would come up to me and say: “Kei gaw, I need some money to go back to China. I don’t have enough. I don’t like to bother you and I don’t dare to ask to borrow some money but you can buy my bicycle. Or my watch or this bottle of brandy. ” A lot of them were waiters and when they left their restaurants they would take a bottle of wine or spirits. They didn’t drink it themselves but sold it to me. So I would give them say $5 for a bicycle. That was a lot of money in those days. So I quickly acquired six, seven, eight bicycles. I didn’t need so many bicycles but it was a way to help these people. I had so much money. It was easy for me to do. Later I sold them for a small profit. This was small stuff for me. I was making five or six hundred dollars a day.
Of course, once I started up my gambling table several others had the same idea and soon there were quite a lot of tables. When this happened the Japanese issued an order banning gambling. They posted up posters everywhere saying that anyone caught running a gambling table would be executed immediately. I think some people were caught. Everyone else went out of business immediately. Everyone except me! From then on I was the only one in Hong Kong running a gambling business. You could say I had a monopoly of gambling in Hong Kong! How is it I could succeed? All it took was a little cleverness. Now I must explain something. When the Japanese took over the Hong Kong Hotel they placed a large banner with the words ‘Japanese Military Authority’ over the entrance to the staff quarters. I simply pulled the table into the entrance to the staff quarters and carried on. When Japanese soldiers and gendarmes passed by they would see us gambling confidently. Then they would see the sign, hesitate, and then walk on. Naturally, we would bow at them and point out the sign with a smile. It seemed to them t