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!


Anonymous said...

I heard in the radio today that there are people remembering the late MacLehose, so I guess the issue is not entirely a matter of "Chinese v. non-Chinese". I guess if there remained a continued connection of the Chater family with Hong Kong, things would be somewhat different -- perhaps Paul Chater would remain as much of a household name as, say, Robert Hotung or Elly Kardoorie?

Maybe the nature of Hong Kong as a city of immigrants is somewhat responsible for its "ahistoricity", especially in relation to pre-war Hong Kong?

I guess if someone could make a movie about Paul Chater, as they did to so many Chinese historical figures, interests about him would certainly increase. But then, a Hong Kong movie starring a "foreigner" -- would it be commercially viable?

Dave and Stefan said...

Yes, you have some good points. I am sure if there had been continuity in terms of actual family members, he might be better remembered here. But I do think MacLehose is different because he only died in 2001 and is in the living memory of people that lived through his tenure as a political figure. The city being one of immigrants is also a big factor. But even greater was the British desire to prevent the teaching of local history, particularly after the war, to suppress the legimitacy-sapping stories about the city's origins in the Opium War. The lack of a historic narrative handed to new immigrants when they arrive has a lot to do with this lack of historic perspective.

But it is also clear to me that this must change if Hong Kong desires to preserve the strengths it has inherited from the colonial era. For if it does not enshrine the principles of its own governance in a popular form of civic education (which must needs be accompanied by an historic narrative) then it will slowly but surely, insensibly, become another city in China.

The film you suggest indeed would not be commercially viable unless done as an arthouse film with international appeal. But what does that say about Hong Kong? I think that you are right to be practical and ask me how local Chinese could find out why they should care about the man - I ask more rhetorically why it is that locals couldn't be bothered to pay at the box office to see a movie about the man probably the most important in their own city's history, partly because he is not Chinese.

The answer to me is to do better at history education, and to respect these figures in the process of revealing the past, because to respect someone like Chater is to embrace the spirit of this city - untrammelled economic freedom, and spirit of great enterprise - as well as values that its citizens would do well to emulate, such as an ennobling civic spirit and a great sense of generosity. But honestly, realistically, even if the city creates an historic narrative for popular local consumption that tries to strengthen its civic spirit, it's hard to see any non-Chinese being portrayed in an admiring or heroic way.

It is a personal question for me as well. As a Western-looking Eurasian, I know I can never be truly accepted here as a local because of the way I look. And when I face the hard fact that someone like Chater, who had lived here since age 18, did more than anyone else to build modern Hong Kong, is doomed to be forgotten here because he's not Chinese, it makes me realize my feelings for the city are similarly doomed to be unrequited.

I don't lose sleep over it of course (if I did it would be time to leave). But every once awhile an anniversary comes up (like Chater's birthday) and I get myself riled up.:)

Dave and Stefan said...

Dear Bromgrev, your comments are fair. We feel the same way as you about Hong Kong's lack of visual landmarks, and so to counterbalance the rarity of heritage buildings we try to engage people with what you see instead. We think when you look at the Jardine House building, the fact that this is actually the same institution that convinced Lord Palmertston to argue for the dispatch of the Royal Navy to China for War cannot but stir a certain sense of wonder. That HSBC is in fact the same bank that was the financial muscle behind Britain's imperial amibitions in China is in our view equally fascinating. But that's why we provide our content using wireless technology in the form of the audio guide - the modern visuals of Hong Kong require interpretation to reveal their strong links to the past.

There is strong interest from visitors in this past, as well as from locals. And as long as there are willing customers for our product, we have hope.

Anonymous said...

Hi Stefan, I haven't browsed your site for a while so I'm a bit behind.

Have just read the comments about Sir Paul Chater and it is indeed a great shame this man is not more remembered for the industrial and commercial achievements which have, effectively made Hong Kong what it is today. As you are aware, I was in Hong Kong in May as part of the pilgrimage to commemorate him organised by the Armenian Church of Kolkata, and the amount of local and media interest at the time was great. I really had hoped that the momentum would continue, but alas it seems it has not.

My research into him personally goes on (his business achievements are extremely well documented), and I am continuing to find out new and wonderfully personal things about Sir Paul, that no one has, as yet uncovered. You may recall, that for the pilgrimage I wrote a brief biography on him "A Prominent Armenian from Calcutta and The Grand Old Man of Hong Kong, Sir Catchick Paul Chater", published by the Armenian Church in Kolkata, copies of which were left with the Royal Asiatic Society in Hong Kong.

I have been very lucky to have had the chance to talk and meet with living relatives of Sir Paul, who even now, after the pilgrimage, are willing to share their personal momentos concerning Sir Paul and the family, and I will be getting some documents sent to me in the near future from a branch of the family, and that really makes researching this man exciting.

With regard to the comments about a film of him - it has already been done - but no, you didn't blink and miss it! As part of the pilgrimage, the Armenian Church also made a biographical film of his life, re-creating his early life, filmed in Kolkata and Hong Kong. It is informative considering it is the first time that anyone has actualy done anthing on him.

Since the book and the film have been made I have found a few more new discoveries on him but do not have the funds to research further or indeed go to print and publish with a new edition. So I am stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The personal tragedy that he suffered as a young child and the anguish he no doubt endured at the loss of both his parents at the age 8 years old has only ever been brushed over with...."he was orphaned at a young age....." but he actually endured so much more and came thru it personally and mentally stronger than many of us would today under the same circumstances.

I have recently found, visited and photographed the grave of one of his sisters who lived and died in London. He was close to all his family and ensured they were all well cared for financially.

And then there is Lady Chater. Little is known about her factually, but speculation and gossip abound on who she was and what she did. I am also currently trying to look into her family and dovetail that with the work I am doing on Sir Paul.

He is always remembered on his birthday at La Martiniere College in Kolkata and of course by his current living relatives.

best wishes
Liz Chater