No Man’s Land: A True Event from WWII

An event occurred on December 24, 1941 in Hong Kong that almost shattered our family’s lives and had a bearing on my very existence.  It was a cold, chilly evening on that Christmas Eve.  The streets were dark and quiet after the sun had set.  Very few people were walking on the streets, not so much because it was cold and dark, but because Hong Kong all of a sudden had become a “no man’s land.”

Hong Kong was a British colony since 1842 as a result of the First Opium War between Great Britain and China.  The year 1941 was during World War II.  Although the U.S. did not enter WWII until after the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, for China WWII essentially started in 1931 when Japanese troops entered and occupied Manchuria in northeastern China, although it was another six years until 1937 before the conflict erupted into a major war between China and Japan.  During the ten years of 1931-1941, Japan expanded its occupation to many other parts of China, including all the way to the city of Guangzhou (or Canton as it was called then) and the southern part of China that borders to Hong Kong.

The Japanese army took control of Hong Kong on December 25, 1941.  However, on December 24, 1941, the Japanese army had not yet occupied it, but the British army and the Hong Kong police had basically ended their responsibility of providing public security and safety in the streets of Hong Kong.  As a matter of fact, they were busy dismantling their weapons and at least part of the British army already left Hong Kong.  Thus there was a security vacuum for a day or two for the thugs, bandits, or other undesirable elements to run rampage in Hong Kong.  During this short period, Hong Kong was a “no man’s land.”  Thus, without any police patrolling the streets, it was not conducive for people taking walks.  Aside for a few people who were coming home late from work, the streets were empty except for small groups of seedy-looking men who were going around knocking on the doors of houses.

Our extended family was living in a small rental apartment in Hong Kong, having moved there from Guangzhou in 1937 in order to escape from the eventual occupation of Guangzhou by the Japanese army.  Besides the six in my parents’ family (my parents, my older sister and three older brothers; my younger sister and I weren’t born yet),  there were about eight-to-ten other relatives from my father’s side.  Times were tough, and it was not uncommon for large extended families living together in small apartments or houses.

When we [1] heard an unexpected knock on our door, anxiety and fear spread among us.  Although we didn’t know who was knocking at the door, we had heard of many bad incidents happening in other cities and towns either from the hands of Chinese bandits during the “no man’s land” period or from the hands of the occupying Japanese soldiers.  The most terrifying incident (actually a series of incidents) was the Nanking Massacre during a six-week period starting on December 13, 1937, when the Japanese soldiers systematically raped, tortured, and murdered more than 300,000 Chinese civilians and many more tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers in the city of Nanking, the then capital of the Republic of China.  During this six-week period, the streets of Nanking were literally littered with decaying bodies, many without their heads as decapitation was one of the Japanese’s favorite execution methods.  In many parts of the city you just couldn’t escape from the rotten smell of decaying bodies.  Even though this incident was witnessed and well documented at that time by many people, including western journalists, businessmen, missionaries, educators, diplomats, and international observers, Japan has never officially acknowledged the atrocities their troops committed in Nanking.  As a matter of fact, often their official position is that the incident never happened or was fabricated by the Chinese, and for decades they have systematically purged references to the Nanking Massacre from their textbooks.  Unlike the Holocaust which was acknowledged by the German government and is well known throughout the world, the Nanking Massacre was referred to as “The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II” by the late award-winning author Iris Chang in her 1997 book The Rape of Nanking.

The anxiety and fear were apparent in the eyes of the children.  Several of them cowered in the corners of the main room with the entrance to the apartment.  The smaller ones held on even tighter the hands of their parents or older siblings.  The older children who have heard of some of these terrifying events glanced at their parents, displaying fear in their eyes but hoping for some reassuring comfort from their parents.  The same anxiety and fear also existed among the adults, but they tried hard to keep an outward composure to avoid creating even more anxiety and fear in the children.  One of the adults opened the door, and entered half a dozen men with guns and knives on their waists.  The apparent leader of this gang seemed to be a man in his late 30s or early 40s, whom we recognized as one of the unemployed men often loitering around the streets near our apartment.  His clothes and hair were unkempt.  His skin was dark and wrinkled and his hands were rough and blistered, both as a result of working in heavily manual labor jobs outside under the sun whenever he was able to find a job.

The men looked around the apartment.  Upon seeing a western-style briefcase, the gang leader grabbed my uncle, my father’s older brother, who appeared to be the oldest man in the house and normally should be the head of the household.  My extended family members looked at each other trying to figure out how to best handle this volatile and dangerous situation. Before my uncle or anyone else could even respond, the gang leader yelled out loudly to his men:  “Take him outside and shoot him unless he gives us some money!”   The loudness of his voice was an intent to create even more fear among us; so that we would be more willing to accommodate to his demands.

My uncle was a gentle man, in his early 40s; he was a school teacher.  Under normal circumstances, he was able to earn enough to support his family of six, and perhaps could even put aside a very small amount of money for emergencies.  But these were harsh times, salaries were low and he didn’t always have a steady job and was unemployed at that moment, being a refugee from Japanese occupation and needing to uproot himself and move from one part of the country to another part.

Everyone in our household shuddered upon hearing that command, especially the wife and family members of my uncle.  My aunt cried out in tears “He doesn’t have any money to give.”  During that awful and terrifying moment of silence before the men executed the command of the gang leader, my father stepped forward.  He said “That briefcase belongs to me.  Please negotiate with me.”  My father was a young, handsome, civil engineer in his mid 30s.  He was an honest professional trying to establish his career in China.  He was educated in the U.S., completing his high school and college education in the U.S. as a son of a merchant who was living in the U.S.  Upon completing college, he returned to China in 1930 to get married and to work as a civil engineer.  He had a fairly successful engineering career in the construction business in China, until the Japanese invasion moved to Southern China.  As a matter of fact, business was so bad in China that in order to support his family, during 1939-1941 he went back to the U.S. to find manual work in Chinese restaurants, leaving his family behind.  He returned to China/Hong Kong when he anticipated that the trans-Pacific Ocean ship passage would soon be closed off due to war with Japan.

From a financial point of view, he was the head of this extended household.  While admiring the courage of my father for speaking out and assuming the burden of resolving this potentially deadly conflict, my mother and my older sister and brothers trembled at the thought that my father may be taken outside to be shot.

The gang leader looked at my father, glanced at his clothes, his outward appearance and his behavior, and sensed that my father was speaking the truth and was the more appropriate person to negotiate with.  He went over and talked with my father.  They conducted their conversation in low voices, so other people didn’t really hear their whole conversation.  However, a few words here and there came through; it was apparent that the gang leader and my father were negotiating on the amount of money that should be handed over.  After a short discussion, lasting perhaps only two to three minutes, although to my mother, sister, and brothers it felt like much longer, my father pulled some money from his wallet and handed it to the gang leader.  To the relief of everyone in the apartment, the gang leader and his men then left the apartment, and we were not bothered again that evening.

Later we found out that my father had given $100 Hong Kong dollars to the gang leader.  It might not sound like a lot of money, but keep in mind that rent for our apartment was only about $30 Hong Kong dollars per month.  $100 was a substantial amount of money at that time.  Besides, these were small-time bandits who weren’t really professional robbers; they were just trying to take advantage of the temporary vacuum in this no man’s land that existed during this short transition from British colonial rule to Japanese occupation.

That was how my family spent Christmas Eve in 1941.  It was supposed to be a joyous occasion, since my immediate family members were Christians.  For a while it could have turned out to be a disastrous evening, perhaps even a deadly evening.  At the end, it probably turned out as well as we could have hoped, and we gave thanks to the Lord for keeping us safe.  Keeping in mind that I was not yet born and was inside my Mom’s tummy, I am especially thankful because a different outcome could have denied my opportunity to exist at all in this world!

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[1]  In this article, the word “we” is used loosely and does not include the author.

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