Today, 1 July 2022, marks 25 years since Hong Kong was handed back to China after 156 years as a British colony.
The handover ceremony – attended by Prince Charles, the UK’s then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the Chinese President Jiang Zemin – began on 30 June 1997. At midnight Chris Patten as the 28th and last Governor of Hong Kong sent the telegram confirming, “I have relinquished the administration of this government.” He then joined Prince Charles on HMY Britannia to slip away out of Victoria Harbour and away from Hong Kong.
For many, 1 July is another anniversary, marking the day on which another ship sailed from Victoria Harbour, and away from Hong Kong.
Because, 57 years before that handover date in 1997 – 82 years ago today – on 1 July 1940 the Empress of Japan sailed with 1,500 British women and children on board, evacuated from the colony following threats of attack from Japan. That week beginning 1 July 1940 would see almost 3,500 women and children become evacuees.
Few in the colony believed the evacuation to be necessary, most that it would be short-lived. But after an initial stay in the Philippines, the evacuees were on their way again, bound for Australia, and the weeks of separation were about to stretch into months and years.
Among those on that first ship to leave Hong Kong on 1 July 1940 were Hilda, David (11) and Edward (9) – the wife and sons of naval dockyard electrical engineer, George Bearman.
In the months and years to follow, George’s letters capture what life was like for the husbands and fathers left in Hong Kong: abruptly returned to ‘bachelorhood’ and uniquely ‘keeping the home fires burning’; trying to keep up morale, while coping with the loneliness of separation and against the backdrop of the home country at war, and slide to war in the Far East; through the long dark years following the Japanese invasion, December 1941.
For many of the evacuees, 1 July 1940 came to be not only the day on which they boarded ship and sailed away from Hong Kong, but the last day on which they saw their husband and father.