Friday, July 29, 2005

Governor Hennessy and Wing Lok Street

Many of you who've been to Hong Kong may have spent some time on the corner of Wing Lok Street, a short road sandwiched between Queen's Road and Des Voeux Road as both major arteries head into Western district. Today it is a busy crossroads with mobile phone shops, restaurants, and an entrance to the MTR station that emits thousands of busy pedestrian subway riders every day.

What you may not know though, is that Wing Lok Street in 1878, during the tenure of Governor John Pope-Hennessy, was the site of perhaps Hong Kong's most daring robbery. Now Hennessy, has we have revealed in previous posts, had taken a liberal attitude towards rules for the Chinese, and had removed some of the more strict punishments for Chinese criminals like flogging and branding them before deportation to the mainland. The colonial community was up in arms at these relaxations of the rules, which they felt were the only thing standing between order and anarchy. They felt that a rise in the crime rate was attributable specifically to these moves. They didn't like his appointment of Ng Choy, the first Chinese in Legco, to the chamber either.

So imagine the outcry when the following incidents took place, as described excellently by Crisswell and Watson in their book on the Hong Kong police force, 1841-1946:

"On September 25th 1878 there was a sensational attack on a gold dealer'’s shop in Wing Lok Street by between 80 and 100 armed men. The robbers, reputedly from Sham Shui Po, had planned their attack well, to the extent of extinguishing the gas lights in Wing Lok Street and the surrounding area. They fought a retreat and eventually escaped on a stolen steam launch."

I shall save you the trouble of imagining the reaction of the newspapers by relaying the story run in the Hong Kong Daily Press:

"such an audacious attack on property as that which took place in Wing Lok Street yesterday morning has not been perpetrated in the Colony for many long years. Matters have surely reached a climax when a band of desperadoes armed with guns, swords spears and stinkpots can assemble and hold a street for some time before it is possible to disperse them. The seizure of the steam launch was an appropriate consummation to the daring defiance given to the Authorities by these miscreants. The Police showed plenty of courage and no lack of promptitude when they ascertained the position of affairs, but their arrangements were not equal to the emergency. Some two years ago we were able to congratulate the community on the decrease in crime of a serious character in Hong Kong, to compliment the police on their increased efficiency and everyone fondly hoped that the old days of frequent highway robberies and burglaries were over and done with. Then came Mr. Hennessy with his new-fangled and humanitarian views as to the treatment of criminals."

The effects were immediate. The colonial community not too long after demanded the Governor's resignation and wrote many letters home to the Secretary for the Colonies. It didn't work immediately, but eventually they got their way. Hennessy was a man before his time, which is why even though many Chinese came to see him off on his departure, not one colonial resident of Hong Kong did the same; it was not until the 1920s that 'Hennessy Road' was named after him in his honor. Appropriately, the road running through Wanchai was in the heart of a Chinese district.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Des Voeux Road: A Milestone of Growth

Des Voeux Road attracts little notice in Hong Kong today, although it is a broad wide street, branching off from Queen's Road at the Old Bank of China building and then curving lazily to the left as it passes Legco and Statue Square into the Chinese Western district. Yet the road is in fact a key market of the growth Hong Kong has experienced, both financially and physically, since it sprang into existence 125 years ago.

As I mentioned in a recent blog, Hong Kong was always a city constrained by space, and thanks to the lobbying efforts of Legco member Paul Chater, the first major harbour reclamation was undertaken by Governor William Des Voeux. While Chater's proposal might seem a no-brainer today, the owners of frontage property rebelled against the idea, not wanting to lose their harbourfront location without substantial compensation. In the end, Chater convinced them to agree to the plan by giving them first rights to purchase plots on the new land being created in front of their existing property. So it was that the frontage waterline, then known as the Hong Kong Praya, was brought into existence, in 1881.

Chater was an excellent businessman thanks to his negotiation skills. On the new land he secured for himself at a knock-down price a plot of land that he was to use to build an electricity generation plant - a plant that would be owned by a company he was creating called the Hong Kong Electric Company. The plant would supply the needed electricity for the rapidly expanding district of Central. It was to be a coal-fueled plant, supplied of course by coal he would bring over from the coal mine he owned in Vietnam.

It was the Governor, though, who had to actually execute the planned reclamation, and this waterfront street, when it was brought inland by further reclamations in the 1920s, was renamed "Des Voeux Road" in his honor. A major legacy of Des Voeux Road as Hong Kong's waterfront street still remains though - the tram. The Hong Kong Tramways tram car, still a steal at HK$2 a ride, meanders along what was once the waterfront when it first went into operation at the beginning of the 20th century.

Governor Des Voeux was a cosmopolitan fellow: he was born into a British family in Baden-Baden Germany (the Teutonic Monte Carlo spa town), then studied law at Oxford and University of Toronto. When he came to Hong Kong as Governor, he was already an experienced administrator, having served in British Guiana, St. Lucia, Fiji, Trinidad and in Newfoundland. The Colonial Office thought that Hong Kong needed a 'safe' pair of hands after the 'dangerously' progressive government of John-Pope Hennessy, who had the startlingly radical idea of pushing for equal rights for the Chinese and ceasing more odious rules like forcing Chinese to carry around passes and lanterns at night. Des Voeux did indeed approve the roll-back of some of these reforms. He also inaugurated the 'Peak Tram', which in 1888 marked the social stratification of colonial society and institutionalized geographically as well as socially, its exclusion of Chinese from it.

So Des Voeux had his work cut out for him to make a positive impression on the local Chinese community. He therefore organized a 'meet-and-greet' in Central after his arrival in the Colony. Many Chinese enthusiastically turned up, so many that Des Voeux by the late morning began to feel a bit peckish. He retired to Government House for lunch, but when he came back to town he was horrified to see that all the prominent Chinese of Hong Kong were still waiting for him, but with their smiles gone.

He lived down this episode and ultimately established amicable relations with the Chinese community. His legacy to the city, the land reclamation policy, is one of the most physically tangible, and it is right that he be remembered with a street that pushed forward the boundaries of Hong Kong.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

St. Francis Xavier on the 'Ruins of St. Paul'

On our Macau walking tour through the heart of the old city, we naturally bring people to the Mater Dei church, popularly known as the 'Ruins of St. Paul'. It is so named because it was part of the College of St. Paul, built by Jesuits as 'the greatest center for learning in the East' at the end of the 16th century to provide a training ground for priests to convert the millions in China and Japan.

There many things to discuss in the facade, but what makes it particularly interesting is that St. Paul himself does not feature on it! When the Mater Dei church was conceived and plans of it were sent to the Vatican for approval, the fifth tier of the facade was to have two statues flanking the entrance to the church - St. Peter and St. Paul. But in the 16th century, Macau was a long, long way away from Rome, and so when the Jesuits built the church they replaced Peter and Paul with saints from their own order - St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder, and St. Francis Xavier, the greatest preacher of the Catholic church since the time of the apostles! This move by the resident Jesuits indicates both in what high regard they placed these two figures of their movement, and the power and confidence they had in tricking Rome.

We mention this today, because today is the anniversary of St. Francis Xavier's arrival in Kagoshima in 1547. While St. Francis had been in Malacca five years earlier, he had met a samurai that had accompanied the first Portuguese ship to visit Japan back to Portuguese territory. St. Francis had great hopes for converting the Emperor of Japan himself, and set off for Japan in 1547, which is the year he first set foot on the islands. The picture on the right is a stele that celebrates St. Francis in Nagasaki.

I thought today, rather than tell you St. Francis' story in my traditional manner, I would let us see the script for the St. Francis Xavier 'option' you can listen to on our Macau tour near the Ruins of St. Paul. We may also do free 'podcasts' of selected audio options of our walks in future - let us know if you'd be interested!

"“Saint Francis Xavier is the Catholic ChurchÂ’s most famous missionary, considered its greatest preacher since the time of the Apostles. Indeed, the Jesuits venerated their predecessor so highly they saw fit to have his statue along with St. IgnatiusÂ’ framing the entrance to this façade in place of Peter and Paul. His zeal took him on perilous journeys stretching 37,000 miles across the world, performing miracles and converting thousands to Christianity. His death in 1553 on the nearby isle of Samchuan on a mission to reach China has been a source of inspiration to many generations of Jesuits.

St. Francis was born into a Basque noble family in 1506. He was a brilliant student at the University of Paris and a career as a professor stretched before him. However, while there he met fellow countryman Ignatius Loyola and against his familyÂ’s wishes he made the vows of the Society of Jesus and was ordained a priest in 1537. When the Pope recognized the Order in 1540, King John III of Portugal asked him and two other Jesuits to sail for Goa; he gladly accepted. The nobleman was soon to be found criss-crossing India, preaching the Gospel wearing just simple robes and with the support of his walking stick.

He moved to Malacca in 1542 and began using it as a base for proselytizing across the Indonesian islands, Sri Lanka and India. He also generated many converts in Malacca, purportedly having performed various miracles, including prophesy, healing the sick and even raising the dead. After a sneak Achinese attack on Malacca in 1547 that left the Portuguese navy decimated, he preached a crusading attack against them. The sailors, swayed by his oratory, departed for battle. Despite expectations of failure, during Mass he fell into a trance and said the battle had been won. The sailors duly returned with news of a great victory.

That same year, St. Francis met with a samurai from Japan. When he heard of the country, he resolved to go there to convert them. He duly arrived in 1549, bearing fabulous gifts, and spent a year learning Japanese. Although he did not succeed in converting the Emperor, he did manage to make many converts across the country, including some daimyo feudal lords. After his success he returned to Malacca and Goa in 1552. He set out the next year for China, but unfortunately was not able to convince a local to bring him to the mainland. After a short illness, he died on the nearby island of Samchuan, within sight of mainland China. When his body was exhumed three months later, it had suffered no decay, and showed no signs of it during its journey via Malacca to Goa, where it is buried. To this day, the body is remarkably well-preserved. His memory is much cherished by Catholics worldwide; particularly in those congregations he started himself."

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Wanchai and Spring Garden Lane

I had a request over the weekend for more stories about Wanchai, and also about old Hong Kong streets. Today I shall endeavor to satisfy both curiosities. I was reminded of Spring Garden Lane by the excellent exhibition of Chinnery's works currently on display at the Hong Kong Museum of History. Chinnery although already old and sick, spent several months in the brand-new colony of Hong Kong, and captured its topography well from interesting and unusual angles. One of them was of Spring Garden Lane in Wanchai. But what was he doing painting it?

Many people associate Wanchai with Mason's "The World of Suzie Wong", or with being an entertainment district. Yet at the beginning of Hong Kong's colonial history it was not meant to be such at all. In fact, it was meant to be an European residential area, much like Central. The Governors of Hong Kong, in fact lived here until the 1850s, until Government House was completed. It appears from Chinnery's picture to be a lovely little place, with a small stream running nearby - hence the name. Of course, the stream today is gone, and it remains bucolic only in name - on it one can find a waste disposal centre, several cheap clothing stores, a sushi shop (an excellent one in fact) and I believe one snake liquor vendor. What happened?

Urban decay always has a reason, particularly in a city that has, more or less, been on an upward trajectory overall for the past 160 years. The problem, believe it or not, was the military. The military set up their encampment on the hill above Queensway (which ran by the water at that time), and in fact had the temerity to unceremoniously evict Jardine Matheson from their leased property so that the Army could build Flagstaff House (once known as Headquarters House). As you'll see from the link, the British frantically trying to prevent Flagstaff House, the oldest colonial building in Hong Kong, from being turned into a symbol of anti-colonialism, pre-empted any such moves by turning the building into a Museum of Tea Ware. All of the area today known as Pacific Place became the site of the main British barracks.

Combined with that, the Royal Navy later requisitioned all the land between the road known as Queen's Way and the waterline for the Navy Dockyards. I hate to disappoint Gunners fans, by Arsenal Street was not named after the football club Woolwich Arsenal, but rather after the munitions store the Royal Navy maintained near that site.

As a result of these land requisitions, Wanchai became cut off from Central and from Hong Kong's budding business district. Merchants and administrators alike increasingly moved out of Wanchai in favor of Central, preferably as far up the hill as possible. At the same time, having all those servicemen milling about meant that there had to be somewhere for them to go - and over the course of several decades, they increasingly gravitated towards Wanchai. According to the excellent essay by Carl T. Smith entitled Wanchai: In Search of an Identity, though, it was not until the 1930s that Wanchai had established itself firmly as a louche entertainment district.

By that time, Spring Garden Lane had become a street of high-class brothels, with elegant open-air balconies where the ladies would display their wares from an attractive vantage point. So, from Governor's House to merchants homes' to brothels and now to shophouses and restaurants - Spring Garden Lane has seen it all...

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Jail Ship On Stonecutter's Island

Thanks to all of you for your story suggestions. I'll be incorporating them over the next couple of weeks. And Madame Chiang, if you have any specific streets you'd like to hear about, I'd be happy to oblige...

In the 1860s, Hong Kong's crime rate had fallen somewhat from its first two decades, but the number of criminals in the Colony had still remained obstinately high. Also there were frequent arrests and convictions of many members of the Chinese community that might not have occurred had they known the laws of the land. In the 1850s, for instance, according to research conducted by local historian Christopher Munn, it is estimated that fully 8% of the Chinese population of Hong Kong came before its courts, which is high by any standard.

Hong Kong's problem at the time was that there wasn't really any place to house all these criminals. Victoria Prison, which earlier Hong Kong residents had speculated was a desirable place for Chinese criminals to end up, because they were fed, had become massively overcrowded. The prisoners were frequently left together in common rooms, where medical witnesses of the 1860s reported were filthy, with extremely low hygiene standards and where prisoners were 'committing unnatural acts' with one another. Also, on January 12th and March 14, 1863, according to E. J. Eitel, successive gangs of prisoners had successfully made their escape from Victoria prison using the storm drains underneath the gaol.

For that reason, Charles Ryall from England was appointed the new superintendent of the prison system. His solution was to put many of the new prisoners on a disused ship's hulk, The Royal Saxon, and to park the ship just off of Stonecutter's Island, a small plot of land in Victoria Harbour ceded to Britain at the end of the Opium War in 1860. It had a granite quarry, but Ryall thought it suitable to house prisoners there as well. As Eitel says:

"Things went on well enough so long as a gunboat and a military guard were provided to guard the hulk, but when these were withdrawn, frequent attempts at rescue were made by outside associates of the prisoners."

There were also many mishaps, and one tragedy in particular, which occurred on July 23rd, 1863, [142 years ago last weekend!] is worth relating. During the transfer of 38 prisoners from Victoria Prison to the hulk, the boat carrying all of them capsized. As all of them were chained and manacled, all of them drowned and went to the bottom.

What really made it clear that this hulk idea was not going to work, though, were the events of April 21st, 1864. That day, over 100 prisoners, on a signal, overpowered their guards, undid their manacles, and escaped on junks that 'just happened' to be lying nearby. Ryall had in the meantime been fired and a new superintendent brought in. Mr. F. Douglas, according to Eitel, was able to quickly improve the conditions at Victoria Prison, which apparently soon became known as the "Douglas Hotel."

Friday, July 22, 2005

What Stories Do You Want to Hear?

As you may know, we at Walk the Talk have many stories about the heritage, architecture and identity of Hong Kong and Macau (and a number of other places besides). You can hear many of those stories on our existing audio-guided mobile phone walks (like those in museums) of Tsim Sha Tsui and Central available in English language bookstores such as Bookazine, Kelly & Walsh, HK Book Centre, Swindon's and select Dymocks bookstores, as well as the Hong Kong Tourism Board Visitor Centres. Packs without SIM cards (for locals) sell for HK$88 (Free audio samples are available from our corporate website, Mobile Adventures). Packs with SIMs (for visitors) sell for HK$150. For Macau, it's even easier - just print out a map from our website and you can listen to fascinating stories about Macau's past in its historic centre for free (except for airtime charges) - the only catch is that you have to be on the CTM network, either roaming or with a CTM prepaid SIM card.

We believe that many heritage sites and architectural monuments (whether old or new) have fascinating stories behind them that are not being told. Our service invests these sites with interesting tales that will enjoin place and memory in a completely new way, using a gadget all of us now carry in our pockets. But we realize many of you haven't had the time (yet!) to check out our self-guided walking tours via mobile phone. That's why we use this blog to provide interesting tales of Hong Kong and Macau to hopefully inspire people and make them realize what a fascinating history these two cities of the South China Coast have, and how much of that history, in terms of institutional (as opposed to architectural) continuity, can still be perceived today.

So far we've featured stories we thought you'd enjoy. But now we'd like to make it your turn! Please let us know what sort of stories you'd like to know more about, which buildings, whether old or new, have intrigued you, and which street names have left you with unanswered questions. We're in the business of reviving lost memories, so put us to work! You can either leave a comment on this post or just e-mail me at I will try to answer as many of your queries as possible...

Revaluation and Deng Xiaoping

Simon has extensive coverage of China's announcement today to revalue the renminbi and move towards a more flexible exchange rate regime based upon a basket of currencies. I'll leave the debate of the implications of that move to others. What I will do, though, is highlight the interesting fact that July 22, 1977 was a turning point in history. It was the date, a year after Mao's death, that Deng Xiaoping was fully 'rehabilitated' (for the third time) and began his mercurial ascent to the top echelon of power in China. Deng Xiaoping, of course, was the most important man of the last quarter of the 20th century (as my old boss would say), because he oversaw the transformation of a ruined Maoist state into a land of prosperity and opportunity, and brought more people out of poverty than anyone else in history. Quite something for a man of Napoleonic stature (4 foot 11 inches) that Nixon ungraciously had called 'a chain-smoking Communist dwarf.'

Deng was born in 1904 in Sichuan province, in the last years of the Manchu dynasty. He met Zhou En-Lai and Ho Chi Minh while studying in Paris, and became an ardent Communist. A survivor of the Long March, Deng quickly rose in the ranks of the Communist Party hierarchy, and was Mao's trusted right-hand man during the aftermath of the 'Hundred-Flowers' campaign of 1957. But he ultimately came down on the side of professionalization over continued revolution, and was purged by Mao and disgraced during the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution devastated China economically, but perhaps motivated a lost generation of citizens to rebuild their lives. And it was Deng Xiaoping that made it possible, anointing a policy of 'socialism with Chinese characteristics' that encouraged the profit motive and privatization.

I am sure he would have approved of China moving to a looser exchange rate, because it would have meant to him that China was strong enough to do so. Deng after all, had lived through periods of stagflation and collapse of various Chinese currencies, during which people hoarded gold bars. He had been a determined socialist, but a realist, and above all a nationalist. His results-oriented philosophy of politics was best summarized by his famous saying: "It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice." His life, from 1904 to 1997, spanned a century, and many Chinese believe that he, more than anyone else, was able to reverse the humiliations suffered by his country.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Hong Kong's Cycles of Creative Destruction

Why has Hong Kong not preserved its historic monuments? It is said that unbridled capitalism is simply the process of creative destruction, a form of economic natural selection, the survival of the fittest companies and ideas. In Hong Kong we have a city that is dominated by, and obsessed with property - not just today, but since its early beginnings, when the early Colonials debated how to set up shop on an island that had virtually no flat land.

If property is so valuable, though, why are heritage sites and even not-so-old buildings constantly being torn down? Why must we Hong Kongers endure the incessant sound of the jackhammer, almost Pavlovian in conditioning us to accept change as a fact of life? The answer - ownership is limited, forcing this city of immigrants to try to maximize their returns on this valuable asset as quickly and efficiently as possible. I would argue that around this basic fact of life in Hong Kong, an entire ethos has been created.

Property on Palmerston's 'Barren Rock' was clearly a very valuable asset, and the Hong Kong government recognized that from the first. For that reason, all land in Hong Kong was sold on the basis of long-term crown leases generally ranging from 50-99 years. During periodic crises in the 19th century, various governors were lobbied by the business community to cave in and sell 'freehold' land (with perpetual title) to boost business confidence. But not one of them even flinched, and all of them, whether liberal or old-school, stuck to their guns in insisting on keeping the 'Crown Lease' system. Why? Hong Kong had from its very beginnings been a free port, and one of its main attractions was its lack of income tax (the 15% came later). Property taxes and property auctions, therefore, became the central money maker for the Colonial government (other than their opium monopoly).

A great example of this thinking came from the mouth of Governor William Des Voeux, who in the 1880s was trying to arrange for the financing of the first big land reclamation proposed by Paul Chater. He was a very frustrated man, because while Jardine Matheson could secure loans from HSBC at 3.5%, the sovereign Government of Hong Kong couldn't even get a loan at 4%! Eat your heart out, credit analysts. He was trying, in effect, to justify a better credit rating because of Hong Kong's huge fixed assets. On the subject of property, this is what he said:

"For though the area of the Colony is small, its Crown lands are of an exceptional value...there can be no moral doubt that the 20,000 acres of unsold land in the Colony will eventually realize an enormous sum. Indeed at this moment, if the necessity were to arise for changing the present policy of selling without the condition of immediate building, and abandoning the speculators the profit that will otherwise be reaped by the community, there would be little difficulty of obtaining from sales within a few weeks an aggregate sum equal to several times the Annual Revenue of the Colony."

Translating his Victorian English, he is basically saying that if he sold land in perpetuity, he could raise tons of money but that he'd be abandoning the local market to speculators. What he does not say is that the Government by default becomes the biggest land speculator of them all! As those of you who know Hong Kong will recognize, absolutely nothing has changed in 130 years (and Tung Chee-Hwa's tentative steps away from this policy ended in disaster).

What does that mean for Hong Kong? It means that we are stuck with quick maximization of returns on property for the foreseeable future, exacerbated by HSBC and the banks not offering long-dated mortgages for old properties. It means Hong Kong people will continue to have a disposable attitude to their homes and property, which lies at the heart of the principles of this throwaway society. It means more dilapidated buildings from lack of interest in upkeep, continued cycles of construction and demolition, and that Hong Kong's three certainties will continue to be death, property taxes and the jackhammer. A culture of preserving Hong Kong's architectural heritage will never exist as long as this property policy, such a sacred cow to the government, remains.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Bruce Lee, R.I.P. : A Hong Kong Boy?

Today marks the 32nd anniversary of screen legend Bruce Lee's tragic death. Lee had met with his co-star (and some allege, his lover) Betty Ting Pei and Golden Harvest producer Raymond Chow at Pei's apartment. After the meeting, Chow left for dinner, but Bruce stayed - he soon after complained of a massive headache and retired to bed. An ambulance was summoned, but by the time he reached hospital he had died of cerebral edema, or swelling of the brain. He was only 32 years old.

Some say it was drugs; others say it wasn't. As you can see from the picture to the left, the muscle-bound Lee only had 1% body fat, and weighed only 128 pounds, making him extremely vulnerable to the effects of drugs. Others blame bad feng shui - two weeks before his death, a huge typhoon ripped off a feng-shui mirror used to deflect bad luck away from the apartment he kept with his wife, Linda Emery (he'd met her at the University of Washington, where he was a philosophy major).

In any case, what is indisputable is that Bruce Lee became a legend and spawned an entire genre of martial-arts, 'kung-fu' movies to the world. Jackie Chan, van Damme and Chuck Norris all owe their careers to him. Of course, Hong Kong had had a huge movie industry with the Shaw Studios producing 40 films a year during the 1960s. But these were generally low-budget products for a Chinese audience. Bruce had brought the Hong Kong movie to the world. Many people still associate Hong Kong with Bruce Lee.

Which is the interesting thing. Bruce actually was born in San Francisco to a Hong Kong Chinese father and a Chinese-German mother; they were touring (presumably only the father!) the West Coast as part of a Chinese opera troupe. Bruce featured in his first film aged three months. Ironically, this macho icon was supposed to be a baby girl!

He later came back to Hong Kong, and quickly learned how to speak not only Cantonese, but also English, Mandarin and Japanese. He grew up knowing he was different from other children, a bit of a loner, and although quite good at school, often got into fights. He learned the Wing Chun style of martial arts from the Yip Man school. His parents, worried about his fighting, sent him to the US to complete his education. So he actually spent his high school years in the US, as well as his time in college studying philosophy. He also taught martial arts to a variety of stars, like Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, Steve McQueen and James Coburn. That was probably his ticket to fame, because he later landed a part as Kato on the TV series, Green Hornet. The TV show eventually folded though, because Kato became more popular than the main character!

It was only after he had achieved stardom in the US that he was sought out in Hong Kong. And this is my question - can Hong Kong's movie industry truly claim him as their creation? Granted, Golden Harvest produced the movies that made him a universally known figure. But one wonders if he could have ever 'made it' if he'd stayed in Hong Kong. The city's entertainment industry does not take many risks and sticks to tried (or should I say 'tired') and true formulas. I actually don't think Hong Kong alone could have made him a star.

But he took his own path, and many of us still love him for it. On our Tsim Sha Tsui walk, during which we talk about Hong Kong's movie business (by the Avenue of Stars), we have a theory as to why so many here still lionize him to this day. It was because before Bruce, Hollywood portrayed Chinese as servile, spineless yes-men (that arguably continued for some time). But Bruce was a demigod, and the main attraction. He was a symbol for millions of Chinese (and other Asians) that could stand up to the West, and not be the worse for it.

We are sorry, Bruce Lee, that you had to sacrifice your health to entertain us. But thank you for the memories. And like it or not, this town will claim you as one of our own.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Our Favorite Books at Walk the Talk

Very well, Madame Chiang, you have gotten me to spill the beans on my favorite books so I shall honor your request!

My wife and I have got about 1,200 or so books at home; I've probably bought half of them. We also have a small "Walk the Talk" library here in our office in Tsim Sha Tsui with another 50 volumes.

The Last 5 books I bought:

The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (for obvious interest in history)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (for my mother, I swear:))
How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen (Amusing anti-New Age rant)
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Hatton (touching story)
Delicate Access by Madeleine Marie Slavick (great Hong Kong poetry)

The 5 books I am reading now:

History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion, 1400-1668
by Malyn Newitt (great, great book)
Singapore Burning by Colin Smith (not bad journalist's history of the fall of Malaya and S'pore)
Religion and Culture: An International Symposium Commemorating the Fourth centenary of the University College of St. Paul - Ed. Instituto Cultural de Macau (OK but dry)
In Search of Justice: The 1905-06 Anti-American Boycott by Guanhua Wang (Not bad)
Confessions of an Opium-Eater by Thomas de Quincey (dry and slow going)

Last 5 Books Read

China Races by Austin Coates (amusing book about the history of racing on the China Coast)
Gweilo by Martin Booth (excellent, poignant memoir of growing up in HK)
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (so-so vampire thriller)
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (fun, creative novel set it 6 eras in time)
Macau 300 Years Ago by Charles Boxer (excellent review of primary sources)

5 Books I'll Cherish and Read Again (off the top of my head)

The Republic by Plato
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon (1-4 only)
Polyarchy by Robert Dahl
Desert Road to Turkestan by Owen Lattimore
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

I'll tag Free Agent Rick in Bangkok, Martin at My Olive Tree in Macau to see what's cooking in the City of the Name of God, and my partner Stefan...

How the Taiping Rebellion Populated Hong kong

Hong Kong has always been presented to us as an unqualified success story, one of how stable, well-run government under British rule attracted immigrants in their thousands to turn Hong Kong into a thriving entrepot port. However, in Hong Kong's early days success appeared far from inevitable - very evitable, indeed. What turned the tide for Hong Kong was not only that British Hong Kong seemed a stable haven to do business, but that China itself was becoming increasingly chaotic. And at no time was the chaos greater than during the Taiping Rebellion, which lasted from 1851 to 1866 and saw over 20 million people killed - the bloodiest civil war in world history. That period began to draw to a close on July 19, 1864 (141 years ago today), when Qing forces finally recaptured Nanjing from the Taipings.

Aside from the staggeringly high mortality rate of the colonial immigrants, a major problem in the 1840s was that not that many Chinese seemed to want to go to Hong Kong, and the ones that did were often not of the best sort. Many were vagabonds at large from Chinese justice, others were pirates, and not a few were old hands at petty crime. There were of course honest, hard-working immigrants from China too in the 1840s, but the Chinese community of Hong Kong then was defined by the collaborators that had helped the British gain their enclave in China by selling them much-needed supplies. Many of these merchants and bumboatmen that had served the Royal Navy were Tanka boat people that quite often had doubled as pirates, and the British had decided to reward the most helpful of them with generous land titles in the Chinese area of Taipingshan. These men, like Loo Aqui, promptly set up brothels, gambling and opium dens on these plots of land, and made fortunes. In fact, Loo Aqui and several of his contemporary brothel/opium entrepreneurs got together and donated the money for the construction of the Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road! The presence of such characters as the prominent figures in Chinese society naturally turned away well educated Chinese schooled in the Confucian classics, for whom merchants were the lowest on the social order.

But that all changed when Hong Xiuquan, who thought himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ, among other things, and had vowed to set up the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace (太平天國), started the Taiping Rebellion in 1851. He denounced the rule of the Manchu invaders in China, using the recent Opium War as evidence that they had lost the Mandate of Heaven. They changed education systems in all places they conquered, from the Confucian classics to the Christian Bible (this explains why although Britain did not want to see a chaotic China, they remained neutral during the conflict until the latter stages, with help from the generalship of Townsend Ward and 'Chinese' Gordon).

The chaos that gripped much of China as a result sent thousands of well-to-do, middle class Chinese fleeing to the relative safety of Hong Kong, where they would only have to face the alien and somewhat arbitrary justice system of colonial Hong Kong. This huge influx of prosperous refugees marked the true beginnings of Hong Kong's rise.

A question that remains from this Taiping episode, like many others, though, is that China's trouble and loss has historically often been Hong Kong's gain. What does this illustrate about the Chinese feelings of ambivalence about the city? What role can Hong Kong play in China going forward? What will it mean for Hong Kong now that China has grown strong for the first time in the 160-year history of the city? Will it gain alongside the behemoth, or will it gradually fade into obscurity? Questions which, for now, seem to have no answer. But we'd love to get your feedback!

Monday, July 18, 2005

Madame Sun: Saved by the Dude from Hong Kong

Some days as I put this column together I trawl through the web, looking for interesting anniversaries that would make for an interesting post. (No I don't have it all up in my head!). Sometimes I Google birthdays of famous people, or of historic events, but today I simply searched for today's date, July 18th. Normally that doesn't yield anything particularly interesting, but today I am across a biography of a person who lived an incredibly interesting life during a very turbulent era.

The man I speak of is Captain Frank Higgs (1908-1945). He was a Midwestern boy from Columbus, Ohio, a young man good at sport whose life was completely transformed by a formation of US Army planes flying overhead in the early 1930s; he related that he dropped his lawnmower, ran to the airfield where they landed, and began to dream of taking to the air. After graduating from Ohio State, Dude (his nickname in college) joined the Army Air Corps. He resigned his commission with the US Army in December 1937 to become an official advisor of the Chinese Air Corps for Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek.

Naturally, Dude had to pass through Hong Kong to get to Chiang and his air force; he was apparently fined HK$5.00 for failing to report to the local police here 48 hours after his arrival. On his official papers submitted to the Hong Kong Police, he said his occupation was a 'geologist' (his major in college). The American advisors to Chiang had to tread carefully in China and in Hong Kong, when Britain was still neutral in China's wartime defense of its country against Japan. Claire Chennault, founder of the famous 'Flying Tigers' flyers (these 'civilian' US airmen were paid a US$500 bonus for every Japanese plane they shot down), listed his occupation in his passport as 'farmer'.

Dude was not a Flying Tiger, but rather flew civilian planes transporting both valuable cargo and passengers, including the Generalissimo himself and his wife, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (to distinguish her from one of my favorite bloggers!). He flew for the China National Aviation Corporation,(some great pictures on this site) or CNAC, a joint venture between China and Pan American Airways (Pan Am). As his aircraft had no armaments, he was very vulnerable to Japanese attack. As a result, this real-life Han Solo had to be incredibly adept at maneuvering his plane. One episode recounted by daredevil LIFE magazine correspondent Clare Boothe Luce many years later covers the incredibly romantic and evocative way that Dude shuttled her to safety (click the link for Luce's letter to the Dude's niece).

His most glorious moment came in the daring rescue (link to a New York Times article from December 15th, 1941) of a number of very important Chinese government officials and individuals from Hong Kong, which the rescued civilians called "the most perilous bit of work in the history of civil aviation." Under fire from Japanese planes and troops, 5 of the 7 CNAC planes flew to and from the Kai Tak aerodrome to a town called Namyung, a small town 200 miles to the north of Hong Kong. Dude was the first to take off on December 8th, and subsequently made 16 more runs between that town and Hong Kong before Kai Tak was overrun by the Japanese. While on the tarmac at Kai Tak they also had to fill in huge holes in the runway to allow themselves to take off. Many of the pilots flew without sleep for as much as 50 or 60 hours at a time. One of their planes was unfortunately forced down by the Japanese air force and then machine-gunned by their ground forces.

Among those rescued were H. H. Kung, the Chinese Minister of Finance, Madame Sun Yat-Sen, (widow to Dr. Sun and sister to Madame Chiang), and C. P. Chen, the Head of the Chinese Currency Stabilization Board. This critical airlift could have caused incredible problems for the Nationalist war effort and may well have had dire consequences for World War II had it not occured.

Sadly, the Dude's maverick, colorful life was cut short by a suspicious accident. On October 20, 1945, the plane he was flying, which was allegedly carrying a number of senior bankers on board and a great amount of gold and currency, crashed into a mountain, killing all aboard. Given the Dude's flying experience, one must wonder what happened that day. Still, the Ohio Dude's fascinating life story puts the Indiana Joneses of the world to shame. We are grateful that this story of bravado and derring-do has survived to our generation.

Walk the Talk in The Standard and in HKTB News

We are always gratified to see that people are interested in the urban history of Hong Kong and Macau, that the stories we feature on our site are enjoyed by its visitors, and that most of all, people find that these stories can be profoundly relevant to the place we live in today. So we are extremely grateful that Doug Crets chose to feature our blog in his article on blogs in Hong Kong that serve a public purpose or civic function. Appreciations to Madame Chiang for being the first to let us know of its publication today. I hope that all of you that have so kindly helped us find our way in the blogosphere liked Mr. Crets' quote from us at the end:

"Hong Kong is a city that relentlessly pushes people towards the practical,'' says Wong. Blogs, he believes, are a chance for open-minded people to develop ideas and challenge the status quo in a very constructive way."

I think the opportunity to reflect on the day's events, on their relevance to our lives, and engage in candid discussion is why many of us enjoy blogging. That's why we do, anyway. Thanks Doug!

We'd also like to send our appreciation to the Hong Kong Tourism Board, which is starting to recognize the value of heritage tourism in this city. We are featured in their most recent newsletter for the Australian market.

For more information on our heritage tourism service via mobile phone, visit Our regular history blogcast resumes later today...

Friday, July 15, 2005

Horseplay in Hong Kong and Beijing History

Stephen Vines has written an excellent editorial in today's Standard newspaper about the lack of debate about the value of staging the equestrian events in Hong Kong. It has already been noted in an insightful post by Simon on his blog back on the 12th that there is going to be a likely HK$500 million shortfall between the amount spent on the event and the income from it. Staging Olympics has always been a questionable proposition from an economic standpoint, as Athens discovered last year, but to stage a minor event of little interest to anyone except for a small number of fans surely makes it a very black and white equation that we should not, as Vines suggests, be slapping ourselves on the back over.

My question for pragmatic Hong Kong is this: why are we not solving this cash shortfall the Hong Kong way and simply grant the Hong Kong Jockey Club the monopoly rights to take bets on every event? Ha ha, I suspect my suggestion will not get much airplay. And anyway, who wants to bet on the dressage, possibly the most boring and pointless Olympic event of them all? This quote from Judy Schott, President of the Central Washington Dressage Society:

" Many riders are drawn to dressage because it provides a step-by-step training plan for their horses. The basics are learned in training level, and these basics are used as the building blocks for all other movements. The sport may appear boring, but appeals to people who enjoy studying a discipline that will be a lifetime quest. ItÂ’s impossible to describe; it has to be experienced!"

Thanks Judy, we admire your enthusiasm.

Anyway, this whole issue has arisen because it is said that Beijing is unsuitable for the equestrian events because they pose a health hazard to the animals. Supposing that it is because of the pollution in the air and water, is it not also hazardous to the human competitors? Leaving that aside for the moment, I will share with you an interesting fact I learned from Austin Coates' China Races, which I blogged about a few weeks ago.

You may wonder: all this money in racing in Hong Kong. Yet the members of the Hong Kong Jockey Club spend millions (if not billions) every year on buying new horses, or griffins, from Arabia, New Zealand, Australia or America. Why not set up a breeding facility here or somewhere in China? Well the answer is that the vegetation in China simply won't allow it. No grass will grow anywhere in China that has sufficient calcium to sustain the nutrition necessary for the strong bones of a racehorse. So they can't graze naturally on local grasses, because they'll simply go to seed. They need imported food as well as oats, which is why raising horses in China is totally unfeasible.

Yet it did not stop punters from buying and racing horses for 160 years in all of China's Treaty ports, as well as Beijing. To be specific, the animals raced were generally not horses per se, but rather were ponies from Mongolia, strangely called China ponies. Some British colonials had reservations about the ponies, as can be gathered from the 1894 guide to Hong Kong written by one civil servant named Bruce Shepherd, who commented that "the Chinaman, like his Chinese pony, is treacherous and has a murderous nature, and is not to be trusted." Nevertheless, they were the mainstay of racing all along the China coast for over a century and a half, providing entertainment for all races, whether Chinese, British, or otherwise.

Indeed, the races in Beijing were apparently the best attended of all, some meetings in fact gathering as many as 80,000 in one session, an attendance record unmatched for that era and probably even today. I shall close this blog with a few select quotes from Coates' excellent book about the races in Beijing, or Peking as it was known then to the Cantonese-friendly British:

"The races were [first] held on Thursday, 17 December 1863, on the Anting plain north of the city. All the Ministers, indeed everybody, turned up. Even a missionary was seen. He was in for a shock. The student-interpreters [of the British legation-Ed.] had become very bored with missionaries. One of them had had a horse named after him, Revd Mr. Mitchell, and it raced. Another was called Excommunicated and another Devil. To make it worse, Excommunicated won a race; his rival, well ahead, bolted within yards of the winning post.

But the most interesting feature of the meeting was the dense crowd of Chinese, Mongolians and Tibetans assembled near the winning post, deriving unlimited satisfaction from the riding and the speed of the horses and ponies. Once again in China...the magic of the races, their most extraordinary quality, had completed taken possession. At the following April meeting more than 50,000 people came, the largest gathering yet seen at a China race-meeting. Thus it continued, with ever more and more attending. As was said at the time, the crowds at the Peking races would be beyond the imagination of people in Europe and America. These were the largest race-meetings in the world....The vast throng surrounded [the track], yelling their heads off as the ponies passed, booing lustily at any pony dropping behind, the entire enormous human mass maintaining complete order. There was not a policeman in sight."

Coates impresses on the readers what a profound impact horse-racing had on the Chinese public when first introduced, and what huge numbers turned out for the meetings. Let it never be said again that Beijing never had equestrian events before, and couldn't have done it without Hong Kong's help!


I am sorry - I must add a bizarre story I have just received about a new form of robot camel racing in Qatar. I am sure that neither the members of the IOC nor the founders of racing on the China Coast would have approved.

Portugal's 'Booty' Policy of Expansion in Melaka

Before I begin discussing today's subject, I would just like to note today is the 34th anniversary of Kissinger's secret visit to China. What an incredible moment, one that changed everything for Hong Kong. Optimism ran so high that then Governor Sir Murray MacLehose was dispatched to Beijing a few years later, hoping to extend the lease on their Colony - oops - Territory. No dice on that front though of course...

As I continue to get through Malyn Newitt's book on the expansion of the Portuguese empire, he explains at once the breathtaking audacity of once-poor Portugal to set up colonies in the East, but to actually claim sovereignty over all the oceans of Africa and India. King Dom Manuel's title that he chose for himself after da Gama's voyage was: 'King of Portugal and of the Algarves on this side and beyond the sea in Africa, Lord of Guinea and the Lord of the Conquest, Navigation and Commerce, of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and India.' Essentially, he was saying that he had the right to take any ship on the high seas that did not pay duty to Portugal, whether it was on the Indian Ocean or the South Atlantic. Indeed, piracy and plunder was the only way by which the then-poor Portuguese monarchy could afford expansion. Newitt writes:

"Portugal's expansion in the Atlantic had always been driven by two different sets of interests - the Crown's commercial monopolies and the trading interests of private citizens and islanders. Now the eastern enterprise also was to be driven ahead by two competing interests. As the Crown gradually elaborated its plans to establish a great new commercial monopoly and maritime dominion in the Indian Ocean, the individuals who embarked with the fleets determined to make their fortunes more directly by plunder and piracy...the interests of the Crown and the servants complemented each other as plunder and piracy seemed to be the only way by which the king could pay for the Indian enterprise."

He's also writes with amazement that Portugal's King Manuel was able to pull it all together:

"It is still extraordinary to contemplate the daring with which this idea of an eastern empire was conceived. A small, poor and isolated European kingdom with little accumulated capital or developed industry and with the most primitive instruments of government was aspiring to create a state on the other side of the world and to enforce a trade monopoly on merchants from numerous rich, populous and powerful kingdoms, many of which had the military might to crush any army that Portugal could possibly put into the field. Portugal was planning to establish a militarised state which would be administered by a royal bureaucracy, which would be defended by a paid professional army and navy and which would operate a vast royal commercial monopoly."

The use by the king of German and Florentine banking families to finance this vision makes today's venture capitalists look like small fry. Especially when the rules didn't seem to apply to the Portuguese at all. Newitt describes this with acid tongue-in-cheek humor, particularly at the end:

"The policy of plunder could be represented as a complementary aspect of the policy of monopoly. Refusal to accept the Portuguese claims to a monopoly of the spice trade was considered reason enough to attack ships or towns, while the proceeds of plundering their enemies allowed the Portuguese to supply their fleets, purchase their cargoes of spices and secure the loyalty of their men. The trophies of victory did not always have such a utilitarian purpose, however. After the capture of Malacca in 1511 Albuquerque's share of the plunder consisted of six bronze lions which he wanted for his tomb, a bracelet which Albuquerque had been told had magical powers to prevent wounds from bleeding and 'some girls from all the different races of the country' to send to Dom Manuel. Booty was an addiction which the Portuguese would find it hard to give up. [Italics are mine - Ed.]"

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The French in Hong Kong and Local Nationalism

Happy Bastille Day to France! July 14th is of course the most nationalistic of French holidays, celebrating the positive side of the French Revolution. A rare case of the French looking at a glass half-full instead of half-empty... Only kidding. We have met some very interesting French scholars here in Hong Kong at work on a number of fascinating research topics, and we found their intelligence only outdone by their great kindness and courtesy.

The French ties to Hong Kong and the China Coast have been long and significant, and for some time Britain regarded France, rather than China, Russia or Japan as its chief competitor for influence in East Asia. They had previously worked together, with a joint Anglo-French alliance defeating Chinese forces in Beijing during the Second Opium War (1856-1860). However, French influence had been increasing, particularly in Indo-China, and in the late 19th century a cash-strapped Portuguese government had entertained the notion of trading France the colony of Macau in exchange for some concessions closer to home. (Incidentally, a Portuguese parliamentarian that supported this proposal, Almeida Ribeiro, had Macau's main drag through the old city named after him even though he'd never set foot in Macau; today it is more popularly known by the Chinese as 'San Ma Lou').

So the English began to view with some alarm French moves to secure effective policy control over Annam, today's Vietnam, just a short sail away from Hong Kong. The French had actually already had an agreement in 1874, the Treaty of Philastre, that gave it control over Annam's foreign policy, and which also stated that Annam ceased to be a vassal state of China. Unfortunately, there were translating errors in the agreement, so the Chinese did not realize Annam was no longer their vassal. So when the French began to demand that the Chinese accept the terms of this decade-old treaty, they refused, and began to secretly build up troops in Annam (click the link for details of the War).

I shall not go into the grim details of the Sino-French War of 1884-1885, other than to say that 10,000 Chinese troops were killed and 2,000 Frenchmen, and that it accomplished nothing save confirm an agreement on Annam that was already ten years old in the Chinese translation as well as the French. The Vietnamese were of course not consulted at all. In terms of casualties as a proportion of population, the French had actually suffered heavier losses, but the Chinese were the country humiliated by the agreement. After all, during the course of the war, the French attacked Taiwan and also the port of Fuzhou, sinking most of the Imperial Navy that had been in the harbour.

This is where Hong Kong comes in - after the successful French raid on Fuzhou, the ship carrying the French Admiral Courbet came into Hong Kong for much-needed repairs. Now Britain's official stance had been as a neutral in this affair. But because the rumors were rife that France had attached Fuzhou as preparation for a larger attack on Canton, the governor of Canton panicked. He made proclamations in the streets of Canton saying that the Chinese in Hong Kong and Macau were traitors anyway, but that if they stopped working on any French shipping, and caused trouble and damage to French interests they would be spared.

The story of the rioting that followed and the civil unrest in Hong Kong is excellently told by Professor Elizabeth Sinn, and I shall not attempt to do so here. Suffice it to say that there were riots on the streets, the Governor had to assume emergency powers (another example of nationalism and a political spirit in Hong Kong) and rioters, mainly cargo coolies, had to be dispersed by Sikh guardsmen firing carbines and hacking with their swords, and later by a group of 100 Kent regiment soldiers marching to the site of the disturbance with fixed bayonets. While the disturbances were ultimately quelled, the government required the assistance of 'unofficial' Chinese sources of authority such as the Nan Pei Hang and the Tung Wah Hospital (still influential today). Such research on unofficial sources of Chinese authority in colonial Hong Kong has been a specialty of Dr. Sinn's research.

It furnishes additional proof, if more was needed, that even in transient Hong Kong, among the poorest classes that had gone to a British colony to make their living, there was an incipent Chinese nationalism and willingness to defy British authority. It could be said to be one of the most important civil disturbances in Chinese history, in fact. Why? Because who was a young, eighteen-year old easily-impressionable student resident in Hong Kong at the time? It was none other than Sun Yat-Sen, the father of modern China. The event had a profound impact on him; he felt that the patriotism displayed by the dockworkers in sympathy to the Chinese War against the French showed him that change was possible, and came to realize the power of nationalism. Who knows what direction Dr. Sun's life would have taken if he had not been in Hong Kong, but had stayed in Hawaii at the Iolani school?

Hong Kong apolitical? Don't make me laugh.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Customs Officials Through the Ages

I am currently in transit from Singapore to Macau, booked on the ferry service offered by Shun Tak Turbojet that leaves at 1530 directly from the Hong Kong International Airport to the Macau ferry terminal. Now, to take this ferry, one must remain in transit - if you go through Hong Kong customs, then you are no longer eligible for the service and must go all the way to Central to take the ferry there. As I had a bag checked on my flight from Singapore to Hong Kong, I feared that I would have to go outside and retrieve my bag, making myself ineligible to take the ferry. There's really no arguing with Hong Kong customs officials, and thankfully, bribery with them is not an option. But I was gratified to find out that all I had to do was to give the Turbojet people my baggage claim ticket, and they would retrieve the bag for me and put it on the boat as I whiled away my hour in an airport lounge.

So, it seemed appropriate in the short time I have to blog today that I share a story from four centuries ago involving Jesuits and a Chinese customs official. Not just any Jesuits, mind you, but an important Jesuit indeed - Matteo Ricci. He is a figure that features prominently in our Macau walk, as we recollect how he, too, spent time at the College of St. Paul in Macau, then the greatest university of Western learning in the East.

According to the excellent writer and historian, Andrew Ross (who wrote a book entitled: A Vision Betrayed: The Jesuits in Japan and China, 1542-1742) relates the story of a imperial Chinese customs official named Ma Tang. Now Ricci, after many trials and travails and the display of many amazing feats of memory, erudition and scholarly virtue, had gotten permission to visit Peking (Beijing) and to be honored by an audience with the Emperor. However, he, his companion Ruggieri (also an eminent Jesuit) and all of their belongings first had to be inspected by Ma Tang to ensure that they passed muster and would not include dangerous articles. Writes Ross:

"During repeated searches of their luggage and his insistence on taking into his keeping some of the presents 'for safety's sake,' [some of which were undoubtedly never seen again - Ed.] caused the Jesuits to fear he would steal their belongings and they would never see Beijing. There was an even worse moment when during yet another search of their baggage, Ma Tang came across a vivdly realistic crucifix and screamed aloud that it was a magic fetish for bringing harm to the Ming Emperor. Fortunately he calmed down and accepted the Fathers' assurance that it was no such thing."

I shall hope that the Macau customs people also find no such thing in MY luggage. But then in Macau they never seem to check...

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The 1967 Riots and the Limits of Colonial Rule

Those who try to sell everyone the notion that Hong Kongers are politically apathetic would do well to remember 12th July, 1967. On this day, 38 years ago, the colonial government of Hong Kong effectively declared martial law. The Governor's office and the Colonial Secretary declared in Legco that they would invoke emergency powers to arrest, detain and stop the Red Guard-inspired leftist rioters that had thrown Hong Kong into chaos with their bombings. A year earlier, Hong Kongers had watched with apprehension as three days of rioting had effectively turned Macau from a Portuguese into an effectively Chinese enclave. A price hike on the Star Ferry also caused spontaneous riots to coalesce that were only suppressed with the help of hundreds of police officers, including Police Tactical Units (the price hike was rescinded). But it was thought that the wave of revolutionary fervor unleashed on the mainland would never make it to the colonial bastion of Hong Kong.

However, those analysts were wrong. After months of tolerating rioters and protesters, and following the death of rioters, government servants and innocent bystanders, the government invoked special powers to stop the protesters and terrorists. It also called on all of the traditional loci of Chinese authority in the Colony, including the kaifong associations of the various neighborhoods, and the Heung Yee Kuk rural associations to stop Communist sympathizers. They also used an iron fist, detaining a number of people without trial and using Guantanamo-type tactics to stop the dissent. Secondary school children were arrested and approximately 50 people died with hundreds wounded during this critical episode.

While the colonial government met dissent with force and strong authority, they also recognized that there were substantial reforms necessary to re-establish their long-term legitimacy. It had helped that Zhou En-Lai sent a message to Hong Kong that the protests in Hong Kong were not supported by Beijing - if Mao had wanted Hong Kong back at any time in 1967, he could have taken it back.

It's important to note that previous generations of Chinese had made Hong Kong their home, but before 1949 many ended up returning to their villages in China; Hong Kong had just been a waystation, a place to make money before returning home. While there had been riots before, there had never been that much demand from many of these transients for proper political representation. But a new generation that had grown up in the Iron Curtain era between Hong Kong and China saw the city definitely as their own, and they demanded more than just peace and security. They wanted reform, greater recognition and social and economic justice. Both London and the Hong Kong government recognized that a new social contract was necessary with the local population, and undertook a number of steps to decrease the obvious 'colonial' and unrepresentative nature of government. On our Central walk, we talk about how the cricket pitch in the middle of Central where British batsmen batted for boundaries during the height of the riots with angry demonstrators all around, was turned into Chater Garden. By 1971, it had also been decided that nevermore would the word "Colony" be used in reference to Hong Kong; it would subsequently be known as merely a "Territory." By 1973, Cantonese was finally made an acceptable second language in Legco.

A number of policemen that had stemmed the tide of leftist demonstrators and terrorists in 1967 were later exposed for the massive amount of graft and corruption that they had profited from. It was a difficult position for the government of the "Territory", but something had to be done about prima facie evidence that the supposedly fair and just British administration was actually rather rotten. Concepts of Common Law and the distant hand of British justice were already hard for many recent immigrants from China to swallow. When compounded by corruption in Hong Kong government at the highest levels, it was natural that a substantial portion of the local population turned to triads for justice (in the 1960s, an estimated 20% of the population were members). For those wanting a popular local view of this period and the endemic police corruption that characterized it, watch the movie Lee Rock and its sequels.

In simplest terms, the ability of the British to govern without a democratic mandate was based on a formula of generating economic success and law and order. However, just as economic growth had been faltering and a new generation of locals was demanding more from their government, the idea of British justice was made a mockery of by systemic corruption. Their ability to continue governing the 'Territory' all the way until 1997 required a substantial and increasing level of concessions to local representation and administration.

We view this critical juncture in Hong Kong history as being very illustrative of the theory that modernization and economic growth brings about a middle class that demands, and successfully extracts, higher standards from government. Even though Hong Kong did not become a democracy as a result, it definitely brought about more egalitarian government. Also, the events of 1967 exploded the myth that the British had complete control over an apolitical populace. One can invoke emergency powers and martial law, but without legitimacy, a polity as complex as Hong Kong just grinds to a halt. It's a repeating pattern in history - 1922, 1925, 1967 and 2003. We hope Mr. Tsang remembers where he was on July 12, 38 years ago, and uses his reserve of legitimacy well.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Hong Kong, The Opium War, and Iraq

Last week I read the account of Captain William Hutcheon Hall of his voyage to China and participation in the First Opium War. He captained the Nemesis, the first iron paddlewheel steamship fitted with guns. As the ship had a fully-loaded displacement of 6 feet compared to comparable wooden ships of 13 feet, it was ideal for operations in the Yangtze River. It proved itself as such, with the war junks of the Imperial Chinese Navy proving no match for it or its two 32-pounders.

Captain Hall's perspective of his role in the war was very much black-and-white, typical of military commanders. He said of Commissioner Lin Zexu:

"Lin himself was the Robespierre, the terrorist, the reckless despot...who conscientiously believed that he could terrify not only their own countrymen [he had solved an opium addiction problem in a previous province by executing addicts - Ed.] but foreign nations into submission to their will."

It is understandable, I suppose, that military commanders must have an unshakeable belief in the correctness of their actions, and leave their debate to the politicians. This particularly so in an age when a spade was called a spade, and colonization was very much accepted as part of the nature of the British Empire. He was very clear though, on the reasons for taking Hong Kong, and its advantages and disadvantages. On the subject he had this to say:

"The roads of Hong Kong and the bay of Victoria form an excellent anchorage, haing deep water very near the shore, and only one small shoal having 16 feet of water upon it."

Its cons of course, were the typhoons and the breezes disrupted by the mountains on the island. He attributed the latter in particular to the insalubrious nature of Hong Kong, with fresh air not dispersng the evil humors rising out of the ground. The typhoons were mitigated though by the mountains, so in Captain Hall's mind they were in equal parts blessing and curse. He states:

"To this [rainy June] succeeds the burning, tropical sun of July [I can related to that!-Ed.], with a sort of death-like stillness in the atmosphere, which, little weathered as it is on that [north] side of the island by the southwest monsoon, cannot fail, if it last long without any change, to promote fever and sickness."

His ambivalence about Hong Kong in general comes out in the following paragraph:

"At the time we took possession of the island, there was little to tempt us to make a settlement there, except the excellent anchorage on its northern side, having a passage in and out at either end, its proximity to the mouth of the Canton River, and the difficulty of finding any more suitable place for our purpose."

He even alludes to his own belief that the northern shore was an inauspicious place to begin the city of Victoria, pointing out that the Chinese also believe that facing north is unlucky and facing south, as the main town of Singapore does, is better. He also harbours the belief, so to speak, that most Europeans would move south to the more healthy environs of Repulse Bay. A man ahead of its time:

"Doubtless, in a very short time many of the Europeans will reside on the southern side of the island, and cross over the mountains daily to transact their business."

He was not averse to amusing his readers with entertaining observations. This one about the comparative methods of colonization by different European nations:

"It has been said, in respect to colonization, that the first thing the French undertake is to build a fort, the Spaniards a church, and the English a factory or warehouse." [Hong Kong was no different, the first building going up being the Matheson Opium Store - Ed.]."

His comments though, about the British mission to 'civilize' China gives pause for thought. It struck me how similar it sounded, even 160 years later, to the missionary zeal with which America brings its promotion of democracy to the Middle East. Read this passage of Captain Hall, substitute Christianity with democracy, and China with the Middle East:

"Providence has at length ordained that a vast empire, which comprises nearly a third of the human race, shall no longer remain totally excluded from the great family society of nations; and we cannot but believe that the period has at length arrived when that wonderful nation is, by a slow but steady progress, to be brought under the influence of Christianity. But while we are impressed with this feeling, let us not be too hasty in precipitating a crisis which may convulse a mighty empire from one end to another. This, then, leads us to the momentuous question of the ultimate disorganization or breaking up of the Chinese Empire. This is the great event which we have to dread; [Italics are original - Ed.] for who can contemplate the feaful results of such a crisis without alarm, and without a desire to prevent a catastrophe of so vast a nature?"

It is the hallmark and classic failing of any 'civilizing' mission, how does one know when to get out, and how to ensure that the long-term impact of your intervention is positive. It is difficult to see how that can be the case, when the intervention starts with an overwhelming victory in a one-sided war. Captain Hall expresses cautious optimism for the future:

"Our intercourse with that remarkable nation [its nationals would probably agree with the use of that term in a different manner - Ed.] ought to be recorded in the pages of history as a blessing, and not, what it might readily become, without great caution and prudence - a curse."

That China has never regarded the Opium War as a blessing should give the Americans in Iraq today some pause for thought.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Prince Henry the Navigator?

As we mentioned yesterday, the conventional story of European expansion usually starts with Prince Henry the Navigator. (That's certainly where we pick up the thread on our Macau walk.) He's said to have created a school of navigation and encouraged scholars and seafarers alike to develop new maritime technologies that brought about the Age of Discovery and that ultimately put European ships into the world's largest oceans and opened new trading routes.

Yet recent research has actually shown his role to be far less instrumental. The Portuguese undeniably were the first Europeans to round the cape of Africa, but their interest was far more economic than has been previously realized, focused specifically on the trade of slaves and to a lesser extent, of gold. Prince Henry, as only being third in line to the throne, realized his destiny not to be a ruler and instead focused on amassing titles and power, and the means to reward his followers with patronage. His father Joao had been the first real king of Portugal after defeating the Castilians at the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385, and to consolidate his position assigned his son, young Henrique, as head of the influential military order, the order of Christ (more on that in this link). The eldest, Duarte, was heir to the throne, and the next youngest, in order: Pedro, Henrique and Fernao, were given commissions and governorships or at least the hope of them.

Prince Henrique had actually been influential in pushing for the attack on the successful capture of Ceuta on the Moroccan coast. But he had preferred that more attention be brought to bear on a crusade in Morocco, instead of on other voyages down the African coastline; however, as his father Joao opposed any further expeditions, he had to keep silent until his father's death in 1433, when Henrique's elder brother Duarte took to the throne. He then immediately called for renewed attacks on the Sultanate of Fez in Morocco, ending in a disastrous attack on Tangier in 1437 that saw the imprisonment of his younger brother Fernao. To top it off, Duarte died in 1438, leaving a six-year old heir. Pedro took over as regent, and put the country back on track by making peace with Castile. Pedro and Henrique shared in the royal profits from licensing and commissioning slaving expeditions to Western Africa and later, to gold trading in the same region. Malyn Newitt (whose excellent book I mentioned in my last post) states:

"Pedro's importance in establishing Portuguese overseas commerce on a sound footing has often been underestimated, but it is now clear that he, rather than his much more famous brother Henrique, was the real driving force behind commercial expansion in the 1440s...It has even been claimed that Pedro and not Henrique should be seen as the real pioneer of the 'discoveries'. It was during his regency that ships' captains sailing to Guinea began for the first time seriously to chart the winds, currents river mouths and anchorages, and it was during these years that more African coastline was 'discovered' and exploited commercially than at any time until the 1470s.

However, in 1449 Pedro was defeated and killed at the battle of Alfarobeira by the Braganza faction which now re-established its suprenacy at the centre of the Portuguese monarchy. Henrique, concerned for his titles, jurisdictions and commercial monopolies, not to mention his governorship of the Order of Christ [the former Knights Templar], stood aside from the conflict and refused to intervene. He was rewarded by a confirmation of his titles and privileges by the young king - not least among them the monopoly rights over the trade with West Africa.

A few years after this political revolution it appears that the king, or more probably Henrique himself, commissioned a chronicle outlining the Infante's achievements in opening up the trade with West Africa. The chronicler appointed to do the work was Gomes Eannes de Zurara...a knight of the Order of Christ, and, as such, very much one of Henrique's men. It appears that he 'borrowed' the partly finished chronicle of the life of Dom Pedro...and adapted it for his purposes...In doing this he produced one of the most famous chronicles of the late middle agfes - a work in which with great skill he indelibly established the image of his patron in the minds not only of his contemporaries but also of posterity."

So basically, Henrique, our famous Prince Henry the Navigator, had his henchman steal his dead brother's biography, whom he betrayed, and take credit for many of his deeds. Because this is practically the only long source from this period, everyone had tended to believe in this fabricated tale. It is also a tale that has been embellished over the centuries many times, as Newitt points out, by one Joquim Bensaude in 1946:

" the Infante D. Henrique we meet the religious vision of a Dante...neither the sufferings of Dante, nor those of Milton or Beethoven, nor the sixty years of the artistic anguish of Michelangelo have the tragic grandeur of the martyrdom of the Infante."

But then Newitt turns the academic knife into the Prince:

"There is little real evidence that Henrique was a dedicated patron of exploration. Once Pedro was removed from the scene and Henrique was left to exploit his commercial monopoly, no further 'discoveries' were made. The last eleven years of Henrique's life were spent on diplomacy at the papl court to secure further rights for the Order of Christ and in organising a new Morccan expedition which was successfully launched in 1458. Diogo Gomes recorded that, while an expedition to Morocco was being organised, 'the Prince Henrique, being fully occupied gave no attention to Guinea. Exploiting the commerce of West Africa was left to merchants, many of them Italian, who came to Henrique for licenses but who were left very much to their own devices to make what profits they could.

Modern research has entirely demolished the idea that Henrique was a scientist, a mystic and the founder of a 'school' of navigation and geography. As Ballie Diffie wrote definitely in 1977, 'there is not found one single word of his love of books...nor does any contemporary praise his knowledge of astronomy...Henry was not learned in geography nor was he a mathematician. Those who knew him confirmed that he introduced no new navigational skills...The existence of scientists who supposedly gathered around Henry is equally difficult to verify.""

I suppose Regent Peter the Navigator just doesn't have the same ring.

Condolences to Britain

We at Walk the Talk are so terribly appalled and sorry for the events in London yesterday. We wish a speedy recovery for the survivors of the blast, and for the spirit of that indomnitable city. We also hope its perpetrators are brought to justice. A senseless, barbaric act, against a city more cosmopolitan than any other, a true world capital for all religions, a twenty-first century Jerusalem. Unforgivable.

Our regular blogcast about the Infante Henrique will be postponed until later in the afternoon.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Slavery and Myths of the 'Age of 'Discovery'

I have been reading an excellent new book by Malyn Newitt, the Charles Boxer Professor of History at King's College London. A specialist on Lusophone Africa, he decied it had been some time since an history had been published of Portugal in the Age of Discovery, so he has written a strong, powerful and thoughtful tome by Routledge (that ever faithful publisher of non-bestseller academic books) entitled History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion, 1400-1668. I highly recommend people with an interest in the history of the Age of Discovery or of the Portuguese Empire to read this book.

Now what is the one story that all European history textbooks cover about Portugal? It's that Prince Henry the Navigator ushered in the Age of Discovery by encouraging the exploration of the West African coast and beyond. And that he did so for a mixture of the honor and joy of discovery and trade with the Orient. Well, Newitt's book is a very accessible compilation of a lot of recent research by Portuguese- and English-speaking scholars alike that completely skewers all of these long-held and cherished myths.

Before I continue, I realize that some of these revelations may be considered offensive by some Portuguese, many of whom are very proud of their country's history. I would remind them in advance that Newitt does not deny that the Portuguese made any important discoveries, nor does he demean the bravery of those explorers. Also, slavery was an accepted practice in many societies of that era, and so applying today's standards to that time would be somewhat unfair. But he points out misallocations of credit where they are due, particularly in the case of the Infante Enrique (Prince Henry) and the motivations for the voyages.

As for the motivations of the voyages, Newitt writes:

"The ideology of [Portugal's] feudal armies was still that of chivalry and crusade. Fidalgos sought the formal honour of knighthood...the main reason for the expedition against Ceuta in 1415 [which was considered the starting point for the Age of Discovery - Ed.] had been the desire of the Infantes (princes) to be knighted on the field of battle rather than at a tournament. In his Cronica dos feitos de Guine, [Zurara] tells stories of the armed men in the service of the Infante Dom Henrique (Henry the 'Navigator') receiving the accolade on the beaches of western Africa after a slave raid. The idea of the crusade against the Moors was also prominent in the ideology of soldiers who often sought the justification for what they were doing in the traditional language of crusading - none more so than Dom Henrique himself. However, a knighthood was not just a military honour. It could carry with it membership of one of the Military Orders with their vast corporate wealth and the expectation of being rewarded with the grant of a commandery, town or castle in the control of the knights."

So basically, Newitt makes the convincing argument that the soldiers and nobles wanted to crusade to gain status and honour, which translated also into material gain. He goes on to say:

"Behind the language of chivalry and honour was the reality of what military activity meant in practice. War was expected to pay for itself and to provide the major pathway to a prosperous career. Lack of resources at the disposal of the Crown had always meant that...the army's pay were met from the proceeds of confiscations, ransoms or plunder. Nobles for their part had to reward their followers, with the result that the search for plunder, ransoms and slaves became so important that it often determined the whole thrust of a campaign. The voyages of 'discovery' down the coasts of Africa, organised after 1430 by the Infante Dom Henrique and other noblemen, were openly and explicitly a series of raids designed to obtain slaves for sale or important 'Moors' who might be ransomed."

So there it is - the first voyages of Discovery organized by Prince Henry were actually mainly slaving expeditions. And the reason they kept going further down the coast was because after a successful raid, villages on that part of the coast would move inland to avoid becoming enslaved and would defend themselves better; consequently the Portuguese corsairs and such had to go further down the coastline for easy prey that would be surprised. Rational economic decision-making was a major factor in the 'discoveries' after all.

Tune in tomorrow for "Prince Henry the Navigator?"

The Olympics, Tung, and the Marco Polo Bridge

So many ideas for a post. At first, I thought I might discuss how Hong Kong's former as well as current masters will be staging the Olympics, and how Hong Kong participated for the first time in 1954 (link to a speech by Anson Chan). Best wishes to London, hope they take the opportunity to finally get the old Tube working properly.

Then, I thought I'd point out that our former Chief Executive, the Honourable Tung Chee-Hwa, has his birthday today. Happy Birthday, Mr. Tung. You're a nice man, too bad your term in office didn't go so well. At least you got the democrats and the pro-Beijing forces in Hong Kong to agree on that much. I wonder though, how all the fortune-tellers and numerologists in Hong Kong and China missed an incredible coincidence and very ill-starred omen. Tung Chee-Hwa was born on the same day as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident (7 July 1937). For students of Chinese history of any stripe, you'll know that it sparked off the Sino-Japanese War, the single most cataclysmic event in modern Chinese history. If that didn't ring any warning bells, well then...

(This photo, by the way, was taken by a LIFE magazine photographer in Shanghai 1937, shortly after the outbreak of hostilities. It was possibly after the KMT bombed its own city accidentally while targeting the Japanese. It is allegedly somewhat doctored, as the parents of the child were apparently cropped out of the photo. I discovered this fact on Wikipedia's editorial page for the Nanjing Massacre, which is embarrassing in the extreme as to how people are still arguing whether or not it happened).

Main post of the day to follow.