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May 2021   |   Volume 22 No. 2

Lest We Forget

Pillbox PB7, which is believed to have been used by the Japanese army as the site’s command post.
A research team have spent over two decades locating and studying military relics left from World War II and are now campaigning for the government to conserve these historically significant structures.

More than 200 military relics from World War II (WWII) are scattered around Hong Kong, including gun batteries, pillboxes (PBs), the air raid tunnels now housing the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence at Shau Kei Wan, as well as fortifications along the Gin Drinker’s Line (GDL), at Devil’s Peak and in many other places.

Most were left by the British, but one of the most intriguing relics, located near Luk Keng in the northeastern New Territories, was constructed by the Japanese during their occupation of Hong Kong from December 1941 to 1945.

“The Luk Keng cluster comprises at least 14 PBs, built of reinforced concrete, connected by a 400-metre trench system on the crest of a knoll,” said Professor Lawrence Lai from the Department of Real Estate and Construction of the Faculty of Architecture, who led the team. “Seven of the pillboxes are bigger and there are six smaller satellite pillboxes, capable of holding just one soldier.”

The team behind the Luk Keng research have worked alongside Professor Lai frequently over the past 10 years. Members include Professor Daniel C Ho, Honorary Professor Dr Stephen N G Davies, both from the Faculty of Architecture, as well as local military expert Mr Y K Tan and local historian Mr Tim Ko, both of whom Professor Lai met through the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong. The study has included researching the military heritage on Devil’s Peak and Bokhara Batteries, as well as PBs along the GDL and on Hong Kong Island. “Through all these projects I have hoped to set a foundational standard for local heritage and conservation studies on military sites,” said Professor Lai.

“The type of military structure we see at Luk Keng is rare in Hong Kong,” said Professor Ho. “It is a comprehensive system of installations. No archival material has been found to suggest they existed pre-war as colonial defences, so it seems most likely they were constructed by the Japanese during their occupation.”

Historian Mr Ko has found clues to support this theory: “From the recollections of villagers nearby it can be established that pillboxes and observation posts were built during the period of the Japanese occupation and some local inhabitants were pressed into labour building the constructions.”

The team also made another important discovery recently when they drained a cistern at the site and found a water storage chamber at its bottom, which Dr Davies worked out could supply water for a 200-strong garrison for almost a month. The discovery was observed in a joint visit by a correspondent from Japanese news bureau Nikkei Asia who had covered the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Hong Kong in December 2011.

Since the PBs were positioned in good tactical locations, the team speculate that the Luk Keng fortifications were built either to battle an anticipated Allied landing (which was planned to occur at Mirs Bay in 1946), or possibly to deter the guerilla forces of the East River Column, formally under the command of the National Revolutionary Army, who harassed the Japanese Army throughout its occupation.

Pillboxes nearby Luk Keng

On a 120m knoll with a levelled summit, near Luk Keng, stand some seven pillboxes connected by a system of communication trenches with, further downhill, at least six smaller satellite pillboxes that each can only accommodate one soldier.

Raid on guerilla headquarters

Team thought leans towards the latter, partly because they have linked the building of the site to a report of a battle in Luk Keng on March 3, 1942, where Japanese soldiers and Kempeitai (Japanese military police) made a successful raid on the Column’s guerilla political commissar’s headquarters at Nam Chung, located just below the western side of the knoll, killing 11 senior cadres and capturing four more.

“Luk Keng’s all-round defensive system, readily visible in analysis of fields of fire from the pillboxes and its implicit tactical linkage with the systems on the north side of Starling Inlet around Sha Tau Kok, argues the possibility of a defended location in a counter-insurgency context,” said Professor Lai. He anticipates further and better research by historians.

The team are now keen for the structures to be recognised and protected properly as a heritage site. Dr Davies said: “Luk Keng is one of five major clusters of Japanese fortifications in the northeastern New Territories, and it has an important place in Hong Kong’s story and should be preserved. Given that this site was a Japanese military base, it serves to remind us of the clash between nationalistic militarism and local resistance against brutal rule in Hong Kong.”

Professor Lai’s first association with WWII fortifications, goes back to his childhood and walks round war relics with his dad, who was here during the Battle of Hong Kong in December 1941. Professor Lai graduated from HKU in 1981, became a town planner in government then returned to HKU in 1989 as a teacher and has been identifying and recording WWII fortifications since 2000. “In government, I gained the experience of using survey plans and aerial photos to do better field research and came into touch with the pioneering work on heritage buildings by Hong Kong volunteer veteran the late Dr Solomon Bard.”

Professor Lai and Professor Ho also run a Common Core course, begun in 2012 and called ‘Property Rights, Built Heritage and Sustainable Development in Hong Kong’, which takes students on field trips to military heritage sites, initiating them in the use of maps and aerial photos, heritage identification and conservation. Luk Keng is an important link in these studies and conservation is a key issue.

“We want to ensure its important place in Hong Kong’s history is recognised. At present, the site is open access and unmanaged, though owned by government,” said Professor Lai. “Plant growth, particularly roots, and landslides will soon destroy all the pillboxes. Visitors could also ruin them through carelessness.”

His proposals include building a system of slightly elevated walkways around the PBs and along the trench; adding proper walking trails to follow old but now overgrown village paths; and an interpretation room to be built downhill. “In short, it requires authentic and proper conservation planning and environmentally-sensitive development that preserves the integrity of the site with safe access, and a small local museum,” he said.

Pillbox PB6

Pillbox PB6, looking over to the southwestern side of the knoll.

Luk Keng’s all-round defensive system, readily visible in analysis of fields of fire from the pillboxes and its implicit tactical linkage with the systems on the north side of Starling Inlet around Sha Tau Kok, argues the possibility of a defended location in a counterinsurgency context.