Escaping from No Man’s Land and Other True Events in the WWII Era

A previous article “No Man’s Land: A True Event from WWII” published in December 2006 in this website discussed the “No Man’s Land” situation in Hong Kong on December 24, 1941. That was the day before the Japanese army gained control of Hong Kong from the British, but after the British had already essentially relinquished control of Hong Kong, thus the title “No Man’s Land.” Another previous article “Massacre and Atrocities in Hong Kong During WWII” published in April 2007 in this website discussed the massacre and atrocities committed by the Japanese troops during their three years and eight months occupation of Hong Kong.

During that reign of terror in those three years and eight months, the population of Hong Kong shrank from 1.6 million to 600,000 people. That shrinkage was partially due to people getting killed in Hong Kong by the Japanese troops, and partially due to people leaving/escaping Hong Kong to mainland China, even though conditions in China were also very poor and a large part of mainland China was also being occupied by Japan.

Because of the lack of food in Hong Kong, the Japanese government implemented food rationing and allowed people to leave Hong Kong, while being very strict allowing people to come to Hong Kong. In times of war, economic condition is usually bad, and this was especially so during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during WWII, as Hong Kong’s economy depended greatly on trade with China and providing goods to China. Besides the lack of food, jobs were also scarce. This means that even if the food were available, most people didn’t have enough money to buy the food. It was no different in the case of my family. To make ends meet, on several occasions my mom had to go to the open-air flea market in the Wanchai district of Hong Kong to sell some of our clothes and other belongings.

Because of the lack of food, the abysmal job opportunities, the overall poor economic condition, coupled with the ruthless methods of the Japanese troops, my parents decided to leave Hong Kong and go back to mainland China, even though there was no guarantee that life would be any better in mainland China. In particular, they moved to Toyshan, a rural county that was still part of Free China (i.e., not under Japanese occupation) about 100 miles southwest of the big southern city Guangzhou (or Canton as it was called then). Interestingly, there is actually a close connection between Toyshan and the U.S., as many, if not the majority, of the Chinese immigrants who immigrated to the U.S. before and after WWII and into the 1960s were from the Toyshan County or descendants of people from the Toyshan County. That was why as late as the 1960s if you went to New York or San Francisco Chinatown, and if you didn’t speak or understand the Toyshanese dialect, you might have trouble communicating with many of the merchants there. Later on, Chinese immigrants from other parts of China (e.g., Canton, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Shanghai, and other parts of mainland China) came, and Cantonese and Mandarin are now widely spoken in Chinatowns across the U.S. It was in Toyshan that I was born later.

Of the decrease of one million people in the population of Hong Kong during the three years and eight months of Japanese occupation, I don’t know how much of this population reduction was due to people getting killed or died from starvation or illness. Since we do know that many tens of thousands were killed by the Japanese troops, let’s assume that 100,000 died from the hands of the Japanese troops or from starvation or illness, this means that at least 900,000 people left Hong Kong for China. Although some left for other countries, there were also new births that we have not taken into account. So it is reasonable to assume that the number of people who left Hong Kong for mainland China during these three years and eight months was approximately 900,000 people. An easy calculation shows that on the average almost 700 people left Hong Kong for China each day during this period of exodus.

Speaking of exodus, there was also another brief exodus from Canton to Hong Kong involving a memorable incident for my family. Because of the instabilities created from some internal struggle within Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Kuomintang army around Canton in 1936, my parents decided in July 1936 to pull up roots and moved their family from Canton to Hong Kong. There were six people in my family at that time: My parents, older sister (almost two years old), and two older brothers (four years old, and one month old), together with a nanny. My family, together with many other people, was rushing to take a train to get out of Canton. During that hectic process of rushing to get on the train, the nanny who was holding my one-month-old brother suddenly dropped him on the ground. Seeing the danger of his youngest son being trampled to death, my father had the presence of mind to move quickly to the spot behind him and dropped the two big suitcases that he was carrying onto the ground on two sides of him. This provided a brief barrier but long enough for the nanny to pick up my one-month-old brother again, thus avoiding a potential tragedy.

In times of war and turmoil, the currency can fluctuate wildly. That was also the case in China in mid-1942. My paternal grandmother died in Toyshan in the first part of July 1942, my family had set aside some money for her funeral. Even though the amount set aside was enough on the day she died, it was no longer enough a day or two later when the funeral took place. Sometimes paper money was almost worthless. For example, part of the time when my father was teaching mathematics at a local high school in Toyshan, he was paid by a said amount of rice, instead of by paper money.

My family also experienced another big currency fluctuation in 1949 (this was already after the end of WWII, but civil war was heatedly taking place between the Chinese Kuomintang and the Chinese Communists). In 1949 when the Kuomintang government announced the great currency reform to stabilize the value of the paper money, all citizens were required to exchange all of their existing currency for the new currency called Gum Yuen Huen (meaning Gold Money Bill!). Even though many people did not follow this new directive, my father, perhaps out of patriotism and perhaps out of naiveness, exchanged all (or essentially all) of his money, including the money he had in Hong Kong or U.S. dollars. Furthermore, he even required his children to exchange whatever little money they had in Hong Kong or U.S. dollars (the latter were given to them as gifts from my father’s oversea friends). Of course, the new currency crashed, and we suffered a great financial loss.

One of the most tragic events in life is to experience war. My family experienced it during WWII and during the Chinese civil war. Besides WWII, many other people experienced the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and more recently the Iraq War. Unless it is absolutely necessary, war should be avoided.

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