Monday, June 27, 2005

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.

No comments: