The story behind French citizens who fought for Hong Kong

November 08, 2017 16:45
A plaque at the Stanley Military Cemetery in memory of the French who fought for Hong Kong. Photo: Francois Dremeaux

As Remembrance Day is approaching, we look into the hidden story behind French citizens who fought for Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion. Francois Dremeaux, a researcher, takes us behind this unknown episode of history.

Seventy-six years ago, on December 8, 1941, the invasion of Japanese troops into Hong Kong marked the beginning of the month-long "Battle of Hong Kong" which eventually led to the city being under Japanese occupation until August 1945.

Despite British and Canadian troops being the main force of opposition towards Japanese occupation, a handful of French expatriates decided to play their part, fighting to liberate the city that welcomed them.

In the 1930s, Hong Kong's French population was estimated at 400, compared to approximately 25,000 today.

During the Japanese invasion, most of them fled to Indochina, then part of France.

However, a small number enrolled in the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps (HKVDC), a branch of the Royal Hong Kong Regiment.

A number of adventurous French expatriates took part in the deadly battle, despite having no obligation to do so.

Recently, this forgotten minority has been brought into light by Francois Dremeaux, a French scholar at HKU who specialises in the role of France in Hong Kong between the two wars.

After years of research, Dremeaux was able to assemble parts of this puzzling element of Hong Kong’s history.

The scholar highlighted the difficulties to find archives, given the chaotic context at the time.

According to his findings, 12 to 15 French nationals were known to be involved alongside the British, though it was possible the figures might be higher.

"For sure, 6 Frenchmen died during the fight," said Dremeaux.

"Their names are on a monument in the Stanley Military Cemetery where we organize every year a Remembrance ceremony."

The researcher highlighted that three names were missing, two being Indochinese civil servants.

"It is important to recognize their commitment and sacrifice," he said, referring to the two French subjects who made the ultimate sacrifice.

The main figure in the "French fight for Hong Kong" was Armand Delcourt, a 42-year-old entrepreneur of Belgian origins who came to the then British colony in 1926. He married a woman who was half Japanese.

Ardently adventurous and idealistic, Delcourt joined the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps alongside some of his French counterparts. His tragic destiny reflected the perilous faith of many during the war.

Three days before Christmas eve, on December 21, 1941, Delcourt was captured by the Kenpeitai, the Japanese Imperial Army's police. He did not make it till Christmas and was executed in Repulse Bay, with a shot in the neck.

"His body was cremated immediately. The ironic part of the story is that he still had two grenades in his pocket. It exploded, killing some Japanese soldiers who were dancing around the macabre pyre," said Dremeaux.

Delcourt left behind his pregnant wife, who was abducted by the army and gave birth to a girl, Monique Westmore, on January 5, 1941.

Despite representing a small fraction of fighters, Dremeaux was keen to underline the bravery of these males fighting for a cause.

"France was allied to Great Britain and at war against Germany, which was allied to Japan. It was normal to fight alongside the British here in Hong Kong."

"What may strike us today, when we read some of their writings, is that they were highly conscious of the historical moment they were living. They were fighting against totalitarianism not only for their own freedom, but also for Liberty. They had very noble goals."

As we prepare to mark Remembrance Day, the scholar also stressed on the consequences that the two wars had on the British and Chinese populations.

"Maybe historians need to highlight that period a little more," he said, referring to World War I.

Dremeaux is a member of "Souvenir Français de Chine", an association created in 1887 to look after French war memorials and vestiges abroad.

"France is a modest part of the cosmopolitan heritage of Hong Kong but we need to treasure it, he says.

In addition to the French, other minorities fought for the defense of Hong Kong.

"I know that there were a lot of Portuguese citizens, mostly Macanese living in Hong Kong. There were also probably other nationalities; that is an interesting transnational subject for the historians."

Dremeaux sees the real estate sector's "greediness" as a threat to heritage conservation, but he is not all pessimistic about the future of heritage conservation.

"Over the past few years, we witnessed a real and encouraging awareness," he said.

"As for the school curriculums, I think they should pay more attention to the details of the complex history of Hong Kong. It should also focus more on the cosmopolitan history of the territory."

Remembrance Day will be observed on Sunday, at the Cenotaph from 10:30am in Central.

A ceremony in memory of French fighters will be held later, on December 1, at the Stanley Military Cemetery.

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