Before It’s Too Late: The Witness To War Project

Before It’s Too Late: The Witness To War Project

Before It’s Too Late: The Witness To War Project

Hong Kong experienced terrible upheaval in the Second World War but personal accounts of these experiences and the painful choices they involved have been scant. HKU has been working to change that in a unique collaboration with local secondary schools.

The Witness to War project involves secondary school students interviewing elderly family members about their war experiences and recording and transcribing the interviews. The best ones are selected by the Department of History to be placed in the University Archives.

Dr Peter Cunich (left) with Mrs Helena Leung and Jason Shum, two of the participants in the project

“This is a different kind of knowledge exchange,” says Associate Professor of History, Dr Peter Cunich. “The University has benefited enormously from it. We have received more back from this than we have put into it.”

The project was suggested to Dr Cunich by Bruce MacNamara, a history teacher at Canadian International School. The Department offered to provide them with an interview template and to brief students on historical methodology and the Second World War. University Archivist Stacy Gould also showed them her facilities and explained the importance of archiving historical documents.

In return, more than 250 oral histories have been deposited at the Archives since 2006 – making it the largest collection of publicly available interview transcripts on the Second World War in East Asia. The material has also proven useful to researchers at HKU.


On the school side, the benefits have been even more profound. The students and their families have been deeply touched by the interview experience. A certificate ceremony held at the end of each year usually ends up being a highly emotional affair.

“Some of the experiences these people recount are quite horrendous: cannibalism in Sai Ying Pun, rape, trekking halfway across China, losing family members, losing family then being reunited with them at the end of the war. There’s a full range of emotion,” says Dr Cunich.

“Quite often this stuff has been buried deep down for decades. These people have never talked about it before and they are finally getting the opportunity to do so, to someone who is interested in what they have to say.

“For the students, they gain a first-hand glimpse of warfare and they’re touched personally by what war means to their families. It’s a powerful emotional and psychological experience.”

Many of the interview subjects are in their 80s or 90s, making this a now-or-never project. The project’s success has prompted two other local secondary schools to join, and inspired similar projects in Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur.

With the “Witness to War” project, Dr Peter Cunich shared the Faculty Knowledge Exchange Award 2012 of the Faculty of Arts with Dr Si Chung-Mou.

Dr Peter Cunich and HKU Archivist Ms Stacy Gould (second from right) at a certificate presentation ceremony at the Canadian International School with co-director of the project, Mr Bruce MacNamara (far right)