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Chapter 5.1
The port before and during the war
Contributor: Wong Kwan-kin, Kenneth

In July 1937, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident marked the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Just a year later, in October 1938, Guangzhou was occupied by the Japanese army. The Hong Kong shipping industry was greatly affected as the main navigation channels to the east and west of Hong Kong were then under Japanese control. In July 1939, Britain and Japan signed an agreement on Guangzhou-Hong Kong trade. Named the Blunt-Okazaki Agreement, it was signed by Arthur Powlett Blunt, the Consul-General for Britain in Guangzhou, and Katsuo Okazaki, the Consul-General for Japan. Trade, however, was not as smooth as expected for a number of reasons, including military operations in the area, the outbreak of cholera in Hong Kong, and disputes over pilotage fees.[1]

Regarding disagreement over pilotage fees, the river steamer Fatshan, which plied between Guangzhou and Hong Kong, was detained by the Japanese in August 1940 as a result of John Swire and Sons Ltd. refusing to pay the pilotage fees.[2] In early 1941, the company urged the colonial government either to close the port of Hong Kong or to suspend the Blunt-Okazaki Agreement due to the high pilotage fees charged by the Japanese. Following the intervention of the British Consul-General in Guangzhou, the Japanese finally accepted a 30% deduction in pilotage fees in April 1941.[3]

Tension in the region escalated, and conflicts between the Japanese and the colonial government were occurring frequently. The colonial government, however, was still hopeful about the future of Hong Kong, and in January 1941, invited Sir David J. Owen, the former General Manager of the Port of London Authority, to make recommendations for the future control and development of the port of Hong Kong. In fact, the issue of the future administration of the port had already come to the notice of the Governor in as early as 1937, even though one of the ferry companies raised the question of whether the Government was prepared to renew pier leases which were due to expire on 31 December 1949.[4] After a month, a report prepared by Sir David J. Owen suggested that a Hong Kong Harbour Trust should be established for a three-year trial period to oversee the development of the port. The development of port facilities - such as new piers, sites for reclamation, typhoon shelters, and wharves mainly along the Kowloon shore - was recommended to cope with the expansion of the port.[5]

Before any of the recommendations could materialise, Hong Kong was invaded by the Japanese on 8 December 1941. The Second China Expeditionary Fleet of the Japanese Navy, formed in 1936, was responsible for attacking South China.[6] It blocked the waters of Hong Kong quickly and watched for any enemy vessels that tried to escape from Hong Kong or rescue their forces in the territory.[7] In the meantime, the Japanese Army deployed aircraft to destroy Kai Tak Airport and other major naval sites. The army attacked from Shenzhen and Baoan. The defending army, consisting of British, Canadian and Indian troops, could do little to resist the offensive. The Japanese occupied the New Territories and Kowloon Peninsula on 12 December 1941. Six days later, they landed in North Point, Tai Koo and Shau Kei Wan in the north of Hong Kong Island. Following heavy fighting, the Japanese Army finally occupied Stanley in the south of the island, The Governor, Sir Mark Young, surrendered to the Japanese on 25 December 1941.[8]

Plate 1: Hong Kong harbour under fire, 1941.

Plate 1: Hong Kong harbour under fire, 1941.

The port was severely damaged during the invasion, especially Kai Tak Airport and its vicinity. At least 43 merchant vessels confiscated by the Japanese were either scuttled or sunk in the waters of Hong Kong. Furthermore, 51 government launches were scuttled, dismantled, lost, or fell into the hands of the Japanese.[9] From the Japanese point of view, the successful occupation of Hong Kong ensured not only the safety of its navy in the South China waters but also the further expansion of the Great East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere to South-East Asia.[10]


  • [1]
    CO129/589, ‘Sino-Japanese war shipping on Pearl River’, 1941, pp. 1-55.
  • [2]
    ’Fatshan held by Japanese’, The China Mail, 2 August 1940; 〈日方向佛山輪索「帶水」費四千餘元〉,《天光報》,1940年8月4日。
  • [3]
    CO129/589, ‘Sino-Japanese war shipping on Pearl River’, 1941, pp. 1-55.
  • [4]
    HKRS163-1-57 ,’Future Administration of the Port of Hong Kong’, Post Administration-Pre-War Correspondence Rec’d From The S of S, 27.06.1946-24.07.1940, Hong Kong Public Records Office.
  • [5]
    David J. Owen, Future Control and Development of the Port of Hong Kong, pp. 3-27.
  • [6]
  • [7]
    English translation of Japanese documents, largely interrogation reports, Japanese historical studies and American studies based on or quoting from Japanese documents relating to the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, (c. 1940s).
  • [8]
  • [9]
    CO537/1648, ‘A general report on the activities of the Harbour Department and Air Services during the attack on Hong Kong, 1941’, 15 May 1942, pp. 1- 8.
  • [10]
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Part 1 Chapter 5.1 - The port before and during the war

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