Thursday, June 25, 2009

new domain location

please note this blog is being moved to the following domain:

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Lim Book Keng - Retrospective at Singapore National Library

I was fortunate enough to visit the small yet very nicely-developed exhibit on Lim Boon Keng (1869 - 1957) currently on display at the Singapore National Library (until Sunday 18 March).

This fascinating man, the first Chinese to win a Queen's Scholarship (1887), was not only a prominent medical doctor, but also a legislator in the Straits Settlements Legco from the age of 26, entrepreneur (rubber tycoon, co-founder of OCBC Bank), a philanthropist (founded Singapore Chinese Girls School and many other societies), a vocal social reformer (anti gambling, anti-opium and pro-confucianism), educator (president of Amoy university in 1921), media baron (he and his father-in-law bought over a Chinese newspaper, renaming it 日新报) and an outspoken political activist (leader of a local anti-Manchu society and president of Singapore's branch of the Kuomintang).

In spite of being a third generation baba Chinese, Dr. Lim identified strongly with his Chinese roots and throughout his life strove to improve his Chinese language skills and reacquaint himself with the Chinese Confucian values that he believed were so lacking in the straits Chinese community. As president of Amoy University between 1921 and 1937 he was perhaps not prepared for the intensively negative reaction his support of Confucianism would have in the post 1919 May Fourth era (the writer Lu Xun publicly clashed with Dr. Lim for his encouragement of Confucianism).

I left the exhibit wondering if a man such as Dr. Lim could exist in modern day Singapore. For example, would a wealthy tycoon of his caliber be willing to speak his mind on a social issue such as gambling if it contradicted the party line? If he had been born even thirty years later would his pro-China outlook have put him on a collision course with other members of the Peranakan community that distrusted the China patriots? What do you think?

Try to visit the exhibit if you can. You can also read more about Lim Boon Keng from the following links:

Monday, January 15, 2007

Indians of Hong Kong Emigrating to Canada

Well, it has been awhile hasn't it! I've been away in the US, and was actually on a farm that had no Internet connections. Hard to believe, but in a way, incredibly restful over the holiday. I also became incredibly restive, but that's another story!

I thought I'd kick off the New Year by looking at an astonishing notice in the Hong Kong (or should I say Hongkong) Government Gazette 100 years ago. It concerns what was then a new trend of Indians from both India but also from Hong Kong, embarking on new lives in the New World, specifically in the British provinces of Canada. This surely is a remarkable chapter in the history of Indian immigration to Canada:
Natives of India are hereby warned against emigrating to Canada. The winter climate of the interior of Canada is such that Indians, with their style of living, cannot work there during the season and are therefore restricted for winter employment to the coast where there is not a sufficient field for those already there. In any case the work for which they are required is, if obtainable, rough and hard and not of a character with which they are familiar or for which they are physically fitted.

Large number [sic] of Indian immigrants have already become destitute, and it is useless for any more Indians to seek employment in Canada.

F.H. May,
Colonial Secretary [later the Governor of Hong Kong after Gov. Lugard]

12 February, 1907
The many Indian natives of Canada, particularly in Toronto, would find this a laughable suggestion that Indian industry could only be confined to manual labour for which they are not 'physically fitted.'

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Hong Kong and Singapore's Historic Narratives

Please come to a talk to be given by David Wong and Stefan White at the Hong Kong Museum of History on Thursday, 14 Dec. 2006 at 7:00 PM in conjunction with the Hong Kong Anthropological Society.

The talk is entitled:

Postcolonial "Imagined Communities" --- The Curiously Divergent Stories Of Hong Kong and Singapore

The talk will be given in English. Please also join us for a self-paying dinner to be held after the talk. More details can be found below.

The Curiously Divergent Stories
Of Hong Kong and Singapore

An Anthropological Talk by David Wong and Stefan White
Thursday, 14 Dec. 2006 at 7:00 PM
To be held at The Hong Kong Museum of History,
Lecture Theatre, Ground Floor, 100 Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui

All are welcome
(space is, however, limited to 140 seats)

Both Singapore and Hong Kong were British colonial entrepôt ports
started in the first half of the 19th century, with many similarities in their history and governance. Both were made colonies of Britain in a contested manner and inherited positive and negative legacies of colonialism. But while Singapore has recreated an "imagined community," based on the founding myth of Sir Stamford Raffles over the last four decades, Hong Kong has yet to create a compelling historical narrative that serves as a unifying mythology for its citizens. In the talk, the speakers will explore the creation process and the realities of these two historical narratives, and how their existence impacts on each city's ability to attract cultural or heritage tourists.

David Wong and Stefan White operate Walk the Talk, an interpretive heritage service, in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Following the lecture, you are invited to a self-paying dinner with the speaker.

This talk is a joint presentation of




Thursday, December 07, 2006

Down the Drain

Another snippet from the Rev. James Legge's memoirs. As the man first stepped ashore in Hong Kong in 1843, by the 1870s he was one of the longest residents of the Colony. He recalled to some younger men how the drains used for catchwaters and sewage used to wreak havoc with law and order in Hong Kong:
“Bands of Robbers attempted to carry out their attempts by tunneling from the large drains under the premises which they had marked. There was a rumor of a scheme to re-enact the gunpowder plot by means of a tunnel under the cathedral, when the governor, the bishop, and the congregation were to be blown up. The facts of this case, however, if there were any, I could never satisfactorily ascertain. The most successful exploit of this kind was perpetrated so late as January 1865, by a gang who tunneled by the hard labour of several weeks right under the treasury of the Central Bank of India, and carried of upwards of $100,000 in gold bullion and notes. In 1863 twenty-two prisoners made their escape from the gaol by tunneling under it into a drain; and no long after, I did the service to the Government of disconcerting a scheme on a larger scale, by which within a few hours, eighty-nine men would have got away."
Perhaps it explains why Hong Kong to this day does not have a centralized manhole system, requiring endless rounds of construction to dig up and put back roads while workers lay cables and fix rusty pipes...

Friday, December 01, 2006

Opium and Relations with Japan and China

I was reading an account by Reverend James Legge from a speech he made in 1872 about his having lived in Hong Kong since 1843. He had some fascinating insights about why relations between China and the West had gone so badly, and why relations with Japan at that time were so positive. It would be an oversimplification to say that the Chinese unwillingness to emulate Western organizations, technologies and methods in the 19th century were due to the Opium War, but the Rev. Legge certainly makes a plausible case:
...we have given the Japanese little reason to do anything but love us, while we have given China much reason to fear us and hate us. I am not here tonight to express my views on the opium traffic, but I may surely ask, without giving offence to any one, whether, if we had forced that traffic on Japan as we have done on China, the relations between Japan and 'foreign' nations whould be what they are to-day. If there be a man here who thinks that there does not glow in me as true a British patriotism as in himself, I only say he does not know me; but I thank God that the United States preceded us in the opening of the Japanese Empire. Their treaty of the 29th July, 1858, recognizes the prohibition of the importation of opium, and that made by Lord Elgin [who prosecuted the 2nd Opium War for Britain - Ed.], on the 27th of the following month, does the same, and with a very stringent addition. Thus one thing which has embittered and fettered our intercourse with China, and will continue to do so, so long as it exists, has had no place in our intercourse with Japan; and the result has been accordingly.
It is interesting to note also that Rev. Legge must have felt that his strong statement would have caused offense in at least some of his listeners, because it was considered 'unpatriotic' to think of the Opium War as an unjustified impression of British commerce upon an unwilling China. It reminds me of American liberals circa 2003 having to defend their patriotism while at the same time opposing the Iraq war.

As my late, great professor of colonial history, Robin Winks, once said, so much of relations between races and civilizations depends on first contact. If today we still find those hostile to Westerners in China, those feelings may have their sad beginnings in 1839, the year the Opium War broke out and brought the existence of Western 'barbarians' to the attention to China at large.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Eu Tong Sen and His Mansions

Last week, Damian wrote into RTHK 3's Naked Lunch programme, asking the excellent Sarah Passmore to forward a question to me. Here was his question about Eu Tong Sen, the famous prewar Chinese medicine tycoon:

Just wondering what Dave could find out about the houses of Eu Tong-sen? He built three primary residences: Eucliffe Castle in Repulse Bay; Euston on Bonham Road; and Sirmio in Tai Po. I'm just curious as to where Sirmio was in Tai Po, as all his houses have been demolished (Eucliffe is now a housing development, and Euston is now Euston Court). I'd also like to be able to find any photos of Sirmio if possible...perhaps Dave can point me in the right direction?

Damian, I shall tell you what I can of Eu Tong Sen's houses, which is not a great deal, but also of the man behind the buildings. I'm afraid Sermio, being Eu Tong Sen's 'getaway' villa residence in the New Territories, was the building least written about, and I have very little information about it. Sermio was named for an ancient village (today called Sermione) on a promontory on the shores of Lake Garda, in northern Italy - I'd imagine Mr. Eu must have visited and kept the name for the villa for that reason. I suspect though that since it was on the approach to Tai Po, with a view of Tolo Harbour, the villa was perched somewhere along the old Tai Po road where Chinese University stands today. Many of Hong Kong's older money bought homes in that area - the surviving ones though are largely to the left of the roundabout when you come up the road from the Shatin racecourse area. Someone else may be able to give you a more exact address!

As for Eu Tong Sen, he was quite the character. He was a cosmopolitan man of the world, a connoiseur of the Western good life. By the time he moved to Hong Kong circa 1930, he had already ensured his family's fortune. Born in 1877 in Perak, in Penang, he inherited his father's Chinese medicine business, which was called the Yan Sang medical shop. It was felt that these remedies could be a strong substitute for the opium which many poor Chinese laborers resorted to for their aches and pains. They did rather well, and opened branches in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Seremban in the early 1900s, and then Hong Kong in 1909, and Singapore the following year. Shops on the mainland also followed. Basically, he created a very early example of a southeast Asian business empire catering to the overseas Chinese.

What is interesting though, is that although Eu Yan Sang (which is what Mr. Eu renamed the company to indicate that it was a family business that should be run by future generations of Eus) is the only remaining visible part of that empire, and was what the man was most famous for, it seems that most of his money was made by other means. Before the 1890s, the family business actually made a good deal more money out of tax farming, which it undertook on behalf of the Sultans of Malaya under British auspices. Later in the 20th century, the network of shops throughout the Chinese diaspora in Asia put Mr. Eu's business in a great position to handle remittances, and was one of the greatest handlers of such money before World War II, much as Western Union works today for the Filipina helpers in Hong Kong. It was only after World War II, when war and revolution had changed the dynamics of the Chinese networks throughout Asia, that it was Eu Yan Sang that carried the empire for Eu Tong Sen's descendants.

But what of his houses, you may ask? As you point out, Mr. Eu had built three palatial houses in Hong Kong throughout the lean decade of the 1930s in Hong Kong. Euston on Bonham Road; Eucliffe, on the northern side of Repulse Bay, and Sirmio in Tai Po. Local historian Jason Wordie in his excellent 'Streets of Hong Kong' book points out the rumor that Eu Tong Sen was told that he would not die as long as he kept building houses. It nevertheless did not stop him from dying in 1941, on the eve of the Japanese Invasion.

However, I have a feeling that whoever the fortuneteller was, he was animated by a practical consideration for Mr. Eu's health - he had 5 official wives with him in Hong Kong, an unknown number of concubines, and at least 34 official children. So he was as prolific in his offspring as he was with his engineering works! Not only did he need to house the product of his loins and the women that delivered them, he also probably needed to maintain multiple residences to keep outbreaks of discord from rearing their ugly heads. The fortune teller, therefore, probably thought this might help Mr. Eu to keep building. The fissures that must have existed while he was alive broke into the open after his death, with family squabbles that continued with lawsuits all the way until 1996. That was the year that several cousins, whose grandfather and/or great-grandfather was Mr. Eu, chose to buy out the business of Eu Yan Sang from outside investors (that had bought the separate bits from older generation family members) and consolidate operations in Hong Kong, Singapore and elsewhere.

An interesting bit of trivia is that the statue that is supposed to represent John Osborn of the Winnipeg Grenadiers, the VC recipient, according again to the redoubtable Mr. Wordie, was actually a statue of a World War I soldier that stood in the gardens of Eucliffe. He was donated to the Hong Kong government by the family after the war when they sold the Eucliffe site, and he underwent a transformation to become Mr. Osborn. Perhaps it is fitting though, for he was also a young sailor that was present at the Battle of Jutland in World War I.

The war connection is also grimly fitting because of the Japanese outrage that occurred on the site of the Eucliffe mansion during the desperate fighting between Allied and Japanese forces around the Repulse Bay area in the days before Christmas, when the East and West Brigades were effectively split in two. Allow me to end with this quote from Tony Banham, in his labor of love, Not the Slightest Chance:
“The prisoners were taken to Eucliffe, a Chinese millionaire’s castle on the north shore of Repulse Bay. Having been beaten up by rifle butts, their hands were tightly bound behind their backs and they were prodded forward with bayonets to the edge of the cliff. They were then forced to sit facing the sea with their feet dangling over the edge. “We knew that we were going to be shot because on top of the bank were pools of blood and at the bottom of the cliff there were dozens of bodies,” stated Company Sergeant Major Hamlon of the Royal Rifles at the post-war War Crimes Trial. “It was evident that they had been shot on top of the cliff and fallen down. Then a firing squad came forward and we were all shot. Owing to the fact that I turned my head to the left as I was being fired at, the bullet passed through my neck and came out of my right cheek. I did not lose consciousness and the force of the bullet hitting me knocked me free from the others and I rolled down the cliff.” He lay at the cliff’s foot bleeding all day until dark when he moved “a mess of blood” into a dank cave where he remained shivering as Japanese sentries patrolled above. Later 54 bodies were found in the area. Many had been shot, others bayoneted to death and the rest beheaded."
This grisly episode may explain why the Repulse Bay area (and apparently also even Euston Court) are said to be haunted...though I know nothing of that!