by Grace Wong
The East River Column was one of the various Communist-affiliated resistance groups that opposed the Japanese occupation during the 1930s–1940s. This group, in particular, was founded in Hong Kong by Zeng Sheng in 1939 to spread anti-Japanese propaganda, smuggle supplies, and resist the Japanese occupying the area of Guangdong. The East River Column was also known as the Guangdong People’s Anti-Japanese Team and was formally created after the merging of two smaller guerrilla teams, the Huiyang Bao’an People’s Anti-Japanese Guerrillas and the Dongguan Model Able-bodied Young Men Guerrilla Team.
Following the Japanese invasion and subsequent Battle of Hong Kong in December of 1941, the East River Column played an important role in the lives of Hong Kongers. During the three years and eight months of Japanese occupation, the treatment of locals, British POWs, and anyone else left in the territory was brutal. This prompted many locals, especially peasants and young people, to seek ways to fight back against the Japanese. Many of them had experienced the brutality of the Japanese firsthand, through the looting, torture, killing, rape, and starvation that followed the surrender.
This is where the East River Column came in. With their guerrilla tactics and mission of resistance, the group attracted many people in Hong Kong. Throughout the occupation, members gathered information on Japanese plans, performed acts of sabotage, and initiated propaganda campaigns. They also assisted Chinese intellectuals – cultural and literary figures such as the writer Mao Dun – escape into Free China. Working with the British Army Aid Group, resistance fighters would also guide downed Allied pilots and British POWs through the mountains to safety in unoccupied territory.
The East River Column welcomed men and women, young and old. Most of the guerrillas were local people, many also members of the local Hakka ethnic community; this enabled them to blend in and be less likely to be suspected of suspicious activities by the Japanese occupiers. The guerrillas set up base in Sai Kung, a rural area in the mountains of the New Territories, and they often worked with local villagers. However, there were some Chinese who chose to collaborate with the Japanese occupiers, as well as bandits who took advantage of the war situation to steal from villagers. Besides resisting the Japanese soldiers, the guerrillas would also find and take down such people.
Some of the youngest members, known as “little ghosts,” were only about twelve, serving as couriers and doing other tasks. In one instance, a shipment of dynamite needed to be transferred from Sai Kung to Kowloon. To avoid suspicion, a little boy was the one to deliver it, hiding it in the harness of his oxcart. The younger members also would serve as guides for downed Allied pilots. Children from the East River Column were the ones to find Lieutenant Donald Kerr, an American pilot who had to crash-land in the mountains of the New Territories in 1944. They were able to bring him to the guerrillas and smuggle him out to safety right under the nose of the Japanese so that he could continue his work. All of the guerrillas risked torture and execution by the Japanese if caught, yet they bravely continued to be involved with the resistance.
The East River Column played a crucial role working with both locals and British to hasten the downfall of the Japanese, who finally surrendered in 1945. However, because of the group’s affiliation with the Communist Party of China, the British refused to recognize their efforts after the war when they gained back control of Hong Kong. The story of the bravery and resistance of these guerrilla fighters has gone unsung for so long, but now it is important to recognize their efforts and sacrifices.
Chan, Gordon Yiu Ming. “The Communist Resistance Movement in War Torn Guangdong, China, 1937-1945.” University of London, University of London, 2001.
Chan, Jenny, and Derek Pua. Three Years Eight Months: The Forgotten Struggle of Hong Kong’s WWII. Pacific Atrocities Education, 2019.
Chan, Sui-jeung. East River Column: Hong Kong Guerrillas in the Second World War and After. Hong Kong University Press, 2014.
Shirra, Guy. “Sai Kung Guerrillas – the 1942 to 1945 Resistance in Hong Kong.” The British Empire, www.britishempire.co.uk/article/saikungguerrillas.htm.
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