By Sam Chiu
At 8 a.m. on Dec. 8, 1941, Japanese forces started the Invasion of Hong Kong with their air force bombing warships in Victoria Harbour, the planes at Kai Tak Airport and selected military installations all over the colony.
This was only hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
For many years now, I have studied and collected this topic and have put together an exhibit titled, “Detained in Hong Kong and the Ones that got away.” It primarily shows that even though the invasion started on Dec. 8, the handling of mail was blocked or delayed for up to 10 days before the invasion. It also shows what happened to some of the mail during the invasion period.
This single-frame exhibit won, on its first showing, the APS Research Award at Orapex 1999. I did not show it again for many years but re-entered it again in 2017, when it won the best single-frame honours at both the Edmonton Spring National Show and the Royal Convention in Boucherville, Que. It then qualified to be entered at the Champion-of-Champions Competition at Ameristamp Expo 2018 in Birmingham.
Already stated in the title of the exhibit, “detained covers” are the focus of the exhibit.
After the war, seven bags of mail were found, and the Hong Kong Post Office (HKPO) decided to create and to apply a boxed marking with words, “Detained in Hong Kong / By Japanese / From December 1941 to September 1945,” in three lines on all items found in these bags and were forwarded to their destination. These were the “detained covers.”
Another category of mail was where I coined the term “the U-turn covers,” about which I wrote an article published in the China Clipper in 1998. I discovered and reported there were covers that first originated from China and reached Hong Kong just before the Japanese invasion and were trapped there. After the invasion in February 1942, these covers were then sent back to Canton, China, and were not “detained.” The reason for this was Japan was selling the concept to those Asia countries they were conquering or were occupying the idea of the “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere,” that these Asian countries were not enemies, but friends or partners in this sphere. As such, mail franked with stamps of these countries were treated as “friendly” and were released for delivery, while mail with stamps of Hong Kong and other British colonies were treated as mail from the “enemy” and these were “Detained” in Hong Kong for the rest of the war. It was said that in reality, China, in Japan’s eyes then, was regarded as “too weak” to be a full partner in this sphere.
In my exhibit, I have shown four U-turn covers, of which three were addressed to the United States. When a friend asked me to help him write-up a cover he was going to send to auction, I asked him to do me a favour and to sell it to me as I then offered him a large sum for this cover. He agreed to sell it to me. I made the offer as I do not have a U-turn cover which was addressed to Canada.
The hallmark of a U-turn cover was the return date to Canton after the cover had reached Hong Kong. The Canton receiver of Feb. 14, 1942, was very clear and on the front of the cover. Even though the cover did not have a Hong Kong receiving circular date stamp, it had three Hong Kong markings. The boxed “Not Opened by Censor”, the boxed “No service” and the boxed “Retour” markings were all applied in Hong Kong.
Only after I received the cover and examined under magnification the date of the CDS tying the stamps did it dawn on me the significance of the date: Dec. 8, 1941, was the day of the Japanese Invasion of Hong Kong. The time slot was clear; it was a “10” in Chinese, but the second word was missing, so it can also be “11” or “12” in the morning. A secondary Chungking marking use the old Chinese hours, “zud”, which was the two hours from 9 to 11 a.m. So both markings are consistent that the cover was received, and cancelled, at 11 a.m.
From what literature and references that I have found, no flight had been recorded carrying mail in and out of Hong Kong after the start of invasion that morning on Dec. 8. I asked for help from the past chairman of the Hong Kong Study Circle and Hong Kong philatelic researcher and writer, Richard Whittington, and as I expected, he solved the mystery.
Richard came to the conclusion the regular scheduled Rangoon to Chungking and then to Hong Kong China National Aviation Company’s flight was scheduled to have arrived in HK on Dec. 8 in the evening. In fact, it arrived at Kai Tak just after midnight and would have been the only flight that could have possibly carried mail on that day. Up to now, no other cover from that flight has surfaced.
So in summary, it was Dec 8, 1941, China to Canada cover, after 78 years that brought this fact to light. Even the fact the cover took another 13 more months, after it was returned to Canton, to reach its destination in March 1943 in B.C., sounded trivial.
In closing, I just like to bring out the point that in philately it is always about the people, the friendship and the comradery. It was a friend who sold me the cover and it was a friend who helped me solve the mystery. Friendship in philately at its finest.