Tunnels and mud on the Gin Drinker’s Line
A Pretty Useless Defence
You’ll not likely find it any of the guide books, but high above Tsuen Wan in Shing Mun Country Park, the remains of Hong Kong’s first line of defence against the Japanese invasion during World War II, lie overgrown and unappreciated amongst the undergrowth.
Constructed as part of the 13 miles of fortifications known as the Gin Drinker’s Line (醉酒灣防線), Shing Mun Redoubt acted as the command post for the defensive operations protecting the Kowloon Peninsula from the Japanese advance during their 1941 offensive.
The line was built, in theory, to keep the Japanese at bay long enough for the defence of Hong Kong to become fully mobilised and substantial casualties to be inflicted on the invading forces. It took two years to complete between 1936 and 1938 and was expected to hold for at least three weeks. It was the Maginot Line of the east, they said; a fortified border of bunkers, batteries, tunnels and trenches. In the event, it lasted barely more than three hours.
Down in the Tube Station
I’d tried twice before to find the place, but each time I’d been sidetracked by macaques, or foiled by my lack of directions upon successfully running the monkey gauntlet. But I guess befitting a wartime defence system, the Shing Mun Redoubt doesn’t exactly advertise its presence to the casual passerby.
Located along section 6 of the Maclehose Trail, the redoubt was the centrepoint of the Gin Drinker’s Line defence. It comprised five pillboxes, an observation post, defensive trenches and a subterranean labyrinth which connected them all. I was actually surprised at just how extensive the complex is when I finally found it. It wasn’t just the collection of bunkers and concrete ruins I’d anticipated, but a sprawling network of underground war tunnels, all interconnecting and largely intact.
Entering the tunnels is like descending into some kind of strange wartime London Underground buried in the Shing Mun hills. Since the redoubt was constructed by the British Garrison stationed in Hong Kong, each of the passageways – presumably in order to aid navigation – was named after a famous London thoroughfare. There’s Charring Cross, Haymarket, Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue, as well as Regent’s Street and Piccadilly. The names are still clearly visible, engraved above the entrances and at key positions within.
The Battle of Hong Kong
None of this did any good, however. The redoubt was built for a capacity of around 150 men but was guarded by less than fifty during the time of the attack. It was also poorly designed. Each of the positions was partially isolated from the others in terms of their field of vision and the supporting fire they could give, which meant a surprise attack was always likely.
The open entrances, moreover, allowed quick and easy access to the complex, with the ventilation shafts within the tunnels acting as particularly inviting parcel chutes for grenade attacks. After the invading forces had crossed into the New Territories from mainland China on 8th December 1941, it took them less than a day to reach a vantage point on Needle Hill from which they had a clear view of the British defences.
Seeing that the redoubt was severely undermanned, an assault on the position was launched on the evening of December 9th and it was taken without much of a fight within a few hours. With the Gin Drinker’s Line proving untenable as a further means of defence, the remaining British and Indian forces began their retreat to Hong Kong Island the next day, leaving the Japanese free to take the rest of Kowloon more or less unchallenged.
The battle for Hong Kong lasted eighteen days from the 8th to the 25th December 1941. Although brief in duration, the territory saw some fierce fighting and was under Japanese rule for a further three years and eight months until 1945. Yet the period seems to have been somewhat marginalised in the history of Hong Kong. Many of Hong Kong’s wartime defences having been left to crumble and disappear amongst the undergrowth, while any concerted effort at preservation has largely been unforthcoming.
A distinct lack of preservation
As a period of genuine historical interest, it seems a shame that more isn’t being done to preserve the remaining relics of Hong Kong’s war years. Places like the Shing Mun Redoubt and the Gin Drinker’s Line – as well as others along the Wong Nai Chung Gap Trail and around Devil’s Peak – served a brief, if ultimately futile part in determining the history of Hong Kong during the 20th century. To see these sites abandoned to neglect – especially when they occupy sites not generally considered in danger from the developers – seems a particularly puzzling oversight.
Nevertheless, of the relics that are left, Shing Mun Redoubt is probably the most intact and interesting of the lot. It’s a unique piece of Hong Kong history and, along with Shing Mun Country Park and Kam Shan Country Park, makes a great place for an afternoon hike. A couple of the tunnels are flooded or otherwise impassable, but the majority are perfectly explorable. You’ll need a torch, if only to avoid stepping in anything strange, but other than that, a sense of adventure is all that you’ll need.
How to get to Shing Mun Redoubt
Shing Mun Redoubt is located in Shing Mun Country Park along section 6 of the Maclehose Trail. It can be reached from the south via Kam Shan Country Park. Or from the north via Shing Mun Reservoir.
From either direction, it is important to stick to the Maclehose Trail and not branch off onto any of the other paths that crisscross the area. The path passes right by the entrances of Charing Cross and Shaftesbury Avenue towards the top of the climb, whilst the main command and observation post is fairly obvious.
To get to Shing Mun Reservoir, take green mini bus 82 from Tsuen Wan Station or get a ten minute taxi. The mini bus stop can be found on Shiu Wo Street.
Arriving at Shing Mun Reservoir, you will see the distinctive Shin Mun Reservoir sign in the shape of an ancient Chinese gate. Take a right, follow the road, and you should be able to join the Macelhose Trail via the bbq area on your right after walking for ten or fifteen minutes.
Coming from Kam Shan Country Park, take bus 81 from Nathan Road and get off at Tai Po Reservoir. You can join the Maclehose Trail from there. The walk via Kam Shan Country Park is longer, but at least you will get to see the famous Kam Shan monkeys. See my post Monkey Mountain, Hong Kong for more info about getting to Kam Shan Country Park.