Critical Book Report on The Fall of Hong Kong: Britain, China, and the Japanese Occupation

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Critical Book Report on The Fall of Hong Kong: Britain, China, and the Japanese Occupation

Liberation of Hong Kong in 1945


Critical Book Report on The Fall of Hong Kong: Britain, China, and the Japanese Occupation

Pui Yan Lam, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University



The Fall of Hong Kong: Britain, China, and the Japanese Occupation, depicts the events that happened during the Occupation (25 December 1941-15 August 1945) and the subsequent evolution of Hong Kong after the British regained the control. This book report first begins with a brief introduction of the author, Philip Snow, who usually writes books about China. Then, the main content of the book will be covered and discussed. Last, the view of modern Chinese towards this part of painful history will also be considered. Snow’s analyses and opinions allow readers to understand that this book is not just an account of the Japanese Occupation, but it is also a comprehensive history of 20th century Hong Kong.

Keywords: Britain, China, Hong Kong, Japanese Occupation


The Fall of Hong Kong: Britain, China, and the Japanese Occupation. By Philip Snow. London: Yale University Press. 2003. ISBN: 9780300103731. 524 pp.


About the Author

Philip Snow, who writes books about China, graduated from Oxford University with a first-class degree in Chinese. He has also been a Hong Kong resident since 1994. His background enables him to have a deeper understanding of the Chinese community and write this authoritative book. As both of his parents, C. P. Snow and Pamela Hansford Johnson, were writers, Snow shows a novelist’s attention to colourful details, which makes his book fascinating and appealing to readers. Snow has also written many other books, such as the acclaimed The Star Raft: China’s Encounter with Africa.
Description of the Book
The Fall of Hong Kong: Britain, China, and the Japanese Occupation, published in 2003, mainly focuses on the events that happened during the Japanese Occupation (25 December 1941-15 August 1945). It also describes how officials of China and Britain worked together to maintain order in Hong Kong after the transfer of power, which marked the end of the World War II.

Snow (2003) believes that the Japanese Occupation was a watershed in the process by which the British were to be removed from four centuries of profound influence in East Asia. Their prestige and authority were diminished after losing Hong Kong and the other colonies in South East Asia to Japan. Asians gradually acquired greater political power after the World War II and they were no longer willing to be controlled by foreigners. They wanted to be independent. Furthermore, after the British had spent so many resources on wars, their economic power was ceded gradually to the Americans and other rising powers, such as the Chinese and the returning Japanese. All these weakened the British hold on the colony in the postwar years both internally and externally, which eventually led to the collapse of the colonial empire due to its weakened position.

Making use of an unprecedented wide range of sources from many countries, Snow reveals what really happened in that particular decade: the abandonment of the British by the Chinese during the invasion; the acquiescence of the Asian upper class in the Japanese takeover due to fear and benefits; the vicious cruelty of the Japanese troops to the Chinese people; and the post-war British decision to draw a veil over the occupation’s gloomier aspects. He uncovers the dramatic story of the Japanese occupation and explains the subsequent evolution of Hong Kong after the British returned and regained the control of Hong Kong.


Comprehensive and precise description

One reason I like The Fall of Hong Kong very much is that this book is not just an account of the Japanese Occupation, but more of a comprehensive history of the 20th century Hong Kong. The book starts with the background of pre-war Hong Kong. Then it gradually shows readers how the Japanese threat drew close and how the Japanese Occupation occurred. Snow also depicts the transformation of Hong Kong after the British regained sovereignty and the repercussions of those events in more recent decades. The progress of all events is very well illustrated. Readers can easily understand the development of the Hong Kong history.

Apart from facts, Snow has also included his analyses and opinions to give detailed explanations for certain incidents. For instance, the colony had been expected to hold out for ninety days. However, it turned out the British surrendered in only eighteen days. Snow suggests reasons to explain why the Japanese 23rd Army could beat the British army that easily. One reason which Snow (2003) regards as the most important is the differences in the quality of the troops:

The garrison was a motley assemblage of British and Indian units and the newly arrived reinforcements from Canada. Language difficulties were encountered by both the Indian troops and the Canadians, many of whom were French-speakers from Quebec. The two British units were soft from years of garrison duty: the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Scots had been stationed in the colony since 1936, and the 1st Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment since 1937. The Royal Scots, who guarded the key central section of the Gin Drinkers’ line known as the Shingmun Redoubt, had also been ravaged both physically and psychologically by the effects of malaria. The Canadians were half-trained recruits. The Japanese invaders, in contrast, were homogenous and hardened by years of warfare in the Chinese interior. Most of the British were blissfully unaware that the Japanese might have an edge over them. From Maltby downwards they had allowed themselves to be lulled by reports that the enemy soldiers were second-raters, good only for fighting the rag-tag Chinese. Notions prevailed that the Japanese suffered from poor eyesight which prevented them from fighting effectively after dark; that they were unimaginative and incapable of deviating from a pre-arranged plan. (p. 54)

Snow also made other comparisons between the two armies, such as the distribution of the troops and the guns they used. His in-depth analysis is very informative.


Ease of understanding

Snow’s point of view is directly reflected from his choice of words. For instance, he used A Frail Restoration as the title of the sixth chapter (Snow, 2003). According to the Online Cambridge Dictionary (2011), Frail is defined as being weak or unhealthy. In other words, the author believes that though the British government did regain sovereignty of Hong Kong from the Japanese, it could not regain actual control of Hong Kong people. In the book, Snow illustrates his viewpoint by describing the challenging tasks faced by the British just after the surrender of the Japanese. For example, there was a critical shortage of force to patrol the streets and supervise the remaining armed Japanese in the countryside. Meanwhile, the British were facing pressure from the Nationalists, whose new status was one of the victorious Allies and who aimed at getting Hong Kong back. An equally pressing task for them was to reassemble a group of local, untainted, elites, who helped lead the agitated Chinese community to demand reforms based on the shortcomings of pre-war British rule. All these daunting obstacles had to be surmounted by the British government at the same time and using ‘frail’ to describe the restoration of the British clearly shows the shattering of the myth of supreme British power.

Despite the considerable detail in this book, Snow still successfully presents the material with great clarity. One of the reasons is the good use of dates. He did not list out the exact time, date, month and year for every event he mentioned. Rather, he chose them selectively. For example, he mentioned the exact time and date that the Japanese Army first began to attack Hong Kong as he thinks that it was a crucial moment for the Japanese Occupation, which marked the beginning of the collapse of the British Empire. However, for events that are less important, he simply wrote down the month and year that the event occurred. This wise strategy allows the timeline to be very clear without showing all the time details of the event and avoid confusing us, the readers.
Reason for me to choose this book
Since I was a child, my grandmother has told me about her experience during the Japanese Occupation. For instance, all females in her family needed to keep their faces dirty in order to avoid drawing attention from the Japanese soldiers, because war rape was very common. She also told me stories about Japanese soldiers, who murdered infants indiscriminately. Her sharing made me particularly interested in this part of Hong Kong History. I chose The Fall of Hong Kong from the books about the Japanese Occupation because I am very impressed by the great number of references used by the author when I flipped through the book. Almost one-fifth of the book is the reference list. I thought this book was likely to be informative with such wide variety of sources. After reading the book, I knew that choosing it was a right decision.



I think that reading this book is rewarding because it helped me to clear up many misunderstandings. For example, I used to think that the Japanese had used harsh tactics consistently to rule Hong Kong during the Japanese Occupation. However, the Japanese ruled with a light approach during the first 18 months of their occupation. As it continued, the Japanese officials began to use progressively harsher tactics to suppress the Chinese (Snow, 2003). I also used to think that no parties benefited from the new regime. However, in fact, there were. For instance, in order to win over the intermediate layers of Asian society, the Japanese deliberately gave the Indians a favored status they had never enjoyed in British Hong Kong. During the threat of starvation, every Indian family duly received a free monthly issue of 7lb of flour, some salt and some cooking oil, while many Chinese did not have enough food and died of starvation (Snow, 2003). Furthermore, before I read this book, I had no idea that the restoration of British sovereignty over Hong Kong after World War II was basically by luck. This is because if there had not been a civil war on the mainland, or if Roosevelt, the President of the United States at that time, had not died of a stroke before the end of World War II, Hong Kong would have been returned to China upon the Japanese surrender (Snow, 2003). I also had no idea that for a time just after the war, the British wanted to change Hong Kong society completely by abolishing the racial segregation that existed before the war. Ironically, with the appointment of Grantham, who is highly respected by Hong Kong people and has a secondary school named after him, as Governor, most of those reforms were held back and not introduced. Only until years later did the British government put them forward again (Snow, 2003).

I cannot imagine what the situation in China was during the World War II because according to many documents, the number of casualties and the extent of destruction caused by the Japanese were even greater. In other words, the case in China was worse than Hong Kong. I can therefore understand why the Chinese government condemns the Japanese whenever the Prime Minister or the officials of Japan visit the Yasukuni Shrine, which is dedicated to the soldiers and others who died fighting on behalf of the Emperor of Japan (People’s Daily Online, 2004). While the Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama did give the first clear and formal apology for Japanese actions during the war on the fiftieth anniversary of the Surrender of Japan, other Japanese officials behave differently (Murayama, 1995). These officials try to cover up the brutality of their invasion by describing the massacre which occurred in Nanjing as an ‘incident’ in their approved secondary education textbooks (Yoshida, 2006); yet Japanese youngsters have the right to examine other perspectives.

Some Chinese think that the frequent occurrence of earthquakes in Japan is a punishment given by God in response to the harm the Japanese did during the World War II. I think resentment is deeply rooted in many Chinese’s hearts. This can be shown from the widespread anti-Japanese sentiment in China. For instance, when the Chinese national team was defeated by the Japanese team in a match in the East Asian Cup 2004, a group of Chinese fans burnt the Japanese national flag to express their anger (Hays, 2011). A similar case occurred in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. When the Japanese representatives were announced in the welcoming ceremony, the crowd at the Beijing Bird’s Nest Stadium became silent, while massive applause and cheering followed for the Hong Kong and Taiwan representatives. This demonstrated the deep resentment of the general Chinese people towards the Japanese. Therefore, damages caused by the war did not disappear with the end of the war. Instead, they last long. Even though 70 years have passed, the scars that marked the immeasurable and painful experiences still induce pain in many Chinese’s hearts.



frail. (n.d.). In Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary Online. Retrieved from

Hays, J. (2011). Anger and friction between Japan and China and anti-Japanese riots and protests. Retrieved from

Murayama, T. (1995, August 15). Statement by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama “On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the war’s end”. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. Retrieved from

People’s Daily Online. (2004, January 2). China angry at Japanese PM’s Yasukuni Shrine Visit. People’s Daily Online. Retrieved from

Snow, P. (2003). The fall of Hong Kong: Britain, China, and the Japanese occupation. London: Yale University Press.

Yoshida, T. (2006). Whitewashing of the Nanjing massacre protested. Dismal World. Retrieved from



This article is based on a book report for a course which aims at encouraging students to read more books related to Hong Kong history and thus increase their understanding of Hong Kong.



Pui Yan Lam is a final year Physiotherapy student at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. She is very interested in history despite her Science background and enjoys reading about history and likes to watch historical documentaries and films.