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IIs in the Hills
Although in recent years people have been leaving Hong Kong, there was a time they were desperate to get in. Here's how I once met illegal immigrants hiding in the hills
Growing up, we lived in Mount Butler - government-owned housing located up in the hills of Hong Kong Island. Consisting of six buildings of 21 floors each, with two flats on each floor, each home covered more than 2,200 square feet, which was considered large back then, and even more so now with the deluge of tiny apartments in the city.
Located at the end of Mount Butler Road (number 111 to be exact), the city spread out before us, while behind was a semi-wilderness of country park, and an old abandoned quarry where the police bomb disposal unit would regularly explode munitions. From here, a trail called Sir Cecil’s Ride (I picture a lord on horseback) led around towards Braemar Hill, where my primary school Quarry Bay was located - note, I caught the bus, not a 45 minute morning trudge across the hills! While I’d often be off exploring the jungle around home after school, we never ventured too far. On the weekends though, we’d often go hiking in the country park - connecting trails from here could bring you all the way to the seaside town of Shek O in the far southeast of the island.
One day, possibly a Sunday (as my dad had to work every other Saturday morning), I remember going on a walk with my father up into the hills. An impromptu stroll on a sunny but cool day, with just a small backpack filled with a few snacks and water. It was a walk we had done many times before, walking past the quarry and further up into the steep slopes of the mountain where alternate paths led you to the top, and spectacular views of the city. As we scrabbled up dirt slopes, on a bright, breezy day, we headed towards some of the old World War II bunkers that still dotted the hillside.
During the incredibly vicious Battle of Hong Kong, major fighting had taken place in the area (to learn more, seek out The Fall of Hong Kong by Tim Carew. Another one to read about the British prisoner of war (POW) experience is Banzai You Bastards! by Jack Edwards, who was captured in Singapore but later moved to Hong Kong where he was a noted campaigner for local WWII veterans and their partners to be given full UK citizenship - in 1996, thanks to his efforts, they were). Under heavy Japanese attack, Canadian commander John Lawson radioed that his headquarters at nearby Wong Nai Chung Gap were surrounded and that he was “going outside to shoot it out”, he and his entire command group were then hit by Japanese machine gun fire and killed.
It was a tragic past, but also incredibly exciting for a young boy who grew up reading British war comics like Commando, Victor, Battle and Warlord. For days on end, my friends and I would establish bases in the jungle, bush-bashing as we carved out trails, making bows and arrows out of bamboo and rubber bands, and - memorably - having sword fights with discarded scaffolding (which in Hong Kong, was mostly bamboo). It made for an exciting and happy childhood, filled with both imagination and adventure.
On this particular day though, it was more about getting out of the apartment for the afternoon, taking advantage of the balmy weather for a bit of exercise and fresh air. As we approached some of the tunnels carved into the mountain, I was looking forwards to exploring them - many ran from one side of the hill to the other, providing rapid exit points for soldiers during heavy fighting, and views both of the city below and the wild country park beyond. As we walked up though, something was not quite right. There were signs that people had been here, food wrappers strewn about, footprints in the earth, and disturbed vegetation. It was quite possibly just fellow hikers, who’d been careless with their waste. Nevertheless, we approached the tunnels cautiously.
Peering into one of the largest ones, we were startled to see a face staring back at us. A Chinese face, mainland to be exact. A family of illegal immigrants (known among the local English-speaking community as ‘IIs’), had somehow found their way up into the hills of Hong Kong Island, and were hiding out in these WWII-era tunnels. My dad and I were somewhat startled, and not knowing what to do offered them some of our snacks and water, my father speaking to them in basic Mandarin (he’d learn more later when the government made speaking it a requirement to keep his job). We didn't stay long, and soon headed back down the hill, somewhat shaken, and a little curious.
As far as I know, my dad never did report them to the police, even though they were taking shelter just up the road from a police unit, and many of our neighbors at Mount Butler were policemen. Perhaps they managed to venture into the city, find shelter and work, and become Hongkongers like the rest of us. At least, I’d like to think so.
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