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 that we were carrying on the gambling business with the full authority of at least one senior military officer. My father and brother-in-law thought I was very clever. My wife never worried about what I did. They all knew I could look after myself.
Some people say that the Japanese soldiers were very cruel. That was not my experience. I did not have the impression that they brutalised the people. There were cases, certainly. But I have to say that, from my own experience, they behaved correctly. Always we had to bow low and obey them. If we did that we would be all right. I would say they behaved better than soldiers from other countries. Better than Chinese soldiers even. Naturally, if they didn’t like something they would kill you straight away. They wouldn’t shoot you. That’s not their way. They liked to use their swords. They would just cut off your head. I saw this once or twice. One man was caught stealing something, some food, I think it may have been a duck. He was caught and killed straight away. His body was just left lying in the street.
The gambling business could not continue forever. Not because of the danger but because soon no-one had any money. The value of money was dropping fast and the cost of everything was rising fast. The Japanese introduced military yen and made Hong Kong dollars illegal. Still, people preferred to use the Hong Kong dollar on the black market. This was strange perhaps. There was no government to support it and it was illegal. Still, people preferred it. But it couldn’t be used openly. Later people started to speculate by buying up high-value notes. You could buy a hundred dollar note for thirty or forty dollars.
After a few months, the staff quarters stopped being so safe. The soldiers knew that here was a regular source of manpower. From time to time they would do spot checks. What they wanted was labourers. If they had a job, they would come and get as many workers as they needed. They always needed workers because they paid almost nothing, so naturally no-one wanted to work for them. All they would do was supply you with enough food to stay alive. Many workers escaped and walked to China. So when they needed workers they would grab whoever they could find and force them to work for a few days. Only men. They left the women and children alone. I was lucky. I was never caught. But once my father was caught and taken away. When I returned to the quarters from whatever I was doing a few hours later, my wife told me what had happened. I can tell you I was damned angry. I didn’t think twice. When I am angry, I am like that. I ran down to the Hong Kong Hotel where all the senior military officers lived. I charged into the lobby and demanded to see a senior officer.
“Who is the most senior officer here?” I shouted. Really I was furious. I didn’t care about my own safety. Naturally I was stopped by the staff.
“What do you want?” a translator asked.
“Your soldiers have taken away my father. Why do you need old men to do your work? If you need someone you should get someone young. Let my father go. I don’t mind taking his place!”
“And who are you?”
I told him my name and told him I was the brother-in-law of the hotel superintendent. Ho Tim still worked there for the Japanese but he earned very little. The translator calmed me down and promised to look into the matter. In fact, he did do something because my father was released a few hours later. He was very frightened by the experience. I knew that the next time we might not be so lucky. We had to move.
I found a flat on the Wanchai waterfront, just next to the Luk Kwok Hotel, which later became famous because it was the original of the hotel in the Suzie Wong book. So we all moved there and for the next few months we did nothing. Nothing at all. There was nothing to do. No-one had any money. Gradually, the money we did have on hand, our ‘hot cash’, gave out. It became more and more difficult to live.
It was at this time that our mui-jai ran away. She was the mui-jai my father-in-law had given my wife when we got married. Her name was Shen Yee. Why did she run away? Who can say? Maybe it was because we were getting poorer and poorer. Maybe she felt guilty to be eating our rice. Or maybe she felt this was a good time to gain her freedom. Actually, I can tell you that she was free to go anytime. No-one would have stopped her. Actually, by that time it wasn’t really legal to have a mui-jai, but no-one told their mui-jai. The girls were illiterate so many of them didn’t know. Maybe they did know but were happy to stay with their families. It was a kind of security. Anyway, the fact is, even if it was the law everyone ignored it. Maybe I am old-fashioned but I have no objection to the mui-jai system if the master and mistress of the house are good. I can say that we always treated our mui-jais well.
Shen Yee disappeared and then, a few days later, a friend of mine told me that she was working in a barber shop. Although there was no work for anyone in the normal way there was always work for a girl in a barber shop. Why? Because these barber shops were different from normal hairstylists. In those days, when you went to a barber shop it wasn’t just to get your hair cut. They performed other services, especially massage. And it’s common for a customer to make an arrangement to meet the barber girl later for sex. So the girls who work in these shops are a form of prostitute.
When I heard Shen Yee was working in this barber shop I went to see her. When she saw me she looked scared. She thought I had come to take her back.
“Shen Yee, don’t ever be scared of me. I don’t want to do you any harm. You are free to do what you want. I just want to make sure you are happy. ”
She said she was happy there. After that, I dropped in to see her from time to time. Naturally, I felt some affection for her. We had lived together for six or more years. I didn’t want any harm to come to her. I saw her maybe ten times and then one day she was gone. No-one knew where she had gone. She just disappeared. I never saw her again.
For my wife, everything continued as before. She had three children to look after with just one amah to help. But my wife was always very clever about domestic matters.
During these months, the population of Hong Kong dropped a great deal. Maybe, it was only half or a third what it was before. The people who stayed had no money at all. People stayed at home or just walked the streets looking for opportunities. It was a hard time. Everyone suffered. There was starvation. Sometimes you would see bodies on the streets. I remember once, a man stole a cake and just stuffed it in his mouth. He didn’t care if he was caught, as long as he had something to eat. One thing that some people ate at this time was wild taro. This was not a good vegetable to eat. I’m not sure what exactly it does. Maybe it is slightly poisonous or maybe the wild taro paste can’t be digested so it stays in the bowel until it completely blocks the intestine or the stomach. People knew it was not good but it filled the stomach and stopped them feeling hungry. Many people died from eating too much. At first there is no problem but after six months or so of regular eating it becomes fatal. Another thing, girls and women were afraid of the soldiers but I don’t think there was much rape. My wife stayed at home most of the time.
One day my father made a decision. “What good is it to be rich if you can’t afford to eat? I can’t stand to see all my grandchildren starving. We must sell some of our properties in Canton so that we have money to buy food.” So I was sent to Canton to sell some properties. My father was too old and frail. He didn’t feel up to travelling.
I took the ferry up to Canton with all the documents and certificates that were needed. I had to have his signature on everything. None of the property was in my name. I sold a few houses so once again we were rich and had enough money to buy food.
When I came back from Canton I found a nicer flat in Village Road in Happy Valley so we moved there. It was very cheap to rent. It was possible to move into some very nice flats and live even rent-free. Many owners who had fled to Canton were just happy that someone was living in their flats. We paid a rent but it was very small. Shortly afterwards, I got another flat for my father as there wasn’t enough room for us all. Ant then I got a third flat which I used for entertaining my friends and that’s where I took girls. I didn’t like to go to hotels. I didn’t want people to comment about me. As for my wife, that was no problem. She didn’t care much. She was an old-fashioned woman. She accepted that a man could have several concubines. I never cheated or lied to her. I would always tell her straight what I had been doing the night before: whether I had a good time with a society girl, or a dancer, or a film star or a waitress. She said to me:
“I don’t mind if you mess around with girls. All I care about is that you take care of us properly so that we have a comfortable life.” We understood and respected each other.
A man’s fate is a strange thing. It can change suddenly. One minute you may be poor, the next minute you are rich. It was about six months after the Japanese invasion when suddenly my life changed. Suddenly I was rich. Suddenly I had money in my pockets. I wasn’t dependent on my father, or KF. I didn’t have to be a broker. I had all the money I needed and more.
This moment was the turning point in my life. Naturally, I didn’t realise this at the time. All I knew was that I had as much money as I needed. My father still had to sign all the documents but he left all the decisions to me. While all my rich friends were broke I was suddenly rich. I can tell you that money is nothing. But it is a glorious feeling to have money – money to throw away on pleasure. That is all I thought about. Everyone else struggled to get by. They led quiet lives at home or they escaped to other countries. Only I had the desire to have fun. What else was there to do? It was a bad time to think of business. We just had to cope the best way we could until the situation improved. And I had money to spend. That was one thing. The other thing was that soon I was to have very good connections with the Japanese administration. These were the two necessary components: money and connections. For the next three years and some months of the occupation I led the second most glorious time of my life. My school years were first. Then came the years of the occupation.
Let me explain how it all happened. When I went up to Canton to sell the houses, I fooled around and had a good time. While I was there, I paid a visit to my old school friend, Tang Kin-shan. He was the one who had warned me several months before the war that the Japanese intended to invade.
“You should make some connections with the Japanese,” he advised me. He said he knew of someone who would be a good contact for me, the abbot of the only Japanese Buddhist monastery in Hong Kong – which happened to be in Wanchai, not very far from where we lived. His name was Fuji-san. Tang gave me a letter of introduction to him. I thought very hard about taking this step. I was worried that there might be some negative consequences but I couldn’t immediately think of any. I felt it could only be beneficial to me so in the end I made contact with him. I wrote him a letter introducing myself and saying I would be happy to be of use to the Japanese administration. A few days later I got a reply asking me to visit him for tea. When I met him he was dressed in civilian clothes, not the robes of a monk. I remember I was surprised when I met him. His head wasn’t shaved as I expected it would be. He had short hair in the military style. All I knew was that this man had powerful connections with the Japanese military.
“You would like to be of use to the administration?”
“That is my intention. But I don’t know how I can be useful.”
“You can speak English? Then, please come here every afternoon at four o’clock and teach me English and I will teach you Japanese. We can exchange lessons. How would you like that?”
Naturally I was happy to agree, so it was arranged that I would be an English teacher. I also set out to learn as much Japanese as I could. For the first few days I just taught Fuji-san but then he introduced me to some other Japanese who also wanted to learn English. Within a few weeks I had seven or eight students. I knew very little of my students. I knew their names but nothing else. I guessed they were senior officers but when I me