Review of the book Hong Kong Surgeon by Li Shu-Fan | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

Review of the book Hong Kong Surgeon by Li Shu-Fan

Hong Kong Surgeon by Li Shu-Fan, published 1964 by Victor Gollancz, London, 240 pages

The purpose of this review is to try to bring this remarkable book to the attention of visitors to the Gwulo website.

I have been a faithful follower of Chinese literature all my life (those translated into English and easily available). I have somehow missed this memoir and, with it, the specialist inside knowledge of day to day Chinese life at the highest level – in particular the detailed account of the author’s 19 months under Japanese occupation before his escape from Hong Kong in August 1943. This occupies 40% of the book.

By any account, his life is admirable. Awarded an Imperial Chinese Government scholarship and, later, further training as a doctor at Edinburgh University. He was the Minister for Health in Sun Yat-sen’s first cabinet in 1912. Later, he set up his own hospital in Hong Kong.

The portion of his memoirs of the Japanese occupation he titles “The Days of the Black Dragon”, starting with “Hell in Hong Kong”.

Every single word he writes of that time is valuable from a historical point of view because of its specialist knowledge. It ranks alongside other diary accounts on Gwulo. In fact it would be worthwhile for the whole book to be uploaded to Gwulo. I am only going to record a few incidents here, to catch the flavour of the times.

The book describes the day to day fear and terror of the local population and the utter contempt that the Japanese were held in by all the Chinese people.

There is a full account of the looting indulged in by all levels of the Japanese troops. Freighters on their return journey to Japan, loaded with expensive cars and works of art as the spoils of war. The “Squeeze” was in operation on every transaction at all levels of government. Rice for patients at the hospital suddenly became available, only if a present was offered.

Japanese propaganda spread around a system of Japanese values. The idea that the Japanese were the saviours of all Asians with their Co-prosperity Sphere, protecting them from exploitation by other colonial nations. There was a special hatred for all English-speaking peoples. The Chinese people saw through this hypocrisy.

At the same time, the humiliating SLAP was enforced, whereby any Japanese, no matter how low in status, could slap the face of a Chinese, no matter how eminent.

There is an episode in the book (page 160) that needs no comment:

I remember one occasion when the Japanese hierarchy in Hong Kong went to great lengths to win some goodwill from the Chinese leaders by arranging a sumptuous dinner at a fine hotel. The finest of wines and food were served, a speaker was brought all the way from Shanghai, and there were eloquent speeches about Japan’s respect for the Chinese people. Yet in the middle of it all a Japanese got up, walked across to a prominent table, and gave a Chinese leader a resounding slap for a reason too trivial to repeat. I know that every Chinese there felt that blow as though it had been dealt to him personally. A dozen banquets could not have wiped out that stupid, wanton humiliation.

The Japanese administration was a failure; and it failed because it lacked ethics and a sound co-ordinating policy. In the long run, ethics, perhaps, is the only sound foundation for any program, whether for an individual or country or federation of nations.

Revisionist historians have tried to make a case that the American forces were hated and resented in China, with snide comments about them showing off their wealth as they rode around with their “Jeep Girls”.

Similar envious comments were made about American forces in Britain during the war – “Overpaid, over-sexed and over here”. I was witness to the huge numbers of American troops billeted in my home town before D-Day. They were much appreciated by the local population for presents of chocolate and tinned peaches, and the dance bands they brought with them. “I say, Hi, to you, Lt Jolly, should you ever read this”.

On page 190, Li Shu-Fan records what he saw in Kweilin, China:

From the mouth of the cave I watched the blank sky and a few fleecy clouds. Kweilin was to all appearances a dead city with not a person in sight. Suddenly, with the third air-raid siren I heard the distant droning of Japanese planes, and the nearer thunder of American fighter planes, which in groups of three streaked like silver bullets through the high white clouds as they roared over Kweilin to meet the Japs. I watched a flock of thirty Japanese bombers and Zeros heading for the American airfield just outside Kweilin, but before they could reach it to bomb and strafe, a handful of American fighters challenged them and a dozen dogfights broke out. Three of the raiding planes went down in flames while the others streaked off in the direction of their Canton fields.

A government official standing next to me remarked that the American fighters always gave battle regardless of how hopelessly outnumbered they might be. He remembered, he said, seeing six P-40’s challenge sixty of the Japanese. Although the P-40 was heavier and therefore less manoeuvrable than the Japanese Zero, it had stamina and could take a lot of punishment. The Zeros, which looked so much better in the air and which the Americans called “fancy dans,” had no protection for the pilots; they were comparatively easy to shoot down by the Americans who courageously bore right through their rain of machine-gun fire to pour deadly bursts into them. Everywhere along my journey to Kweilin I had heard my countrymen express their profound appreciation for these young Americans. Against great odds the handful of Americans had been battling the Japanese in defence of a country not their own, though they fought for the same great cause - freedom.

There were quite a few G.I.’s in Kweilin at the time. On the whole they behaved admirably, if at times a little ebulliently; and the Chinese took to them because of their constant good humour and fun-loving ways. On one occasion I watched a holiday procession of thousands of people who carried lanterns representing dragons, fish, fruit, and various animals, marshalled by bands of gongs, drums, cymbals, and reeds. It seemed to me that all the G.I.’s in the city had joined or were joining in the gay procession, encouraged and cheered by the onlookers.

However, if you met a G.I. alone and tried to engage him in friendly conversation, he would almost invariably look at you with cold eyes and walk away. Evidently they had been carefully briefed about avoiding the Japanese spies who infested Kweilin.

There are many more reports of American behaviour in the book.

It is hoped that one day the whole of this book will be available online. The life story of a very remarkable man.


Thank you very much for the detailed review of Dr. Li's memoirs.  As you wrote, the information in the book about the battle and subsequent Japanese occupation is invaluable.

The book was translated into Chinese and published in 1965, but it was not for sale.  A second Chinese edition was published in 2019 by the Commercial Press and should be available in bookstores.  Proceeds go to charities.  I hope the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital will publish a new edition of the book in its original language, i.e. English.

The book mentioned two of Dr. Li's residences -- White Jade and Green Jade.  There is a multi-storey building named White Jade at 51 Stubbs Road, Mid-levels, and I suspect it is the site of Dr. Li's house.  Green Jade was probably somewhere on the coast near Castle Peak Road around Tuen Mun.

It's available for borrowing here.

HK Surgeon
HK Surgeon, by tkjho

Thank you, C, for your comments on my review. I have just discovered that there is a new edition of Lost in the Battle of Hong Kong by Bob Tatz here on Gwulo and wondered if you might know of any other titles in English or Chinese that cover the period of the Occupation? Any suggestions would be much appreciated.

Hi John,

Thank you for your comment.  I also look forward to reading Mr. Tatz's book.

You may already know about Gwulo's Hong Kong's wartime diaries -- daily e-mails with excerpts of multiple people's diary after you subscribe -- as well as two books about life in the Stanley Internment Camp:  the late Barbara Anslow's Tin Hats and Rice and the Charter family's The First Shall Be Last.

What types of books are you most interested in?  Do you prefer history or memoirs?  Are you interested in the battle or just life after the British surrender?  Also, there are several groups of people, namely the local people outside of camps, people in the civilian camp, prisoners of war and the Japanese (soldiers and civilians).  Which groups are you mostinterested in?

Thank you for this further information. I am interested in memoirs (in English or Chinese) of internees, Chinese people who stayed behind in Hong Kong and accounts of people with whom the Japanese were not at war, such as Irish, Portuguese and South American nationals.

I recommend  "Twilight in Hong Kong" by Ellen Field (1960) The Gwulo post on her by Brian Edgar is as follows:

After the fall of Hong Kong on December 25, 1941, Ellen Field, a British national, avoided internment by claiming to be Irish. Subsequently she worked with Medical Officer Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke and Japanese interpreter Kiyoshi Watanabe to provide humanitarian aid to the POWs in Shamshuipo Camp. She also co-operated with Chinese operatives to facilitate escapes from Hong Kong to Free China.

Harry Ching's War Diary published on Gwulo also gives vivid day to day accounts of the problems of surviving in town with his wife and four children - e.g. growing vegetables on the roof. His concise accounts are very well written, as one would expect from the editor of the SCMP.

Hi John,

Several books come to mind...


Jesuits under Fire in the Siege of Hong Kong 1941 (1944) by Father Thomas F. Ryan.

Footprints: The Memoirs of Sir Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke (1975).  He was the Medical Director of Hong Kong before the battle.

It Won't Be Long Now: The Diary of a Hong Kong Prisoner of War (2016) by Graham Heywood who worked at the Royal Observatory Hong Kong.


Prisoners of war:

Resist to the End: Hong Kong, 1941–1945 (2009) by Charles Barman, a Quartermaster Sergeant in the Royal Artillery.

Suggested reading list on the web site of the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association web site has multiple memoirs, mainly written by Canadian soldiers.


Chinese people (in Chinese):

LI Ngaw (李我), also known as LI Man-king, was a popular story-teller on the radio in the 1940s and 1950s. His 5-volume memoirs 李我講古 (Li Ngaw Telling Stories) (2003 to 2013) touched upon his experience during the occupation.

吞聲忍語——日治時期香港人的集體回憶 (2009) contains brief recollections of multiple people who were in Hong Kong during the occupation.

Japanese people:

和久田 幸助 (WAKUTA Kosuke) wrote a booklet titled 日本占領下香港で何をしたか (What you did in Hong Kong under Japanese occupation) (1991). He was fluent in Cantonese and was tasked with overseeing the film industry in occupied Hong Kong.

鮫島 盛隆 (SAMEJIMA Moritaka) wrote 香港回想記 : 占領下の教会に召されて (Hong Kong Reminiscence: Called to the Church under Occupation) (1970).  He was a priest and was sent to Hong Kong to act as the "supreme advisor" of the Protestant Church in Hong Kong (an organisation similar to the United Church of Christ in Japan).  A Chinese edition 香港回想記——日軍佔領下的香港教會 was published in 1971.


Could you tell me the titles of either books or memoirs covering those "aristocrats" who  remained in Hong Kong after the British fall.

Primarily, I would like to know what did the residents of the Peak, including residents on the mid-levels, do? Did some leave Hong Kong? Did some pay bribes to the Japanese? Did some have to walk away from their homes and possessions? What happened to their businesses? 

I'm sure not everyone lived in the camps. I think you get the drift. 

Thank you.



Here is one book you can look for -

“Escape through China”

survival after the fall of  Hong Kong

Its  authored by  David  Bosanquet   and describes   expat  pre-war life  and then  the authors escape from Japanese  detention 

First published in  1983