Friday, September 30, 2005

Walk the Talk Reviewed in the Kyoto Journal

We are very pleased to learn that Walk the Talk has been reviwed in the 61st issue of the Kyoto Journal, Asia's premier publication about arts and culture. We have yet to read the review, but have been assured by the Editor Ken Rodgers that a copy has been posted to us (he wrote the review himself).

This particular issue may also be interesting for those of you in the blogosphere, because there are a few relevant articles. Allow me to quote the editor:
Several stories are concerned with experience captured through journaling or its online extension, blogging, including a new translation of Natsume Soseki’s groundbreaking “Bicycle Diary 1903” by Damian Flanagan; the Kanazawa journals of artist Beverly Effinger; “Painting Cambodia for Judy” by Karen Coates; “Hagi Night” by Ellis Avery; “In the Land of Reclining Buddhas” by John Brandi; “Lightning Storm Over Calcutta” by Mark Mordue; “Blogology 101” by Robert Brady, and “On Entering the Blogosphere” by Ken Rodgers.
We're also pleased to find out that we'll be interviewed on RTHK Radio 3 Monday, October 3rd, between 2:30pm and 3pm by Sarah Passmore. I'll send you all the link to that radio show when it's all done and dusted (assuming we perform adequately!).

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Morrison Hill and Hong Kong's Oldest School

For those who want more about the geography of Hong Kong's colonial history, I shall whet your appetite, with a story about Wanchai. But those wanting to hear about girlie bars will be disappointed - today's blog entry is about missionaries, and about how Hong Kong's oldest school was founded in 1818 even though the colony was only founded in 1841.

Many of you know Morrison Hill; despite its name, it is a resolutely flat stretch of road running from Hennessy Road to Happy Valley. At its mouth in Happy Valley stands a garish, ugly gold dragon that was given to Hong Kong in 1997 as a provincial gift to celebrate Hong Kong's return to the motherland (and to bad taste in art, as it were - but as the saying goes, don't look a gift dragon in the mouth!). Today, it is a street full of lamp stores, but little else. Despite being near the prosperity of Causeway Bay and Happy Valley, it looks as dilapidated as ever.

It has always been something of a no man's land. If one reads Vaudine England's The Quest for Noel Croucher (a wealthy millionaire stock trader from humble beginnings), one finds out that the young Noel grew up in Morrison Hill, a neighborhood where all of the poor whites lived; they were as much shunned by 'polite' colonial society then as the Untouchables of India by other castes. The hill part of Morrison Hill had been cut away for land reclamation, and also to make access to traffic near the racecourse better; priorities will be priorities.

But who was Morrison Hill named after? It was in fact named after the pictured Dr. Robert Morrison, (read this link, it's a great paper by historian Carl Smith) who was a famed Western sinologist at the beginning of the 19th century that had mastered the Chinese language and set about the translation of the Bible into Chinese characters. He had set up the Morrison Educational Society School in Macau, and when Hong Kong was formed it moved to Morrison Hill.

Interestingly, he had been a longtime resident of the Far East, and had also been responsible for the setting up of the Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca. The school was meant to bridge the gap between East and West, and was ultimately meant for the enlightenment (and conversion) of China.

Naturally, when Britain finally had obtained a foothold on the Chinese mainland (or rather the island of Hong Kong), it naturally made sense to move the school closer to its main object. So when the Colony of Hong Kong was set up, the school was eventually moved here, and area was named in the late great man's honor (he had passed away just some years before, and his very talented son as well just a year later).

But at first the curators of the school had wanted to move it directly to China to one of the newly opened Treaty Ports. Hong Kong also seemed less attractive because almost none of the first Chinese there had any education, being from the lower classes. But of moving the school to a Treaty Port Hong Kong's first Governor, Sir Henry Pottinger, could not abide. According to Carl Smith the local historian (and former missionary), Pottinger felt that missionaries in China would provoke the hostility of the mandarins and hinder the development of commerce and trade with foreigners. He also said that the Treaty of Nanking applied only to commercial relations between Great Britain and China, and not to religious activities. Sir Henry also said that given Dr. Morrison's other school had already set up in Hong Kong, a city he regarded as never to have any use for schools, he thought moving the Anglo-Chinese College to Hong Kong was a waste of time.

The principal backers of the newly moved school, led by the Rev. James Legge, had to wait until Sir Henry left office. This they did, and when the new land auction in 1844 made some lots in the hills above Central available, Legge snapped them up and agreed to pay about 50 pounds per year out of his own pocket. But the new incoming Governor, Sir John Davis, decided that as the land was to be used for educational purposes it would be free of charge.

Today, the land occupied by the College is incredibly fashionable - the lot on which it stood was bordered by Staunton Street to the south, Hollywood Road to the north, Elgin Street to the east and Aberdeen Street to the west.

This ultimately became the Ying Wa School; while it was dormant for some decades, it can therefore claim, as it does on its website, that it is the oldest school in Hong Kong, predating British colonization by 23 years...

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Creativity in Hong Kong and Singapore

I am winding up a trip to the Lion City today, my bags packed for my 4pm flight back to the Big Lychee. We met some principals of a cultural attraction in Singapore, and they seemed on board with our project. (Hopefully we can reveal to you who they are soon.) We also had some wonderful meetings in Singapore and Malaysia with tour agents that really appreciated the merits of an audio tour that highlighted Hong Kong's history and culture. Far from some common Hong Kong reactions of cynicism (what history?) and negativity (that'll never work), many of the people we spoke to were genuinely enthusiastic; they only wished we covered more districts! We should mention that our trip was actually organized by the Hong Kong Tourism Board; as an organization they have been supportive of us and their people that came along on the event were incredibly helpful in helping us meet many counterparties.

But this week has made me reflect on the nature of creativity, and on its endowment in every society. For I do believe every place, and every people have creative potential; but it is the way it is allocated, determined by social hierarchies and value systems, that is what makes a society creative or not.

What I have tentatively concluded is that fear and cynicism on the one hand, and creativity on the other, are opposing forces in any society, locked in a zero-sum struggle. The more cynicism you have in a society and the more fear there is of stepping out of line, the less likely people are to exercise their imagination.

To me, Hong Kong has always obsessively focused on the practical, the pragmatic, the here-and-now. But this relentless pursuit of the tangible, of immediate returns (exacerbated by the high cost of survival in an astronomical property market), creates an atmosphere of cynicism and negativity that throttles many creative ideas. Business plans are immediately rejected out of hand if they aren't going to make money in a few months' time. Intangible assets are no assets at all. In that environment, the ability to find a faster, more efficient way to do some existing task is enhanced; but the ability to create revolutionary new ideas is badly hamstrung.

Singapore is often spoken of as a place that lacks creativity. Former colleagues of expat colleagues of mine in Singapore used to call locals 'muppets' right to their faces for not appearing to be creative. Yet there is an arts scene in Singapore that not only seems to be more active than its Hong Kong counterpart, it seems to have trickled down more into the local consciousness as well, that informs local tastes and ideas of beauty. You speak to local creative talent, walk around the city's museums, its parks, its beautifully, creatively laid out public spaces along the River (with quite a number overseen by local architects and planners) - and you realize that despite the authoritarian government, locals are able to find enough encouragement from above, and are able to carve out enough pluralistic space within the society to find a niche.

Of course there are tensions in any such arrangement; artists and creative talents are less likely to tolerate limits to their visions or scope of thought. Sometimes it is two steps forward and one step back, with many bloggers in Singapore afraid of speaking their mind with the recent arrests of two bloggers for racist slurs. But it does seem that overall, the powers that be in Singapore have tried to create enough of a 'support shield' from above to allow the creative process to develop. People that call Singapore 'boring' should really give its culture and nightlife another go - those labels in my opinion belong in the history books.

Hong Kong does have such people too. But I can't help but feel that they exist in spite of the city's character, rather than because of it. For every Wong Kar-Wai there are so many other hacks that simply try to direct films in existing genres that try to maximize a predictable revenue stream. Why? Because Hong Kong is an unforgiving city when it comes to failure, not only economically but also socially, making so many people risk-averse.

So, the limits to creativity in Hong Kong come from the private sector, whereas in Singapore they come from the public. The Singapore government, recognizing this, has tried to foster an environment more tolerant of both creativity and failure; Hong Kong's government simply throws some money at funds for entrepreneurs to experiment, but does little to change the aversion-to-creative-destruction-mindset created by its own relentless capitalism. Which city then is indeed more creative?

These are preliminary thoughts rather than concepts I regard as cold, hard facts. I would love to have a conversation with others in cyberspace that also have a view on both cities. Look forward to your comments!

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Hong Kong, by Sir Cecil Clementi

Apologies for the late post today - Stefan and I drove back from a long day of meetings in Kuala Lumpur to Singapore on the North-South Highway (great road, can't complain) and just got in. Took us four hours, door-to-door. Along the way we say the gigantic KL-Sing buses that have deluxe airplane-type seating with movies etc. A good option if you'd rather not fly.

I thought I would share with you another poem, also garnered from Barbara-Sue White's book Hong Kong: Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth. This one is by a one-time Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Cecil Clementi. He was one of the Cadets that had studied the Chinese language and was totally conversant in Cantonese and other Chinese dialects (he even passed the Imperial exams!). It is alleged (but never proven) that so taken was he with literati habits that he sometimes went out on the town in his Chinese literati robes to visit his favorite Chinese brothel (which were still legal until the 1930s). What can be said for the man in his defense was that it was under his leadership that the female indentured servitude mui tsai system was severely restricted. For those of you who are keen hikers, Sir Cecil's Ride and Lady Clementi's Ride were named after the Governor and his wife. The poem (included amongst a collection of passionate love odes to his wife):
Lamp-bestarr'd and with the star-shine gleaming
From her midnight canopy or dreaming
Mirror'd in her fragrant, fair lagoon:
All her streets ablaze with sheen and shimmer;
All her fire-fly shipping-lights a-glimmer,
Flitting, flashing, curving past Kowloon:

Oh, to see her thus! Her hill-recesses
Bright with household glow that cheers and blesses
Weary men and guides them home to rest:
And the criss-cross strings of light ascending
Round the Peak, a-sparkle, circling, ending
Where the roadways touch the mountain-crest.

Ending? No! For human aspiration
Passes here to starry consummation,
Mountain-roads into the Milky Way.
Earth is strewn with Danae's golden dower.
Grandly here the Master Builder's power
Crowns the work of England in Cathay.
Aside from the clear male-England/female-Hong Kong subtext, passing to "starry consummation", it is sad to also imagine there was actually once a time when one could see the Milky Way from the Peak. As for the rest, today (and probably back in 1925 when Clementi wrote the poem) Hong Kong allows itself little pause for reflection, and even less for sentimentality. While many Hong Koners will admit the undeniable contributions Britain (the Scots may rightfully feel slighted by the reference to England) made to Hong Kong, particularly with its institutions, life goes ever on...

Sunday, September 25, 2005

The British Agree to Throw in the Towel

The Communist chap with the rather large corsage on the left (where else would I place him?) is Zhou Nan. For the early 1990s, he was the head of Xinhua News Agency in Hong Kong, and the de facto Chinese leader in the territory. 'Territory'. The enigmatic word that we've had to use all our lives to describe Hong Kong, not a colony, not merely a city, not quite a country, one that foreign journalists have stumbled over to the annoyance and consternation of their editors.

The role for which he shall go down in history, however, is the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on September 26th, 1984, along with Her Majesty's representative, Sir Richard Evans. The negotiations that had begun tentatively in 1982 with Margaret Thatcher attempting to renew the lease on the New Territories (which ran out in 1997, unlike the rest of the territory) ended two years later with Britain agreeing to give back every square foot, including Kowloon and Hong Kong island which had been ceded to them in perpetuity.

Today, we take for granted the relatively smooth (let's face it, it could have been a lot, lot worse) function of 'One Country, Two Systems' and the irrevocability of China's reforms toward a capitalist system of private enterprise. But we must remember that in 1984, when Britain signed away all rights to their old Colony, the reforms in China were nascent and far from irreversible. At that point, the imprisoning of Mao's wife Jiang Qing and the 'Gang of Four' was just five years old. What made the British sign away their last vestige of empire?

The short answer, appreciated by Zhou Nan(the chap mentioned above), was that the British had no choice. Britain's measure of global power had declined precipitously in the 143 intervening years since first seizing Hong Kong during the Opium War. Their inability to defend their colony from a land-based invasion was amply demonstrated during World War II, to the great detriment of their standing in the eyes of all Asia. Just read the first sentence of the Joint Declaration:
"The Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People's Republic of China have reviewed with satisfaction the friendly relations existing between the two Governments and peoples in recent years and agreed that a proper negotiated settlement of the question of Hong Kong, which is left over from the past, is conducive to the maintenance of the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and to the further strengthening and development of the relations between the two countries on a new basis."
To me, the key words are, "left over from the past", and "on a new basis." While politely disguised in Chinese diplomatic English, they are both an acknowledgement that Britain Age of Empire was long over, and that the only way for China to be able to deal with Britain as a new equal partner (or should it be said that the tables are turned?) would be for Hong Kong to be returned. No doubt the Chinese of Hong Kong did not miss these nuances, holding their collective breath as they were on every word.

Given Britain's poor bargaining position, however, they did extract concessions from the Chinese about giving reassurances that Hong Kong would be able to continue with its way of life under Deng Xiaoping's "One Country, Two Systems" formula.

And China has been good on its word. There have of course been low points (June 1989 comes to mind), but all things considered, the pragmatism of the Hong Kong Chinese and their mainland masters have by and large put Hong Kong on a course that probably exceeded the expectations of Sir Richard, Lord (David) Wilson or any of the British delegation in 1984. Of course democracy remains a major sticking point, but keeping that date in September 26, 1984 when this article came out, we are very obviously much better off and perhaps sometimes could benefit from this perspective when making our mundane complaints.

In closing, I will simply comment that the wording of the Joint Declaration is a far cry from this letter from a young Queen Victoria to her uncle, the King of the Belgians, on 13th April 1841 during the Opium War:
My dearest Uncle, - I thank you very much for your letter of the 9th, received yesterday. I think, dear Uncle, that you would find the East not only as 'absurd' as the West, but very barbarous, cruel and dangerous into the bargain.

The Chinese business vexes us much, and Palmerston is deeply mortified at it. All we wanted might have been got, if it had not been for the unaccountably strange conduct of Charles Elliot who completely disobeyed his instructions and tried to get the lowest terms he could... The accounts of the cruelty of the Chinese to one another are horrible. Albert is so much amused at my having got the Island of Hong Kong, and we think Victoria ought to be called Princess of Hong Kong in addition to Princess Royal.
Fellow lovers of history, perhaps we do not live in such a terrible age after all.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Mickey Mao Talk: The WSJ Scoop on Disneyland

Asian Wall Street Journal Reporter Geoffrey Fowler (who is also a Harvard-trained anthropologist) gave a thoroughly enjoyable talk yesterday evening at a well-attended Lecture Hall in the Hong Kong Museum of History. His subject was the Hong Kong Disneyland theme park and how Disney has had to change elements of its Anaheim offering to suit mainland Chinese tastes (he's already been 4 or 5 times). He started the talk by asking: who is Disney targeting with the scaled-down 19th century Bavarian castle? By the Aztec warriors played by Filipino and Chinese men? By the char siew rice served at the open air restaurants on "Main Street, USA"? And most interestingly, with the 40-minute waits to pose for a picture with Mickey?

He made the interesting point that, far from Disney representing a growing American cultural hegemony of the mainland market, it is the mainland Chinese consumer that has the true agency with his or her tastes - the mainlander interprets the Disney story and its offerings in a totally unique way, and despite Disney's best efforts to control the experience of their creations, the Chinese consumer is making his or her own choice about what Disney is all about. Disney is chasing what he called a 'family revolution' in China, where the one child in the family is in charge of consumption.

This is exacerbated by the fact that Disney cartoons and movies are in fact still banned in China and cannot be shown through official channels. For that reason, even though many Chinese are interested in Disneyland as a slice of Americana, they don't know even basic facts about the main characters (i.e. Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse). In fact, the most popular character is a 35-year old cartoon character called Marie the Cat, from the 1970 feature film, "The Aristocats". Mr. Fowler suspected this was because Marie bears a striking resemblance to 'Hello Kitty'. Apparently overwhlemed with this response, and bending over backwards to cater to the tastes of their Chinese clientele, Disney is already planning a sequel to the 1970 film "Aristocats", due for release in 2007.

Some other interesting points:

1) The #1 interest for mainland visitors is not the rides: the rides, interestingly, don't even make their top ten list. The #1 interest in taking photos. A mainland couple (cited in the SCMP), a family of three (they don't come in too many other sizes these days in China) had clearly spent a lot of money to come, but did not even get past the Main Street area and left after an hour because they had run out of camera battery. Disney anticipated this, and created an area called "Fantasy Gardens" which is just really for picture taking from many different angles.

2) Disney initially apparently toyed with the idea of having Asian-themed sections of the park, but ultimately decided that what the Chinese wanted was Americana, and that they should stick to a 'cookie-cutter' version of Disneyland in California (albeit scaled down). They are trying to target Chinese with 'international aspirations'. Parents from China that came with their kids cited the desire to "enrich children with new experiences." Mulan, for those of you who are curious, makes only very limited appearances at the park. Snow White is played by a Caucasian white actress who only speaks to everyone in English.

3) Speaking of demographics, Disney sees 3 groups coming to the park: 1/3 local Hong Kong Chinese, 1/3 S.E. Asia, Taiwan, Korea and Japan; and 1/3 Mainland. But Disney execs clearly only care about the last group; the Hong Kong authorities, too, are clearly pushing for catering to mainland tastes as the number one priority. One wonders whether the Hong Kong taxpayer fits into all of this, since he/she is the one that is footing the bill. Are Hong Kongers going to appreciate the mainland visitor interest the park provides, or will they feel alienated by this park they helped create and resent the mainlanders that come to visit (e.g. as we can see already, lambasted in the press for defecating in sinks and urinating in public).

It was a very interesting talk. Disney clearly sees this as a small first experiment (emphasis on the small) to tackle the greatest new market of our time, China. For them and for China, the jury is still out, but the signs are positive for Disney, particularly as they make all the necessary adjustments (particularly having Marie the Cat boot Mickey off centre stage).

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Upcoming Talks: Mickey Mouse, China's Far West

As I had mentioned a couple of weeks back, there is going to be a very interesting talk this evening at the Hong Kong Museum of History Lecture Hall organized by the Hong Kong Anthropological Society. Entitled, "Mickey Mao: What the World's Newest Disneyland Tells Us About Globalization", it will talk about the meanings behind Hong Kong's new Disney theme park. The talk starts at 7pm. I highly recommend this talk, whose speaker is an Asian Wall Street Journal reporter with an impressive background in anthropology. Please come!

Another talk that will be coming up soon is a seminar entitled, "China and Central Asia", by graduate student Remi Castets. The talk is sponsored by the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China, whose offices are on Wyndham Street in Central (very convenient, no excuse for not coming!). I enclose the abstract about his talk, which sounds like a very interesting, and controversial, subject:
After the independence of the Central Asian Republics, a new geostrategical area bordering Chinese far West has emerged. The immediate reaction of the PRC has been guided by internal considerations, the stabilization of those new Turkic Muslim republics being vital for the stabilization of China's western regions.

We will see how through both bilateral and multilateral links, Beijing has been able in a few years to gain the support of Central Asian States in order to face common threats and defend China's vital interests in the region. Today, whereas Beijing is intenting to deepen the partnership through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China and Russia struggle together to limit American growing influence in the region. At the same time, while the competition with US and India is on the rise, China's needs for oil supplies are deepening its interest in the region.

Also, the biography of the speaker:
Remi Castets is a Ph. D student at the Centre for Research in International Relations ( Institute of Political Studies, Paris) and the CEFC. He has a Master in Political science (2001) and graduated in Chinese language (2000). He has conducted several fieldworks in China and Central Asia. His research focuses on national identities structuration process, political Islam and geopolitics in China/Central Asia since 1998. His latest publications include "Nationalisme, Islam et Opposition politique", Les Etudes du CERI, octobre 2004, n0 110, 64 pages.

In 2004, Remi Castets received the Aguirre Basualdo award in Political science from the Chancellery of Universities of Paris.

To attend you must RSVP (must be because of the lovely wine and cheese the French sponsors put on for these events) Somvichit Nachampasack, whose e-mail:

Hope to see you at both talks!

Hard-Bitten POW Meets Untimely End

Today I'd like to share the sad tale I read about today of one Lance Sergeant Herbert Winfield Jackson (link and photo from article by Stephen Verralls), whose grave in the Stanley POW cemetery was one of the last to be placed there. He was a policeman, well liked by all, that came to Hong Kong in the 1930s to serve in the city's police force. He was promoted through his ability to Special Branch, and served in this capacity up to and during the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in December 1941. His role was to deal with fifth columnists and Japanese collaborators; if you read Philip Snow's excellent account in his book The Fall of Hong Kong you'll find that there were quite a few of those, and those that were discovered during the fighting were summarily shot, including some right in the Central Police Station.

But I digress. After the cessation of hostilities when the British surrendered to the Japanese on 25th December 1941, the policemen were rounded up and quartered at the Gloucester Hotel and ultimately at Stanley internment camp. Although many of the police apparently acted in a 'Lord of the Flies' manner during the Japanese occupation, Jackson by contemporary accounts is said to have acted honourably. He survived the war, and in early September 1945 was offered a flight to go home. He very graciously and altruistically gave up his spot on the plane to another fellow internee who was waiting to see his family. He was booked on a flight that was to leave on September 23rd. But just the day before his departure (September 22nd, 60 years ago today), he decided to go swimming in Stanley beach, the place of his confinement for the last three years and eight months. By an incredible, horrible stroke of fate, a shark was swimming in the shallows that day and mauled him. He was brought back to the beach by friends but did not survive.

So a man that had survived war, looters, and being imprisoned in the Stanley POW camp for almost 4 years dies at the fins (and teeth) of a hungry shark. Those who are not atheists among us must find this story difficult to comprehend... I know I struggle with it still as I type.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Savaging the Hong Kong Ethos

As we all are aware, Hong Kong is a materialistic city. Money speaks first, and speaks loudest. We can all debate the reasons for it - a city of immigrants, a city of pragmatic Cantonese, a city built on commerce and opportunity - but anyone that cannot bring themselves to acknowledge this fact faces a rather unpleasant sojourn.

Nevertheless, we do find people that find it difficult to live with the mercenary attitudes of Hong Kong residents, in a city without allegiances except to Mammon. Here is an example of 'Dolly', an anonymous poet that decried these attitudes over a century ago (taken from an anthology of old writings by Barbara-Sue White entitled Hong Kong: Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth):
Away with books! Nor let in Pleasure's train,
One single elevating thought remain;
What boots it, though in ignorance we live?
The human mind was made for naught but gain.

Away with books! Let Sport and Dollars rule;
What need of Culture? We who went to school,
Learned all required of us to fill a place,
In bank or business on the office stool.

'Degenerate'? Why use so harsh a word?
From gaining dollars who would be deterred
By wish for knowledge, yielding no return
For time and trouble uselessly incurred.

Away with books! Let Pallas yield her place
To Comus, and the Terpsichorean grace;
Carlyle and Huxley? What care we for them?
Who once have pulled an oar, or won a race?

Away with books! Dash Wisdom's trophies down,
And Intellect in sparkling vintage drown;
Our servitude to Folly freely give,
And Bacchus and Athene's laurels crown.

This be our cue; to try to emulate
The lower brutes, in their contented state,
That strive for naught beyond their daily food;
And spurn with scorn the books that elevate.

Away with books! Yet stay, we fain would keep
The novel, so it's lesson be not deep;
The 'Deadwood Dick,' of blood-and-thunder strain,
That will not rouse us from our sottish sleep.

So we can boast that we in Hongkong here,
Are far without vain Learning's futile sphere;
And count, where 'ignorance is bliss,' that we
Are doubly happy in the larger share.
This poem may be illuminating to those of you who think that the lust for cash is a purely Chinese phenomenon that expats simply fall into from over-long residence in Hong Kong. On the contrary, the ethos of Hong Kong and its 'business-first, put bread/rice on the table' mentality was very much a fact of life in Hong Kong from the moment Jardines opened its 'Matheson Opium Store' in 1841. It just so happens, it seems, that the Hong Kong Chinese are the proud inheritors of that commercial tradition.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Beauty and Grace on Hong Kong's Silver Screen

Normally our blog entries are about Hong Kong history. But as we make clear in our little bio above this space, our blog is properly about Hong Kong heritage, and that means not just the past, but also Hong Kong's rich popular culture. On our Tsim Sha Tsui walking tour, we discuss at length Hong Kong's movie industry, its main players (including the triads) and what its ethos is all about. We try not to wax too lyrical about what is a very pragmatic industry, while letting our genuine enthusiasm for some great Hong Kong films of the past to shine through.

Today seems a good day to discuss Hong Kong's movie industry, since it is the birthday of the beautiful, ageless Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk (you can look up the year of her birth on the web; I shall not do her the dishonor here!). Her longevity in the movie business is remarkable, considering her first role came as the girlfriend of Jackie Chan in the first Police Story series, and that in Hong Kong the industry gives its film actresses a sadly short shelf life (unlike Leon Lai, Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau or Aaron Kwok).

She starred in two of my favorite films of all time - Comrades, Almost a Love Story and In the Mood for Love. She plays very different characters in those two films, but in both she exudes an effortless grace and beauty that steals the show, and succeeds admirably in conveying powerful emotions both verbally and silently in the context of a Wong Kar-Wai mise-en-scene. Director Wong had already cast her in his first feature film As Tears Go By, and used her again to great effect in Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time, In the Mood for Love and 2046. Her ability to portray languid desire, passionate longing, controlled vehemence and a mood of loss and dislocation has made her perfect for Wong's films.

She actually grew up in the UK, and only returned to Hong Kong as a teenager, with Cantonese as her second language. Her talent and beauty got her noticed, though, first at a Miss Hong Kong beauty pageant and then later as a movie star. She became incredibly prolific due to the offers flooding in, particularly after Centre Stage in 1990, that made her as acclaimed for her acting ability as for her striking presence onscreen. But three years and 28 films later, she took a break, exhausted by the work. Perhaps what sealed that decision was the effort of working on Wong Kar-Wai's Ashes movie, which took three years and so much film Kodak refused to ever work with him again!

She resumed her career triumphantly though in 1997 with Comrades, which beautifully portrayed the cosmopolitan element of the Hong Kong identity and of many back-and-forth emigres like herself. She has been in a number of Western films (even married at one point to French director Olivier Assayas), and her ability to speak English, French and Cantonese fluently (and Mandarin) attests at once to her global identity and to the conundrum of being from Hong Kong.

She has perhaps never achieved the name recognition in the West that Zhang Ziyi seems to have attained for herself now, but there is no doubt in my mind which female protagonist in Zhang Yimou's Hero was more captivating to watch. If you haven't seen her films, go and treat yourself. Maggie Cheung at her best demonstrates Hong Kong cinema is about more than triad films.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Memories of the Walled City, Part II

Today we shall go beyond what remains of the Walled City in human memory and consult the sages of ages past. Now many of you may already know the story of how Kowloon City and its environs has been populated for thousands of years, continuously so at least since the Song dynasty (except for the period when the Manchus moved everyone inland for a few decades). In fact it was the last Song dynast, just a young boy, that fled south to this area at the southern extremity of the vast lands inhabited by his forebears. He was wise to flee too, because the enemies that pursued him were none other than the barbaric horseriding army of the Great Khan!

As the story goes the last Song Emperor asked what the name of this area was, and was told that it was 'Nine Dragons', because of the eight hills that ringed the area. When asked where the ninth dragon was, he was told that it was His Imperial Highness himself. Of course this is all legendary, and another theory of its name is that nine clans settled in this area, all surnamed 'Loong', or dragon. The truth is hard to ascertain today.

What can be said is that a number of hillside fortifications were set up in a ring around the main town of Kowloon, including one in Tsim Sha Tsui where the Signal Hill Tower stands today. The town itself was also fortified heavily in 1847, with the Chinese fearing an incursion by the British, not to mention the increased depredations of pirates in the neighborhood. But they had no idea when they built it that it would be needed for the Taiping Rebellion of Hong Xiuquan, the man who thought he was Christ's younger brother and unleashed a holocaust that annihilated 20 million people over a 15-year period starting in 1850. Given the world population of that time, it could very well have been the most apocalyptic man-made episode in world history. This quasi-Christian cult took advantage of the declining efficacy of Qing rule, the fact that they were foreign, and that they had lost a war to foreign invaders as a way of re-establishing moral Chinese rule.

By 1854, the Taiping Rebellion came to Kowloon. As Eitel says,
"Kowloon city, opposite Hong Kong, was at the end of September, 1854, repeatedly taken and retaken by the Rebels and the Imperialists. The former closed in upon Canton from all sides and commenced a blockade of the Canton River which caused the junk trade of Canton city to migrate for a time to Hong Kong... The capture by the Taipings, of the Hoifung and Lukfung district cities (in the NE of Hongkong) in September, 1854, seriously interfered, for a time, with the market supplies of the Colony."
Things got so bad that the violence spilled over onto the new British colony of Hong Kong island, which had tried to stay neutral in the conflict:
"Armed bands of Taipings also paraded the streets occasionally, until the police (December 21, 1854) stopped it by arresting, in the Lower Bazaar, several hundred armed rebels who were about to embark to attack Kowloon city. About the same time the Governor issued a Neutrality Ordinance (No. 1 of 1855) to regulate the exclusion from the harbour of armed vessels under the contending Chinese flags and the manufacture and sale of arms and ammunition. Since September 1854, there was at anchor in the harbour a fleet of war-junks under the command of an alleged prince (Hung Seu-tsung) of the Taiping Dynasty who, with his officers, fraternized with the local Chinese Christians and some of the Missionaries. More than a week elapsed after the passing of that Ordinance without its being acted upon and meanwhile the Colony narrowly escaped (January 23, 1855) the danger of a naval battle being waged in the harbour, as nine war-junks, carrying 2,000 Imperialist soldiers, arrived and anchored west of the Lower Bazaar whilst a large number of Taiping war-junks were lying close to the Hospital-ship Minden. After much delay, however, both parties were ordered off and peacefully departed in different directions."
These problems caused piracy to increase in the district, which resulted in the Qing authorities searching and often seizing every boat in the area, whether armed or not. This is what led to the British agreeing to allow Chinese merchants to purchase the right to fly British flags on their junks after they were certified not to be pirates.

It was the Qing seizure of a Chinese merchant ship called the Arrow, flying a British flag, that touched off the Second Opium War. And it was the depredations of the Taipings and the anarchy they caused around Kowloon City that could be said to be its proximate cause.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Memories of the Walled City, Part I

Back when I worked at an investment bank, and my expat colleagues found out I lived in Kowloon, they were amazed. "But why?" they asked. I developed the nickname "Dave from Kowloon." Of course, expats and locals alike that are used to the more Anglophone Hong Kong Island still venture over the harbour from time to time. Some particularly enjoy the culinary delights (mostly the Thai restaurants) of Kowloon City, which stands near what was once the Kowloon Walled City, and the seat of Chinese government in this district. The old stone yamen in fact still remains, preserved when the anarchic slum of the Walled City was torn down at last in the 1980s in the name of hygiene and common decency.

The reason for the anarchy was simple - when the Qing government deeded over Kowloon in 1860, there was a misunderstanding about whether or not the Walled City would also be included - the British thought yes, the Chinese no. Naturally, the British would not tolerate an explicit Chinese authority within one of their domains, but they also decided at the same time that it should govern itself. That effectively meant that in the absence of Chinese imperial control, the place was ceded to local authority. As the place grew (blocking out natural light with multistorey buildings) the triads and to other dubious associations that had the muscle to control it, did so, turning it into an adult amusement park of gambling dens, opium divans, pornography and strip shows and brothels. I highly recommend this account of a drug addict named Lee Fai Ping, from the book Hong Kong Remembers by Sally Blyth and Ian Wotherspoon:
I started going to the Walled City in 1960 when I was a young teenager. I wasn'’t a drug addict then, I was just attracted to the area. I found the place very special because it was fully of contrasting and, I suppose, very exciting things for a young man. There were pornographic movies, live strip shows, and opium dens. It was an infamous den of iniquity. Many organized groups from other areas in Kowloon used to come on tours of the area, just to see the strip shows and the other things on offer.

In those days there were still a lot of wooden structures in the Walled City, and old-style Chinese houses with tiled roofs. There were no high rises, and the buildings were so tightly packed together that hardly any daylight could shine through. It was just a maze of tiny dark alleys, but, if you knew where to look, you could even find parts of the old city wall still standing. The risk of fire was a real danger in such a confined area. I remember there was a man who struck a gong every hour to let people know the time, and he was also responsible for giving the alarm when fire broke out.

The city was at a lower level than the surrounding urban area so when it rained there was always a lot of flooding. There was no sewage system, and sewage had to be taken away from the public latrines and buildings each night but bucket and truck. There were rats everywhere, and even they seemed to be addicted to the drugs, just from the fumes! That'’s an indication of the amount of drugs used in the city!

It wasn'’t until 1956 that the police actually started to patrol the Walled City, but the place was effectively run by the triads who were all powerful. Law and order didn't exist inside the city walls. It was a dangerous place to go on your own, and if you wanted to enter the Walled City, you really had to be escorted by a triad.

I became a member of the 14K triad society when I was thirteen years hold. The older members made sure you had free lunches and free dineers, and that you had money to spend. In return I had to carry out orders from my big brothers. These involved gang fights, protection rackets, and many other criminal activities. But I felt like a real macho guy. I knew a lot of the younger kids looked up to me, so I'd recruit them.

Then I started to get involved with drugs. The triad bosses used to smoke opium, and I felt my status would be elevated if I did so too. By the time I was sixteen years old I was a heroin addict. Then I started selling opium as it was very profitable. When you sold drugs at that time, it was just like selling vegetables. I had to pay off the police but, despite this, it was still a good trade. In the early 1960s I had to pay $5,000 a month to the police on each shift,– so that was $10,000 a month in all. It was a great deal of money, but it was worth it for the police protection. If a rival started up, the police would quickly squash him.

More on the past history of the place tomorrow, including massacres and revolutionaries...and how they in fact resulted in the British claiming Kowloon in the first place.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Dirty Hong Kong Rickshaw

I would like to present to you a letter from the archives of the South China Morning Post, dated September 14th, 1904 (101 years ago for those that prefer math-free posts):

Dirty rickshas
Sir, cannot something be done in the way of compelling ricksha proprietors, or coolies, to keep their rickshas clean? At present, things are anything but what they might be in the Colony. One at this time of the year invariably wears white clothes, and it is simply disgusting to think that after a few minutes' drive in the present ricksha the back of one's white coat is as if it had not been near the wash-tub for weeks, as was my experience this a.m. Ladies also must suffer greatly in the same way, with their white silk and light-coloured blouses. Is it not possible for the powers that be, who have the licensing of these vehicles, to compel the proprietors thereof to provide washable white or even khaki covers for both seat and back, as is done in French towns in the East? For instance in Saigon, Haiphong and Hanoi. One could then engage a ricksha and see for one's-self beforehand whether it was clean or not, and also be sure that he was not an object of derision, after having alighted. I enclose my card.
Hongkong, September 14, 1904.
Well, I'm not really sure where to begin. First of all, starting a letter to the editor with "Sir" today would be as bad an idea as I had when I applied for my first investment banking job with the anachronistic "Gentlemen"; particularly since Fanny Fung is the Editor and Luisa Tam the editor of the Opinion pages. Naturally, both being Chinese, they might well have taken umbrage at the sartorial outrage expressed by the card-enclosing letter writer when put into the broader perspective of the suffering experienced by these ricksha (which by the way originated in Japan as jinrickshas) pullers. But there was little sentimentality expressed by riders of these conveyances to their human motors. I recall a journalist of the Hong Kong Telegraph writing upon the opening of the Peak Tram that it was a "far more agreeable experience than being constantly jostled by coolies." That trip of course had previously been done on a different mode of transport - the sedan chair by 2 or 4 coolies without the benefit of wheels, owing to the steep ascent.

There were also many reports over the years about passengers actually assaulting their ricksha coolies, and for many of them being fined for minor offences by the police, which resulted in them losing an entire day's wages if not more. They unionized and from time to time would try to strike, but usually with very little success. Of course then as now, ricksha pullers like today's taxi drivers would sometimes try to cheat unsuspecting customers. But one need not look very far to find the source of antipathy for their clientele, particularly of the gwailo variety.

How did the coolies cope with their backbreaking work, often in the blazing summer heat, for a mere pittance? Many of them resorted to opium. I shall close with these very evocative passage written by the late Martin Booth in his final work, Gwailo (a reminiscence of his childhood in Hong Kong in the 1950s):
"Riding in a rickshaw was a strange sensation. The coolie lowered the shafts to the ground, one stepped between them onto a footboard in front of a padded seat covered in a loose white cloth and sat down. [evidently the SCMP letter-writer got his way. - Ed.] At this stage, the whole contraption was sloping forwards and downwards. I had to hold on to the sides to stop sliding off - the cloth didn't help. The coolie then picked up the shafts, his elbows bent at right angles. This meant the rickshaw suddenly tipped backwards and the passenger fell to the rear of the seat.

The coolie set off at a walk, building to a steady trot. His bent arms acted like leaf-springs on a vehicle, reducing the shock of the road bumps for his body.

The coolies were usually bare to the waist, except in winter, and one could see their muscles flexing across their shoulders, the tendons tightening and relaxing under their skin. Most of them were sallow, with sunken chests, gaunt faces and drawn skin on their necks: and when they sweated, they exuded a faint, strangely sweet body odour. They all looked old enough to be Confucian sages, but they were almost all certainly no older than their late twenties. A rickshaw coolie's lifespan seldom reached thirty-five. It was not long before I realized virtually every one of them was an opium addict."
Which makes the passing of this mode of transport a very good thing. I find it hard to believe anyone still wants a photo on one at the Central Star Ferry. Explains why I saw a lonely red rickshaw offered up for sale...

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A Most Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Last night I attended a dinner meeting of the Executive Council of the Hong Kong Anthropological Society at the Spring Deer Peking Restuarant, on 42 Mody Road. The food was fine enough, but the low ceilings and the generally high decibel level of the mostly Cantonese clientele made it difficult for us to hear one another.

Being sociable has always been part of life in Hong Kong, and for its Cantonese inhabitants. To slightly overgeneralize, loud noise and activity has always had positive associations in Chinese culture and language; "ri nao",(熱鬧) which means approximately, "bustling with noise and excitment", has very positive associations. Some of Hong Kong's more cosmopolitan residents and demi-mondes of course eschew these traditional behavior patterns, but it nonetheless is a part of life in this city.

So I was amused and horrified in equal parts when I was going over the Victoria Gaol Superintendent's Report for 1889. In it, Mr. A. Gordon suggests that the worst thing you can do is put a local prisoner in solitary confinement. He states:
"I can only repeat what I have frequently urged that in my opinion the introduction of the separate system is (especially in this Colony) essential to proper prison discipline. The ordinary Chinese prisoner better fed, housed and clothed, with far less hard labour to do than an ordinary coolie finds nothing deterrent in our Prisons as long as he lives in association with companions day and night but I believe that under the separate system the Chinese criminal classes would prefer even the hardships and cruelties of a Chinese prison to the long isolation of this system and that its introduction would be speedily followed by a considerable diminution in the number of Prisoners."
Mr. Gordon was clearly of the opinion that several months in solitary would drive Chinese prisoners to stay out of trouble. His perspective though, of the pleasantness of Victoria Prison clashes, though, with this account by Colonial Surgeon Dr. Dempster thirty years earlier:
“It is a filthy, disgusting place, badly ventilated and altogether unfit for occupation by a human being. I was never in the cells but once to see a Policeman under delirium tremens; and so horrified was I with the dirty, stinking hole, that I took it on myself to order the man out of confinement at once. It is a sink of iniquity. A man in a weak state of health kept in such a place twenty-four hours would receive irremediable injury to his whole system.”
Things must either have gotten a lot better, or Mr. Gordon perhaps oversold the positive qualities of the prison experience to his superiors...

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Muslims of Hong Kong, Marginalized

We have discussed before how the Kowloon Mosque, pictured at left, came to stand in such a prominent position on Kowloon's most important commercial artery - Nathan Road. To recap - the land adjacent to it is Kowloon Park. Until the 70s/80s, this land was the Whitfield Barracks, home to part of the British Garrison. From its earliest days, Muslim soldiers from the British Raj formed a substantial portion of men under arms that protected Hong Kong from external and internal threats. In 1894, the British government finally saw fit to grant these Muslims a plot of land in Tsim Sha Tsui at which they could worship; at that time it faced a number of middle-cass European homes and stood on a broad avenue of leafy trees. A mosque still stands on that original site today, although it had been rebuilt in 1984. The oldest mosque in Hong Kong is the Jamia Masjid on Mosque Street in the Mid-Levels; the community of believers numbers 60-70 thousand, of which over half are Chinese Muslims.

Many are under the misapprehension that Muslim Indian soldiers no longer took part in the defense of Hong Kong after the Partition of India in 1948 and the independence of India and Pakistan. But even as late as 1967, not only were Muslim soldiers serving the Queen in Hong Kong as part of the Hong Kong Regiment, but three of them were shot dead that year by Mainland PLA snipers. Postwar Hong Kong had seen a flourishing Muslim community in Hong Kong develop, small in percentage terms but still valuable in both their trade and their services to the community.

So imagine their displeasure in 1970: in 1870 the Muslims had been given a plot of land in the Happy Valley Area to bury their dead, which although on Hong Kong's limited-lease system, they had been led to believe was for all time. This was in keeping with the practice of granting areas for burial to other communities, such as the Catholics, the Jews and the Parsees, immediately adjoining the main Colonial Cemetery. However, in 1970 Hong Kong's Public Works Department informed the Muslims (but not any of the other groups) that all their graves were to be excavated and moved to the Cape Collinson area, to make way for the Aberdeen Tunnel flyover. Things have not been much smoother in the post-Handover era, with plans for a new mosque in Sheung Shui in the New Territories stymied by Chinese resistance and local community red-tape. The unwillingness for the Chinese in the New Territories to accommodate a mosque (as opposed to a Christian Church) very much reflects the increased leeriness of the population towards Muslims after 9/11, according to the City University study I linked to above.

The voice of moderate Islam has been drowned out by frustrated radical and violent demagogues, but the people of Hong Kong should realize that the vast majority of Muslims want what the rest of them want - happiness and success for their family, friends and themselves. Let me conclude with a beautiful passage from the Qu'ran quoted by celebrated Biblical scholar Jaroslav Pelikan in his latest book, Whose Bible Is It? (great book, by the way, on a history of the Scriptures), and meditate on its inclusive message of peace, universality and wisdom:
God is the light of the heavens and the earth.
The semblance of His light is that of a niche
in which is a lamp, the flame within a glass,
the glass a glittering star, as it were, lit with the oil
of a blessed tree, the olive, neither of the East
nor of the West, whose oil appears to light up
even though fire touches it not, - light upon light.
God guides to His light whom He will.
So does God advance precepts of wisdom for men,
for God has knowledge of every thing.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The Man Mo Temple

If one saunters down Hollywood Road from Central (named after the Holly Wood bushes that once grew there, rather than the famed land of movie studios), passing the many antique shops, one eventually arrives at a rather old part of Hong Kong. To your right, is Hollywood Road Park, the site of Possession Point, where Captain Edward Belcher raised the Union Jack on January 26, 1841. And to your left will be the Man Mo Temple. As one's guidebook will tell you, it is dedicated to two gods, the God of Literature (Man) and the God of War (Mo).

Although amusingly Hong Kong is neither particularly warlike nor literary-minded, the Temple remains popular for people from all walks of life - students hoping for a good score on exams and civil servants alike pray to the former deity, whereas policemen, triads and some people of more dubious professions seek succor from the latter. Just before Chinese New Year in particular, you will find the place quite packed full of people (and as you can imagine, the carcinogenic incense smoke makes it quite difficult to see or breathe).

What is not often reported though, is that the temple was actually founded by two wealthy brothel owners right after the founding of the colony (a shrine had already been on that spot for some time). These two gents were Tanka boat-people that had become very wealthy by collaborating with the British during the Opium War and getting them the supplies they needed. They were rewarded for their services with generous grants of land in the new colony, on which they promptly built cheap tenements and houses of ill fame. Loo Aqui in particular, was also given a monopoly to run the wet market in the Chinese district of Taipingshan. Sadly for him, it burnt down and he never quite recovered from that blow. He and his contemporaries dominated the Chinese scene in early Hong Kong for its first two decades though; it actually turned many more reputable Chinese for immigrating to the city because of their low status and uncouth mannerisms. However, fortunately for Hong Kong, the devastating holocaust of the Taiping Rebellion brought a more wealthy, urbane class of merchants to the budding Colony.

Because it was the most prominent institution amongst the Hong Kong Chinese for the first decades, the leadership of the temple also became the proxy leadership with whom the British leadership consulted in the rare times they chose to solicit Chinese opinion. They also began to take on extraterritorial powers in adjudicating disputes between Chinese, rather than involve the alien forms of British justice. This leadership role continued until the 1860s (read Elizabeth Sinn's excellent work on this subject) when it ended thanks to Governor Richard Graves Macdonnell. This Irishman was quite reserved and was strict with the Chinese community; however, he was the first (and only) Governor to permit the sale of gambling licenses in Hong Kong. This experiment made so much money for the government coffers (and almost all of it from the Chinese) that he felt duty-bound to give something back to them. That was the Tung Wah Hospital, built on the gambling revenues of the 1860s. That institution gradually became the social, economic and one could argue, the political centre of power of Chinese Hong Kong until well into the 20th century.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Remembering Paul Chater in Chinese Hong Kong

I blogged a few months ago about Hong Kong's greatest man, Paul Chater; today happens to be his birthday (1846). He, more than anyone else, created the institutions and put the literal foundations in place for Hong Kong's present prosperity. Yet he is consigned to the margins of history, because this man was not Chinese. It is too complicated to officially celebrate the accomplishments of a man that did not fit into easy categorization - although a British knight, he was a self-made Armenian businessman from Calcutta that won his place on the King's Honours List through his energy and genius. He made himself part of the colonial establishment by dint of his entrepreneurial drive and vision. For that, he has been forgotten.

I suppose it is understandable that local Chinese feel no affinity for a man not of their own race or language. The unspoken understanding, after all, of Hong Kong is that to be considered to belong here, you must be Chinese and speak Cantonese - he was not either. Also, as I've mentioned several times, local history education has always been abysmal if not non-existent; now that there are some nascent signs of progress on this front, it is doubtful that local textbooks will make much of or lionize him. Yet how can you ignore a man that basically created Tsim Sha Tsui with the Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company, pushed forward the Central and Wanchai land reclamations, led Hong Kong Land, founded the Hong Kong Electric Company, China Light and Power, the Hong Kong Shanghai Hotels Company, was the most outstanding legislator of his day and was head of the Jockey Club for over 3 decades? As his obituary writer at the South China Morning Post remarked in 1928: "The life of Paul Chater is the history of Hong Kong."

Hong Kong prides itself on its cosmopolitan identity. But I cannot but feel that at heart it is something far more parochial. Is it merely that history has no meaning to the Hong Kong Chinese, or is it that they do not care for it because it largely is not a record of their own race's accomplishments? Is it a blessing in disguise that Chater or indeed that historic Chinese figures have not been made into historic icons, into national myths? That Hong Kongers' pragmatic skepticism almost never gets led astray by patriotic rhetoric? Or does Hong Kong suffer because this ahistorical city cannot learn from past mistakes, and are condemned to repeat them? Does this 'ahistoricity' mean a lower level of social cohesion, without an explicit, government-sponsored narrative of the city's shared experience? Might it be why locals take refuge in Cantonese parochiality instead in the face of mainland and international assimilation?

I don't have the answers, but I hope I've asked enough provocative questions to stimulate some debate on the subject. Hope to hear from you!

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Mickey Mao: Disneyland and Globalization

September is here, the academics have returned from their summer breaks and the talks organized by the Hong Kong Anthropological Society have returned. The next talk is scheduled for September 22nd, at 7pm, in the Hong Kong Museum of History Lecture Hall in Tsim Sha Tsui it is entitled "Mickey Mao: What the World's Newest Disneyland Tells Us About Globalization", and the speaker is Geoffrey Fowler, who has been an Asian Wall Street Journal reporter based in Hong Kong since 2002 covering Asian media, marketing, youth and cultural affairs. Before becoming a journalist, Mr. Fowler trained as a social anthropologist, earning a graduate degree in anthropology at Cambridge University and an undergraduate degree in social anthropology and Afro-American studies at Harvard University. He was born in New York City.

The gist of his talk will be as follows:
The Hong Kong Disneyland opening on September 12 provides a rare window on the role of multinational corporations in the globalization of cultures. How did Disney as a corporation -- famous for selling and spreading Americana -- approach crafting and selling a theme park destined for Chinese consumption? What values might attract Chinese tourists to a Disney park - "American" culture, "global" culture, or something "Chinese"? And what role does the idea of local culture - from feng shui and shark's fin, to Mulan and fireworks -- play in the politics and marketing of the park? This will be one reporter's unofficial view, after hours of interviews with company officials, marketers, and visitors to Hong Kong Disneyland.
I encourage you all to come, it sounds like an interesting talk about the world's best paid rodent and what he's had to do to get there.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Anniversary of the Open-Door Policy

Today is the 106th anniversary of John Hay's memorandum suggesting the implementation of an 'Open Door' policy for China in 1899. The memorandum was addressed to the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, in light of that country's move to explicitly obtain for itself a 'sphere of influence' within China, and the memo suggested that regardless of the various spheres of influence of European imperialist powers, the right of merchants of all nations to trade on a 'most favored nation' basis would not be affected anywhere in China. The full text of the memorandum is available here.

The memorandum also held that all customs duties, regardless of any 'sphere of influence', would accrue to the Chinese government. It sounded all very noble and was enshrined in American history as a period of great American idealism being exerted on the European imperialist powers. However, the Chinese of that and every succeeding era rightly saw it as a set of rules of the road for the maximum extraction of economic benefit from China by Western powers while still keeping the cadaver of the Chinese body politic only just faintly alive. America had just become an Asian imperial power after the Spanish-American War of 1898 that had given it the Philippines, but interest in another war domestically was low. Meanwhile, the European powers were moving in for the kill on the 'sick man' of Asia, the Chinese throne dominated by the power-hungry and incompetent Empress Dowager of China. America felt it had to act.

Shortly after Hay's initial efforts, the Boxers of Shandong moved in on Beijing, killing every Westerner in their path, mostly missionaries and their families. As is widely known, the Boxers came to believe that bullets could not harm them, and that if killed, their spirits would be able to aid the Boxer army. Despite the Empress Dowager's feigned efforts to help the foreigners, she had secretly recruited them to her side; she saw these nativist Chinese, impoverished by the famine that had struck Shandong, as the best way to rid her country of foreign influence and deflect the mounting unrest over foreign Qing (Manchu) rule. After a protracted siege, the Western countries united to lift the siege at Peking; shortly thereafter, the United States was able to harry all of the other foreign ministers into agreeing to the 'Open Door' policy.

The dying Qing empire was thereby kept on life support by this agreement for another 11 years, instead of being subjected to partition. But that sovereignty came at a great economic price to the Chinese nation, and to national pride. In a sense, it was American foreign policy at its finest - high-minded idealism married to tangible economic benefit to American interests. This dualism of American idealism and realpolitik has, as we well know manifested itself numerous times throughout the intervening century. Americans should realise (or should I say realize?) for that reason that far from being 'the beacon on the hill', it is regarded as a purveyor of hypocrisy by many Chinese citizens, most of whom have not been party to more sympathetic treatments of Hay's objectives in his 'Open Door' policy.

Monday, September 05, 2005

The Mystery of the Japanese Horses

The picture you see to your left depicts the Japanese military leadership on parade down Nathan Road in Hong Kong, I believe, a few days after the Christmas Day surrender of the British in 1941. But an interesting question was posed to me recently - did the Japanese bring the horses themselves to Hong Kong? For it was thought that cavalry regiments had gone by the wayside in the same way they had in Western military forces by that time. Certainly the Japanese attacking strategy of striking quickly and hard with a mixture of mechanized units, air support and nimble infantry could not have accommodated horses and stableboys?

My interlocutor was right. The horses, I've discovered, did not come from Japan or even just across the border from China: they were noble steeds of the Hong Kong Jockey Club. The Japanese had rounded the horses up and thought they'd make a useful addition to the pomp and ceremony of the Japanese Occupation of this British colony that had just celebrated its 100th birthday.

But round them up they certainly had to do, according to one of Hong Kong's best jockeys, Canadian Benny Proulx. He described the mayhem on 15th December, the night the Japanese bombed Happy Valley:
Here among the bursting bombs a hundred or so race horses were running wild in the streets. The near-by Jockey Club's stables had been badly bombed and the horses had escaped. They thundered through the avenues, swirled around me, stopping, turning sideways, running back, as bombs and shells burst among them with spouts of dark debris and shrapnel. Blood on their silky coats, straks of blood in their wide staring eyes, heads high in panic, they ran a futile race with death. A horse would suddenly slip and fall, another would balance himself, bewildered and helpless on three legs. Many lay dead in the littered streets.

One stood trembling, still bridled, and with the reins hanging limply from his mouth. I went up to him, but he seemed not to notice me. I started to unbridle him. Fifty feet away, a small shell burst with a high crack of noise and I instinctively ducked my head, but the horse stood motionless. Tossing the bridle away, I lingered for a moment stroking the sweaty back. I left him finally, but as I turned the corner of the next block I glanced back. He still stood there, quite motionless, head down among the rest of the panicky herd - a creature frightened into insanity, but so beautiful that it seemed no bomb could touch him.
Perhaps, I'd offer, the horse had become deaf from the bombing, and no longer therefore reacted to stimuli like bombs going off.

There was a dearth of horses though, despite Japan's best efforts to keep racing going during the War years, but according to author Austin Coates it was rigged and dishonest. Eventually they resorted to wooden horses, which didn't exactly set the Hong Kong public's imagination alight. Finally, 4 months before the end of the war, they cancelled racing altogether in April 1945.

Friday, September 02, 2005

The Unfortunate Lord Napier in Canton

Today we'll go set our time machine for 1834, just a few years before the founding of Hong Kong (our blog today is extra long, consider it a weekend edition!). British merchants first began arriving in force in China in the late 18th century. And to oversee their trade were the representatives of the British East India Company, self-styled the 'Honourable Company' or John Company. For half a century, they ruled the roost in Macau, more powerful than any other single force or individual in the city, dictating the actions and conduct of all British traders in China, whether they belonged to the Honourable Company or not.

But in 1833, that chapter of history came to and end; for that was the year of the Charter Act, which ended the East India Company's monopoly on British trade in Canton. As the British did not want to see chaos in Canton as a result of unregulated British traders, the government of the day dispatched one William John Napier, the 9th Lord Napier, a blue-blooded aristocrat of somewhat limited means, to China as Superintendent of Trade. His assistants were to be old John Company hands.

Sadly though, Napier did not seek their advice overmuch when he arrived in Macau to ascertain the position of Sino-British trade. At that time, China still did not recognize the representatives of any other country on an equal footing, and had in place a myriad of laws to prevent any diplomat from getting an audience with the Governor of Guangdong, let alone the Emperor. But Napier, upon his arrival, fell rapidly into the orbit of William Jardine and James Matheson, ardent free traders who believed that the current system of trade was untenable and an insult to British authority (never mind that their chief business was peddling illegal opium contraband). They worked him up into a frenzy, and got him to believe that he was on a mission from Britain - nay, from God, Adam Smith and the principles of free trade - to end the Chinese trade restrictions once and for all. It did not matter to him that the rules of trade had been previously been strictly followed by the East India Company, and that he was trying to force an unprecedented change in the status quo.

That was a bad idea, because he had no leverage with which to force the issue. He sent a letter to the Governor of Guangdong, but received no reply. This enraged him further, and he decided to head to Canton without permission and present his petition to the Governor directly, in the name of the British Crown. Unbeknownst to him, the Chinese officials were already very familiar with him and what to do with him. They referred to him in his official title as the 'barbarian eye', and transliterated his name to mean 'laboriously vile.'

This was the letter sent by Governor Lu to the Emperor (thanks to the City University of New York website):
The said barbarian [Lord Napier] would not receive the hong-merchants, but afterwards repaired to the outside of the city to present a letter to me, your majesty's minister Lu. On the face of the envelope the forms and style of equality were used ; and there were absurdly written the characters, Ta Ying kwoh (i.e., Great English nation). . . Whether the said barbarian has or has not official rank, there are no means of thoroughly ascertaining. But though he be really an officer of the said nation, he yet cannot write letters on equality with the frontier officers of the celestial empire. As the thing concerned the national dignity, it was inexpedient in the least to allow a tendency to any approach or advance, by which lightness of esteem might be occasioned. Accordingly, orders were given to . . the colonel in command of the military forces of this department, to tell him [Napier]authoritatively, that, by the statutes and enactments of the celestial empire, there has never been intercourse by letters with outside barbarians . . .
Now it is suddenly desired to appoint an officer, a superintendent, which is not in accordance with old regulations. Besides, if the said nation has formed this decision, it still should have stated in a petition, the affairs which, and the way how, such superintendent is to manage, so that a memorial might be presented, requesting your majesty's mandate and pleasure as to what should be refused, in order that obedience might be paid to it . . . But the said barbarian, Lord Napier, without ever having made any plain report, suddenly came to the barbarian factories outside the city to reside, and presumed to desire intercourse to and fro by official documents and letters with the officers of the Central Flowery Land [i.e., China], and this was, indeed, far out of the bounds of reason.<
The inaction and inability to progress enraged Napier further, and so he proceeded to circulate notices in Chinese throughout Canton explaining how 'perverse' Chinese officialdom was for ruining Chinese livelihoods for wont of trade (sounds like a modern complainant to the SCMP). This naturally pissed off the mandarins further, who shot off this counter-notice in the city, in an even more angry tone:
A lawless foreign slave, Napier, has issued a notice. We know not how such a dog barbarian of an outside nation as you, can have the audacious presumption to call yourself Superintendent (of Trade). Being an outside savage Superintendent, and a person in an official situation, you should have some little knowledge of propriety and law.

You have passed over ten thousand miles in order to seek a livelihood; you have come to our Celestial Empire to trade and control affairs;--how can you not obey well the regulations of the Empire? You audaciously presume to break through the barrier passes [i.e., entrance to the city of Canton; forbidden to foreigners] . . . According to the laws of the nation , the Royal Warrant should be respectfully requested to behead you; and openly expose your head to the multitude, as a terror to perverse dispositions.

Napier, in his final letter to the Foreign Secretary in London, wrote the following:
My present position is . .. a delicate one, because the trade is put in jeopardy, on account of the difference existing between the (governor) and myself. I am ordered by his majesty [the king of England] to "go to Canton, and there report myself by letter to the (governor)." I use my best endeavors to do so; but the (governor) is a presumptuous savage.
. . . Had I even degraded the king's commission [i.e., the orders given him by his government] so far as to petition through the hong-merchants for an interview, it is quite clear by the tenor of the edicts that it would have been refused. Were he to send an armed force, and order me to the boat, I could then retreat with honor, and he would implicate himself; but they are afraid to attempt such a measure. What then remains but the stoppage of the trade, or my retirement? [i.e., withdrawal]. If the trade is stopped for any length of time, the consequences to the merchants are most serious, as they are also to the unoffending Chinese. But the (governor) cares no more for commerce, or for the comfort and happiness of the people, as long as he receives his pay and plunder, than if he did not live among them.
He has clearly lost it at this point - he was sent to be a diplomat, and to ensure that unruly traders did not get out of hand. Instead, Lord Napier, turned rabid by the goading of Jardine and the arrogance of Chinese officialdom, was here actually calling for warships to bombard Canton! (Of course, this forshadowed events perfectly less than a decade later) Trade for all foreign merchants was stopped on September 2, 1834 (yes, today in fact, 171 years ago) and Lord Napier was forced to leave Canton, and on the way back to Macau, he died from fever. The anger and frustration of his stay in China had consumed him. Jardine and Matheson paid for his body being sent back to London, along with his widow and child.

The only reason we should remember the unfortunate Lord Napier today, though, is this: he sent one letter to London that, as far as we know, was the very first to highlight the attractions of the island of Hong Kong as a deep-sea harbour protected from the storms and typhoons of the South China Sea. It seems that letter made a lasting impression...

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Our CNN Coverage and An Article

We have to thank all of you that have written in to give us your feedback, ideas and support for our business after seeing us on CNN last Tuesday. Thank you so much! We really appreciate your thoughts. It's gratifying to know our product seems to answer a growing need from independent travelers like yourselves.

For those of you that missed the segment, you can get an idea of it from this article on the CNN website.

Raffles and the Cannibals

As regular readers of our blog may have guessed, Singapore is rapidly falling into our ambit of operations. I'm not at liberty to say quite yet what those operations will be, but rest assured we'll let you know in due course.

We've been doing some reading, therefore on the founder, or purported founder of modern Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles (his primacy in the founding of the city is a matter of some heated debate). Some of you well-versed in history may be aware that before (and after, actually) founding Singapore as a British trading factory, Raffles was the Governor of Bencoolen, today known as Bengkulu, on the West coast of Sumatra (the Indonesian island whose northern side most recently was devastated by the Boxing Day tsunami).

In 1820, according to his very sympathetic biographer, C.E. Wurtzburg, in Raffles of the Eastern Isles (published posthumously in 1954), he wrote rather favorably about the Batta, a tribe from central-northern Sumatra that had the unfortunate predisposition for cannibalism. Think about them the next time you drink Sumatra Mandelhing coffee, because that's roughly where they were from. Now Raffles always had a reputation for being a tolerant, liberal visionary, but what I read last night was quite something else. Wurtzburg quote directly from Raffles' own memoirs:
"It is observed that formerly they [the Batta] ate their parents when too old for work: this, however, is no longer the case, and thus a step has been gained in civilization.

It is admitted that the parties may be redeemed for a pecuniary compensation, but this is entirely at the option of the chief enemy or injured party, who, after his sentence is passed, may either have his victim eaten, or he may sell him for a slave; but the law is that he shall be eaten, and the prisoner is entirely at the mercy of his prosecutor...

I could give you more details, but the above may be sufficient to show that our friends the Battas are even worse than you have represented them, and that those who are still sceptical have yet more to learn. I have also a great deal to say on the other side of the character, for the Battas have many virtues. I prize them highly. However horrible eating a man may sound in European ears, I question whether the party suffers so much, or the punishment itself is worse than the European tortures of two centuries ago. I have always doubted the policy, and even the right of capital punishment among civilized nations; but this once admitted, and torture allowed, I see nothing more cruel in eating a man alive [italics are mine - Ed.] than in torturing him for days with mangled limbs and the like. Here they certainly eat him up at once, and the party seldom suffers more than a few minutes. It is probable that he suffers more pain from the loss of his ear than from what follows: indeed he is said to give one shriek when that is taken off, and then to continue silent till death."
Well, that was pretty awful, but you have to admit now there were certainly some individuals within the 19th century Empire that were highly sympathetic to local cultural practices. I had my partner Stefan off his chair when I read it to him. His reaction was: "Imagine the faces of his superiors his London when they read this. They'd be thinking, 'Oh...My...God! This guy is so far up the river it's not funny!'" Aside from the fact that in 1820, neither had Conrad written the Heart of Darkness nor Coppola made Apocalypse Now, I must wholeheartedly agree. Not in a culinary sense, of course.