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!

1 comment:

Dave and Stefan said...

Yes, in fact there were reports at that time that Chinese entrepreneurs were going to Guangdong, bringing rats back to Hong Kong and selling them for money. Must have been quite the drain on the Treasury...