In mid-May 2020, it was announced that the demolition plan of No. 190 Nathan Road had been approved by the Buildings Department. In response, Walk In Hong Kong and Urban Studies Institute, together with World War II historian Tsoi Yiu-lun Rusty and conservation architect Lung Man-ching Carla formed a research team to propose a re-examination of the value of 190 Nathan Road.
During the research, the team contacted and conducted interviews with Ms. Chan Yin-ping Virginia, the granddaughter of the first owner of No.190 Nathan Road Madame Lau Tsung (or Chung) Tai, about her memories of her childhood years in the building and her father. Let’s look into how her father’s life story intertwined with the history of the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong…
Rooftop: A Little Playground
The Chan Family was originally a three-generation household living in the United States. In the late 1920s, they migrated to Hong Kong and bought 190 Nathan Road, the place where Virginia was born and raised. The Chan family opened a restaurant called Cafe Evergreen on the ground floor of the building, the very first restaurant providing Western dishes in Jordan.
When Virginia was small, her grandmother did not allow her to hang out on the street, so the rooftop of the house became her little playground. It boasted a beautiful sea view and a small farm that produced the vegetables that were needed for the family and the restaurant, such as tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers. For Virginia, it was always a treat to sneak a dip with fresh tomatoes.
Virginia recalled that in the corner of the rooftop hung a wedding photo of Mr. and Mrs. Chan. She had only a vague idea of how her parents were as they passed away when she was small. At that time Virginia appeared to be unaffected by the bereavement, yet ever since their death, she started a new habit of staying on the balcony every night — this may tell us about her inner trauma.
Memory of Father
Before the war broke out, Virginia’s father Mr. William Chan used to go for business trips frequently. He stopped going abroad when the Japanese Occupation started in 1941, since then he began working day and night in the attic (originally as the family’s food storage). Virginia liked to peep in the door quietly from the corridors and sometimes helped her father collect cigar cuttings on the street. These are the most intimate moments between the father and daughter.
Many years later, Virginia was to remember that distant night when her father was taken away. That happened in 1945, a few months after he was arrested by the Japanese. Overlooking from the balcony, Virginia saw Mr. Chan, who just had his hair shaved, wearing a felt hat and an overcoat, walking out of the house hastily. He joined with another two men who were dressed in black, then they walked down the lightless street arm in arm as if they were good friends. Since then, Virginia waited for her father every night, and even her family members thought she was sleepwalking.
Later, Madame Lau received a call, then she rushed to the hospital with Virginia. Virginia remembered vividly that the wardroom and the cloth that covered Mr. Chan’s body were in white color. Underneath the cloth laid a seriously injured body. Virginia wanted to hold his hands badly, yet she could only watch her father from the entrance of the room. A few days later, they revisited the hospital carrying a coffin, only to find that the corpse of Mr. Chan had been taken away.
In the summer of the same year, Hong Kong was finally freed from the Japanese reign. Their soldiers left the barracks across the street, no more Japanese soldiers came to Madame Lau’s restaurant. Everything in 190 Nathan Road was like going back to normal days, except Virginia’s missing father.
The Unsung Hero
Decades later, the name William Chan was found in an article from The Kung Sheung Daily News named “William Chan died from torture during interrogation”. With this critical piece of the puzzle, the whole story is now completed: Mr. Chan worked as an informant in the British Army Aid Group. When Hong Kong was fallen, his duty was to inspect the Japanese barracks which were located opposite 190 Nathan Road. Every day he worked painstakingly in the attic to organize the information collected. Unfortunately, his identity was disclosed, so he was taken by the Japanese agents for interrogation. He died during the cruel tortures.
When Virginia looked at the newspaper we found, it was the first time her daughter Amy saw her mother cry. At that moment, Virginia finally realized what Mr. Chan was sacrificed for 70 years ago.
190 Nathan Road is not only a witness to the past of the Chan family. It is also an indispensable part of the history of the anti-Japanese operation during World War II.