Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Grantham and the Shek Kip Mei Fire

Today marks the 27th year since the death of former Hong Kong Governor Alexander Grantham. He was the longest serving Governor in Hong Kong history, holding down his job for 10 years between 1947 and 1957. Yet today he is only dimly remembered, chiefly for the Grantham Hospital in Wong Chuk Hang, one teaching college named after him and the medical clinic named after his first wife Maurine Grantham in Tsuen Wan.

A few of you may remember that I blogged about him a couple of months ago. It was in the context of him bursting his predecessor's plans for introducing democracy in Hong Kong. He had a low opinion of such ideas, smacking as they did of postwar idealism. He planned to steady the British ship of state in the Colony amidst an enormous refugee problem and the complicated geopolotical situation of the Korean War, where British and Chinese soliders killed each other in Korea but remained peaceful on the Lo Wu border. In his view, allowing democracy would only destabilize Hong Kong, particularly given the influx of new migrants from China.

Grantham chose to turn his back on representative government, believing that as long as the British delivered good, conservative government, the city would remain a free, progressive and stable place. But a challenge to this decision were not far off. On Christmas Day 1953, a massive conflagration broke out amongst the squatters' huts on the Kowloon hillside of Shek Kip Mei. The 50,000 people left homeless by the disaster forced the traditionally laissez-faire government of prewar Hong Kong, one that turned its back to socialist ideals in the 1930s when Britain itself embraced them wholeheartedly.

The alternative would have been to risk a threat to British legitimacy, given the already painful privations that many of the new Chinese immigrants had been through in the past decade, and the social unrest that might have ensued. Also, globally the climate had changed in the wake of massive decolonization; even China had thrown off imperialist influences and were challenging those very countries, including Britain, in a nearby battlefield. From that perspective, since Grantham was not going to offer self-determination to the Hong Kong Chinese, the hurdle for good government had become much greater. It was for that reason that Grantham, a conservative Victorian at heart, had to give way to popular calls for public housing. So it was then, that the stingy pursestrings of the Hong Kong government embarked on a massive housing subsidy for its poor population, one that remains in place to this day.

I find it interesting that many histories of Hong Kong written by local Chinese regard the Shek Kip Mei fire as the birth of the modern city. It must be because it was in the wake of this tragedy that Britain was forced to consider the social welfare of its Chinese citizens for the first time, and acknowledge that they had rights as the governed, for which those governing, like Grantham, had to fulfill. It was the first true social contract that acknowledged the Chinese not just as residents, but as citizens, of Hong Kong.

1 comment:

Dave and Stefan said...

Yes, the housing, one could argue, made possible Hong Kong's growth spurt in manufacturing (with the resultant jobs) in the 1950s-1970s as it kept housing prices low for the poorer classes. The circuses they already had in Happy Valley...where dreams of sudden wealth was the true opiate of the people.