The East River Column was a branch of the Guangdong Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Guerrillas originally formed in 1939. The East River Column itself was formed on 2 December 1943 at Lo Fu Mountain north of the Pearl River in a predominantly Hakka dominated area of the province.
The Hong Kong & Kowloon Independent Brigade was formed on 3 February 1942 at the catholic chapel in Wong Mo Ying village, Sai Kung and became part of the East River Column in December 1943. At its height, the entire Brigade probably comprised up to 1,000 local members.
Sai Kung became the HQ of the Brigade which had other active units in Sha Tau Kok, Yuen Long and Lantau. In addition, there were mostly unarmed intelligence gathering units in Kowloon and Hong Kong and specialist “Iron & Steel” special operations units, “Pistol” assassination units and Marine “Great China” and “Sea Eagle” units operating mostly in eastern waters.
The Brigade was 90% Hakka and the non-Hakka members all learned to speak the dialect. Its members were comprised mostly of young men but included men, women and children of all ages, the latter being employed as couriers and sentinels and dubbed “Little Devils”; they would be at least in their 70s and 80s now.
Sai Kung featured heavily in the resistance. The Brigade radio was moved for security reasons between Cheung Sheung and Chek Keng, both on the present Maclehose Trail, and there was a supply depot at Pak Tam Chung. Sai Kung Market featured the “Day Night Café” which served allied escapees and their guerrilla guardians and Town Island (off the southern tip of High Island) was where the Marine detachment set up a “customs post” to raise revenue for the cause.
The Brigade assisted and guided several escaped Allied prisoners of war (POW) on their way to join the British Army Aid Group (BAAG) in Guelin, Gwangxi. Their escape route, mostly from the Sham Shui Po POW camp, was usually west across Lai Chi Kok Bay, via Tsuen Wan, Tai Mo Shan, Kam Tin, Yuen Long to Lok Ma Chau.
There was an eastern alternative from Ngau Chi Wan village via Custom’s Pass and either Ho Chung and Hebe Haven to Sai Kung or via Delta Pass and Tan Cheung to Sai Kung, probably staying in Sha Kok Mei and Tai Wan villages. The route then continued on via the old Chinese roads to Kei Ling Ha, boat from Che Ha to Plover Cove, Bride’s Pool, Wu Kau Tang, Nam Chung or Chung Mei and boat to Sha Tau Kok.
Other POWs and downed Allied airmen escaped on the old boulder roads via Sha Tin, Tai Wai, Siu Lek Yuen, Ma On Shan and Mau Ping to Sai Kung but mostly because they lost their way in the hills before being discovered and assisted by “the Little Devils”.
There were no western type roads in any of these areas, of course, and the Japanese rarely ventured into the remote New Territories villages which were controlled by the guerrillas throughout the war.
The Japanese commenced building a road with POW and Chinese labour from Kowloon as far as Tseng Lan Shue (now Clear Water Bay Road) but were prevented by the guerrillas from proceeding much further. The British, under Lt. Hiram Potts RM of 3 Commando Brigade Engineers completed the road to Sai Kung (now Hiram’s Highway) in 1945.
After the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, the East River Column set up its liaison HQ at 172, Nathan Road, Yaumati, chosen for its proximity to the British Military HQ.
The BAAG S Section with co-opted guerrillas was tasked by the British Military with rounding up the major collaborators with the Japanese and 41 were arrested, tried and mostly hanged for their treachery.
The British Military were also heavily involved with rounding up “Blue Shirt” robbers from China; 60,000 triad gangsters who had grabbed 7,000 firearms from the defeated Japanese, and disarming the 3,000 strong “Gambling House Gang” (employed by the Japanese as “police”) with a 5 million yen bribe.
Even before the Japanese invasion in 1941, at the request of Chou En Lai, the British permitted the Chinese Communists to open an unofficial liaison office under cover of the Yue Hwa Company in Queen’s Road Central in 1938. The company continued as the Yue Hwa China Products Company after the war and the liaison office became the Xinhua News Agency (NCNA) in Happy Valley in June 1946 (now the Dorsett (sic) Hotel).
The non-Hong Kong members of the East River Column and its HK & K Brigade were mostly repatriated to China (to join the fight against the Nationalists) on 28 September 1945. “Demobilisation Certificates” for those who stayed in Hong Kong were issued in 1946.
On 15 February 1947, the Hong Kong Government made monetary awards and decorations to villages and individuals for their bravery and support for the Allied war effort. The Sai Kung villages were:
Ta Ho Tun
Sha Kok Mei
Sai Kung Market
Pak Tam Chung
The other recipients were:
Po Toi O
Lin Ma Hang
Siu Lek Yuen
Shau Kei Wan
Ho Chung was not on the list, possibly because it harboured bandits preying on the populace who were later rounded up and publicly executed there and in Sai Kung Market by the guerrillas. A surprise that Wong Mo Ying was also not listed; possibly it was included with nearby Ping Tun.
On 12 April 1947, General Sir Neil Ritchie presented banner(s) to the Sai Kung Rural Committee (originally on display in the main hall) and the Sai Kung Chamber of Commerce to commemorate the Sai Kung contribution to the Resistance; photographs show that there were two different banners but I have only been able to locate the one still hanging in the SK RC:
War memorials to their bravery were later completed on 23 January 1989 on Tai Mong Tsai Road near Tsam Chuk Wan where survivors, relatives and officials gather annually in August to repay their respects.
The Committee of the Friends of Sai Kung agreed in late 2010 that it should recognise the contribution of these brave young men and women by attending the next ceremony at Tsam Chuk Wan.
So on another very hot summer’s day on Sunday 14 August 2011, Guy Shirra, Chairman, and Mark Godfrey, Treasurer and resident of Tsam Chuk Wan, both retired members of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force, unofficially represented the society at the ceremony.
Here they were warmly welcomed by the surviving old soldiers, men and women, some of whom were old enough to fight but were mostly former “Little Devil” couriers. They came by the coach load, not only from Sai Kung, but also from Sha Tau Kok, Yuen Long and even Shenzen.
At precisely 11 o’clock, the National Anthem was played and followed by a minute’s silence in honour of the fallen. This was followed by the laying of wreaths by several Sai Kung organisations and individuals.
Guy and Mark were honoured to meet so many fascinating individuals and the very best wishes of the Friends of Sai Kung were offered and warmly accepted.
The survivors and their widows are supported by the Hong Kong Government War Memorial Fund of which CHAN Sui-jeung is a member of its Pension Advisory Committee.
Ex Column and Brigade members in the UK later formed the Gong He Association based in London’s China Town.