It is one of the lesser-known Second World War stories here, the Battle of Hong Kong, which began Dec. 8, 1941. That has much to do with the fact that the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor took place mere hours before and grabbed most of the headlines.
Regardless, almost 2,000 Canadian soldiers were among the Allied contingent assigned to defend Hong Kong against Japanese troops. Almost 300 Canadian soldiers, including members of Quebec’s Royal Rifles, died during the battle and another 264 more died during internment in PoW camps in Hong Kong and Japan because of brutal treatment and starvation.
Those who managed to survive had to endure nearly four years in what is believed to be the longest incarceration period for Allied forces during the Second World War.
Montreal filmmaker Viveka Melki shines a light on this horrifying Canadian war experience in her stirring, most compelling documentary The Fence, airing Tuesday — the 79th anniversary of the start of the battle — on CBC’s Documentary channel.
Melki speaks to a couple of the last Canadian survivors of this internment, who still have difficulty talking about the horrors they underwent. She also interviews a woman — 10 at the time of the battle and living in Hong Kong with her family — who walked a fine and dangerous fence line separating her from the Sham Shui Po prison to catch a glimpse of her imprisoned father. Hence, the documentary’s title, The Fence.
It was based on drawings of the camp that the woman’s father had secretly sketched, which enabled Melki to recreate parts of Sham Shui Po for the documentary.
One of the survivors, 99 — still so very much traumatized by his ordeal that he couldn’t even tell his daughter what he had been through — asks in the doc: “Forgive and forget?” Then he quickly adds: “No way! Tell that to the people whose families were lost.”
Clearly, the pain is palpable nearly 80 years later. Tough enough to deal with acts of unspeakable cruelty, but prisoners also had to contend with the most meagre of rations, living on half a cup of rice a day and, yes, grass cooked in soy sauce.
“Conditions were so horrendous even by PoW standards, yet back in Canada, no one talked about it and so few knew about the hell these soldiers had undergone,” Melki says in a FaceTime interview. “It was just so shocking to hear of acts of such frightening atrocities, including even incidences of cannibalism.”
What’s also fascinating is how Melki came upon this project. Of Brazilian and Lebanese roots, Melki was born in Senegal and was raised in The Gambia, then later uprooted to the United Kingdom before immigrating to Vancouver.
In a previous artistic life, she was part of the salsa dance troupe touring with Michael Bublé’s concert show.
Based in Quebec since 2004, Melki had spent almost a decade researching, shooting in Hong Kong, Japan and Cuba, and assembling The Fence.
“I’m a huge history buff and had been doing war films for a number of years,” says Melki, who can converse in five languages. “My goal with the documentary was to make younger Canadian audiences aware of what some of their elders had lived through.
“But it was while visiting a graveyard in the Gaspé town of New Richmond that I started seeing this ‘HK’ logo on top of headstones of war veterans that caught my curiosity. There were so many of these headstones that it gave me shivers.”
Melki soon learned that the HK stood for the Battle of Hong Kong and that many of those who had perished were from the Gaspé. She would later come upon and archive 300 letters of one such vet, Jack Price, a colonel with Quebec’s Royal Rifles in Hong Kong.
“That’s when I started to understand a little bit more about this story with all these letters that had actually never been received, in defiance of the rules of the Geneva Convention,” she says. “It began nine years of research and rebuilding for this project.”
Melki was also the creator/curator of the touring art exhibition WAR Flowers, in which 100-year-old flowers, among other artifacts, were employed to convey the human war experience. The show visited seven cities, including Vimy in France as well as a stop at Montreal’s Château Ramezay Museum.
“What I’ve learned through my work is that the context of history changes all the time,” Melki says. “Because, as we know, history is politics.”
The Fence airs Tuesday at 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. on CBC’s Documentary channel. It also plays Dec. 13 at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.
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