Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Bun Festival and the Plague in Hong Kong

Cheung Chau celebrated its annual bun festival last weekend. Unlike recent years, new steel-reinforced bun towers made the traditional climb of them possible again after years of safety concerns. The crowds were visibly more excited by the prospect this year, with many turning out in force despite the sweltering heat. Many of you I'm sure are also aware of the fact that the bun festival began in 1894 to commemorate the village being saved from the devastating bubonic plague that broke out that year, killing several thousand, mostly Chinese residents.

What is interesting about the outbreak of the Black Death in Hong Kong was that it had been widely predicted for at least two decades prior that a health crisis was looming. Many of Hong Kong's poorest Chinese immigrants crowded into tiny tenements in Western's old Tai Ping Shan district to eke out a living, trying to save as much as possible to speed up the day (often that never arrived) whereby they could retire back to their village in China. Health inspectors from Britain and local doctrs alike were struck by the appalling conditions in which many of Hong Kong's poor lived.

20 or 30 people, they observed, mostly men, lived in two or three storey buildings designed for 4 or 5. (Single men aren't generally very likely to keep a clean house, and the lowest common denominator amongst 30 men is likely to be particularly foul.) They shared the flat also with livestock they kept inside, such as pigs, chickens and even cattle, as well as all the associated vermin that would accompany such ventures. None of these buildings had adequate ventilation or sewage systems, and waste would simply be dumped onto the street.

The problem was, the British were told by wealthy Chinese merchants that the poor Chinese preferred it that way, and to enforce health codes and building restrictions on a Chinese area would be counterproductive to the well-being of the colony. In other words, men like Sir Kai Ho Kai were saying that you'd be making a coolie's life in Hong Kong more expensive, and it would end up hurting Hong Kong's economy. Naturally, in late 19th century Hong Kong, the poor Chinese had little recourse to authority and were unlikely to voice their concerns, especially in the free market conditions of Hong Kong (i.e. no safety net).

The colonial authorities largely took on this advice, and a Sanitary Board they set up was largely toothless until it was too late - the Plague had to break out in Hong Kong, taking thousands of lives between 1894 and 1920, when it was finally and truly stamped out thanks to the brave efforts of the Shropshire Regiment, the Police and the medical services staff. Many of them had no place even to die and seek help, which explains the many coffin shops near the Man Mo Temple and the Tung Wah Hospital, which served as organizations in 19th century Hong Kong that would take care of sending the bodies of workers back to their heung ha. The unwillingness of the government to take advice until well into a health crisis of course has much more recent relevance with SARS in 2003.

You can enjoy a number of these and other stories in an upcoming walking tour we shall be doing in Hong Kong's fascinating Western district, featuring the disease, death and the macabre ghost stories of Chinese Tai Ping Shan. We'll be suggesting you try our walks at night!

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