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.

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