Thursday, June 30, 2005

An Early Italian View of China, and Rhubarb

There were several Italians that were known to have been in Macau soon after the city's founding. Most of them were Jesuits. The most famous was Matteo Ricci, the masterful linguist that brought Christianity to the Ming Court and to the literati of Peking. Until the advent of Michael Jordan, he apparently was the most famous Westerner in China, and had been for some centuries. There was Alessandro Valignano, part of the inner circle of Jesuits and the mastermind of the Mission to Japan. In my mind, he'll forever be remembered as the victim of Macau's 16th century mail service - a letter he sent to the Pope from Macau took 16 years to arrive in Rome, by which time a couple of Popes had died in office. And of course, one must mention Carlo Spinola, who most believe was the architect responsible for the famous facade of the Mater Dei church, all that remains today of the College of St. Paul. He was inspired by the Gesu facade in Rome when he designed it. Spinola was later martyred in Japan in 1623, part of the savage attempts to repress the Christian religion there.

But for today's historic fact of the day, we shall cast our eye upon a layman, plain-speaking Italian who, unlike these others, was not a Jesuit, but evidently a trader of some kind that had been to most of the Portuguese ports of Asia. His name was Marco D'Avalo, writing in 1638 (just a year after the Weddell expedition I mentioned yesterday). He has some sharp words for the 'profit motive' element of Chinese culture, which Hong Kong and increasingly Macau exhibit in all its glory:

"Moreover this city of
Maccauw contains some fine Chinese shops, as likewise a large number of Chinese who peddle clothes and silken stuffs from house to house. Whenever these Chinese hear that a stranger has arrived from overseas bringing silver with him, they go to his lodgings daily in order to try to sell their wares, and in such crowds and with such zeal that they have to be driven out of the house by main force, being a most greedy and covetous nation where silver and money is concerned. For the reasons outlined above, I believe that Maccauw or Maccaus may justly be considered as the best, strongest, and most profitable of the Portuguese possessions in the Indies, - I having visted the majority of them. The trade driven there, consists in gold, according to touch; refined silver; raw white silk; countless manufactured goods; gold lacquers; pearls; rubies; musk; quicksilver; zinc; very fine china-ware; china-root; Rhubarb."

Those Chinese offended by his characterization of their culture as greedy and covetous can take comfort in this last word: Rhubarb. Now, while it is a mild oath today in Antipodean countries such as Australia or New Zealand, it was a highly prized commodity in 18th century Europe (particularly Britain given its indigestible cuisine of that era) for one reason - it cured constipation. And where did one get rhubarb? It was hard to grow in Europe, but it was easily harvested in China. No doubt he had some need of the good Rhubarb himself, since it was the only word that he capitalized in his long list of commodities!

For those needing practical directions on the use of rhubarb, visit this site. Dr. James Duke recommends the following remedy:

“Rhubarb has strong laxative action so it is best to use it with other juices. Here’s how you can use this herb. Blend together three stalks of rhubarb, without leaves, 1 cup of fresh apple juice, and one quart of peeled lemons and one tablespoon of honey or maple syrup. This tart drink will help you with your constipation. Drink one glass three times a day.”

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

First Contact Between Britain and China

The first recorded contact between Britain and China occurred on the voyage of Admiral Weddell to Macau and Canton, for the purposes of trade, in 1637. Yesterday was the anniversary of their arrival, as Mr. Mundy records that on the 28th of June, 1637, "...[we] went ashoare in the barge with our Kings Majesties lettre and our Admiralls to the Captaine Generall of Macao." Their sojourn in Macau was diligently recorded by one Peter Mundy, and is unique in that it is the only English record (and virtually any record) of a Macau that had reached its peak.

But it is more important than that. It was also the historic point of "First Contact" between the Chinese and English-speaking civilizations. The experience, it is clear, set the tone for subsequent expeditions and approaches to the Celestial Empire of China. Weddell's voyage consequently deserves greater attention today, given the continuing tectonic friction between the two civilizations and the impact that friction has on the rest of the world.

Mundy and his fellow travellers, not suspecting any double-dealing from the Portuguese or the Chinese, had high hopes initially for their expedition, as he said: "They [the letters of the King] were reaved with much respectt and an Answear promised the Next Day."

On that first day, Mundy and his companions were brought to the Jesuit College of St. Paul's, which he exclaimed, inside, had a "rooffe of the Church aperteyning to the Collidge is of the fairest Arche I ever saw to my remembrance, of excellentt worckemanshippe, Don by the Chinois [also by the Japanese, actually - Ed.], Carved in wood, curiously guilt and painted with exquisite collours..." He also remarked of the facade, which is all that is left today, "Allsoe there is a New Faire Frontispice to the said Church with a spacious ascent to it by many steppes; the last mentioned of hewen stone."

Unfortunately, this honeymoon with the Portuguese of Macau did not last. They were all confined to their boats and not allowed on land, and their only contacts with the Portuguese or the Chinese were the occasional delivery of supplies to their boat, for a considerable sum. They were made to watch as the Portuguese Voyage to Japan made good their preparations and made sail for Japan in July. Peter Mundy remarked in his journal bitterly: "...if wee had Free trading here would allsoe trafficke For Japan, and thatt theirby theirs would Decay and soe consequently proove their utter undooing makes them soe unwilling to Deale with us, or thatt wee should have any Commerce att all with others in these parts."

The British, unaware of the Byzantine niceties that surrounded the ambiguous Portuguese sovereignty of Macau, did not realize that the Chinese wanted the Portuguese there not just for trade, but also as a filter to make sure other barbarians did not come their way. The British were convinced that if only they were able to make direct contact with the Chinese in Canton, they could do their trade, and be on their way. So on July 29th, Weddell moved his ships up the Bocca Tigris towards Canton. Portuguese advice that the Chinese would fire upon them was disregarded as lies to prevent them from trading.

Chinese war junks did follow them, but did not open fire. The British stopped at a village on the Pearl River, where they were offered some simple hospitality. Then, for the first time, a British man tried tea. Peter Mundy gives us this historic moment: "The people there gave us a certaine Drinke called Chaa, which is only water with a kind of herbe boyled in itt. It must bee Drancke warm and is accompted wholesome."

Their trip is a long saga that combined the worst of Chinese official delaying tactics and British frustration that boiled over into depredations taken out upon the countryside of the Pearl River. British merchants, taken as hostages, were eventually released with the Portuguese as negotiators. The British were allowed this once to trade, but were told never to return; the business also cost the Portuguese a great deal to the Chinese for them to allow the Portuguese to keep Macau.

When they finally departed Macau in December, Mundy went to call upon Macau's Captain-General once more. Before he had even made the top step of his office, the Captain-General flew out in a rage, and "hee Fell a Rayling in a Most violent Manner with uncivill and Discourteous language, asking if wee knew where wee were, if wee Did not thincke ourselves in the King of Spaines Dominion, or Did know him to bee generall; whither wee thoughtt our selves in London, Miscalling us by the Name of Picaros, Borachos, Traidores, etts., to say, Rogues, Drunkards, traitors, etts,; and that wee should Forthwith Depart to our Shippes, and thatt whomesoever hee Found ashoare in the Morning, hee would cause him to bee hangued and Confiscate all the goodes Found in the towne."

So ended the first British voyage to Macau. The reaction of the Chinese, while unrecorded by Mundy due to language difficulties, can only be imagined to be ten times worse. The British felt the same way as they sailed away. But the mutual frustration on both sides only boiled over 200 years later, in the Opium Wars...

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Korean War in Hong Kong

Yesterday marked the day in 1950 that the United Nations, taking advantage of a Soviet absence in the Security Council, declared its military support for South Korea. Today also in 1950, marked the fall of Seoul to the North Koreans. With only 8 South Korean divisions of questionable battle-readiness, the vastly larger and better-prepared North Korean army of Kim Il-Sung was always going to win many initial victories.

Britain was naturally one of the main parties sending troops to Korea (the United States having sent the largest contingent). But troops of many nations came to the aid of the South Koreans in their hour of need. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, then based in Hong Kong, were told by August that they were going to the Peninsula. However, one must remember the fearsome situation Hong Kong was in - the Nationalist resistance in China had been defeated, and just across the border from Hong Kong, in Shenzhen, was a large contingent of People's Liberation Army soldiers. It seemed a miracle that the CCP had not ordered its troops into Hong Kong; the fall of Hong Kong in 1941 to Japan had proven that the city was not really able to mount effective resistance to an attack.

In fact, during the course of the War, Chiang Kai-Shek had grown increasingly vociferous in his demand that Hong Kong be returned to Nationalist China after the conflict. Franklin D. Roosevelt (D. standing for Delano, his maternal family of stalwart Republicans that had once trading opium along the China Coast for Russell and Company) in fact promised this to Chiang, and asked Churchill to give his assent to this plan. This was refused, and upon the cessation of hostilities Churchill had a destroyer from Australia proceed under full steam to Hong Kong to land Rear Admiral Harcourt on August 16th, much to the annoyance of Chiang, who by that time had lost his staunch ally FDR (replaced by Harry S Truman).

But the expected attack from the Communists on Hong Kong never came. However, it was thought that with the Korean War starting, and the Cold War on in full force, that Hong Kong would come under increased scrutiny by Communist officials that might want to reduce this outpost of a dying British empire. To be sure, many Communist agents infiltrated the colony, and caused an increased level of instability among organized labor. However, that was the beauty of Hong Kong to China and to Mao, who had always promised never to touch Hong Kong - it was a window for China into the rest of the world.

Even when MacArthur overstepped his orders and crossed the Yalu River, prompting China's entry into the war on the side of North Korea, China made no move to enter Hong Kong, even when Chinese soldiers were dying at the hands of British soldiers. For China, Hong Kong remained inviolate; the leadership saw from the beginning it had value to them far outweighing the granite the Colony stood upon. Hong Kong looked north with great trepidation, particularly its most recent, wealthy emigres from Shanghai, but the troops never crossed the border.

Still, imagine the fear and courage it took for the thin British Garrison in Hong Kong to man their posts at Lo Wu and Sha Tau Kok, knowing the huge numbers of Chinese troops hardened by years of battle against the Japanese and the KMT forces. Crossing the border at Lo Wu has long lost its fascination for many of us, as easy as it has become over the past quarter century. But not long ago, it was very different...

Monday, June 27, 2005

The Old Rice Fields of Sha Tin

A fact of the day has presented itself to me in the form of a footnote near the end of Austin Coates' China Races. It is thus:

Sha Tin - it means sandy fields - once produced what was probably the finest rice in the world, a long, thin grain of exceptional fragrance. In former times the entire crop was purchased annually for the Imperial Court in Peking. After the Revolution it became possible for the first time for Hongkong people to purchase the rice, by going out to the valley and buying direct from farmers. The rice was never served in restaurants; it all went into private houses, and even there it was served only on very special occasions. The valley is now completely urban, and Sha Tin rice exists no more. Attempts were made to plant it in other parts of the New Territories, but it nowhere achieved the quality it had when grown in its home valley.

Mr. Coates would certainly have known about this, given his career as British magistrate in the New Territories, chartered in what was possibly his finest work, Myself a Mandarin. There may still be records of the rice-growing at the traditional building housing the Shatin Rural Committee, now dwarfed by the Sha Tin KCR station and the huge mall nearby...

The Dawn of Racing in Hong Kong

Over the weekend there was a rather interesting article in the SCMP (which I sadly can't link to due to the online subscription required) about how the oldest known trophy for Hong Kong's races, dating back to around 1850, was being brought back to the city. It just so happens to have coincided with my reading one of Austin Coates' reliably excellent books - in this case, China Races, about the history of racing on the China Coast (and commissioned by the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club).

Racing has always had a central role in being not only an interesting and enjoyable diversion for most of Hong Kong, regardless of race, but was also a medium for bringing all these races together. Most European leisure pursuits, at least in the 1840s, were regarded by most Chinese as being a little mad - at best. But they were entranced by the phenomenon of horse-racing, or, given the sport's history here, of China pony-racing, from the very beginning. It was the one obsession all races, so to speak, participated in with the same enthusiasm. In Shanghai, in 1926, one Bertie Burkill, then Chairman of the Stewards of the Shanghai Race Club famously remarked to the Chairmen of the two Chinese racing clubs in Shanghai:

"Factions come and factions go, and generals rise and fall, but it seems that our Chinese friends will always remain with us; and I have come to believe, so well do we get on together, that if the three race clubs had the power to rule this country, they would do it very well."

Even in stuffy colonial Hong Kong, the Chinese were allowed to become members of the Hong Kong Jockey Club back in 1926, thanks apparently to Paul Chater, who was then chairman of the Club (and had been from 1892 until 1926). This was a man who arrived, aged 18, in 1864, went to his first race meeting next February, and did not miss another meeting for 61 years until his death in 1926.

The first known races were organized by the British East India Company in Macau, on a dirt track a few miles outside of the city, eventually called Areia Preta. Although it started inauspiciously, with the local villagers complaining to the local mandarin about the track upsetting their feng shui, it ended amicably with the mandarin actually attending the proceedings and having a jolly time.

Its importance was so great to the British of the China Coast that by 1844, just three years after having arrived in Hong Kong, the local government went to the trouble to ask London to allow them to seize land owned by Wong Nei Chung villagers on the only flat area on the island - Christened by a man with a sense of irony as Happy Valley (given that it was the site of the already extensive colonial cemetery). The request was made by Governor Davis ostensibly for draining the malaria-infested swamp that made up much of the area. But the grand scheme was to build something on it. What would they build on new colony Hong Kong's only piece of flat land? A government office? Residences? Factories? A parade ground? No - on it, they were to build a racecourse.

But why did they build a racecourse? Despite having moved to Hong Kong, the British population of the city actually loved their annual trips to Macau (in 1842 and 1843) for the racing; it was universally agreed that Macau was a much more healthy place. But on 26 January 1844, just two weeks before the races, according to Coates:

"...the Government of Hongkong published for general information the text of the Consular Ordinance, No. 1 of 1844. Issued by Sir Henry Pottinger [the first and outgoing Governor] as Plenipotentiary in China, it authorized British Consuls to deal with all misdemeanours committed by Britons in any part of the Chinese Empire, and blandly went on to state that for the purposes of the ordinance the territory of Macao [sic] was 'deemed and taken to be within the dominions of the Emperor of China.'

This, calling into question Portugal's sovereignty over the Macao peninsula, produced fury in the Portuguese community there. It ended with exchanges at the highest level between London and Lisbon...The Portuguese reaction to the British was so hostile that it would have been impossible for the British to have landed either themselves or their horses there, let alone hold a race-meeting."

We've already discussed in previous posts and in our Macau walk how the Portuguese of Macau were incredibly touchy about the issue of the city's sovereignty. So this diplomatic gaffe resulted in the cancellation of race meetings, and required the British of Hong Kong to find a new home in Hong Kong. Think about that the next time you're in Happy Valley!

For more stories on the Jockey Club, you can also check out our Central walk available in English language bookstores around the territory.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Our New Chief Executive, and the Portents of Weather

I have stared out our office window today and wondered what it meant that Donald Tsang's first official day in office was greeted by torrents of rain and a red rainstorm warning. One could of course recall the huge rainstorm that greeted Prince Charles and Jiang Zemin on the day of the Handover and take it as an ominous warning. But then again, red is an auspicious color is it not? And now at 5pm, although the sky is overcast, it is still far better than what we had before, earlier in the day. An apt analogy, perhaps, for our second Chief Executive?

But of course the weather today was but a gentle zephyr compared to the typhoons that have devastated Hong Kong before. It is a good thing in retrospect that the first colonials did not pack their bags in the summer of 1841 when a huge typhoon had swept aside the matshed huts like houses of cards. It was not an ill portent, but rather a terrifying experience that strengthened them for things to come.

Still, one cannot help but feel pity for Doctor Benjamin Lincoln Ball, writing in his Diary of a Hong Kong Doctor, from his recollection of a typhoon in those early days, living in what we'd generously call today, rustic accommodation:

"Friday, September 1st 1848.

The night has been fearful, and one that I shall not soon forget. I could not sleep in the noise of so much clatter and crash till past three o'’clock. The house itself shook so that several times I was on the point of springing up, thinking that the roof was actually being wrenched off. Everything was made as secure as possible, and yet there was a constant din of cracking and falling glass. The wind gathered and groaned as if with Herculean efforts to level all with the ground. Again and again it came with increased power. Sometimes it seemed as if an immense serpent had encircled the building in its folds, and that the timbers, one after another, were giving way, and the sides of the house bring crushed in its fearful embrace. Amid the raging of the storm I at length fell asleep, and dreamed that I was in a terrible tempest at sea. I thought the vessel was driven with such force that it skimmed over the surface of the water, and then, leaving the sea, flew through the air over the land, coming in contact with the hills, and bounding along like a balloon across the valleys.

I arose this morning at eight, and, in returning home, was wet by a driving rain. It was so dark at Mr. Drinker'’s that we had lights on the table at breakfast, although at nine o-clock in the forenoon. All here had been terrified, and many fears entertained for the safety of the house. The doors and windows were barricaded, and required at times the united strength of all. The garden was in ruins. Plantain-trees were broken down, other trees, nearly destroyed, and flower pots were strewed about and broken up. The water in the harbour had torn and washed up into the garden large stones from the sea-wall; the walks had caved away, etc.

I walked out with a friend to see what havoc had been made elsewhere. We found the shore lined with wrecks of Chinese junks. Vessels were dismasted, and some were on shore. The bodies of drowned Chinamen were being carried away on boards. Sides of buildings were blown out, and the water near the shore was full of spars and drift-wood of various kinds. The slight bamboo houses were in ruins, while those more strongly built exhibited, more or less, evidences of the storm. Captains Watson and McLacklan walked down the shore, looking for their vessels, but could not anywhere identify them. Last night at the hotel they were quite anxious to get off to them, but no boat could be hired to hazard the attempt, and the Chinese boats were all on the opposite shore. Captain Clarkson of the Chicaora, is here this eve. He saved eighteen Chinamen from a boat containing eighty, which drifted upon him in the night. To save one of them he descended by a rope into the water, and, by a rope fastened to the body of the drowning man, drew him up. They had specie and opium on board, all of which was lost."

Very sobering stuff, Dr. Ball. Speaking of which though, might your reference to Mr. Drinker mean your whole account is an allegory about the dangers of over-indulgence?

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Macau's Desperate Battle For Survival, Part II

The blasting cannonades from the Dutch East Indiamen continued unabated all through the day of the 23rd. It kept the thin line of 150 Portuguese defenders from surveying the extent of the Dutch invading force or indeed, the damage done to their city (which only had in total 1,000 people there at the time). While substantial damage was done to more temporary structures and edifices, the walls of the city and many of the sturdy houses were less affected. Why was this? It was because the walls of the Portuguese forts and houses alike were made of a material called variously, taipa or chunambo. Antonio Bocarro, in his 1635 description of the city, explains it, and the fortifications of the main fortress of Sam Paullo (the Monte Fort), thus:

"The stronghold of greatest strength and importance in this city is that of Sam Paullo, dwelling of the Captain-Generals, otherwise called Madre de Deus. [note that at the time of the 1622 attack the Jesuits lived there, and no Captain-General had yet been successfully installed in Macau - the Monte Fort was part of a string of defenses in the old city that was not only next to the St. Paul's college of the Jesuits, but had actually incorporated it, and the church famed today for its ruined facade, into the city's defenses. This fact testifies to the great power of the Jesuits then - Ed.] It is on a prominent hill which dominates the whole City, on the top of which is built a wall, measuring 20 spans at its base, made of granite as far as 6 spans high above the ground, after which it it composed merely of earth mixed with straw, and beaten so strongly with pestles that it becomes exceedingly strong, and even better than stone in its ability to resist bombardment, since it does not loosen so easily. [this is the taipa we spoke of - Ed.] Walls made of this earth and lime are so durable, that as all the houses in the city are built of it, they have great difficulty in opening spaces for windows when they are finished, which they do by means of iron picks, with excessive toil and moil."

The excellent historian Charles Boxer, that dug up Bocarro's account, also then adds in a footnote:

"The strength of these old walls of well-beaten earth, straw and lime, is strikingly attested by the fact that to blow up a section of 130 metres it was necessary to use 1800 lbs. of gunpowder (nearly 13 lbs for each metre) in the middle of the last [19th] century."

Nevertheless, the Dutch went at their barrage. They were determined to take the town, not only to exact revenge for their hanged comrades two decades before, but to capture the town that they felt would give them a steady source of silk for sale in Japan (they had thus far needed to buy their silk from pirates in Formosa). They even tried to enter the outer harbour by bombarding the forts defending it, a frontal naval assault. They were forced to retire, however, with the loss of one ship thanks to the guns of those forts.

On the morning of the 24th, St. John the Baptist's Day, the Dutch resumed the bombardment on the harbour. But this time, that attack was a diversion, with their main force landing at Cacilhas Bay, near where the ferry terminal stands today. This beach on which they landed was only defended by an improvised sandbank, according to historian Austin Coates. Meeting only light resistance, they made their way through the undefended side of the city.

This roused every man in the city, whether merchant, priest or slave, to the city's defence. The Jesuits began to man the guns while the defending Portuguese soldiers engaged the Dutch in melee combat. This was the moment I had mentioned before, when Jesuit Father Jeronimo Rho landed a miraculous shot on his first attempt tbat scored a direct hit on the Dutch gunpowder magazine, which blew up spectacularly, and some of the Dutch leaders along with it.

Let me close with a quote fromby quoting Austin Coates' excellent book, A Macao Narrative, which I would also recommend heartily as an excellent read. The measure of its writing can be found below:

"Even after this loss, the Dutch continued to press their attack but being short of ammunition, and unaware of the perilously small size of the force defying them, they hesitated at the main entry into the city, between the hills of Monte and Guia. They were preparing to advance to take one of these hills and secure themselves, when Portuguese reinforcements arrived from the outer harbour forts, the defenders on that side having realized that the Dutch did not intend landing on the Praia Grande.

This unexpected increase in strength gave the Portuguese a sudden elan of confidence. The nation's battle cry - 'St. Iago!' - rang out from somewhere, and was a second later being yelled from every throat as the diminutive force, each man like one inspired, charged down from all sides upon the Dutch. Their onrush, after several hours of defensive action, confused their adversaries, making them uncertain how the battle was going, for the Portuguese were attacking with the fury and enthusiasm of those who believe themselves victorious. Under cover of all the fire they could muster, the foremost of the Portuguese closed with the enemy to engage him hand to hand.

The impact of their advance was decisive. The Dutch commanding officer was among the first to fall. As they lost sight of him, the invaders wavered. A moment later they were retreating in disorder to the boats. Chaasing them through the fields, the Macanese threw away their firearms and slew the Dutch with their swords. An African woman dressed as a man even killed two Dutchmen with a prong.

The rout was joined by the entire population, Jesuits included. Many Hollanders were killed, others taken prisoner, and several drowned while trying to reach the boats. It could not have been a more complete victory. On the following day, the Dutch sent ships flying a truce flag to ask for the ransom of the prisoners. This being refused, they sailed away..."

Which is why St. John the Baptist's Day is always a special day in Macau, despite the fact that the government forbids its official celebration as a colonial pastime. A good excuse to get on the ferry tomorrow!

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Macau's Desperate Battle for Survival, Part I

Today is another muggy summer day in the Pearl River Delta. It was on a day just like this one, 383 years ago on the 22nd of June 1622, that a flotilla of Dutch East Indiamen and warships descended upon on the surprised city of Macau.

Just decades before, Portugal had ruled the seas of East and Southeast Asia, by virtue of their early start in seafaring, experience with navigational equipment and exploratory vision of their leaders. But as we explain in our Macau walk, the Counter-Reformation, the Inquisition, the autos-da-fe and the emphasis of the new Habsburg monarchs on religion over secular knowledge led to a decline in Portuguese navigational ability. At the same time, Holland, newly freed from the Spanish Habsburg boot, had many advantages. Their people were also very experienced sailors - it is estimated that by 1670 fully 10% of the adult male population of Holland were seamen. Thanks to their low import tariff policy, their fluyts dominated trading routes all over Europe, including the most important commodity for building ships - wood, brought over from the Baltics. In 1596, their invention of the wind-powered sawmill gave them a dramatic edge in shipbuilding, and their East Indiamen were skillfully built such that small crews could manage the same amount of cargo as English or Portuguese ships with three times the men.

These advantages gave the De Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), or Dutch East India Company, a huge advantage over the Portuguese or even the British East India Company, which had been founded 2 years earlier in 1600. The Dutch ruthlessly and rapidly took over Portuguese shipping routes that had been left both vulnerable and undefended due to the Habsburg wars against the Protestants (including the Dutch) that had embroiled Portugal now that a Spanish Habsburg now sat astride the Lusitanian throne. The Dutch apparently had received intelligence that most of the sailors and fighting men of Macau were out at sea - driven to take up mercenary roles now that their trading routes and the frequency of their galleons had declined dramatically. So it was that 800-900 Dutchmen began their bombardment of old city of Macau with their guns.

It was fortunate for the Portuguese that the Dutch did not know about the weak link in their defences to the north. For the land on which Macau stood was considered Chinese sovereign territory, only leased to the Portuguese, and the Chinese were very suspicious of the walls the Portuguese had begun building after the first Dutch exploratory incursion in 1601. The Chinese had insisted that the main Portuguese defence, the Monte Fort, could not have any gun emplacements or strong walls facing north towards China. Had the Dutch known that, the city today would surely be known for beers and rijstaffels than for Douro wines and egg tarts. In 1606, the Dutch numbers were small, and many of them had been publicly hanged by the Portuguese. The locals knew these Dutchmen would want revenge.

The Dutch, however, did not disembark from their ship on the 22nd, nor did they the following day. Rather, they maintained the bombardment, a fearsome barrage of noise and shot that must have made the vastly outnumbered 150 Portuguese defenders despair of the outcome of the attack.

I shall describe the climax and denouement of this battle again tomorrow....Until next time!

(Below is a bond of the VOC, dating from 7th November 1623, a year after the attack on Macau)

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Queen Victoria and the Founding of Hong Kong

Yesterday, 20th June, marked the 132nd anniversary of the ascension of Queen Victoria to the throne of Great Britain. The Victorian era represents to historians the high watermark of British global power. As for Hong Kong, it was a young Queen in 1840 that made a speech from her throne in Westminster, according to historian Austin Coates, that "referred to events in China that affected the interests of her subjects and the dignity of the Crown". She apparently followed the Opium War with great interest.

She was nonplussed, however, after being advised by Lord Palmerston of chief British negotiator and Plenipotentiary Charles Elliot having obtained Hong Kong and a quick end to the war. She had said that "it appears that our man Elliot has attempted to get the lowest terms possible from the Chinese", and that, again according to Coates, she "expressed surprised amusement that her representative in China should have presented her with a scarecely-populated, barren granite rock." Elliot was soon summarily dismissed - he, along with last governor Patten, are the only ones without any street or building named after him (actually, the street known as Glenealy was initially known as Elliot's Vale, but was quickly changed after opinion shifted against him).

So, Elliot ended up in the dock for trying to make peace between the great nations of China and Britain. But he was not the only one. Also in hot water was Keying, the Chinese negotiator that had given away Hong Kong with the Treaty of Chuenpeh (superceded a year later by the Treaty of Nanking).

To quote Coates again (and for any who have not read it, Austin Coates' Macao and the British: Prelude to Hongkong 1637-1842 is excellent) for an amusing anecdote with which to wrap up proceedings today:

"The striking similarity between the positions of Elliot and Kishen has already been noted. It did not end there. Elliot was 'banished', first to Texas as British Consul-General, and subsequently to Bermuda, Trinidad and St. Helena successively as Governor. He knew nothing of what had become of Kishen, and when the latter's name came up Elliot would reflectively say in so many words, 'Poor fellow! I suppose they cut off his head.'

But Kishen too had been 'banished', and years later the Abbe Huc was received by him at Lhasa, where Kishen was the Emperor's representative. There the last strange similarity came out. Kishen, whose regard for Elliot was as Elliot's regard for him, with a sigh presumed that Queen Victoria must have had Elliot beheaded."

Monday, June 20, 2005

The Triads of Hong Kong

Last week we spoke about the phenomena of prostitution in Hong Kong. But to understand the mechanics of that business, one must really look at our city's Triad societies. (We also discuss the triads on our Tsim Sha Tsui walk) These criminal societies have been a menace to law enforcement since Hong Kong's earliest days; Samuel Fearon, an early colonial official, identified the ultimate source of criminality in Hong Kong as being triad societies even as early as 1842. Triad membership has been an offense in the city since 1844. However, due to the huge amounts of money their businesses in drugs, prostitution, gambling, copyright piracy and extortion command, and the huge coffers with which to corrupt police and officials, they are a difficult force to eradicate. Thankfully, it appears that the governments of Hong Kong, Guangdong and even Macau are making a genuine effort to control their activities.

Modern Triad societies have been a part of Chinese life for over 300 years. However, for their first two centuries they at least had some higher aspirations - to overthrow the Qing dynasty, which was made up of foreign Manchus, and replace it with Han Chinese leadership. For the first Chinese immigrants to Hong Kong, understanding the alien British justice system, let alone getting satisfaction from it, was nigh impossible. Not only was there a major language barrier, but the the concepts of jury trials, of a judge being separate from the prosecutor, of being innocent until being proven guilty, were all ideas that were not part of life in China. The British, at least initially, had only been able to recruit the dregs of English society, highly corruptible, into the Hong Kong police force, and none of them could speak any Chinese dialect. This made for a huge demand for justice and law enforcement in the Chinese community, and the Triads were only too happy to step into the breach. This was particularly the case after 1854, when the failed "Red Turban" Revolt that was suppressed by the Qing resulted in many triad members fleeing to Hong Kong.

The fact that the triads were operating in a colonial environment that created many grievances within the local Chinese community further made it a fertile breeding ground for the recruitment of new members. That was certainly why Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, Father of Modern China, found the triad societies so helpful in organizing money, men, arms and equipment throughout the Chinese community in Hong Kong and beyond in overseas Chinese communities; they were instrumental in bringing about the Revolution of 1911.

After the liberation of China from the Qing dynasty, however, the Triads gradually lost their idealistic elements. They were invaluable allies to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, particularly the 'Green Gang' of Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s. For many years after the KMT retreat to Taiwan, the Generalissimo continued to send floral bouquets honoring senior triad society leaders that had supported him during the Republican era.

One of the most famous triads, and one that is mentioned in The Standard article I quoted earlier, is the 14k. According to Bertil Lintner, a worldwide authority on Triads, it was founded by a Nationalist general named Kot Siu-Wong in 1947. Its name came from its first address, No. 14 Po Wah Road in Guangzhou. Upon the takeover of China by the Communists in 1949, the General took his followers south to Hong Kong, and set up an enclave in Junk Bay that flew a Nationalist flag until just before 1997. This society later spawned such underworld luminaries such as 'Broken Tooth'.

Today, there continues to be over 50 triad societies operating in Hong Kong, varying in size from a few hundred to several thousand. Most though, are not active members, reservists if you will, to be called upon in times of need for for specialty skills.

Let's see whether these government campaigns against the triads shall be sustained...

Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Realities of Today's Wanchai

Sometimes, one can get carried away with the literary or historic connections to a location, when the most sad, poignant facts about a location are here today, in the present. There is an excellent article in today's Standard about how the sex trade in Wanchai remains strong due to the efforts of ruthless recruiters in the Philippines or Thailand.

It is also easy for cosmopolitan, urbane city-dwellers to dismiss prostitution as a fact of life. It is a depressing irony though, that the world's oldest profession always seems to attract the youngest and most naive.

Friday, June 17, 2005

The Wonders of Wanchai

Many people have told us, why don't you guys do a Wanchai walk? You can talk about all the nightspots! Oh, and erm, the history too.

We've thought of it many times, particularly since Wanchai does indeed have a very fascinating history. Before the division artificially created by the army base and naval station in Admiralty, many initially thought Wanchai would make a fine area for European settlement. Those of you who know Wanchai well may know that near the famous Lee Tung Street, soon to be defunct home for the stores of Wedding Card sellers (check out Mark Greene's new website on Lee Tung Street) there is an innocuous, shabby, run-down street of character called Spring Garden Lane. On that lane was once the first house for the Governor of Hong Kong! Back then of course, there was a spring and a rather nice garden. Hence the name.

But of course, the history most people really want to hear about in Wanchai is that of its reputation as a louche gathering place for servicemen on their R&R breaks, or even for the Japanese troops once garrisoned here. That in itself was a fascinating episode in Hong Kong's history. In the 1920s and 1930s, a number of Japanese-owned and managed brothels and massage parlours sprang into existence in this neighborhood, catering to the tired and weary soldiers of His Majesty's Service. It was discovered later, to the Allied Commanders' horror, that the reason the Japanese were able to break through the gin drinkers' line and the Shing Mun redoubt so quickly, and target the British artillery so well during the invasion, was because of the excellent Japanese spy network in Hong Kong. This, of course, included the Japanese courtesans that worked in these brothels, gathering invaluable intelligence from British servicemen for their compatriots on the other side of the Lo Wu border. So successful, in fact, that the Japanese troops became their customers by the end of 1941.

Let me close today with a short excerpt from the excellent Richard Mason from his World of Suzie Wong, which you must buy and read if you have not already. He arrived in Hong Kong in 1956, during the interregnum between the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. Here he describes his protagonist's search for a cheap boarding house in Wanchai:

"I leant on the sun-warmed stone. A rickshaw went by, the coolie's broad grimy feet making a slapping sound on the road. Then my eyes fell on an illuminated sign amongst the shops. The blue neon tubes were twisted into the complicated, decorative shapes of Chinese characters. I recognised the last two. They meant hotel.

Well, that looks more my cup of tea, I thought. And right on the waterfront. Of course it would be perfect. So perfect that there must be a snag. Still there's no harm in trying.

I got up and crossed the quay, and turned into the entrance under the blue neon. And still not a suspicion passed my mind. Indeed the hall gave the impression of such solid respectability, with the middle-aged clerk behind the reception counter, the old-fashioned rope-operated lift, the potted palms at the foot of the stairs, that I was reminded of some old family hotel in Bloomsbury, and felt discouraged. It was all wrong for the waterfront of Wanchai - and anyhow would probably be too expensive after all.

I approached the desk and asked the clerk, "How much are rooms by the month?"


The clerk's fingers paused over the beads of his abacus: he had been making calculations from figures in his ledger, as though playing some musical instrument from a score. His Chinese gown, like a grey priest's cassock, gave him an old-fashioned appearance in keeping with the potted palm, the antiquated lift. His head was shaven, and he had several silver teeth.

"Month?" he repeated.

"Yes, don't you have monthly terms?"

"How long you want to stay?"

"Well, it would be a month at least..."

He gave me an odd look, then dubiously began a new calculation on the abacus. The beads clicked up and down under his fingertips.

"Two hundred and seventy dollars," he announced at last.

"A month?"

"Yes - month."

The Hong Kong dollar was worth one shilling and three pence, so that was about seventeen pounds - a little dearer than Sunset Lodge, but with cheap meals I could just afford it. I asked to see a room, and the clerk called one of the floorboys on the telephone while I went to the lift....

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Poetry in Hong Kong

I attended a poetry reading session last night. I walked in the door of the new Bookazine store in Jardine House, admittedly with a cynical attitude. It was actually attended by several poets that collaborated in a new anthology, about fatherhood (given the imminence of Fathers' Day), and several of the contributors read their own pieces. What I did expect was that there would be many expat poets, given that the language of expression was (mostly) English.

What I did not expect was that it was fantastic! To be sure, the poetry on offer was largely sad, either having to do with the emotions regarding the loss of a father, or of a father that was absent. But I was really impressed with the quality of the poetry I heard, given the small percentage of expats and foreign educated Chinese that make up our community. Their limiting factor is clearly not their talent (as I guiltily assumed before) but rather both the size of their audience, and the expectations of others. I realized as I stood there, rapt, listening to these poets hold forth, that I, too, had participated in the chip-on-the-shoulder post-colonial xenophobia attitude that as expats, even as long-term residents, they could not capture the mood or feeling of the city; I had gone in hoping that their poetry would at best ignore the city as a backdrop.

True enough, as the poetry was about fatherhood, Hong Kong did not loom large as the subject matter - the poets' fathers had generally been quite far away. But what I had an epiphany about is this - thoughtful poets can summon their talents to create a poignancy in the spoken and written moment, wherever they are. Just as bystanders can appreciate poetry, as long as they can understand the language, wherever it is they come from. A self-styled cosmopolitan city like Hong Kong should have greater tolerance and interest in such poets when they live in our midst. Unfortunately, it is the nature of ourselves to denigrate, subconsciously and consciously, those most accessible to us, and most needing our support.

Love of poetry in Hong Kong has a surprisingly long pedigree; one of the first governors of Hong Kong, John Bowring, was a poet of some fame, and Parsee Dorabjee Nowrojee, the founder of the Star Ferry, loved Lord Tennyson's poem "Evening Star" so much he named his service after that excellent ode. There is of course many poetic moments in the writing of Louis Cha, Hong Kong's very own best-selling author and founder of the martial arts genre novel (not to mention the Ming Pao newspaper).

One poet last night in particular caught my ear; her name is Madeleine Marie Slavick (also the MC for the event). She has lived in Hong Kong for some time, and I was so intrigued by a recent volume she published, called Delicate Access (by Sixth Finger Press) that I had to buy it right then and there. I'm so glad I did! I highly recommend you buy this book, which had been under its spell the moment I began to read it. What I love about her poetry most are the questions they ask about the great questions of life - love, death, feeling, experience. For all those doubters among you, I challenge you not to have a reaction to her Hong Kong poems, regardless of how long you have lived here. I found it very moving and stimulated many of my ambivalent emotions about the city. I shall close this blog entry today with one of her poems from this collection, entitled "the act of walking" (given our business, I love this paean to awareness as a pedestrian, a counterpoint to the Han Suyin observation I noted a month or so ago):

the act of walking [apologies, Madeleine, my blog does not allow me to show my readers the subleties of the exquisite, deliberate spacing in your poetry - Ed.]

we ask
is walking and freedom the same thing?
the way we step
into stride
with the soft scissors of our metronome arms
sometimes we hum

how the head searches forward:
around the corner could be god
or a barricade of opinion
what does the sidewalk protect?

one, two horns sounding
tick goes the ear small goes the eye
nothing lives the same as yesterday
we do not need a purpose
to know this moment

a slow seeing is the revolution of kindness

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The History of the Telephone in Hong Kong

Ah, at last. Analysts have been saying that there will be a period of buyouts and consolidations in the Hong Kong mobile industry for almost as long as American Presidents have been trying to get Castro out of Cuba. An exaggeration of course, but the news today of PCCW's buyout of Sunday Communications for a little under US$200 million has been long-awaited news. Sunday's 3G license suddenly looks more credible, PCCW's vow to stay away from debt less so.

But why our interest, other than the fact that our main business of audio-guided walking tours is undertaken on a mobile phone? Well, today we'd like to share with you the interesting history of the telecommunications giant today known as Pacific Century Cyberworks and previously known as Hong Kong Telecom. Many of you may sneer and say that PCCW has little history other than that of an Internet firm that got lucky during the boom years, and that its founder Richard Li (son of Asia's richest man, Li Ka-Shing) benefited unfairly with his connections in receiving the Cyberport project without tender. Well, there may be merits to some of your arguments, but we would dispute the idea that Mr. Li and his company lack a sense of history.

Why? Because the Cyberport project is far from the first major project his firm has undertaken in Pok Fu Lam. All the way back in 1871, the newly-formed British firm Cable & Wireless, the self-styled 'nerve centre of the British empire', under visionary John Pender laid the first undersea telegraph cable to Hong Kong -it's very first direct connection to the outside world. And where was it laid? Telegraph Bay in Pok Fu Lam of course; hence the name. The company that did that, two years later christened the "Eastern Extension Australia and China Telegraph Company" and operating links between Darwin, Madras, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong and Shanghai, ultimately became part of Cable and Wireless.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, and it arrived in Hong Kong just a year later. By 1882, a company named the Oriental Telephone and Electric Company introduced Hong Kong's first telephone system, making it easy for a taipan to call his chair coolies to carry him from the Praya all the way up to the Peak. Kowloon, however, had to wait until 1905 to get telephone services, and no service existed between Hong Kong and Canton (Guangzhou) until 1931.

Now here it gets complicated; Oriental Telephone was later renamed the China and Japan Telephone and Electric Company, and by 1925 was renamed to be simply the Hong Kong Telephone Company (HKTC). The HKTC in 1925 received, in the grand old style of Hong Kong monopolies, the right to run a system here in Hong Kong for 50 years starting July 1st (does that sound familiar to Basic Law readers?). In 1938, on the eve of war, C&W which had been responsible for Hong Kong's external telecom links agreed to work together with HKTC to form a telecom company that would be responsible for the national network. Thirty years later (following the devastation and rebuilding of the network under Occupation) the Hong Kong government were so good as to extend the monopoly for another twenty years, from 1975 until 1995 (when New T&T, New World and Hutchison jumped on the fixed-line bandwagon).

As for Mobile, a wholly-owned subsidiary of HKTC, the Communication Services Limited (CSL) was given the first license to operate a mobile network in 1984, followed quickly by the Hutchison Telephone Company in the following year. I'll bet a lot of you bought into CSL's campaign and believed it always stood for 'Create a Simple Life'!

In 1988, a major change occurred when the HKTC and the local division of C&W merged to create the Hong Kong Telecom company - which became PCCW when Richard Li bought out C&W's stake in the firm in 2000.

Whew! There you have it, the history of telecoms in Hong Kong in a few minutes. How far we have come! For those interested in a milestone timeline, check out the OFTA site here.

Monday, June 13, 2005

The Importance of History Education in Hong Kong

Over the weekend, I had a chance to read Tristram Hunt's interesting comment in the Guardian newspaper, entitled: "Conscription of the Past." I have great respect for Mr. Hunt as an historian and for his work in urban studies. In this essay he argues that history should not be used for dogmatic ends by governments; as he says in his subtitle, "don't try to turn history into a simple-minded morality play." He suggests that the Tories had such plans up their sleeve had they won the last British election (they lost).

He compares the teaching of history in Britain, which he regards as pluralistic and allows students to reach their own conclusions, with more 'simple-minded' curricula in America, China or in the Balkans, for instance, that try to merge history and civic education to present the country's past in an overarching narrative as a struggle for the virtues it holds dearest. In America, that would be freedom and liberty; in the Balkans, ethnic virtue and superiority over others, and the remembrance of past slights; in China, it would be the superiority of its civilization and its suffering of injustices and atrocities at the hands of Western imperialists and the Japanese.

But I am afraid I must regard these criticisms as quite naive. The history of any nation has always been framed in terms of its greatest victories and successes, and is used as a rousing narrative to inspire nationalism. Benedict Anderson's seminal work, Imagined Communities, identifies these historical 'myths' as ones generated at the beginning of the age of the nation-state for consumption by its citizens to ensure their loyalty through identification with the state. Surely he must recognize that Britain has these historic narratives in abundance - the Magna Carta of 1215, the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, and the defense of Britain against Hitler in the 1940s. All state-generated histories are political, like it or not. The question is more: are the values it generates in the citizens good ones?

So we come now to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is virtually unique in the world as its own history has actually not been taught to its citizens. Hong Kong people have therefore not had their own national myths that pound home the virtues and values the city holds dear. Of course, the dictates of the market (thanks Gordon Mathews for the narrative of the market vs. state concept) have ensured that the pursuit of property as a value has grown unfettered by other politically idealistic considerations. However, while the value of the rule of law and the liberties (without democracy) enjoyed by citizens are appreciated in an abstract way, these ideals have not been reinforced by an imprinting of these values on the city's young minds through its history textbooks. The closest Hong Kongers have to a historical narrative taught in schools is: Hong Kong is a city of immigrants. There were a flood of immigrants after WWII, and over the past half century, hard work and business genius has lifted the city from poverty to prosperity.

Now, history education was suppressed during the colonial period by the British for good reason: the Opium War was never going to be an event that would inspire loyalty in its mostly Chinese subjects. But now, after the Handover, Hong Kong is in desperate need of a history curriculum that both tells its young citizens of its history, and of how the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of property have transformed the city into a First World enclave. Belief in the rule of law as a fundamental concept must be firmly ensconced in the young minds of Hong Kong's schoolchildren; it is not really today. History education is the best avenue to do so, and to turn these young Hong Kongers into responsible, civic citizens.

The alternative is that Hong Kong is increasingly taking its historic narratives from China. That will make Hong Kong an excellent Chinese city, with Chinese values. But it will require giving up on the advantages to which Hong Kong has currently over the mainland - a system of law and justice that is fair. A relatively uncorrupt bureaucracy. And sense of protection of individual liberty. This last and most important developed without democracy during the colonial period, but it continuing integrity is going to be the result of continued effort to teach the value of these principles to the public at large.

This is why we see history education as having a vital purpose - because Hong Kong's history is an excellent example of what good government can do to raise standards of living. The darker parts of the past should also be acknowledged too, such as the Opium War - these legacies are not the responsibility of the post-Handover government, and can be made part of a historic narrative that makes sense of why we 7 million people are here on what was once a 'barren rock.'

Friday, June 10, 2005

The Myth of Pervasive Opium Addiction?

Xavier Paules gave a fascinating talk last night on the Opium Dens in Canton during the Republican Era. Given that we discuss opium extensively in both our Central and Tsim Sha Tsui walks, we really enjoyed his exposition. The Dens in Canton had been previously outlawed for moral reasons associated not only with the evils of opium smoking, but with the imperialist connotations they involved, and as a living reminder of China under the Unequal Treaties with the West that started with the Opium War.

However, moral qualms gave way to practicality as legalizing opium dens in Canton served as a good way to stop the proliferation of illegal dens, and to also raise revenue for the government. The KMT-ruled Canton was desperately short of funds for the Northern Expedition to conquer China from the warlords. So, for twelve years, the phenomenon of legal, openly operating opium dens provided Chinese from all strata of society to enjoy opium smoking, usually in a social context. It is important, he stressed, to realize that as well as the down-and-out dingy dives, there were also sumptuous palaces bedecked with every amenity and service for the rich.

One issue Paules addressed was the iconic image of the emaciated, near-death opium smoker, clinging to his pipe like his last connection to this world. He said these photos were often used by anti-opium societies to decry the evils of the drug and the scourge it brought to the world. But while it undeniably had addictive effects, the truth was not always evident from the photos. Given that many of the smokers in those down and out opium dens were terminal illness patients taking opium as a palliative, a painkiller, the photos often drew a spurious connection.

A debate then broke out, for one audience member was maintaining that she had it on authority that one could become addicted by trying it three times. But I would tend to agree with Paules that opium is far, far less addictive than morphine or certainly heroin, far more distilled derivations of the poppy plant. That was why, it seemed, from the evidence he had gathered, that many people were able to smoke opium moderately and largely on social occasions as a way to get together with friends.

In support of this assertion, I quote contemporary colonial sources from Hong Kong, no less than the Colonial Secretary of the time Henry May, and the Governor, Sir Frederick Lugard. According to Crisswell and Watson:

"[Lugard's] sanguine view was personally endorsed by F.H. May, now Colonial Secretary, who asserted that, as Captain Superintendent, he had visited many divans and had not seen anyone ‘worse for the drug’, indeed he himself had ‘smoked many pipes in succession, with no result’. Lugard extolled the positive virtues of divans to extenttent that he made them sound like an Oriental equivalent to the suburban golf club. Divans were ‘places where the tired coolie may rest and enjoy a little opium, or where friends of the better classes may meet and discuss affairs. Such places contrast strongly with a public house in that they are quiet and orderly. Women and children are absolutely excluded.’ He suggested that to close the divans would encourage the sale of alcohol and lead to drunkenness and an increase in crime."

How amusing to think of the cream of the British establishment smoking opium in divans! Their statements, addressed to Parliament, would be utterly convincing were it not for the fact that they were justifying the huge opium revenue made from Hong Kong's government sponsored local, legal monopoly, which made up a staggering 15% of revenues at one point.

It is impossible for me to judge, having never had the privilege, like May, of trying the drug myself, but one must believe that opium was not as bad as the modern drugs like cocaine and heroin we have today. We'd love to hear your comments!

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Recreational Opium Use in the UK and Canton

Opium is a very important subject for us. Hong Kong, the city of moneyed dreams, was founded after all on the Opium trade. But today we'd like to expand on two less-known facts: that there was stiff resistance in Britain to the Opium War at the time, and that recreational opium use became an 'accepted' or 'normal' activity in both the UK as well as in China.

We have discussed in weeks past about how Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, using the well-thought out strategies of William Jardine, convinced Parliament to go with China over ensuring Britain's right to trade. But we have not talked about some of the more brave opposition to the war from more liberal Tories. None were more brave, nor more eloquent, than the young William Gladstone, already an important voice in the house. I quote some excerpts here from a old piece by Maurice Collis:

". . . I will ask the noble Lord a question. Does he know that the opium smuggled into China comes exclusively from British ports, that it is from Bengal and through Bombay? If that is a fact-and I defy the right honourable Gentleman to gainsay it-then we require no preventive service to put down this illegal traffic. We have only to stop the sailings of the smuggling vessels; it is a matter of certainty that if we stopped the exportation of opium from Bengal, and broke up the depôt at Lintin, and checked the cultivation of it in Malwa, and put a moral stigma upon it, that we should greatly cripple, if not extinguish, the trade in it . . . The great principles of justice are involved in this matter. You will be called upon, even if you escape from condemnation on this motion, to show cause for your present intention of making war upon the Chinese. They gave us notice to abandon the contraband trade. When they found that we would not, they had the right to drive from us from their coasts on account of our obstinacy in persisting in this infamous and atrocious traffic. I am not competent to judge how long this war may last, but this I can say, that a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know, and I have not read of. The right honourable Gentleman opposite spoke last night in eloquent terms of the British flag waving in glory in Canton. We all know the animating effects produced when that flag has been unfurled on a field in battle. And how comes it to pass that the sight of that flag always raises the spirit of the Englishmen? Because it has always been associated with the cause of justice, with opposition to oppression, with respect for national rights, with honourable commercial enterprise, but now, under the auspices of the noble Lord that flag is become a pirate flag to protect an infamous traffic."

It does demonstrate that there were people troubled by the dubious morality of the War. Sadly, then as now, there were too many flag-waving patriots eager to see an English victory, particularly in the wake of Britain's disastrous misadventures in Afghanistan. Gladstone, ever the classical liberal, supported free trade and low tariff barriers, but vehemently opposed supporting a British traffic in an illegal commodity with the use of armed force.

Perhaps, though, it will be the cause of some circumspection that later in life, Gladstone apparently enjoyed imbibing a small amount of opium with his tea. It does demonstrate though, that opium in its legalized context created desperate addicts but also sometimes with moderate consumption a pleasant, non-violent medium for friendly conversation or for creative endeavors, as Coleridge's poem Kublai Khan demonstrates.

Tomorrow evening at 6:30, Xavier Paules of the University of Hong Kong Sociology Department will give what should be a fascinating talk on "Canton Opium Houses, 1924-1936". It is sponsored by the French Center for Research on Contemporary China, and will be hosted at Room 304 in the Yu Yuet Lai Building on 43-55 Wyndham Street by Gilles Guiheux. Interested parties should contact Ludovic Lesur at

The abstract on the talk is as follows:
The 1924-36 period stands as a golden age for Canton opium houses as they enjoyed a legal status and became fully part of the official opium system. If their number was not very impressive, however, the concentration of Cantonese opium houses in certain districts was
remarkable. As I shall argue, this situation was the result of complex interactions between the authorities, anti-opium activists, dens rulers, and the smokers. As to their social life, opium houses were not necessarily halls of fame patronized by coolies and gangsters. On the contrary, they were most of the time places where common people liked to gather after work to
smoke a few pipes, relax and have a chat with other habitués."

Enjoy this little piece of .

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Man With the Rifle in Hong Kong Park

Many of you readers who work in Central will immediately know of whom I speak - as you ascend the gentle slope from the end of the overpass from Citibank Plaza in Hong Kong Park, towards Pacific Place, you will see a park bench on your left. Behind it is a life-sized bronze statue of a rifleman in an archaic-looking helmet. For those of you who have looked closely at this statue, you'll see him identified simply as John Osborn, Canadian in the Winnepeg Grenadiers.

But there is a great deal more to this man's story.

John Robert Osborn was born in Norfolk, England on the 2nd of January 1899. He served in the First World War as a seaman in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and saw action at the Battle of Jutland in May 1916. At the end of the war he moved to Saskatchewan where he farmed for two years at Wapella. He then worked with the maintenance division of the Canadian Pacific Railway in Manitoba where he married and had five children. He joined the Winnipeg Grenadiers in 1933 and was called to active duty on the 3rd of September 1939. At forty-two years of age he was the second oldest VC recipient in the Second World War. Company Sergeant-Major Osborn has no known grave but his name appears on the Hong Kong Memorial. His Victoria Cross medal is on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

This brave man's VC citation reads as follows:

"At Hong Kong on the morning of the 19th of December, 1941, a company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers to which Company Sergeant-Major Osborn belonged, became divided during an attack on Mount Butler, a hill rising steeply above sea level. A part of the company led by Company Sergeant-Major Osborn captured the hill at the point of the bayonet and held it for three hours when, owing to the superior numbers of the enemy and to fire from an unprotected flank, the position became untenable. Company Sergeant-Major Osborn and a small group covered the withdrawal, and when their turn came to fall back Osborn, single-handed, engaged the enemy while the remainder successfully joined the company. Company Sergeant-Major Osborn had to run the gauntlet of heavy rifle and machine-gun fire. With no consideration for his own safety he assisted and directed stragglers to the new company position, exposing himself to heavy enemy fire to cover their retirement. Wherever danger threatened he was there to encourage his men.

During the afternoon the company was cut off from the battalion and completely surrounded by the enemy, who were able to approach to within grenade throwing distance of the slight depression which the company was holding. Several enemy grenades were thrown which Company Sergeant-Major Osborn picked up and threw back. The enemy threw a grenade which landed in a position where it was impossible to pick it up and return it in time. Shouting a warning to his comrades this gallant Warrant Officer threw himself on the grenade which exploded, killing him instantly. His self-sacrifice undoubtedly saved the lives of many others.

Company Sergeant-Major Osborn was an inspiring example to all throughout the defence which he assisted so magnificently in maintaining against an overwhelming enemy force for over eight and a half hours, and in his death he displayed the highest quality of heroism and self-sacrifice."

I think I need say little else, save that this valiant man that fought in both World Wars had a wife and a family of five, and had arrived in Hong Kong just three weeks before he defended it with his life and death. Thank you, Sir, for your great sacrifice for a city you did not know, and for the future that we now enjoy. As the 60th anniversary of V-J Day approaches, let us not forget Mr. Osborn and his comrades.

Monday, June 06, 2005

The Origins of Hong Kong's Lane Crawford

Today, many visitors to Hong Kong's most luxurious shopping malls will soon find themselves within the elegant confines of Lane Crawford, by-words in these days for luxury, opulence and conspicuous consumption. We too, must let people know of this on our guided walks about Hong Kong's oldest continuously running store, especially if they come from out of town.

But while Hong Kong has long been the Emporium of the East (as Rudyard Kipling once said: "When you come to these parts, head straight to a bank, and deposit all your money. Tell the manager man to give you any, however much you ask. So shall you be saved from bankruptcy when you come to Hong Kong."), Lane Crawford has not always been the purveyor of finery to Hong Kong's high and mighty. The people at Lane Crawford must have realized this, which must be why they've left the company history conveniently out of their website.

In fact, in 1850, Thomas Ash Lane and Ninian Crawford set up a store that sold hard tack biscuits out of a matshed. Yes, that's right, for those of you less aware of the finer points of squatter building construction, a matshed is a hut made of rush mats covering a frame made of bamboo. Lane was a minor government clerk and Crawford was a retail shop assistant. The two made a business out of selling bread that would last for months-long, grueling sea voyages (indeed, they supplied the gruel).

This became an unexpectedly good business after the bread from the Chinese E. Sing bakery was laced heavily with arsenic, almost poisoning the entire expatriate population (Chinese didn't eat bread) had not the dosage been so strong that it induced vomiting. Lane and Crawford set up a full scale bakery of their own, and along with other bakers like Dorabjee Nowrojee (of Star Ferry and Hong Kong Hotel fame) made loads of money selling bread to both sailors and to Hong Kong residents. The ships they used to deliver bread became a good side transport venture.

Their business, from humble beginnings in a hut, were flush enough to build a 6-storey department store opposite Alexandra House in 1905, in a building purpose designed by architects Leigh and Orange. Anything was said to be available, from a 'pin to an anchor.' According to local historian Dan Waters:

"In the last decade of the twentieth century, Lane Crawfords caters for the affluent local community, and the emphasis is still on quality. The staff are mainly Chinese. This contrasts with a Lane Crawford staff group photograph taken in 1904, of European shop assistants and floor walkers, on a beach. The 33 members mostly wore long, one-piece swimming costumes [and no, they weren't Speedos! - Ed.], and several sported walrus moustaches."

So, the next time you stroll through one of Lane Crawford's temples to Hong Kong consumerism (including new branches in Shanghai, Hangzhou and Harbin), it may amuse you to think of sweaty huts and impressive displays of facial hair. Or not. Suit yourself (or they'll do it for you, haha).

Friday, June 03, 2005

Religious Tolerance in Macau

In our Walk the Talk guide to Macau, we often discuss the great influence of the Jesuits there, and their frequent clashes with their more orthodox Dominican brethren. However, it is also important to note that while the influence of Christianity ran deep in early Macau, it was also much less strict than in Portugal or other Portuguese territories that had been conquered by force. For one thing, the Chinese authorities, according to Charles Boxer (1938) would never have tolerated the auto-da-fe or more extreme punishments of the Inquisition; also the Viceroys of Goa had much less control over Macau. He cites Bocarro's 1635 monograph on Macau, which includes a very interesting division of the population into married Portuguese, married 'natives' (which included Chinese, Japanese, and Javanese) and then:

"...many Portuguese sailors, pilots, and masters, the majority of them married in the Kingdom (i.e. Portugal), whilst others are bachelors who sail in the voyages for Japan, Manila, Solor, Macassar, and Cochin-China. There are over 150 of these, some of them very wealthy, with capital of over 50,000 xerafines, and who are resolved never to go to Goa, lest they may be seized by the justices for some offence or by the Viceroys for His Majesty's service. There are also many rich unmarried merchants, to whom the same reasons apply."

Also, given that Portugal was under the rule of Spain at this time, the far-flung Portuguese outpost of Macau likely served as a hotbed of anti-Spanish rule from Iberia.

Casual 21st century observers of 17th century Macau may have a visual picture of a devout sea-faring community dominated by religious authorities; yet spirituality and very earthy secular concerns were suffused in the Portuguese colonial plan in equal measure. The fundamental conflict between these two impulses for God and for lucre, never wholly resolved, appears to us to be the fatal flaw that was the undoing of their empire. It was certainly the case in Japan, when Shogun Ieyasu discovered that he could trade with Dutch merchants for Chinese silk without having to tolerate the presence of Spanish and Portuguese missionaries. But that is a story for another time....

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Vietnamese Connection to Hong Kong

Five years ago today, the last refugee camp housing Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong was closed. After over a quarter century, Hong Kong's experience with resettling Vietnamese boat people had come to an end. What started as a very altruistic endeavor in the midst of the Cold War had, by 2000, become to the Hong Kong government an inconvenience and economic cost that it was no longer interested in bearing.

On our Tsim Sha Tsui walk, as we stroll down Haiphong Road, we ponder the once strong connections between Hong Kong and Vietnam. Vietnam once had many ethnic Chinese residents, only a fraction of which live there today. Most of them were merchants, captains of industry as well as importers that served as important conduits of trade between China and Vietnam. Hong Kong was also sometimes used as a base by Vietnamese revolutionaries, to the great discomfiture of the Colonial Government. Ho Chi Minh, for one, was once imprisoned in Victoria Prison - yes, the same Victoria Prison that the government is auctioning to the private sector for redevelopment.

During the Vietnam War, what many remember were the GIs here in town for R&R. But also during that period, many wealthy Chinese saw the writing on the wall for South Vietnam and emigrated to Hong Kong and often from here to the West. Ethnic Vietnamese also fled here, trying to start a new life after years of war and chaos. Hong Kong initially welcomed them, particularly the wealthier ones, as they did the Chinese that had come just decades before from Shanghai and other places in Mainland China. However, after the fall of Saigon in 1975, the steady trickle of refugees turned into a flood, and public opinion in Hong Kong began to shift against taking the immigrants, particularly as immigrants from China were regularly being caught and turned back at Lo Wu.

However, due to the political situation in Vietnam, the government was bound by its agreements on the status of refugees with regard to the UN, and continued to accept boat people that had made the dangerous, pirate-infested journey from Vietnam to Hong Kong. As the 1980s drew on, however, the tolerance of the government in Hong Kong was further stretched, and active efforts were made to discourage new arrivals. The camps were crime-ridden slum settlements, many of the boat people were refused permission to work, and no schools were set up for the children that had come along, to the protests of local human rights groups. In 1988, Hong Kong announced that it would eventually repatriate Vietnamese refugees that had come for economic rather than political asylum.

The crack of Hong Kong's open doorframe was successively reduced until it was finally closed in the 1990s. By the end of 2000, most of the remaining boat people were convinced to leave. Some made it through and have integrated into Hong Kong society, but many more have not. It goes to show that even in a city of immigrants like Hong Kong, tolerance for newcomers has its limits.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Walking Tours in Hong Kong A Century Before

There is an excellent 19th century book written by a colonial official, E.J. Eitel, actually a German, that wrote a book called Europe in China. Published in the late 19th century, it is a valuable primary source, and often, the first source turned to about Hong Kong's past by English-speaking historians.

In it, there is a fascinating section on tourism in Hong Kong. I must quote from it one gem:

"The prevailing opinion among tourists visiting Hong Kong for the first time seems to be that there is little or nothing in the island worthy of their attention. This is a great mistake, however; and although the climate can hardly be considered as conducive to a lengthy stay (except during the six winter months, when magnificent weather usually prevails), a week spent in exploring the highways and by-ways of this beautiful island cannot fail to charm. It is doubtful if the walk from the Happy Valley, along Bowen Road, return to the city through the Botanical Gardens, can be excelled in any other part of the world."

Eitel, like many long-time residents of the city, came to believe that the city was best explored on foot as a walking tourist. We can't help but feel the same way today, and although the weather today is no better, we at least have the consolation of air-conditioning to ease our discomforts. And today, as it was over a century ago, the walk along Bowen Road from Central to Happy Valley continues to be one of the wonders of Hong Kong - many joggers today agree with me, including the Right Honorable Tung Chee-Hwa, whom I once encountered on that particular 'by-way' with his bodyguard. But let me leave that story for another time...