Friday, May 13, 2005

Anton Chekhov and the British Colonial Plan

An age-old debate in Hong Kong is whether Hong Kong's success is more attributable to the sweat, toil and genius of Chinese laborers and entrepreneurs, or to the comprehensive system of British law and colonial administration. There are obvious arguments on both sides (until 1980, the Chinese did not really improve their lot economically except in cities dominated by European influence; or, the British colonial plan did not take hold or flourish in a variety of other states they colonized), but we find such hair-splitting tiresome when it seems obvious to us that both are equally responsible for the marvel that is present-day Hong Kong.

Anton Chekhov, on a visit with some Russian companions to Hong Kong a century ago, said as much in a letter to a friend Alexei Suvorin. He wrote:

"The first foreign port on my journey was Hong Kong. It has a glorious bay, the movement of ships on the ocean is beyond anything I have seen in pictures, excellent roads, trolleys, a railway to the mountains, museums, botanical gardens; wherever you turn you will note evidences of the most tender solicitude on the part of the English for men in their service; there is even a sailors’ club. I drove around in a rickshaw, i.e. was born by humans, bought all sorts of rubbish from the Chinese and got indignant listening to my Russian traveling companions abusing the English for exploiting the natives. Thought I to myself, yes, the English exploit the Chinese, the Sepoys and the Hindus, but they do give them roads, plumbing and Christianity; you exploit them too, but what do you give them?"

It has been clear that if there were not some attractive qualities to Hong Kong, six generations of immigrants would not have come to the city. British Hong Kong was a safe haven and a land of opportunity for many people, particularly Chinese, that wanted to escape chaos on the mainland, from the Taiping Rebellion all the way to the Cultural Revolution. The talented immigrants Hong Kong received, in turn, have played a dominant role in creating this modern marvel.

The question now is: now that the mainland itself is the world's greatest land of opportunity, for the first time in Hong Kong's history, what will that do to the human capital of the city? Has the relationship between the city and China been vampiric, head-hunting the best talent of China for a century and a half, or is it truly symbiotic, with Hong Kong in return financing and promoting development on the mainland? Time will tell. Our feeling though, is toward the latter.

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