Wednesday, August 31, 2005

World Blog Day and Henry Moore in Hong Kong

I will tie my two subjects together - trust me. Today is , a celebration of bloggers everywhere. I have been told I should highlight 5 blogs that are worth reading to other bloggers, and so I shall duly comply. While they are not new on my links list, I've never done this before, and introductions are long overdue. First up must be Simon on Simonworld, who provides us fascinating commentary on wide-ranging subjects from economic reform in China to milkshake murderers; Simonworld is also currently my alter ego since I'm guest blogging for him while he's away. Next up is Hemlock, one of the longest-running blogs in the region, and certainly among the most entertaining. His acerbic, sharp wit provides an amusing way to look at the bizarre daily happenings in the Big Lychee.

I feel a kinship with the musings of Madame Chiang, given her interest in both Hong Kong and East Asia and the Middle East; I also admire her bravery for wearing her heart on her sleeve! Asiapundit must be congratulated for marrying visual spectacle with daily links and posts of great interest. And speaking of marriage (hrmph), I enjoy reading Shaky Kaiser's experiences of a side of Hong Kong I recall from my banking days.

That's a far from complete list of bloggers I enjoy reading regularly (you'll find that list on the right if you scroll down a bit), but that'll do for this post.

Incidentally, the idea for World Bloggers Day on the 31st of August came from a blogger in Sirael that looked at the digits '3108' and thought that he saw the word 'blog'. Similar I suppose to sightings of the Virgin Mary on old ham sandwiches and such, but that's a good enough excuse.

But speaking of visual-numerical connections, now to Henry Moore, that masterful British sculptor of the 20th century that died on this day, August 31st, in 1986. Anyone that's spent any time in the Forum of Exchange Square will have seen his excellent work entitled 'Oval with Points.'

Now Moore is a master, of that there can be no doubt. And equally doubtless, Jardines subsidiary Hong Kong Land is a great admirer of artwork, given there several scultures in the Forum and their frequent art exhibitions in the atrium of 1&2 Exchange Sqaure. But why did they chose this work of art specifically for their office complex in Hong Kong? I submit to you this idea: they did it because it looks like the number '8', which as Cantonese and old HK hands will know, sounds also like the Cantonese word for fortune. It is the same reason they chose Dame Elisabeth Frink's Water Buffaloes - its bullish demeanour. It's ingenious, really, developing a reputation as a patron of the arts amongst the gwailos, while satisfying their Chinese tenants with an incredibly auspicious sculpture...

But then again keep in mind that art always has many different levels of meaning, and it's important that viewers go through the process of figuring out of a work of art is all about. About this Moore once said:
All art should have a certain mystery and should make demands on the spectator. Giving a sculpture or a drawing too explicit a title takes away part of that mystery so that the spectator moves on to the next object, making no effort to ponder the meaning of what he has just seen. Everyone thinks that he or she looks but they don't really, you know.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

How Should We Remember Lin Zexu?

Today is Lin Zexu's birthday. Lin was born in 1785, and quickly rose to prominence as an incorruptible official that fought against what he saw as the pernicious evil of the opium trade, and the shameless way in which foreign opium merchants like Jardine Matheson and Russell and Co. regularly flouted edicts banning opium. He particularly despised the officials that cooperated secretly with these merchants for their own private gain, at the expense of the Daoguang Emperor.

He had successfully stopped opium consumption in an inland province in the late 1830s. His secret? An iron fist. He first sent one memorial explaining that opium smoking was banned, and that it would no longer be tolerated. His next move was much less gentle - he began executions of addicts and pushers alike. His success drew the attention of the Emperor himself, who sent him to Canton to deal with the barbarians. He patiently took stock of the situation for a few months, and many Westerners initially even admired this man, who had none of the sleaziness of his predecessors.

But then he sent out an edict banning the opium trade, and demanded that 20,000 chests of opium, a staggering amount in monetary terms, were to be surrendered, or the opium merchants of every nationality would be imprisoned. Eventually, the European community caved in to these community-based threats. Lin had the 20,000 chests destroyed and dumped into the Pearl River. He adopted a zero-tolerance policy to opium, and even sent a letter to Queen Victoria (which was never delivered - nevertheless, the document is a remarkable read). When, after this capitulation, he had heard that some British sailors had killed a Chinese man in the area of Kowloon, he demanded their surrender. This British could not countenance - the surrendering of a British subject to Chinese justice - and they left Canton, and then left Macau when they were forced from the Portuguese toehold on Asia.

Lin's decisive action, however, was his undoing. He had been brave - causing huge disruptions to the status quo of the opium trade in Canton - in the name of the Emperor. However, he believed sincerely that these barbarians would be cowed like barbarians had for the last 400 years - by demonstrations of brute force. He had no knowledge of the huge advances in naval and military technology, or transportation capacity, that made British power projection the most potent force on the planet.

Contemporary Western sources decried Lin's arrogance and xenophobia, believing for too long that the world outside China was 'barbaric' and that China was the source of all virtue, and that Europeans were inferior to the Chinese. It certainly showed in his letter to Queen Victoria mentioned earlier, putting her on a far lower scale than the Emperor of China. I would argue that the arrogance was not Lin's, but China's. For too long, it had rested on its laurels, spurned new technologies to which it had been exposed centuries earlier, demeaned the importance of trade, and condescended to all it surveyed. Its pride was too great - and that aggregate cultural arrogance brought about its fall. I feel it is difficult to fault Lin Zexu, a brave man who took risks in his career to achieve results in the name of the emperor; it is a shame that his career was ruined by a mistake made with regard to forcing the hand of opium merchants that happened to have the ear of the most powerful government of that era.

But as China rises again, let the celebratory triumphalism not become yet again a sneering pride at all countries beyond its borders. A humbler, benign China that engages rather than disdains neighbors near and far, who serve both itself and the world much better.

Monday, August 29, 2005

The Treaty of Nanking's Anniversary

Today is a day of reflection. It is the 163rd birthday of the Treaty of Nanking (pictured at left), the document that officially brought, among other things, the city of Hong Kong into existence. (It is also the 32nd birthday of Stephen Stephens, my childhood friend and best man at my wedding - he's currently trying to evacuate his home in New Orleans, currently playing host to Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane - typhoon, in our parlance.)

The treaty obviously wrought tremendous change in the course of East Asian history. Hong Kong was officially brought into existence (although the British had jumped the gun, with man-on-the-spot Charles Elliot having decided that it was appropriate for Captain Belcher to raise the Union Jack at Possession Point on January 26th, 1841, 19 months before). Five other ports were opened to free trade unrestricted by Imperial oligopolies like the old cohong in Canton. The Chinese government paid a huge indemnity, and paid restitution for opium chests seized and destroyed by Imperial Commissioner Li Zexu.

But the two most important things about the treaty were left out. The first was that opium was nowhere mentioned in the treaty, making it possible for traders like Jardines to continue to make colossal profits from the drug.

Even more important - this first step removed China from its self-created pedestal and its belief that it was the center of the world, and above all other nations. In short, Britain had forced China into the international system of state-to-state relations, and all of the legalities and international norms it signified. For over a century and a half, China, from a position of considerable disadvantage, laboured to improve its position within that arena. Reformers like Li Hongzhang (from the late Qing dynasty) had to work hard, at once appeasing grasping imperialist nations on the one hand, and an incredibly restive, hostile domestic audience on the other (by the way, it was Li Hongzhang's chef, while Li was Ambassador to the United States, that came up with 'chop suey' today, August 29th, 1895, while desperately trying to find something palatable for his master. Chinese chefs have been trying to undo the damage to the American palate ever since!)

It is only now at the beginning of the 21st century, has that journey China began in 1842 towards being a global player in the world of international relations, been completed. While Chinese demagogues have used the date of the Treaty of Nanking, the first of the 'unequal treaties', as an opportunity to rail against Western imperialism, let us hope it can also serve a more positive purpose - as a back marker to highlight the progress China has made in the intervening decades. A confident China no longer needs to constantly rue its luck, and to regret the past and today's anniversary in particular. Let us hope that shall be the course chosen by a benign China in the 21st century.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Walk the Talk on CNN Next Tuesday

Just thought we'd mention that our company, Mobile Adventures, and our 'Walk the Talk' heritage audio guide service (via mobile phones) will appear on CNNAsia next Tuesday morning between 7:30am and 8am Hong Kong time. It'll discuss our service, some of the challenges we faced in starting our company, and what we've done to address these stumbling blocks. We'll also give a taste of some of the stories we tell on our audio guided walks of Central and Tsim Sha Tsui.

We did the filming last Tuesday, partly in the office, partly on the street, and partly on the Tsim Sha Tsui boardwalk. It actually took 5 hours (!) but under the careful editing eye of producer James MacDonald it will apparently be reduced to about 2 minutes of punchy, pithy news coverage.

Should be a fun, short segment, we hope you'll have a chance to tune in!

Regular blog service shall resume on Monday...

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Blame it on the Spain

Apologies for the terrible pun on the Milli Vanilli hit song. And apologies to the singers, or rather, the lip-synchers, one of whom I understand has departed from this world. But it is appropriate in a sense that I mention some pretenders due to the peculiar events that occurred on the Iberian peninsula in the Year of Our Lord (let's play Catholic today, shall we?) 1580.

For that was the year of the Battle of Alcantara., which occured on August 25th 425 years ago. Philip II of Spain (pictured here, and made famous to English-speakers as the organizer of the Spanish Armada) had sent a large Spanish army to Portugal to claim its vacant throne. At the head of his army was the Duke of Alva, fresh from suppressing dissent ruthlessly in the Low Countries. The Duke and the Spanish Habsburg contingent, supported by a substantial number of Portuguese nobles, swept aside the last native pretender to the throne. This decisive battle resulted in the Union of the Crowns of Spain and Portugal (not to mention all the other kingdoms of the Habsburg empire) from 1580 until 1640.

The throne of Portugal lay vacant, largely due to the lemming-like crusading stupidity of the last Portuguese King, King Sebastian. A hundred years before, during the dying days of the Iberian Reconquista, the medieval remnants of chivalric office recommended that Portugal claim the lands facing them across the Mediterranean, in Morocco, from the Sultanate of Fez. While they were quite successful in capturing several ports, because the Sultanate suffered from internal dissent, they were never able to hold a great deal of lands to the interior. In the meantime, the riches of the Estado de India and the market for Asian spices had made most of the Portuguese nobility forget about crusades against Morocco and get themselves plum posts in the empire instead.

But Sebastian grew up sheltered and fed on stories of great deeds, crusades, and heroic murders of Muslim infidels (as one was in those days). Reputedly mentally unstable, and surrounded by a coterie of courtiers that encouraged his fiery idealism, he led a huge number of Portuguese troops, the flower of the nobility, to Morocco to increase his holdings there in 1578. Weeks later, debilitated by lack of water, they were attacked on the plains of Alcacer-el-Quvir by Moroccans and slaughtered.

As he died without an heir, only an elderly relation, the Prior of Crato, was able to take over the hereditary kingship of the Lords of Avis (the Portuguese noble family, not the rental car company). But because Portuguese kings for 150 years had been engineering marriages with Castile, hoping to ultimately take over the Spanish kingdom, what happened instead was the opposite. When the Prior of Crato died in 1580, Philip II engineered the reverse takeover.

It was for that reason that Portugal had its long-standing alliance with England abrogated and increasingly moved into the orbit of Spanish foreign policy. Although initially the kingdoms were kept separate operationally, by the 1620s things had turned against Spain in the 30 Years' War, and Spain demanded huge sums from the Portuguese government just as they were suffering from attacks by the Dutch on their shipping. From the 1590s to the 1630s, less than half of all ships leaving Portugal to its colonies and stations (like Macau) actually made it back in one piece.

As this was the age before insurance and Lloyd's list, the economic consequences were devastating, sending the Portuguese empire and the Estado de India into a death-spiral from which it never recovered. Cities like Macau that once benefited from a strong trade both with metropolitan Portugal and within Asia, had to find ways to survive on their own, particularly after Portugal resumed its independence in 1640 (after the damage was done to the empire).

So the Portuguese blame the Spanish for the loss of their empire. But the story of Don Sebastian may be the one they should first recall, along with their inability to integrate their New Christians (Jews and Muslims forced to convert, later threatened with death by the Inquisition) and their wealth into a new economic system.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Thank You, Alfred Eisenstadt

We all know that Japan finally capitulated to the combined might of the Allied forces in August 1945, 60 years ago. But less well known is the fact that 10 years ago today was the day that Alfred Eisenstadt died. Who was he? In short, a world-famous photographer for LIFE Magazine that captured one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. When it was announced to New York in mid-August 1945 that the Japanese had surrendered, the sailor in the accompanying picture grabbed a beautiful nurse standing nearby and kissed her out of sheer joy, probably palpable relief and in no small part calculated desire.

But the spontaneity of the moment still rings true today. As we continue to hear the echoes of that historic day 60 years on, it is important also to remember the sheer joy, happiness and promise that announcement brought. Let us also celebrate the unity and strength of purpose, the positive energy and the desire to build and re-build a shattered and spent world that came with V-J Day. Let us salute the veterans, but also remember the the builders that built the foundations of the current prosperity we enjoy, from all nations.

Just four years ago, on September 12, 2001, when the world reeled from the shock of the events in New York and Washington, and before divisive politics split the world, most of us that day had the briefest taste of what it must have felt like to have a global moment, albeit a much more tragic one, of shock, revulsion and sympathy.

Then, as now, the media were able to capture that moment in time, transfixing us, an awestruck public, with the profound image. Some of those images will doubtless remain seared into the collective memory for years to come. The image above has, sixty years on, proven itself timeless in its ability to insert the viewer into that day in Times Square, and immune to the relentless overexposure of the past six decades. Alfred Eisenstadt, the engineer and master of that image, has thereby in his own way proven himself a great historian. Thank you, Mr. Eisenstadt, for this beguiling, eternal doorway to your own time.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Trouble With Anniversaries in Hong Kong

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have frequently tried to remind people of the significance of particular dates in history significant to Hong Kong, or more generally to the history of Sino-Western relations. The reason I do this is to invest both time and space with a greater memory of past events. I do this not only for sentimental reasons; Hong Kong's legal system and rule of law is based on English (some like to say Anglo-American) Common Law, which is in turn based on precedent. How can one have a city with a strong sense of the rule of law, if people have no sense of the past and have therefore have little sense of precedent?

But as I have mentioned in past posts, the reason for the lack of historicity lies in the postwar colonial government here. For all of its merits, and the progress under its watch, there was little it could do to hide its own embarrassment about Hong Kong having been seized as a prize of the First Opium War. I found an interesting article written 14 years ago in the International Herald Tribune (to this day, actually) about the difficulty of celebrating anniversaries of Hong Kong's founding. It discusses how in that year, the 150th anniversary of the post office was being celebrated, but how the fact that that was also the 150th anniversary of Hong Kong's birth was being totally hushed up:
On Jan. 26, 1841, Captain Charles Elliot raised the Union Jack over Possession Point [actually it was Captain Edward Belcher of the HMS Sulphur - Ed.], claiming the island of Hong Kong for the British crown.
It is an event that the present colonial government has chosen to overlook.
"I didn't even realize that that was the case," said Stanley Wong, a government spokesman, when asked about the anniversary. "I don't even know if there was any discussion about it."
Mr. Wong later said that the anniversary had been discussed by the colony's leaders, but that it had been decided that 150 years was nothing special.
"We don't think there is any significance to this particular event," he said. "This year is no different from any other year."
But Mr. Wong denied that the government was not doing anything to celebrate.
"I'm sure you are familiar with the fact that the Post Office is celebrating its 150th anniversary," he said.
It is fascinating that actually even soon after Tiananmen, the British still felt that it would have been inappropriate to celebrate the taking of Hong Kong from China on its 150th anniversary. Perhaps so, since while that was the date that Britain officially claimed Hong Kong, they did not receive it from the Chinese in writing ultimately until the signing of the Treaty of Nanking on August 29th, 1842. In any case, the pro-China Lord Wilson was then still Governor, and it was to be another year before the more antagonistic-to-China Chris Patten was assigned as the last Governor to the Colony (oops, Territory) of Hong Kong.

But the article later mentions some perceptive local historians that point out that all of the major anniversaries of Hong Kong's capture by Britain have come at the most dreadfully inconvenient times that made it impossible to celebrate then:
The 125th anniversary in 1966 came amid China's Cultural Revolution, when resentment of British rule led to riots in the colony. The 100th anniversary in 1941 came during World War II, and the 75th in 1916 occurred during World War I. There was apparently a celebration in 1891 to mark the 50th anniversary, but no one is around to remember what went on.
.. "I don't think any colony around the world has had the same remarkable level of social an
"Every time Hong Kong tries to celebrate, the situation is not so favorable, like this year," said Joseph Ting, curator of the Hong Kong Museum of History.
Under the circumstances, many believe a celebration of the Hong Kong Post Office is an appropriate substitute. With its state-of-the-art optical recognition system and its low-key efficiency, the postal service is among the cheapest and finest in the world, exemplifying what may well be Britain's most lasting contribution to Hong Kong: an honest and well-run civil service.
Maybe so, but Hong Kong's willingness to forget history and embrace whatever-may-come from the future may come at the expense of the rule of law, and the 'honest and well-run civil service' the author mentions.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Hong Kong Fingerprinting: State of the Art in 1904

One more tidbit from the Police Captain Superintendent's report worthy of record is his noting that a revolutionary new technique was being implemented in police records: fingerprinting. The Captain Superintendent writes:

"In April, 1904, shortly after my return from leave, I introduced into the Gaol Mr. HENRY's system of taking finger prints of all criminals before discharge. Finger prints of persons who are banished from the Colony, or passed through here on banishment from the Straits Settlements or elsewhere are also taken, by the detective staff, and added to the collection. On the 31st December 1905, the collection numbered 3,514 male records and 212 female.

Since October, 1904 the finger prints of all persons arrested for criminal offenses have been taken by police at time of arrest, for the purpose of detecting previous convictions. The old system of taking the prisoners into the gaol to see whether the warders could recognize them has been continued concurrently. By means of the finger prints I identified during the year 123 persons as being old offenders..."

Hong Kong Police Blotter: For 1905

Many of you may be unaware of a wonderful resource in finding old documents about the former Colony of Hong Kong: the archives of the University of Hong Kong. One element of the archives is entitled: The Hong Kong Government Reports Online, which has many different reports from various arms of the government stretching back into the 19th century. Although almost all of the local archives were destroyed (largely for fuel) during the Japanese Occupation, some of it was preserved in London.

My findings from the archives are from the Report of the Captain Superintendent of Police, and of the Superintendent of the Fire Brigade, for the Year 1905. The goings on and crimes of one century ago give us a great insight into the lives and milieu in which Hong Kongers lived one hundred years ago. Let me quote you some of the highlights:

"On the 6th January, a Philippino, named PAGUIN, passenger on board the S.S. Tremont in the Harbour, murdered a Philippino passenger and injured another. He afterwards swam ashore and attacked a rickshaw coolie named CHEUNG FUNG, aged 44, who was at the time sitting in his vehicle near Queen's Street, causing such injuries that he died in hospital the next day. PAGUIN was arrested, convicted at the Criminal Sessions and sentenced to death. The sentence was subsequently commuted to imprisonment for life."

One must recall that there was a very large Philippino, or as we would say today, Filipino community here. In fact, many of the revolutionaries of the Philippines Revolution, such as Rizal and Aguinaldo, planned the revolution from Hong Kong. It was here that they received funding and help with arms and equipment from the Americans to help defeat the colonial Spaniards in 1898. In fact, Admiral Dewey's flotilla sailed from Hong Kong en route to its one-sided battle in Manila Bay.

"On the night of 11th March, SIU SHU and his son SIU YING residing at 124, Wong Nai Wu in the Yaumati district, heard men carrying pigs past their house. They at the time thought their pigs were being stolen and went out to arrest them. One of the six was armed with a revolver, and fired on SIU SHU and his son, both of whom were badly injured and taken to Hospital. SIU SHU recovered from his injuries but SIU YING, aged 27, died next day. No arrest was made."

This short snippet illustrates several things - first, that many Chinese at the time persisted in keeping domesticated animals in the first floor of their houses, despite the risks to health and sanitation. Secondly, Yaumati, or Yau Ma Tei as we know it today, was much less crowded than the densely packed district of 2005. In fact, it was just in transition at that time from a farming village to urban district, thanks to Governor Nathan's construction of Nathan Road out to Yau Ma Tei, which in those days was considered the back of beyond. The fact that no arrest was made attests to both the difficulty of the British authorities to track Chinese that frequently moved between Guangdong province and Hong Kong.

"On the 20th June, the body of SHEK KAU, aged 20, was picked up in the Harbour off the Quarry Bay shipyard. Deceased was a boat girl and lived in a house boat at Shaukiwan. At 10pm on the night of 20th June she left in her boat to ply for hire. At that time she was wearing jewellry value $35. When she was picked up the jewellry was missing, it is supposed robbery was the motive. One man was arrested, and acquitted at the Criminal Sessions."

There is a great sadness to this factfile. The Tanka boat people, as late as the 1960s still a sizeable population living on the water, were considered the lowest rung of society and had been forbidden by the Qing dynasty to own land. They were also the first to be willing to cast aside loyalty to the Chinese Emperor and aid the British during the first opium war. Many of their young women also became mistresses to Western merchants and administrators, becoming 'pensioners' when these men inevitably returned home. Many also worked as prostitutes for both Westerners and Chinese, and entertained clients on their houseboats. The Captain Superintendent leaves some ambiguity in the phrase 'to ply for hire'. But if she had been simply taxi-ing passengers to and from Kowloon, it is unlikely she would have been wearing jewellry of some value.

"On 17th October, the steam-launch Evening Star collided with and capsized a rowing boat No. 3502 while sailing in the Harbour between the French mail buoy and Blake Pier with the result that two persons lost their lives. The master of the launch was arrested, and later discharged by the Police Magistrate."

What is interesting to note is that the Evening Star was in fact the first steam-launch to be used as part of the Star Ferry service started by the Indian Parsee Dorabjee Nowrojee. He had originally used it as a way to make bread deliveries to ships in the harbour, and also as his own private transport home to Kowloon from Hong Kong every night. He had called it Evening Star because one of his favorite poets was Alfred Lord Tennyson, in particular Crossing the Bar. The first line of the poem is Sunset - and Evening Star, and One Clear Call for Me! He regarded the Evening Star as his personal call to go home for dinner with the family.

That's all for today. Hope you enjoyed this sorrowful walk down memory lane...

Friday, August 19, 2005

A 19th c. Resident on Penang and Malacca

When I say Resident, I mean 'Resident', not resident in lower case. For that was what the head colonial administrator in Singapore was called from 1819-1826. Yesterday I had the pleasure of perusing former Resident John Crawfurd's account of his Embassy to the kingdoms of Thailand and Vietnam, entitled: "Journal of an Embassy to the Courts of Siam and Cochin China", a mission he undertook in 1821 and 1822 on behalf of the British East India Company. He was a longtime employee of the British East India Company. Born in Scotland in 1783, like William Jardine, he was also trained as a surgeon in Edinburgh, and also joined the service of John Company. Unlike Jardine, though, he was not posted on board ship but was rather sent to the North Western provinces of India. He later was sent to Penang for three years in 1808, where he became fluent in Malay.

As the Napoleonic Wars were on, Britain sailed in to storm (oops I mean protect) the Dutch colonies from French interference, and so from 1811 to 1816 he served under Sir Stamford Raffles in his administration of Dutch Java under the auspices of the East India Company. After retiring to Britain for a few years to write a 3-volume book, he was sent back out for this mission, and was soon after appointed Resident of Singapore from 1823 to 1826.

His Journal provides some fascinating insights into the man that was soon to shape Singapore's future (he in fact was the one that put pen to paper with the Sultan of Johore, securing the rights to Singapore island in perpetuity, instead of just as a leasehold, of which arrangement had been created by Raffles and Colonel Farquhar, the first Resident). It is clear he had divide-and-rule on his mind when commenting on the agricultural industry in Penang:
The landed proprietors of Penang consist, however, of persons of all the races which inhabit it; but the chief arboretors, and the only improvers, are the two most industrious classes - the European and the Chinese.
He also had very practical views on the administration of such a colony, and on how to generate revenues for the treasury - chiefly, through a tax on gambling. Politicians in Singapore discussing the logistics of the Integrated Resorts on Sentosa may wish to consider they are reviving an old debate. Crawfurd writes of Penang:
In former times a tax was levied on gambling more productive than all the rest put together; but on the institution of the Court of Justice, it was presented by the Grand Jury as a nuisance, and abolished. This was, perhaps, being too fastidious. The Chinese, the Malayas, native Christians, Burmans and Siamese, are violently, and without a revolution in their manners, not certainly to be brought about by mere municipal regulation, incurably addicted to gambling. The Chinese especially, habitually repair to the gaming-table after a day of severe toil. It would, perhaps, have been better to have regulated and controlled this propensity, than vainly to have attempted to eradicate it. The consequence of attempting the latter has been, that gaming still goes on clandestinely - heavy fines are levied by the police, and its officers are afforded a pretext, for vexatious interference in the private concerns of the inhabitants.
So Crawfurd here alludes to the problem of corruption that arises when you try to prevent something that he views as in the nature of the Chinese.

When he heads to Malacca, he demonstrates that he very much views the administrative tasks of the colonial power as the 'white man's burden', and demonstrates that he is rather against Europeans 'going native' in the course of their duties in the East. Here is an example of his railing against the Dutch going 'tropo' in their colony of Malacca:
Out of 37 [Dutch] ladies, two or three only were Europeans, and the rest born in the country, with a large admixture of Asiatic blood. The female dress, of the younger part, was in the English fashion; and a very few only of the elderly ladies dressed in the Malay kabaya, a sort of loose gown, or wore their hair in the Malay fashion. The long residence of the English in the Dutch colonies, the influence of the French, and lately, of their own more polished countrywomen - have nearly banished these external marks of barbarism. Before the last 10 years, the habits and costume of the female Dutch colonists partook more of the Asiatic than the European. Instead of Dutch, they spoke a barbarous dialect of Malay; they were habited, as I have described, in the dress of that people; they chewed the pawn-leaf publicly, and even in the ball-room each fair dame had before her an enormous brass ewer to receive the refuse of her mastication.
Crawfurd clearly felt that such concessions to Asian culture and practices were letting down the side. And no phenomenon seemed to disturb him more greatly than that of mixed-race Portuguese left behind in Malacca after the Dutch conquest of it in 1641. He writes:
The Portuguese amount to 4,000 and are all of the lowest order. Although with a great admixture of Asiatic blood, the European features are still strongly marked in them. I have no doubt there are among them many of the lineal descendants of the haughty, intolerant and brave men, who fought by the side of Albuquerque; but they certainly inherit no part of the character of their ancestors, and are a timid, peaceable and submissive race. They offer to us a spectacle not frequently presented in the East - that of men bearing the European name, and wearing the European garb, engaged in the humblest occupations of life, for we find them employed as domestic servants, as day labourers, and as fishermen.
Note that his theories of racial eugenics precede those of social Darwinists later in the century, and indeed the books of Darwin himself.

There is much more I have read on his travels, but will not tax you overly with their details, which I find fascinating, but perhaps you may not. Gaaah! His influence is telling even in the sentences I write. Should you want to hear more about his theories on race in Singapore, I should be happy to oblige with his incendiary observations...

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Rats, Pigs, Horses and the Hong Kong Plague

We living in Hong Kong are used to plagues of chickens, ducks, civet cats and pigs. Some may not know that fears of the spread of such diseases from mainland China are far from a new phenomenon. Here is an example of an episode from a century ago.

I had the (dis?)pleasure this morning of looking at a very interesting document that was 106 years old, entitled: "Report on the Health and Sanitary Condition for the Colony of Hong Kong For 1899" by J.M. Atkinson, Principal Civil Medical Officer. Those of you familiar with the health conditions prevailing in Hong Kong at that time will know that it would make grim reading, as it was one of the years that the Bubonic Plague had struck Hong Kong hard. The population indicators on the first page showed the death rate for the various races. From 1898 to 1899 the 'Whites' death rate had fallen from 16.2 to 12.5, a marked improvement. The 'Coloureds' over the same period fell from 33.6 to 28.3, a huge discrepancy uncommented upon by Mr. Atkinson but considered also an improvement; however, the 'Chinese' group rose from 22.54 in 1898 to 24.4 in 1899, due, in Mr. Atkinson's words, to the increase in plague cases in Hong Kong.

Rats were clearly a problem in those days, as is evidenced already on page 2 of the report. He describes in detail:
"A grant of $200 was made for traps, poison, and other requisites. Experiments were made to see if it were possible to attract rats into cellars by means of food in order that poison might afterwards be used. It was found that the animals had so much garbage on the streets and lanes, that the choice food placed in cellars had no attraction."
The rats population was quelled though by setting traps on virtually every corner, and also by employing a new strategy: "The Chinese are paid 2 cents a head for each rat, the Sanitary Inspectors of the various Health districts collecting them on their morning rounds, by this means 300 rats a week are now being destroyed." The poor sanitary conditions in the Chinese tenement districts, which could not be improved by colonial authorities due to opposition from Chinese elites who maintained improvements would require a higher cost of living for the coolies living there, boiled over into borderline racist frustration, as can be seen from the following statement:
"The [Rat Extermination] Commission was dissolved in May, as the Medical Officer for Health stated that it was more probably that rats caught plague from man rather than that men were infected through rats. Although the West Point District had probably never before been so free from rats as it was just before the plague appeared, the epidemic there was one of the worst experienced."
A table later on the page shows statistics for the incidence of plague that clearly demonstrated that the plague went away periodically. The frustration with sanitary conditions in West Point continues in the report:
"From July 1898, to the end of February 1899, only sixteen cases occurred, the disease during this time was quiescent, the marked recurrence of cases, however, in houses previously infected shows that the bacilli are but dormant and in the ill-ventilated, badly lighted and overcrowded Chinese dwellings which exist in this Colony only require certain atmospheric conditions to favour their growth and spread."
But it seemed that the Health Officer was of two minds about the source of the plague, because then he later blamed the Chinese obsession with the horses:
"The great increases of cases in epidemic years has always occurred in the spring proves that in these years a fresh introduction of plague bacilli occurs, information was obtained of the presence of sporadic cases in the district round Canton at the commencement of the year, an outbreak also occurred at Wuchow at the beginning of March and news was obtained of the presence of cases at Pakhoi on the 16th of March, it also appears that the great influx of Chinese at the Annual Race Meeting [in Hong Kong], which is always held towards the end of February, may be one means whereby these germs are introduced afresh into the Colony."
To be more specific, the Health Officer was blaming the mainland Chinese that came to Hong Kong to enjoy the horseracing. It goes to show that while the Hong Kong Chinese do feel an increasing kinship with their mainland brethren, there has always been a certain sense of sanitary dubiousness with which locals here regard their mainland cousins. Today's Hong Kong and the case of the pigs is definitely no exception!

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

They Call Me Bruce on Elgin Street

No no, this won't be another Bruce Lee post. The subject of today's write up are the successive 7th and 8th Earls of Elgin, otherwise both known as Lord Elgin. We'll also explain the origins of Elgin Street, known to most of you Hong Kongers as one of the two main drags of Hong Kong's SoHo (South of Hollywood Road) district.

Now many of you may have heard of a certain Lord Elgin (Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin) that was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803. During his tenure, he happened to visit the ancient city of Athens; on it, he saw the horrors that had been inflicted a century earlier on the great classical columns of the Parthenon by warfare between the Venetians and the Turks. Determined to preserve these fabulous treasures, he had then shipped, at enormous expense to himself, back to the United Kingdom.

We've all heard the tired debates about whether or not this was heritage theft, or in fact an enlightened effort to protect antiquities of inestimable value. Obviously there are merits to the arguments of both sides. The Elgin Marbles, as they were known, were being horribly taken care of by the Ottoman Turks whilst they ruled Greece. Lord Elgin's removal of these treasures, at great cost to himself, out of an increasingly restive area that soon was to experience the War of Greek Independence, seemed like an entirely reasonable thing to do. But what happens centuries later, when a country that sees its civilization as being the heirs to the Parthenon, feels they can take care of their own treasures and they'd like it back, thank you very much? It is an argument made more difficult by the destruction of fabulous treasures of Babylon that, for instance, were held in a heavily-bombed museum in Berlin during the Second World War. You also hear no end of such arguments about the European adventurers on the Silk Road if you go to Dunhuang. I am sympathetic to the repatriation of treasures to countries now far more wealthy and able to take care of their treasures than before, but I really don't think there is a right answer. My view is - if the nations are wealthy enough, the museums of the former colonial powers should set prices, and the colonized should just buy the artefacts back.

Speaking of buying things back, as I mentioned Lord Elgin, the 7th Earl of Elgin, repatriated the Elgin Marbles at considerable personal expense. He also had a lousy time of it in the East, losing his nose to a wasting disease. His wife, repelled by him, left for England separately and became the lover of her escort. Lord Elgin tried to sue this lover for the money he spent transporting the Parthenon treasure, to no avail. He eventually married a much younger woman, with whom he had a son called James.

Now, unfortunately for you, Elgin Street has nothing to do with the 7th Earl of Elgin, but does have everything to do with his son the 8th Earl of Elgin, James Bruce. So bear with me! Elgin Jr. was also a participant in public service - he was Governor of Jamaica in 1842, and later became Governor-General of Canada. How did he enter the picture in Hong Kong? Well, he was appointed High Commissioner to China in 1857 - after the Arrow War, later known as the Second Opium War, had started, and in the year the Chinese tried to poison Hong Kong's entire European population with arsenic in the E Sing Bakery incident.

So he arrived in Hong Kong and in China just in time to oversee the mostly successful campaign waged against China, starting with the siege and taking of Guangzhou (Canton). He teamed up with the French, who, desirous of territorial and economic concessions from China, used the killing of a French missionary as the excuse to attack the Qing empire. When the Chinese reneged on the Treaty of Tientsin in 1858 that gave Western powers the right to send ambassadors to Beijing, Lord Elgin ordered the resumption of war. In 1859, he landed a joint Anglo-French expeditionary force not far from Tientsin (Tianjin) and eventually surrounded Peking. There he and his generals consulted, and decided to burn down the Emperor's Summer Palace.

What an irony for the son of the man accused of stealing the world's most famous heritage treasure in the name of preservation, to burn down ans sack a priceless site of Imperial China! His rationale for the vandalism was that he wanted to discourage the Chinese from using kidnappings of Westerners as a tool of warfare, and in retaliation for the Emperor's forces reneging on a white flag of truce. His successful prosecution of the war led Hong Kong's authorities to name a street in his honor, even though he famously loathed Hong Kong and its stuffy, rigid colonial society (he much preferred Jamaica or Canada). He died shortly after the war ended (1860), in 1863.

So next time you amble drunkenly down Elgin Street, headed for the escalator, think of the man who hated Hong Kong, destroyed the Summer Palace, and forced the legalization of opium in China...and think about what you'll need to do to get a street named after yourself!

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Ho Chi Minh in Hong Kong

On 16th August 1945, Ho Chi Minh and some other prominent members of the Indochina Communist Party declared the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. This grizzled revolutionary had just lived through years of exile in Moscow, Marseilles, Paris, Brussels, Bangkok, various cities in China, and Hong Kong. That's right, Ho Chi Minh had not only lived in Hong Kong but had used it as a base to organise revolutionary activities.

In fact, the Indochina Communist Party had been founded in Hong Kong in 1930. Its objectives? Overthrow of the French; establishment of an independent Vietnam ruled by a peoples' government; nationalisation of the economy and cancellation of public debts; land reform; the introduction of an eight-hour work day; and education for all. (sounds pretty good in this day and age too!) He had been arrested by the British in 1931 for inciting political activity (the British hardly wanted revolutionaries in their midst), but was smuggled out of the Colony secretly a year later before the French could extradite him to Vietnam to face a death sentence. Where was he held? In none other than the Victoria Prison in Central. He escaped Hong Kong to spend the next seven years in the Soviet Union.

But Ho was a nationalist revolutionary first. In fact, at the Versailles conference after World War I he had petitioned Woodrow Wilson for assistance in getting the independence of Vietnam. Even as late as World War II, he wanted America's help in creating an independent republic. But his leftist leanings made him a difficult target of support for America. He had actually been a founding member of the French Communist Party in Paris when it split from the Socialists in 1920. He had also lived in Canton for three years before being forced to flee by Chiang Kai-Shek's persecution of Communists in 1927.

As for his wartime activities, his allegiance to the Communists and his deep-seated nationalism meant he saw the Japanese as just another series of invaders rather than a solution to French colonialism. When war broke out, he returned to Vietnam for the first time in 30 years. He established a base by the border of Free China from which to oppose both the Vichy French and their allies the Japanese, but was ultimately captured by Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist forces and thrown in jail for two years. Upon his release, he made his way back to Vietnam with a guerilla force armed by the Chinese. He was pleased when the Japanese overthrew the Vichy French government in place in Vietnam in March 1945, because with the War drawing to a close, he saw his chance to establish his country before the French were able to return.

The rest is history well-known to most of you - Ho led bloody wars of attrition that forced the French and ultimately even the Americans from his country, although he died in 1969 before the ultimate victory and the fall of Saigon in 1975. I shall just leave you with two quotes from this larger-than-life revolutionary figure: "Nothing is more precious than Independence and Liberty" and "You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win."

Hard to believe his party was founded and his revolution was organized for a time, in the heart of commercial Hong Kong.

Monday, August 15, 2005

First Official Contact Between China and the West

Two months ago, I had written about the first contact between Britain and China, in the form of Captain Weddell's visit to China, preserved for posterity by Peter Mundy. That was certainly an important moment, as it was the first time that the English-speaking and the Chinese-speaking worlds were brought together; that relationship continues to be one of the most important, perhaps the most important in the 21st century.

But for those of you who read that blog entry, it was obviously not the first contact between East and West, as Weddell's voyage had stopped at Macau, a city that had already been Portuguese for 80 years. So we would like to cast light on the first official meetings between the Portuguese and the Chinese. While the Portuguese individually were not the first Europeans to go to China (Marco Polo and others come to mind), they were the first to arrive not merely as private citizens but as representatives of the Estado da India, the extensive Portuguese network of fortresses and trading towns that stretched from Guinea to Goa to Malacca, brought about thanks to the initiative of Afonso da Albuquerque.

The first contact came with a merchant named Jorge Alvares, who had chartered a junk for a voyage near Canton. While he did not succeed in reaching Canton, he did get to explore the Southern Chinese coastline. Intrigued, the Viceroy of the Estado da India despatched a kinsman of Columbus, Rafael Perestrello, to try to secure an official audience in Canton and establish trading relations with China. Perestrello chartered a Malay junk for the purpose. He was admitted to Canton, but Imperial China, for most of its history, has never considered diplomatic relations with other countries as a relationship of equals. Rather, it has been envisaged as a tributary relationship; the fact that the letter from the Viceroy addressed the Emperor in egalitarian terms, and the fact that is was not even the King of Portugal but just a deputy that addressed the Son of Heaven, rendered his embassy quite worthless.

In the meantime, the King, Dom Manuel I, was fascinated by the discovery of this vast Kingdom of China, both for its potential as a trading partner, and as a vast power that was not Muslim. So it was that he dispatched an official mission, directly from the King, that would impress upon the Chinese the Portuguese desire to open contact with them. The bearer of this missive was a man, already proven as an able soldier and explorer, named Fernao Pires de Andrade. The King had already demonstrated his curiosity about the Chinese in a letter he had sent to a Portuguese planning on exploring the country:
You shall ask after the Chijns, and from what part they come, and from how far, and at what times they come to Malacca, or to the places at which they trade, and the merchandise that they bring, and how many of their ships come each year, and regarding the form and type of their ships, and if they return in the same year, and if they have arms or artillery, and what clothes they wear, and if they are men of large build, and all other information concerning them, and if they are Christians or heathens, or if their country is a great one, and if they have more than one king amongst them, and if any Moors live amongst them or any other people that are not of their law or faith; and if they adore, and what customs they observe, and towards what part does their country extend, and with whom do they confine.
Whew! Unfortunately for Dom Manuel, this curiosity was not reciprocated. However, Fernao Pires de Andrade was able to go to Canton; he reached the city on August 15th, 1517, exactly 488 years ago this day. His Embassy recognized, and a Portuguese priest, Tome Pires, was left behind to formally present himself to the Emperor. He also conducted a successful sale of goods before leaving, although he was not permitted at that time to buy products from the Chinese. The killing of one villager in Tuen Mun (today part of Hong Kong's Western New Territories) was glossed over. Pires was kept waiting though, for permission to visit Beijing.

There was little glossing over of the visit of Fernao Pires de Andrade's younger brother Simao de Andrade, however. He arrived the following year in 1518, got into violent altercations with Chinese merchants and apparently roughed up a Chinese official. Even worse, when some kidnappers had brought children for sale to Simao as slaves, he thought nothing of buying them - this became a major scandal in the annals of Chinese history. Pires' Embassy did not benefit from this episode, and it was not until 1519 that he was approved for a visit to Beijing. This was a description of Chinese women that Tome Pires had written in his spare time:
The women resemble Castilian women. They wear pleated skirts, with waistbands, and jackets that are longer than in our country. Their long hair is beautifully coiled up on top of their heads, with many golden pins holding it in place. Those who have precious stones scatter them around their hair and place golden jewels on the crown of their heads, in their ears and on their necks. They coat their cheeks in white lead and then put make-up on top, so well that the women of Seville cannot surpass them. They drink like women from a cold country. They wear pointed shoes of silk and brocade. All of them carry fans in their hands. They are as white as we are. Some of them have small eyes, and others big ones, while their noses are as they should be.
His presence in Beijing, though was not tolerated, and he was soon sent back to Canton to await further developments. Ultimately, he got to meet the Emperor when the latter was on tour in Nanjing. The meeting with the Chang De Emperor went very well; the Emperor, who was apparently an easy-going person, asked Pires about his country, played games with him and inspected all his presents and said he looked forward to receiving all of them formally in Beijing. Unfortunately, soon after the Emperor's return, he died.

Soon after, the xenophobic element within the Ming dynasty court got control, and Pires was thrown in prison, where he died along with some other Portuguese that had the misfortune of coming on another trading mission in 1521, and had the temerity to misbehave. So ended, for the time being, the first episode of diplomatic relations between China and the West. Portuguese traders thirty years later though, would have much better luck in establishing a base in Macau, after their guns and seen off a large flotilla of pirates; the mandarins in Canton allowed them this base apparently in gratitude for rendering this service.

Friday, August 12, 2005

The 60th Anniversary of V-J Day this Sunday

I would like to bring to the attention of the readership the Remembrance of the Victory over Japan this Sunday morning, August 14th, at the Cenotaph in Central. As this is the 60th anniversary, this will likely be the last time that the veterans of that War that changed the world will participate in such an important commemoration. I will link to Shaky Kaiser's blog for details on the event, which I expect, will be a very moving ceremony.

As one who did not have to live through that war, I will not hold grudges against the Japanese for it, and do not publicize this ceremony to exacerbate anti-Japanese feeling. But at the same time, the suffering endured for the better part of a decade by the largest portion of humanity must be remembered. Those lessons remain important today, and for different reasons for different people. China is the world's rising power, and it is important that as its prosperity grows, it remembers the mistakes made by Germany and Japan, and that its brand of populist nationalism stays under control. For the Japanese, they must accept a special responsibility for their actions in the past, and recognize that as the losers of that great conflict, they cannot be the ones to dictate the teaching of history. I am all for forgiveness, and with time, even forgetfulness from an emotional perspective; but it is not for them to do the forgetting, but rather for them to allow their neighbors to do so.

And for everyone, it is important to mark the date for those who suffered on behalf of all of us. There is an excellent book entitled The Ruins of War: A Guide to Hong Kong's Battlefields and Wartime Sites by Ko Tim Keung and Jason Wordie. They start their book with a stirring dedication inscribed on the Memorial to the Forgotten Army at Kohima that, on the eve of this anniversary, brings a tear to my eye:
When you go home

Tell them this of us and say

For your tomorrow

We gave our today

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Libel and The Sordid Details of Early Hong Kong

Sorry, we've just gotten back from distributing our new bilingual (Mandarin/English) brochure in Macau (which, by the way is FREE for anyone to dial in, except for airtime and the fact that you must be on the CTM network - buy a CTM SIM card right at the ferry terminal to lower your dial-in costs!), and haven't much time before our walk in half an hour. But I thought I would share with you some rather scurrilous stories of early Hong Kong. You see, before the advent of effective libel laws here, the small, petty colonial community engaged in mud-slinging matches that could literally be heard from London (due to complaint letters sent to the colonial office). I take the stories here verbatim from a book entitled, Twentieth Century Impressions of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Other Treaty Ports of China: Their People, Commerce, Industries and Resources, published at the early date of 1907, I believe. This is some great stuff:

The Press perhaps, was the least to offend in these unwholesome days, the Government officials among themselves indulging in the most disgraceful open calumnies and undisguised defamations. In 1857, the Attorney General (Mr. T.C. Anstey) charged the Registrar-General (Mr. Caldwell) with “having a scandalous association with a brothel licensed by himself; with having passed a portion of his life amongst Chinese outlaws and pirates; with an alliance with some of the worst Chinese in the Colony, through his wife – a Chinese girl from a brothel; with being a speculator in brothels,” &c.

In August of the same year (1857) the editor of the Friend of China was brought to court for libeling the Acting Colonial Secretary on a charge of burning the books of the pirate Machow Wong to screen himself and the Registrar-General against a charge of complicity with pirates, but the jury brought in a verdict of not guilty, and the Court awarded the costs against the government.

The libel case in which Brevet-Lieutenant-Colonel Caine, Lieutentant-Governor of the Colony, sued William Tarrant, editor of the Friend of China on September 17, 1859 created great interest. In the articcomplainedned on the sentence occurs that “Colonel Caine must either be one of two things, either the cleverest rascal that ever lived – a felon for whom transportation would be too light a punishment – ir he is a much-maligned man, and deserving of the sincerest pity.” And the charges were that he wanted a dollar per head from each inmate of Chinese brothels, ad lib.

That Brevet-Lieutenant-Colonel Caine, by the way, is indeed the same one Caine Road is named after. More on him another day; anyway, hope you enjoyed those. Until tomorrow!

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Sad, Tortured Life of Rev. Karl Gutzlaff

Karl Gutzlaff has a tiny street named after him in Hong Kong's trendy SoHo district - but blink and you'll miss it. You'll see it on the map to the left. It is effectively bookended by two military men, the General Gage in charge of Army military operations during the First Opium War, and the much more famous Wellington of Waterloo fame. Quite fitting really, since Wellington was still active in politics in the 1830s, during the period when Gutzlaff was doing his best to ship opium into China. Who was this Gutzlaff fellow, and what was this Pomeranian missionary doing in the drug trade?

Reverend Karl Friedrich August Gutzlaff was a Pomeranian saddle-maker turned missionary that was sent by the Netherlands Missionary Society to the Far East. His first port of call was Java, where he learned Chinese (surprisingly - I wouldn't go to Jakarta to learn Mandarin today!). He then went with his young English wife (who he met in Singapore) and child to Bangkok to spread the good Word. But then tragedy struck - both his wife and son died while he was working together with her on a Khmer/Lao dictionary into English. Heartbroken, he moved in the late 1820s to Macau. There he wanted to create a business out of printing Chinese Bibles and distributing them into the interior.

The only problem was, he didn't really have the money to print all these Bibles. Since he was one of the only Europeans that actually spoke Chinese, though, his linguistic services were in demand. Specifically, from one William Jardine, who made him a proposal - ride with his opium clippers that were illegally selling opium up and down the China Coast to translate for his captains, and he would get the money for his Bibles. Gutzlaff had a crisis of conscience that lasted about 48 hours and then readily agreed. He was to be in the drugs and bible business. He later wrote a book about these voyages, with opium only incredibly tangentially coming up in his book; it was called Journal of Three Voyages along the Coast of China in 1831, 1832 and 1833.

He did not really get to print or distribute as many Bibles as he had originally desired however, because he was usually thrown out of China, and so spent the rest of the decade working on local flocks. From this local flock he tried to turn them into preachers, and have them distribute the Bibles themselves in China. By 1848, he apparently had 200 missionaries working for him from his new base in Hong Kong (founded 1841). He had in the meantime also taken a position in the Hong Kong government as the Secretary in charge of Chinese affairs. His daily routine was described thus:
Daily, between 7 and 8 am, scores of Chinese came to the government offices to hear him expound the Bible in Hokkien. Then, after a hasty breakfast, he taught in Hakka or another dialect before beginning his dayÂ’s work. After office hours he went into the Chinese villages to preach or worked at home on his own translation of the Old Testament.
He began to raise money, quite successfully at first, from abroad for his exertions, given his impressive track record of an apparent 600-700 converts baptized a year.

But then other missionaries began to smell a rat amongst his new converts and missionaries that he was having proselytize and distribute Bibles in China. He refused to believe it, but his contemporaries thought he was being cheated. They were right. According to one Christian website that seeks to learn lessons on how not to preach in China quotes Dr. E.J. Eitel, author of Europe in China:
"They came and went with the utmost regularity starting from Gutzlaff'’s office with bags full of Bibles, traveling money and directions for the route; returning at the proper time with well-written journals of travels they had never made, skeletons of sermons and lists of converts they had never baptized. Poor Gutzlaff - —he believed them all to be inspired with his own holy zeal. The very Bibles he bought from the printers with his hard-earned money were sold by them again to Gutzlaff."”
Gutzlaff finally had to admit his faith in his missionaries for several years had been misplaced, and the funds taken from abroad frittered away, not to mention his life's work. In shame disgrace, he died on August 9th, 1851, 154 years ago yesterday - perhaps of a broken heart. Many people today look back on him as the ultimate hypocrite, but one does have to believe that at some level he meant well; certainly anyone that had such a tragic life is bound to be slightly unhinged...!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Tsim Sha Tsui Walking Tour This Thursday (Aug 11)

Explore Tsim Sha Tsui with Dave and Stefan, the founders and creators of the Walk the Talk service, on a ninety minute walk this Thursday (August 11th) evening at 6pm. We'll tell you fun, revealing stories about the district: its past as a den of pirates, its years as a military camp (particularly for Muslim soldiers from the Raj), its trials and tribulations during the Japanese Invasion, its status as a hub for immigrants, and its many present-day roles, hosting tourists and triads alike. Hear about what Hong Kong gangster films can tell us about the city's identity, and what old buildings like the Clock Tower really mean to local residents.

We'll be meeting at 6pm at the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry Terminal outside the XTC on Ice Gelateria, and we'll end the walk at 7:30pm at the Traveller's Home on Hankow Road (with some fluid replacements handy!). The price for this live walk will be HK$150, and will include a free audio-guided tour package of Central district.

To join us, please get in touch by e-mail at or on Stefan's mobile at 9522-3937. Please let us know that you'll be coming, as we will cancel the walk unless we get at least 10 people signed up.

Nagasaki and the Liberation of Hong Kong

As you will no doubt have seen everywhere, today marks the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the "Fat Man" atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Our media today debates whether President Harry S. Truman really had to drop the bomb on Nagasaki, or whether he was just doing it to try out a plutonium bomb (the one dropped on Hiroshima three days earlier had been made with a uranium core). Protesters everywhere decry the use of nuclear technology as an unmitigated evil.

But we must remember the terrible evils that the empires of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany wrought upon the lands they raped and devastated. The Allied leaders had to make many terrible, difficult choices. Truman calculated that the sheer power of the atomic bomb would cow the Japanese leadership into submission, and would make an amphibious assault on Japan unnecessary - an assault that was estimated to require the sacrifice of over a million casualties.

As we know today, Truman's calculation paid off. The dropping of the second nuclear bomb, combined with the entry of Russia into the war against Japan (Stalin declared war on August 8, 1945, and sent 1 million battle-hardened Russians into Manchuria against the Rising Sun) caused Japan's wartime head of state, Emperor Hirohito, to ask his generals and ministers to reconsider unconditional surrender. On 15 August, the Japanese finally declared their surrender.

And for Hong Kong, it spelled the end of 3 years and 8 months of darkness and terrible hardships, where half a million residents were deported to China to face starvation, thousands of Chinese tortured and murdered, well over 10,000 women raped, the Allied POWs sent to their deaths in work camps, and the people of Hong Kong sometimes forced quietly to resort to eating the flesh of their dead.

Colonial Secretary Gimson freed himself from the internment camp at Stanley and quickly set up a government until Admiral Cecil Harcourt was able to steam in on a transport from Australia to officially celebrate the return of Hong Kong to Britain (before Chiang Kai-Shek could grab the city first). The official surrender of the Japanese authorities to the British officials occurred at the end of August. The British breathed a sigh of relief that they, and not the Nationalists had been the ones to liberate the city, as otherwise it would likely have become just another part of China, a point Churchill was adamant not to accept.

To your right, you will see a picture of the former surrender ceremony of the Japanese to the British high Command. Although Chiang had been the formal Commander in Chief of the Chinese theatre of war, the British would not even countenance his presence at the ceremony. Below, there is the surrender document signed by the Japanese - as you can see, the signature of the representative of the United Kingdom is in a far loftier position than that of Chiang Kai-Shek's representative, banished to the bottom right of the page.

So ended though a terrible episode of Hong Kong and Asian history. Before you condemn the dropping of the bomb at Nagasaki and the lives it tragically had to take, think first of the lives it spared.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Back To 1982: A Shock Poll About the Handover

Today, most Hong Kong people don't bat an eyelid about being part of China. And why should they? On balance, China has been great for Hong Kong, bailing it out really when its only remaining big domestic industry, the property sector, was down in the dumps.

But it is interesting for me to read a poll conducted back in 1982, when Britain was first entering into talks with China over the future of Hong Kong. The Far Eastern Economic Review poll showed that only 2% of Hong Kong people wanted the territory handed back to China, and 66% wanted no change in its status as a colony.

You find the reference to it here. Fascinating how things change. As things turned out, the return to China hasn't really been bad at all and has become Hong Kong's lifeline. One wonders what would have happened to Hong Kong if its people had been given a choice?

Incidentally, I am not trying to make some blanket statement about democracy here, just engaging in a bit of "what if..."

The Archaic Land Rules of Hong Kong and Kwun Tong

Hong Kong is by all accounts a modern, cosmopolitan and progressive city. Yet the rules regarding this metropolis's sacred cow - property - are incredibly archaic, based on hastily drawn-up regulations about land use and ownership all the way back to the 1840s and the time of the Opium War. Wu Zhong, a thoughtful columnist in the Standard, argues today that the rules for land use in post-Communism China were modeled on Hong Kong's, but that ultimately the country should move to a model of permanent, freehold land ownership instead. I heartily agree, both for Hong Kong and for China. Wu Zhong argues for permanent ownership in China because of fears of government corruption when it comes time for owners of land whose lease is expiring try to renew title to it. But it is equally important for people to own land, to feel they have a stake and are truly part of a community, rather that just a city full of people in transit.

In a post last Thursday on Ingrid Hu's Southorn Playground project, I discussed the importance of place and memory in a community, and argued that the city's endless cycles of destruction and reconstruction lead to a feeling of alienation and powerlessness about the individual's role in a neighborhood of community, and in some ways inhibit a sense of community entirely. These cycles of destruction and rebuilding are encouraged in large part by land ownership rules here that means that when you buy new property, you only securely own it for about 50 or 75 years (in other words, it is just held on a long-term lease), which means in turn that banks will only finance mortgages for relatively new properties, and that older ones tend to lose their value.

However, property remains expensive in Hong Kong because large tracts of land owned by the government (a lot of it having reverted to the government after some leases have expired) are hoarded and only limited supplies are brought out for auction from time to time, making both the government and the property developers rich; the system is not unlike the diamond business where diamond mines strictly control the amount of product that is allowed on the market at any given time even though the capacity to mine more is far greater.

Given Hong Kong's meteoric rise as an entrepot port and as a manufacturing and service center over the half-century, the public coffers are naturally very full. Although the government's coffers are ultimately by and for the public at large, as we all know, all institutions take on a life and logic of their own. Governments, given their unchallenged monopoly positions, most of all. The Government of Hong Kong knows that the lifeblood of its income is property taxes and land auctions, and will safeguard the value of its holdings and earnings at all costs.

Which is why we have neighborhoods like Kwun Tong, which, strangely enough, also features in today's Standard (the paper is running an intriguing story every Monday on urban degeneration and renewal in a different neighborhood - last week was Sham Shui Po). The area, once described as a 'boomtown' by the paper, is now an assortment of incredibly dilapidated, mostly vacant industrial buildings (since all our factories have moved to China), the unemployment rate is high, as is domestic violence and welfare recipients. The median income is correspondingly low.

Anyone looking at the area would immediately understand the problem - empty warehouses and factories built in the 1950s everywhere, with no hope of future tenants. Land values in this incredibly old, built up area are among the lowest in town. At this point, some transplanted New Yorker or Londoner would ask - why don't artists take over these places and convert them into lofts? Why can't they be gentrified?

The answer is because the government has strict rules regarding the uses of such properties. Residential uses for these buildings are not permitted. Given the substantial amount of industrial space that lies around the city, un-used, a conversion of a substantial amount of it to residential or regular commercial use may cause a downturn in property prices elsewhere. Revenues from conversion, moreover, would not really be earned by the government, as it would only receive the stamp duty on the very depressed prices for industrial property. Not only is the government trying to protect its own, by the influential property developer lobby would do anything to prevent such conversions from happening, unless they got to drive the process. The industrial area around Wong Chuk Hang, now slated for future development as a hotel district for Ocean Park Mark II is a case in point - here, the change of the industrial buildings to something else is approved because it is a top-down led government project in collaboration with the city's developers.

Why not just demolish these buildings in Kwun Tong and start again? Well, because it's not just the buildings that are considered industrial property and are not allowed for residential use - it's actually the land they're built upon that are zoned as industrial-use only. Bottom-up initiatives by private individuals are not permitted. In the meantime, districts like Kwun Tong, eyesores to all and an embarrassment to wealthy Hong Kong, are left to fester, and the government, with its neon halo (and its Central location), says that there is nothing they can do to fix such problems.

Nonsense. Change the land rules regarding the ownership of land. Allow people to own property permanently, so that they will take care of it, and really invest in the city, not only physically, but also from a civic perspective. Allow people within communities to decide how land should be used, instead of stubbornly sticking to land use categories that have become obsolete. Come on, what hope has Hong Kong of bringing back factories to the city when the industrial might of China is less than an hour away? Let the people, and the free market, decide what land should be used for. Let us move into the 21st century.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Hong Kong's Central Government Offices

In our posts we generally do not comment on current events, but we find Donald Tsang's plan to build a HK$6 billion office on the Tamar site in Central a fascinating proposal.

Donald Tsang says that the government will ultimately "make a profit" on the building because since the Central Government Headquarters on Lower Albert Road and the Murray Building will be vacated, the sales of those prime plots to developers would generate more revenue.

Be that as it may though, it seems that the government is hiding behind its land policy the fact that they are still spending HK$6 billion in taxpayer money to fund their vanity project right on the waterfront of Hong Kong's most expensive district, Central. That's the same amount of money it cost HSBC to build their headquarters building on 1 Queen's Road in 1987, then the most expensive building in the world.

It seems that a certain sense of entitlement comes naturally to government officers. Who takes up the top dozen stories of the IFC 2 Tower in Central, the tallest, newest and most impressive skyscraper in Hong Kong? Is it an investment bank? A hedge fund? A law firm or consultancy, perhaps? No - it is the Hong Kong Monetary Authority. They feel they deserve it for all the hard work the do in putting most of HK's reserves into US dollars and a small bit in Euros. It is quite interesting how civil servants in Hong Kong failed to appreciate how little sympathy the rest of Hong Kong felt for them when they got small pay cuts during the last bout of lean years.

Then there is the historic tradition of government being in Central. Other than the first few years when the Government House temporarily stood in Wanchai, Central has been the home of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Even after the war, a temporary headquarters was set up in the French Mission Building (today the Court of Final Appeal) in Central until a move back to Lower Albert Road could be engineered.

Why are they moving anyway? Rita Fan, who presides over Legco, says that by 2008 the chamber in the Old Supreme Court building designed by Aston Webb and Ingress Bell (who were superstars of the Victorian era, and also did the south face of Buckingham Palace not to mention the Victoria and Albert Museum) will be too small to hold some additional members. Hmm, I wonder why the American House of Representatives doesn't move away from the Capital, or the House of Commons in the UK away from Parliament? But no, no, no, that won't do to stay in their current home, and my dear, moving to the Eastern part of the island or God Forbid! to Kowloon is simply too gauche to contemplate.

Well, this is the reason I've come up with for the move. The government of Hong Kong keeps allowing land reclamation to push the waterfront further towards Kowloon. As the technocrats in charge of Hong Kong must be the masters of all they survey, that also includes having a harbourfront view. That is of course, why the empty plot of land right on the waterfront must go to them instead of to some poor peon developers like Li Ka-Shing or Lee Shau-Kee that'd only be able to bid some paltry sum of say HK$10 billion for the site. Hong Kong's people would be much better served if that money didn't go into the community coffers and went to the bureaucrats instead. Well, I'm glad that's all been cleared up.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Place and Memory in Hong Kong

Let us move away from the traditional history format of our posts today to discuss the importance of urban memory. There has been much made of the terms 'place' and 'space' by postmodern architectural theorists, but our feeling on the subject is this: there may be urban 'spaces' everywhere in the city, but without memory, they cannot become 'places', a geographic anchor in the collective imagination.

Which is why I was so intrigued to hear a similar philosophy from an Taiwanese theater designer that had grown up in Hong Kong called Ingrid Hu. The excellent journalist Douglas Crets interviewed her in yesterday's Standard regarding her new project in the Southorn Playground, please do read this article! A quote:
For Ingrid Hu, cities are a theater of sorts. And creating urban spaces, she says, is all about capturing the elements of theater in public areas - character, drama, movement, space and time.
To me, all these elements are important, but particularly the last element, time. Places exist both physically and in the mind, and it is the conjunction of those physical and mental landmarks that gives life to the idea of a city. The persistence of those conjunctions over time is what gives a place character, and also gives the individual a sense of how they belong to their environment. Unfortunately, in Hong Kong, the rapid cycles of construction and destruction often leave behind no trace of what has gone before, with entire districts transformed beyond all recognition every thirty years. That actually takes a grave toll on the residents of Hong Kong and their sense of belonging to the city. We at Walk the Talk try to do our small part to invest spaces with historic memory through our stories of what happened on those spots in the past, and turn them into 'places'. Ingrid Hu elaborates eloquently on this point:
``A city needs memory, people need memory, and people make cities,'' Hu said in an interview with The Standard. ``But if there's no memory, in a way, there's nothing to hold on to.''

Years of rapid development have succeeded in uprooting and dismantling the city's beautiful spaces. Hu says that, without these spaces, the lack of historic memory leads to displacement. People need a space in which to share their memories and use them for something productive and life-rewarding. Space, like theater, ``conveys something that is not material,'' she says. ``It's more about meaning.''

I would use the word 'place' instead of 'space' in her quote, but I think her point is very important. Without historic memory, and the consequent displacement that causes, you have a city without a deep sense of belonging. From a positive perspective, it may explain Hong Kong's deep-rooted cosmopolitan identity and the yearning of its people to go to other places (find me a HK movie that doesn't have a subplot about leaving!). But from a negative perspective, it also means that people have less of a bond with the city, when so much of what they know and love of it changes and becomes alienated from them so quickly.

Hu even suggests that London, her long-time home, felt during the bombings a deep sense of paralyzing powerlessness.

Terrorism does that. But so, too, can a daily life that relentlessly pushes its citizens to pragmatism, says Hu.
Her project to create something unusual and creative in the Southorn Playground in Wanchai, a suspended basketball court of semi-transparent glass and resin, is a worthy project that may give the residents of Wanchai, something real, different and tangible to hold on to. Wanchai of course has already had the heart of its older buildings like on Lee Tung Street ripped away from it. If everything you know can be taken away, particularly in a city where land comes so dear, how can you expect to have a loyal, well-adjusted citizenry?

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Art, Politics and the Second Opium War

The "Year of France in China", fresh from having brought an amazing collection of Impressionist Art to these shores, has now unveiled a new exhibit at the Hong Kong Museum of Art entitled, "French Visions of China". It is an intriguing collection of engravings, paintings and sketches executed by French artists visiting or living in China during the 18th and 19th centuries. There are also a number of superb examples of 'chinoiserie' wares so popular in France during the 18th century, deliberately exoticising the mysterious East.

In case you are unaware, the "Year of France in China" is a concerted attempt by France to ingratiate itself with the world's rising power, China. As such, the entire focus of this no-expenses-spared exchange is at heart, quite political. That certainly comes through in this most recent exhibit, which very much only shows French art that portrays China through rose-colored lenses, and also harmonious Sino-French relations. The exhibit starts with the dispatch of French Jesuits to the Qing court, not mentioning that the most important Jesuits were in fact of other nationalities.

By far the largest exhibit in the collection is a series of 16 engravings designed by French artists for the Emperor Qianlong. They describe in detail the Emperor Qianlong's victories over the Uighur Turks. While not incredibly remarkable from an aesthetic standpoint, their inclusion not only trumpets the favor in which French artists were held by the Emperor, but also the tacit acceptance of China's policies with its Uighur population today.

What is even more remarkable is that nowhere except in the most passing statement is it mentioned that French troops joined forces with the British in the Second Opium War. In the exhibit, it appears that the blame for the sack of the Summer Palace during that conflict rests entirely with the British, as was their participation in that conflict. One reads in the caption for a painting that the French artist was accompanying Lord Elgin, commander of British Forces in China, but nowhere is it said that thousands of French troops had come along for the ride as well.

On this day, August 3rd, the anniversary of the Pei Tang landing in 1860 by the joint British-French expeditionary forces that eventually led to the Imperial surrender of the Taku forts and of Beijing, it is important not to let history get distorted out of all proportion. I understand fully that history must be exploited for nationalistic purposes, but it seems a case of the Emperor's new clothes when history is whitewashed so completely that it ceases to hold any lessons for future generations. What of the French role in the sack of the Yuan Ming Yuan, or of their attack on China in 1884? Burnish, exaggerate, do what you must to promote friendly relations, but it smacks a little of Chirac's antics prior to the Olympics decision when the Second Opium War is made out to seem almost entirely the fault of the British and their commander...

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Hong Kong Democracy Axed - Half a Century Ago

Many people regard the uncertain debate on democracy in Hong Kong as a recent phenomenon. The reforms the British put into motion after the Sino-British joint declaration of 1984, and accelerated after Tiananmen with the arrival of Patten in 1992, were rolled back once sovereignty in Hong Kong was restored to China in 1997.

Yet democracy, or some form of it, was on the cards as early as before the war - I highly recommend you read about it in Steve Tsang's History of Hong Kong. I was reminded of this episode by a review of a separate article written by Steve Tsang, by Norman Miners, on the web (a .pdf file). John Keswick of Jardine Matheson, Mr. A. Morse of HSBC and Mr. G.W. Swire of Butterfield and Swire all recommended Hong Kong's executive-led (by the Governor) system be replaced by some sort of Municipal Council (like the colonial system in Shanghai), whereby Europeans would be elected by a franchise of other Europeans, with some Chinese unofficial or indirectly appointed members. However, Hong Kong's 21st Governor, Sir Mark Young, had other ideas.

Sir Mark had actually been appointed Hong Kong's Governor just before the Japanese Invasion, and had been a Japanese prisoner of war throughout World War II. After the war, he was sent back to Britain to recuperate. Upon his return, he was instructed by the Colonial Office to gauge the interest amongst the local population in a broader franchise, which he apparently did unwillingly at first.

However, he discovered to his surprise, that here in Hong Kong, as everywhere in the postwar British Empire, there was a desire for greater representation. He then became extremely wedded to the idea of a broader representation with a Municipal Council, except that half the representatives would be Chinese, and of the 'European' half, one representative would be from the mixed-race Portuguese community, and one from the Indians. In short, he proposed to a surprised Colonial Office and a shocked local British population that over half of the constituents of Hong Kong's proposed strong legislature be 'Asiatics'. The British businessmen objected to the racial constitution of the proposed Council, whereas the Colonial Office wanted to see the reforms take shape a la Singapore in the form of a Legislative Council.

Why did Sir Mark propose this radical idea? He felt that by giving local Chinese the franchise, particularly recently-arrived refugees and immigrants from China, he would bind their loyalty to Hong Kong, strengthen the legitimacy of British rule (which he must have realized suffered immeasurably during the Japanese Occupation) and also create a bulwark against Communism. With his reforms very much in motion, he handed over the reins of his office to Governor Alexander Grantham in 1947. Or to be exact, Sir Alexander William George Herder Grantham.

Now Sir Alex (not to be confused with this red-nosed Scottish manager of Manchester United) was of an entirely different mindset. He was not in favor at all of the reforms Sir Mark had proposed, and went about curtailing them and limiting them over the next five years until he finally completely scuppered them in 1952. Why was this the case? As Norman Miners points out in his article I linked to above, Sir Alexander's memoirs "make clear [he] was no lover of liberal democracy."

He entirely rolled back the concept that the Chinese should be granted a wide franchise. In fact, he suggested in communiques to London, that the British position in Hong Kong could be undermined by Communist candidates running for election; Red fever was running high as Communist China was established in 1949 at the expense of the KMT. Much better, he thought, to keep a very narrow franchise, if at all, and keep it restricted to British subjects known to be loyal.

So ended with a whimper democratic reforms in Hong Kong that appeared to be so dramatic. It was not until thirty years later, after Britain had already agreed to give Hong Kong back to China, that they felt the confidence to give Chinese people in Hong Kong the right to vote. It is of course understandable why the Chinese leadership in Beijing felt such moves were cynical 'poison pills' created to make Hong Kong indigestible to the Chinese body politic.

It does make one wonder though, what if? What if Sir Mark had stayed on longer? Might Hong Kong have had a history of institutionalized democracy for half a century, enshrined in the Basic Law? Or might China, just possibly, have looked at a thriving democracy in disgust and not wanted it back? Or, might Mao in an earlier era seen the Hong Kong democratic experiment as a clear and present danger to the People's Republic of China and invaded the colonial enclave?