THE FORGOTTEN HISTORY
While Hong Kong citizens and other entities are enjoying Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability after the hand over of Sovereignty to the Chinese Government on 30th June 1997, nobody in the old colony, or the UK, seems to know the story behind the success after the Japanese invasion in December 1941. The exception being the British-Chinese Soldier veterans and their British counterparts. For reasons unknown, neither the Hong Kong, nor British Governments, ever seem to mention the contribution made to the British Empire by the British-Chinese soldiers from 1857-1997; not even a reference to their existence!
This is totally unfair to our fallen British-Chinese soldier comrades who sacrificed their lives to protect the best interests of the British Empire and to British-Chinese soldier veterans. Men who served the British Garrison in Hong Kong and assisted the British Government during 140 years of maintaining peace, law and order in Hong Kong up to 30 June 1997.
During the battle of Hong Kong, our fallen comrades and veterans fought the war against the Japanese alongside their British counterparts, notably the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers. When the war was over, the economy of Hong Kong was in a bad state and the majority of people were in hardship. In order to construct more roads and bridges, as well as fostering good relationships with people living in the New Territories, British-Chinese soldiers of 414 Pack Troop (Donkey Troop), Royal Army Service Corps (mainly recruited from the Hakka population,) were responsible for transporting materials to all the remote villages in the New Territories. Other British-Chinese soldiers from the Army Information Team carried out public relations duties in the New Territories, by showing movies to villagers 3 times a week.
After the successful conclusion of the Second Opium War, the CCC was subsequently disbanded as a regular standing British Force. However, in 1880, when the Hong Kong
Government approved the building of new coastal fortifications, the British Army turned to local Hong Kong Chinese to augment the recently raised 40 Fortress Company, Royal Engineers, which had been
tasked with their construction. These Hong Kong Chinese were recruited as Sappers.
As a matter of fact, the history of British-Chinese Soldiers serving in the British Army can be traced back to 1857, at the time of the Second Opium War, when Hong Kong was the base from which the British Empire despatched her expeditionary force to India to help suppress the Mutiny. This force was much depleted due to fever and the shortfall in manpower led to the decision, on 6 July 1857, to form a Canton Commissariat Corps, known as CCC, with officers seconded from either the British or Indian Armies. Non-commissioned officers, up to the rank of sergeant, were selected from the Chinese themselves. This was the first British-Chinese Soldier Regiment established by the British Army in Hong Kong. The Commissariat Corps proved to be a tremendous success and provided valuable support to the British Army throughout the war.
A report submitted by the then Colonel (later Sir Garnet) Wolsey commented that:
“Upon all occasions during the war, whenever there was hard work to be done, these Cantonese were ready and willing for it”.
It was not until 1899 that another Chinese regiment was raised; formed under Army Order No.2 of that year and subsequently disbanded by Army Order No.127 of 1906. This was the 1st Chinese Regiment, comprising British-Chinese soldiers and organised along Indian Army lines, in which locally raised regiments were commanded by selected British Officers and senior Non-commissioned officers. Within a year, the Regiment was in action, when fighting broke out as a result of the Boxer Uprising. The Boxers began as a secret society, who determined to drive out all foreign influence from China. With the Foreign Legations in Peking and Tientsin under siege, the Western powers were forced to march to their relief. The 1st Chinese Regiment, alongside its British contemporaries, took a full and active part in the Campaign and earned considerable respect from those with whom they served.
According to records held by the British Government, around 2,000 members of the Corps died during the 1st World War, although the actual figure may have been as high as 20,000. The remains of 2,000 soldiers of the Chinese Labour Corps are buried in 17 cemeteries in the north of France; i.e. Noyelles-sur-Mer Chinese Cemetery and Memorial.
In 1916, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig requested that 21,000 Chinese Soldiers/Labourers be recruited to fill the manpower shortage caused by casualties during World War 1. It was subsequently agreed by the War Committee in London to form a Chinese Labour Corps to be deployed in France. The Chinese Labour Corps comprised Chinese men, mostly from Shangdon and Liaoning provinces, as well as Hong Kong. The first shipment of the Chinese Labour Corps departed for France from the British Army Depot in Wei Hai Wei on 18 January 1917. A total of 100,000 British-Chinese soldiers served on the Western Front in France and, by the time of the Armistice, the Chinese Labour Corps numbered nearly 96,000 men.
General Dorward, the Expedition Commander, noted that in the Regiment’s first action they had:
“Repulsed a flank attack by Boxers, inflicting considerable losses on the enemy”.
A Sergeant Chi Dien Kwei was later mentioned in Brigadier General Dorward’s dispatch to the Secretary of State for War on 19 July 1901, but sadly he was mortally wounded by an explosion of gunpowder and died later in the year. He was awarded a posthumous Distinguished Conduct Medal.
After 1906, the only remaining British-Chinese soldiers in Hong Kong were found with the 40 Fortress Company, Royal Engineers.
Members of the Corps were tasked with carrying out essential logistics support work for their frontline British counterparts, such as building dugouts and repairing roads, railways, tanks and vehicles, digging trenches and filling sandbags. At the end of hostilities, the Chinese Labour Corps was disbanded and, between December 1918 and September 1920, the surviving members were transported back to China.
In his book about the Chinese Labour Corps, Sidney Allinson quotes the work done by the 51st Company of tanks before the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, when 1,000 British-Chinese soldiers, working 20 hours a day, fitted 350 fascines in 3 weeks.
One old soldier with fond memories of the Chinese Labour Corps was Mr Norman Mellor, formerly of the 4th Bedfordshire Regiment, who volunteered to join the Corps at the end of the war rather than serve in the Army of Occupation on the Rhine. He commented that, “I was with HQ staff until early 1920, so had plenty of opportunity to get to know these cheerful, hardworking and disciplined men. Their parade drill was certainly a credit to their military training and the salvage work, unloading of stores and other maintenance work they performed, was of great value to the British cause.”
After the 1st World War, British- Chinese sappers continued to serve in the Territory. In 1937, 40 Fortress Company, Royal Engineers was bolstered by 22nd Engineering Company, which set out to recruit a further 250 Chinese soldiers. As the potential threat of Japanese invasion was getting near, defence improvement work began in 1937 with the building of new forts at Stanley, Collison, Chung Hom Kok, Birds Hill and Mount Davies.
This led to an increase in local recruitment into the Royal Engineers and Royal Artillery. Some 600 British-Chinese soldiers were subsequently recruited and spread throughout the majority of the “Gunner” units in Hong Kong. The final intake of 150 recruits were denied the opportunity to complete their training, when Japan attacked Hong Kong on 8 December 1941. They were hurriedly despatched to 6th Anti Aircraft Battery, to carry out familiarisation training on this equipment prior to going into action alongside their British counterparts. In October 1941, with the threat of invasion looming, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) formed a machine gun battalion of Chinese soldiers, to be called “The Hong Kong Chinese Regiment”. Commanded by Major RW Mayor, they were based at Sham Shui Po Camp and trained by the Middlesex Regiment.
The Battle for Hong Kong
The battle of Hong Kong was short and fierce. Suffice to say that the British-Chinese soldiers, whether serving with the Royal Engineers or Royal Artillery units, or in the Hong Kong Chinese Regiment, played their full part in the defence of Hong Kong. They fought bravely alongside their British counterparts, who included the 1st Battalion Middlesex Regiment and 2nd Battalion Royal Scots. A large number of them were killed or wounded and others taken prisoners-of-war. When Hong Kong surrendered on 25 December 1941, the remainder were told by their commanders to go home and blend into the local community. Some did, but a considerable number of British-Chinese soldiers, about 160 men, decided that they wished to continue the fight.
In 1942, British-Chinese soldiers also saw active service outside Hong Kong, against Japanese forces in Burma, where they fought bravely alongside the 1st Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment.
Following the surrender, a sizeable number of British-Chinese soldiers made their escape to China. Some of them volunteered to join the British Army Aid Group (BAAG), while others were asked if they wished to go to India to join the Army and fight the Japanese. Those who volunteered were sent to Kweilin, China, where the BAAG headquarters was located. They remained at BAAG HQ until mid 1943, when they were finally transported to Fort William in Calcutta, India, where they enlisted into the 9th Borderers. The numbers in the group slowly mounted to some 120 strong.
They were subsequently given an official title The Hong Kong Volunteers Company (nothing to do with the then Hong Kong Defence Regiment Volunteers,) attached to 77 Chindits Force and deployed in Burma. After the war in Burma, they were re-deployed in Malaya, to continue the fight against the Japanese. During this time in India, 2 x British-Chinese soldiers were commissioned into the Intelligence Corps in June 1945. They were probably the first-ever British-Chinese soldiers to hold a proper commission in the British Army.
After the war was over; the British-Chinese soldiers of the Hong Kong Volunteers Company returned to Hong Kong in early 1946 and re-enlisted into the ‘Hong Kong Pioneer Company’ commanded by Lieutenant Milne, 44 Commando, Royal Marines; a unit which had formed on 7 November 1945. However, when Major Bellamy-Brown arrived, he assumed command of both companies, regrouping them into one, as the ‘Hong Kong Chinese Cadre Company’ (HKCCC). The HKCCC was tasked to guard installations and Japanese prisoners, as well as performing anti-smuggling duties and border patrols.
After 3 years and 8 months of occupation by the Japanese, the war was finally declared over. Hong Kong however, was in a frightful mess, both structurally and economically as the years of occupation had not been kind.
Finding the manpower to ensure the security of Hong Kong was difficult. Britain herself was exhausted following the war and was anxious to continue apace with demobilisation. One of the solutions to the problem was to recruit locally. On 15 January 1948, 91 years after the raising of the Canton Commissariat Corps, the Hong Kong Government approved the establishment of the Hong Kong Chinese Training Unit (HKCTU.)
Under the redoubtable Major Bellamy-Brown, who employed various old wartime British-Chinese soldiers as instructors, 118 men were recruited and training began at Lyemun Barracks. The site was particularly appropriate, as British-Chinese soldiers had fought and died there during the Japanese invasion.
After the establishment of the HKCTU, all British-Chinese soldiers were required to pledge allegiance to the King/Queen of the United Kingdom and were enlisted into the General Service Corps (GSC) of the British Regular Army. Members of HKCTU were later frequently nicknamed “Sui Lui Pao Bing” (Water mine and gunner soldier) in memory of their predecessors.
Between June 1950 and July 1953, British-Chinese soldiers were also involved in the Korean War, where they provided logistics support to their British colleagues in the battlefields. A number of British-Chinese soldiers were killed as a result of the Korean War.
The HKMSC offered British-Chinese soldiers the opportunity to pursue a full career in the British Regular Army, up to and including Queen’s Commissioned Officer rank of the General List. British-Chinese soldiers paid UK Income tax at the HK rate, via the MOD, to Her Majesty’s Income Tax Office, in the same way as their British counterparts. Thus, all British-Chinese soldiers were also British Army soldiers and were given a British Army Certificate of Service when they left the Army.
The HKCTU was charged with providing between 800-1000 men in support of the British Garrison in Hong Kong. In 1960, with the end of National Service, it was decided to increase the number of locally enlisted British-Chinese soldiers.
British-Chinese soldiers maintained their reputation for loyalty and military skills at the highest level, often outshining British and Gurkha troops based in Hong Kong. The HKMSC shooting team won the team and individual champion pistol shot a number of times during the Regular Army Skill at Arms Meeting (RASAAM) in Bisley, United Kingdom.
Following the decision to increase the size of the HKCTU, it was decided to reorganise the unit on new lines with an improved career structure for its Locally Enlisted personnel. On 1 September 1962, a new unit, the Hong Kong Military Service Corps (HKMSC) was formed and Lieutenant Colonel Girdwood appointed as the first HKMSC Inspector. From that time on, the HKMSC became part of the General Service Corps of the Ministry of Defence (MOD) in Britain.
British-Chinese soldiers were initially trained at the HKMSC Depot and, upon completion of recruit
training, were posted to different British Army units in Hong Kong; as shown below. They wore the cap badge of the unit to which they were posted.
- Depot HKMSC
- 414 Pack Troop, 415 Maritime Troop, 29 & 56 Squadrons, Royal Corps of Transport (RCT)
- Royal Military Police (RMP), Special Investigation Branch (SIB)
- Royal Army Educational Corps (RAEC)
- Royal Army Veterinary Corps (RAVC)
- Royal Corps of Signals (RSignals)
- Royal Army Pay Corps (RAPC)
- Army Air Corps (AAC)
- Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC)
- Army Physical Training Corps (APTC)
- Army Catering Corps (ACC)
- Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC)
- Army Intelligence Corps (Int Corps)
- Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME)
- Royal Engineers (RE)
- Dragon Company, General Service Corps
From peace time up to 30 June 1997, British-Chinese soldiers provided support services to the British garrison in Hong Kong by maintaining the security, stability and prosperity of Hong Kong, rescuing people when natural disasters occurred, carrying out anti-illegal immigrant duties on the Sino-Hong Kong border, etc.etc. In addition, British-Chinese soldiers also provided community services to the local community, such as youth leadership training, performing charity duties and conducting rural area patrols.
During the Gulf War and in the early 1990s, British-Chinese soldiers from 29 Squadron RCT were tasked to carry out peacekeeping operations in Cyprus for six months, as part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force. They were probably the first Chinese soldiers in history to carry out United Nations Peacekeeping duties.
During past decades, our fallen comrades fought bravely against the Japanese during World War Two. After the war, the British-Chinese soldier veterans continued to give their loyal service to the British Empire in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Korea. They made a tremendous contribution to the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong up to 31 June 1997. In July 2006, Britain granted full British citizenship to all British-Gurkha soldiers and their dependants who had served in Hong Kong and entitled them to live and work in Britain if they so wished.
Before the disbandment of the HKMSC, the British Government limited the granting of residency for British-Chinese veterans and their families to a paltry 500! Why so few? The British Government still owes the British-Chinese Soldier veterans an explanation.
Regrettably, neither compliments nor commendation has ever been given to the British-Chinese Soldiers by the British or Hong Kong Governments. It is quite shaming that the British Government appears to have cared so little for the British-Chinese Soldier veterans after June 1997, regardless of their loyal service and the contribution made to the British Empire during the past century.
Compiled by EBCSBA.
9 March 2012