Those fortunate enough to have served there before 1997 will recall the ‘golden thread’ of locally enlisted Hong Kong Chinese servicemen, who served with such distinction for many decades alongside their British and Gurkha counterparts in many vital roles. They served in the Royal Navy (Hong Kong Division), in the Hong Kong Military Service Corps, and in garrison units representing 15 cap-badges, ranging from transport including maritime craft but also mules (which were used to support border patrols pre-1968 after which helicopters took over!), engineers, Army Air Corps, logistics, medical, signals, intelligence, educators, military police, veterinary and ‘Dragon Company’ which guarded all our military installations.
When National Service ended in 1960 it was decided to set up the military Service Corps and double the number of locally enlisted soldiers in Hong Kong; between 1962 and 1993 some 6,000 Hong Kong Chinese became regular soldiers in the British Army, and several thousand more served as ratings in the Royal Navy (Hong Kong Division). They made up a significant proportion of the crews of the Hong Kong Squadron (there will be a number of readers who will have fond memories of serving in the Ton class patrol craft or from 1984 onwards in the Peacock class corvettes - HMS Peacock, HMS Plover, HMS Swallow, HMS Swift and HMS Starling). Amongst other duties, these ships worked with the Marine Department of the Royal Hong Kong Police to decrease the constant flow of illegal immigrants and to catch smugglers, carrying a detachment of Royal Marines with Rigid Raiders to intercept the ‘Dai Fei’ boats. The Hong Kong Chinese ratings also manned the T Boats. Although initial training was usually conducted in Hong Kong, at HM Naval Base HMS Tamar and then latterly on Stonecutters Island, many undertook their advanced trade training and qualifications courses in the UK – for example Marine engineers undertook advanced engineering courses at HMS Sultan in Gosport.
The focal point for many of these veterans is now the ‘Hoi Luen’ Society (for RN only) and the joint RN/Army Hong Kong Ex Servicemen’s Association (HKESA), both organisations with a tremendous sense of community, fraternity and pride. They filled a very important gap: as the British withdrawal approached nobody really knew what the future might hold for those remaining in Hong Kong after the Territory was handed over to China in July 1997. Now, some twenty-four years later, it is reassuring that one of the main constants is the unique ‘Band of Brothers’ nature of our former Hong Kong Servicemen, a group which endures with remarkable unity, regardless of age, former cap-badge, former rank or Service. When they parade in large numbers and with great dignity at the Cenotaph in Hong Kong on Remembrance Day each year, they remind us all of the huge commitment they made to the Crown and of their enduring loyalty.
One of our oldest veterans is PO Cheng Man Ying who served on HMS Black Swan in 1949 when she went to give assistance to HMS Amethyst under shore battery fire in the famous Yangtse River incident. In this photograph, he is being visited by CPO William Ching, one of our active and senior volunteer committee members. I have had the privilege of meeting PO Cheng, now in his late 90s.
Prior to the handover in 1997, the Hong Kong Locally Enlisted Personnel Trust (HK LEP Trust) was established to provide charitable support for the Hong Kong Chinese ex-servicemen and their dependants in time of need. The Trust employs a full time welfare/benevolence secretary in Hong Kong who conducts preventative welfare visits and organises funding for beneficiaries as required from the Trust and from the Royal British Legion Hong Kong & China Branch. The Hong Kong LEP Trust is most grateful to the Royal Navy & Royal Marine Charity (RNRMC) and ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, for generously supporting the Trust with grants each year.
Given the context of the extremely high cost of living and the limitations of public health and welfare provision in Hong Kong, with the median age of the Hong Kong veteran now 64, and the prospect of only a very modest Government pension from the age of 70, this is a Trust that must endure for many years to come; our Hong Kong Chinese soldiers and sailors must not be forgotten.
Author’s Note: Brigadier (Retired) Robin Bacon is the Chairman of the Hong Kong LEP Trust and the President of the UK Branch of the Hong Kong Ex-Servicemen’s Association. He feels privileged to have served twice with Hong Kong servicemen, first as a junior officer in the 1970s and then as a squadron commander in the Queen’s Own Gurkha Transport Regiment in the early 90s. On leaving the Army in 2010, he became the Chief of Staff of ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, finally retiring in March 2021