Sai Wan War Cemetery

1When I heard that I had to go on business to Hong Kong I immediately thought about visiting Sai Wan War Cemetery. Unfortunately time was against me, but I was determined that if ever I went to Hong Kong again I would make the pilgrimage.

In 2010 I was once again in Hong Kong, and I set aside one day to make the trip to the cemetery. After a long MTR ride I finally arrived at the correct station and then followed my directions to the cemetery. It was a hot and sticky day, with not a lot of sunshine, but lots of humidity. It must have felt much worse to those soldiers who fought the invaders all those years ago. They were burdened with weapons, rations, ammunition and the thought that they were facing a very determined and unbeaten Japanese force.

There were two separate hills to climb, the first leading straight into the Cape Collison cemetery complex, and once that was reached a further (and steeper) hill to Sai Wan proper.

Cape Collison Cemetery

Cape Collison Cemetery

The entrance to Sai Wan

The entrance to Sai Wan

Most of those buried in this cemetery were killed at the time of the Japanese invasion of the Island, or died later as internees or prisoners of war during the Japanese occupation. The remains of those who died as prisoners in Formosa (now Taiwan) were brought to Hong Kong for burial at Sai Wan in 1946. There are now 1,505 Commonwealth casualties of the Second World War buried or commemorated at Sai Wan War Cemetery. 444 of the burials are unidentified. There are special memorials to 16 Second World War casualties buried in Kowloon (Ho Man Tin) No 3 Muslim Cemetery, whose graves were lost. There are also 77 war graves of other nationalities from this period, the majority of them Dutch and 7 non-world war graves that the Commission maintains on behalf of the MoD. The cemetery contains special memorials to 12 First World War casualties buried in Kowloon (Ta Sek Ku) Mohammedan Cemetery, whose graves have since been lost. At the entrance to the cemetery stands the SAI WAN MEMORIAL bearing the names of more than 2,000 Commonwealth servicemen who died in the Battle of Hong Kong or subsequently in captivity and who have no known grave. Additional panels to the memorial form the SAI WAN CREMATION MEMORIAL, bearing the names of 144 Second World War casualties whose remains were cremated in accordance with their faith, and the SAI WAN (CHINA) MEMORIAL, commemorating 72 casualties of both wars whose graves in mainland China could not be maintained. Both the cemetery and memorial were designed by Colin St Clair Oakes. (Text from Commonwealth War Graves Commission website).

The cemetery entrance is set atop a slope that originally had a spectacular view of the harbour, but which is now dominated by high rise apartment blocks. Its a very humbling place, row on row of white headstones, with the Cross of Sacrifice right at the bottom of the rows. I was overwhelmed because this was the first military cemetery that I had visited that contained so many casualties from a single campaign. These people died defending this place. Amongst the rows gardeners tended to the flowers and trimmed and watered the grass. I started to walk, randomly taking photographs, reading names and musterings. There were many naval casualties buried here, and there were all ranks and male and female from all nationalities. There are two South Africans that served with non South African units buried here, and I was fortunate to find the grave of one of them. I threaded my way down towards the Cross of Sacrifice, then turned to look upwards towards the Stone of Remembrance. Those rows of graves just did not seem to be real, I could not really get my mind around the sheer volume of graves. This cemetery was 10 times larger than the dedicated war cemetery I had photographed in Palmietkuil a few years previously.

I walked up to one of the gardeners and thanked him for what he was doing. he smiled and gave a half bow and then returned to his work. Our language barrier was too big for me to have a conversation with him, but he clearly understood my inadequate words of thanks. Once again I threaded my way up towards the entrance and sat on one of the benches and paged my way through the Roll of Honour that was kept in a niche. I drank some water from my bottle, full well knowing that I could get a replacement bottle at any shop or vending machine. The soldiers who died here would have only had as much water as they had in their water bottles. I also signed my name in the visitors book, glancing at the nationalities of those who had come here before me. They were from all around the world, and some just said “thank you for caring…”

Some last random images and I was about ready to go home. I paused at one of the many Merchant Navy graves. There was no name here, only a simple “A SAILOR OF THE 1939-1945 WAR” inscription. I rested my hand on the headstone, it was rough and warm from the diluted sunshine, and it was surrounded by others who rested at this place. It was a comforting place, and as I walked away I knew that this unknown seaman was not alone, his sacrifice had not been in vain, and this cemetery and his resting place would be like this long after I am gone. I bid Sai Wan a final farewell and feeling very humble walked down the hill back towards the bustling place that is Hong Kong. A bus passed me as I walked, but somehow taking the bus would have been cheating. I could freely walk away from here, those defenders that survived would surrender to their captors and have to undergo a brutal imprisonment until the end of the war. many would not survive, and some would find their rest in this place.

I went from Sai Wan to the Cape Collison complex, it was massive, and from it I could see the serried rows of graves of Sai Wan. That was hallowed ground, and the cemetery was one that I would always remember

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