How HK and Canada have a shared chapter in history

December 27, 2018 18:35
A picture taken on Dec. 4, 2016 shows floral wreaths at the base of the Cross of Sacrifice memorial during a Canadian Commemorative Ceremony in the Sai Wan War Cemetery in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

The arrest of Huawei's global chief financial officer Sabrina Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, Canada has cast a fresh spotlight on international relations and drawn much media attention in Hong Kong.

Given the media frenzy surrounding the North American nation, I feel compelled to point out that there is a lot more to the connection between Canada and Hong Kong.

As a matter of fact, the two places have once played an important role in each other’s history. And that bilateral historical significance can still be felt today.

If one ever drives through the campus of the Royal Military College of Canada, they can easily spot a huge marble arch, on which the inscriptions about each and every war Canadian troops that have fought throughout the country’s history can be found.

Among these wars is the Battle of Hong Kong in 1941 during the Second World War.

In World War II between 1939 and 1945, Canada’s military and civilian death toll in total reached 42,000.

In Europe, during the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944, the Canadian-British coalition forces landed at Juno Beach and secured a beachhead for the Allied forces, which marked the beginning of their push towards Berlin.

At the same time, Canada also made substantial troop commitments to the Far East.

On Dec. 8, 1941, almost immediately following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the imperial Japanese forces launched a general attack against Hong Kong, whose garrison only numbered less than 15,000 at that time.

In fact, before the Japanese invasion, the Canadian government had answered London’s call upon its dominions to help boost Hong Kong’s defense by sending two infantry battalions totaling some 2,000 combatants to the city. The majority of the troops belonged to two main units: the Winnipeg Grenadiers from Manitoba and the Royal Rifles of Canada from Quebec.

At one point, the Canadian government even considered sending an air force squadron to Hong Kong, but the plan failed to materialize due to the sudden and unexpected outbreak of the Pacific War.

At first, before coming to Hong Kong, many Canadian soldiers wishfully thought that the Japanese invaders were nothing more than a bunch of pushovers. It didn’t take long for them to realize that they had terribly underestimated their enemies.

It was during the Battle of Hong Kong that the Canadians saw some of their bloodiest fighting in the Pacific War, with their field commander, Brigadier J.K. Lawson, the highest ranking Canadian soldier killed in action throughout the entire Second World War, losing his life during a fierce battle in Wong Nai Chung Gap on Hong Kong Island.

After about three weeks of intense and desperate resistance, the British-led Hong Kong garrison, hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered, finally surrendered on the Christmas Day of 1941.

As a result, all the remaining Allied soldiers and officers, including the then Hong Kong governor Sir Mark Young, were taken by the Japanese as prisoners of war.

Quite a number of them would later die in camps right until the end of the war.

During the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong and its subsequent occupation, more than a thousand Canadian soldiers were killed.

After Japan’s surrender in August 1945, the Canadians who had sacrificed their lives defending Hong Kong were mostly buried at the Sai Wan Military Cemetery and Stanley Military Cemetery.

Indeed over the decades, the Battle of Hong Kong has been regarded by many Canadians as an important chapter in their war history.

Apart from the annual commemoration ceremonies held back home in Canada, every year the Consulate General of Canada in Hong Kong organizes a commemorative ceremony at the Sai Wan War Cemetery in the presence of Canadian WWII veterans, representatives from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and Canadian institutions in the city, as well as people from Canadian curriculum schools in Hong Kong and Macau.

Suffice it to say that the close ties between Hong Kong and Canada date back decades before the 1980s, when a lot of Hong Kong families began to emigrate to Canada.

Sadly, these days, in the era of the all-singing, all-dancing “one country, two systems”, it seems it is not too easy to remember the Canadians who died in defense of our tiny city more than half a century ago.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 21

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal