By Vaudine England
This week (on 3 September) the Chinese government has decreed a special one-off public holiday (and vast military parade) to mark what it calls China’s victory over Japan 70 years ago. As with all anniversaries, a plethora of frantic re-writings of history is now underway to mark this moment. One can debate if it really was China or the impact of Hiroshima that defeated Japan, and the argument over whether it was China’s communists or nationalists who fought most, suffered more, are most responsible for the victory, will rumble on.
This blog looks back at a supposed racial impact of the war, specifically of the ignominious defeat of the British followed by Japan’s occupation of Hong Kong. Both then, and more recently, the view has been expressed that Japan’s appeal to the Asian populace for the overthrow of Western imperialism was attractive, and encouraged versions of collaboration among particularly Eurasian as well as Chinese Hong Kongers.
A gentle look at the first point comes in Asia for the Asiatics, by Robert Ward, published by the University of Chicago Press just before the war ended. Ward had been a consular officer for the United States, stationed in Hong Kong, and was interned for six months before being repatriated. He witnessed the early efforts of the Japanese to establish an empire in Asia ‘for the Asiatics’.
This was, according to Ward, a calculated, brutal and systematic process, of which the initial outbursts of rampant disorder, rape and looting was an integral part. Ward claims this had the effect (and so Ward assumes the intention) of forcing the local Hong Kong elite into submission. Leading figures such as Shouson Chow and Robert Kotewall, members of the Li (Bank of East Asia) family, and others did consent to take roles in committees set up by the occupying Japanese powers. No doubt they did so for self-preservation but it is also on record that departing British senior civil servants had specifically asked Chow and Kotewall to deal with the Japanese to help feed the people.
Ward’s primary concern was to consider what the post-war landscape will be in East Asia, after this idea of Asia for Asians has taken hold. Writing in 1945, he doubted that the brutality and subjection imposed by the Japanese would entirely neutralise the power of the pro-Asia ideal.
The overwhelming fact for many writers, then and since, has been the shaming collapse of the white man, of white power, seen in Japan’s rapid takeover not just of Hong Kong, but other British colonies such as Malaya, Singapore and Burma. These defeats would leave a residue, the impact of which would change post-war Asia forever.
All this was true, of course, but it is interesting to examine now the extent to which the collapse of British military power in the East did Not mean an end to British rule in Hong Kong, nor to Western impact and roles in East Asia’s post-war development. It is also interesting to note that, according to many Hong Kong people’s recollections, the brutality of Japanese rule did in fact fatally damage that ideal of Japan-led Asia for the Asians.
Perhaps race was simply less of a defining characteristic for people struggling to survive than some theorists would accept.
A more dramatic version of the view that colonial racism met its nemesis with the Japanese can be found in Gerald Horne’s Race War! White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire, published in 2005 by New York University Press. Amusingly, reviews from the United States academic community laud this book as a radical retelling of the war, an unflinching survey of race and empire, and a fabulous study which shows where global history can go. At the same time, a detailed, calm and considered blog by a member of the community of people apparently so oppressed by Horne’s British colonialists — the Eurasian historian Brian Edgar — shows how full of holes the Horne thesis is.
According to Horne, the Japanese were appreciated, admired, and supported by the majority of Hong Kong’s population, at least at first, for Japan’s overturning of white supremacy. Several ideas seem to be involved here — that the British empire was founded (solely) on racism and thus that Hong Kong was too, and that British assumptions of racial superiority produced a vast and violent discriminatory universe of abuse and exploitation of the ‘non-pure’. On such ground, a fertile appeal of Japanese inversions of white rule could be imagined.
But as Brian Edgar points out, the detailed realities of daily life made Horne’s thesis ‘dead in the water’. Yes, Eurasians faced discrimination, but from the Chinese as well as from the British. Yes, some Eurasians were discriminated against at work but others were among the colony’s richest people. Edgar goes on to point out various pockets of Hong Kong life which were ‘relatively race-free’, some intellectual and some in sports; I would add most of business was multi-cultural too. But of course white racism existed — the argument is over whether this made Eurasians (and some Hong Kong Chinese) vulnerable to Japanese ideology and rule. As Edgar notes, Horne fails to cite one single Hong Kong Eurasian who was not part Japanese who can be proven to have joined the Japanese after Christmas Day 1941. On the contrary, people like the young (Eurasian) women, Phyllis Bliss and Irene Fincher escaped and Irene even married the race enemy, a British policeman who was working with the Chinese resistance. One fascinating case, Laurence Kentwell, is the subject of research by Baptist University’s Catherine Ladds, and he is an exception to every theory.
Edgar then tackles the case of Sir Robert Kotewall and laments that Horne has clearly failed to take note of British exonerations of the Executive Council member’s work under the Japanese. According to Edgar, Kotewall did shout ‘Banzai’ several times at public meetings but otherwise did little but ‘hedge’ while trying to help poor Chinese get fed. Tony Banham, author of the excellent http://www.hongkongwardiary.com/, regards Kotewall as ‘selfless’ and the charges of collaboration unfounded.
As Edgar notes, one has to be careful about jumping to conclusions. Amid the hoopla of a Chinese Communist Party-organised exercise in creating nationalism today, it is even more interesting to discover where the historical record makes clear not a nationalist narrative, but the nuance.