Lessons from our darkest era

Lessons from our darkest era

An archive project on war crime trials held in Hong Kong can help us understand the present

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Suzannah Linton (Right) and Ernest Ng Chung-yan.
Suzannah Linton (Right) and Ernest Ng Chung-yan.
Photo: Dale de la Rey
The three years and eight months of Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during the second world war is one of the darkest eras in local history. Although the bad days are long gone, history can never be forgotten or hidden away.

Suzannah Linton, an associate law professor at the University of Hong Kong, is determined to let Hong Kong people learn about their wartime history by compiling an online archive of documents from 45 war crime trials held in Hong Kong between 1945 and 1948 involving 123 Japanese war criminals.

"These documents were the part that nobody was interested in," Linton said. "Historians have looked at them but the public does not know about them. I think they will be of interest to people from different walks of life and professions including lawyers, social scientists, historians, and of course family members of those who were involved in the cases. I hope it can help Hong Kong people understand their past."

The trial documents that Linton referenced in the archive remained secret in the National Archive in Kew in London until 1977. The archive also includes Linton's own notes on the cases and scans of the original papers. Users will also be able to search for names and places.

Linton says the purpose of the archive is to allow people to learn from history. "The things the Japanese did were horrible, but they are not the only ones who have done them," Linton says. "Such terrible things are still happening in the world. I hope people can become more sensitive about the suffering of others, of the cruelty humans inflict on other humans, and about the abuse of power."

Research assistant Ernest Ng Chung-yan says he was deeply touched by the project. "When I read about the trials I felt I became part of the history," Ng says. "I'm familiar with the places, even the names of the streets that are mentioned in the trials, and I had a feeling that I had become part of it. I used to read about the war from textbooks but this project has brought history to life for me."

Among the accounts of cruelty and torture are stories of great bravery and people saving lives. Once such case was Li Kam-moon, a young man who refused to betray a friend and was tortured to death by the Japanese. "I'm sure there are family members of Li still alive and I hope they can come forward to provide me with more information," Linton says. "Since news spread that I was setting up the archive, I have received calls and e-mails from people in Hong Kong and overseas wanting to share their experiences. This part of history has touched Chinese in Hong Kong and around the world."

For more information, contact suzannah.linton@hku.hk

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