Tuesday, July 19, 2005

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!


Madame Chiang said...

I honestly don't think that Hong Kong could ever fade into obscurity...however powerful Beijing and Shanghai become...it is just too vibrant, too strong and too resiliant.

Maybe I am just biased!

Dave and Stefan said...

Well Madame Chiang, I do agree with you that Hong Kong is unlikely to become like Cleveland or Liverpool, but I suppose there is the fear that it will simply become a tourist playground, or a place to hoard and spend money, like Venice.

What I think Hong Kong has on its side is that today's China is positive and forward-thinking, and seems willing to choose to forget about the past when it comes to Hong Kong (as opposed to Japan). Shanghai, after all, was a colonial creation, mainly of Britain, and was furthermore founded officially after Hong Kong. Yet half a century on, Shanghai is regarded as much a part of China as Beijing itself.

Particularly now that Jiang Zemin and some of the Shanghai clique are no longer exclusively astride the locomotive of political power, Hong Kong has a fighting chance. I think it just has to wake up as a city to what it needs to do to create and maintain its niche in China...