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...

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