Touching the Past

Artillery marker I have more than a passing interest in World War II.

It was more than a global conflict. I feel it on a personal level; to me it is a container of stories: tales of men and women whose lives were either spent or squandered in the course of an epic struggle. Growing up in Canada, a country that didn't face the massive destruction seen in Europe, Africa and Asia, I remained distanced from the reality of that war.

"I decided to explore these ruins and photograph them, before they disappeared."

Living in Hong Kong has changed that, to some extent. I have no idea what it feels like to be in the midst of battle and I never want to find out. I've been spared that particular horror by those who've gone before me and paid for that privilege in blood. My awareness of that sacrifice led me to seek out what remains of Hong Kong's battlefields; to walk the ground where men fell and died. I wanted to touch the concrete and brick; I wanted to step back over 60 years and touch history. I decided to explore these ruins and photograph them, before they disappeared. Hong Kong doesn't have the best record in preserving historical sites.

The first location I visited was the Shing Mun Redoubt. I was interested because I'd learned through research that most of the infrastructure was intact. I found it to be in such good shape I'm surprised it hasn't been cleaned up and restored as a tourist attraction. It lies overgrown and forgotten along Stage 6 of the MacLehose Trail in Kowloon, hidden between the Shing Mun Reservoir and Smugglers' Ridge. At the time, the area was devoid of foliage, to provide the defenders with clear lines of fire. Today, most of the redoubt is buried in the undergrowth. So much of it is hidden that hikers not paying attention could walk by it and not know it was there.

The Shing Mun Redoubt was the linchpin in the Gin Drinkers Line, part of an 18km long series of trenches, bunkers and pillboxes built along the lines of WWI battle-planning. Covering 12 acres, the underground citadel was supposed to delay the Japanese advance for seven days. Grossly undermanned, it lasted less than 12 hours from the first attack.

Armed with a rudimentary layout of the fortress that I'd found on the Internet, I made my first expedition. In retrospect, I would have benefitted from further research before the trek. However, the exploration of the redoubt intensified my interest. I found two excellent books, both of which have become time machines, allowing me a glimpse into life in the former British colony as it was before and during the Japanese invasion in 1941.

The first book, Ruins of War, by Ko Tim Keung and Jason Wordie, catalogues in photos and text the locations of war-time ruins, mostly gun emplacements, pillboxes, bunkers and other defensive positions. The second book, Not the Slightest Chance, by Tony Banham, details the human cost of the Battle of Hong Kong, not in statistics and impersonal numbers, but detailing where possible the fate of each man and woman who perished in the defence of the territory.

Despite the lack of a good map, I went to Shing Mun Country Park, which extends from Lead Mine Pass in the north, to the Shing Mun catchwater road in the south, and from Grassy Hill and Needle Hill in the east, to Tai Mo Shan in the west. My destination was the area south of the reservoir. Once I entered the park, I walked a short distance around the bottom end of the reservoir. From there I connected to the entrance to Stage 6 of the MacLehose Trail, and walked up the hill.

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In minutes I found the entrance to Charing Cross. Outside the entrance was a marker entitled Golden Hill, which was likely used for aiming artillery. The tunnel was flooded, so I wasn't able to go through to where it connected to the Strand Palace Hotel and the Observation Post. The names of the sections came from well-known London thoroughfares, stamped into the cement when the redoubt was built.

Further up the trail, I encountered the remains of a pillbox that had sustained a fair bit of damage. This was Pillbox 403, which had been placed at the end of the Haymarket section. The concrete roof had been blown open by shelling from the guns on Stonecutters Island and Mount Davis, after the redoubt had been considered captured. Trees were growing up through the hole. Inside, the concrete walls were gouged with large shrapnel scars. Most were surface scrapes, but in some places the concrete had been penetrated.

Kitty corner to where I entered was a small chamber that was used to store ammunition, and next to that, a long staircase that descended into the earth. It was dark, but I'd brought a large flashlight. It was a good thing I had, because the place was crawling with spiders. Most were small, but a few of the larger and nastier-looking ones were tucked into the corners along the ceiling. I used my hiking pole to sweep them away as we went down. I still didn't relish the idea of a fat spider dropping onto my neck. I came to dead end when I found the bottom part silted in, so I had to go back up. What amazed me most was the excellent condition of the concrete. The walls were smooth and looked solid; despite decades of humid weather they hadn't crumbled or decayed.

Returning to the path, I deviated from the trail and climbed up Smugglers' Ridge to see if there was anything else of interest. The view was worth it, but as there were no fortifications I moved back down to the path. Then I saw the entrance to Shaftesbury Avenue. It was across from Charing Cross, yet I'd missed it. When I reached the entrance, I met a ghost, in a manner of speaking. Just inside, on the right wall, an inscription had been carved. It read: Captured by Wakabayashi unit. I learned later that Wakabayashi had been killed in Guadalcanal in 1943.

"... next time we'd come back wearing HazMat suits."

I wasn't keen on entering Shaftesbury Avenue as it looked dodgy, so I opted to go around. Further inside, Shaftesbury Avenue splits into a "Y", with the left fork connecting to Regent Street, and the right fork leading to the main entrance, Pillbox 400 and Oxford Street. The path took me around to the back side, where Shaftesbury Avenue met the entrance to Regent Street. I didn't enter there as it was pitch black and may have become home to wildlife such as snakes. Next time I'd come back wearing a HazMat suit.

Instead I went up the stairs inside Shaftesbury Avenue. The entrances of both Regent and Shaftesbury were low; to enter, I had to crouch. Once inside, there was enough headroom to stand up. A short flight of stairs brought me outside to a low, concrete open-air trench that connected the underground tunnels. Looking at it, I decided I wouldn't have wanted to rely on that trench for much cover in a firefight. I felt exposed; I got a sense of what it must have been like for the platoon of about 30 men charged with defending it.

From there I lost my sense of direction. I found another staircase leading down, but didn't know where it led. I later learned it was part of Shaftesbury Avenue, and had I followed it, we would have come out at its entrance. Electing not to follow the stairs down, I blundered about the bush, finding uncovered air vents that were large enough for a man to slip into. The Japanese instead tossed hand grenades into these vents before gaining access for close-quarter combat. Following the air vents led me over the top of Regent Street, where I came upon Piccadilly.

A concrete roof emerged from the ground and headed up the slope of the hill. A massive hole had been blown out of it, again the result of post-capture shelling. The interior stairs were visible through the hole. Further up the hill the tunnel topped out, where I discovered two air vents: one badly damaged, and the other intact. They looked like before-and-after photos. Another section of the roof had suffered an explosion as well. I didn't enter as I was unsure how safe the structure was. Moreover, it appeared as through the tunnel ended, or was caved in, possibly a result of the giant power pylon that had been erected there. At the end of Piccadilly was Pillbox 402, but as I was unaware of that, I didn't investigate.

The lack of a decent map hindered me; I'd missed Oxford Street, along with Pillboxes 401a and 401b. In the end I didn't mind that much as the day was hot and I was knackered by that point. But it necessitates a return trip for more exploration. I hope Pillbox 402 wasn't removed during the installation of the pylon, because it held out the longest during the attack, and may have lasted longer had it not been hit by a British shell. The four men that had been inside were dug out alive by Japanese soldiers. Along with the sections I didn't see, I hope to capture more and better images of the entire redoubt.

Since that trip, I've made visits to Wong Nai Chung Gap, Pinewood Battery, and the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence (built around the Lei Yue Mun Redoubt). I've been to the war cemeteries at Stanley and Sai Wan. I have many sites to visit, and with the onset of cooler weather, it's time to pull on my hiking boots and get busy planning my next expedition. At the moment it appears to be the crumbling remains of the gun emplacements atop Mount Davis.

I never expected to find these places when I first arrived in Hong Kong. The richness of the past is lost behind the hectic pace and gleaming skyscrapers, but it can be found if one cares enough to look. I do.

Because the Hong Kong I know today wouldn't exist were it not for the Hong Kong of yesterday.

October 11, 2003

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