“Reduced to a Symbolical Scale: The Evacuation of British Women and Children from Hong Kong to Australia in 1940” by Tony Banham


Tony Banham has produced a very clear and detailed account of the civilian evacuations from Hong Kong in July of 1940. His extensive detail makes it clear that the evacuation’s potentially complicated logistics in fact went off much more smoothly than might have been expected. Less than half of Hong Kong’s British population was evacuated, and the officials and the general public in Manila and Australia were extremely welcoming, resettling the refugees quickly. Nevertheless, the entire operation generated persistent complaints right up to the eventual Japanese invasion.

On the one hand, the complaints came from those resettled. With hindsight the evacuation was mounted at least a year too early. During the 18 months before the invasion actually came, the wives and their children had to adapt, apparently unnecessarily, to a standard of living far below what they had become accustomed to in Hong Kong. They further resented the fact that after evacuations were halted in November of 1940, newly-arrived women and children were allowed to stay, but they themselves were not allowed to return. Hong Kong’s government, having once paid for their evacuation, was understandably unwilling to pay for their return only in all likelihood to have to send them away again.

Far more compelling were the complaints of the women and children left behind. Australia apparently was the only destination seriously considered. That was convenient, because Australia’s strict white Australia policy meant that only whites “of pure European descent” could be eligible for evacuation. Even many who found racial discrimination entirely appropriate down at the club agreed that applying it in what was ostensibly a life-or-death situation was carrying racism a bit too far. As one legislative councillor put it,


…the taxpayers… are being made to pay for the evacuation of a very small and selected section of the community… leaving 99.9% of the population uncared for and unprotected.


The result was continuous dissent during the 18 months between the evacuations and the eventual invasion. The deplorable consequence was that when evacuation became imperative in late 1941, the government was so fed up with the disputes that it was unwilling to act. As a result, Banham estimates that the proportion of civilians murdered after capture in Hong Kong was greater than in any other British battle of the war.


Reduced to a Symbolical Scale: The Evacuation of British Women and Children from Hong Kong to Australia in 1940, Tony Banham (Hong Kong University Press, August 2017)
Reduced to a Symbolical Scale: The Evacuation of British Women and Children from Hong Kong to Australia in 1940, Tony Banham (Hong Kong University Press, August 2017)

A tale of political wrangling may not sound like appealing bedtime reading, but that description fails to do the book justice. Much of Banham’s research involved contacting elderly survivors who were evacuated as children. Some kept the letters and diaries their parents wrote during the separation, and Banham quotes those extensively, not to say injudiciously. There’s rather a lot of “Give my love to little Nigel” quoted unproductively and of the 25 photographs displayed, most are just family photos. Only about 5 are of any general interest. But the letters and diaries do convey the flavor of the times better than any third-person history.

Banham follows the evacuees and those left behind throughout the war and after.  Many of the families were destroyed forever, either because the husband didn’t survive, or because the partners grew apart through the five years of separation. About half of the evacuees and their children remained in Australia after the war or returned there after sampling the post-war hardship in Britain or Hong Kong. Banham provides copious statistics.

It’s perhaps appropriate to say a few words about “symbolical”.  Don’t let it put you off. Banham’s prose is clear and entirely idiomatic throughout. His excuse for the unidiomatic title would presumably be that it’s a direct quote from Winston Churchill, a writer of some repute. Though that excuse is weakened a bit by the fact that Churchill was referring to reducing the strength of Hong Kong’s garrison, not its civilian population.

After quoting a few dozen maudlin letters and reporting rather more statistics than most readers will care to absorb, Banham summarizes the entire affair.


The strength and weakness of Hong Kong’s evacuation plan was that it was specifically and solely an evacuation plan… In covering only the exit from Hong Kong it can be seen as simply the first chapter of what should have been a far more sophisticated and long-lived plan… [It amounted to] doing generally the right thing, incompletely, in an imperfect way, for the wrong reasons and at the wrong time.


Anyone interested in Hong Kong history will find this a definitive account of an important episode and its aftermath.

Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People’s Republic.