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Most of us hadn’t met before, but it didn’t take long to locate each other. Many were wearing some kind of Hong Kong Veterans regalia: a pin, a brooch or a patch. Before our flight was called everyone had introduced themselves and already begun telling each other about "their" Vet.
When we landed in Chicago after a one-hour flight we found more pilgrims waiting for the next leg of our trip: a 16 hour non-stop to Hong Kong. The new members joined us from Ottawa and Calgary. A similar scene unfolded in Vancouver, where the BC contingent had gathered to travel to Hong Kong.
The flight was very long, but reasonably comfortable. Some of us got some sleep, others not. We arrived a little behind schedule, but were pleased to find our local tour guide, Benny Yu, waiting for us outside the baggage claim area. After dealing with some lost luggage and missing group members, we got aboard our bus and headed for the hotel we’d call home for the next week.
Rather surprisingly, attendance at breakfast was quite good. There was lots of jet lag evident, but everyone seemed to be very chipper nonetheless.
Our first planned event was a plaque dedication ceremony at the Gunpowder Factory - a former munitions depot at the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence. Most of the group climbed aboard our bus and we made the 20 minute ride to the museum in bright sunshine.
We got our first glimpse of the six Veterans who had also traveled to Hong Kong: "Flash" Clayton, Phil Doddridge, Gerry Gerrard, George MacDonell, Doug Rees and Ed Shayler. They arrived with the VAC delegation two days earlier and were looking reasonably rested and very happy.
We met other members of the official government delegation, including Senators Larry Campbell and Pierre Claude Nolin.
The plaque being dedicated is in honour of the Royal Rifles of Canada and their role in the Battle for Hong Kong. Here is the inscription on the plaque:
Sai Wan Hill
This plaque is dedicated to all members of the Royal Rifles of Canada
Near this site, on the night of December 18, 1941, invading Japanese forces were engaged by "C" Company, Royal Rifles of Canada, commanded by Major Wells Bishop. Fierce attacks had earlier silenced the artillery batteries and anti-aircraft guns. Counterattacks ensued, and after inflicting heavy casualties on the numerically superior invading force, the Canadians were forced to retire rather than allow themselves to become encircled. Major Bishop was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his bravery in this action.
The plaque citation was read by Veterans Phil Doddridge (French) and Flash Clayton (English), and the National Anthem was sung by Carole Turcotte, granddaughter of Leonard Corrigan (WG).
The site of the plaque is a former munitions storage area on the grounds of the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence. It’s a round, bricked enclosure with vine-covered walls which is open to the sky. It’s a very peaceful location today, in contrast to the battle it is dedicated to.
After the ceremony it was back onto the bus. And after a quick lunch back at our hotel we were off again on a bus tour of Hong Kong, including a terrific ride up the Peak Tram to the top of Victoria Peak where we had a fabulous view of this bustling, vibrant city.
That evening we had our first encounter with local food. Some of the selections in the banquet, such as the jellyfish appetizer and the shrimp still sporting heads, eyes and antennae, were less popular than others. And the dessert of various kinds of beans suspended in some kind of clear jelly had everyone grabbing for their cameras. But it was a great ice-breaker!
It was another clear sunny day, although a bit on the cool side early on.
Today was the 60th Anniversary commemoration ceremony at Sai Wan Cemetery. There was a small moment of panic as our bus driver got lost on the way, and our tour guide ended up flagging down a taxi and paying him to lead the bus to Sai Wan!
There is a certain majesty to the entrance of Sai Wan Cemetery. After passing through the cemetery gates and the Stone of Remembrance just inside the entrance, the ground slopes away sharply. Rows on rows of white gravestones flank a central stairway leading down to the Cross of Remembrance at the foot of the hill where we gather for the commemoration ceremony.
There were many people in attendance, including members of the local Scout troop, a choir from the Canadian International School, members of the Hong Kong Cadet Corps, the official delegation, our group, members of the public and over 200 members of a group of high school students from Durham Region in Ontario (30km east of Toronto). More about the school group later. We were also joined by Sen. Vivienne Poy and her husband, Neville.
The program for the ceremony was:
Addresses by Dignitaries
Act of Remembrance
Last Post - Silence - Rouse - Lament
Laying of Wreaths
Songs by Canadian International School Choir
Commitment to Remember
Placing of Poppies on Canadian Graves
Song "In Flanders Field" by Canadian International School
The HKVCA wreath was laid by Gorden Collins, whose brother Alger was killed in Hong Kong.
After this ceremony, a reception was held. This was followed by second wreath-laying, this time at the Stone of Remembrance at the top of the hill. The HKVCA wreath was laid by Doris Hocking and Emily Lyons whose brother Edgar Smelts was killed in the battle.
The high school students from Durham Region had each studied a Hong Kong Veteran as part of their History program at school. Each student prepared a work based on their study, such as an essay, poem, song, video or piece of art. All of these were collected and placed into a Memorial Capsule which was buried in a ceremony held just outside the cemetery gates. The relatives of many of those in the HKVCA group were studied by these students, and the burial of the memorial capsule was a very emotional event as a result. Each of us had the opportunity to drop a poppy and a handful of earth onto the capsule as it lay at the bottom of its hole before being covered over. A granite marker was then placed to indicate the location of the memorial capsule.
Early in the evening we all were invited to a reception at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong, hosted by Veterans Affairs Canada. The event was a barbecue in honour of the Durham Region students. Hong Kong was their last stop in a 10-day tour of several major cities in China. Based on the way they attacked the hamburgers and hot dogs on offer, it might have been the first western food they had eaten since leaving home!
The reception afforded us the opportunity to chat with the school students. Without fail they were well-spoken and well informed about the battle and about the Veterans they had studied. It was terrific to see that the memory of the exploits, trials and tribulations of the soldiers Canada sent to defend Hong Kong continue to live in these students. We all hope that more schools will take a similar initiative.
By now some of us have begun to get used to the 13 hour time difference from Toronto (16 hours from BC!), and have actually slept a bit! There are smiles at breakfast as we chat about the events planned for the day.
Today we participate in two plaque dedication ceremonies: one at Lawson’s bunker, and the other at Jardine’s Lookout. There is pomp and circumstance at both, with a piper in full regalia to lead the parade of Veterans and dignitaries.
Lawson’s Bunker and West Brigade Headquarters have been recently unearthed and cleaned up by the Hong Kong government. It was possible even to see bullet holes in the concrete fortifications.
The text of the plaques being dedicated is:
This plaque is dedicated to all members of Brigade Headquarters Canadian "C" Force
On the morning of December 19, 1941, invading Japanese forces advanced on this strategic position where Canadian Brigadier John Lawson commanded the West Brigade from a bunker dug into the hillside. Attempts to reinforce the area failed. Refusing to withdraw, his bunker was overrun. His last words over the telephone to his Commanding Officer stated that he was "going outside to fight it out". In doing so he lost his life, thereby earning the admiration of his comrades and the enemy for his heroic actions.
This plaque is dedicated to all members of the Winnipeg Grenadiers of Canada
In the early hours of December 19, 1941, "A" and "D" Companies of the Winnipeg Grenadiers of Canada fought to stem the waves of Japanese troops attacking the strategic high ground on Mount Butler. After a vicious struggle the Canadians became divided. A group was driven downhill to Jardine’s Lookout, where Company Sergeant Major John Osborn took charge of about 65 Grenadiers of "A" Company. Hand grenades were thrown at his group. Osborn responded by flinging these back at the enemy. One grenade was thrown which he could not pick up in time, and after shouting a warning he threw his body over it, thus saving the lives of several comrades. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest aware for military valour in the British Commonwealth.
The site of the Jardine’s Lookout plaque is in Tai Tam Country Park, and forms part of a walking trail which we were to revisit later in the week.
On the way from Jardine’s Lookout to lunch in Repluse Bay we stopped at the Tin Hau sea temple and wandered among the idols in the shrine. One of them was for good luck, and many of us lined up to run our hands over the idol. Tradition says that doing this will bring good fortune. But to ensure that you get to keep your good fortune, you need to immediately put your hand into your pocket. Otherwise you’ll receive good fortune, but it will then be lost!
That evening we were the guests of the Royal Hong Kong Regiment (The Volunteers) and the Royal British Legion at the Volunteers’ clubhouse, located in the Jockey Club at Happy Valley Racecourse. The clubhouse is actually a large room and bar in the viewing stands, with a spectacular wall of windows overlooking not only the racecourse, but the skyline of Hong Kong. We had a marvelous evening chatting with members of the Volunteers and the Legion and with our own Veterans.
More smiles at breakfast!
We’re getting very familiar with our bus … today we traveled to Stanley Military Cemetery at the south end of Hong Kong island. This cemetery is smaller than Sai Wan, but impressive nonetheless - from the steep stairs leading from the road up to the cemetery, to the valley behind where the graves of the Canadians are located and where the commemoration ceremony took place.
The ceremony today was on a much smaller scale than the one at Sai Wan. Only the VAC delegation and our HKVCA group were present, which made for a more intimate event.
The two highlights of this commemoration for me were the address by George MacDonell, and the laying of bouquets at the grave of each Canadian by members of our HKVCA group. Both were very moving. And as at Sai Wan two days earlier, we all had time to wander among the graves and reflect.
Our bus dropped us at the village of Stanley where we each went our separate way to have lunch, and to attack the large market there. Some of our group were avid shoppers, and this market was a bargain hunter’s paradise. When we gathered to board the bus after a couple of hours of shopping there were lots of full shopping bags, and the bus was alive with "look at what I bought" comparisons on the way back to the hotel.
Evening heralded the final event for the Veterans and the government delegation. We were all the guests of VAC at the Verandah Restaurant, part of the Repulse Bay hotel complex. As we stepped down from our bus we were greeted by liveried waiters offering champagne and canapés at a reception on the lawn. Dinner followed in the spectacular restaurant, where we had a last opportunity to chat with the Veterans before their flight home.
After dinner Senator Larry Campbell spoke with real feeling about the role of Canadians in the Battle for Hong Kong. Although it’s probably fair to say that Sen. Campbell did not know much about Hong Kong before being asked to join the delegation, it was obvious that he had taken the time to research the history and learn about the Veterans in preparation for it. His remarks reflected his admiration for their exploits, sacrifices and hardships.
Pat Turcotte spoke on behalf of the HKVCA group, and you can read her remarks here.
Finally, Sen. Campbell presented several plaques to recognize the contributions made by various people to the success of the trip, including to Carole Turcotte for her several performances of the National Anthem and Amazing Grace at the various ceremonies.
A tired but happy group boarded the bus for the hotel.
A decidedly chipper group was at breakfast today. Apparently more of us are getting adjusted to the time zone and are sleeping more.
Our objective today was a tour of the battlefields. We were joined by Tony Banham, a local resident who has made a study of the battle for Hong Kong and has written extensively on the subject. Tony graciously agreed to act as tour guide for us, and in addition prepared a document for everyone to read in advance.
We began at Jardine’s Lookout, where we gathered around Tony as he described the difficult terrain and the strategy of the British and Japanese commanders. We followed a walking trail hundreds of meters to inspect the Volunteer pillboxes and to hear from Tony about how the Grenadiers fought the Japanese around them. Our walk continued along Sir Cecil’s Ride, ending up at Lawson’s Bunker. All along the route Tony provided a fascinating commentary on the details of the fighting.
Our tour ended with a visit to St Stephen’s College, which during the battle was the site of an emergency hospital.
The tour, and Tony’s vivid commentary, enabled us to understand the significance of the military strategies and the difficulties of waging the battle in a way that we could never glean from simply reading about it.
Having finished our tour at St Stephen’s College, which is in Stanley, it made sense for us to visit Stanley village again. So off we went to a group lunch overlooking Stanley Bay, followed by more shopping at Stanley Market!
That evening we enjoyed our final group dinner at a Chinese restaurant. By this time we all seemed to be getting used to the food!
Today was a free day, and everyone had a different idea on how best to spend it: the jewellery market; Hong Kong Disneyland; tramping around the battlefields again; finding the site of Sham Shui Po camp; riding the trams; finding the Osborn statue in Hong Kong Park; visiting the street markets; shopping; tea at the Peninsula Hotel, etc..
That evening we all got together in the bar of our hotel to swap stories about what we did for the day, and about the trip in general. There was lots of talk, a little dancing, some presentations and lots of good humour.
Today we left for home! Our tired but happy group left for the airport in two waves. There was lots of hugging and handshaking as we said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch.
On the flight home there was plenty of time to reflect on the previous week in Hong Kong. We had all traveled this tremendously long distance to commemorate our Veterans, and to learn more about what our Veterans did there. It was a remarkable experience for everyone, and won’t soon be forgotten.