By Nicholas Chan
Every family has a story about its brush with history. This is mine.
It was 8 hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor and Japan had turned its attention to conquering Hong Kong.
The Japanese particularly wanted Soong Ching Ling dead. She was the widow of Sun Yat Sen, the man who had toppled the Qing Dynasty to establish the Republic of China twenty-nine years before.
A Japanese spy discovered where Soong lived. The spy placed two red balloons in her backyard, signaling Japanese bombers to destroy her house.
Bombs tumbled from the bombers’ bellies, whistling through the air. The earth trembled. Buildings were shattered. Billows of smoke tainted the sky.
My grandfather heard a hurried knock on his door. It was his neighbor: Soong Ching Ling.
“The bombers had missed Soong’s house,” my grandfather would recall, “it was so close that pieces of shrapnel flew into my backyard. Soong had long feared for her life. She carried a pistol in her purse. She fled to our house. We hid her in our basement.”
It was only a matter of time before the Japanese would find Soong. The noose was closing. Soong had nowhere to go. She already had fled from Shanghai to Hong Kong when Japan invaded that city in 1937. Since then, the British crown colony – tucked away in the Southern province of Guangdong, protected by a tenuous peace between Japan and the British Empire – had remained unscathed.
Now, as Japanese forces had attacked American and British soils, that safety was at an end. The Japanese Army had been pushing south across the Middle Kingdom of China, invading the southern province of Guangdong. Japan had cornered Hong Kong.
On December 8th, 1941, Japan attacked Hong Kong. Japanese bombers destroyed the entire British air force within 5 minutes. Thirty-eight thousand Japanese troops poured over the border of Hong Kong, punching through the main line of British fortifications – the so-called ‘Gin Drinker’s Line.’
As Japanese troops inched towards the Kowloon Peninsula, Soong received a call. It was from General Chiang Kai Shek, head of the Nationalist Party and leader of the Republic of China.
He informed Soong that he was sending a private plane to rescue and transport her to the wartime capital of China, Chongqing.
It was an unexpected, but not unlikely, call. The Japanese invasion of China had united former arch enemies. Soong supported the Communists under Mao Zedong. She believed that the Nationalist Party, the party her husband founded, had become corrupt. That it no longer represented Sun’s vision of nationalism, democracy and freedom. However, General Chiang, the successor of Sun Yat Sen after Sun’s death in 1925, believed communism would never work in China.
In 1927, General Chiang had purged the Communists from the Nationalist Party, triggering the Chinese Civil War. Soong fled to the Soviet Union, not returning to China until 1931. When the Japanese launched a full-scale invasion of China in 1937 (they had first attacked Manchuria in 1931), the Nationalist and Communist Parties formed a united front to fight the Japanese, halting the Chinese Civil war.
Soong was astonished that General Chiang, who ousted her from the Nationalist Party 14 years before, would now offer to save her. Remarkably, after agreeing to General Chiang’s offer, Soong’s first thought was to save her neighbor.
At 4 a.m., under the cover of darkness, a car arrived at my grandfather’s house. Standing on the front steps was Soong Ching Ling. She asked my great-grandfather whether she could take my grandfather with her. He was 10 years old, the youngest in the family. Soong didn’t want his youthful innocence to be tainted amidst the savagery of war. He had a full life ahead of him, Soong thought.
My great-grandfather understood that his son might be the only member of the family to survive.
The Japanese, after all, were notorious for their atrocities. They had already executed tens of thousands of Chinese civilians – including babies – and soldiers, raping 20,000 women in Nanking alone. They used prisoners for mass beheadings or bayonet practice. No one in Hong Kong had illusions of the impending horrors that the Japanese would inflict upon them – and the prospect of living years under the cruelest tyranny.
“If you didn’t bow to the Japanese soldiers,” my grandfather would tell me, “they would slap you. They would force you to kneel on the ground for an hour. The Japanese shackled the hands and legs of the British prisoners of war, force-marching them like a herd of cows.”
Yet, in the end, my great grandfather turned down Soong’s offer. The family had to stay together.
Soong understood. But she had one more request, an especially dangerous one. She asked if my great-grandfather would hold Sun Yat Sen’s personal belongings for safekeeping. They both knew that the discovery of these items would be a death sentence. “If the Japanese found Sun’s memorabilia, we would be beheaded.”
But my great-grandfather agreed. He placed Sun’s memorabilia in the family’s ancestral hall, the devotional space where his family paid respect to the Buddha and their ancestors.
My great grandfather’s wit saved his family.
Soon after, Japanese soldiers took over my grandfather’s house, making it the living quarters for Japanese officers. And because Sun’s memorabilia were in a sacred setting, the Japanese never found Soong’s treasure.
During the war and after, Soong continued to support the Communist Party. She spent the years raising funds for children’s welfare and health in Communists controlled areas.
After the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the Communists and Nationalist Parties descended back into Civil War. When the Communists defeated the Nationalists, Mao appointed Soong as one of the vice chairs of the newly established People’s Republic of China.
Just as her husband, Sun Yat Sen, was widely regarded as “the Father of Modern China,” Soong became to be known as the “the Mother of Modern China,” the figure who embodied the conscience of the Chinese people. She was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1951. And she became one of the two deputy chairmen of the Chinese Communist Party in 1959.
Soong never forgot the day my grandfather’s family sheltered her that day in 1941. Before her death in 1981, Soong Ching Ling invited my grandfather and his brother to Beijing to thank them for protecting her – and even more, for risking all to save a vital piece of Chinese history.