This article thinks with and against photographs taken by British military photographers in Hong Kong at the end of World War II, during the transition from Japanese back to British colonial rule. Building on Lisa Yoneyama's account of the “postwar settlements” through which “the war's meaning” was defined and contained, I situate the photographs as part of a broader British effort to reassert the legitimacy of colonial rule at a crisis point for empire by refiguring Asian liberation as an affordance, or synonym, of British (re)occupation. At the same time, I read the photographs for what they can tell us about the liberatory knowledges that Asian colonial subjects had cultivated, or might have, throughout years of war and occupation. In this way, the article meditates on the predicaments of liberation in an Asian place where the horizon of decolonization continues to be difficult to discern, focusing on the care work necessary for survival as a crucial site and practice of liberatory political imagining.
When Queen Elizabeth II passed away in September 2022, long queues of mourners left flowers and other tokens at the British Consulate in Hong Kong. Just as the Union Jack became a symbol of defiance during the anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill protests in 2019, so too, as Hong Kong diasporic writer and activist Promise Li suggests, did some mourners see the Queen's death as an opportunity to repudiate the regime that had taken her place, promising decolonization (去殖民化) while delivering (increasingly) authoritarian rule. Such gestures are counterproductive, Li insists, to the extent that they obscure how “Beijing's violations of Hongkongers' civil liberties merely build upon the city's institutional legacies inherited from its colonial past.”1 Still, their recurrence underscores the challenges of political thought and action in Hong Kong, where imaginative and affective repertoires laid down over a century and a half of British colonial rule continue to hold power, twenty-five years post-handover.
In this article, I stay with the trouble of Hong Kong's difficult postcoloniality, working with an archive of photographs produced by the British military and housed at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London that document a different, older moment of transition: the return of British troops to Hong Kong at the end of World War II, following forty-four months of Japanese occupation. If, as the articles in this special issue demonstrate, photography has long been a potent instrument of war, it is not least as a means of demarcating the end(s) of war. Among the most recognizable photographs of the Second World War are scenes of liberation, victory, and surrender: the retaking of Paris; the arrival of Allied troops at Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen; the flag raising at Iwo Jima; the German surrender on Lüneberg Heath. Although heterogeneous in tone, composition, and production and circulation history, all reflect struggles to preemptively “define the war's meaning” for what Lisa Yoneyama calls “the post-belligerence world” by offering “answers to questions about the war's origin; how it was fought; by, with, and against whom; according to what periodization; for what purposes; and ultimately for whose and what justice.”2
As I show in the first half of the article, the images taken by official Army and Navy photographers as British forces reclaimed the Asian territories lost to Japan in 1941 and 1942 are no exception. Framing Asian liberation as an affordance of, or synonymous with, British (re)occupation, they register British efforts to contain the explosive potential of this transitional moment in the face of Asian anticolonial, nationalist, and leftist insurgencies bolstered by their struggles against the occupying Japanese.3 Indeed, in the captions that have been affixed to them, the terms “liberation” and “reoccupation” are used interchangeably.4 Like mourning Queen Elizabeth, revisiting this archive could seem to express nostalgic desire for the comforts of British imperial liberation, as against the authoritarianisms of Japanese imperial rule and Chinese state decolonization alike. It is no coincidence that many of the photographs I discuss in what follows were taken at the naval dockyards in the part of Hong Kong now known as Admiralty, where the British Consulate is also located.
However, it was not longing for the old imperial hegemony that drew me to the IWM's collections but a critical practice of looking—or listening, as Tina Campt might say—attuned to the stories and social worlds of the colonized Asian (and other) subjects such materials were intended to capture.5 As scholars like Thy Phu have shown, the voluminous military archives generated by and for twentieth-century Euro-American imperial war-making projects in Asia are rich, if complicated, sites for thinking not just about the violence that was visited upon them but about their experiences and aspirations in the midst of catastrophe.5 In the second half of the article, I therefore reread the photographs for what they can tell us about the liberatory knowledges that Asian colonial subjects cultivated (or might have) throughout years of war and occupation, thinking with the contingencies of the photographic encounters archived in the IWM—who is in these photographs, and how did they come to be there?—to bring other political projects into view. Rather than the Asian leftist guerrillas whose anticolonial resistance efforts are often invoked as alternatives to the hollow scripts of imperial liberation, the photographs I discuss here make visible Asian women's everyday labor for survival, which I read as a crucial site and practice of liberatory struggle. It is this labor that makes the photographs vibrate with possible futures than either renewed British colonial rule or Chinese state decolonization, inviting us to ask what true liberation might look and feel like in the aftermath of occupation.6
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On December 25, 1941, British governor Mark Young surrendered Hong Kong to Japan, just one of many blows to British imperial interests in the early months of the Pacific War. In Hong Kong, the Japanese regime framed its victory as “freedom” from the “yoke of British imperialism,” promising an end to exploitation by white outsiders and prosperity for all Asians.7 Over the following three years and eight months, however, Hong Kong residents, like other colonial subjects of Japan, endured conditions of political terror, bodily (including sexual) threat, and extreme material insecurity that severely tested their capacity to care for themselves and others. While Allied POWs and civilian internees moldered in five camps across the territory, unknown numbers starved to death in the city or in the surrounding countryside to which they were, in the words of the regime, repatriated. For them, the Japanese surrender, announced over the radio on August 15, 1945, came too late.
Rumors of Emperor Hirohito's radio announcement began circulating in Hong Kong almost immediately. However, it took two weeks for British troops to arrive back in Hong Kong, under the command of Rear Admiral Cecil Harcourt. The ships that steamed into Victoria Harbor on August 30, 1945, carried official Army and Navy photographers, testifying to the importance British military leaders accorded photography in the conduct and documentation of the war. Although slower to mobilize the possibilities of “film as weapon” than their American or German counterparts, by 1941, all three British military branches had begun to develop in-house media training and production apparatuses to facilitate reconnaissance in the field as well as propaganda and documentation for posterity.8 Some of the IWM's images of post-occupation Hong Kong were taken by service photographers with the No. 9 Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU), which followed British troop movements across Southeast Asia throughout 1944 and 1945, while others were likely taken by Navy photographers assigned to Harcourt's fleet. It is no accident that the thousands of wartime photographs commissioned, like these, by one or another branch of the government ended up in the IWM, which was in fact instrumental in their making: in the fall of 1939, the museum was already urging the Ministry of Information to fund a photographic “‘record’ of the imminent conflict,” noting that “we have been now authorized by the Treasury to acquire records of the present war for ultimate addition to the Museum's collection.”9 As this suggests, the museum understood the production and collection of wartime photographs to form part of the work of government record keeping. However, as Gaynor Kavanagh observes in an essay about the founding of the Imperial War Museum in 1917, the imperative to document wartime operations was itself driven (at least in part) by the need to boost public morale under wartime conditions and sustain a moral consensus about the meanings of war during peacetime.10
In this article, I am less interested in how photographs of post-occupation Hong Kong were taken up at the time than I am in the encounters that, as Ariella Azoulay reminds us, go into the making of a photograph (even if they are not always or fully visible in it).12 Nevertheless, such an approach requires understanding the imperatives to which military photographers were subject in their work, which informed what they photographed and how, even perhaps what they saw. Although only a few of the thousands of images produced by military photographers during World War II were ever published,13 the possibility of publication shaped the training that photographers received as well as the ways in which they distributed their attention in the field in pursuit of images that could be curated and editorialized in support of government ends as propaganda. During the early years of the war, British official and press photography focused on the home front.14 Attention began to shift back to troop action in early 1942, when the first AFPU recruits arrived in Cairo to capture intensifying hostilities in North Africa. Allied photographers, both official and unofficial, were therefore also on location to document the scenes of Allied victory, Axis surrender, and release from occupation and incarceration that became increasingly common as the war continued. As Thy Phu notes, “war photography” is often associated with “battlefield spectacles.”15 At the same time, photographs taken during and after the struggle to free Paris from German occupation, as well as during the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, and Dachau, are among the most enduring of the war in Europe. As records of atrocity, the latter comprise a very different genre of photography than the former, keyed to horror and the imperatives of witness rather than celebration and restitution. As Barbie Zelizer has argued, however, the harrowing photographs of camp structures and prisoners released in a “seemingly endless display” throughout 1945 were no less useful “propaganda tools” than other genres of wartime photography.16
In Cold War Ruins, Lisa Yoneyama traces the “postwar settlements” through which combatants sought to decide the meanings of the conflicts that roiled Asia for much of the twentieth century.17 Already, however, the groundwork was being laid for such containment projects through how the ends of wars were staged, narrated, and represented. The Japanese advance across east and southeast Asia sparked a set of interlocking crises for Britain as an imperial power, eviscerating the presumed superiority, military and racial, on which British global supremacy was felt to depend. Chinese achievements in the war with Japan bolstered calls to end the unequal treaties that had given Britain control of Hong Kong. As the war unfolded, British observers also grew concerned about the role of leftist anticolonial guerrillas in spearheading resistance to occupying Japanese forces across east and southeast Asia, which they worried might persist following the Japanese defeat. The Japanese surrender was therefore an opportunity for Britain to burnish the legitimacy of the imperial project and reconstitute itself as an imperial power in Asia. The images that military photographers produced in post-surrender Hong Kong contributed to this process by refiguring reoccupation as liberation, if in an imperial or salvific mode.
Since the Japanese had already surrendered by the time British troops arrived back in Hong Kong, combat does not feature in the visual record of their return. Rather, photographers followed military leaders and ordinary troops as they reestablished British sovereignty over the territory, a process that entailed docking and unloading the fleet with the assistance of subjugated Japanese and Chinese labor; hoisting the Union Jack; signing the surrender agreement (fig. 1); releasing Allied prisoners and taking charge of Japanese ones; reconnecting with locals and supervising their return to work; and parading through the streets in a forceful show of presence. Several photographs are devoted to interactions between white British people, newly returned to the public spaces of Hong Kong, and the Asian people, many of them women workers and street vendors, they encountered there (fig. 2). Numerous others feature white British soldiers engaging with curious or grateful Asian children on streets and in orphanages (figs. 3 and 4). This is a recurrent motif in liberation photography across different imperial conjunctures: on December 29, 1941, for example, the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun published a very similar photograph of “detained British and American children with smiles for Japanese victory in Hong Kong”; on September 24, 1945, a photograph of Japanese children waving American flags at an oncoming truck accompanied a Times magazine article about the American occupation of Japan.18
The generic character of the photographs taken in post-surrender Hong Kong and the extent to which they evoke other visual archives of liberation suggest their makers' familiarity with the lexicon through which imperial liberation ventures have often worked to legitimate themselves, as essentially humanitarian and necessary for the making of orderly societies (from the first a crucial component, as Christopher Munn argues, of the British colonial project in Hong Kong).19 In addition, however, it hints at the staged nature of liberation itself as a set of maneuvers intended, even designed, to be seen, including by photographers. Here, I am drawing on arguments made by Cécile Bishop and others, who have shown how participants in the struggle for Paris, from local resistance fighters to Allied leaders, actively worked to visually manifest “France's restored freedom and national unity.” Thus, for example, Bishop shows how the Allies' insistence that “those who marched into Paris should be white” (or at least not Black) informed the decision to deploy the Second Armored Division of the Free French Army, shaping the photographic record of French liberation as an imperial genre from which Black people, French or otherwise, are almost entirely absent(ed).20
Just as Parisians mobilized barricades to stage the retaking of Paris “as a self-conscious performance of revolution,” both for each other and for the camera, so too the British sought out opportunities to script the reoccupation of Hong Kong.21 Thus, for example, British troops repeatedly visited the orphanage at Tai Po, as if to emphasize the humanitarian—that is, paternalist—dimensions of their mission.22 Like the triumphal entry of the Free French Army into Paris, however, the arrival of Rear Admiral Harcourt and his fleet had to be carefully planned to ensure that the transition back to British rule took place at all. Although, in 1943, British leaders agreed to Chinese demands to dismantle the infrastructures of privilege that had sustained British interests in China since the 1840s, they refused Guomindang leader Chiang Kai-shek's insistence that Britain also cede Hong Kong. With key American officials supporting Chiang in his claims, the postwar status of Hong Kong remained a live issue throughout the war. Complicating matters was the presence of Chinese Communist-aligned guerrilla forces in Hong Kong and the surrounding countryside, where they played a vital role in resistance and humanitarian efforts during the war.23 As a result, British leaders strategized against the possibility of Chinese Nationalist, Chinese Communist, or American forces overtaking British troops to receive the Japanese surrender in Hong Kong, an eventuality they felt would make it very difficult to reassert British sovereignty over the territory. Following President Roosevelt's death in April 1945, the Americans softened their stance, and Chiang backed down. Even so, the logistics of getting a reoccupation force to Hong Kong in time proved challenging, and there was a significant delay before the relief fleet left Subic Bay for Hong Kong, on August 27. During a similar period of interregnum in the Malayan colonies, members of the predominantly Chinese and Communist-aligned Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army took over many villages and towns, with profound consequences for postwar and postcolonial developments across the archipelago, including the “emergency” whose legacies artist Sim Chi Yin takes up in this issue.24 In Hong Kong, no such takeover took place. Nonetheless, the uncertainty of the situation prompted British leaders to transmit orders via local intelligence agents for interned colony leaders like former colonial secretary Franklin Gimson to take charge.
In the end, the shifting priorities of its American and Chinese allies allowed Britain to get its representatives in place to receive the surrender, guaranteeing that Hong Kong would go from occupation by one imperial power to (re)occupation by another. World War II has long been recognized, to quote Felicia Yap, as “a critical turning point in the gradual historical process of British decolonization.”25 The end of extraterritoriality was one effect of the imperial shock that Britain suffered in 1941 and 1942; the belated time-tabling of Indian independence another. Among the interned colonial administrators caught in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong, the future of British rule in Hong Kong was a topic of debate, as they discussed ways to better integrate locals into the institutions responsible for governance, including the civil service and police, or what the Colonial Office called “a new angle of vision.”26 After the war, Hong Kong governors drew on these conversations to reform how the colony was administered, reshaping the landscape of Hong Kong colonial governance, welfare, employment, and race relations. On the whole, however, the end of Japanese imperial rule in Hong Kong was not accompanied by substantive movement toward the end of imperial rule more generally; instead, as Kent Fedorowich puts it, decolonization was deferred.27
Thus far, my account of the interregnum, that period of suspension between August 16 and August 30, has followed others in foregrounding high-level Japanese, British, American, Guomindang, and Communist negotiations to decide who should have sovereignty over Hong Kong.28 We cannot know how Hong Kong's history—or China's—might have unfolded had Chiang's Nationalist forces or Communist guerrillas mounted a stronger claim to Hong Kong in August 1945. However, twenty-five years into PRC rule, it feels more urgent than ever to imagine a future for Hong Kong beyond the vision of decolonization implemented by Beijing, which, as the editors of a recent collection of essays on post-handover Hong Kong note, has turned out to be “a symbolic cultural nationalist program premised on retaining the city's colonial capitalist infrastructure and safeguarding it with repressive colonial apparatuses such as the police force and security ordinances.” We need “new ways of theorizing Hong Kong people's struggles,” they write, in solidarity with transnational movements “that are attempting to chart alternative futures beyond the dictates of colonialism, the bounds of nation-state sovereignty, and the logics of neoliberalism and capitalism.”29 It is in response to such exigencies that the photographic archive of reoccupation, revisited with an eye for the practices and projects of the people in the photographs and not just their makers, still holds possibilities. How else might liberation have felt or meant in this moment between war and peace, between one set of sovereigns and the next?
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At the IWM two photographs, companion images likely taken by the same unnamed Navy photographer, catch my eye. In the first (fig. 5), captioned “Drinks in Hong Kong dockyard,” Royal Navy officer Patrick Vincent “hand[s] out lemonade to thirty [civilian] internees while they wait for transport to take them to a rest camp after the British reoccupation of Hong Kong.” The second (fig. 6) features “a lorry load of internees smiling happily as they are transported by the Royal Navy to a rest camp after the reoccupation of Hong Kong.”
As British troops moved across east and southeast Asia, military and press photographers documented the release and care of POWs and civilian internees from Japanese camps. Confronted with the physical signs of “the forced labor, mistreatment, starvation, and denial of access to medical care” that characterized the experiences of Allied prisoners, many produced atrocity photographs that, as Christina Twomey argues, contributed to “a lasting public discourse . . . of the Japanese as particularly ‘brutal’ captors and of the survivors as inevitably traumatized by that experience.”30 By contrast, the September 1945 photographs of Hong Kong camp survivors (mostly from the civilian internment facility at Stanley, on the south side of Hong Kong Island) do not foreground their debilitated physical condition. Rather, AFPU and Navy photographers seem to have pursued a reparative approach to representing Stanley survivors, showcasing their self-respect, resourcefulness, and even, as in figures 5 and 6, pleasure.
What is striking about figures 5 and 6, however, is less the smiling faces of the people they depict—joy is a constant in many photographs of camp survivors, even those in evident physical distress—than the fact that they feature survivors of Asian descent. People of Chinese descent comprised around 15 percent of the British internee population at Stanley, mainly lower middle- and working-class Asian women from Hong Kong and their children. Indeed, as Felicia Yap argues, white British internees experienced the camps as sites of class shock and racial trauma, as they were forced into closer daily proximity, on purportedly equal terms, with class and racial others than ever before.31 And yet, the perspectives of white British and settler survivors have dominated public memory and scholarly accounts of Stanley as well as campaigns for reparation, making it seem as if the British civilian internee population was predominantly white. This is the view also offered by the photographs AFPU Sergeant Watson took at Stanley on September 18, 1945.
In figure 7, for example, three white child survivors perch against a backdrop of fluttering British and American flags, identified by the caption as “Kathleen Davis of Beckingham; Roger Sewell of Whitby; and Janet Perry of [Hampshire].” Naming the children in relation to British places they may never have visited—Davis was born in Hong Kong, Perry in Mukden/Shenyang, and Sewell, whose parents were missionaries, likely in China as well—the captioned image works to redeem the children from the racial humiliation of defeat, incarceration, and deprivation by reclaiming them for British futures guaranteed by attachment to British places.32 The photograph may reflect the situation at Stanley as it was on September 18, when most internees with local ties to Hong Kong, who were also more likely to be non-white, had already left the camp. Still, the effect is to center the experiences of white survivors, (re)narrating liberation as the return, the restoration, of British power on every level, including the racial architectures that conditioned its operation. Against this backdrop, figures 5 and 6 register as an interruption.
To be sure, these are not the only photographs in the IWM archive of post-surrender Hong Kong to feature Asian women or children. As I indicated above, Asian children are frequent sights in the photographic record of (re)occupation across Asia, often without adult supervision. In part, their photographic ubiquity indexes the connotations of passive, innocent victimhood with which children are often endowed, as well as the penumbra of innocence that attaches to encounters with children, covering over, as Melissa Phruksachart argues, the violence that haunts all encounters between white male military personnel and Asian locals under conditions of formal or informal empire.33 While Watson's photograph of Kathleen Davis, Janet Perry, and Roger Sewell invites us to celebrate white British children's resilience and potentiality, photographs of (presumptively) orphaned Asian children indict the surrendering regime for its many failures as a guarantor of Asian flourishing. As Uma Narayan notes, British projects of overseas rule often invoked a “colonialist care discourse” that figured—justified—colonialism through acts of care, as, indeed, an act of care.34 Read in this light, the recurrent staging of encounters with Asian children as stand-ins for colonial Asian subjects worked to legitimate British reoccupation as necessary to care for people others had failed signally to care for and who could not, by implication, care for themselves.
Not surprisingly, then, the captions appended to figures 5 and 6 emphasize the humanitarian actions of the Royal Navy personnel who handed out cooling, nutritious drinks and ensured that the internees were properly loaded into the vehicle tasked with whisking them away for further restorative care, courtesy of the British government. And yet, it would be a mistake to focus only on the care projects highlighted by the captions. For these photographs, like all photographs, are the products of the trajectories that brought Royal Navy personnel and thirty Asian internees together as part of a photographic encounter.35 (Re)read in this way, the photographs also document the ongoing care projects of internees themselves, which extend both temporally beyond this moment, captured on film, and spatially beyond this place, the Hong Kong dockyards. In figure 5, for example, a group of older women form a protective ring around their younger friends, whose enjoyment they appear to be relishing. A few look toward the camera, as if inviting the photographer into the circle of companionship created by their gaze. Sublieutenant Vincent may be the source of the lemonade and the center of the photographer's attention, but the women's participation in this scene invites attention to their caregiving labor, that is, their efforts to meet children's needs and the delight they derived, in turn, from seeing those needs met. Indeed, there is no way to make sense of the presence of non-white internees at Stanley—and therefore in these photographs—without reckoning with Asian women's active strategies for survival, which enfolded them into caregiving networks both within and beyond the camp.
The Japanese order requiring “all enemy civilians” to present themselves for internment explicitly excluded “Chinese and Indian” British subjects. Although this served the regime's stated goal of imperial liberation, it would not have been practical to attempt otherwise.36 Most civilian Chinese and other non-white Hong Kongers took the order at its word. A few opted for internment, mostly middle- and working-class Asian women with white European or settler partners, mixed racial ancestry, or both; and their children. Among contemporary commentators, memoirists, and scholars, the tendency has been to cast such decisions as expressions of attachment to Britishness and (white) British people. It is likely that intimate proximity to white Britishness and white British people made internment a more attractive option for some non-white Hong Kongers; certainly, it was easier for them to make such a choice. And yet, to frame the actions of Asian colonial subjects under occupation in Manichaean terms, as expressions of attachment to either the occupying Japanese or the supplanted British, risks mistaking what is politically meaningful about them, risks misconstruing what politics looks like under occupation, especially for women.37
For, after years of hearing about the dire living conditions in Japanese-occupied China, internment seems to have appealed to some Asian Hong Kongers primarily as a strategy of survival, a means of accessing precious material and other resources for themselves and their kin. Jean Gittins, a scion of the wealthy Ho Tung family, could see no other way to survive, with “the cost of even the barest necessities rising each day.”38 Although internees suffered acute forms of material deprivation and mental anguish, they developed effective systems for distributing and supplementing the (frequently unappetizing) food and (often inadequate) medicines with which they continued to be supplied until the end of the war, staving off the acute forms of malnutrition that killed many in the city. In effect if not intent, the uneven distribution of attention and care across Hong Kong's captive (mostly) white and free (mostly) Asian populations contributed to the deaths of expendable Asians so centrally that this biopolitical regime is probably better described as necropolitical.39 To this extent, the racial architectures of power that organized life in Hong Kong under British colonial rule persisted even after the Japanese took control.
One way to understand the movement of Asian women and children with white kin into Stanley, then, is as a concession to white comfort and extension or further manifestation of the solicitude afforded white Britishness. At the same time, Asian women and children unsettled the prevailing racial order(s) through their presence and practices of survival. Together with their non-interned kin, Asian women internees sustained caregiving webs that cut across the spatial and racial divides crucial to imperial arrangements of dependency. In the face of resentment from white British internees who deplored their claims to rights and resources as illegitimate,40 Asian women internees played vital roles in community efforts to keep as many camp residents alive as possible: they shared knowledge of how to prepare foods, like rice and local greens, that European and settler internees were less accustomed to cooking;41 drew on existing networks of local connections, in which they more than Euro-American inmates were likely to be embedded; and acquired additional foodstuffs and other goods for consumption or sale on the camp black market. Conversely, they made use of Red Cross infrastructures to gain news of their non-interned relations—parents, siblings, children—still residing in the city; obtain funds and other goods from them; and ensure that they received care, including at the Red Cross residential facility in Happy Valley.42 The records Franklin Gimson kept of his conversations with Red Cross representative Rudolph Zindel, who regularly visited Stanley for this purpose, testify to Asian women's efforts, on either side of the barbed wire, to advocate for (the right to care for) the people and relationships that mattered to them.43 That they would likely not have described their actions in political terms does not mean that their actions were not therefore political. As people under duress struggled not just to survive but to care for the others who mattered to them, they intervened in the racial(izing) orders that, in Ruth Wilson Gilmore's resonant formulation, so unevenly distribute vulnerability to premature death.44
The Admiralty photographs evoke such histories of relation, care, and survival at multiple levels: as artifacts of presence that testify to Asian women's ongoing struggles to access resources as legitimate agents and recipients of care and as representations of Asian internees' solicitous care for each other and pleasure in each other's pleasure at a moment of transition out of captivity and war. The end of hostilities, release from captivity, a tart drink: all reasons to celebrate in the sticky late-summer Hong Kong heat. Perhaps these survivors, with their more extensive local ties, were also looking forward to reuniting with kin and other intimates in the city, however changed by loss. Whatever its immediate referents, I am drawn to their joy as an assertion of capacity that overspills narratives of imperial liberation and the metropolitan circuits of action and attachment such narratives work to sustain through centering the cumulative, life-giving effects of everyday practices of survival. In an interview published to mark Juneteenth 2020, photography scholar Leigh Raiford suggests that we do not necessarily know “what a picture of freedom would look like.” It might look like a jubilant parade, the flourish of a signature, the casting off of a pair of shackles; or, as interviewer Hrag Vartanian insists, it might look like “a picnic or people on the beach or something uneventful to our eyes.”45 There is likewise something profoundly compelling about the ordinariness of the pleasures on display in figures 5 and 6, which exceeds their framing in and by the imperial archive that contains them.
None of this is to overlook the presence of Sublieutenant Vincent and his colleagues, as agents and beneficiaries of a renascent imperial order that, even if it could be leveraged by (some) Asian colonial subjects, was nonetheless not designed for their flourishing. Whether cultivated or inherited, the proximities to white Britishness that Asian women internees mobilized in support of the other relationships, other lifeworlds, that mattered to them entailed forms of labor some likely experienced as burdensome and which were never equally accessible or desirable to all. During the occupation, many people died who lacked such affordances or could not make use of them or did not wish to.
Although relation and care alone cannot transform the systems that so unevenly distribute the goods necessary for life, these photographs hint at the ways that social reproduction—whether, how, and which lives are sustained, and at what or whose cost—is a crucial site of political thought and struggle, a lesson that antiracist, anticolonial, anti-capitalist, and feminist thinkers continue to emphasize. If, as David Scott warns in Conscripts of Modernity, a politics that strives for abundance can entail a turning away from freedom, the traces of Asian women's relation and care work that surface in the imperial archives of wartime and post-surrender Hong Kong invite us to imagine the pursuit of abundance as an opportunity to practice freedom differently.46 This is one way to understand Raiford's resonant claim that “freedom is about being bound to other people” and how we are also “made capacious by that binding.”47 In contemporary Hong Kong, the pedagogies of protest and pandemic, as well as the exigencies of the new National Security Law (2020), have revealed the fragility of social relations as well as their indispensability for both survival and political struggle.48 How might our liberation dreams change if we were to center, not the desire for different (former) sovereigns, but the work necessary to sustain people in their lives as more than ancillary to freedom struggles, as, indeed, theories and practices of freedom in themselves? What would they then demand of us?
Diana Wong makes a similar observation in “Memory Suppression and Memory Production,” 225.
According to the IWM, the titles and captions attached to photographs in the collections discussed here are likely either “original wartime captions” or taken from the original “dope sheets,” that is to say, the materials photographers produced on the spot “giving details of the subject, stories, dates, etc. for each photo, or group of photo” (personal communication, October 6, 2022).
For clarity's sake, I reserve the term decolonization for the formal end of British colonial rule in 1997, while employing liberation as a (not uncomplicated) placeholder for that more for which we are all striving.
“Road to Prosperity,” Hongkong News, January 6, 1942.
Craig, “British Documentary Photograph,” 98; see also Gladstone, “AFPU.” For more on American official military photographic endeavors during the Second World War, see Warren, “Focal Point of the Fleet.”
In early September 1945, for example, The Times's war coverage included military photographs of surrender- and reoccupation-related activities in Hong Kong and Singapore, including “The Union Jack is raised at Stanley Civil Internment Camp,” ca. August–September 1945, photographer unknown, glass, Admiralty Official Collection, A30506, Imperial War Museum, London (IWM).
For more recent examples, see Melissa Phruksachart's work on American representations of Korean children during the Cold War, “Promise of Asian Children,” and Parry, “Images of Liberation?,” about the British Army in post-9/11 Iraq.
See Munn, Anglo-China, for more.
See, for example, three nitrate photographs by AFPU Sergeant R. Watson, all taken on September 24, 1945, at the Tai Po Orphanage (Admiralty Official Collection SE 5058, SE 5061, and SE 5062, IWM).
See Chan, East River Column, for more on the activities of the East River Column, which operated in and around Hong Kong as the Hong Kong and Kowloon Independent Brigade.
Yap, “‘New Angle of Vision,’” 86.
Quoted in Yap, “‘New Angle of Vision,’” 89. References to discussions and talks given by members of the administration and other interested parties recur throughout the papers of Franklin Gimson. See, for example, the documents in “Stanley Internment Camp—Misc. Papers,” HKRS163-1-80, Public Records Office, Hong Kong (PRO).
Liu et al., “Introduction,” xvii–xviii.
Yap, “‘New Angle of Vision.’”
Internee birthplace and other details sourced from “List of Internees Stanley Camp,” HKRS170–3-573A, and “Personal Details of Internees,” HKRS170–3-573B, PRO. See Ian Baucom's Out of Place for more on the belief that Englishmen were not born but made “by virtue of coming into contact with ‘English soil’” (18).
“Enemy Nationals Interned,” Hongkong News, January 5, 1942; “Road to Prosperity,” Hongkong News, January 6, 1942.
For more on women's experiences of military occupations during the Second World War, see Hanna Diamond's work on Vichy France in Women and the Second World War.
Here I follow other scholars of Japanese-occupied East Asia, including Mark Driscoll and Takashi Fujitani.
See, for example, Franklin Gimson, diary of events, April 30, 1942, HKRS163–1-80, PRO.
For more, see England, “Zindel's Rosary Hill.”
See, for example, the notes of an interview between Zindel and Gimson, March 3, 1944, HKRS163–1-80, PRO.
See artist Tiffany Sia's reflections on the atomizing effects of the National Security Law in “Handbook of Feelings.”